Liberalism in Process

Editorial by Anthony Woollard

from Signs of the Times, No. 35 - Oct 2009

Many readers will have attended the Annual Conference last July. For the benefit of the rest, I felt it right to devote most of this editorial to some account of it. Annual Conferences are always an important event in MCU's life, but rarely more so than this year when we were discussing the very foundations of the liberal theology which we exist to promote. We were privileged that our President, John Saxbee, the Bishop of Lincoln, took the chair this time and added many reflections of his own both witty and profound.

Every conference has its high and not so high points, and every participant will select different items in each category. Our first invited speaker, Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, was seen by many as a "token conservative" and did not electrify the conference as some who followed him did; yet he had some interesting things to say about John Henry Newman, hardly a liberal in most senses of that word and certainly a campaigner against the reductionist and rationalist version of liberalism, yet someone who opened up the idea of "development of doctrine" in a Church even more conservative than today. More directly relevant were the lectures of Keith Ward, Brian Smith (Bishop of Edinburgh) and Gary Dorrien (Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York), whose contributions - respectively on religion and science, philosophy, and US thought - coalesced in a particularly interesting way to which I will return. And alongside them, if quieter, we enjoyed the inputs of Helen-Ann Hartley from Cuddesdon on the Bible (in our worship as well as from the lecture platform) and Lucy Winkett from St Paul's on liturgy and its relevance to the current state of the City of London and the upheavals in financial markets. Finally Jonathan Clatworthy gave a predictably masterly summing-up of the state of liberal theology as revealed by the conference and the signs of hope for the future.

What, then, is liberal theology? Our speakers drew some important distinctions between different interpretations of the term.

It need not be an "anything goes" approach either to beliefs or to ethics, or a mere following of secular fashions and philosophies. Certainly, much which has remained unquestioned in more conservative theologies needs to be opened up, and those who seek a priori authority will not find it here. Yet questioning needs to be undertaken from a viewpoint, a world-view; it cannot be done in a vacuum. And whilst liberals take historical evidence and its rational examination to a point far beyond what the fundamentalist would admit, that does not mean that they throw out the Bible or Christian tradition. Far from it (as Helen-Ann Hartley showed in our morning worship in her interpretations of 2 Corinthians). The whole tradition, though less monolithic than Newman or Geoffrey Rowell might recognise, remains our deep source and wellspring. It is precisely because of that tradition that we take secular wisdom seriously, believing that all Wisdom is ultimately one. But this does not mean that we are limited to secular wisdom.

Nor need it be the sort of materialist and rationalistic reductionism which its opponents within the Churches (like Newman) often caricature. Keith Ward reminded us that the so-called war between science and religion is actually a war that cuts across both camps, and that the fundamentalist materialists in the scientific camp are no more representative of all scientists than Biblical fundamentalists are of all Christians. A more holistic and what might be called co-inherent interpretation of reality is emerging in many areas of science, and is by no means incompatible with a liberal Christian faith.

Is there, then, an emerging world-view - drawing on what is good in current secular thought yet going beyond it - available for liberal Christians? In a postmodern era, with its distrust of grand narratives, that might seem an implausible quest. And certainly nothing said at the conference suggested that a single overarching philosophy was easily available to replace the Platonism of earlier Christian times, the Aristotelianism of the later Middle Ages or the Hegelianism of the nineteenth century, or even the influence of Heidegger in the twentieth. Yet there was an extraordinary coming together of ideas from several of the main speakers.

Brian Smith, drawing on the work of Isaiah Berlin, suggested that the concept of Tragedy might have something to contribute, with its utter realism about the human condition and the ambiguities of history. Soon enough he mentioned Whitehead and Hartshorne, those two 20th-century philosophers who built on the idea that process and struggle were characteristic of all being (or rather becoming) even within the Godhead. Those of us who knew a little about process philosophy and theology could immediately make a connection with what Keith Ward had been saying about the emerging "alternative" scientific world-view. And then the next day Gary Dorrien, in his exhaustive summary of US liberal theology (which included a most robust defence of Walter Rauschenbusch and the early 20th century Social Gospel movement against Niebuhr and their other later critics), revealed that process theology, if indeed it had been away at all, was making a comeback on the other side of the Atlantic.

