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Liberal and Theological - what is it to be a theological liberal?

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John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.

Everyone’s definition of what is liberal will vary. This article uses it as referring to someone who instinctively has questions rather than answers, someone who never arrives at an ultimate answer, only at more questions. It is an approach which rejoices and resonates with the excellent title of one of John Robinson’s books: But that I can’t believe, that is to say, it often espouses an approach forged in reaction to what cannot be accepted.

What follows is a snapshot of the place one person has reached at their early 70s, still committed to the search, always recognising that tomorrow’s position will not necessarily be the same as today’s, though the outlines of both might mostly coincide. In short, if instinctively one settles for an understanding that is more ‘that’ than ‘how’, this is because all theological positions are subject to provisionality.

Liberalism is characterised by optimism rather than pessimism. This, among other things, distinguishes a liberal from an Augustinian or Calvinist Christian.

An essential element of liberalism is the use of the imagination. The danger in liberalism is that it can be rather too rational – and this is a charge which many liberals could with some fairness level at themselves a lot of the time. Nevertheless, being able to engage with both the affective and the imaginative is very important. The imaginative engages with metaphor, and as all language about God is ipso facto metaphorical. It is critical that we allow our imagination - our ability to think in images and to engage with image - to move us beyond the confines of the merely rational.

The imagination also engages with the senses. Representations of scenes from the life of Christ or the saints, indeed whatever we think of as being ‘religious art’, are metaphors in oil and canvas, in stone and bronze, and engage with the imaginative and affective side of the human psyche. Music can do something similar, whether it be a swelling symphony, a searing passion chorale or the intimacy of a string quartet. Literature also has a significant role in feeding both the imagination and the understanding, especially when it throws light on a person’s condition in particular or the human condition in general. Then there is liturgy, full of colour, movement, different kinds of sound and silence, and even, for some, smell – though sight is just as much associated with incense as fragrance. All of this deepens the sense of mystery, energising the whole person in the act of corporately engaging with God.

Imagination also enables leaps of connection, understanding and interpretation to be made. This is why is it sometimes frowned on, if not actively discouraged, by those who want to stay deeply embedded in their box, of whatever fundamentalist or intolerant variety that may be (and sadly liberals can be as intolerant and fundamentalist as any biblical evangelical). Of course letting the imagination loose in the service of faith seeking understanding is risky. But then being engaged in whatever way we are with God is always risky, opening up the possibility of transformation, change and growth.

Liberal theology attempts to find correlation with other branches of human knowledge and understanding, such as science, philosophy, the human sciences and the arts. Doing this – not necessarily uncritically (indeed, critical correlation is what is necessary, as we have known since the days of Paul Tillich 1. - is part the liberal method: we allow the whole of modern knowledge and research to inform our use of reason. The intertwining of scripture, tradition and reason 2. has long been the mark of Anglicanism; liberals are keen to ensure that reason maintains its position within this triumvirate, and, indeed, to ensure that a fourth element – experience – is present, as we feel our way – or even perhaps dance our way – towards a fuller understanding of God and Jesus that makes sense in our world.

Liberalism is inclusive in its approach to and dealings with all God’s people, as also in the language we use about them and about God. It also recognises that every act of knowing is also an act of interpretation 3. , and it seeks to be holistic, avoiding the simplifying tendencies of dualism or binary thinking in any of its manifold forms. Important too is conscience, but conscience guided particularly by the Christian imperatives of love and the seeking of the good, the well-being, of the other and of society.

Increasingly this author’s search for God, for meaning, for purpose, for a sense of grounding and of the beyond, has also become associated with the search for language, that is for appropriate language with which to express these things. Often I seem to have become almost inarticulate, especially when trying to speak, rather than to write, of these things, in a way that reminds me of what Nicola Slee calls an apophatic 4. way of faithing, characterised by stuttering, faltering, of 'I can't quite express this properly...' The apophatic opens up again the whole area of paradox and mystery, in which all the complexity of intellect, metaphor, mystery, imagination and affectivity is held together, even if in some conflictual manner, in each person's experience and attempt at understanding. 

