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The Contemporary Resource of Liberal Theology

by William R. Barnett

Dr. Barnett is assistant professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College, Syracuse, New York. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 21, 1979, p. 306. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Despite the recent evangelical resurgence in American Christianity, contemporary Christians must not delude themselves that the old liberal problems of religion and culture will go away. Certainly, mainline Christianity’s preoccupation with social affairs as a substitute for religious experience has resulted in a general decline of “standard-brand” denominations. And for some, the current evangelical renaissance is a welcome revitalization. Nevertheless, as increasing numbers of born-again Christians find themselves catapulted to positions of managerial responsibility in our society, something more than pious gratitude for divine approval of their accomplishments will be necessary if their decisions are to reflect the substance of Christian faith.

Utilizing the Resources

Contrary to the opinions of some, there are resources within liberal Christian theology that can be brought to bear on the problems facing our age. These can be utilized without a wholesale capitulation of Christianity’s distinctive witness to the assumptions and values of modern society. Indeed, to ignore liberal theology’s resources is to run the double risk of relinquishing any chance for Christian influence on the future direction of our society and of surrendering the uniqueness of the Christian witness itself. All too readily, as anyone who lived through the 1950s can recall, Christianity in America has succumbed to an unwholesome accommodation of “God and country.” But it is precisely this kind of uncritical alliance that obliterates the distinctiveness of Christian faith. The particular resources of contemporary liberal theology that have especial relevance for a Christian approach to our culture’s current difficulties are these: (1) the contemporary historical consciousness, (2) the conclusions of biblical scholars regarding Jesus and the Kingdom of God, and (3) the current “process” understanding of God, Which allows a positive relation (but not a surrender!) of belief in God to the modern world view.

The first of these resources arouses great resistance among evangelical theologians and believers. Indeed, the historical consciousness has apparently been responsible for the undermining of the common believer’s confidence in the Bible as the authoritative locus of the revelation of God’s truth to humanity. But “historical consciousness” has come to mean many things during the past two centuries -- not all of them directly contrary to certain interests of Christian believers. Generally speaking, the term can refer to a widely held set of assumptions or presuppositions, to a particular method of inquiry, or to a speculative philosophy of history.

At the level of assumption, the historical consciousness is the awareness that every event or entity (including persons or religious traditions) possesses its own finite, historical context and can be explained exhaustively in terms of that context. The most important, and apparently the most threatening, aspect of such awareness is that it excludes all consideration of divinity to explain what happens in the world. To understand an event historically is decidedly not to view it as derived from the action of a god.

Of course, the scholarly literature on this subject is technical and vast; to state the matter so crudely hardly does the topic justice. But the common Christian believer may intuit the threat of the historical consciousness in something like this crude way; the perceived threat cannot be conjured away by unsupported exhortations for the believer to accept the modern world view. Rather, he or she must be allowed to see that the threat is actually an occasion for communicating the gospel in our era. I would accept the notion that most persons in our culture, Christian and non-Christian alike, function in their daily lives, perhaps unconsciously, on the basis of the assumed absence of God in history. To those who claim not to operate from that world view, it should be pointed out that an uncritical assumption of divine causality creates obstacles for communicating one’s views to those who embrace the historical consciousness.

The principal advantage of accepting initially the assumptions of the historical consciousness in religious or theological discourse is that one is not committed from the outset to possibly meaningless language regarding some realm of the supernatural. Even those who can claim to have had direct, personal experience of the divine must somehow interact with persons who cannot make or even understand such a claim. The point is that if spirit-filled Christians want to communicate effectively with those who do not share such experiences, then they should heed the assumptions of the secularists, for it is a safe bet that if another person’s deepest presuppositions are ignored, the possibility for meaningful dialogue diminishes rapidly.

Investigating the Christian Tradition

Certainly, it is not only the secularistic implications of the historical consciousness that trouble evangelical Christians. As a method of inquiry in relation to the Bible, the historical approach is distressing to those who to some extent accept the Bible as revelational authority. The problem here is with what Van Harvey (cf. The Historian and the Believer [Macmillan, 1966]) has called the “new morality of knowledge.” The main difficulty which the historical-critical method poses for traditional interpreters of the Bible is the necessity for the historian to interpret past events on the basis of an analogy with his or her own present, critically interpreted experience. Such a principle of historical thinking has led to significant reinterpretation of biblical materials, including the miracle traditions about Jesus, the resurrection, and the ascription of titles of divinity to Jesus. Here, if anywhere, the conservative Christian must surely balk and simply assert the utter contradiction of the Christian faith to modern methods of understanding.

