What Can Liberals and Evangelicals Teach Each Other

by Donald W. Shriver, Jr.

Dr. Shriver was president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1987.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 12-19, 1987 pp. 687-690. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The problem of writing about evangelicals, liberals and fundamentalists in today’s world of religion is one of undisciplined squads of definitions.

The challenge of writing poetry, T. S. Eliot once said, is dealing with "undisciplined squads of emotion." The problem of writing about evangelicals, liberals and fundamentalists in today's world of religion is one of undisciplined squads of definitions. I live and work at a seminary whose former president, Henry Sloane Coffin, gave to its theological tradition the name "liberal evangelical." Such a description is sure to raise storms of protest in many sectors of American Christianity today. What evangelical wants to be called a liberal? What liberal, an evangelical'?

Rather than devote a great deal of space to getting the definitions straight, I will leave them for implicit explication in what follows. I believe myself to be both evangelical and liberal in my disposition as a Christian; but I know what my friends mean when they call me "liberal" and what my enemies mean when they say that a liberal is really a "radical," just as I know what they all mean when they voice either admiration or suspicion of "the evangelicals." On all sides of conversation between people who prefer one or another title for themselves, I hear claims that make sense to me as one Christian among many. I also hear claims that may have gotten neglected in my own sector of the Christian movement. But my sector has claims that it is unwilling to abandon in any debate with those who are most critical of it. In short, I think that so-called liberals and so-called evangelicals have important truths to urge upon each other.

What can liberal Christians learn from evangelicals?

1. Humans hunger for elevated significance in their lives. To the skeptical eye of anthropologists, religious story, religious ritual and religious theory all make astonishing claims about the ultimate importance of a human life. Liberal secularist critics of "creationism" sometimes seem oblivious to the assault which they are making not upon a theological theory, but upon the sense of worth that evangelicals derive from profound meanings associated with the biblical story of creation. The great God of so vast a universe, focusing divine attention upon the human creatures of earth? It is possible to make it seem an absurd claim. But the very essence of biblical religion (and some other world religions as well) has to do with just this apparent absurdity. People need to think that their lives amount to something. There are enough forces in history, especially in the 20th century, to convince any observant individual that we do not amount to much.

The eminent and eloquent paleontologist Loren Eiseley wrestled throughout his life with the apparent clash between the human cry for meaning and the new time and space-scales of the post-Darwinian account of the universe. Wrote Eiseley in 7he Immense Journey:

"In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely. We scan the time scale and the mechanism- of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible.... We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning, however; it is thus we torture ourselves " [(Vintage, 1957), pp. 161-1621.

Armed with science, sociology and pluralistic awareness, liberals sometimes seem to offer rational reasons why evangelicals should take less seriously their talk about God's self-revelation on behalf of a lost human world. People want to be saved from the undertow of sin, death and insignificance that so regularly undermines us. Evangelicals know this. Liberals, if they mean to be Christians, should know it too.

2. What one does believe, not what one does not, best defines a faith. H. Richard Niebuhr used to quote F. D. Maurice to the effect that "thinkers are more likely to be right in what they affirm than in what they deny." This is a rule that applies both to liberals and to evangelicals, and especially to the debate between them. The classic liberal tradition (represented in such thinkers as Hume, Jefferson and Kant) prided itself on its critical" spirit. It criticized the importance of one set of facts by calling attention to other facts. Learned Hand was expressing classic liberalism in his great dictum, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right. " But vital religion has never been chiefly a way of grounding our uncertainty in yet more uncertainty. The very logic of not being too sure about one's own rightness may require a positive measure for detecting the right itself. In a word, evangelicals are at their best when they are preaching a positive message of Good News to people mired in bad news.

Is liberalism grounded in rational philosophic skepticism? Its critics often suspect that it is. Another kind of grounding is to be found in the famous plea of Oliver Cromwell to a cantankerous Scottish regiment: "I beseech you by the mercies of Christ, think that you may be wrong!" The Christ who is the way, truth and life for Christians will always stand as judge and critic of all our truths and works. But for Christians there is a great difference between the judgment of God and bare rational criticism, just as there is a great difference between meeting God in an idea and meeting God in Jesus of Nazareth. Among many liberals and evangelicals whom I know, the latter seem to grasp this simple principle better than do the former. In this they are the theologically wiser of the two.