But liberalism isn’t confined to the personal, intellectual and spiritual. Liberalism has political and social connotations too. But this is not a manifestation of an every person for themselves anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian posture as in classical late eighteenth century liberalism. Rather, as F D Maurice said, as long ago as 1849, ‘I seriously believe that Christianity is the only foundation of socialism, and that a true socialism is the necessary result of a sound Christianity.’ 5. Such a view has always lain somewhere behind a liberal way of thinking about society. It is also a style of liberalism that balks at merely privatised religion and its banishment from the public square.

On a personal note, I know that I have, to some degree or other, been a liberal from the days of secondary school onwards (with the exception of a flirtation with a more absolutist position at about the age of nineteen). Sometimes I find myself wondering whether I have also been a radical Christian most of that time as well, but just not known it. Yet I still think of myself primarily as a liberal; this is because while I share much of the sceptical rationalist outlook I do not buy in wholly to the modernist/rationalist world view. The enlightenment project has long since proved to be flawed and discredited. Anyone looking at the history of the twentieth century can see that. And though we still use the tools of enlightenment and modernism to interpret what is going on in our globalised and post-modern world, a large part of us wonders why we are still stubbornly inhabiting this world in our religious understanding to the exclusion of other possibilities. 

Theological liberalism has always had a questioning mindset and a refusal to take anything for granted or as a given. It operates a hermeneutic of suspicion in respect of many aspects of traditional Christianity which seem at odds with or inimical to what is felt to be either observable or reasonable. But at its best it also recognises the importance of  knowing that there is a realm of mystery, imagination and possibility which must also be taken into account. So we can never simply dismiss the possibility that there might be some grain of truth in something that seems morally reprehensible in good liberal circles, for instance the possibility of miracles, or even of hell, even if 'it is empty' or a metaphor for what it must be like to be in the presence of the God one has deliberately turned one’s back on. Nor can we simply jump straight from the pages of the New Testament to the present day. To do so is to do serious injustice to the Christian tradition - and though much of this is shameful, and appals our modern sensitivity, much of it has also struggled in its own time and conceptualities with the issue of understanding and interpretation for its age, that is to say with 'apologetics' in its broadest term. 

To finish with another personal note. An idea that has developed in my mind over the last fifteen years or so (possibly building on the idea of Christlikeness which has often frequented my preaching if not my living), and which I find increasingly compelling as a way of understanding both what the Christian life is about and what Jesus was about, is the idea of alignment. If alignment with God is what living as a Christian is all about, and if, as I believe, Jesus was the instantiation of perfect alignment, we simply do not know what becomes possible in such circumstances. Therefore, miracle cannot be ipso facto ruled out; and incarnation becomes framed differently. For me, this militates against what seems to be to be the tendency of some liberal Christians just to jettison what they find unacceptable rather than to live with the paradoxes and discomforts that are part of the Christian inheritance. But, good liberal that I am, I must recognise that even this is subject to that ever present caveat: all is provisional, or, as Bonhoeffer would have put it, penultimate.


1. This can be illustrated with reference to the many writings of the last 30 years about theological reflection, the pastoral cycle, etc.

2. Reason is a slippery concept. What I am referring to is the classical Anglican usage of reason, which is about using our rational or cognitive abilities to analyse and synthesise. I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that reason reduces Christianity to those ideas that can be reasonably proved.

3. This owes something to Michael Polanyi as interpreted by Lesslie Newbiggin in a lecture to the clergy of the St Albans diocese in the 1980s.

4. Apophatic refers to the knowledge of God obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to God, speaking only in terms of what may not be said. Slee’s usage is slightly wider than this. The ultimate reality of God or Being can only be named as ‘not this, not that’ or through a series of paradoxical and apparently contradictory images and symbols; it can never be described or denoted directly. It involves an often surprising inarticulacy to put the experience of God and a changing sense of the self as a person of faith into words. (http://www.academia.edu/3851527/APOPHATIC_FAITHING_IN_WOMENS_SPIRITUALITY)

5. F D Maurice, The Tracts on Christian Socialism, London, 1849


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