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

Framing Moral Debates: The Work of George Lakoff for Progressives

Who is George Lakoff?  He is a Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley–a field of brain studies that concentrates on language development and how the brain processes language and ideas.  He has particularly pushed the centrality of metaphor for all human culture and the embodied nature of logic, even of mathematics.   Beginning in the 1990s, Lakoff began to apply his findings to the field of politics in the U.S. context. (I would be fascinated to see Lakoff’s views tested cross-culturally.  Would they hold up or need significant modification? What would  a Lakoff model–even modified–mean for other political cultures?  Considering how much of U.S. culture,  including our politics, bad and good, is exported [far more than our material goods are exported, sadly], these are not questions of idle curiosity.)

In his 1996 book, Moral Politics:  What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t, Lakoff argued that differences between self-identified political liberals and political conservatives are rooted in metaphors deriving from different family models.  Conservatives process  things through a “strict father” form of authoritarianism and heirarchical leadership.  Liberals process things through a “nurturing parent” view that is more egalitarian and empowering and trusts group processes.  Both of these lead to rival moral visions–and both moral visions have deep roots in the American story. Liberals began to lose badly to conservatives, Lakoff argued, when they concentrated all their energy, including their communication to the public, on particular policy nuts and bolts while conservatives concentrated on the large moral vision.  “Without a vision, the people perish” and Lakoff believes that the American people were choosing conservatives because they articulated a moral vision, even if a flawed one, because liberals/progressives were not articulating any alternative.  In 2001, this book was revised as Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.

To this initial work, Lakoff added the idea of “framing.”  Far too often, he claims, liberals and progressives trained in logic and traditional rhetoric (say, philosophers or lawyers?) believe they win politically by having stronger arguments.  Lakoff says that’s not how our brains work.  Using metaphors, we “frame” arguments in such a way as to bring up dominant images–images rooted in Strong Father or Nurturing Parent dynamics.  In Don’t Think of an Elephant:  Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (2004), Lakoff argues that far too often conservatives win because they successfully “frame” the debate in their terms and liberals and progressives end up playing on their turf.  Example: Re-labelling the estate tax as “the death tax” makes it seem as if a cruel, government bureacracy is taxing even someone’s death. Then, conservatives claim that such “death taxes” steal family farms and prevent people from being able to leave small businesses to their children. No amount of liberal logic or correction as to the facts wins, then. Progressives can point all they want to the fact that the estate tax only affects the upper 1% of the population–they’ve lost because of the framing.  People forget the particulars and remember the metaphors.  Lakoff suggests reframing this as the “anti-aristocracy tax” reminding people of the deep American belief in EARNED reward over inherited privilege–in a level playing field. 

Progressives did not learn enough from Lakoff to win in 2004.  Karl Rove helped George W. Bush frame the terms of the debate and John Kerry played and lost on those terms–however narrowly.  (Bill Clinton was successful in getting half-measures through on conservative terrain, but not in changing the terms of the debate that existed since Reagan.) But they began reading Lakoff in ’04 and learning from him.  Howard Dean, former VT Governor and (all too briefly) Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2004, became the Chair of the Democratic National Convention.  Much attention has rightly been placed on Dean’s “Fifty State Strategy” to think beyond single election cycles and rebuild the Democratic Party in all 50 states by organizing, recruiting candidates, etc–even in the deepest Republican territory knowing that one could win something–school boards, city council seats, etc. which could later pay off in Congressional seats, Senate seats, governorships and even presidential votes. (The 50 state strategy began to show success as early as 2006 and Barack Obama built on it in his own successful presidential run in 2008.) But less attention has been paid to the lessons that Dean learned from Lakoff.  Along with the DNC organizers, Dean traveled all 50 states doing door to door voter registation.  In doing so, he talked about the VALUES of the Democratic Party and framed them in ways that connected with ordinary people.  He also urged candidates to read Lakoff, talk about their values and frame their arguments for particular policies in value/vision terms–especially terms that did not play into conservative hands.

Lakoff’s latest work is The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st C. American Politics with an 18th C.  Brain.  Here he continues to argue that most liberals and progressives don’t know enough about brain theory and linguistics.  We argue as if we think that people process information in straight cognitive terms, people were thought to do in the 18th C. Enlightenment era.  But brain studies show differently that we are metaphor driven.  Further,  modern media communications (first radio and television, but now 24 hr. cable, the internet, youtube, cellphones, social networking systems like Facebook and MySpace, Twitter, etc.) reinforces this–taking us further from the 18th C. in terms of how we process information. And this is true even if we teach logic at a university, or are a NASA scientist, a Wall Street trader, etc., just as much as if we wait tables, drive 18-wheel trucks, or run a cash register. (There is a tendency of “knowledge elites”–a class I fall into, to think that they really do process everything according to formal logic and that only less educated people are more metaphor driven, and thus,  more susceptible to propaganda, etc.  Well, I have taught logic and critical thinking courses and believe that such skills are very important–but Lakoff is still right.)

What I, as a Christian trained in theology find fascinating about Lakoff’s work is that it meshes with much work in recent decades in hermeneutics, the study of interpreting texts (especially, but not solely, religious texts such as Scripture).  Here also the dominance of metaphor has been recognized increasingly.  And Lakoff’s work on “Strict Father” vs. “Nurturing Parent” deep metaphors, though rooted  in modern psychology, bears much in common with structuralist and post-structualist hermeneutical theory.  He gets people not only to pay attention to the “texts” of political speech/arguments but to “sub-texts” and “deep structures.”  And his work on framing/re-framing bears much in common with Ricoeur’s work on “clashes of narratives” between and within religious texts.  Even his advice on “reframing” debates has a familiar ring to anyone who has studied the Gospel stories of Jesus’ verbal clashes with rival groups (the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Herodians, the Temple heirarchs, etc.) or seen the Apostle Paul’s clashes with rivals (as described by Paul!) in his correspondence (Epistles) to early church communities.  Both Jesus and Paul are masters at turning the tables on their adversaries by reframing the debate(s)–in terms that appeal to shared beliefs and values of their audiences–in order to stretch, reshape, enlarge those beliefs and values.

