Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity

by Gary Dorrien

The idea of a liberal approach to Christianity—that theology should be based on reason and critically interpreted religious experience, not external authority—has an ironic history in the United States. In the nineteenth century it took root and flowered; in the early twentieth century it became the founding idea of a new theological establishment; in the 1930s it was marginalized by neo-orthodoxy theology; in the 1960s it was rejected by liberation theology; by the 1970s it was often taken for dead.

But liberal theology has long been, and is still today, more significant than is indicated by the usual story of its rise and fall. The entire field of modern theology employs critical tools and theories that the liberal tradition developed. Both of the movements that overtook liberal theology were offshoots of the liberal tradition. The idea of a liberal Christian third way between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief retains its original relevance. And in the late twentieth century liberal theology produced much of its best work. Over the past generation liberals have written a great deal of highly creative and sophisticated academic theology, and several liberals have written popular works that reached very large audiences. Yet the renewal of liberal theology over the past generation has gone unnoticed and unfelt, even by its advocates.

In the first half of the twentieth century American theological liberalism was defined and powered by three schools of thought—evangelical liberalism, personalist idealism, and naturalistic empiricism—that remained vital in the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, all three had withered. By the 1970s the crisis of American liberal theology, like that of American liberal politics, was obvious and pervasive. The certainties of liberal theology faded to nothing as it was overpowered by rising secular, liberationist, and postmodern trends and a huge cultural backlash of conservative politics and religion. The idea of the intellectual and spiritual necessity of liberal theology took on the appearance of a cultural relic.

Liberal theologians were routinely denigrated for holding on to the secular mentality, sterile intellectualism, bourgeois reformism, and pale idealism. Often their modest standing in the church, academy, and public was compared unfavorably to liberalism's glory years in the social gospel era. Sometimes liberals made the point themselves, speaking the language of crisis and decline. Always they struggled to find an audience for their idea of a critical, progressive Christianity.

Yet for all its problems, the liberal tradition has experienced a hidden renaissance in the last decades of the twentieth century. The integrity and necessity of the liberal option was upheld by old liberals who had never been anything else and new liberals who found their way to the tradition of Schleiermacher and Rauschenbusch. A large group of religious thinkers representing an unprecedented diversity of racial, sexual, confessional, and religious identities vigorously refigured the liberal approach to theology. An important new theological school, Whiteheadian process thought, grew out of the Chicago school, anchoring the new liberalism. Refugees from neo-orthodoxy wrote major constructive works that showed the viability of liberal theology beyond its Whiteheadian base. Liberals produced forms of feminist, black, and ecological theology that responded to liberationist and environmentalist movements. American Catholics entered the field without the burden of a celebrated liberal past, producing some of the freshest and most compelling progressive theologies of the past generation. Others sought to renew the various traditions of liberal theology. Liberals created a new theological field, the religion-science dialogue, and also played a leading role in developing theologies of world religions and models of interreligious dialogue. Despite not belonging to a vital movement, liberal religious thinkers kept alive the idea of a progressive Christian alternative to authority-based orthodoxies and atheistic secularisms.

The essential idea of liberal theology did not change in the twentieth century from that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but just as liberals of the social gospel era dealt with problems and social forces unimagined by their forerunners, so did late-twentieth century liberals confront issues that were distinctive to their time and which altered the meaning of liberalism. In my three-volume work, The Making of American Liberal Theology, I define liberal theology primarily by its original character as an attempt to create a progressive Christian alternative to established orthodoxies and a rising tide of rationalistic deism and atheism. Fundamentally, liberal theology is the idea of a Christian perspective based on reason and experience, not external authority, that recon-ceptualizes the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge and ethical values. It is reformist in spirit and substance, not revolutionary. Specifically it is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its advocacy of moral concepts of atonement or reconciliation; and its commitments to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to contemporary people.1

In the nineteenth century liberal theologians denied that God created the world in six days, commanded the genocidal extermination of Israel's ancient enemies, demanded the literal sacrifice of his Son as a substitutionary legal payment for sin, and verbally inspired the Bible. Most importantly, they denied that religious arguments should be settled by appeals to an infallible text or ecclesial authority. Nineteenth century liberals accepted Darwinian evolution, biblical criticism, a moral influence view of the cross, an idea of God as the personal and eternal Spirit of love, and a view of scripture as authoritative only within Christian experience.

My attempt to sustain a consistent definition of liberal theology was challenged in volume two by the overarching influence of Progressive-era liberalism (which led many interpreters to define liberal theology as social gospel pro-gressivism), the double meaning of "modernist" in liberal theology (which became a banner term for naturalistic empiricists), and the rise of so-called "neo-orthodoxy" (which condemned liberal idealism and accommodationism). In volume three it is complicated by the pluralization of theology and religious studies, the rise of liberation theology, poststructuralist critiques of modern rationality, and post-Christian developments in Unitarian Universalism and Chicago school naturalism.

The relation of liberal theology to the "neo-orthodox" and liberationist movements that displaced it is a complex matter. In volume two I argued that Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich belonged more fully to the liberal tradition than to neo-orthodoxy, and in The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology (2000) I emphasized the liberal aspects of Barthian theology. My point was not to deny that there was such a thing as neo-orthodoxy, however badly named, in twentieth century theology. There was and is a powerful neo-Reformationist offshoot of liberal theology, founded by Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, that sought to refigure the Reformationist dialectic of Word and Spirit as the basis of Christian claims. However, even Barth took a great deal of his liberal training for granted in refashioning church teaching, and on crucial matters of authority, method, doctrine, and the spirit of their thinking, Niebuhr and Tillich were liberals, not neo-Reformationists. They belonged to the liberal tradition even as they repudiated its idealism and rationalism.

In the 1970s and 1980s the field of theology exploded into a vast array of new and refashioned old theologies, which curtailed the tendency to identify oneself with only one kind, such as "Barthian" or "personalist." Fluid boundaries and hybrid identities became the norm. To call oneself simply a liberal became impossibly old-fashioned, especially as "liberal" acquired the connotations of rationalist "foundationalism" and universalist "essential-ism." Liberalism was often charged with universalizing the experiences or theories of white, male, heterosexual, middle-class academics. In response liberalism became a more pluralistic enterprise that adjusted to postmodern and liberationist criticism. Many liberals argued that their modernism rested on open-ended inquiry and critically interpreted experience, not the hoary essentialism blasted by poststructuralists. If liberal theology typically overvalued Enlightenment ideals or the culture of bourgeois modernity, it was not necessarily defined by these characteristics. Having brought the rel-ativizing perspectives of historicism and pragmatism into theology in the first place, liberalism was fully capable of recognizing the contextual character of reason and the epistemological privileges of oppressed communities. Liberal theologians would not have renewed their tradition in the 1980s and 1990s had they held out for a flat-footed rationalism or bourgeois modernism. As it was, liberal theology became a more fluid enterprise that accented the modern roots of postmodernity and the necessity of resisting nihilistic forms of postmodernism.

