Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Liberal THEOLOGY IS NOT for the faint of heart–essay

My colleague Jay Atkinson, now retired from our ministry, has long been a minister-scholar.  Last August he held a UUSS  group spellbound as he charted the origins and subsequent development of our liberal faith tradition and theologies.  He spoke for 90 minutes from a bare outline! 

Here is an essay he gave us as a handout. This is the Epilogue the from the book of another UU colleague, Paul Rasor, who is a professor in Virginia.

Liberal THEOLOGY IS NOT for the faint of heart. It points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination.  It refuses to make our commitments for us but holds us accountable for the commitments we make. The liberal religious tradition is an invitation, not a mandate. It invites us to live with ambiguity without giving in to facile compromise; to engage in dialogue without trying to control the conversation; to be open to change without accepting change too casually; to take commitment seriously but not blindly; and to be engaged in the culture without succumbing to the culture’s values.  Liberal religion calls us to strength without rigidity, conviction without ideology, openness without laziness. It asks us to pay attention.  It is an eyes-wide-open faith, a faith without certainty.

This book has been both descriptive and critical. At the descriptive level, I have sought to provide a basic introduction to liberal theology. I have done this not simply by describing liberal theology’s identifying characteristics, but also by locating it within its historical, intellectual, and social context. Liberal theology—like any other theology—is not merely a collection of free-standing ideas. It exists in specific places and times, and it belongs to an ongoing and multi-faceted religious tradition.

A vital feature of the liberal theological tradition is constructive self-examination. This is an important process. It helps keep liberal theology relevant to the needs of each succeeding generation. It guards against staleness and rigidity. It becomes a method of built-in accountability. In this spirit, then, I have addressed a few of liberalism’s internal weaknesses and contradictions, and at some points have been quite critical. I have also tackled head-on the difficult issues of race and class that continue to confront liberal theology and sometimes cause us to stumble over our own best intentions. In each case I have offered some constructive suggestions as well. At the same time, I have tried to bring liberal theology into conversation with other currents in the contemporary theological stream. Some of these, such as liberation theology and postliberal theology, are highly critical of liberalism. My working assumption has been that while liberal theology need not adjust to all its critics’ complaints—it could not remain liberal if it did—there is nevertheless much we can learn from them.

Critical self-examination also points to liberal theology’s great strengths. These include its principled open-mindedness, its intellectual honesty, and its commitment to social justice. These are among the hallmarks of the liberal tradition, and they are worth preserving. Today’s theological landscape is highly pluralistic. Many voices struggle to be heard. Some seek dialogue and engagement; others seek merely to shout the loudest. It is precisely in these circumstances that liberal theology’s prophetic and mediating voice is most needed. The early twenty-first century in the United States is a time of increasing dogmatic rigidity in both politics and religion. We are confronted by a worldview of simplistic dualisms. Dissent—even asking hard questions—is seen as a threat; data that do not support pre-set ideas are ignored; deeper analysis of complex issues is avoided. Liberal theology rejects this way of being. It seeks deeper and more nuanced explanations. It understands the inherent complexity and interrelatedness of things. It has learned to live with tensions and ambiguities.  Liberal theology’s willingness to engage in ongoing and thoughtful critique offers an important corrective voice in the public dialogue.

This is important work. But none of us can do this work alone. As much as we need constructive self-examination and critical dialogue, we need each other. We may never come to think alike or to act alike. I hope not. But by participating in each other’s faith journeys, by reaching out to each other and sharing in each other’s struggles to name and claim our theologies, we can strengthen our public prophetic voice and deepen our sense of community and our commitment to a shared faith tradition.

May it be so.

Epilogue from Paul Rasor’s Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Boston, Skinner House, 2005)

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