Lakoff says (rightly in my view) that President Obama is a master of reframing debates in a progressive direction.  Since there has been a political shift of terrain, he doesn’t have to “triangulate” like Bill Clinton and win half measures on conservative ground.  (Remember in the ’90s how conservative Republicans constantly screamed that Clinton stole their ideas? He did–usually as a form of damage control, but sometimes to push progressive items as far as he could under conservative rubrics.  Bill Clinton is the ONLY president in modern times who actually shrank government, for instance.)  By contrast, Obama reframes progressive values as quintessentially AMERICAN values, usually using examples drawn from Republican presidents (Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, even Ronald Reagan) to advance a very progressive agenda.

Lakoff argues in a recent article, “Obama’s Code” that Obama is reframing debate in a way that disarms and defangs his conservative opposition.  In a post-speech article that is less theory-laden than Lakoff, a Daily Kos diarist (significantly calling himself/herself  “monkeybrainpolitics”!) gives a blow-by-blow account of why Obama’s speech was a conservative nightmare.  This doesn’t mean there is no room to criticize Obama from a progressive standpoint.  Paul Rosenberg argues for a partial-correction to Lakoff’s model at Open Left.  It is an argument that recognizes the varieties of progressivism. I tend to agree with the progressive pushback on Obama on keeping parts of Bush’s tools against terrorism that undermined civil liberties–he’s broken with the worst abuses, but not a clean break with all of them. (I know,  he’s only been in office a little over a month, but some of his continuities worry me. And politicians need movement activists to keep them honest.  Likewise, as I wrote yesterday, I want to see more done and more quickly on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and promoting peace and human rights globally.  I think we will see more, but I don’t believe in leader worship and I do believe in organized people power pushing for progressive policies–and Obama himself began as a community organizer doing just that.)

But this shouldn’t obscure the importance of either Lakoff’s work or Obama’s powerful rhetorical mastery as tools for advancing progressive moral visions.  Religious/spiritual progressives should pay just as much attention as political ones.  We are still shouted down on TV religious programs and radio programs. (There need to be more local radio programs like the one by Bruce Prescott in Oklahoma, “Religious Talkr,” a live-talk religious program hosted by a “mainstream Baptist” that is a clear alternative to the talkshows of the Religious Right.  You can get Bruce’s podcasts if you don’t live in the range of his radio signal!  Likewise, more local cable TV networks need to have programs like Every Church a Peace Church TV on the Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasting network. Podcasts available here.)  But we can compete and give a compelling alternative moral/spiritual vision.  That ability to give an alternative vision out where people can see and hear it is important for the health of the church as well as for the future of progressive politics.

The work of George Lakoff can be important in the kinds of conversations religious/spiritual progressives need to have about how to “frame” our vision and values in ways that win wider acceptance.

March 1, 2009 Posted by | convictions, liberal theology, progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, U.S. politics | 5 Comments

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Walter Rauschenbusch

rauschenbuschAfter a brief introductory chapter by editors Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen, Shapers begins with a 3-chapter section on “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” which profiles Walter Rauschenbusch (most famous theologian of the Social Gospel), Muriel Lester  (1855-1968)(British Baptist pastor, social worker, influential writer on contemplative spirituality, & globetrotting peacemaker), and Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) (African American Baptist pioneer in education and social uplift in the Booker T. Washington tradition).  Each of these pioneering 20th C. shapers of Baptist social ethics was born in the late 19th C., in the wake of the U.S. Civil War (and the Crimean and Anglo-Boer wars), the Industrial Revolution and its resulting social dislocations, the beginnings of global resistance to Euro-American colonial imperialism, the mechanization of wars, the first international peace movement since pre-Constantinian Christianity, the birth of socialist politics (in both Marxist and non-Marxist forms), the rise of global movements of organized labor, and the international movement for women’s suffrage.  This is the matrix which gave rise to the Social Gospel and each of our 3 profiled pioneers can be seen as representing different facets of the Social Gospel. (A more complete picture of this foundation-era would have included chapters on John Clifford (1836-1923), Shailer Matthews (1863-1941), and J. B. Weatherspoon (1886-1964), pioneers all).

The chapter on Rauschenbusch is written by Paul A. Lewis, a friend of mine–and a closer friend of my fellow Baptist peace blogger, Mikeal Broadway who blogs at Earth as it is in Heaven, a blog my Gentle Readers should frequent.  Lewis is part of that generation (mine) of Southern Baptists who found themselves in the midst of seminary (in his case, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco) during the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC (1979-1994) and who sought a different way of being Baptist–which included pursuing advanced theological education in ecumenical, non-Southern Baptist, circles. Paul earned a Th.M. at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, which is related to the Presbyterian Church, USA, studying with Douglass Otatti whose “Reforming Protestantism” flows more or less directly from Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel tradition. Then Paul completed a Ph.D. at the United Methodist related Duke University, studying with Stanley Hauerwas–a profound critic of that tradition. (Paul used to say that he was a “misplaced liberal among the Hauerwasian communitarians.”) Today, he is Associate Professor of  Christian Ethics in the Roberts Department of Christianity, College of Liberal Arts, Mercer University, Macon, GA–a “moderate” Baptist institution related to the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship–the more centrist of the two breakaway groups from the SBC. (I belong to the smaller, more liberal, breakaway group, the Alliance of Baptists.)

The chapter  begins with a biographical sketch of Rauschenbusch, the son of German immigrants whose father, August Rauschenbusch was a pietistic Lutheran missionary pastor who converted to Baptist views and helped to found the ethnic German Baptist Convention (today the North American Baptist Conference in the U.S. and Canada). Walter was born in Rochester, NY at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War and would die in the midst of World War I. His life spanned the post-bellum “Gilded Age” of U.S. Industrial Revolution extremes of wealth and poverty–which largely paralleled the contemporary Victorian era of the U.K. with it Dickensonian extremes.  His father was a professor in the German Dept. of the (then-new) Rochester Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School). 

