Apr  2011 15
On Being Liberal

Disciples of Christ historian, Winfred Ernest Garrison, writing in the denomination’s journal World Call in January 1944, asserted that the intense theological debates in the early 20th century between "fundamentalists" and "modernists" had been one of the most sharply divisive in the history of the church. The self-styled fundamentalists, he remarked, grounded their doctrines on “unquestioning acceptance of absolute truths delivered by revelation and recorded in an infallible Bible.” Modernists, on the other hand, recognizing the extent to which historical-critical studies had undermined all forms of biblical and theological absolutism, formulated their positions with far greater appreciation for human reason and experience.  

However, while these two quite distinct Christian orientations, or “schools of thought,” represented very different locations on a theological map, their positions were never completely antithetical. In fact, the most authoritarian fundamentalists, Garrison observed, were certainly not adverse to using pragmatic arguments, when advantageous, to support their views, even as the modernists, whose advocacy of historical criticism had required a thorough reinterpretation of biblical authority, “were disposed to regard the mind of Christ as an absolute norm for their teaching even though they professed only a relative knowledge of it.”

Yet Garrison’s ultimate point was that, in the conflicted period in question, theological liberalism provided the dialogical atmosphere or ethos in which thoughtful ecumenical engagement around questions of Christian faith and practice survived and thrived, because, he argued insightfully, “liberalism is always a method, never a body of unchangeable conclusions.”

Recognition of the point remains crucially important today in Christian communities and their educational institutions, for in contrast to the natural inclinations of many individuals, Christian “liberalism” should never be identified with any particular ideological agenda. Indeed, lest our constructive theological efforts constitute mere counterproposals to the positions of theological conservatives with regard to the “fundamentals” of the faith—which can easily lead to the kind of “tests of fellowship” that the Disciples of Christ have consistently resisted—progressive or liberal-minded Christians are most appropriately to be recognized by the relatively wider range of ideas and actions which they are willing to subject to a critical and globally conceived process of dialogical discernment, both ecumenical and interreligious in nature. Christian liberals are to be identified by their strategic practice—however uneven and imperfect in each individual and corporate case—of de-centering their own religious experiences and ethical norms in order to evaluate, as comprehensively and sympathetically as possible, the authenticity, credibility, and relevancy of multiple ways that disciples of Jesus Christ have historically understood the world and acted within it, including ways which markedly differ from our own. In fact, while appropriately concerned about the limits of acceptable diversity within the church, and drawing on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as sources for practical theological reflection, those committed to forms of “progressive Christianity” are committed not to a program but to a public and private process—exploratory, evolving, expansive—which is simply without parallel in conservative Christianity.


Browse more posts by: Don Pittman, Phillips Faculty Emeritus
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