Like the neo-Reformationists of the 1920s and 1930s, the founders of liberation theology also departed from liberal theology while taking for granted their training in liberal methods and theories. The postmodernization of liberal theology began with the emergence of liberationism, which succeeded the social gospel and neo-orthodoxy as a field-refiguring movement in American theology. In the first three decades of the twentieth century the agenda of America's élite divinity schools and Protestant denominations was set by liberals who advocated biblical criticism, reconciliation with science, ecumenical cooperation, a gospel-centered theology of personal and social salvation from sin, and the social gospel of anti-militarism and economic cooperation. In the middle decades American theology was dominated by a quasi-Barthian neo-orthodoxy and Niebuhrian neo-liberalism that blasted the liberal tradition for its middle-class idealism, moralism, sentimentality, and subservience to the culture of modernity. Niebuhrian theology was strong on irony, paradox, transcendence, realism, and the critique of cultural accommodation, but weak on the irony of its own subservience to American economic and military interests, as libera-tionists frequently noted. The unraveling of American society in the 1960s unraveled American theology, engendering a major theological trend, liberation theology.

Liberationism was originally a North American theology of black power and a Latin American theology of emancipation from dependency and oppression; later it came to include a variety of Third World, feminist, womanist, and gay rights theologies. Fundamentally it was an eruption of repressed voices. African American liberationist James Cone described revelation as "a black event—it is what blacks are doing about their liberation." Uruguayan liberationist Juan Luis Segundo declared that the only truth of concern to liberation theology was "the truth of liberation itself as defined by the oppressed in their struggle."2

Peruvian liberationist Gustavo Gutierrez, speaking at a conference in Tanzania, offered a classic statement of the differences between liberation theology and the "progressivist" liberal and neo-orthodox theologies that preceded it. Modern theology from Schleiermacher onward concerned itself with questions posed by the Enlightenment, historical criticism, science, and technology, Gutierrez observed. It fixated on the criticisms of unbelievers, seeking to make Christianity credible and relevant in the context of an industrialized, capitalist, increasingly secular social order. But the problems of European and North American theologians did not reflect the concerns of the marginalized Christians who created liberation theology, he argued. For liberationists, the crucial question was how to be a person and believe in a personal God in a world that grotesquely repressed the personhood of millions: "The question is not how we are to talk about God in a world come of age, but how we are to tell people who are scarcely human that God is love and that God's love makes us one family. The interlocutors of liberation theology are the nonpersons, the poor, the exploited classes, the marginalized races, all the despised cultures. Liberation theology categorizes people not as believers or unbelievers, but as oppressors or oppressed."3

From its beginning liberation theology sharply challenged the priorities, racism, and classism of modern theology, while employing its critical methods and theories. In the late 1960s the women's movement gave rise to liberation theologies that privileged gender as a category of analysis and social change. By its nature the liberationist impulse was and is a deeply pluralizing force in theology, challenging the field to respect the experiences and discourses of communities previously excluded from theological conversation. In the U.S. the dramatic growth of feminist liberationism had an especially pluralizing and radicalizing effect on the field. Much of the early rhetoric of feminist theology, like that of black theology, was angry, militant, and focused on the struggle for identity and empowerment. A good deal of feminist theology was written by women who identified primarily with radical feminism, but others sought to build bridges between established forms of liberalism (especially process theology) and the women's movement.

These developments present difficult problems for any attempt to understand late twentieth century theological liberalism. Which versions of feminist theology belong to the liberal tradition? And what is the relation of liberal theology to progressive theology or progressive Christianity? Regarding the former question, the critical variable is not the difference between radical and liberal feminism, but that of engagement and appropriation between feminism (of any kind) and liberal theology. Feminists who identify with liberal theology tend to be liberal feminists, but one can be a radical feminist and a liberal theologian at the same time. On the other hand, many feminist theologians emphasize the need of a liberationist alternative to liberalism. For example, feminist theologians Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, while not lacking connections to liberal theology, for the most part do not operate within its intellectual horizon or history. In different ways, they identify primarily with liberation theology.

The same rule applies to African-American forms of liberal theology. Although this stream of thought usually correlates with "reformist, not revolutionary," it does not necessarily imply lesser radicalism regarding the politics of race. Rufus Burrow, Jr. is as "radical" in the black liberationist sense of the term as other advocates of black theology, but he is a theological liberal by virtue of his deep identification with personalist idealism and its connection to the gospel-centered preaching of the black church. Thandeka and Victor Anderson also identify with liberal theological traditions, respectively Schleiermacherian experientialism and Chicago school religious naturalism.

Regarding the relation of liberal and progressive, many religious thinkers employ these terms interchangeably. This usage has historical weight, because for many years liberalism was the progressive tradition in theology. The idea of a progressive Christianity was first imagined and developed by theological liberals. However, I believe that "progressive" should be treated as a wider category than "liberal" and that the fundamental divide in Christian theology is between various forms of conservative orthodoxy and progressivism. Progressive theology includes liberalism, neo-orthodoxy (including its Catholic forms), liberationism, and postmodernist theology. Conservative orthodoxy includes fundamentalism, conservative evangelicalism, and conservative confessionalism.

In recent years many attempts to build bridges between the conservative and progressive camps have been ventured, notably by advocates of progressive evangelicalism, open theism, the Radical Orthodoxy movement, theologically moderate Protestantism and Catholicism, and Yale school postliberalism. The frequency of these efforts, however, shows the persistence and importance of the division. The many proposals to move beyond the impasse between theological conservatism and progressivism confirm that it remains the basic division in theology. Although neo-Reformationists, liberationists, and postmodernists tend to emphasize their differences with liberalism, they share its commitments to open-ended inquiry and modern criticism. These commonalities hold increasing importance in the face of a politicized and culturally powerful American Christian right. Liberalism no longer owns the progressive designation, but it remains the historical and theoretical touchstone for all progressive theologies, and the future of progressive theology as a whole rests heavily on the fate of its liberal stream.4

In my forthcoming third volume on liberal theology, which covers the period from 1950 to 2005, the personalist tradition is represented by Walter G. Muelder, L. Harold DeWolf, S. Paul Schilling, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rufus Burrow, Jr. Whiteheadian process thought is represented by Charles Hartshorne, Daniel Day Williams, Bernard Loomer, Bernard Meland, W. Norman Pittenger, John B. Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin, Marjorie Suchocki, Valerie Saiving, Schubert Ogden, Ian Barbour, Catherine Keller, and Philip Clayton. American liberal Catholic theology is represented by Gregory Baum, Richard McBrien, Charles E. Curran, David Tracy, Anne Carr, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Roger Haight. I also give featured attention to James Luther Adams, Delwin Brown, Sheila Davaney, Nels F. S. Ferré, Langdon Gilkey, James M. Gustafson, Gordon D. Kaufman, J. Deotis Roberts, Peter Hodgson, Edward Farley, Sallie McFague, Robert Neville, William Dean, Victor Anderson, Thandeka, Nancy Frankenberry, Forrest Church, John S. Spong, and Marcus Borg.