Nevertheless, it is precisely because of what historical inquiry does tell us about Jesus that we should attend to its results. To be sure, there are many things it may never be able to tell us. But to admit this limitation is not to say that we can learn nothing from it. Indeed, what historical inquiry offers is quite relevant and useful as we face the perils of our technological era. Moreover, an acceptance of the methods of historical inquiry renders the investigation of the Christian tradition commensurate with other methods of inquiry and, hence, intelligible to other modern persons. True, historical inquiry may not be able to assure us that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Word made flesh, or even that he regarded himself as such. But it is able to give us much in the way of insights about Jesus’ proclamation and embodiment of the Kingdom of God.

Here we encounter another of evangelical Christians’ objections to historical thinking. It would seem that, with its reticence about pronouncements regarding the divinity of Jesus and about acceptance of him as the absolute locus of God’s revelation, the historical consciousness as speculative philosophy of history utterly and explicitly contradicts the central claims of the Christian faith. That is, it devolves into a historical relativism which denies the absolute truth of the Christian revelation and, hence, negates any chance of affirming a standard by which people can conduct their affairs with the certainty that they are performing God’s will. If there can be no absolute expression of religious truth and ethical valuation, then must we not conclude that historical thinking sets us adrift precisely when our culture needs firm anchoring?

In reply, one must acknowledge that historical thinking precludes infallible affirmations about the “center of history” or about the “point of convergence” toward which all of history moves. Because of the limited perspective from which every historical interpretation is carried out, no single event can be seen to embody or express the ultimate meaning or direction of history in a way that the historical interpreter can know with finality.

And yet, even this limitation is not without its usefulness, for it can surely lead to the appreciative evaluation of other, non-Western expressions of the meaning and destiny of human existence without thereby relinquishing insights to be gained by attention to Christian history and tradition. In a world shrunk by travel and communications technologies, one which can no longer afford conflict arising from ethnocentric prejudice, the appreciation of other religious and cultural views is necessary for the survival of the human species. Moreover, it is possible to accept this limitation of the historical consciousness without relinquishing the Christian faith’s distinctive insights about the meaning of human existence. Indeed, the limitation imposed by the historical consciousness, which prevents the destructive absolutizing of any religious or cultural standpoint, affords a measure of hope in a pluralistic era to diverse groups of people.

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

The historical research on Jesus and the New Testament during the past 200 years has been complex and highly diverse. And yet, it is possible to point to a loose consensus among biblical scholars of the past few decades concerning what can be known on the basis of rigorous historical inquiry.

Even prescinding from traditional, dogmatic affirmations, historical interpreters do tell us a great deal about Jesus. In a word, the traditions center on Jesus’ proclamation and embodiment of the Kingdom of God. It is perhaps best to speak of the symbol rather than the concept of the Kingdom in the New Testament (here I am following the late Norman Perrin’s Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom [Fortress, 1976]), primarily because a symbol possesses effective power on levels which a concept does not -- i.e., those of action or praxis. Be that as it may, it is clear, according to recent New Testament scholarship, that the symbol of the Kingdom is radically eschatological. Although the temporal parameters of God’s active reign in history are apparently indefinite in the Jesus traditions, it seems clear that the symbol of the Kingdom does not refer only to some supernatural realm or ‘time” at the close of history.

Indeed, in the parables and the sayings about the Kingdom, that symbol includes the unconditional acceptance in love of those who are normally outside the religious and social mainstream. And the consequences of such acceptance are radical: the entire social fabric is shaken. None of the usual ways of demarcating those deemed evil or sinful by the wider society are to be retained in order to exclude outcasts from full participation in their own destiny. On the contrary, the old categories no longer apply; the social structure that depends on the ability to distinguish between the “worthy” and the “unworthy” is challenged.

For example, really to

hear the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-35) in its original first century setting was to be confronted with the possibility of saying what a pious Jew in that context would not have said: “good” plus “Samaritan.” (This interpretation has been suggested by John Dominic Crossan; see his In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus [Harper & Row, 1973].) A contemporary equivalent would equate “good” with a representative of the group one now most despises. This kind of reversal or shattering of social expectations is an interpretation applicable also to other sayings and parables of Jesus.

All this is not to say that the symbol of the Kingdom of God is primarily or only ethical in content. It points to, and itself generates, the reality of a wholly new situation for persons in relation to God, to themselves, and to one another. But it does provide a vision of active being in the world that is clearly relevant to our most pressing problems.

First, the symbol of the Kingdom discloses that our responsibility for ourselves and our world is continually shirked and distorted. In revealing to us the social structures, categories and expectations by which we exclude those most in need of acceptance, it unmasks our pretensions, our unjustified feelings of contentment and self-satisfied smugness in the face of a world characterized by injustice, hunger and depression of the human spirit.

And second, the eschatological symbol reveals that the reality of the Kingdom is always coming. We are not bound in any deterministic fashion to the structures of our past. Our sins are forgiven. To be sure, the past does influence and shape the present, but its social structures and patterns of behavior are not wholly determinative of the future. The eschatological character of the symbol indicates that the future is indeed open and that we are continually presented with possibilities for decision and actualization.

