News of liberal Christianity’s pending demise has been greatly exaggerated—at least according to publishers who see a tradition in transition with much left to offer in a shifting religious landscape.
Mainline Protestant denominations and their 50-year decline have been back on the radar since last year’s dire wakeup call in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion (Free Press). But how to revive these venerable institutions isn’t the only question new books are taking up. Authors are also re-embracing the intellectual and spiritual tradition, especially its concern to reconcile faith and reason. They’re doing so by probing its roots and charting its future for readers underwhelmed by human-centered secularism, rigid theologies, or politicization of the faith.
Trends suggest that liberal approaches to faith, which flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries by galvanizing social reform movements and delivering alternatives to fundamentalism, might be ripe for resurgence or reinvention. Pope Francis, for example, has won the hearts of millions with his generous style and focus on serving the poor. A new breed of evangelicals, depicted in The Evangelicals You Don’t Know by Tom Krattenmaker (Rowman & Littlefield, Apr.) and The New Evangelical Social Engagement, edited by Brian Steensland and Philip Goff (Oxford Univ. Press, Dec.), is looking beyond wedge issues, championing human rights, and rallying behind environmental causes. “There are impulses out there that are wanting to restate the liberal tradition,” says Eerdmans editor-in-chief Jon Pott, “and are trying to revive acquaintance with its roots.”
Sojourners in this milieu need a compass, and authors are equipping them by reinterpreting a faith tradition in which tolerance is a virtue, free will is assumed, and science is no threat but rather a valued partner for interpreting scripture and applying it responsibly.
Some mainline clergy, long presumed to be dull establishment pillars, are reclaiming the rebel mantle that marked their abolitionist forebears, and Jericho/Hachetteis giving them a platform. Example: Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tattooed Lutheran pastor who got sober with Jesus’ help and calls his disciples as “some real fuck ups,” reflects on death and resurrection through the lens of her life in Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (Sept.).
The Jericho imprint “was started to provide space for these voices—the liberal, progressive, emergent, etc.—to be heard,” says its publisher, Wendy Grisham. “We have listened to one side of Christian opinion for many, many years, but that is not a conversation.”
Reason vs. Faith?
But reclaiming the liberal tradition isn’t as simple as dressing up biblical stories with figurative interpretations and anecdotes from the trenches of life and ministry. In the 21st century, writers are also debating whether the classic liberal penchant for rationalistic faith is what today’s religion needs—or if it needs instead to make room for mystery. “Classical liberalism really had no use for anything that looked spiritual or mystical,” says Bruce Epperly, author of Loosely Christian (Patheos Press, Aug.) and a blogger on trends in progressive Christianity at patheos.com. “But now many of us believe the [spiritual] practices are really how you encounter the God of which you speak.”
The mystical-versus-rational debate is playing out in new books. In Reinventing Liberal Christianity (Eerdmans, Sept.), Theo Hobson argues that liberal Christians need to accept themselves as a people marked by ancient, cultic, largely nonrational rituals. And the quest for a middle way between secularism and fundamentalism runs through the pages of Kelly Besecke’s You Can’t Put God in a Box: Thoughtful Spirituality for a Rational Age (Oxford Univ. Press, Nov.).
Other authors are updating classical defenses of the liberal method. Douglas Ottati’s Theology for Liberal Protestants (Eerdmans, Sept.) provides part one in an as-yet-unnamed systematic theology series. Michael Langford’s The Tradition of Liberal Theology (Eerdmans, Jan. 2014) gives readers an intellectual tour across time, from Justin Martyr to Frederick Temple, while making rationalist cases against original sin and for salvation outside a narrow path.
To revisit liberal Protestantism’s potent influence on American society, Oxford has been unpacking poignant slices of history, especially at the intersections of arts and culture. One example is historian Elesha Coffman’s The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (OUP, May), which tracks the movement’s early 20th-century momentum through the lens of its flagship magazine, the Christian Century.
Liberal Christianity is sure to face more questions. In balancing mystery and rationalism, how much of what happens on Earth gets attributed to a supernatural deity? Do tolerance and respect for personal experience extend to conservative Christians? Such questions need to be worked out in public conversations, Epperly says, and books are a good place to start.