A wide array of theological traditions and trends are represented by these names. In the 1960s the downfall of Protestant neo-orthodoxy sent a key group of young theologians—Gilkey, Kaufman, Hodgson, Farley, and McFague—back to the liberal tradition. Vatican II set loose the possibility of an American liberal Catholicism. The civil rights, black power, feminist, antiwar, gay rights, and environmentalist movements gave rise to emancipationist liberal theologies. And liberals responded creatively to poststructuralist and new historicist currents of postmodern thought. But the key to the survival and renewal of liberal theology was the process school.

In previous generations the mainstay of liberal theology was its liberal evangelical tradition, but by the mid-1960s gospel-centered liberalism was an expiring force in theology. The mainstay of the new liberalism, for better and worse, was a metaphysical vision of process, divine creativity, relativity, relationality, wholeness, human flourishing, ecological sustainability, and divine good. Whiteheadian process theology became the leading liberal perspective despite being hampered by an abortive beginning, a belated rebirth, an opaque and esoteric jargon, and a highly abstract system.

The first American proponent of a Whiteheadian theology was Henry Nelson Wieman, in the 1920s, but in the early 1930s he turned against it. The Whiteheadian approach did not yield systematic theological works until the late 1950s, and after that process theology made only a marginal impact on the theological field as a whole. Yet in recent American theology it has stood above all other liberal approaches. Every noted liberal theologian has been influenced by it or defined herself against it, and among its numerous advocates, new forms of political, ecological, feminist, metaphorical, and interreligious process theology have been elaborated.

Ironically, process theology became a movement at the very time that it lost its institutional base at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. The school's leading advocate, John B. Cobb, Jr., was trained at Chicago, but the process tradition was already waning there when he began his theological career. Another leading advocate during its take-off phase as a school, W. Norman Pittenger had no formal connection to Chicago, and the process school's subsequent leading advocates, David Ray Griffin and Marjorie Suchocki, were connected to Chicago only indirectly, through Cobb's teaching at Claremont School of Theology. All of them stressed that process thought is not merely a scholastic, abstract, system-building enterprise. Pittenger identified with liberal Anglo-Catholicism and pitched his writings to a broad theological audience; Cobb moved from a scholastic orientation to a praxis-centered theology of ecological and interreli-gious transformation; Griffin related process thought to postmodernism; Suchocki fashioned a metaphorical feminist theology that emphasized the rela-tionality of process thought. At the same time, for all its permutations, the process movement was defined fundamentally by its metaphysical claim that becoming is more elemental than being because reality is fundamentally temporal and creative.

Broadly speaking, "process" thought includes all theologies and philosophies that conceptualize becoming, event, and relatedness as fundamental categories of understanding. Thus, Heraclitus and Theravada Buddhism belong to the process tradition, as do Hegel, Schelling, and various neo-Hegelians, as well as Henri Bergson, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Samuel Alexander, C. Lloyd-Morgan, Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Defined more narrowly, one might identify process thought with the school of organic realist cosmology developed by University of Manchester philosopher Samuel Alexander, University of Bristol philosopher C. Lloyd-Morgan, South African philosopher Jan C. Smuts, and Whitehead, which eliminates the idealists and many pragmatists. Or one might restrict the process designation to temporalist empiricists who emphasize the relationality of experience, thus eliminating the idealists but still including the early Chicago school theologians. Though the Chicago school zigged and zagged on metaphysics and historicism, it was always concerned with creative process. Process was a more central category for Mathews than Hartshorne, and to all the early Chicago schoolers, nothing was more real or central than social process.

But early Chicago school historicism operated on a different philosophical wavelength than that by which "process thought" later came to be defined; thus Hartshorne, Loomer, Williams, and Meland had to effect a significant redirection of Chicago empiricism to make it speak Whitehead's metaphysical language. By the 1960s they had ambitious disciples who did not shy away from using movement language. Cobb and Griffin built a theological school and a center of process thought at Claremont School of Theology, and by the 1990s they were deeply absorbed in spreading the process movement to China and South Korea.

Whiteheadian thought presents a compelling picture of a divinely influenced universe oriented toward beauty and the intensification of experience, in which the universe demonstrates an inherent tendency toward increasing complexity, self-organization, and the production of emergent wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. With particular force Griffin argues that Whiteheadian thought answers fundamental questions in an open-ended manner that enables dialogue with other perspectives. In the philosophy of mind, dualists violate the principle of continuity (how did an entirely new kind of actuality spring into existence?) and do not explain how such radically different things a mind and matter can causally influence each other. Materialists do not account for the unity of experience, the unity of bodily behavior, or the reality of freedom. Griffin advocates Whiteheadian emergence as a third way beyond dualism and materialism, defends Whitehead's pan-experientialist doctrine that the basic units of nature have experiential features, and develops the Whiteheadian idea that moral truth is rooted in the very nature of things (the divine actuality).5

Whiteheadians of Griffin's type emphasize that liberals have intellectually serious answers; others reply that his apologetics are too much of a throwback to scholasticism. In different ways Griffin, Cobb, Suchocki, and Keller demonstrate that liberal theology, at least in its Whiteheadian stream, retains high intellectual and movement ambitions. But academic liberal theology as a whole makes sense to a small audience at best, and the audience for process theology is smaller yet. Critics such as Jeffrey Stout, Avery Dulles, Van Harvey and Peter Berger contend that liberal theology is too secular for religious believers, too religious for secularists, and too academic for non-theologians. From that variously formulated standpoint, process theology epitomizes the problems of liberal theology. Wabash College theologian Steven Webb puzzles that contemporary liberals find it possible to write so much despite believing so little. He describes his own intellectual pilgrimage as a process of unlearning the disbeliefs that he imbibed in graduate school from prominent liberal theologians.6

Webb's bafflement at liberal productivity, however, points to something significant, that for all its "self-liquidating" tendencies, American liberal theology quietly flourishes nearly a century after its high tide. If the liberal approach to religion is such a loser, why is it pursued so vigorously in dense, sophisticated books by well-stationed theologians? How is one to explain the vitality of contemporary theological conversation? For creativity, breadth, depth, scale, and insight, the constructive and programmatic works of Griffin, Gilkey, Kaufman, Roberts, McFague, Tracy, Suchocki, Barbour, and Clayton compare favorably to those of any nine liberal theologians of any generation. The same thing can be said collectively of Cobb, Ogden, Gustafson, Neville, Johnson, Farley, Hodgson, Keller, and Haight. Moreover, liberal theology is not merely an academic enterprise. Intense ecclesiastical debates over homosexuality, war, and feminism make theology unavoidable even for religious communities predisposed to avoid it, and authors Peter Gomes, John Shelby Spong, and Marcus Borg have reached very large audiences advocating a liberal religious outlook.

