Review – Liberalism Without Illusions by Christopher Evans

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.

Reading and Reviews

Published in: on October 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Protestant Liberal Perspective on Protestant Orthodoxy

George Cross was one of the early 20th century’s premier disseminators of Friedrich Schleiermacher and, consequently, of Protestant liberalism. His The Theology of Schleiermacher paraphrased Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre over a decade before its translation into English. Prefixed to Cross’ summary was a chapter narrating Schleiermacher’s place in the history of Protestantism. Cross penned this in 1911, when liberalism was still a vibrant movement and seemed the next phase of Reformation.

A confessional Protestant such as myself may not enjoy reading such an essay, since liberalism is a deviation from (or development of — eye of the beholder, you know) traditional Protestant teaching. We rarely applaud those who expose our inconsistencies and poke at our weaknesses. Yet, Johann von Staupitz sagely observed, “Great certitude of salvation awaits him who ponders the good in others, who often contemplates his own evil deeds, and who makes it a habit to condemn himself and justify others.” Outside perspectives are healthy, especially from those who have examined our beliefs and found them unsatisfying. Lessons must be learned from the faltering of Protestant orthodoxy, though this piece will not develop them.

Sympathetic reading does not, of course, rule out critique. Cross’ essay illustrates that theological history is often as much the writer’s theology as his subjects’ history. Indeed, the whole work is so suffused with the assumptions and definitions belonging to Protestant liberalism that it is impossible such a narrative would be penned by one of a different persuasion. His first sentence, “Schleiermacher takes his stand as a theologian avowedly within the position of Protestantism” is a theological assertion, the forerunner of many to come.

Cross informs us that “a due appreciation of Schleiermacher’s views” requires “a true apprehension of the nature of the Reformation.”

Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Cranmer, Calvin, Knox helped to make the Reformation, but even more they were made by it. They and their many fellow-laborers who organized it and gave it equipment for active resistance to the church of Rome secured a relative permanence to the forms which it then assumed, but it is now clear that in so doing they overlooked or even suppressed many of its most important elements. The Reformation as a religious movement was not produced by theologians and statesmen but by the idealist prophets and preachers who awakened the spiritual aptitudes of the people and stirred their wills to action.

Cross is clear that the people who are normally called the Reformers are not, in fact, the architects behind the Reformation. They cannot be, because they were politicians and theologians, and neither politics nor theology was the point of the Reformation. Both, in fact, belong to Catholicism.

In every country where the Reformation was finally established it was done by means of the support of the state but it had to take such a form as the state was willing to tolerate, namely, a modified Catholicism. This is true in respect to ecclesiastical organization and ritual and not less in respect to doctrine….

Still more important, perhaps, was the Catholic habit of mind which was carried over into Protestant theology. The idea that Christianity is at bottom doctrine, that revelation consists in the external communication of doctrine, that it reposes on authority and miraculous attestation, that the Scriptures are an authoritative (the Protestants said, the only authoritative) legislation in matters of belief and practice; all these, as well as the method and the world-view of Catholic theologians, were taken over into Protestant orthodoxy. In saying this we do not aim to minimize the achievements of the early Protestant thinkers or the spiritual value of the great movement which they carried out. In their exegesis of Scripture they were greatly superior to their Catholic opponents; and in the deliverance of multitudes from moral thraldom by their impressive preaching of the atonement of Christ and the free justification of believers they were the ministers of a service of unspeakable worth to mankind; their devotion to their cause was of the heroic type; and yet the consciousness of the debt we owe to them must not blind us to the fact that much of their theological thinking was unmistakably of the Catholic type.

So, it is not theology per se that Cross finds Catholic, but the conviction that Christianity is “at bottom doctrine” and that it rests on an authoritative Scripture. Words and propositions stifle authentic religious feeling. The theme of authority as Catholic is prominent already and moves even more into the foreground as Cross discusses the Anabaptists.

Their common rejection of infant baptism carried with it the renunciation of the whole Catholic system and, of course, that portion of it which was retained as authoritative by the Protestants. This was the head and front of their offending. Their demands were for a complete abandonment of Catholicism and a reinstitution of the churches of the primitive Christian times….

We see, therefore, that the practice of rebaptism which gave the Anabaptists their name was in itself a comparatively unimportant thing with them; its importance lies in its signification of deeper things. They held to the prerogative of the individual with God; the immediacy of the relation of the soul to God; the apprehension and ministration of the Christian gospel by the common man; personal obedience as the essence of Christian faith; Christian churches as free associations on the basis of a common spiritual experience; the spiritual equality and freedom of all believers. The practical issue of these views was the rejection of the entire Catholic conception of the church—apostolic succession a worthless figment, priestly mediation a vain pretense, the sacraments impotent and useless. Along with these went the negation of the church’s authority, of the blindingness of its creed or its canon of Scripture, and of its right to call in the secular arm to support its teachings….

