The best part of the afternoon was Dorrien’s response to William Dean’s presentation “Dorrien the Historian.” Dean challenged both Dorrien’s assertion that “the liberal tradition has experienced a hidden renaissance” in recent decades, which Dean equated with a claim that liberal theology has been “successful,” and Dorrien’s use of a methodological definition of liberal theology rather than a definition based on content. I hope the papers are published, they were certainly worth listening to. A good statement of Dorrien’s thought on the current state of liberal theology can be found here in an article entitled “American Liberal Theology - Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity”in the winter 2006 issue of CrossCurrents. Towards the beginning of that article he states that “the idea of a liberal Christian third way between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief retains its original relevance.” A little later he states that “most importantly, [nineteenth century liberal theologians] denied that religious arguments should be settled by appeals to an infallible text or ecclesial authority.” I take the terms “conservative orthodoxy” and “appeals to an infallible text or ecclesial authority” to be roughly synonymous, and to refer both to conservative forms of evangelicalism and to conservative Roman Catholicism.
These days we find a rise in adherents of conservative churches. It’s indisputable that there’s a general decline in at least some liberal churches, including The Episcopal Church. Dorrien comments on the lack of evangelical fervor in much contemporary liberal theology:
Liberal theology has no purpose or integrity as anything but a progressive tradition. Its renewal does not depend on selling out its critical spirit or progressive heritage. Throughout its history, however, liberal theology has made its strongest appeal when it fuses its two heritages with spiritual power. From its Enlightenment/modernist heritage it has emphasized the authority of modern knowledge, affirmed the continuity between reason and revelation, championed the values of humanistic individualism and democracy, and usually distrusted metaphysical reason. From its evangelical heritage it has affirmed a personal transcendent God, the authority of Christian experience, the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption, and the importance of Christian missions.
To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?
When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship. Today the loss of the transcendental, biblical voice in liberal theology is one important reason that much of it gets little notice. Liberals often show more concern about the postmodern status of their perspective than about the relationship of their perspective to gospel faith. But postmodernity is largely an academic phenomenon, a product of the rarefied atmosphere of the academy. Theologians in the tradition of Rauschenbusch, Harkness, and King should have more pressing concerns than trying to convince deconstructionists that theology is a legitimate academic enterprise.
If I understood him correctly, Dorrien’s next project was to focus on a “gospel centered theology of personal spirt.” He has set that aside to produce a much needed work on the field of social ethics. I hope he returns to it.