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A Defense of Liberal Theology

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Liberal theology recently came under attack by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Liberalism, he claims, "is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form ... and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes." He then asks the liberal church not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but "what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world."

Perhaps he hasn't been paying attention but liberal theology at its most robust is doing precisely what Douthat is calling for: namely, defending and offering uncompromisingly to the world a theology for radical social change. Not a theology which is a pale imitation of secular liberalism, but a theology rooted in the reality of God's transformative actions in the world that have engaged and transformed many of the unjust structures of society. Most conservative critics of liberal Christianity assume that it must live with an either/or choice: either choose God or choose the world. If you choose the world, they contend, you abandon God and become a multi-cultural secular moral relativist. If you choose God, you can abandon the world to its own devices which are leading it straight to hell. This pre-millennial theology, which concentrates almost exclusively on personal conversion, won't hold up in the light of a deeper theology. Someone once said, for God so loved the world that he gave to it his only-begotten Son. But if God loved the world, then why are we being asked to repudiate it? The secular (the word simply means the world or worldly) is God's beloved creation. Now there is a theology for liberalism: a theology that grounds our commitment to doing all that we can for the world in order to help transform it into becoming God's kingdom. The world, to be sure, is not yet fully formed in the image of God's kingdom but it is of such inestimable value that it is worthy of being engaged directly in its fullness, just as it already has been by God who stands in solidarity with it. The dichotomy conservative Christianity wants to uphold between following God and loving the world is not to be found in the theology of the Bible.

There is second false dualism that is spawned by the one between world and God, and that is the division between the ins and the outs, the included and the excluded, or to put it in the language of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, the hostility between the established and strangers and aliens. The sin of self-centeredness leads to a tendency to draw boundaries around ourselves and to cast those outside them into the realm of the valueless and the unworthy. We have political parties and economic classes divided by wealth and poverty. The privileged define themselves by what and who they are against, by those outsiders who are portrayed as enemies, hostile to the interests of the true believers, the true patriots, the defenders of the true faith. But many of those now claiming the mantle of privilege were once themselves strangers and aliens. The Jews were slaves in Egypt, in early Christianity the uncircumcised were set against the circumcised, and the early Christians were treated as dangerous aliens in a hostile Roman Empire subject to persecution. But now, proclaims Paul, God has brought all divided bodies into one in the worldly or incarnate flesh of Jesus and broken down the dividing wall between them, creating in himself one new humanity in place of the two.

The theology that emerges from this narrative asks us to take seriously the redemption of the world which God has loved to the end and is transforming into His kingdom. And if we take this world seriously we must also take seriously its political and economic realities. Doing so is a direct imperative of this underlying theology (yes, Mr. Douthat, it is a theology). Therefore Christians are called to find specific and effective ways to make their political and economic lives reflect that unity of all people with each other. They are called to seek the common human good in how we structure our society. Pursuing our personal self-interests without consideration for the least of our brothers and sisters simply repeats the division between us and strangers and aliens that Christ has brought to an end and puts us on the wrong side of God's history for the world.

At the heart of liberal theology is the religious conviction that the world is worth paying attention to: that it is worth the time and effort we put into rectifying its injustices. Historically, that liberal theology has contributed to the liberation of people from slavery, from gender and sexual discrimination, from grinding poverty, and from the structures of oppression. That liberal conviction, despite the cries of the conservatives, lies, I am convinced, at the very foundations of the Christian faith and no matter what hits it takes or what misinformation is spread about it, it is a theological conviction worth fighting for and defending against its cultural and religious critics.