In his recent book, The Recovery of the Person (Abingdon, 1963), Carlyle Marney searches for an “incarnational realism” that would express the urgent need for inter-personal relationships leading to wholeness. He doubts, however, that the institutional churches can offer any guidance. “The man who merely analyzes our situation may do some good,” he writes, “but one looks in vain for help as to what to do and where. As for myself, I have less and less hope that denominational houses can offer any real redemption for us. Indeed, most times, as formerly, the institutional church seems somehow in the way. I look for, long for, some radical reconstitution, knowing all the time it will likely be preceded by an inevitable great turning away” (pp. 100f.).
The words are poignant, because in their honesty they reflect a mood emerging within the ranks of theological liberalism. The “turning away” Marney anticipates has already begun. Protestant churches still achieve small numerical gains in membership each year; however, according to the 1964 Yearbook of American Churches, Protestants constituted 34.9 per cent of the population in 1962, as against 35.2 per cent in 1961. These figures only confirm the mood of many ministers in liberal churches who have begun to sense that organized religion, as exemplified by the liberal churches, has failed.
Much activity is still carried on, and much money is still received and disbursed by liberal churches. Both the activity and the money have accomplished great good; this is undeniable. But the simple statistical indication that they cannot match exploding population figures with a correlative membership increase (and one wonders what honest, unpadded figures would reveal), coupled with the awareness that, despite their unprecedented numerical strength, liberal Protestant churches are almost powerless to accomplish in society more than a bare minimum of their relatively unimaginative and non-controversial objectives—these leave little room for doubt that for all apparent purposes liberal Protestantism, which held out such glowing hope and promise at the turn of the century, has failed at the very tasks it announced were both crucial and achievable.
There is some embarrassment in stating so baldly that liberalism has failed. I myself stand unashamedly within the broad tradition of liberalism as an existential and intellectual stance, as unreconstructed as John Dewey ever was. (This distinction between the liberal tradition and liberalism as a formal theological and operational stance should be kept clear.) Yet, while I regret the demise of liberalism, feeling that it ought to be true, I also welcome the death of theological liberalism as both good and necessary. Why, though, has Protestant liberalism failed and died, despite the heroic work and witness of many liberal ministers?
Dishonesty Or Failure
The maladies of liberalism become more apparent when viewed against its areas of greatest health. The first malady may be labeled, either intellectual dishonesty or failure of communication, depending upon how charitable one is inclined to be. Most ministers in liberal Protestant churches share, quite naturally, the legacy of liberalism. They attended seminaries that at least presented liberalism as a live option, and often offered little if anything else. Consequently, they reject the crude, non-historic, undisciplined literalism of an earlier day; and they are familiar with biblical criticism and other intellectual disciplines encountered in seminaries. Nearly all of them have to some extent accepted the results and conclusions of liberalism.
Except for a minority, however, liberal ministers have not clearly enunciated their theological or Christological position on the parish level, through preaching or teaching. Many of them must be charged with what Walter Kaufmann labels “double speak”: they go through the process of rethinking the meaning of the traditional words and phrases of Christian theology, often radically reconstituting them with meaning that negates Christian faith, if not in its historic sense, then at least as their untutored parishioners understand it; they do not, however, communicate their understanding to their parishioners. At worst this is conscious, blatant intellectual dishonesty; at best it is an abdication of the responsibility to achieve clarity and avoid ambiguity. When “double speak” occurs as an expression of dishonesty, the crime is compounded; no group has spoken more loudly for intellectual honesty than the liberals.
Even a semi-literate liberal is aware of the urgency, made so clear by Wittgenstein and his followers in linguistic analysis, of at least attacking the semantic problem, and of making earnest, sustained attempts to communicate what is in the mind of a speaker to the mind of a listener. Despite this urgency, intensified by mass communications media pounding away in our highly complex industrialized society, liberal ministers continue to affirm publicly what they deny privately. Phrases such as “Son of God,” “Virgin Birth,” “Word of God,” “resurrection,” and many others, are repeatedly used. Questioned privately, many preachers who use these words and phrases indicate that they refer to doctrines and concepts, and that parishioners generally have not had the specialized education necessary to understand the subtleties and sophistications of the doctrines and concepts to which the words and phrases refer. And this is true.
