Liberal Theology:

To Bring Peace or a Sword?

Lecture by Jonathan Clatworthy

at the 2009 MCU annual conference

Religious culture condemns liberals

There are signs of hope. There are signs that we are at a turning point.

We have two trajectories, going in opposite directions. The unchurched society around us, in Britain and beyond, knows it is under no obligation to accept any version of Christianity, and is by and large appalled by the reactionary dogmatisms which have dominated the churches' agenda in recent years; but nevertheless it is increasingly interested in religion in general and if any version of Christianity stands any chance of appealing to it, it will be a liberal version, something like ours.

Meanwhile, within the churches, the leaders of the main denominations are in an inward-looking, reactionary mood, more concerned about their own internal affairs than the society outside. A wide range of religious opinion still condemns liberals at every opportunity. Liberals, they tell us, abandon Christian values and go along with the standards of secular society; we are weak in our commitment to Christian doctrine, we don't believe in biblical moral standards, the Virgin Birth, miracles, hell or whatever is this week's criterion of orthodoxy.

So on the one hand many people are interested in what Christianity has to say, willing to take it seriously if it makes sense to them, if it stands to reason, if we can provide an intelligent, believable account of what we believe. On the other hand the loudest voices in the churches are taking great pride in claiming that their beliefs cannot be rationally defended, emphatically resisting normal standards of what makes sense and what seems believable, heaping praise on people who believe literally in things modern society considers impossible, precisely in order to defy modern knowledge and rationality.

This widespread determination to condemn liberals reveals an anxiety. Western Christianity has an identity crisis. What is Christianity for? What does it achieve? 500 years ago Christianity, like other religions, functioned as a high level description of reality in general. A worldview. It described how and why God created us, and by doing that it explained what we should expect from life: the potential, the limitations and the proper procedures for human life and society. Like all religions it explained why the world, society and morality are the way they are.

Secularisation reduced its role. Over the centuries one cultural feature after another demanded independence from church authority: government, science, law, education and eventually even ethics. By the beginning of the twentieth century most churches had learned to describe their role in society as much more limited, reduced to being just one cultural phenomenon among others, with its own expertise: God, prayer and the afterlife.

Secularists never tire of pointing out that this more limited account of religion makes it quite unnecessary. Okay, some people like to speculate about God and life after death, just as some people like to speculate about flying saucers, but it wouldn't matter if nobody did. Christians don't like that conclusion, but it's difficult to avoid it as long as you think of religion as a self-contained cultural phenomenon with its own specialism. So how do we avoid it?

Somehow twentieth century church leaders tried to show that religion does have a positive role to play in society, and sometimes did this well. You may remember the public response to the Church of England's report Faith in the City in 1985; it was taken seriously. More often, though, churches have retained an otherworldly focus while appending to it a campaign against one particular social practice: divorce, contraception, alcohol, abortion and now homosexuality. It is the cheapest and easiest way for an otherworldly society to say 'Hello! We're still relevant.'

Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that the challenge of Islam bites so deep. Islam still claims, as Christianity once did, to offer a blueprint for society. And it is hardly surprising that so many church leaders, faced with the prospect of irrelevance, resort to the extreme claims of the tradition they know: otherworldly divine revelation that trumps all human reason and therefore despises liberals.

MCU considers itself liberal

The MCU thinks of itself as liberal. When founded in 1898, it called itself 'The Churchmen's Union for the Avancement of Liberal Religious Thought', a name which perhaps makes 'Modern Churchpeople's Union' sound snappy and up to date. But notice that word 'liberal', there from the start.

It does not mean we defend every straw doll which opponents set up. There are different kinds of liberalism, and they often conflict with each other. In politics liberals promote freedom for individuals to choose their own lifestyles. In economics they promote freedom for owners of wealth to do what they like with their money. To restrict ourselves to religion, there is still a variety. One version of liberalism, popular in the USA because of its constitution, insists on keeping church and state separate, and disapproves of the established churches we have in England and Scotland. Another is based on the conviction that religion is a matter of private individual belief and concludes that anything goes: you can believe whatever you like because it doesn't affect anyone else. Another again describes the condition of people who have been brought up as Christians and no longer believe in God, but don't want to let go of the church and its rituals.

