Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

History of American Liberal Theology

The 3rd volume of Gary Dorrien’s trilogy, The Making of American Liberal Theology is now out. Gary J. Dorrien is one of the brightest historical theologians currently writing. He really knows modern theology, especially, but not only the American scene. For many years, this Episcopal priest taught and was chaplain at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, an American Baptist institution. Recently, he has become Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dorrien’s previous work has shown wide and sympathetic reading in overall Modern theology, the history of social Christianity, the dangers of Neo-Conservatism and American Imperialism. For an outsider, he has shown considerable depth of understanding of Evangelicalism, and Karl Barth and followers. People within those movements have praised Dorrien as someone who has understood them better than most outsiders.

But in interpreting American liberal theology, Dorrien is describing his own people. He is still critical of liberalism’s pitfalls and shortcomings as he sees them. But his passion makes it clear that Dorrien cares about the future of American liberal theology and wants it to thrive as a healthy tradition. Whether or not you share his commitments (I am an interested outsider here), Dorrien’s series is one of the best secondary studies. It will add much breadth and depth to your understanding of theological liberalism, especially in its American form. Unless one is willing to read as widely and thoroughly in the primary sources as Dorrien has, I believe this trilogy to be indispensable to serious students of theology and its interaction with public life. I would like to see someone of Dorrien’s talents do this kind of mapping for the U.K., Canada, Australia, Europe, and elsewhere–though in Asia & Africa the timeframes for indigenous theologizing would be much briefer.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the first two volumes and seen an excerpt from the third which has put it high on my Christmas list. I cannot wait.

Gary J. Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).

idem., The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003).

idem., The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950-2005 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006).

October 17, 2006 - Posted by | liberal theology, theology


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