For millions of liberal Protestants and progressive Catholics the church remains a spiritual home, a community of fellowship, and the place where they live out their idealism. For them the church remains distinctive for its capacity to inspire community and a sense of transcendent good. The idea of a liberal third way between authority-based orthodoxies and secular disbelief has no less relevance or coherence in the 21st century than it held one hundred years ago.

In an age when different cultures and civilizations come into more frequent, direct, and intense contact than ever before, the basic questions of the liberal tradition have acquired a special urgency: How are the best aspects of religious traditions sustained? How are progressive religious traditions created and nurtured?

American liberal theology began as a pastoral enterprise, and in its heyday it was led by academics at seminaries and divinity schools that maintained vital ties with affiliated religious communities. Liberal theology became more narrowly academic in the later twentieth century, and its academic versions have not won much of a following within the general population or among academics in other disciplines. The often severely academic character of liberal theology reflects the growing separation of university divinity schools from religious communities and the general public. University theology, absorbed by issues that only academic theologians care about, is often read only by them. In addition, the growth of the religious studies approach has marginalized theology within university religion departments, heightening the institutional pressure on theologians to make their work as academic as possible.

Yet liberal theology has sustained a vital academic discourse in recent decades, and it does not lack popular advocates. Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes dispenses liberal theology with a homiletical flourish in his bestselling books on the Bible and the "good life." Episcopal bishop John Spong, passionately opposed to literalism in religion, has attained fame by urging the necessity of a living alternative to orthodoxy and secular disbelief. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg is equally famous as a herald of the second coming of the liberal Jesus.7

Spong's books specialize in provocative assertion. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1991) suggested that Paul was a repressed, guilt-ridden homosexual. Born of a Woman (1992) suggested that the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke were constructed to refute the charge that Jesus was illegitimate, stressed that all virgin birth stories are legends, and speculated that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1994) noted that Paul and Mark made no case for a physical resurrection of Jesus, argued that Matthew didn't either, and highlighted the discrepancies in the gospel resurrection narratives. Liberating the Gospels (1996) interpreted the gospels as deeply Jewish liturgical works organized on the model of the Jewish liturgical year, showed that the synoptic passion narrative relies heavily on Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, and contended that Luke is dependent on Deuteronomy. Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998) asserted that the church's ancient creeds "have become empty and meaningless to this generation because the way we perceive the shape of reality has changed so dramatically." The virgin birth story is refuted by the eighteenth century discovery of the egg cell, the spatial imagery of the ascension story makes no sense after Copernicus and Galileo, and the Bible abounds with unbelievable miracle stories. Spong insists that he writes out of his faith commitment as a Christian, not to create controversy: "But where this faith has been corrupted into literalized propositional statements, I have become its exposer and its critic. I have come to see the controversy that ensues not as negative and not even as destructive to the church. I regard it rather as a positive sign of health and vitality. It represents a faith tradition in ferment, simultaneously dying and being resurrected."8

Spong believes in a transcending reality at "the very heart of life" that presses toward life and wholeness. He describes God as the "Ground of Being" and "universal presence" that undergirds all life and is present in all that is. He regards heaven as a symbol standing for "the limitlessness of Being itself," describes Jesus as "a God presence" whose burning awareness of God made him a doorway to divine reality, and believes that the divine source of life calls human beings to live fully, love wastefully, and have the courage to be. Spong describes his project in classic liberal terms—walking the "razor's edge between orthodox overbelief and losing the 'Christ experience'"—but rarely mentions the living tradition of theology that has carried on this project for three centuries. "I have now moved to this new place, and I challenge the church to move with me," he writes, displaying his self-dramatizing tendency. "I do so not because I reject the church, but because I am convinced that if we stay where the church now is, the faith that we profess as Christians will surely die. The floods of creedal distortion have destroyed our fields, contaminated our groundwater, and made our faith-assertions of yesterday unlivable places for us today. No matter how deeply we fear to move, there is no alternative."9

Spong's fame was launched by his advocacy of gay rights and the dramatic flair with which he espoused hard-edged liberal positions. Borg, an equally popular author, writes in a style that sticks closer to the soft-edged, reformist voice of influential liberal writers of past generations. A New Testament scholar and professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University, he studied at Union Theological Seminary in the early 1960s, where he absorbed the typical German picture of the eschatological Jesus. Despite the fact that C. H. Dodd, George Caird, and other British scholars disputed the historical Jesus thesis, Borg moved to Oxford to study under Caird, who eventually convinced him that a respectable case could be made against the dominant view. Borg's dissertation defended the plausibility of the British non-eschatological Jesus, though not as a convert. Twelve years later his first book, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus (1984) amplified the same argument as a convert; three years after that, in Jesus: A New Vision, Borg burst into prominence as a herald of the non-eschatological Jesus.10

The German picture of the eschatological Jesus rests almost entirely on the "coming Son of Man" sayings, Borg stressed. That is, the claim that Jesus expected God's kingdom to begin either at his death or immediately after it has almost no basis apart from such texts as Mark 8:38, Luke 12:8-9, Mark 13:24-27, Mark 14:62, and Matthew 10:23. But scholars increasingly view these texts as inau-thentic, and the concept of the kingdom as the imminent end of the world is foreign to the kingdom texts themselves. The Son of Man sayings developed from an early Christian interpretation of Christ's resurrection (as Norman Perrin argued in 1967); late Judaism did not conceive the "Son of man" as a supernatural or world-ending figure; and the phrase had no titular usage in Aramaic (as Geza Vermes argued in 1973). Borg noted that the "Kingdom of God" and "the coming Son of man" are never linked together (reflecting different traditions), and with one interpretively problematic exception (Mark 9:1), the kingdom of God sayings lack the element of imminence. Though he allowed that end of the world imagery is linked with the kingdom in the Son of man sayings (as in the parables of judgment and the messianic banquet), Borg emphasized that these texts do not say that the end is imminent. The church believed in the imminent end of the world in the context of its belief in Jesus' second coming, not because it had a word of Jesus to this effect. Building on Perrin's interpretation, Borg contended that the phrase "kingdom of God" is best understood as a tensive symbol that evokes the myth or story of God's rule over Israel and the world. The "kingdom of God" had no single meaning for Jesus, but evoked and illuminated the various meanings of God's rule.11