There is some overlap between these, but the liberalism the MCU was founded to defend, and still defends, is the proper role of reason in matters of religion. We have argued that it is right and proper to reflect rationally about, and publicly debate, questions of truth about God and how God has designed us to live. We expect truth to emerge through this public rational process, rather than through just accepting what religious authorities have inherited from the past.

Contrary to claims often made, this liberal method is as old as Christianity. Most of what we know about Christianity in its first five centuries is the endless debates they had against each other, using all the methods of reasoning available to them. They did appeal to God's decrees written in scripture, but that was just one among many forms of argument. In the high Middle Ages Anselm, Abelard and Aquinas all defended reason precisely because it was a gift of God to humanity and therefore to be used. In the Church of England there has been a strong tradition of affirming the use of reason in matters of faith, from Richard Hooker onwards.

The other side of the argument also has historical precedent. At the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages educational levels declined and it made sense for church leaders to trust older teachings more than new theories. Later, at the end of the Middle Ages and during the Reformation debates, theologians argued that spiritual things are unobservable, cannot be perceived through the five senses, and therefore can only be known by direct revelation from God. Catholics and Protestants alike denied a role for reason in matters of faith, and therefore could not resolve their disagreements about what God had revealed. The result, notoriously, was two centuries of religious wars. Secularisation began as a reaction against those bitter conflicts, and still today often utters dark warnings that religion causes wars.

More recently reason in matters of faith came under suspicion in the nineteenth century. As science progressed, many of the educated public believed it would in time disprove religious belief. In response the main Christian denominations reassured themselves once again that mere human reason cannot attain the truths of faith which come from divine revelation alone.

Thus we have inherited two contrasting approaches to questions of religious truth. One tells us that we can know what we can know through the reasoning powers God has given to the human race in general, the other that human reason is no use and we depend entirely on direct divine revelation.

Personally I find the difference between these two approaches reminds me of my secondary school teachers. The bad teachers, who were struggling to keep on top of their subject, would insist that the text book is correct so stop asking questions and just accept what you are told. The good teachers were better able to handle the questions. Perhaps there are exceptions to what the text book says, perhaps the book is a little out of date. Maybe we could look at what another book says. Our liberalism in matters of religion is more like what the good teachers did.

Why our liberalism matters

Does it matter? One of the commonest mantras in modern society is that it's a good idea to avoid arguing about religion. You to your beliefs, I to mine. You're a Protestant, I'm a Catholic, John our chairman is a Muslim, each to our own. Is that an acceptable response? When we are afraid of sectarian violence and anxious to avoid it, perhaps this is the best we can do; but it only makes sense if religious beliefs have no practical consequences at all.

To non-realists this is perfectly acceptable. If all religious beliefs are human creations and none of them represent any objective truth anyway, then there is no harm if we hold different beliefs. It's a bit like you and me disagreeing about what would have happened in Coronation Street if x had had an affair with y. Well she didn't, so it's irrelevant. No point arguing.

Another view is that there are objective truths about religion, but they are only about God and life after death, so they don't affect what we do in this life. In that case maybe we can agree to differ, and not talk about it. It's a bit like disagreeing about whether there is life on Mars. You and I are not going to do anything about it, so we can agree to differ. But is that the case if we disagree about life after death? One of the main causes of the religious wars was anxiety about the afterlife. If you have seen those gory paintings by Bosch and Bruegel, you will know that they took the terrors of hell seriously. I think that when I die I am going to heaven because I believe the right things, and you are going to suffer torture for eternity because you believe the wrong things. You think it's the other way round. So we just agree to differ and not talk about it. What? That's only acceptable to people who only care about themselves and don't give a damn about anyone else. If I believed that everyone is going to heaven with the one exception that you and you alone are going to be tortured in hell for eternity, I would want to talk to you about it. Bearded, sentimental liberal that I am, I would feel sorry for you. I confess: not only do I believe the doctrine of hell is untrue; I also believe it distorts Christian doctrine because it causes people to seek self-interest instead of truth.

