Just What Is ‘Postliberal Theology? （何謂後自由神學？）
*Note before commens: I understand the Emory prof. as liberal pluralist. Being unfriendly to both post-liberals and to evangelicals, he still tries to attack the former by provoking the latter. In my critical notes I attempt all of his challenges (these challenges help to illustrate many elusive concepts, though) to post-liberal theology, being as sparing in terms as possible.
by James M. Gustafson
James M. Gustafson is Henry R. Luce Professor of Humanities and Comparative Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 24-31, l999, pp353-355. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation
and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
Reading a recent issue of the Christian Century finally provoked me to register a concern raised by other reviews and articles over many months. It would help me a great deal if the editors and writers would delineate, if not define, the "liberal" we are "post" (see especially "The making of a postliberal," by Anthony Robinson and Martin Copenhaver, October 14, 1998). On the basis of my reading I gather that the word "liberal" has now come to stand for whatever it is that various current authors wish to define themselves against. In midcentury "liberal theology" was what "neo-orthodoxy;" as it was called then, was against. Now, some authors who were earlier classed as "neo-orthodox" are sometimes cited as "liberal Protestants."
Some placement of the position claimed by postliberals would help clarify things. Since postliberal theology seems most interested in defining itself against what one
could call its left flank, it might be useful to learn whether it has a right flank against which it would also like to defend and define itself. How "orthodox" does postliberal theology
want to be? How biblicistic does it want to be? Is postliberal theology the same as (another. big term) Protestant evangelical theology? If it is not, how does it differ?
But, for the moment at least, postliberals are more concerned with the place they claim to have abandoned than they are with the place they may be headed. Unfortunately, concern does not always translate into clarity~ and the impressions that postliberals convey about what they have left behind are frequently less than satisfying. So what are the "liberal" forms of Christianity that now are "post"? Is there any consensus about the answer to this question among those who apply the label "postliberal" to others or use it to classify themselves? Who are the "liberal" theologians that now reside on the wrong side of the "post," and why are they called "liberal" rather than something else?
In my retirement I have been rereading a lot of Ernst Troeltsch, partly to commemorate my first study of his work under James Luther Adams 50 years ago. In my reflections about his and others’ works, it seems to me there are three questions that "postliberal" theologians and pastors need to answer clearly.
The big one is also Troeltsch’s main concern: Christianity’s relations to particular
historical and cultural contexts at the time of its origins and in the course of its development through the centuries. It is very easy in the "postmodern" (another loose term) period we are passing through to accept a radical historical relativism that qualifies all claims to truth. Indeed, historical relativism can be invoked as a solution to Christianity’s truth claims rather than being seen, as was the case for Troeltsch and some of us, as a major challenge to them. But if a philosophical justification is made for "postliberal" Christianity on the ground of historical relativism, are its proponents ready to accept the implications of that paradoxically universal claim—that is, that there are no ways to grade the better or worse, if not the truth or falsity, of historically relative claims? That there are no ways to judge that one version of "postliberal"
theology is better than another version?
- Comment: For this question, the epistemological relativism is there. But scientific judgment of religious claims is made phenomenologically possible—simply using the rule of phenomenological consistency/explanatory power. So it would be a value judgment still which postliberals can hold on to.
Pastors and theologians might find the radical historical particularity of their current
religious interests to be satisfying and even marketable. They and others want a particular identity defining the church or Christian beliefs over against whatever they choose to call the other—in the past it used to be called the "world." Certainly concern for the particular identity of
Christianity was one of the poles that Troeltsch and those of us influenced by him have to be concerned about. But why is Christianity’s particularity a concern? For sociological and/or psychological reasons? Or are "postliberal" theologians ready to make a stronger historical
claim, for example, that God chose to reveal God-self in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ? If they do not make that claim, they can be called "liberal" theologians in the eyes of most "orthodoxies." If they do make that claim, they are "orthodox" and should say so forthrightly. In my opinion Barth was straightforward: it was clear that he was claiming the universal significance of a unique particular historical event because God chose to be revealed in it.
- Comment: You are both right and wrong here. I would adhere to Barth’s claim without a doubt. Postliberals all do. Christianity’s particular concern is about Christ. JC is the divine revelation par excellence in human history— but postliberals bear in mind that this claim is not made in universal language but a covenant-specific/cultural-linguistic proposition. This awareness of the specific nature of the Christ event as revelation leads to a different apologetic/pastoral approach than those of evangelical conservatives. Though doctrine-wise, they are both orthodox.
The second question follows from the first: What are the implications of "postliberal" views of Christianity for the unavoidable consciousness of radical religious pluralism, not to mention the plurality of various functional equivalents to religions? Karl Rahner’s idea of "anonymous Christians" was one answer to that question, backed by a complex philosophical and Christian
theology. And if "postliberal" Christians accept Rahner’s main point about religious pluralism, even if they reject his terms and theological defense of it, can they still be so comfortable about their satisfaction with Christian particularity? If they do not accept something like Rahner’s
view, do they not have to proclaim the "superiority" of Christianity in relation to Judaism, Islam and other non-Christian religions? Troeltsch attempted such a claim—in ways that I strongly reject. If "postliberals" do not want to make that claim, they are certainly "liberal" in the eyes of many orthodoxies.
- Comment: We don’t make it a propositional truth claim; we attempt to evidence it through Christian moral witnesses. To be clearer, the testimonies of the churches fall short to their doctrinal claims. Christian particularity is never a comfortable thing to live with, because radical orthodoxy needs the companionship of radical orthopraxy (discipleship). We need right belief or we stand in danger of heresy, and we need right living or we stand in danger of hypocrisy.