3. Concrete love is the most powerful human truth. I suspect that the growth of many evangelical congregations has more to do with how members of those congregations relate to each other than with what sort of theology gets preached from their pulpits. The word "warm" often creeps into descriptions of evangelical piety, and at its most vigorous this warmth is likely to be present interpersonally. Not long ago I worshiped in a midwestern congregation which had its share of charismatics and other types of evangelicals. After the service a man approached me to say, "Six months ago I was in prison. When I got out, I visited around to various churches, but only here did they make me feel at home." Recent research on the electronic church strongly suggests that faithful viewers of the TV evangelists are overwhelmingly faithful church members. They find no substitute for churchgoing in tube-delivered inspiration. The truth here is not that preaching must appeal to "the heart," but rather that religion is a communal fact. Its vitality springs from concrete human relations between people who visibly care about each other. In their individualism, liberals may have missed this fact. In their congregations, evangelicals may have embodied it. It is hard to believe that one is important to God if one is unimportant to any group of neighbors.

4. There is a witness. Whatever else the word itself means, "evangelical" has to mean a testimony to Good News. In their preoccupation with critical thinking, intellectual clarity and tolerance, some liberal Christians forget that their only access to this historic faith is someone else's testimony. Nobody invents the Jewish or the Christian faith from the depths of his or her own mind. We are Jews or Christians because of something that happened, something worth reporting to generation after generation. Liberals have a right and an obligation to quarrel with many of the terms and techniques of witness employed by some evangelicals, but evangelicals are correct when they remind us that there is a faith "delivered to the saints," who in turn are responsible for delivering it to others.

There may be other elements of the evangelical perspective which its proponents wish liberals would take more seriously, but the above-mentioned are the ones that seem to me eminently worth commending.

What contributions do liberal Christians have to make in their dialogue with evangelicals?

A less self-serving and probably more ecumenical approach would be for liberals to wait for evangelicals themselves to answer this question. But we all have a right to think that we know our strengths as well as our weaknesses. Among the strengths of theological liberals in today's church, I would focus on the following.

1. Truth is as humanly important as meaning. There is no ultimate comfort in false meanings, or meanings whose base in reality is questionable. Ultimately the famous definition attributed to a bright Sunday school student -- "Faith is believing what you know ain't so" -- means that as an adult he will not show up in church. One inescapable point of debate here between liberals and evangelicals is their respective ways of understanding the Bible. Evangelical sermons abound in statements that begin, "The Bible says . . ." The "liberal evangelicals" to whom Coffin referred were ardent biblical scholars. They were determined to find out, as precisely as possible, what the Bible does and does not say. They made it difficult for anyone to ally the Bible unambiguously with any one theology -- e.g., millennarianism or Thomism or Calvinism. Modem religious liberalism, with its roots in the scientific spirit of the 18thcentury Enlightenment, took science seriously because it took the Creator of the real world seriously. No Marcionite or spiritualistic religion for them: the God of Israel and the God of Jesus, having made this world, inhabits it for our salvation. At stake is the issue over which the Nicene Council struggled mightily: Does God meet us in the real humanity of a historically real Jesus, "of one substance" with the real us, or not? Faith that ignores questions of reality will not long remain faith in the One to whom the gospel testifies.

2. 7he worshiping congregation is indispensable to the life of faith, but faithful life in the world is equally indispensable. Now that evangelicals have entered the political arena around issues such as school prayer, abortion law, and even the election of candidates, the old distinction that "liberals preach the social gospel and evangelicals a personal gospel" no longer holds. History, of course, is full of evangelical incursions into the issues of American society -- abolitionism and prohibition are two illustrations -- so the old saying never was very accurate. But many evangelicals still seem a bit uneasy in the push and shove of secular democratic politics. It is well that they do, for faithful discipleship in the midst of the world never was easy for Christians. The liberal readiness to see the world (with Calvin) as "the theater of God's glory" has its own tortuous history, and modem evangelicals have something to learn from that history for example, how "success" in secular society often demands compromise with that society.

One reason I respect Billy Graham's ministry is that he seems to have learned from the Watergate crisis not to hostage religion to power. Yet the liberal lesson here is not to send religion back into its gathered congregations. The lesson is that the withdrawal-and-return rhythm of the church's relation to the world is a rhythm of obedience, repentance and renewal. A decade ago research in Raleigh, North Carolina, demonstrated to some of us that the highest morale among citizens was likely to be found in those who had a sturdy religious faith, a community of friends who stood by them in thick and thin, and a track record, for persistent participation in the push and pull of politics. Liberals were apt to discover this truth as they went into the streets at the time of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam-era antiwar demonstrations. They did not think themselves into it. I hope that the newly political evangelicals discover the same truth.