So here's our dilemma. If religious beliefs don't describe the way things really are, or only describe things which have no practical implications at all, we don't need to fall out with each other but there is no point in holding any religious opinions at all.

On the other hand if there are religious truths, which make a real difference, then does this mean that the people who take religion as seriously as it deserves are the suicide bombers of Al Qaida? Should we look back on the religious warmongers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Spanish Inquisition with their torture techniques, and see them as models of Christianity taken seriously? The recent spate of anti-religious books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have been so popular that they have clearly touched a raw nerve: there is genuine anxiety that this is in store if British society goes back to being religious.

This is the dilemma: religion either is utterly irrelevant, or it causes wars. Help! Is there a third way?

Yes there is a third way, religion informed by the ordinary processes of human reason. What caused those wars in the Reformation period and persuades people to become suicide bombers today is not religion as such but bad religion, the religion of those who are too confident that they know the complete truth. Dogmatism.

Outside the sphere of religion, in every other subject of human knowledge, we recognise that progress is made by public reflection and debate guided by reason. Liberals believe the same applies to religion. Claims to divine revelation cannot all be accepted. Each one needs to be assessed by the believing community, using the resources available to it.

Once we accept that the way to seek truth in matters of religion is similar to the way we seek truth in all other matters, making full use of our reason in public research and debate, then we can resolve our disagreements in matters of religion in much the same way as we resolve our other disagreements.

This is the position the MCU held from its inception. We began as a society of Christians who believed in God, believed their Christian faith made a difference, and expected to explore questions of religious truth using the processes generally available to the human mind.

This liberal understanding of religion is rarely defended in public by church leaders today. The mass media give the impression that they haven't heard of it, and even university theology departments, which usually accepted it through most of the twentieth century, often today, at least in the UK, take pride in rejecting it. This, I believe, makes it all the more important that we should not only defend it but positively promote it.

Our liberalism makes possible a return to worldview religion

If liberal theology enables us to avoid the twin extremes of irrelevance and conflict, what kind of religion does it produce? Immanuel Kant's account of Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is usually criticised for reducing religion to little more than just ethics. Kant held a narrow view of reason. With a wider view, we can be more ambitious.

Roughly speaking, we can describe reason in three ways. The narrowest is to see it as pure analysis: logic and maths alone. Descartes tried to establish all truth on the basis of logical deduction from self-evident first premises. Nobody today thinks he succeeded.

The second is to combine analysis with empirical data. The evidence of our five senses gives us information. Francis Bacon believed that by accumulating data we can discover laws of nature; and off we go with science and technology.

This combination proved more fruitful, but it didn't explain everything. If these are the only ways of knowing things, then we cannot know anything about God. More troubling for scientists, it doesn't even justify the laws of nature. Science depends on proposing hypotheses and testing them. Scientific truths do not just appear out of collections of observations; they also depend on imagination, creativity and intuition, and have done ever since Archimedes jumped out of his bath. The combination of analysis and empirical evidence is still not enough to explain how reason works even in the sciences, let alone anywhere else.

Wider definitions of reason include other mental processes, like imagination, instinct and intuition. These need to be tested by logical analysis and empirical data, but they are still essential. When we understand reason in this wider sense, we can see it as creative. It enables us to reach out beyond the things we can observe and measure, to develop theories about things we cannot observe and measure. Astronomers do not look at dark matter and black holes; they consider dark matter and black holes the best explanation of the things they have looked at.