Instead, then, of a radical reconstruction of the forms of Christian self-expression we see in Protestantism, as then established, a conservative reform…. Established Protestantism was a compromise. It represents an inconsistent combination of Catholicism with Christian radicalism. In nothing is this more evident than with respect to doctrine. The consciousness of the immediacy of human relationships with God, of the spiritual character of that relationship, and of the freedom that springs from it, was the moving impulse of the Reformation, but it was fettered by being bound to creeds that reposed on outworn scientific, philosophical, and ecclesiastical assumptions.

At last a clear picture emerges. If Catholicism is associated with authority, and Protestantism is about freedom, defined as a lack of authoratative boundaries to religious feeling, then the true Protestants were the Anabaptists. (Ironically, Cross’ narrative agrees with several Catholic and Anabaptist assessments, but not with Protestant ones.) Equipped with these definitions, the rest of the essay is entirely predictable, though still quite incisive at points.

According to Cross, the intellectualist and compromised nature of Protestantism guaranteed that it would descend into minute bickering and evangelistic impotence. The rationalist side of Protestant thought encouraged deism and the offshoots of the Enlightenment. Natural theology was a disaster, producing more skepticism than faith. The inefficacy of Bishop Butler’s apologetic, the best natural theology could offer, shows the untenable nature of the whole enterprise.

Roman Catholicism trained the peoples of Europe to depend, in religious matters, on authority—the authority of the church. When the Protestant Reformation led to a renunciation of that authority by many, they were compelled to substitute for it another ground of certainty in religious matters. The influence of mysticism, of new religious aspiration, and of the new intellectual awakening drew in one direction; traditional belief and the established methods of theology, as well as the instinct of order, drew in another. The resultant compromise gave to Protestant theology a double basis, the Bible as an external authority in some matters, and the individual human reason in others. But it was inevitable that a strife should arise and that one of these should encroach on the domains of the other. The trend of thought gave the advantage to the second of these.

Protestantism was saved by revivals—pietism, the Great Awakenings, Methodism—in which Christians, throwing off the chains of stuffy creeds and confining institutions, experienced God directly. What were the fruits of these revivals?

It may not be possible to describe the fundamental nature of this great revival of Christian faith in a word. There is, however, one outstanding conviction that seems to have wrought itself by means of the Revival into the fiber of our thinking—the unimpeachable worth of the individual man. We see how nearly identical it is with the motive power of the Reformation. It is working a like revolution in our thinking. The effect on prevailing apprehensions of the nature of religion has been immeasurably great. In the first place men have come to see that religion is a universal, though distinctive phenomenon of human life, not to be identified with any of the doctrinal formulae, established organizations, or forms of worship formerly regarded as indispensable to it. In the next place, it is implicitly admitted to be a matter of individual concern and every man is understood to be capable of a conscious enjoyment of it and of an immediate certainty of its divine character. It is further seen to be a matter of experience, and this experience has been acknowledged in ever-widening circles to be a prerequisite to personal participation in Christian activities. And finally, as admittedly a matter of inward experience, there has been an increasing recognition of the value of the emotions in religion.

Cross explains how Hume and Kant tore down rationalism and offered a new basis for philosophy.It is at this intersection of revivalistic pietism and critical idealism that Schleiermacher makes his advent.

Schleiermacher aims at laying a foundation for theological science by first of all expounding the nature of religion. He finds religion, as Kant had found the fundamental moral law, in the human consciousness as such—it is a necessary and inalienable constituent element of human experience in its highest interpretation. It cannot therefore be a product of thought (it is not to be identified with a doctrine or sum of doctrines or to be viewed as the effect of such); or of moral action (it is not an inference from moral principles or a belief involved in the subjection to a universal moral law) ; but it is an original human endowment.

In fact, Schleiermacher’s theology is the culmination of the ages:

Did space permit, we might show how upon a foundation of Christian religious faith he built the product of the rich speculative genius of Plato, the sin-consciousness of Paul and Augustine, Luther’s and the Anabaptists’ immediacy of fellowship with God, Calvin’s all-embracing divine purpose, Spinoza’s self-differentiating substance transmuted into the principle of causality, Leibnitz’ mirroring of the universe in the individual, Lessing’s philosophy of the revelation which, at the same time, is education, with Kant’s conviction of the incompetency of pure reason to establish religious truth running through it all. How all these elements, shot through with the Moravian warm love for Jesus Christ and the fellowship of grace, were recast in the crucible of Schleiermacher’s own thinking and were built up into a massive system, the following exposition will make an effort to show.

Although I titled this piece “A Protestant Liberal Perspective on Protestant Orthodoxy,” and I hope I delivered on that title, my narration and arrangement of the material positions me to offer the reverse. This confessional Protestant, upon reading Cross’ essay, realizes that liberalism is not Protestant at all, but a fusion of philosophical idealism and Anabaptism shot through with higher critical attitudes toward Scripture.