Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Protestant Liberal Thinking

Working on a textbox in conjunction with a section in the philosophy book on Leo Tolstoy's view of art.
Protestant Liberal Thinking
Although many speak today generally of something being "liberal" in a very broad sense, "Liberal theology" was the formal name of a stream of Protestant thinking especially in the late 1800's and early 1900's (not to be confused with the economic liberalism of the previous chapter).  Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was the "father" of liberal theology when he sought to protect Christianity from the challenges of the Enlightenment by defining religion in terms of religious experience: "Religion is neither thinking nor acting but intuition and feeling" (On Religion).  In this regard the influence of the Romantic Era on him is unmistakable.

However, the height of Protestant liberal theology came in the optimistic spirit of the late 1800's and early 1900's prior to World War 1.  Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89) built on Schleiermacher's sense that religion was about experience rather than knowledge, but he sought to give that experience a more objective basis in the origins and history of Christianity.  He also saw it more as a lived out experience in community (ethics) rather than Scheiermacher's focus on an experience of complete dependence on God.

Ritschl found part of his objective basis for Christian experience in his idealized picture of Jesus as the supreme moral example of all history, a demonstration of the perfect human relationship with God lived out in community.  He did not actually believe Jesus was divine, even if in a unique class by himself.  Part of the job of the theologian for him was to strip the authentic substance of Christianity from its later accretions, such as the later creeds of Christianity.

Protestant Liberalism would then reach its peak at the beginning of the twentieth century, before World War 1 dashed its optimistic view of humanity to pieces.  Adolf Harnack (1850-1930) saw the essence of Christianity as "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humanity."  The essence of Christianity was thus to love your neighbor and what came to be known as the "social gospel," where the overwhelming focus of Christian faith is on helping others rather than on saving souls from damnation.

In many (though not all cases), the key figures in Protestant Liberalism did not view Jesus as truly divine. Even the pastor who started the slogan, "What would Jesus do?" (Charles Sheldon) saw Jesus more as a  moral example rather than as divine or as Savior.  Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that what was defective in the Protestant Liberalism of that time (or of the neo-liberalism of our own day) is not the focus on loving our neighbor, imitating Jesus, or promoting social justice.  What was defective was what they did not teach, rather than what they did.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

All human decisions are based on real world realities. The differences lie in how we go about understanding or addressing the solutions to these realities, or if we think they even can be addressed. Idealistic visionaries see no obstacles to "world dominaton", as they think "God is on their side"! (and only on their side)!

Moralism is a type of thinking that imposes itself upon others that is anti-thetical to libertarian thought. And libertarian thought was the basis of our Founding, wasn't it?

Moralism would think that it was the duty to maintain "God's Standard" (whatever that "standard" is, but fundamentalism was the basis of understanding "God's Standard, as it was the Standard, itself!)

Fundamentalism was the "resistance movement" to Protestant liberalism, wasn't it? And fundamentalism is anti-intellectual to the core, as it is experience based. This is where "the Bible" became "God's Standard" and where Protestantism distintified itself within each "sect's understanding" of "faith" based on a claim of "special revelation.

I think you are right about Romanticism dying off after WWI. It is hard to believe that everyone will live happily ever after with such destruction. But, isn't that the case also in 'post millenial' thinking, as it was an "idealized reality"? Was this the beginning of 'pre-millenial' thinking, or "a-millinialism" becoming more believable?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, I might add that human decisions are made based on ulitmate values, too. And ultimate values should not be "moralized", because humans WIll differ about how they see, understand or view the "problems"!

I think it is dangerous to suggest that one's values have to be based on some "ulitmate" moral model, such as Jeus, as then we are setting up some "ideal", as an "ultimate" moral standard! There are many other problems in the world, other than the ones that "Jesus addressed".

John Mark said...

Will your book on Philosophy contain any of the material you have posted on Romanticism (?); these have been very interesting to me..

Ken Schenck said...

John Mark, yes, it's for the philosophy book. Unfortunately, since it's meant to be a textbook, it will probably turn out to be pretty expensive. If you'd like, I can send you a draft of this chapter on the philosophy of art.

Anonymous said...

I just read this quote from a David Bazan interview today and it came to mind reading your definition of theological liberalism. Pretty interesting. The difference, of course, is Bazan's lack of optimism. Here it is:

Evangelical Christianity, as I grew up with it and as it seems to exist currently, seems preoccupied with the confession of Christianity.

That one would confess the right things, and that seems to be one of the main points of it. I find that so unsatisfying. To me, the best cases for Christianity are when people actually bear the fruit that they say they are going to bear. To me, that is the most compelling reason to think anything or do anything or to respect a confession.

A confession of belief on its own is just the most flaccid thing. In that sense, an academic book, self-help book or just a Christian apologetic book means so much less. [They would say] “So this is what I think…” [I would respond,] “So you’re divorced three times, you’re estranged from you’re kids… who cares what you think about the universe? I want to be at peace. This peace that passes all understanding that you’re talking about, you don’t have it. You treat people badly. You misunderstand fundamental ideas of the world at large.”

These [bearing fruits] are far more compelling to me than, “You have to get the confession right or you’ll burn for eternity.” And I just think, "Yeah, that’s becoming less compelling by the minute too because everything else you say doesn’t seem to match up with reality, so why would I assume that would?"

Angie Van De Merwe said...


You still have some sort of "ideal" in mind, even though it is in human choice/action. (Jesus as moral model, or Paul's sexual ethic?)

AND yet, the Supreme Court is now hearing a case to resolve how to bring justice when religious institutions are exempt from civil law! So, religious opinion about what has happened in "a particular life" is just as bent on hypocrisy in some people's judgments, as yours is bent on making a judgment based on relational stability!

All judgments have certain ultimates that they value foremost. Yours happens to be a life that bears some sort of relational purity. Relationships are two way streets, and are consentual. It seems that you wouldn't choose to associate with or listen to those that don't have it "all together" relationally, even though they cannot control many variables in their life. Too bad, you might just miss out on a good friend.

Individuals are more than their failures. Many times these people have much more depth and wisdom than those with "perfect lives". And sometimes these people need counselling, or have some other disability that makes them "hard to get along with".

But, I do agree that you have every right to disassociate with those you choose, as we all do! Thank goodness! And that means that we all have the right to feel superior in some way to another person! We all discriminate, just on different variables!

John Mark said...

Ken, I would love to have a draft copy of the chapter on art. My email is revpoling@windstream.net if you are so inclined. Thank you.

Andy said...

Hi, this is the "pulpiteer" from the earlier comment (open id didn't work the way I thought it would in blogger). I think you are mistaking something I quoted from David Bazan as thoughts of my own, which they are not. I know people tend to love Bazan (pedro the lion), but in what I've read I tend to find him a bit condescending. My only point was that his thoughts found in the interview were eerily similar to Ken's definition of theological liberalism from a century ago, minus the optimism of the latter. It just strikes me as kind of funny that what can pass as original thought usually has been thought before.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Sorry, Andy, I thought you were holding these opinions.

I don't mind that others hold any belief about "God", I just don't want them presuming upon others, in making their judgments about "what others SHOULD do", or "BE", or "THINK"!! OR BELIEVE"!!! No one has that right! One's own mind, life and person is one's own responsibility, not anyone else's! (except as one chooses)....

Each person must access their own life and seek after their values as they choose to prioritize them, whether that be "God" (theology), Humanity (good works) OR something altogether different!

Theology is an attempt to "put all things under the umbrella of faith/God"....and it really, in the end, matters not what one chooses to believe about "God" if the issue is really about addressing one's own life and ultimate values.....