That's the key. By paying attention to what we can see, we develop and test theories about what we cannot see. We allow our imagination and our dreams in the night to generate ideas, and we test them. These processes which apply in the sciences also apply elsewhere. By observing that if you keep breaking your promises people won't trust you, we generate moral rules about keeping promises. By observing how most people think their lives have purpose and value, we develop theories about where purpose and value come from. By observing how human reason and the five senses seem to work well most of the time, we develop theories to explain why they work. And by reflecting on these and many other observations we generate theories about the world being created by some kind of intending mind.

Once we acknowledge the essential role reason has to play in matters of religion, it becomes possible to reaffirm that older function it had without fearing a return to religious conflict. Within that older understanding, religion is not a self-contained cultural phenomenon separated from all else and only concerned with God and the afterlife. Instead it offers a general account of the universe and human life, and thereby gives us a basis for judging how to live.

Religion understood like this has produced many different theories. Just as in science, by testing our theories we eliminate some of them and refine others. So for example the Manicheans explained the immense amount of suffering in the world by arguing that it has been made by an evil god, and our souls truly belong elsewhere with the good God. For those who accepted this belief it made sense to treat physical matter with disdain and have as little to do with it as possible. Christianity has traditionally taught that the world was created by a good God, and has therefore recommended more positive evaluations of it. Thus each religious tradition offers some explanation of the way things are, and each explanation recommends a particular kind of lifestyle.

In this way liberal theology makes it possible for religion to escape from the irrelevance by which it is being threatened, and return to offering an account of reality as a whole, a basis on which to understand how to make sense of life and live well.

Liberalism is a stronger faith, not weaker

I now turn to the accusation that liberalism produces a weaker religion, less committed to the central doctrines of the Christian faith. I believe the reverse is true.

This argument against liberals has a characteristic form. If we simplify into three categories, we might say that at one extreme conservatives hold a lot of religious beliefs strongly, and at the other atheists hold no religious beliefs. Liberals would be in between, holding a few religious beliefs, and not so strongly.

A great deal of religious debate indicates that this is the kind of mental picture opponents of liberals have. Whether we are arguing about women bishops or Sunday trading or abortion or whatever, what we hear from those who describe themselves as conservatives is that they are firm in their Christian belief and commitment, upholding what Christianity teaches in the face of secularism, while liberals on the other hand compromise with secular society and accept secular society's beliefs and moral standards. What's wrong with this mental picture?

Firstly, it is propositional. The assumption is that being a Christian is defined by believing a collection of statements. Perhaps this makes sense if you think getting to heaven after you die depends on whether you believe the right things; but many Christians, especially liberals, do not believe that.

Secondly, it treats these propositions as unchanging. The assumption is that we inherit the truths of faith from the past and hand them on to our descendants without alteration. But this is not how we treat anything else. If you are a student of biology, for example, learning the facts as unchanging truths may be acceptable at GCSE level but if you are going to retain an interest in it for the rest of your life you will want to know about new developments and how some of the things people believed 30 years ago have been refuted. It's the same for religion: historians tell us that what Christians believe has varied immensely through the ages.

Thirdly, it is counter-cultural. It assumes that Christian truth is quite separate from modern society and has nothing to learn from it. It expects every question to be judged not according to society's reasons, but according to a completely separate set of Christian criteria. This produces absurd results. To take one example, in the early 1990s global warming was high on the public agenda. A lot of Christians from conservative backgrounds were bothered about it, even though they had been taught that Christians don't accept secular standards, they stick to the Bible's standards. So they wrote books explaining that Christians should care for the environment not because of the scientific evidence, but because the Bible tells us to. Well: if that was the reason, why didn't anybody notice those environmental texts in the Bible before the scientific evidence came along? Those books invented an artificial separation between Christians and non-Christians. Come on, the real reason for their sudden conversion to environmental concern was the same as everyone else's, the scientific evidence.

I therefore believe that that mental picture, in which liberal Christians are halfway between conservatives and unbelievers, is unrealistic. It only seems right if you already have a very particular dogmatic understanding of Christianity.

