Christopher H. Evans. Liberalism Without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press. 2010. Pp. 207. Paperback.
Liberalism Without Illusions is a retrospect and prospect for American Protestant liberalism. Evans seeks both to reconnect contemporary liberals with their theological heritage and to refocus them on the future. Undergirding both is a frank assessment of liberalism’s present.
Evans acknowledges liberalism’s birth in Europe, but stresses the distinct shape it took in the United States. He plays up the continuity between the goals of American liberalism and nineteenth-century Christian social activism. Continuity is also evident in that liberalism did not found new institutions, but rather populated the oldest and most established American denominations. He points to Unitarian Walter Channing and Congregationalist Horace Bushnell as precursors to modern liberalism. Both envisioned new ways of understanding the significance of Jesus and the role of the church in society. The influence of biblical criticism broke up the exegetical monopoly of various orthodoxies, while Albrecht Ritschl’s focus on history and the kingdom of God offered new ways of conceiving God’s action in the world.
Indeed, the kingdom of God in history became a central concept for American liberalism. Shailer Matthews’ The Social Teaching of Jesus looked at Jesus as a historical figure. On the popular level, Charles Sheldon’s question, “What would Jesus do?” underscored Jesus as our moral example. Washington Gladden kicked off the first phase of the social gospel, seeking to apply the Golden Role on a societal level. Walter Rauschenbusch, however, gave the movement its theological shape. Combining his experiences as a pastor in “Hell’s Kitchen” of New York City and as a professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, Rauschenbusch articulated a public Christianity bent on transforming societal structures to approximate the values of the kingdom of God (see his A Theology for the Social Gospel.)
The liberal tradition was never homogenous. Critics, known as neo-orthodox or Christian realists, arose from within the ranks and critiqued the naïve optimism and cultural establishmentarian of an earlier generation. Evans notes, however, that these critics nevertheless remained indebted to the liberal heritage of a public Christianity, concerned with the fate of society and engagement with secular culture.
Liberalism moved increasingly away from the churches and the popular level to reside in the academy, where it has motivated several theological approaches. Process theology, which stresses the reciprocal interaction between God and history, grew out of the personalism and immanentism of liberalism. Liberation theology, which declares God’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed, radicalized certain political tendencies. Postliberalism Ecumenical movements looked for rapprochement between divided Christian traditions. All of these movements, though, have lacked significant grassroots support. They remain largely the province of the divinity schools that birthed them.
Shifting to the prospect of liberalism, Evans displays an exceptional ability to sympathize with liberalism’s critics. The title Liberalism Without Illusions testifies to Evans’ desire to take seriously criticisms and failings. One chapter is devoted to conservative evangelicalism, which Evans views neither as the enemy or the opposite of liberalism, but as an alternative brand of American Christianity, one from which liberalism may need to learn a few things. In particular, liberalism needs to learn to deal with disestablishment, no longer having a direct pipeline to cultural elites and political movers. Evans also discusses J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, which raised the question of what is particularly Christian about liberalism. Evans recommends a retrieval of liberalism’s early theological, and not just political, heritage, as well as sustained engagement with the whole of Christian tradition. Of course, there is the challenge from Barth and the Neibuhrs that liberalism downplayed sin and was naïve about human perfectibility. Evans admits the presence of this tendency while also pointing to nuanced liberals, suggesting that at times this critique has been overstated.
Evans presents four questions that liberals need to face to renew their vitality. First, “Are liberals truly addressing the deepest needs and anxieties of the culture?” questions whether ministry centered on social justice and not on spiritual enrichment can be sustained. Second, “To what extent can and should liberal churches emulate popular models of ‘church growth’?” raises the issue of Protestant disestablishment and whether liberals ought to embrace evangelical ministry models. Third, “To what extent should the future of liberalism be predicated primarily upon specific political agendas?” cautions against reducing the religious to the political and against hitching liberalism to one political group. Finally, “How do liberals see themselves continuing to shape the larger Christian heritage?” rephrases Machen’s challenge to articulate liberalism in continuity with the Christian tradition.
Liberalism Without Illusions is a satisfying read that is likely to instigate urgent conversations. Though aimed at liberals, it can serve as a winsome introduction to liberalism for non-liberals. Evans’ interaction with criticism is characterized by thoughtful interaction rather than defensive bravado or spineless capitulation. His sympathy for the best of the liberal tradition is infectious. His cautious but hopeful attitude toward the future is inspiring.
There are, of course, some weaknesses. One could wish for a bit deeper interaction with liberalism’s theological heritage, as only the kingdom of God concept receives sufficient treatment. Postmodernity, a serious challenge to liberalism, receives scant attention. Evangelicalism’s appeal is cast mainly in terms of popularism and apocalyptic fervor; the spiritual depth and clear theological statements of evangelicals are underestimated. One could also ask for some more pointed recommendations, but Evans did build his prospect around questions. Several of these weaknesses are offset by an excellent bibliographical essay that should guide readers to the answers they seek. Overall, I enjoyed reading Liberalism Without Illusions and would recommend it to pastors, students, and the average, interested reader.