Chapter 1: Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads

Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 1: Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads

At the time that I went to Hawaii, I decided to read James Michener’s book on those islands. The dominant figure in the whole book is Abner Hale. He is undoubtedly a caricature of one side of the early missionary spirit, but he is, from the point of view of the story, a successful caricature. He embodies the spirit of traditional New England Calvinism in all its ambiguity. On the one hand he is devoted, dedicated. wholly self-sacrificial, utterly courageous in serving God as he understands the service of God. He is immensely successful in changing the character of a people. We cannot but admire him and resent the brutality of the captain who destroys his powers. On the other hand he is narrow, rigid, and intolerant, and from our point of view a racist, a bigot, and a fanatic. We do not like him.

Michener places as a foil to Hale the figure of John Whipple. Whipple too is a devoted Christian who conies to Hawaii with Hale as a medical missionary, but for Whipple faith is intertwined with common sense, openness to the values of other cultures, and a scientific understanding of his world. His tolerant spirit causes him to leave the mission, although he continues to place his medical knowledge at the service of others. We would like Whipple. But we should notice two things about him. First, he makes no comparable impact to that of Hale. Second, when he leaves the mission he enters business, and to success in business he gives something of the same ruthless devotion that Hale gives to the service of God.

Whipple represents for us the liberal Christian, genial and attractive, but lacking in commitment and power. His liberalism is the watering down of the substance of his faith which stems from historic Christianity.

The image I have chosen for the title of this chapter is an all too obvious one for church people in these times. Consider the crossroads at which we stand as liberal Christians in terms of decisiveness of commitment on the one hand and openness on the other.

We liberals have come down the road from historic Christianity progressively using up the capital of our heritage and doing little to replenish it. We have come more and more to mirror our culture, or certain strands within it, rather than to speak to it an effective word of judgment or healing. We do well to recognize that the liberal Christians of Germany became in the ‘30s the German Christians who could hail Hitler as a new savior.

At the crossroads we can choose the way to the theological right. In the years after World War I, Karl Barth, recognizing the bankruptcy of liberal Christianity, pioneered that road. He showed that the turn to the right theologically could support courageous movements to the left in the political and social spheres. When Hitler came to power it was Barth’s followers in Germany who constituted themselves as the Confessing Church and continued to speak and act with courage in the face of the Nazi tyranny and the apostasy of so many other Christians.

Today some of our children, whom we have fed pablum in our liberal churches, are finding new life in evangelical and Pentecostal movements. Most of us cannot take these quite seriously, since they are so out of touch with the broader cultural and intellectual currents of our century. But as Barth has shown us, the turn to the right need not be naïve. It may be chosen out of the deep and informed conviction that in the chaos of our times we must recover our roots and a transcendent focus of shared commitment.

Even so, despite the power and value of what can be found on the road to the right, for many of us it is too late. We are committed to openness to the truth that comes from multiple traditions and new discoveries in the present and the future. We cannot reaffirm one tradition against the others. However valuable the symbols and memories of the Christian heritage, they can no longer encompass the whole to which we must be open. The road to the right involves a going back, in however sophisticated a form, and we are committed to going forward, open to all truth and value from whatever source it comes to us.

Hence we are more attracted to the road to the left than that to the theological right. That, too. is a well-traveled road. But the record of its travelers is not entirely inspiring. They begin with a commitment to openness wherever it may lead. But commitment to openness as such does not provide a place to stand, a place from which to evaluate the many claimants for our attention and belief. Hence the road to the left leads to one of two ends. One may adopt the academic stance of openness to all and commitment to none. We professors especially, in our zeal to be open and fair, may present to our students a cafeteria of options, each with its strengths and weaknesses, while committing ourselves to none and growing gradually jaded by the whole affair. Alternately, openness may lead to the full acceptance of some vital and persuasive movement or vision, an acceptance that en-grafts one into a new history but ends the openness to which he was first committed. For decades liberal Christian churches have supplied the universities with uncommitted intellectuals and each new social and cultural movement with many of its most dedicated followers. This is not a shameful record, but it shows that the road to the left holds little promise for the future.

The image of the crossroads. unlike that of a fork in the road, suggests that there is a third way we can go. Straight ahead. But whereas the roads to the right and the left are easy to make out and have well-known destinations, the road ahead is more like a goat path up a steep mountain. Only a few Christian thinkers have explored that trail, and their reports are conflicting. We do not know whether at the top we may reach a new plateau for travel or only more rugged cliffs. Even so, I am convinced that as liberal Christians we are called to scale the slope ahead.

We cannot do this if our liberal openness and our Christian commitment continue to be in tension with each other. Openness can be sustained only where it is grounded in a faith that justifies and requires it. But we can affirm Christian faith wholeheartedly today only insofar as it opens us to all truth and value. Openness and faith must be brought for us into a new relation of mutual support.

To sustain openness we need to say to every claimant on our appreciation and loyalty both yes and no. Unless we say yes, we will not be open to its truth and value. Unless we say no, our openness to that one claimant will close us to others. In other words, openness can be sustained only as we see all things as partial and fragmentary embodiments of a truth and goodness that they do not exhaust, so that when they claim for themselves completeness or finality, they deceive.

It is particularly important that we recognize this about ourselves individually, and about every community to which we belong. Openness requires continual self-criticism and continual social criticism especially of those movements with which we identify ourselves most closely.

In saying what is required in order that openness be sustained, I have been describing the prophetic principle, so close to the heart of our Judeo-Christian tradition, The prophets denounced their own people, not because they were worse than their neighbors, but because they failed to recognize the "more" that they were called to be. They denounced the rites and ceremonies of their times, not because they were evil, but because their observance made people complacent in the face of social injustices. Jesus denounced the Pharisees, not because they were the worst people of their time, but because they were the best, and just for that reason most likely to be closed to the new possibilities he proclaimed.

The prophetic principle thus grounds the openness we need. But can we affirm it? It is intimately bound up with a picture of a transcendent Lord of history that does not fit with our contemporary vision. The criticism it demands destroys that picture and every other picture of God. Against every theism it protests so as to produce a new atheism. But against every atheism, too, it must protest. Today as much as ever we can and must believe that truth and goodness stand beyond every personal and historical embodiment. In the name of that truth and goodness we can and must be critical of the best that we have and think so as to be open to that which we cannot yet have and think. That criticism and that openness are part of what it means to believe in God as faithful Christians in our time.

But there is another difficulty about this liberal Christian life. It is exhilarating, but it is also exhausting. Constant self-criticism alone cannot constitute our existence. None of us is strong enough for that.

Reinhold Niebuhr once said that the function of preaching is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. To afflict the comfortable is rather easy. I am afflicted again each time I pick up a newspaper, not just because of the suffering and injustice it reports, but also because of my sense of deep complicity in it. The prophetic principle is at work in me, and in our worship together it needs to be renewed and sharpened lest its edge be dulled. But t cannot endure to live only in that tension and guilt. What word can we say to comfort the afflicted? That is much harder.

We used to say. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us," and God so loved us "that he gave his only begotten Son." Luther and Calvin insisted that salvation is a wholly free gift, so that men should have no anxiety about meriting it. I for one believe that there is a strange truth in all that. But the rhetoric is not ours. It is our task together to find ways to mediate comfort to one another in our several and continuing afflictions. We need each other most of all here. To find the way of supporting and sustaining each other in the midst of our openness arid self -- criticism without glibness and sentimentality -- that is not easy. But we can do it, for the truth and goodness that judge us comfort us as well.