So let's swap things round. At one extreme are the liberals, with a confident and informed faith, at the other are the people who don't believe anything, and in between are the opponents of liberalism, with a brittle, insecure faith, a faith which clings to the exact words it has inherited because it doesn't understand them too well.

Liberals expect their understanding to grow and develop. New events make us think of things in new ways. When our faith is both well informed and confident, we can respond to new challenges by using our Christian tradition, adding to it and perhaps changing it. Perhaps the leaders of Christianity were wrong about women ministers for all those centuries, just as they were wrong about slavery. For liberals to take these possibilities seriously, far from showing that our Christianity is weaker, shows on the contrary that it is stronger, able to respond creatively to new challenges and thereby strengthen the tradition we have inherited. Opponents may complain that as soon as you take a brick out the whole wall will collapse, but we reply that if the wall is that fragile it ought to be knocked down before it does any more damage.

Our liberalism needs defending

Liberal Theology - to bring peace or a sword? I have explained how it brings peace - by insisting that the rational tools God has given us for resolving our disagreements are to be used in matters of faith, as in all matters. But.

The liberalism I have described is nothing to do with 'anything goes'. It is not at all wishy-washy. It positively disagrees with the most common representations of Christianity in the newspapers, many churches, and all too many Primates' meetings. Here at MCU conferences we are used to hearing people saying 'I had my doubts about what my vicar teaches, but until I came here I thought I was the only one'.

Furthermore it matters. Not because holding the correct beliefs will give us a good afterlife, a matter which is better left to God's good judgement, but because it helps us understand about God, why God has made us, what God invites us to do and to refrain from doing, what values we should adopt and how therefore we should go about our daily lives.

How can we present our case more effectively? Recently we have heard opponents of women bishops complaining that Inclusive Church isn't at all inclusive because it doesn't include them. Interesting question: if you believe in inclusiveness, do you include the excluders? If you believe in toleration, do you tolerate the intolerant? In my experience most liberals are too quick to accept blame. Our first instinct is to acknowledge the sincerity of our critics. We need to do more. Liberalism, like all generous traditions, needs to defend itself against those who would abuse its generosity in order to undermine it. Even doves sometimes need to defend themselves.

Our first task is to make sure our case is heard more often and in more places. At the moment in most churches, in most of the church media, in most newspapers and television programmes, our voice is rarely heard at all.

The second is to make sure that when we are heard, we are not treated as an aberration from normal Christianity; that is to say, that we do not allow six-day creationists or anti-gay campaigners or people who think the church should never change, to get away with publicly presenting their views as though they represented normal Christianity. We need to insist that even when their views are Christian views, our views are every bit as much Christian, if not more so.

Thirdly, in matters of controversy we need to insist on using our methods, not just go along with our opponents' methods. We must insist that simply citing biblical texts or the 39 Articles or Lambeth Conference resolutions, as is being done so often these days by people who should know better, is no way to establish truth in matters of faith. Instead we must present our real reasons, offer rational arguments for them, and demand rational arguments from our opponents as a condition of taking them seriously.

If I am right, we have the bulk of modern western society on our side. The present age is ready to hear us, if only we can distinguish ourselves from those it definitely does not want to hear. It no longer believes that all religion is error, but it isn't sure which religions contain most truth. It believes life has purpose and value, but it isn't sure where they come from. It believes there is something or someone up there, but it doesn't know who. It isn't sure what it is looking for, though it is looking for something, and it's absolutely sure it isn't looking for archaic dogmas about a chap who lived 2,000 years ago or guilt trips about sex or excuses for discriminating against women.

Liberal theology has a positive message to offer: religious faith which is honest enough to admit that it doesn't have all the answers but committed enough to seek them; which conducts its mission not by threats of hell or emotional manipulation, but by honestly giving reasons, listening to others and trusting that truth will prevail; which defines itself not by how it disapproves of society but by what it offers to society, a way of exploring who made us, for what purpose, and how we can all respond to our calling.

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