The Kingdom symbol’s positive emphasis is clearly on the surprising character of God’s activity and on concern for other persons -- especially those who are poor, broken, dying, and in despair. Action in behalf of such persons is always possible in our historical situation and is, in fact, called forth by the symbol of the Kingdom. Certainly, the consequences of such action can be highly threatening to the social fabric. And if the example of Jesus can be taken seriously, those who identify with the reality of the Kingdom of God must expect nothing other than the possible loss of their own personal security and that of their group. For those who accept Jesus message, who participate in the reality to which the symbol of the Kingdom points, crucifixion is to be expected, though not sought. The promise of Jesus is that in the loss of our personal security is found our true destiny, the most profound meaning of our existence.

A Contemporary Notion of God

The third major resource of contemporary theology that is relevant to the present situation is the “process” notion of God explicated by several thinkers -- including Charles Hartshorne, Bernard Meland, John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, David Griffin, Langdon Gilkey, David Tracy and Bernard Lee. Much less can be claimed by way of consensus in this area, since not all contemporary theologians are convinced that it is necessary to reconceive the idea of God along process lines (i.e., as suggested by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead as well as by thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin). Nevertheless, the process notion of God possesses certain advantages for fostering theological reflection in a technological era.

To begin with the kind of generalization of which biblical scholars are especially wary, the God of the Bible is depicted in process thought as the creator-preserver of the world. The exact character of God’s relationship to the world is not precisely delineated in the Bible -- certainly not in philosophical terms. But the process view affirms God as the final, ultimate reality.

The primary difference between the process concept of God as creator-preserver of the world and that of classical theism is that the former insists God ought not be conceived as aloof to and unaffected by what happens in the world. For process thinkers, this insistence most emphatically does not mean that God is less than perfect, not in control, or totally determined by what happens in the world. Rather, God is still seen, as in the Bible, to be entering into meaningful, loving relationships with all creatures. What happens in the world “makes a difference” to God in that those events influence the quality of the divine experience of the world. But what happens in the world determines neither the fact of God’s existence nor that of the divine perfection. That God is the supremely and enduringly loving one is never in doubt; but that God’s love is fulfilled and returned is, in some degree, dependent on the free decision of the creatures.

Although this idea of God differs from classical notions, two principal advantages should not be overlooked. First, God is not conceived in a manner that conflicts with modern persons experience of change and temporality. Langdon Gilkey, in Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), has made the point that the sense of transience or temporality, the sense that all things are in passage, is a fundamental characteristic of experience. All too frequently, theologians have assumed that temporality, passage and change are to be associated with finitude, imperfection and evil. And indeed, it is possible to experience and interpret change in such a way. Change and temporality can also, however, make possible the realization of justice, of liberation from oppression, of increased experiences of fulfillment and joy. To say that God undergoes change while not relinquishing the perfection of enduring concern for and preservation of the world is to conceive God in a manner that does not deny the modern experience of temporality and yet retains the biblical insight that God is actively involved.

A second advantage: the process notion of God avoids a direct conflict with the modern acceptance of the autonomy of human existence. Ever since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, modern persons have asserted their freedom from the special tutelage of religious authority. In the West, human freedom has not, of course, always been understood in terms of individual autonomy (cf. the thought of St. Augustine and John Calvin on this point); and there is some evidence that the modern individualistic understanding of freedom is fundamentally responsible for some of our present cultural difficulties. Nevertheless, while acknowledging that this notion of freedom in its individualistic extreme cannot remain uncriticized, we must also assert that the sense of personal human dignity is very much a feature of any modern definition of human existence and cannot be facilely discarded. The virtue of the process understanding of God is that it avoids denying altogether the modern conception of personhood while proceeding to alter and shape it in more humane ways.

In short, process thought contends that God does not rule over creatures in tyrannical fashion but rather presents possibilities to humans for actualizing the divine will. Regardless of whether such possibilities are fully actualized, God continually and persistently presents new possibilities. Not that human beings are completely autonomous vis--vis the divine will: they must always deal with the possibilities God presents. But it does mean that they are, within limits, free to accept or reject those options. For human beings to enact the divine intention for their existence in this sense is not for them to relinquish their human dignity.

It is now possible to see that process thought conceives God to be actively concerned with our historical destiny. This divine concern, which finds expression for the Christian in the teaching and activity of Jesus, carries the emphasis contained in the symbol of the Kingdom of God. Thus, God’s active concern expresses itself within history but transcends the historical situation in that there is always presented to us the possibility of service in love to the neighbor -- i.e., to the one in need. That such possibilities continue to be offered is a reality that cannot be derived from the historical situation as it now is, since it is that very situation, with all of its divisive and dehumanizing structures, that threatens to close off the alternative of service to the neighbor. But though the possibility of love for the neighbor is not derived from the present situation, it is relevant to that situation. Indeed, it is the presence of that opportunity which holds the current Situation open for the future; without such a possibility, there would be no meaningful future. In light of this consideration, the question remains whether such a possibility will be actualized, whether service in love will be rendered to the neighbor. And in the process view of God, that question clearly is put to us and awaits our decision. (Cf. Langdon Gilkey’s Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History [Seabury, 1976].)