Borg took a step further than Perrin, arguing that the Jewish myth of Divine rule must itself be viewed as a particular cultural form of what Huston Smith called the "primordial tradition," the nearly universal myth of the grounding of the empirical world in a deeper world of spirit. The primordial tradition is grounded in the religious experience of humankind, Borg explained; it is known through experience, not merely believed in. For Jesus, as for late Judaism, the kingdom of God symbolized the visible reunification of the empirical world and the world of spirit. It pointed to the rule of God as king of the world and the power of God's Spirit flowing into the world. The dominant currents of twentieth century New Testament scholarship combined historical skepticism and an eschatological thesis, Borg observed, but this interpretation, besides crediting the wrong texts and misinterpreting others, made Jesus seem strange and irrelevant. Historically and theologically it was better to interpret Jesus as a "Spirit-filled person in the charismatic stream of Judaism." Everything that Jesus taught and was flowed out of his intimate experience of the "world of Spirit."12

By 1986 Borg could report that much of the New Testament field seemed to be moving in his direction. His active participation in the soon-famous Jesus Seminar, a collaborative enterprise of liberal scholars that pursued a new quest of the historical Jesus, helped to effect a change of direction. Borg later recalled that when he first realized that many scholars agreed with him about the eschatological Jesus he stopped feeling like a maverick and began thinking of his work in movement terms. In the 1990s his growing fame and that of the Jesus Seminar fed on each other while he hit the lecture circuit, traveling 100,000 miles per year, speaking mostly to church-related audiences. His bestselling book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994) sold more than 270,000 copies in ten years, teaching church groups to think of Jesus as one who was "grounded in the world of the Spirit." Borg described his own spiritual pilgrimage as a journey from a Lutheran boyhood in North Dakota, to an anxiety-ridden loss of faith as an adolescent, to an intellectual interest in theology during college, to a career as a biblical scholar, to an understanding of Christian life beyond belief and disbelief as "a relationship to the Spirit of God . . . that involves one in a journey of transformation."13

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time explained that Jesus's "experiential awareness of Spirit" was the center of his life; that he was best viewed as a sage-like teacher of wisdom; and that the teaching of Jesus was shaped primarily by the Hebrew exodus story, the Jewish story of exile and return, and the priestly temple-sacrifice story of ancient Israel. Encouraged by the enormous popular success of this book Borg ventured further from his academic specialization, writing on The God We Never Knew (1997) and The Heart of Christianity (2003), publishing a lay primer on Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (2001) and conducting a dialogue road show with New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. He described faith as "the way of the heart," the Bible as "the heart of the Tradition," a panentheistic God as "the heart of reality," Jesus as "the heart of God," the kingdom of God as "the heart of justice," and salvation as "transforming the heart." With a pastoral touch he encouraged readers to view and experience Christianity as "a remarkable sacrament of the sacred." Christianity is not the only true religion, Borg assured, but all people need a satisfying spiritual practice, and progressive Christianity makes an enriching and challenging spiritual home. His recovery of the liberal Jesus was not merely personal; on occasion Borg stressed the prophetic implications of the gospel for contemporary life: "The dominant values of American life—affluence, achievement, appearance, power, competition, consumption, individualism—are vastly different from anything recognizably Christian. As individuals and as a culture our existence has become massively idolatrous."14

Unlike Spong, who blasted the "mindless biblical fundamentalism" of his opponents and showed no anxieties about being called a popularizer, Borg had to make considerable adjustments in his attitude and habits to write for the trade market. He may not have reveled any less than Spong in his overflow audiences and television appearances, but he was more pastoral and scholarly. "I had to very deliberately get rid of the academic world looking over my shoulders," Borg recalled. Spong wrote and spoke in movement terms, attempting to spark a left-wing rival to the Christian right and, beyond that, a new Christianity. Borg, an Episcopalian married to an Episcopal priest, wrote more explicitly for an existing progressive Christianity. "There is an enormous appetite within the church and in the larger reading public for serious works of scholarship that are very accessible," he observed. If liberal theology was a losing compromise between orthodoxy and secularism, it was hard to explain his success.15

The prominence of Episcopalians in popular American liberal theology fell under the rule, "late entrants rule." For most of its history the Episcopal church played a minor role in the development of theological liberalism, mainly because Anglicans did not aspire to cutting-edge theology, disapproved of theological conflict, and lacked a common heritage of sola scriptura Biblicism to overthrow. The Anglican trinity of scripture, tradition, and reason underwrote a distinctive theological pluralism that thwarted schismatic tendencies. Unlike denominations that split over liberalism, or before that, the Civil War, the Episcopal church held together, prizing its continuity and tradition. Historically constituted by three competing streams of theology and piety—Evangelicalism, Anglo-Catholicism and Modernism—the Episcopal and Canadian Anglican churches were known for sustaining uneasy alliances. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Anglican liberalism was called the Broad Church tradition; later it went by the names Modernist, mainline, or liberal Protestant. As the term "mainline" implied, it was the dominant party in the U.S. and Canadian churches, though quietly so.

Though the Anglican churches did not lack liberal theologians, few had any impact beyond their own denomination. Often they were adept at forging denominational coalitions. Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics did not form coalitions with each other, but hybrids of liberalism and evangelicalism were commonplace, as were blended forms of liberalism and Anglo-Catholicism. The Episcopal church's leading liberal theologian, Norman Pittenger, owed much of his denominational following to his fervent Anglo-Catholicism. By the late twentieth century, however, Episcopalians clashed over theology, just like other mainline Protestant denominations. Having come late to theological conflict, Anglicans practiced it with a special intensity. To them it was new; thus Spong gave the impression that liberal theology began with his books. Liberal victories on divorce, women's ordination, affirmative action, anti-war politics, economic justice, and gay rights engendered novel coalitions of outraged Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic forces, whose protests against the leftward turn of the Anglican churches helped Spong and Borg find public renown.

The main achievement of liberal theology in the later twentieth century, like that of North American theology as a whole, was its extraordinary growth in diversity. In theology as a whole the new diversity arose with the emergence of previously silenced or marginalized voices from much of the two-thirds world, especially Africa, Latin America, and Korea, and the new theologies of feminist, mujerista, African American and womanist experience, and those of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience. The critical bent of theology was deepened and its discourse enriched by these new perspectives, which raised critical awareness throughout the field that all theological constructions are shaped by particular angles of vision, socioeconomic interests, cultural frameworks and linguistic practices. To most progressive theologians, the challenge of appropriating multiple perspectives became the new sine qua non of progressive theology.