Young Walter imbibed his parents warm pietistic faith, but was also disturbed by the bad state of their marriage–which others found “shocking.” (Victorian-era accounts are so veiled that it is difficult to tell, but might this marriage have even been abusive?) He desired to become a minister, even a missionary.  He was partially educated in Germany at a conservative Gymnasium (equivalent in the U.S. to a very rigorous high school, plus the first year or so of university) before earning an A.B. at the University of Rochester and his seminary degree at Rochester Theological Seminary.  But Walter’s dream of being a Baptist foreign missionary was denied by the Northern Baptist Foreign Missionary Society (today, the Board of International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, USA). The officers of the Foreign Missionary Society found problems with Rauschenbusch’s views on the atonement–presumably that it deviated from the then-standard doctrine of “penal substitution” which evolved from Anselm to Calvin to the rigid and bloody forms of Reformed Orthodoxy.

Dismayed, Rauschenbusch became a pastor. He had been a student pastor at a German-language Baptist congregation in Louisville, KY during his seminary days, but now became pastor of Second Baptist Church at the edge of “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Tenderloin” slums in New York City.  The poverty and related problems of his congregation convinced Rauschenbusch that simply preaching about personal salvation was insufficient.  He became involved in works for social justice, calling himself a socialist (though never joining any socialist party) and joining with other socially active ministers in the “Brotherhood of the Kingdom.” He found himself part of the Victorian-era “Social Gospel” movement which paralleled the Progressive Era in U.S. politics.

The Social Gospel (which Rauschenbusch did not found), similar to movements of “Social Christianity” in the UK and Europe, connected Christian faith to Progressive or even democratic socialist politics. It firmly opposed the ideologies of “Social Darwinism” by which the Robber Baron industrial millionaires of the Gilded Age justified the peonage, child labor, dangerous working conditions, union-busting, and extremes of wealth and poverty.  Social Gospel ministers and theologians claimed that society, not just individuals, needed to be redeemed–and took on the prevailing view that saved individuals would automatically save societies. 

Rauschenbusch grew too deaf to continue serving his congregation adequately, so, after a European sabbatical in which he studied liberal theologies and biblical studies and the new sciences of sociology, took a position at his alma mater, Rochester Theological Seminary.  First, he taught a variety of courses in the German Department and, then, became Professor of Church History for the seminary as a whole.  From this position, Rauschenbusch became the major theologian of the Social Gospel. His work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) was the best selling religious book in the English language for 5 years. Sadly, re-reading it today, far too much of it seems horribly contemporary.

Rauschenbusch wrote many other works, including Prayers for the Social Awakening (many of which wound up in the hymnals and liturgies of mainstream Protestantism),  Christianizing the Social Order (his most Constantinian-sounding title, but Rauschenbusch was not proposing any theocracy–but a “salt and light” penetration of institutions that would remake them away from greed, corruption, and oppression to mutual sharing and the common good), and his masterpiece, A Theology for the Social Gospel.

Lewis analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Rauschenbusch for Baptist social ethics well.  He notes that MANY of the criticisms launched at Rauschenbusch are simply wrong–however rightly they may characterize others in the Social Gospel movement. Far from “minimizing sin,” Rauschenbusch had several chapters on sin in A Theology, noting the many personal and social dimensions.  He described the super-personal dimensions of institutional evil in ways that anticipated the later biblical studies of the “Principalities and Powers,” such as in the work of Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, or Walter Wink.

Nor is it true that Rauschenbusch downplayed the atonement, although he did try to rethink it in ways that went beyond the objective/subjective fight that traces back to Anselm vs. Abelard.

Also, Lewis shows that the frequent criticism that the Social Gospel diluted the Christian message of personal salvation, to whatever degree it may be true of others, is certainly false when applied to Rauschenbusch.  His deep personal faith was well known and found literary expression.  He composed hymns and prayers.  He viewed his work as a kind of evangelism. And he knew that any social movement for justice would lack roots without a deep spiritual grounding–which he continued to find in the gospel, especially in the person and work of Jesus.

Rauschenbusch was a strong Baptist believer in liberty of conscience, religious liberty, and church-state separation, but NOT in apolitical, socially inactive church. His churches worked to address social evil and to influence policies–to stem alcoholism, prevent child labor, reform industry, work for economic justice, end poverty.  Toward the end of his life, in the wake of WWI, Rauschenbusch, who previously had given little thought to the gospel’s implications for war and peace, became a pacifist.  (The Social Gospel split at this point:  Parts of it were involved in the beginnings of a Christian pacifism that went beyond the traditional peace churches, and joined with the international peace movement.  Other parts of the Social Gospel movement justified WWI in terms of a “crusade for democracy” and would have sounded strangely like the U.S. evangelical cheerleaders of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism.” Rauschenbusch went with the peacemaking stream.)

Lewis does a nice job also of showing some of Rauschenbusch’s blind spots and weaknesses. Like much of the rest of the Social Gospel leaders, Rauschenbusch shared the Victorian-era view of women and the family.  Indeed, his writings never mention the rising feminist/suffragist movement that was prominent in his lifetime–and he died 3 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920) enfranchised women throughout the U.S. (But he would have seen Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, which shared much of the values of the Social Gospel, become the first national political party in the U.S. to adopt a women’s suffrage plank in their national platform in 1916). In fact, one giant motivator in Rauschenbusch’s determination that working men receive adequate pay and benefits was to make it unnecessary for wives and children to work. And he held to traditional views of male leadership in the family–though rebelling against the strict authoritarianism of his father’s example.  In this, he was simply a man of his time.

Similarly, Rauschenbusch held very negative views of Roman Catholics–as did most pre-Vatican II Protestants.  He assumed that Catholicism was the enemy of democracy and a heresy and threat to progress.  No matter how conservative or liberal, one would have been hard pressed to find Protestants with more charitable (or even accurate) views of Catholicism before the 1960s. To Protestants prior to the breakthrough with Pope John XXIII, Catholicism was a global superstition that was anti-science, anti-democracy, and firmly on the side of the wealthy against the poor.