Christian Hope in a Technological Era

Up to this point, our discussion has focused on resources that can underlie a theological approach to the problems of our era. We can mention only briefly some of those problems in order to indicate the relevance of the resources.

It would be no exaggeration to say that persons in the West are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the consequences of their culture. Robert Heilbroner’s An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (Norton, 1974) is representative of a certain somber mood that emerges when people reflect on the chances for our culture to overcome its myriad difficulties of population growth, of natural resource and environmental limitations, and of what Heilbroner refers to as the perplexing inability of our civilization to satisfy the human spirit. The prospects for conscious control of human biological evolution posed by recombinant DNA research raise directly and sharply certain questions about the future not only of our own culture but also of the human species itself. Christian theology can contribute directly to the discussion of some of these ethical problems (work now being done in the ethics of biological and medical research is especially impressive). But more generally, Christian theology can contribute to the formation of a set of attitudes, of a world view, from which such problems can be addressed.

According to the view of God and human existence in history sketched above, it is clear that human beings are responsible for the condition of the world. Even a decision not to exercise responsibility for the world does not mean that such responsibility can be avoided. The question is not whether to tend our garden, but how. Or, to switch metaphors, in the global village wrought by modern communications technology, the question is not whether we shall adjudicate differences among peoples, but how -- i.e., violently, convulsively, tragically, or peaceably, humanely, imaginatively.

By the same token, to affirm the necessity of exercising human responsibility is not to express a naive confidence in our ability to solve all our problems if we simply put our minds to it. On the contrary, the symbol of the Kingdom of God discloses to us the manifold distortions that have characterized the exercise of our responsibility in the past. Conditions of poverty, racism, sexual discrimination, hunger and political injustice all testify to the way in which, for centuries, social structures, practices and concern for the welfare of one’s own group at the expense of others have denied the full realization of God’s Kingdom. A realistic assessment of our situation -- so the neo-orthodox theologians of this century have taught us -- will not allow us to assume sanguinely that we can generate solutions to these conditions solely from within a situation governed by the conditions themselves. Rather, we must recognize that any solution arises ultimately from beyond the present situation and that we are called to the difficult task of discerning and embodying such a solution. In a word, we are called to discern and to realize -- in all of the marvelous ambiguity of that word -- the Kingdom of God in our midst.

In a world characterized by inequitable distribution of material goods, massive imbalance in the use of the world’s limited resources, and exclusivistic concern for the well-being of one’s own national, ethnic or religious group, we can see that the kind of hope which Christianity fosters is peculiar. The hope generated by the symbol of the Kingdom of God pointing to God’s active reign in history is not confidence that a successful outcome of our difficulties is guaranteed.

Indeed, if the teaching and activity of Jesus are any guide, the symbol of the Kingdom means, among other things, that God’s activity in the world is to be discerned precisely in those forces and events that threaten the established structures of injustice. Insofar as our own culture participates in -- indeed, is founded upon -- structures of systemic evil, a happy outcome of our difficulties, as opposed to other people’s difficulties, ought not be expected in the Christian view. But Christians should not thereby become resigned to increased suffering and evil, especially as these must be endured by the wretched of the earth. Rather, the Christian hope is that God’s reign will be increasingly manifest in history -- or, in less traditional terms, that the possibility for active, loving concern which is ever presented anew to us will be increasingly fulfilled.

The Christian hope, then, is that, regardless of our own security and that of our group, the possibility of active, loving concern for those who are in need is and will always be present. That one can dare to maintain such hope depends on acceptance of the Christian faith’s promise that precisely in the relinquishing of concern for one’s own security, ultimate security and meaning are found. Indeed, one could go further. This peculiar kind of hope itself opens up the possibility of a particular stance in the world: one of concern for others even at the expense of concern for the survival of our way of life. If this kind of hope can be construed as both appropriate to the Christian tradition (especially the biblical traditions about Jesus) and relevant to our cultural situation, then it would seem that the resources of contemporary liberal theology should command more attention than they are presently accorded.

The dangers of conservative religious thought have frequently been noted by liberal theologians to include a kind of individualistic withdrawal from the social realities of the world. But as evangelical Christians increasingly emerge as leaders of our society, they can find in the now somewhat despised and ignored liberal theology important resources for relating the legitimate concerns of Christian faith to the pressing problems of our time.


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