To attempt a summary of process theology in the space available would be a mistake. Like so many systems, it is often expressed by its proponents in language inaccessible to the lay person. Yet my references above to holism and co-inherence, to struggle and becoming, may begin to give a flavour of what it is about. So may some names. John Cobb, Bernard Meland and other process theologians in the US are not overly well-known in this country, and nor is the underrated Daniel Day Williams whom Dorrien did not mention but whom I have found an inspiring populariser of the school. In the UK, William Temple was much influenced by Whitehead, though associated more with Platonism. More recent thinkers on this side of the Atlantic, however, caught in the neo-orthodox/secular debate, seem to have paid little attention to the process school. A notable exception, who has influenced many of us, is the late W H Vanstone. From Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense and The Stature of Waiting one can certainly derive a picture of God and the world, struggling and suffering together in creative process, which is compatible with Whitehead and Hartshorne.

If, as I suggested in my last editorial, we live in a world which takes Ockham's razor for granted, then perhaps those philosophers and their ideas will be no more meaningful to us than Plato or Aristotle, Becoming no more useful a concept than Being, and actual entities no more real than ideas or forms. But if intelligent people in the sciences and elsewhere are asking new questions about the ultimate nature of reality, then perhaps - again as I suggested last time - Ockham's razor ought not to be the only tool in our hands.

Does that means that future MCU members will be asked to pass an examination on Whitehead's thought or recite a creed based on the writings of Cobb and Williams? Of course not. Liberal theology remains open-minded, open-hearted, open-handed and open-ended - though (as John Saxbee suggested) maybe not open at bothends. In any case, any philosophical system is no more than a tool. Aquinas used Aristotle but went far beyond him in drawing on aspects of Christian tradition and contemporary culture which Aristotelianism alone could not incorporate. A telling question asked in plenary was about the place of grace in process thought. It is definitely present within the theological versions of that philosophy (see Daniel Day Williams, God's Grace and Man's Hope), but perhaps not directly deriveable from Whitehead. What a renewed attention to process thought may give us is a basis for a new dialogue with our own tradition and also with those who stand outside it but are asking the same or similar questions.

Readers will note that I have so far not even mentioned the tension between "hard" and "soft" liberalism - between the active promotion of liberal values and the emphasis on the process (that word again!) of liberalism, the project of tolerating even if possible the intolerant, of including even the excluders, and of creating and maintaining space for people and cultures to grow. Of course this dichotomy came up in our discussions, but it was not central to them - perhaps because for the most part we were not discussing ethical issues (such as how to deal with misogyny or homophobia in non-liberal cultures). Predominant at the level of this conference, the level of fundamental beliefs, was the creation and maintenance of space, which is one possible translation of shalom.

Which leads on neatly to looking forward to next year's conference. What does that shalom mean in economic terms, in an age when old economic assumptions seem to have been turned upside down? As Jonathan Clatworthy points out below, Lucy Winkett's contribution this year has already opened up some key issues here. And we have recently seen the unprecedented spectacle of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders uniting around the theme of usury as a response to the recent behaviour of the banks. There is, as has often been pointed out, much more in the Bible about money than about sex. As Alan Sheard reminds us, there is still a battle to be fought on the sexual front, and the tragedy of abuse is as serious a manifestation of this as the fights about gay bishops. But on money there is even more to discuss, which is not simply relevant to academic theologians but directly about living as "modern churchpeople" or whatever we might in future call ourselves. Reading Rob Wilcock's reaction, as a 15 year old at the time, to his first exposure to MCU at Lambeth 2008, should remind us all that we need not and should not be just a bunch of rather elderly people caught in a 1960s (or even 1890s) timewarp playing at theology, which alas is probably the image of MCU in some quarters. Attendances at Annual Conferences already give the lie to this to a great extent, but it would be good if our 2010 Conference could be even more representative of the rather more than seven thousand in the Church who have not bowed the knee to a fundamentalist Baal.

Anthony Woollard taught Theology at William Temple College before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.