Much of the Social Gospel was incredibly racist.  Here, also, Rauschenbusch was not guiltless. But Lewis fails to show how much better Rauschenbusch did here than many Social Gospel contemporaries. He held far too many sterotypes of African-Americans and other racial/ethnic minorities, but he did NOT share the enthusiasm for eugenics or the Social Darwinistic assumptions that “the white race” would spread while other races would shrivel and die out.  Rauschenbusch sometimes spoke out against this and opposed segregation. However, like most of the Northern Social Gospel advocates, racial issues were not on his “front burner” for good or ill. Those of his students who took the Social Gospel South (where it survived WWI and the Niebuhrian and Neo-Orthodox reaction), by contrast, made racial justice and reconciliation the number one moral issue of their lives.

Lewis also judges the Social Gospel for its supposed failure to reproduce itself, noting that while all of Rauschenbusch’s children shared his politics, none of them shared his faith.  This seems to me to be overly harsh. I have known many a fundamentalist evangelist whose children rebelled against the faith of their upbringing. Rebellion, deciding to be one’s own person, is part of the movement of one generation to another.  Most persons of faith worry that their children might not share their convictions and most parents struggle to understand the choices of their adult offspring, no matter the outcome or how close they remain.  The failure of Rauschenbusch’s children to become Christians could have much to do with WWI, which was preached as a “crusade.” Post-war periods usually show a decline in faith–as even the U.S. is experiencing now. Exposure of corruption in church and state leads to periods of disillusionment–it would have been strange if Rauschenbusch’s family had escaped the skepticism which set in everywhere after WWI.

And Lewis fails to note that Paul Rauschenbusch, Walter’s great grandson, is himself an American Baptist minister who is helping a new generation recover the strengths of the Social Gospel. See his updated edition of his great-father’s classic, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the ChurchPaul Rauschenbusch is Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University and a contributing editor to Beliefnet.com .  What one generation rejects is often rediscovered by another–and that is as true of the Social Gospel as of any other tradition. 

Lewis quotes H. Richard Niebuhr about F.D.R. Schleiermacher and applies this to later generations’ dismissive views of Rauschenbusch–and since I so wholeheartedly agree, I will let this quote close my post as it does Lewis’ chapter. 

Today, an ungrateful generation of theologians, which owes far more to its predecessors than it acknowledges, delights in pointing out the evil which lives after [Rauschenbusch], while it inters the good with his bones.

December 21, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church history, ethics, heroes, liberal theology, peace, politics, Religious Social Criticism, salvation | 5 Comments

Search Committee Unanimously Nominates Braxton to Succeed Forbes at Riverside Church

I am not very fond of mega-churches as a phenomenon.  I belong to a small church on purpose: It is better able to be community for the members, better able to resist the heresy of hyper-individualized notions of salvation, etc.  And, most mega-churches are very rightwing in theology and politics. (Even if not, they have to have small groups that become the de facto church-within-the-church for members, which is less than ideal from my view.)

Nevertheless, one mega-church that I have long admired for its strong stands for peace and justice in its 75 year history is Riverside Church in the City of New York.  An ecumenical congregation which grew out of Park Avenue Baptist Church, NYC, Riverside was the ecumenical and liberal dream of Baptist pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), who was Senior Minister from 1925 to 1946.  Riverside was a center of the Social Gospel and the struggle for Civil Rights as well as opposition to the Vietnam War. (Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others helped launch Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam at Riverside Church on 04 April 1967 when King gave his, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech–one year to the day before he was assassinated.) Riverside has also led in opposing both wars with Iraq and has been strong on immigrants rights, women’s rights, changing U.S. policy in Central and South America and much else.  There has long been a very strong connection between Riverside and the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary, just across the street.

Riverside Church is  a church where membership is open to Christians of all denominations and the ministerial staff comes from many theological traditions.  The congregation is officially affiliated with two denominations, the American Baptist Churches, USA and the United Church of Christ.  Last year, at 71, Dr. James Forbes, Jr. retired as Senior Minister of Riverside Church. He had also served as Fosdick Professor of Homiletics at Union Seminary. Dr. Forbes, an American Baptist minister with a black Pentecostal background, had been the first African-American Senior Minister.  Some members had accused him of not concentrating enough on the church’s peace and justice heritage. Others had accused him of attracting more African-Americans and Latino/as at the expense of white members–and it is true that when I last visited Riverside it had moved from a white church with a black pastor to a more thoroughly multi-ethnic congregation. No doubt, such changes involved adjustments that were culturally painful.

Now the search committee has unanimously recommended Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton as the next Senior Pastor. The congregation has yet to confirm the selection. Braxton currently teaches New Testament and Homiletics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School (and Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion) and previously taught at Wake Forest University Divinity School. The son of a Baptist minister and an ordained National Baptist minister, Braxton had been Senior Pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, MD while finishing his Ph.D. in NT at Emory University. He had also studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.  He is the author of three books and is on the editorial board of The African American Pulpit.

Married to the former Lazetta Rainey, the Braxtons are the proud parents of Karis, a 2 year old daughter.

If elected by the congregation, Braxton, who is 39, is young enough to follow in the tradition of long-serving Senior Ministers at Riverside. (There have only been 5 Senior Ministers to date in Riverside’s history: Harry Emerson Fosdick, Robert McCracken (a Scottish Baptist who had taught theology in Canada), Ernest T. Campbell, William Sloan Coffin, Jr. (a United Church of Christ minister and former chaplain of Yale University), and James Forbes, Jr.) He would be the 2nd African-American Senior Minister in a row and would complement Forbes’ excellence in preaching with a more exegetical style as a biblical scholar.  His experience in ecumenical ministry and his Baptist roots would keep Riverside connected to both parts of its history.

Thanks to Melissa Rogers for this news. (Note: Melissa is an attorney specializing in church-state matters. Previously she worked for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty and now is Visiting Professor of Religion and Public Policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School–she is a former colleague of Dr. Braxton’s.  At WFU, Melissa founded and heads the Center for Religion and Public Affairs. She runs the best blog on church-state issues in the U.S. context available.)