Besides making theology more complicated, however, the pluralization of academic theology deepened its alienation from the churches and dominant culture. While liberal theology became more liberationist, feminist, environmentalist, multiculturalist, and postmodernist, the churches to which liberal theologians belonged accommodated mild forms of feminism and environ-mentalism, battled annually over gay rights, and swung toward greater homogeneity and confessional identity. Conservative evangelicalism grew significantly, especially in its public impact, which caused many mainline religious communities to blur their differences with conservative evangelical theology. Theologian Carter Heyward, reflecting on her many years of blending queer theory and feminist liberation theology as a professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, observed in 2003: "It is simply a fact: the progressive seminaries in the United States and Canada are at least two or three decades ahead of the Christian churches—including most parishes of even the most liberal Protestant denominations." Heyward's students debated whether queer theory was too individualistic, idiosyncratic, and theoretical to be compatible with feminist liberationism, but upon leaving seminary they entered congregations that had minimal tolerance for either perspective. Liberal theologians, having been pushed to the left by liberationist and postmodern movements, found themselves speaking a language that had little currency in congregations. They spoke of transgressing religious and cultural boundaries while American politics and religion moved to the right.16

All progressive theologies struggled with the implications of the latter problem, and liberal theology, by virtue of its mediating character and reformist identification with "mainline" institutions, was and is especially affected by it. But despite its numerous problems liberal theology rests on a deep and abiding idea, its original rationale: the necessity of a rational and experiential third way between authority-based orthodoxies and secular disbelief. Theological revolts, fads, and correctives come and go, but liberalism has endured as a revisable tradition that appropriates and outlives its competing perspectives. Many theologians have found their way to the tradition of Schleiermacher and Rauschenbusch after finding the alternatives to be wanting. A recent example, Philip Clayton, is especially instructive.

Clayton earned his doctorate at Yale University under Louis Dupré in philosophy of science and religious studies, and undertook four years of graduate and post-graduate study at the University of Munich under Wolfhart Pannenberg. At Munich he was struck by the commonalities between Hegelian and Whiteheadian metaphysics. The idea of an alliance between these two perspectives lay behind much of his early work, which ranged over epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, physics, evolutionary biology, and theology. His first book, Explanation from Physics to Theology (1989), pressed for the necessity of strong explanatory claims in theology, though Clayton cautioned that theology was not likely to reach the rational status of the natural sciences. His next book, God and Contemporary Science (1997), took up the question of divine action in the world.17

Drawing on current debates in cosmology, quantum physics, and the brain sciences, he made a vigorous case for a panentheistic view of divine relationality and action. God's relation to the universe is analogous to the human mind's relation to its body, Clayton argued. Though soul-substance dualism must be ruled out, theologians should defend the irreducibility of consciousness as a type of activity that is distinct from physical activity and its causes. Following Hegel, Clayton understood subjectivity as the activity of consciousness coming to itself. Following Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb and Griffin, he contended that if theology adopted an emergent theory of consciousness it had much to contribute to the solution of the mind-body problem. "Only a theology of mental activities will be able to relate mind and body in a way adequate to the demands of contemporary cognitive science," he argued. The Whiteheadians were right to bet everything on emergence, which had impressive evidence on its side, solved problems that dualist and materialist theories didn't solve, provided an overarching framework for multi-disciplinary discussions, and offered a compelling model of God's relation to the world.18

Clayton was just getting started. God and Contemporary Science won the Templeton Prize; in 1998 he organized an international conference for the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley that attracted over one hundred prominent scientists and made the cover of Newsweek magazine; the following year he became Principal Investigator of the center's "Science and the Spiritual Quest" project. For ten years he labored on a massive interpretation of Western philosophical theology, The Problem of God in Modern Thought, which was published in 2000, and he won fellowships and visiting professorships at distinguished institutions while teaching at Sonoma State University, California.

The Problem of God in Modern Thought ranged over Leibniz, Kant, Spinoza, Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. Upon reading it Cobb enthused that "we now have a powerful new voice speaking for metaphysics—that of Philip Clayton . . . whose work helps end the period of contempt for metaphysics through which we have been passing." Though much of Clayton's position refashioned arguments long identified with the process school, his merger of Whitehead and Hegel was distinctive, and he plunged more deeply into quantum physics and neuroscience than most process theologians, prodding scientists to take seriously their own references to the "emergence" of the universe, thermodynamics, life, and complexity. The Whiteheadians were disappointed that Griffin's book on the mind-body problem, Unsnarling the World-Knot, won little attention from scientists and philosophers. They hoped that Clayton's entry into this field, Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness (2004) would change the picture, persuading scientists and philosophers to take seriously the plausibility of an emergent alternative to materialism/physicalism.19

In the meantime the institutional seat of process theology, the Ingraham chair at Claremont previously held by Cobb and Suchocki, needed to be filled. Clayton was the obvious choice, but many Whiteheadians winced at the prospect that it would go to an evangelical protegé of Pannenberg. His evangelical background and commitments, though barely visible in his books, were well known in the field. Was this another symbol of the decline of liberal theology, that even the Ingraham chair would go to an evangelical? Clayton seemed to waver in his theological identity, usually writing like a Whiteheadian, but taking a keen interest in evangelical "open theism." Upon joining the Claremont School of Theology faculty and assuming the co-directorship of its Center for Process Studies in 2003, he emphasized his commitment to process theology, remarking that "for any process thinker, to come to Claremont is like making the pilgrimage to Mecca." He trusted that his new colleagues would not hold him to any kind of orthodoxy: "I think the process community here is ready to follow new developments in the understanding of process realities—wherever they may lead." That statement was simultaneously unassailable and worrisome to Whiteheadian liberals.20

But Clayton already realized where his arguments were taking him. In March 2005, in the opening sentence of his inaugural address as the Ingraham Professor, he put to rest any lingering doubts: "I am a liberal Christian." Process theology is a liberal project, he affirmed; his longstanding attraction to process theology had belatedly turned him into a liberal; and so the "crisis of liberalism" had become personal to him. For years he had disapproved of liberal theology because it lacked conviction and spirit; now he was committed to doing something about it: "Liberal Christians are not accustomed to speaking in ringing tones today. But why? We have an equally clear and powerful heritage, albeit one that does not separate black so clearly from white. It's time for a new vision for liberal theology (and for CST) between church, academy, and world." The distinctive strength of the liberal tradition is its quest for "a full and powerful integration," Clayton argued. "It's time to regain a sense of that noble tradition."21

