Positive liberal believing

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 34 - Jul 2009

After a good few years in which the public face of Christianity has distinguished itself by negativity - obsessive campaigns against some sin or other - there are signs that the mood is changing. Increasingly, people are looking for a more tolerant, and therefore liberal, spirituality.

This makes it all the more important for the positive case for liberalism to be heard. At least in the UK and perhaps further afield, the MCU can justly claim to be the leading voice for liberal theology. We have a good case for presenting it as a stronger, more mature and more confident approach to Christian believing.

One sign of liberalism's importance is the amount of effort opponents put into condemning it. Increasingly, evangelicals and catholics are joining forces against what they see as secular influence and accusing liberals of giving in to it. When they do this, they hold in common a sense that they belong to a tradition and accept a duty to believe its teachings. Liberals by contrast make up our own minds, change our minds in the light of new insights and feel free to disbelieve inherited doctrines. In this sense the opposite of liberalism is dogmatism: that spirit of insisting that a particular doctrine or moral rule is what Christians ought to believe, irrespective of public evidence and arguments. Dogmatists characteristically focus on a few btes noires of modern society and treat them as yardsticks for true Christian believing. A striking example is the recent response to UK legislation forbidding discrimination against women and gays in employment. The dominant church leaders, far from supporting the changes, declined even to argue against them; instead they played religious conviction as a trump card, demanding exemption for religious groups on the ground that their beliefs somehow transcended the Blair Government's attempt to correct injustices.

Most do not call themselves 'dogmatists'; they usually prefer to think they are 'conservatives', upholders of tradition against liberals who innovate. Liberals often need reminding how far from the truth that is. To be sure there are some phases of Christianity's history to which dogmatists can appeal. They make much of the Reformation era, a time when - apart from the Socinians - almost everybody emphasised the supremacy of direct divine revelation and denied any role to mere human reason in matters of religion; though they tend to overlook the effect, which was that Catholics and Protestants spent their time denouncing each other rather than examining each other's arguments, and thus produced so much conflict that that era is still known as the Age of Religious Wars.

They can also appeal to the nineteenth century reactions against secularisation. Many then feared that modern reason, in the form of science, would disprove the existence of God, and panicking churches sought to protect themselves against it rather than engage constructively with it. Neoscholasticism, biblical fundamentalism and pietism all aimed to explain Christianity in ways which owed nothing to secular reason or empirical research. Whereas in the early nineteenth century the educated British public often responded to new discoveries in geology by discussing what they revealed about the nature of God, by the end of it most churches were busy protecting their doctrines from any such influences. Today, more than a century later, the echoes of that movement still resound in the fact that so many churches disdain to offer intelligent, defensible reasons for being a Christian.

Whereas dogmatism dominated some periods of Christian history, liberals can appeal to others: the early church, the high Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment began as a reaction against the wars of religion and therefore had Christian doctrine very much in mind when it established the value of open, public reason as a peaceful method to resolve disagreement. The point was that any theory can in principle be defended by the publication of reasons and evidence but can also be challenged by others in the same way. On this basis theologians could explore the strengths and weaknesses of their doctrines openly and creatively rather than resorting to denunciations and conflict.

The MCU was founded at the end of the nineteenth century to defend that tradition. It therefore took seriously new findings in science, archaeology and literary scholarship. Even in the 1930s, long after Barth had begun his broadsides against all natural theology and human reason, MCU members were still holding conferences and writing books on those age-old questions about whether miracles are possible, what happened at the Resurrection, and in what sense Christ was divine. They did so in the traditional manner of publicly debating the arguments and the evidence for and against each theory, in the expectation that the public debate itself would contribute to the search for truth in matters of religion, just as it does in other matters.

Admittedly there then followed a period of decline, but this was caused less by the failures of liberalism than by the contradictions within dogmatism. Those who wanted to examine whether miracles or the Resurrection were possible learned to ignore church leaders and look to science for the answers instead. The churches, meanwhile, were getting used to living in a cultural bubble. Once they had taken that fatal step of redescribing their beliefs in ways which owed nothing to modern rationality, they saw no need to discuss whether they were compatible with modern knowledge.

That cultural bubble still exists in many places. It has parallels with the idea, attributed to the medieval scholastic Siger of Brabant, that the same statement can be true in philosophy but false in theology. The current consensus is that neither Siger nor any other scholastic taught such self-contradictory nonsense. Today, however, a great many churchgoers still struggle to reconcile what they are taught at church with what they are taught at school. Are all humans descended from one couple who lived in the marshes of southern Iraq 6,013 years ago, or have we evolved from other animals over millions of years? Do the commands in the Bible express God's instructions to all people at all times, or were they human instructions of particular times and places? Does the technology which surrounds us work as well as it does because the laws of nature discovered by scientists are reliable, or does God sometimes intervene to break them? Are illnesses caused by the natural processes which medical researchers study, or by unpredictable evil spirits?

Maybe only a few educated people honestly believe in a young earth, biblical literalism, interventionist miracles and exorcisms. Whatever their numbers, however, they certainly punch above their weight. A great many people have been misled into thinking that because they believe in modern science they are thereby rejecting Christianity. The mass media often present Christianity as a set of beliefs which have been disproved by science but which the uneducated are taking their time to abandon.

Dogmatists of course like to think that their preferred periods of Christian history produced better versions of Christianity. It is equally arguable that they were worse: less able to explore the strengths and weaknesses of their doctrines and therefore more shrill, more reactionary and more prone to conflict. Liberals can justly claim that our approach to Christian believing is better able to respond constructively to new arguments and evidence, less inclined to go off in a huff and set up a new denomination, and thus more mature and constructive.

What does this mean for today? Society has recently become more interested in spirituality, more inclined to believe in the divine. Muslims, Buddhists and others, better at explaining what they believe and why they believe it, are benefiting. Christianity is not. The reasons are clear enough, as they are rehearsed endlessly by the mass media's stereotypes: what most people see of church leaders is their strange contortions as they bend over backwards not to disagree in public with their counter-cultural dogmatists. The result is that the general public are encouraged to carry on thinking that Christians believe absurdities.

For liberal Christians the present situation should surely be a major opportunity. What the churches ought to be offering, and what a great many people are keen to receive, is not defiant rejections of modern society but intelligent, defensible reasons why Christianity makes sense. This is precisely what the MCU set out to do at its foundation, and did through all those dark days when most people thought it was the wrong thing to do. Today, surely, it is clear that the future of Christianity depends on it. There is no future in a religion which identifies itself by petty dogmatic campaigns against one or another aspect of modern society. There is a great future for a Christianity which values modern knowledge, admits that it has often been wrong, willingly jettisons its errors and invites whoever wishes to share its open and honest reflections on the nature of religious truth. This is the kind of theology the MCU has always promoted - mature, modern, public, rational and liberal.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.