I would never give advice to another congregation on whom to call for any ministry position. I trust they will follow the leading of God’s Spirit. But, if the congregation follows the recommendation of the Search Committee, I join others in offering my congratulations to Riverside and to Dr. Braxton. I think they will be a good match. Alas, I cannot think this can be anything other than bad news for Vanderbilt, which, like WFU beforehand, will lose the talents and gifts that Braxton brought to the school.

UPDATE: Riverside’s website confirms the Search Committee’s unanimous selection.  Dr. Braxton is now scheduled to deliver a guest sermon at Riverside on 10 September and the congregation will vote on his call on 14 September.

August 4, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church, liberal theology | 5 Comments

Romans 13

For far too much of Christian history, the majority of the Church universal has interpreted Romans 13 as a blueprint for social and political conformity–even blind obedience to the governing authorities.  The worst example of this kind of interpretation was when the German churches used Romans 13 to counsel obedience to the Hitler regime.  Although the majority of biblical scholars have long since rejected this kind of reading of the text, it is still quite popular in preaching, especially, but not solely in North American Christianity.

Thom Stark has done a brilliant expose of the fallacies of this kind of interpretation and an exposition of alternative readings.  Here is the index to his entire series on his blog, previously called Semper Reformanda, now Jesus Politics. (This reminds me that I need to clean up and update my blog-roll. If you’d like me to link to your site, let me know. )

August 3, 2008 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, blogs, liberal theology, theology | 5 Comments

Baptist Peace Churches #2

Continuing my series of profiles on Baptist congregations working strong for peace with justice. (This is NOT a post on some other topic, like policing or my politics, etc. Commenters are urged to stay on topic. If you want to discuss something else, invite me to be a part of that conversation on YOUR blog or make such comments whenever I do post on your topic. Continued attempts to hijack threads for personal agendas will result in certain commenters being banned from this site and all their comments removed.)

Since last time, I profiled a 200 year old congregation in U.S. North, this time I am shifting geographically and culturally to a much younger congregation, Covenant Church in HOUSTON, TEXAS. 

Describing itself as “an ecumenical, liberal Baptist congregation,” Covenant Church was founded in 1965, growing out of the ferment of two then-current movements: the civil rights movement and the movement for church renewal (the latter led to such phenomena across North America as the coffee house movement, emphasis on small groups in discipleship formation, team ministries, liturgical renewal–including the discovery of traditional liturgies of the church by “low church” traditions and newer forms of worship, more lay leadership, the house church phenomenon, etc.  Many of these emphases are finding renewed emphasis again in the “emergent church” movement, although descriptions and definitions of “emerging” remain too vague for me to tell whether or not I support or identify with this phenomenon.)

Covenant Church began as a Southern Baptist congregation, although it no longer has any ties to the SBC.  When a progressive Southern Baptist congregation in the Houston area retreated from its commitment to progressive theology and social action in 1965 by hiring a very conservative minister, 60 members withdrew and formed Covenant Church from an informal Bible study group.  Soon the Bible study group decided to form a congregation based on certain principles:

  • Individual freedom and responsibility to read and interpret scripture (priesthood of the believer)
  • Congregational autonomy
  • Integrity of church membership (a spiritual commitment, not a social obligation)
  • Intentionality in the modes of worship, education and mission
  • An appreciation of the rituals and liturgy of many traditions
  • An understanding that the Word can come from our sacred stories as well as literature and art and personal experience
  • A reunion of the sacred and the secular
  • A separation of church and state
  • A respect for all people, without regard for labels and categories used to divide

As the Southern Baptist Convention became ever more fundamentalist in theology, renounced historic commitments to core Baptist principles in the 1980s and ’90s (during “the Controversy” in the SBC), became every more patriarchal and sexist, Covenant Church first added an affiliation with the Alliance of Baptists and then dropped all ties with the SBC.  Today, they remain affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and also with the American Baptist Churches, USA

Worship at Covenant Church is formal and the “work of the people.” Laity are involved in every aspect of planning, leading, and participation in the worship of the church and every other aspect of church life.

For 35 years, out of a desire to use space and resources responsibly, Covenant Church had no buildings or “campus” of its own, but shared the facilities of others: St. John the Divine, Bethany Christian, St. Stephen Episcopal, and Bellaire Christian.  In 2000, after considerable debate, Covenant’s members decided that their mission could best be served with a permanent address and a worship and meeting space designed to their needs, with an emphasis on the arts and available for others to share.  So, now Covenant Church is located at 4949 Caroline, Houston, TX 77004.  They are on a summer schedule of worship at 10:30 a.m.

Covenant further describes itself in this way:

“Covenant Church affirms the sanctity, dignity, and equality of human beings and the value of all life in the universe. We welcome persons of all racial and ethnic heritages, all sexual orientations, and all faith perspectives to our Christian community. We stand for each individual’s right to worship God and to respond to God’s call to ministry in his or her own understanding of God’s all-encompassing love.

We value a holistic approach to faith and seek to worship in ways that are intellectually credible, emotionally stimulating, spiritually engaging and contemporarily relevant.

We value music, art, and ritual to express what we cannot ever fully say.

We value participation so that we might hear many approaches to our shared faith. ”

Since it is fully inclusive of GLBT Christians, Covenant is a member congregation of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), the network that strives for equality in Baptist life for those persons with same-sex sexual orientation or whose gender identity does not conform with their biological makeup (transgendered persons feel “trapped in the wrong body” unless they have had sex reassignment surgery).  Consistent with this commitment, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has a chapter that meets at Covenant Church and Covenant Church regularly participates in the Houston area Gay Pride parade, as it did most recently on 28 June 2008.