The failure to communicate is a reality, nevertheless; and whether it exists through dishonesty or because of irresponsibility, liberalism has failed to transmit its central convictions (or denials). Liberalism has reached the point at which it is impossible to determine from reading a book or listening to a sermon just what a liberal minister means. The prior awareness of multiple meanings becomes a barrier between speaker and hearer. Just what is meant by “salvation through Christ”; and what is promised as “resurrection”?
This points to the strength out of which this weakness grew. Liberalism, instructed in biblical criticism, learned in ancient languages and philosophy, informed by the Religionsgeschichteschule, and sophisticated in understanding historical theology, came to see that historic Christian faith was extensively conceptual and symbolic. Even Roman Catholic theologians have insisted in response to Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God that historic Christian faith has never affirmed what the bishop thinks must now be denied. Consequently, fundamentalism was a heresy, considered in historical perspective, although the oversimplified approach of fundamentalism was accepted largely throughout this country. But liberalism, although perceiving the heretical nature of fundamentalism, has not yet had the genius or the courage to communicate to the laity.
The resurgence of theological conservatism must be noted here; undoubtedly this resurgence is stimulated in part by instances of too-clear communication by liberal preachers, along with other historical factors that have produced “crisis” and other types of modern theology. There is serious doubt, nonetheless, that what was communicated in these instances, and consequently what was heard, was what liberalism had actually represented.
A Misuse Of Freedom
The second malady of liberalism follows from the first: it has mistaken intellectual license for intellectual freedom. Liberalism’s contribution to intellectual freedom is extensive. Fundamentalism’s literalism, specifically in locating heaven and hell spatially and in describing them vividly, is too widely known to require delineation here. To be freed from the necessity of accepting these literalisms in a Copernican universe was intensely liberating for many who existentially experienced this universe and also wanted to participate in the religious community.
Almost without exception, to note only one additional instance of freedom attributable to liberalism, the frontier preachers and others insisted that the Bible must be taken literally, without question or doubt, as the word (s) of God. These preachers meant something radically different, of course, from what Barth means by the Word of God. And it is a baleful commentary on the state of modern theology to indicate that one must understand the conceptual difference implied in the use of a capital letter to be currently literate in theology! Liberalism, through the “higher” as through the “lower” criticism, freed one from the impossible necessity of taking all biblical statements at face and at equal value, and the consequent intellectual contortions necessary to harmonize, through bizarre and wholly gratuitous interpretations, obvious inconsistencies or contradictions. It was with a profound sense of intellectual and emotional relief that liberals, many of whom still held a high view of biblical inspiration and authority, abandoned the necessity of believing all the Bible without question or reservation as a requisite to salvation.
This legitimate freedom, shared now by evangelicals, proved to be a fatal weakness for liberalism. Some liberals saw the error of fundamentalistic literalism and turned to a study of historical theology as a corrective discipline; but many others took the freedom to mean that one could, in effect, gerrymander a theology and a Christology and call them Christian, so long as one included a generous sprinkling of the traditional words and phrases. Consequently, there came into existence almost as many Jesuses and Gods as there were interpreters. It was no longer necessary to submit oneself to the painful, exacting task of understanding the often highly sophisticated historical theology. One was free.
As a result, many liberal ministers still call themselves “Christian,” all unaware that they have repudiated historic Christian faith and substituted humanism in its place; unaware, also, that the addition of a few phrases and words borrowed from the Christian tradition does not, fortunately, make a humanistic discourse a Christian sermon. One points out that any good humanist would heartily agree with everything said sermonically by many liberals, and the liberals vehemently deny this. These undisciplined liberals are honest, if mistaken, in their denials, for they have never troubled themselves, in seminary or elsewhere, to inform themselves historically. (It is simply incredible how easy it is to obtain the B.D. degree.) Many seminaries imply by their naïve, non-historic approach that Christian faith may, in effect, be abandoned. Consequently, as parishioners become adjusted to living under the pervasive modern threats to existence (and it is a commonplace that fear brought Americans to the churches after World War II) and discover that liberalism has nothing to say under the circumstances anyway, they also become increasingly disenchanted.