3. To worship God in spirit and in truth is-to confess the inadequacy of our worship, spirit and truth. Liberal piety at its best has always stood firm on this insight. Karl Barth was always difficult to classify as either liberal or evangelical because he insisted that the divine Word was never coterminous with the words of Scripture, nor was the whole panoply of religion a sure instrument of that Word. Religions right, left and middle become captive to human pride when their adherents forget that "the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit" (Ps. 51:17).

Ironically enough, the liberal democratic tradition feared the incursion of religion into politics because its proponents did not particularly experience religion as a contributor of "the spirit that is not too sure it is right." Insofar as they mean to be Christian, why should the assorted political advocates of today's churches ride so high a theological horse when they enter the public political arena? Those who ride in on a high horse usually return as pedestrians: that is the ordinary democratic experience. One might even hope that this truth was discovered by the social-action-oriented evangelicals who came to the fore in the early '80s. On the basis of what Paul Tillich called the Protestant Principle, we can predict that in politics we will always be somewhat wrong even when we are somewhat right. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Liberal pride and evangelical pride are neither liberal nor evangelical.

4. 7he freedom of God transcends every human freedom, and this truth is the hope of the world. Contemporary liberation theology has shown us what exploitative purposes the doctrine of God's transcendence can serve in hierarchical churches and societies. Its principal doctrine has been that the God of Israel and Jesus exercises divine freedom in taking up the causes of the world's poor and exploited. Most liberation theologians have more work to do if they are to make clear that this exercise of the divine freedom, too, can never be theologically identical with any particular political claim. But liberationists have no monopoly on this temptation. "Freedom" is one of the words that binds them rhetorically to both the evangelicals and the liberals. Ecumenical dialogue among these theological parties would be more likely if all three more consistently distinguished between the freedom of God and the creaturely freedoms of humanity. On the basis of that distinction, one might write confessions of this sort: God was free to protect Israel of old from the freedoms of Pharaoh; and the continued existence of the Jewish people in the 20th century exhibits that same divine freedom over against all the human freedom-including that of Christians-which has been exercised in history to obliterate the Jews.

God was free to preserve the word, the witness and the power of Jesus from the powers of Pilate; as a people created by the resurrecting Spirit of God, the church owes its continuing existence, too, to just that divine freedom.

God is still free to reform the religion of those who swear by the name of God in history, through persons and powers that do not swear by that name.

God is free to be kinder to humans than ever they were or will be to each other, even in the nuclear age.

Perhaps no major theological issue divides liberals and evangelicals so momentously as that concerning the relation of divine judgment to divine love. In the modern era, liberals have emphasized the love and de-emphasized the judgment of God. They have sought with some consistency to keep divine judgment and grace equally accessible to all. They shy away from those heaven-and hell divisions of humanity which lead to we-they splits in religious people's views of other people. In this, many liberals seem more authentically biblical than many evangelicals. The latter seem as preoccupied with the bad news as with the good, though such a preoccupation betrays the Bible's central message. To say that there is something central and something peripheral in the Bible is, of course, to state a liberal view of Scripture which elicits contempt from some evangelicals. But this is where 2,500 years of living with the Scriptures, in the synagogue and in the church, seems to require some choices of emphasis in Bible interpretation -- choices which we may call the principles of theology.

With Jonah and against Nahum, must we not side with the God who yearns for the salvation of the Assyrians'? With Paul and against the millennarians, must we not look forward to a great human reconciliation at the end of time more fervently than to a great divine vengeance upon all the sinners who have ever lived? In the inbetween times, must we not worship the Creator of all things, who forbids us to trample in the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored? Do we not know that whatever vengeance for destruction belongs to God, it does not belong to us? Are we ever authorized as Christians to threaten all the earth with a vengeance that God may be too kind ever to unleash? In the nuclear age, who are we to think that we hear the rumble of divine anger unless inside that anger we, like Hosea, hear the sound of tears?

Frankly, I am not sure that the word liberal or the word evangelical is the right tag for what I would covet for both liberals and evangelicals to learn in any future dialogue on this last issue. We live in a world whose creatures, though called to community, have practiced the arts of hostility and enmity -- to the vast neglect of the arts of love. The Scriptures, and especially the gospel, call us to be forgivers of each other's sins, not judges of all the earth; call us to be respectful of each other's strange ways, because we are all strangers enough to the transcending ways of God; call us to be faith-full enough to ascribe to our living Redeemer the right to love our enemies though we, in our finitude, have not yet learned to love them. "God is not the enemy of my enemies," said Martin Niemöller, recounting the spiritual lessons of his eight-year imprisonment under Hitler. "God is not even the enemy of God's own enemies." Even when they see each other as enemies, liberals and evangelicals must find their fundamental hope in that kind of assertion.