Among the hands on missions that Covenant Church participates in locally in Houston are:

  • Building houses with and for the poor with Habitat for Humanity.
  • A prisoner correspondence program.
  • Omega House (A ministry to AIDS victims)
  • The back-to-school effort of the Christian Community Service Center to equip poor children with the school materials they will need (since government budgets for education no longer include such).
  • CCSC Jingle Bell Express to help the poor celebrate Christmas
  • Hospitality Apartments for the homeless
  • Thomas Street Health Center (meal assistance program)

Covenant’s broader mission budget is designed not just to meet the immediate needs of poor people, but to transform the social structures designed to keep them poor. To quote the people of Covenant Church again:

In one of the richest states in the richest country on earth, we believe that having hundreds of thousands of people who are hungry, poorly educated and unable to get adequate medical care is, not to put too fine a point on it, sinful.

Accordingly, their mission budget includes support for the Alliance of Baptists Bridges of Hope mission offering, American Baptists’ International Ministries and the ABCUSA Refugee Program.  It includes support for Africorps–helping students at the University of Texas travel to Ghana for hands on work in Public Health, support for the Americare program in Sudan, Health Volunteers Overseas’ project in Vietnam, Heifer Project International (a project in subsistence farming which began after World War II by the Church of the Brethren, a historic peace denomination), the visual clinic project in Tampico, Mexico, and support for Oxfam International.

Other missions priorities for Covenant Church include the Houston Area Women’s Shelter, the peer-to-peer education project of the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI), Developments in Literacy in Pakistan, and a project for the education of indigenous (“Indian”) children in Belize.  To support human rights around the world and here at home, Covenant Church gives money and time to the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, the American Friends Service Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State,   the Houston Public Defender’s Office, the Center for Healing Racism, and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Covenant Church is a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and I sometimes meet Covenant Church members at the BPFNA’s annual summer “peace camp.”

As befits a congregation dedicated to lay leadership and every member ministry, I have stressed the history and work of the whole congregation before mentioning its ministerial leadership.

Since 2002, Covenant Church has been led by their pastor, Rev. Jeremy Rutledge. And, since I promote non-fundamentalist Baptist bloggers (no one needs to promote the fundamentalist Baptist bloggers–when I began blogging in 2005, they dominated Baptist presence on the web), I will link to Jeremy’s blog, here. Called “Houston Kahu,” it represents his liberal religious outlook, his location in Houston, and his roots in Hawai’i. He is a graduate of Baylor University (the largest Baptist university in the world, though far from the oldest) in Waco, TX and earned his Master of Divinity from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Richmond, VA. (This seminary was founded by the Alliance of Baptists in 1986 as an alternative to the increasing fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist seminaries. Today, BTSR is primarily funded and related to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.) He has Clinical Pastoral Education certification from Houston and has done additional study at Wadham College (Oxford University), the Vancouver School of Theology, with the community of engaged Buddhists in France led by the exiled Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (whom Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967). Jeremy is a Doctorate of Ministry (D.Min.) student at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago, IL. 

In 2006, Covenant Church welcomed its first Associate Minister, Laura Mayo. Laura is a graduate of Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, TN (a historic Baptist liberal arts college with a liberal tradition) and earned her M.Div. at Wake Forest University Divinity School, an ecumenical, university-based, divinity school in the historic Baptist tradition. She completed her Clinical Pastoral Education at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has done additional study at Regent’s Park College (Oxford University–this is a Permanent Private Hall at Oxford that both offers a liberal arts education and is a theological seminary for the Baptist Union of Great Britain) and has been awarded an Advanced Bereavement Facilitator Certification from the American Academy of Bereavement.

Fran Avera has been Minister of Music at Covenant Church since October 1969. She served as Minister of Music at University Baptist Church, Austin for 10 years.  She is a graduate of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ (now part of Rider University), with Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees.  Covenant Church ordained her to the gospel ministry in 1980. 

Covenant Church has a labyrinth on the grounds that can be used for contemplation and prayer.  Those who consider membership are called Inquirers (but a spirit of inquiry pervades all) and asked to complete a 6-8 week orientation class. Membership is open to all persons who affirm the loving presence of God, the life and teachings of Jesus, and the revealed Spirit through the ages.  Covenant is part of that Baptist tradition (a minority in North America, but larger in Britain and dating at least to John Bunyan) which, while Baptizing only believers (adults and those old enough to profess informed faith personally and make personal commitments to be disciples of Jesus), not infants, does not insist on “rebaptism” for those who come from pedobaptist traditions and find their infant christenings sufficient.  The Table of the Lord at Covenant is open to all.

July 3, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church, liberal theology, peacemaking | 11 Comments

Brief Thoughts on Marcus Borg

borg.jpgMarcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, is one of the most prolific and engaging scholars of the “historical Jesus.” As he has described in several places, he grew up in a traditional conservative Lutheran household, became skeptical of faith in adolescence and college, but slowly returned to a (less traditional, but very lively) Christian faith slowly as an adult.  He is now married to an Episcopal priest and is one of the most reasonable and helpful members of the “Jesus Seminar.” (The Jesus Seminar, part of the Westar Institute, bills itself as a consensus of NT scholarship, but it is no such thing. It’s methods and conclusions are regularly ridiculed at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and, outside of the U.S., it is the butt of numerous jokes.  Except for Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and one or two others, few of the Jesus Seminar members are considered heavyweights in historical Jesus research. But the Seminar does manage to popularize itself with the media and give the average layperson the mistaken idea that its publications are worth the paper they are printed on, but they aren’t.)

I have elsewhere called Borg one of my favorite theological liberals. Unlike most of his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar, I find much of his work helpful.  I first encountered him through his book, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus (1984, rev. ed., 1992) and again in Jesus: A New Vision (1987).  In my view, these are the best of Borg’s many writings on Jesus.  They contain many helpful ideas that I believe are on target: 1) Borg’s understanding of the conflict between Jesus (and his movement) and the Pharisees as a conflict between rival Jewish renewal movements and, thus, a conflict within 1st C. Judaism instead of a rejection of Judaism.  2) Borg’s belief that Jesus was closer in outlook to the Pharisees than to other rival parties within Palestinian Judaism. (Anyone who has seen siblings feud understands the dynamics involved. The further away from someone’s viewpoint, the more another view can be ignored. But one is often infuriated by folks one thinks right on many things, but dead wrong on others. –Aside to Jonathan Marlowe: This also explains my love/hate relationship with Stanley Hauerwas.) 3) Borg’s contrast of the Pharisees’ “politics of holiness” (or “purity”) with Jesus’ “politics of compassion” seems almost exactly right, although I would not say that Jesus was unconcerned with holiness, but rather that he redefined it in terms of justice and compassion. 4) The importance that Borg places on Jesus’ table fellowship. 5) Borg’s recognition (with many others) that Jesus, though nonviolent, was a real threat to both the Romans, their client rulers in Palestine, and the temple elites. This nonviolent threat to the established order was the motive for Jesus’ execution.

