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.