The word “liberalism” comes with much contemporary baggage – especially in particularly religious circles. Often even on this blog, we throw the term around in a fairly negative fashion. Sometimes it is popularly spoken of as a threat to the eternal truths of God and traditional creeds. Other times liberalism is seen as replacing the time-honored values and customs with fashionable cultural trends. Setting aside the unhelpful dichotomies, such accounts of liberalism rarely define the word itself. I would like to argue that theological liberalism properly defined is not an enemy, but integral to faith (it should be said, though, that the word is rarely used with this classical definition in mind)…. According to Karl Barth:
“Being truly liberal means thinking and speaking in responsibility and openness on all sides, backwards and forwards, towards both past and future, and with what I might call total personal modesty. To be modest is not to be skeptical; it is to see what one thinks and says also has limits. This does not hinder me from saying very definitely what I think I see and know. But I can do this only in the awareness that there have been and are other people before and alongside me, and that still others will come after me. This awareness gives me an inner peace, so that I do not think I always have to be right even though I say definitely what I say and think.”
–Karl Barth in “Final Testimonies”
Theological liberalism, according to Barth, is openness to an imaginative understanding of God that illuminates the present. This openness is not a product of the supposed indeterminacy or incomprehensibility of God – any theology which is Christian has as its subject the person and work of Christ. Instead this liberalism is predicated upon an awareness of one’s insignificant place in this history of thought. Barth opens himself to the certainty that others are correct and he is wrong. This humility, or as Barth says “total personal modesty,” is the origin of an “inner peace” that enables creativity of thought and the immodest endeavor to assert one’s opinion.
This seems counter-intuitive: by acknowledging oneself to be wrong one finds the resources to say one is right. Said another way, if one embraces the negative through the dispossession of the self (as Rowan Williams would say) one receives from God anew. One must lay down their certainties and presumptions of God which limit the possibility of true understanding. It is not simply that one must listen for God in unusual or unexpected places; rather one must first admit that one is deaf if one is to hear at all. Anything short of this pure passivity and we have simply made God in our own image.
To be theologically liberal means to come before God naked and without any self-defined identity, agenda, or ideological commitments. It is an openness to hear from God and understand Him afresh. Without such a liberal impulse, Christian faith is in danger of becoming a static, fossilized list of truths that testify of a God who “died” a long time ago.
[For further reading, see also Jacob's wonderful post on fundamentalism and its relation to Christian faith.]