However, I also have many differences with Borg’s approach to Jesus.  1) His attempt to have a non-eschatological Jesus simply will not work.  “Kingdom of God” is clearly eschatological, even apocalyptic, language and if we know ANYTHING about the historical Jesus at all, it is that the Kingdom of God was central to his message.  2) Although recognizing some prophetic elements in Jesus, Borg downplays this and sees Jesus far too much with the Wisdom traditions in Israel. (For very different reasons from Borg and each other, Ben Witherington and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza are both mistaken about this, too.) In my view, all Jesus borrowed from the sages was the form of his teachings, while the content of his message was far closer to that of the prophets.  The Sages, as exemplified especially in Proverbs, were far too accepting of a stratified status quo for the social sphere, but Jesus shares the prophets’ hunger for social and economic justice.  3) N.T. Wright and others go too far, I think, in dismissing all value from Borg’s attempt to see Jesus in cross-cultural perspective, first in terms of other teachers in the Mediterranean world, but also in comparison with other figures in world religions. I have, for instance, found some real insights in Borg’s Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (1997).  But where Wright (and others) are right is that Borg jumps to such cross-cultural work too soon, without first making sure he has completely understood Jesus as a figure within 1st C. Palestinian Judaism.  Borg (and his fans) will protest this, saying rightly, that he insists that Jesus is thoroughly Jewish. But, frankly, Borg’s Jesus (unlike the various–and not entirely compatible–reconstructions of Wright, E. P. Sanders, Richard Horsley, John P. Meier, Brad Young, and Bill Herzog) just doesn’t seem all that Jewish. If one is only comparing Borg’s Jesus with that of much of the Jesus Seminar, then, yes, he emphasizes Jesus’ Jewishness. But, if one is really trying to fit Jesus firmly into 1st C. Palestinian Judaism, then Borg’s Jesus just doesn’t quite fit.

I have more problems with Borg as a theologian. This puts me in a minority in my local church, I think. My pastor is very taken with Borg’s The Heart of Christianity.  There are helpful insights there and in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The God We Never Knew.  But ultimately, I have a higher Christology, a more objective view of the atonement (although my view is more with the Christus Victor than substitutionary tradition), and a bodily resurrection.

April 1, 2007 Posted by | Bible, liberal theology, New Testament | 18 Comments

Jesus is a WHAT??

I first read the following story in seminary in the ’80s.:

They don’t call Holland “the Low Countries” for nothing. Flooding is a regular problem. One year things were particulary bad. On a certain Sunday morning in Amsterdam, the police knocked on the parsonage of a Christian minister very early. “The river is rising,” they said, “And your church is directly in the path. Rouse your flock and get them to start filling sandbags to shore up the levees if you don’t want to be swept away.”

Good advice, no? Well this was a fundamentalist church which was focused on strict obedience to the LAW OF GOD as they understood it. The pastor couldn’t decide whether it was moral to break the Sabbath and do WORK even to keep the church from being swept away. So, he convened an emergency early meeting of the church council. The council had no doubts: God is Sovereign and omnipotent and can easily save the church by miracle–if that is the Divine Will. The job of the church was to hold worship as normal and either live or die to God’s glory–not sin by breaking the Sabbath.

The pastor was a little squeamish about this conclusion. He asked, “Did not even Jesus break the Sabbath laws from time to time? Did Jesus not say the Sabbath was made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath?” An old deacon immediately got up and said, “Pastor, I’m glad you mentioned that. It allows me to bring up something that has troubled me for some time. I cannot shake the feeling that our Lord Jesus is just a little bit liberal.”

Told originally by NT scholar Ernst Käsemann in Der Ruf der Freiheit (Mohr, 1968). Published in English as Jesus Means Freedom (Fortress, 1969), p. 16.

October 26, 2006 Posted by | humor, Jesus, liberal theology | 7 Comments

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 | 2 Comments

"My Favorite Liberals": My Essential Dialogue Partners Among Theological Liberals

I must be a glutton for punishment. No sooner do I reassure many evangelical readers of this blog that I am “born again” with testimony of my conversion and faith in Christ, than I write about favorite liberals. What am I thinking? Actually, though, I had been working on this post for some time and, YES, I am planning a companion piece on essential dialogue partners among the Conservative Evangelicals (caps important).

First, let me make two things clear: 1) I do NOT use the term “liberal” in theology to refer to all people who reject biblical ‘inerrancy’ (as I do). “Liberal” theologians, while they have many disagreements, are united in an anthropological starting point (i.e., they begin with some form of general human experience) and in some form of a “method of correlation” (Tillich) between theology and the Modern (Enlightenment and after) world. 2) I do not consider myself a “liberal” since I begin with God’s revelation in Christ through the biblical witness and since, at most, I believe only ad hoc correlations are possible.

The big influences on me theologically are neither “liberal,” nor “conservative.” Those influences: Yoder, Stassen, Marshall, Barth, Moltmann, McClendon, H.R. Niebuhr, Letty Russell, Rauschenbusch, M. L. King, Deotis Roberts, and some others have been or will be the subject of my ongoing series of blog postings on “mentors.” By contrast, the folks below are “dialogue partners,” as are those who will be listed in the companion piece on Conservative Evangelicals.

