On the Merits of Liberal Theology; or why we should put another face on Janus
In a previous post, Lance observed that many theological students are confounded by their studies. What may have seemed like a simple task—to “dig deeper”—into their faith became complex and disorienting. This is especially true for those who come to the study of divinity from Christian experiences that are not well rooted in the global and historical stories of the faith. As a result, discovering strange, new things about Christianity is destabilizing. The pluriformity of voices past and present can seem to be a “cacophony.” According to Lance, such theological dissonance often directs seminarians and other educated Christians toward either of the two poles of belief, traditionalist faith (e.g., Roman Catholicism, various permutations of Orthodoxy) or post-modern atheism. Theology students are made to be a sort of ideological Janus. He concludes that theologians know too much either to subscribe to a shallow religious fundamentalism or reductionist scientific materialism; they often prefer the “mystery” of Christian tradition or continental philosophy.
To some extent I want to challenge his depiction. While there is not much in his analysis that I would want to contest, I do think he has ignored at least one other possible outcome—that of liberal Protestantism.
I think that the liberal tradition in western Christianity recognizes many of the difficulties that Lance outlined in his post. Liberal theologians would, by and large, agree that evangelical and fundamentalist understandings of the faith are stunted, contextualized aberrations in the long history of the Christian religion. Moreover, those who worship in liberal congregations are often the most enthusiastic practitioners of the mystical practices, which Lance highlights as the boon of the tradition. Liberal theology, however, critically addresses something which severe traditionalism will not: contemporary concerns. For all of its beautifully brocaded vestments and sedulously transportant rites, old time religion is essentially opposed to new and pressing concerns that could jeopardize such tried and true forms of worship and spirituality. Where liberal theologies are willing to assess the treasure of the faith piece by piece, retaining what is good, true, and beautiful in the light of current circumstances whilst jettisoning what does not appear so, a traditionalist theology would see the whole storehouse of the faith as a single item that can be accepted or rejected only as a whole. The implausibility of the latter situation may very well lead a student of theology toward the thought of Derrida or Sartre—such a requirement was a salient reason for my decision not to convert to Catholicism—but I think the freedom fostered by the former is a fruitful avenue for theology in any age. The genius of liberal theology is its critical faculty.
Depending on one’s own theological disposition, what I have just expressed could appear to be disastrously heretical. To such a reaction I offer a case study that, for me, highlights the importance of a liberal, critical theology that is unwilling to accept traditional positions just because they happen to be part of the tradition: such a case is the historic faith’s position on the ontology and vocation of women. Feminist theologian, Mary Daly, brings the contemporary situation of women in the church into stark focus. Commenting on a recent experience of the Eucharist, Daly observes:
The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the “princes of the church” and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic.
The set-up for such a “bizarre picnic” is purely rooted in traditional theology. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “‘[o]nly a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.’” In the Roman Catholic Church, only men are allowed to become priests. The reason for this is because in Catholic theology, the priest is functioning vicariously as Christ during the celebration of the Eucharist. During Mass, the priest is acting in persona Christi. Since Christ was historically a man, it is “clear and unambiguous” that all of his priests must be men. Jesus wanted all the “princes of the Church” to have all of the same bits as he did. If women were made to feel as ants during worship services, it would be simply because the Church was just practicing its traditional ontology of sex.
Obviously, a liberal theologian should not let such a grievance as voiced by Daly stand unattended, but what distinguishes a liberal theologian from another mode of activist is the source and inspiration of her social criticism. The demand for justice, in this case for women, is compelled by one’s faith. This has been a central tenet of liberal theology since its earliest generations. In the words of Friedrich Schleiermacher,
Piety was the mother’s womb, in whose sacred darkness my young life was nourished and was prepared for a world still sealed for it. In it my spirit breathed ere it had yet found its own place in knowledge and experience. It helped me as I began to sift the faith of my fathers and to cleanse thought and feeling from the rubbish of antiquity.
The more that I have studied theology, the more that I have found that Schleiermacher’s liberal stance—rather than traditionalist or post-modern alternatives—captures the drive of my faith, and accordingly, we need to add another visage to Lance’s Janus.
 I do not want to exclude the possibility of liberal iterations of other strands of the faith; there certainly are, at least, liberal forms of Roman Catholicism, but I have not found in my own experience that many disquieted evangelicals cross the Tiber in order to be self-consciously liberal Catholics. Though—I must say—I did at one point in my life intend to do that very thing.
 Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004); From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006).
 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, republished ed. (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 10.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 1577.
 John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, Encyclical Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 15 August 1988, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_15081988_mulieris-dignitatem_en.html.
 Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 9.
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- On the Merits of Liberal Theology; or why we should put another face on Janus - April 10, 2014