"Liberal integration" was his master concept. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an apostle of it, and in theology so were Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Troeltsch, Rauschenbusch, and Tillich. Liberals of the early twenty-first century lived "in a sort of political Dark Ages," but that was no reason to give up the liberal dream of integration and social justice, for theology had important integrative work to do in dealing with religious and cultural pluralism, the relation of science and religion, complex ethical problems, the struggle to integrate faith and politics, conflicts between religious liberals and evangelicals, and the relation of theory and practice. Clayton cited Peter Berger on the agenda of liberal theology: the old liberalism was about meeting the challenge of modernity, but the new liberalism had to grapple with religious and cultural pluralism. Post-modernized Americans, faced with a wider array of religious options than their parents, increasingly opted for dogmatic certainty or secular disbelief. The task for contemporary liberals is to creatively stand for a third choice, Clayton argued, neglecting to note that that was exactly what defined liberal theology from the beginning.22

Evangelicals dealt with science by walling off conclusions that conflicted with their religious beliefs; Barthians, postliberals, and neo-Kantians inoculated themselves from scientific refutation; Clayton was happy to be finished with cognitive bargaining and inoculation games: "It is our calling and our right to enter fully into the scientific project, either as scientists or in dialogue with scientists. As a scholar in this field, I need have no fear of any success in science; I share the excitement of each new advance in explanation." He believed in the emergence of spirit, but was prepared to learn that consciousness is not a causal force. He believed in the rootage of moral truth in the nature of things, but was prepared to learn that values are a product of "selfish gene" struggles to survive the evolutionary process. As a liberal he believed in accepting the best explanation, not the one that he wanted. On the other hand, he believed that the evidence stood against pure materialism/physicalism. The natural sciences cannot answer some of their own crucial questions, "metaphysical questions that lead right into the heart of theology." The self-replicating organisms of biology emerge from physics; conscious beings with advanced cultures emerge from biology; questions about the meaning and destiny of life emerge from human existence. Clayton urged that "we need persons with the courage and the expertise" to discern the intimations of transcendence in natural process.23

Reaching for the strongest way of expressing the necessity of liberal theology, he declared that "only liberal theologians" are suited and positioned to integrate science and religion. Integration is "the birthright of liberal Christianity," Clayton observed. By its nature and history, liberalism works constantly to integrate the best human knowledge with the Christian tradition: "It takes some courage; it takes a prophetic voice; it takes a hatred of the trivial; it takes a willingness to be hard-nosed; it takes a constant refusal to become self-absorbed." Some of his friends admonished that theologians raised too many questions and allowed too much doubt. He replied: "Forgive my strong response. I am a convert to liberal Christianity, so I bring the passion of the convert rather than the jaundiced eye of the cynical thinker." Liberal theology is a great tradition and "a high calling," he exhorted; what it lacks is convictional advocates: "God knows, in the present political climate liberal Christians need passion—earth-shaking passion—when we speak of our faith."24

A hundred years after the liberals gained control of Harvard and effectively began the tradition of American liberal theology, it faces an ambiguous future. On the one hand the pluralization of theology, the beginning of a religion-science dialogue, and the mere beginnings of multiperspectival interreligous thinking make the twenty-first century the most interesting time in history to pursue theology. Liberals are strong on the skills, tools, sensibility, and attitude needed for engaging in interdisciplinary and interreligious thinking. They do not have to compromise their fundamental principles to practice theology as multiperspectival conversation or interreligious dialogue.

On the other hand liberal theologians have seen their house shrink while evangelicals redefine the sociological meaning of "mainline Protestantism" and the Vatican stifles progressive currents in the Catholic church. Protestant evangelicals boast large membership gains and professional networks, while the scourge of liberal Catholicism, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, has ascended to the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI. The generation of theologians that returned to liberalism after the collapse of neo-orthodoxy retired at the end of the century, often to be replaced by theologians committed to postliberalism, evangelicalism, the "radical orthodoxy" movement, Catholic orthodoxy, or a variant of Protestant confessionalism. Having entered the 1980s outflanked by movements to its ideological left, liberal theology generally moved to the left, and struggled to find a public voice in a rightward-moving religious and political landscape.

Liberal theology has no purpose or integrity as anything but a progressive tradition. Its renewal does not depend on selling out its critical spirit or progressive heritage. Throughout its history, however, liberal theology has made its strongest appeal when it fuses its two heritages with spiritual power. From its Enlightenment/modernist heritage it has emphasized the authority of modern knowledge, affirmed the continuity between reason and revelation, championed the values of humanistic individualism and democracy, and usually distrusted metaphysical reason. From its evangelical heritage it has affirmed a personal transcendent God, the authority of Christian experience, the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption, and the importance of Christian missions.

The movement's historic figures—those who made liberal Christianity compelling to millions—were gospel-centered modernists who fused the two languages with conviction: Bushnell, Beecher, Rauschenbusch, Fosdick, Niebuhr, and King. Even Tillich can be counted in this group, though he was an exceptional case in several ways. Other influential proponents of liberal theology also fused the modernist and evangelical faiths: Gladden, Munger, Bowne, Clarke, Brown, Mathews, Macintosh, Harkness, Knudson, Mays, Van Dusen, Muelder, DeWolf, Ferré. In the past generation liberal evangelicalism has withered as an option for academic theologians, yet whenever liberal theology finds a large audience, it speaks a gospel of personal faith in biblical terms. Gomes, Borg, and even Spong are closer to Beecher and Fosdick than to the (narrow sense) "modernist" and postmodernist academic theologies of their generation. They explicate biblical texts and focus intently on what it means to have a personal faith in the postmodern age.

To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?

When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship. Today the loss of the transcendental, biblical voice in liberal theology is one important reason that much of it gets little notice. Liberals often show more concern about the postmodern status of their perspective than about the relationship of their perspective to gospel faith. But postmodernity is largely an academic phenomenon, a product of the rarefied atmosphere of the academy. Theologians in the tradition of Rauschenbusch, Harkness, and King should have more pressing concerns than trying to convince deconstructionists that theology is a legitimate academic enterprise.

For decades almost the entire liberal theology movement from Beecher and Munger, to Gladden and Rauschenbusch, to Brown and King, to Foster and Mathews, to Jones and Fosdick, to McConnell and Knudson, to Scudder and Harkness, to Mays and Thurman, to Niebuhr and Tillich, to Muelder and DeWolf, to King and Roberts used the language of personalist idealism in speaking of the ultimacy of spiritual personality. Many who did not embrace personalist metaphysics rooted their theology and preaching in an ecumenical version of it.

In its third generation the personalist school began to lose influence to process theology, which was strong in the very areas that personalism was weak. The mind-centered idealism of personalist metaphysics was weak on embodiment, nature, environmentalism, and even the reality of society (though Muelder provided corrections on the latter issue), and it made a weaker claim than Whitehead to an empirical basis. Despite its strong critique of philosophical substantialism, the personalist school remained stuck in the problems of substantialist metaphysics. It conjured a supreme person as its ultimate and even described this ultimate as a supreme being.