So, who are my liberal dialogue partners? First, from the Classic Liberal period (19th-mid-20th C.) :

F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), not only the “Father of Liberal Theology,” but the father of all modern and, yes, postmodern theology, too. The first to give theology a truly scientific and systematic shape beyond the summa or the handbook (Calvin’s Institutes clearly was simply a handbook). It is simply not possible to do serious theology since that time without building on Schleiermacher’s legacy, even when challenging or greatly revising it, as Karl Barth knew well. There is much in old Friedrich to deplore, including his anthropological starting point and his reductionism of Christian experience to a feeling of utter dependence, but this is a huge attempt to relate the Pietist tradition to the modern world. Link: Schleiermacher Society.

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), gave an irreducibly moral shape to modern theology and helped recapture the centrality of the Kingdom of God, which for centuries had just been understood as “heaven.” Ritschl’s view of the Kingdom is inadequate, as was Rauschenbusch’s who drew so much from Ritschl, but the recovery of its centrality is still of incalculable importance. Ritschl’s contention that Christianity is characterized by 2 foci, individual salvation and social ethics, still seems right on the money, to me. Further info. here.

William Newton Clarke (1841-1912), the first in North America (taught in both Canada & U.S.) to write a systematic theology from a Schleiermachian perspective. Theologians debate how much Clarke borrowed from Schleiermacher and how much he simply thought along similar lines. There were also connections to Ritschl and Hermann.

Douglas Clyde Macintosh (1877-1948), Canadian-born Baptist theologian at Yale attempted to make theology an empirical science. He was an enormous influence on the brothers Niebuhr and later Process Theology, but also on the postmodern (ana)Baptist theology of my mentor, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.  Recent study found here.

Adolf von Harnack(1851-1930), for his incredibly encyclopedic knowledge and display of the history of Christian doctrine. (But his reduction of the “essence of Christianity” to the “Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” was incredibly weak–and patriarchal to boot.)

Top 10 Favorite Liberals: Contemporary and Recent Past

10. Dorothee Sölle, German feminist political theologian. See Sarah K. Pinnock, ed., The Theology of Dorothee Soelle.

9. Marjorie Schucocki, Feminist Process Theologian. Best 1 vol. systematic from a process perspective.

8. Gary Comstock, both for his early work on narrative theology (mapping out some of the varieties) and for his subsequent work on theology from an openly gay male perspective. Whatever one believes about “homosexuality” pro or con, one cannot ignore the theological challenge and Comstock is the best theologian among those proposing full inclusion. I do wish he would relate this to his earlier work on narrative theology so that one could judge the adequacy of connections.

7. Eric Rust, a British Baptist educated in both physics and theology, came to the U.S. after both pastorates and academic positions in the U.K. He taught for decades at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where he forged an “evolutionary theology” that was an early process theology not as fully dependent on the metaphysics of Hartshorne and Whitehead as most later versions. Rust helped many, many reconcile science and theology and was one of the first to see the challenge of the ecological crisis to theology. He related the covenant and salvation history themes of the Scriptures to evolutionary worldview in a very persuasive way.

6. Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004) Chicago’s giant from the early ’60s to the ’90s. Gilkey was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, but, unlike the latter, he forged a “theology of culture” that could actually be understood! Gilkey’s book Naming the Whirlwind essentially demolished the “Death of God” movement. For more info. see here and here.

5. Hans Küng (1928-), the brilliant star of the radical Catholics whose work both led to Vatican II and charted the path further. Sidelined in Catholic life for challenging papal infallibility, Küng’s works On Being a Christian, and Does God Exist? are major apologetic works for our time which take seriously Christianity’s skeptical critics (as conservative apologists seldom do) without capitulating to them. He also has helped pioneer Christian interfaith dialogue in ways that are not just the nonsense of “all roads lead up the same mountain.” Biblio-blogger Chris Tilling’s excellent reflections on Küng’s importance are found here.

4. Daniel Day Williams (1910-1973), was a pioneer process theologian who work was far more connected to the major Christian tradition and its symbols than most in the Whitehead/Hartshorne school. Unfortunately, Williams’ most important works, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope; The Spirit and the Forms of Love; and The Demonic and the Divine are all out of print.

3. Howard Thurman (1900-1981) African-American mystic whom I profiled earlier as a Baptist prophet.  See the Howard Thurman Center at Boston University. There is also a Howard Thurman documentary film project here.  Morehouse College houses the Howard Thurman papers.  The interracial Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which Thurman founded in San Francisco, is still in existence.  Thurman was a major influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. Harvey Cox(1929-) — American theologian most in touch with the currents of culture.  Beginning with Barth & Bonhoeffer, Cox moved from celebrating “the secular city,” to being one of the first liberals to notice that secularism was dying. He rediscovered in a new way the centrality of Jesus in, of all places, his interfaith dialogue! Cox became one of the first mainline liberals to take Pentecostalism seriously, too. Never anything close to a systematician, Cox remains one of the most astute theologians of culture for North America. Currently the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University Divinity School.

1. Marcus J. Borg whose biblical work is among the strongest in the “Jesus Seminar,” but who also has sought to revitalize liberalism in ways that are easily communicable to laity. The Heart of Christianity renews the Pietist tradition of the heart in a radical post-modern world. Do I always agree? No. But it’s not your average liberal who advises congregations to have more Bible studies! More info. here and his books here.

Runners Up: Sallie McFague, Peter Gomes, John Cobb (for relating process theology to liberation thought and ecological theology); Clark Pinnock in “Open Theism” phase; L. Harold DeWolf & Walter G. Muelder for Boston Personalism; Rosemary Radford Ruether; Beverly Wildung Harrison; Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza; Carlyle Marney.

October 15, 2006 Posted by | liberal theology | 15 Comments

What is "Liberal Theology?"

Since I identify with neither the classic liberal theology of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, & Harnack, nor with the neo-liberal tradition of Tillich, I have always resisted being called a theological liberal. But the definition of Joel at Connexions is one I can affirm. If “liberal” theology is defined in terms of method, rather than content, then I am a liberal, I guess. I still prefer other terms (“Anabaptist,” “liberation theologian,” etc.), but this shows the differences with fundamentalism or even the method of conservative evangelicalism quite well. My thanks to PamBG for linking to Joel’s article.

September 23, 2006 Posted by | liberal theology | 13 Comments