- Comment: Also a post-liberal theology of religion will view the world religions from a revised Christological perspective: they are not ‘anonymous Xns’; they are potential Xns. They have gotten into contact with the universal logs but not the incarnated logos.
The third question is about how "postliberal" Christians relates the very reliable findings of various modern sciences to their theologies or religious practices and convictions. There are many dimensions to this question, and I can only be illustrative.
Since first reading George Lindbeck’s The Nature of the Doctrine, which has become a defining work for many who call themselves "postliberal," I have been struck by the penultimate sentence in which he commends "the ancient practice of absorbing the universe into the biblical world." I will remark on only two implications of this statement. One is practical. While it would take an empirical study to solve the issue, my hypothesis is that most persons in our culture–liberal, postliberal or what have you—interpret their experiences and "the universe" primarily in terms that are neither biblical nor theological. Various nonreligious interpretations of "anxiety" inform the lives of many people. Similarly, many people turn to a variety of nonbiblical interpretations to understand experiences of natural and moral evils.
- Comment: Following the article to this point I am 90% sure that the author has mistaken post-liberal theology as epistemologically rooted in Fideism, which stands for a complete refusal
to natural theology and being non-foundational.
In light of these interpretations, the practical theology of "postliberal" Christianity has to do one of two things: either a) show the falsity or at least inadequacy of nonbiblical explanations and interpretations of events.
- Comment: This we will do. But please not to expect any analytical/ontological/propositional apologetics from us but this is a narrative/ethical/rhetorical ones.
or b) become explicit about the relationships between the biblical theological interpretations
of the events and those which are not explicitly biblical. My hypothesis is that very few "postliberal": pastors, theologians, or laypeople use biblical symbols, analogies, metaphors or
explanations as their first order of discourse in dealing with life in society, history or nature.
- Comment: I’d say that the theological approach is never the first order analytical tools for
post-liberals in the chronological or sequential sense. We "appropriate" and appreciate the scientific discoveries in terms that they inform our sensual faculties. But non-biblical tools will be put to second order in the logical or eschatological sense that when the Christocentric worldview supervenes on the [compatible] materialistic/scientific/atomic accounts of the existential phenomena, its status of being chronologically secondary gives its methodological/epistemological precedence over what chronologically came first (cf. the emerging theory in evolution; also c.f., Gen 1:26 for human being’s supervention on the rest of the creation; Mat 19:30; Mk 10:31; Lk 13:30 for "some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.")
If these persons concur in this hypothesis, a daunting pastoral and theological task has to be
faced: and interpretation of life on an agential, personal, interpretation of God, they must (to return to previous themes) defend the unique particularity, adequacy and universality of biblical "revelation."
- Comment: since I do not agree your hypothesis, I should not address the wrongheaded (to me) challenges. I simply want to point out that 1) first, your self-contradicting account that postliberal “first-order analytical tools” has to be universal and particular is simply mistaken.!) 2) Given “supervention” is a continual process and practice, as ancient messianic prophecies were progressive until they came to the full realization in the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, theologization ("the ancient practice of absorbing the universe into the biblical world" in Lindbeck’s words) is the ongoing prophetic task which the Church has to undertake sans cesse.
Practical implications, of course, attend such a defense of biblical revelation. For many of those who adhere to such a view of what the Bible reveals—especially the revelation of the Deity as a loving person—particular interventions by God into events, from hurricanes to headaches, are warranted expectations of answers to prayers. Now, if "postliberal" Christians wish to qualify some of the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from very traditional views of divine personhood and activity, they are probably liberal in the eyes of many orthodoxies. If they do not wish to make such qualifications, can they claim to be differentiated from the virtually magical
expectations of divine interventions that one hears proclaimed by television evangelists and in "joys and concerns" expressed in Sunday services? If they do claim such a differentiation, on what grounds?
- Comment:I am afraid that I start to fall behind your thinking. First, I am not sure if it is your lack of awareness of the concept of ‘compatibility of truth claims’ (a loving and care God that answers to prayer does not mean we will always get things we asked in the way we want them) that leads you to a confusing sentence. Second, traditional views of divine personhood could not possibly be unorthodox in the eyes of orthodoxies, and we post-liberals neither ‘qualify’ Christian prayers in an unorthodox way nor simply think of our prayer as first-order mode of aeon that maintains the universe.
The wider issue is the scope of the context within which Christian life and thought are to be
seen, interpreted and understood. Again, Troeltsch’s concerns were on the mark. He was concerned with how Christianity would cope with ‘modernity," which meant coping with historical relativism, religious pluralism and the sciences. Whatever "postliberal" Christianity is, it has to face the realities not only of "modernity" but also of "postmodernity," and it needs to define itself against a right flank as well as a left.
"Postliberal" Christian thought and religious life might be simply an avoidance of the
questions, not answers to them, that a Troeltschian "liberal" Christianity asked. But then, how does its agenda differ from very traditional, very orthodox or Protestant evangelical views of the Christian faith? Those questions are still with us. If one wants only to avoid them, and not answer them, please — editors and authors in the Christian Century — be straightforward
- Comment: interesting. We need a definitive work on postliberalism that address unswervingly the challenges of both modernity and postmodernity.
Extended reading: Being postliberal: A response to James Gustafson.