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Liberal theology, vibrant but hidden

Unitarian Universalism was liberal theology's first home, but we have neglected it lately.
By Christopher L. Walton
Fall 2007 8.18.07

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Gary Dorrien

Gary Dorrien, author of The Making of American Liberal Theology.

Liberal theology is in crisis. Almost no one has heard of it, fewer people can explain it, and even the churches that have historically embraced some version of it are largely alienated from its increasing academic specialization. Meanwhile, divinity schools and theology departments are being marginalized by other scholarly disciplines. (Why ask a theologian when you can ask an economist?) Too academic for the church and too religious for the university, liberal theology also faces renewed challenges from conservative orthodoxy. Critics from Pope Benedict XVI to the American evangelical establishment blast liberal theologians for revising doctrines to accommodate the findings of modern science and history and for embracing changing views of human sexuality and gender.

Nonetheless, according to a masterful new history of liberal theology in America, liberal theology is alive and kicking. What’s more, its central insights are as relevant now as they’ve ever been. But liberal theology cannot influence American society without religious communities that embody it and demonstrate its vitality—or without popular advocates who translate it into forms the general public will embrace. You’d think that’s where we come in.

One of the many ironies of Unitarian Universalism is that our tradition, liberal theology’s first American home, has neglected theology. Uncomfortable promoting our religious ideas in public, we advertise our social justice commitments and our desire for diversity, sometimes failing to notice that many denominations share these commitments. We promote our political alliances, calling Unitarian Universalism part of the “religious left.” Too rarely do we make the liberal case for thinking about religion or being part of a religious tradition. We are missing an opportunity.


In three volumes and almost 1,800 pages, The Making of American Liberal Theology tells the 200-year history of an intellectual tradition that we Unitarian Universalists should reclaim even as we pursue a broader approach. Gary Dorrien introduces the ideas of 76 major liberal theologians with biographical chapters that set each thinker in historical context. Dorrien, who is now the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York and Professor of Religion at Columbia, is an ardent champion of his subject. “I believe that liberal theology has been and remains the most creative and influential tradition of theological reflection since the [Protestant] Reformation,” he writes in the introduction to Volume 1, Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900, published in 2001.

Dorrien defines liberal theology fundamentally as “the idea of a Christian perspective based on reason and experience, not external authority.” In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this meant Christianity interpreted in the light of modern knowledge and promoted as an ethical way of life. In the twentieth century, however, liberationist critics savaged liberalism for “universalizing the experiences or theories of white, male, heterosexual, middle-class academics,” while other scholars criticized liberalism’s openness to modern thought as a dangerous liaison with conventional opinion. But Dorrien argues that liberal theology, by virtue of its critical temperament, has grown responsive to these criticisms and developed new approaches influenced by them. (Liberalism’s adaptability is one of its key virtues.) One sign of this responsiveness is Dorrien’s sympathetic treatment of feminist, liberationist, and postmodernist critics of liberal theology. Each volume includes women theolog­ians, even though the academic world openly discriminated against them during the periods covered by the first two volumes.

As Unitarian Universalists have moved away from identifying with Christianity, it might seem that Dorrien’s definition no longer applies to us. To be sure, the UU theological conversation these days includes humanists, Buddhists, neopagans, liberation and antioppression theologians, radical feminists, and postmodern theologians. But, as the Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, a UU liberal theologian, put it at the 2007 General Assembly, “While we may be post-Christian, it matters that it’s Christian that we’re post.” Ongoing dialogue with liberal Christians will help us in our own more diverse conversation by keeping our roots alive.

Clearly and confidently written, these books offer a heady tour. I spent four years on a Master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School, but I had the odd experience reading Dorrien’s trilogy that I was finally getting the theological education I had wanted. At the same time, even after so many pages—and so many complex ideas—these volumes only introduce hundreds of books I know I will never read. At least I know where to start.


The story of American liberal theology begins in New England in the late 1700s, when a handful of Boston-area pastors called for a modern, rational Christianity. Their Enlighten­ment ideas, set against the Calvinism of the Great Awakening in which modern evangelicalism was born, gave rise to American Unitarianism at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Although UUs are justifiably proud of these early theological liberals, the story of American liberal theology hasn’t always been told with Unitarians in starring roles. A competing storyline, which has dominated scholarship for most of the past century, emphasizes the introduction of German biblical and theological scholarship to the United States in the late 1800s, rooted in the work of Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. The dominant view treats liberalism as a latecomer—and usually gives it an early death, too, treating it as a burst of Victorian exuberance about human nature that died in the world wars.

Dorrien returns Unitarianism to its formative role in shaping American liberal theology. (He does not discuss Universalism.) Volume 1 devotes the first 110 pages to the theology of William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker, figures well known to UU ministers and scholars. Dorrien argues especially for the importance of Theodore Parker: “He was the first American to present a nearly full-orbed liberal view of Christianity in the nineteenth-century sense of the term; and he is the pivotal figure of the Unitarian tradition, the one from whom its neo-Christian and humanistic traditions both derive.”