As a philosophy of spiritual personality, personalism was rooted in German idealism, but it preached superbly. Something like it needs to be recovered today if liberal theology is to have any hope of flourishing as a public and spiritual force: something like a gospel-centered theology of personal spirit. Instead of defining the spiritual in terms of the personal and moral, one might define the personal and moral in terms of the spiritual, fashioning a scripturally grounded theology of universal spirit and love. Ferré started down this path near the end of his career, as did Tillich in the third volume of his Systematic Theology and Peter Hodgson in Winds of the Spirit. Instead of privileging the categories of being or process, one might privilege the category of spirit, and within that concept the categories of personality and love, interpreting experiences of the Holy as expressions of universal Spirit. This option does not preclude a substantial appropriation of process theism, as the examples of Ferré and Hodgson differently suggest.25

More important than any particular proposal for a constructive theology is the fact that liberal theology, though deeply in crisis and declining in relationship to other movements, has also flourished in the past generation. The work of a recently retired generation led by Cobb, Griffin, Suchocki, Kaufman, McFague, and Farley has confirmed the necessity and enriched the discourse of a liberal option in theology. Others continue to teach and write liberal theology, notably Anderson, Borg, Burrow, Church, Clayton, Davaney, Johnson, Keller, Neville, Thandeka, Tracy, Rita Nakashima Brock, Lisa Cahill, Anna Case-Winters, Pam Couture, Mary Doak, Margaret Farley, Robert Franklin, Franklin Gamwell, David Hollenbach, Nancy Howell, Robin Lovin, Jennifer G. Jesse, Carol Johnston, Susan Nelson, June O'Connor, Samuel K. Roberts, Helene Russell, William Schweikert, Max Stackhouse, Linda Tessier, Emilie Townes, and Pamela Dickey Young. To recognize the paradoxical reality of liberal renewal within decline is to see, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the liberal tradition is still very much alive.


1. Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001); Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism & Modernity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003); Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony & Postmodernity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

2. James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970; Twentieth Anniversary Edition, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 30; Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, trans. John Drury (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976), 26.

3. Gustavo Gutierrez, "Two Theological Perspectives: Liberation Theology and Progressivist Theology," The Emergent Gospel: Theology from the Developing World, eds. Sergio Torres and Virginia Fabella (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1978), Papers from the Ecumenical Dialogue of Third World Theologians, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 5-12 August 1976, 227-255, quote 241.

4.  See Mark Ellingsen, The Evangelical Movement: Growth, Impact, Controversy, Dialog (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988); Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the Twenty-first Century (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993); Clark H. Pinnock and Delwin Brown, Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical/Liberal Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990); Clark H. Pinnock and Robert C. Brow, Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1994); Gary Dorrien, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998); Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, eds. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward (London: Routledge, 1999).

5. David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Griffin, Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).

6. Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 163-164; Avery Dulles, The Resilient Church: The Necessity and Limits of Adaptation (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1977), 78-79; Van A. Harvey, "The Pathos of Liberal Theology," review of Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology, by David Tracy, Journal of Religion 56 (1976), 382-391; Peter L. Berger, "Secular Theology and the Rejection of the Supernatural: Reflections on Recent Trends," Theological Studies 38 (March 1977), 39-56; Steven Webb, review of Heaven, the Logic of Eternal Joy, by Jerry L. Walls, Christian Century 119 (4-17 December 2002), 42.

7.  See Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979); see Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003); Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: Avon Books, 1996); , quotes 96, 144, 166; Gomes, The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

8. John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); Spong, Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992); Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994); Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996); Spong, Why Christianity Must Change orDie:ABishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), quotes 20, xix; see John Shelby Spong, This Hebrew Lord (New York: Seabury Press, 1974); Spong, Christpower (New York: Hale Publishing, 1975); Spong and Rabbi Jack D. Spiro, Dialogue: In Search of Jewish-Christian Understanding (New York: Seabury Press, 1975); Spong, The Easter Moment (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980); Spong, Into the Whirlwind: The Future of the Church (San Francisco: Harper & Row); Spong and Denise G. Haines, Beyond Moralism: A Contemporary View of the Ten Commandments (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986); Spong, Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000); Spong, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).

9. Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, 220-228, "the very heart," "Ground of Being," "universal presence," "the limitlessness," "a God presence" 220, 221, 226; John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), "razor's edge," "Christ experience," 115; "I have," "I do so," 240; see Spong, The Bishop's Voice: Selected Essays, ed. Christine M. Spong (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 54-58.

10. Marcus J. Borg, "Conflict as a Context for Interpreting the Teaching of Jesus," Doctoral dissertation, Oxford University, 1972; Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1984); Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (New York: HarperCollins, 1987).

11. Marcus J. Borg, "A Temperate Case for a Non-Eschatological Jesus," Foundations & Facets Forum 2 (September 1986), 81-102, reprinted in Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge, Pa: Trinity Press, 1994), 47-68; Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, 10-14; Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 164-206; Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 160-191.

12. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, quotes 25; Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 55-57; Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

13. Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 59-61; Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, 14-15; Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), quotes 15, 17; The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Scribner's, 1993); see Robert W. Funk, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996).

14. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, 69-140, "experiential awareness," 15; Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997); Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), "remarkable sacrament," 221; Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001); Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999); Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, "the dominant," 195.

15.  Spong, The Bishop's Voice: Selected Essays, 133-138, 234-238; Juli Cragg Hilliard, "The Peril and the Promise," Publishers Weekly: Religion Update 28 (November 2004), Borg quote, 7.

16. Carter Heyward, "We're Here, We're Queer: Teaching Sex in Seminary," Body and Soul: Rethinking Sexuality as Justice-Love, eds. Marvin M. Ellison and Sylvia Thorson-Smith (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003), 78-96, quote 93.

17. Philip Clayton, Explanation from Physics to Theology: An Essay in Rationality and Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); J. R. Hustwit, "Introducing Philip Clayton: An Interview," Process Perspectives 26 (Summer 2003), 4-6.

18. Philip Clayton, God and Contemporary Science (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), quote 245.

19. John B. Cobb, Jr., review of The Problem of God in Modern Thought, by Philip Clayton, Christian Century 119 (13-20 February 2002), 55-66, quotes 55, 66; David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley: University of California, 1998); Philip Clayton, Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

20. Hustwit, "Introducing Philip Clayton: An Interview," quotes 5, 6.

21. Philip Clayton, "The Many Faces of Integration: A New Vision for Liberal Theology (and for CST) between Church, Academy, and World," Inaugural Address, Ingraham Professor, Claremont School of Theology, 30 March 2005.

22. Ibid., 2-5; Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, 183; Berger, A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity, 46.

23. Ibid., quotes 7.

24. Ibid., quotes 7, 8, 9.

25.  See Nels F. S. Ferré, The Universal Word: A Theology for a Universal Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969); Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963); Peter C. Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.


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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2005-06, Vol. 55,  No 4.