Neglecting Modern Insights
The third malady, which requires minimal treatment here, may be labeled an inadequate anthropology; the converse strength is the awareness of the social dimensions of the Christian faith. Here again, liberalism’s contribution in attempting to deal with social problems is significant. Still, liberalism too largely neglected the rawer, savage aspects of human nature by failing to understand and appropriate the implications of modern psychological insights that, basically, human beings are emotively and not volitionally impelled. In freedom, one can abandon the concept of a primal Fall when one comes to understand that human nature may be accepted as it is known by experience, without implying or imputing guilt (or, in many instances, responsibility) to the hostilities, aggressions, and other uncomfortable and disruptive feelings that all human beings by nature experience and express. When these are accepted as natural components of human nature, it is no longer necessary to think of human nature as either unnatural or depraved in either a moral or a theological sense, with the imago Dei either completely defaced, as Barth insists, or only formally residual, as Brunner maintains. Liberalism, by beginning with and accepting human nature as encountered, brought peace of mind and emotional freedom, consequently emotional health, to many who desperately needed them.
On the other hand, many liberal ministers, even while acknowledging the baser, instinctual components of human nature, unfortunately assumed that these could be eradicated through educational experience, or through the medium of some apparently free-floating entity sentimentally called love. Love, they said, was the answer to all problems, individual and social. Restructure society in love, and sin and evil would disappear. The Kingdom of God would, because it could, be built by human effort. It may be noted in passing that legal machinery, not religious institutions, brought about the beginning of a change in our racial patterns. Liberalism simply did not effect the necessary individual or social changes because a naïve sentimentalism frequently ignored the urgent necessity of inducing drastic changes within the structure of personality.
Through these weaknesses runs another which must be noted as gently yet as plainly as possible: moral cowardice. There are, it is acknowledged with deep gratitude, notable instances of persecution experienced by liberal ministers for their adherence to and proclamation of their restructured faith. Nevertheless, within liberalism there has been an extensive refusal, or constitutional incapability, to stand up and speak out unambiguously. All theological positions contain elements of subjectivity; therefore, the responsibility for whatever position is affirmed rests with the affirmer. Whether one accepts or rejects the Bible, for example, to any degree, the prior responsibility is always the individual’s. All positions should be stated as clearly and as relevantly as possible, and the consequences borne cheerfully and graciously.
Clarity has not, however, been achieved; in many instances it was not even attempted. There are countless liberal ministers, many of whose congregations are almost totally unaware what their ministers believe. It has seemed safer, more propitious, or more rewarding financially and otherwise to seek refuge behind obfuscations, ambiguities, or denominational promotions, than to pay, first, the exacting price demanded for discovering what Christian faith is all about, or, second, the price of declaring in relevant, forceful, and clear language what faith, if any, is held.
Now intellectual honesty can become a fetish to the neglect of other equally important concerns. But intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice can destroy both personalities and institutions. One cannot avoid the nagging feeling that the nerve of honesty and courage was cut when liberalism abandoned its certainty, however authoritarian or emotionally misdirected such certainty may have been; for even when liberalism, in its many guises, has been proclaimed, it has often been proclaimed in such diluted, placid terms that no observable results have been accomplished.
Some liberals hold on to their liberalism, entirely unaware that history has invalidated it. Others turn to biblical theology, to Bultmannianism or post-Bultmannianism, and to a dozen or so other esoteric theological positions that in time will prove to be nothing more than intellectual fads. Some of the seminaries already include avowedly post-Christian faculty members. Bishop Robinson has attempted to make Christian faith both relevant and acceptable to “man come of age.” Meanwhile, historic Christian faith is repudiated by such attempted reconstructions. Liberalism, under its post-liberal guises, is, as much as anything else, an attempt to hold on to theism and to Christian moorings while operating in essentially non-theistic terms under post-Christian assumptions.
Moreover, one senses an existential despair, barely masked behind the facade of the traditional words and phrases still used ritualistically. It will be interesting, and perhaps revolutionary, to see what happens to liberalism and its blandness. The “turning away” Marney reluctantly foresaw has begun, and nothing is looming on the horizon to offer power or guidance.
Jesse J. Roberson is senior minister of the First Methodist Church, El Centro, California. He is a graduate of the University of Chattanooga (A.B.) and of the Candler School of Theology, Emory University (B.D. cum laude). Before going to El Centro, Mr. Roberson served Methodist churches in Georgia and Arizona.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more