But Unitarians don’t appear at all in Dorrien’s second volume, subtitled Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900–1950, which describes the rise—and fall—of liberal theology as the dominant tradition in divinity schools and mainline Protestant seminaries in the early twentieth century. He explains Uni­tarians’ absence: “American Unitarianism took a humanistic, arguably post-Christian turn in the late nineteenth century that arrested its theological creativity.” He adds that even the best religious-humanist theology of the time was developed outside Unitarianism. Again, students of UU history will not be entirely surprised: Few look back to the period from 1880 to 1930 as a highpoint of intel­lectual creativity in our movement. But it is daunting to recognize just how fertile liberal theology was elsewhere, with centers at Union Theological Seminary, Boston University, and the University of Chicago.

Unitarians reappear in Volume 3, Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950–2005. James Luther Adams (1901–1993) is the most important Unitarian in the book. Dorrien devotes the first part of a chapter called “Visions of Liberation” to Adams. Adams was “the conscience of his generation,” Dorrien writes, an influential teacher who insisted that theological liberalism must emphasize social transformation. “Repeatedly he lamented that theological liberalism as a whole, and his beloved Unitarian tradition most especially, lacked the power of world-changing commitment that comes from decision and spiritual conversion,” Dorrien writes. Adams argued that “religious liberalism has faith in humanity not because of reason alone, but because human beings possess the relative, volitional, dangerous power to participate in the divine creativity.”

Adams influenced a generation of social and religious ethicists but his legacy for Unitarian Univer­salism is ambiguous: “Though rather isolated as a Christian theist in the Unitarian (later Unitarian Universalist) denomination, he was the most connected, ecumenical, activist-oriented, and least lonely of its theologians.”

Some readers might complain that Dorrien does not count Henry Nelson Wieman, Charles Hartshorne, or Bernard Loomer as Unitarians. These three important figures in the development of naturalistic theology and process theology did join Unitarian or UU congregations late in their careers, but their work does not make explicit connections to the Unitarian theological tradition. (Dorrien discusses Wieman in Volume 2 and Hartshorne and Loomer in Volume 3.)

Dorrien highlights two contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologians. He is especially interested in the way Thandeka and Forrest Church reinterpret classic liberal approaches.

The Rev. Dr. Thandeka, a UU minister and senior research professor at Meadville Lombard Theo­logical School, has developed a novel interpretation of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theory of religious knowledge in The Embodied Self. Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the father of European liberal theology, addressed his arguments to the intel­lectually sophisticated skeptics of his day and taught that individual religious experience, not external authority, is the root of religious knowledge. Thandeka argues that “to be an embodied self is to feel the congruence of mind and body with the self’s environment,” Dorrien writes; this feeling of congruence reveals our “intersubjective reality.” Thandeka promotes small-group ministry, in which people pay attention to each other as a way of experiencing this primal intersubjective truth.

Dorrien observes that the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City and a prolific author, has shifted from his early identification with the rationalist liberalism of The Jefferson Bible (which he edited) to a “more personal, Emersonian universalism,” especially in A Chosen Faith and Bringing God Home. Dorrien highlights several of Church’s distinctive theological aphorisms: Religion is a human response “to the dual reality of being alive and having to die”; “Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny”; and God is a name for “that which is greater than all and yet present in each,” like light that can be seen through many windows in “the cathedral of the world.” Dorrien argues that Church offers a pluralistic and modern reinterpretation of Transcendentalism, drawing on the Unitarian and Universalist traditions to offer a fresh liberal faith.


Dorrien concludes by observing that liberal theology has enjoyed an “unnoticed renaissance” in the late twentieth century. Its most creative figures—including Langdon Gilkey, Gordon Kaufman, J. Deotis Roberts, Sallie McFague, David Tracy, Ian Barbour, and Elizabeth Johnson—rival the great theologians of earlier generations. Ironically, most recent scholars worked as solo performers, not as part of a self-conscious theological tradition; only Whiteheadian process theology is clearly a school of thought. As academic specialists, however, their writing is often in­accessible not just to laypeople but to many ministers as well. Academic liberal theology has moved to the left as the larger culture has shifted, religiously and politically, to the right. And this brings us to the most urgent challenge of his book.

Liberal theology needs popular, public advocates. Dorrien points to three active today: retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, biblical scholar Marcus Borg (an Episcopalian), and Harvard preacher Peter J. Gomes. Spong argues passionately for a modern alternative to orthodoxy and secular disbelief, but he presents his ideas as wholly new, leaving readers unaware that liberal theology has old roots and many other branches. Borg draws on research into the historical Jesus to present Jesus as a Jewish mystic, inviting readers to experience the Bible and the contemporary church as metaphorical invitations to a life of spirit. Dorrien, himself an Episcopal priest, remarks on the irony of Episcopalians becoming liberal theology’s most visible champions: “Late entrants rule.” But he draws a sharper lesson: Liberal theology’s “historic figures—those who made liberal Christianity compelling to millions—were gospel-centered modernists who fused [Enlightenment modernism with biblical language] with conviction,” naming Henry Ward Beecher, Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King Jr. as exemplars. Spong, Borg, and Gomes follow in this tradition.

Our challenge as Unitarian Universalists is to find our own way to share our liberal theological legacy. Dorrien’s trilogy shows us that our tradition is not as unique as we may have thought, but the good news is we have kindred spirits throughout liberal Protestantism and even among Roman Catholics. We’d learn much in dialogue with these friends—and might find our own public voice.


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