Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Liberal Christianity, Progressive Christianity or Liberalism is movement of Christianity that is characterised by these points;
- diversity of opinion
- a non-literal view of scripture
- an intimate and personal view of God
- wider scope in their views on salvation (including universalist beliefs)
- non-traditional views on heaven and hell
- an emphasis on inclusive fellowship and community
- an embracing of higher criticism of the Bible.
Difficulties in definition
Diversity of opinion is a defining characteristic of Liberal Christianity. It is this particular aspect of Liberal Christianity that makes it so hard to define in a absolute sense. The movement exists in all denominations throughout the Christian world. It is often described as 'modernism' but modernism might more accurately be described as a subset of Liberal Christianity as not all liberal christians are modernists. The American 'Christian Right' might describe it as the 'Christian Left' which is also somewhat of a misnomer. These would be the labels of those who have some division with Liberal Christianity, which sees itself as a much broader and all encompassing movement. Due to it's relations to progressive thinking, Liberal Christianity is often described as Progressive Christianity in an attempt to redefine Liberal Christianity as distinct from it's previous association with modernism, as more postmodernist views become part and parcel of the liberal christian dialogue. It is even difficult to draw a distinction along theological lines in terms of the individual at least, as many who would subscribe to the label liberal christian have a mix of conservative theological positions and liberal theological positions. To be left or right politically is also not a defining factor in Liberal Christianity.
Ultimately, the word liberal is describing a more progressive attitude towards christianity based on individualism, in it's emphasis on individual subjective experience, and liberalism, in it's respect for the freedom of the individual to hold and express their views outside of conservative orthodoxy and tradition. Most often the area of disagreement is when there is a perception of a lack of compassion, mercy, love and inclusive community within the traditional conservative stance.
Characteristics of Liberal Christianity
Different and varied views are encouraged, in Liberal Christianity, as each individual seeks to express their own experience of christianity. Ambiguity and non-conformity, replace the conservative christian tendency towards definitive and conformist outlooks. New ways of approaching God and talking about Christianity are encouraged. With this sense of ambiguity and the emphasis on individual expression, dogmatic statements and claims of absolute truth are not part of the dialogue amongst liberal christians. Many liberal Christians can and do hold conservative postions, the contrast between Liberal Christianity and Conservative Christianity, is in the emphasis on not rejecting diversity of opinion on dogmatic grounds. The search for truth is an ongoing task rather than something that has been completed. The Apostle Paul's statement , sums up this attitude that prevails in liberal christian thinking,
- "For now we see through a glass, darkly;"1 Corinthians 13:12
A non-literal view of scripture, is common amongst liberal christians. Many view the Bible as a book written by men who were inspired about God, rather than an innerrant view of the Bible as a divinely inspired book, written by God through men. Historical contexts and higher criticisms of the Bible play an important part in how they relate their faith and belief to a modern world.
An intimate and personal view of God, is another hallmark of Liberal Christianity. Each person comes to their own understanding of the who, what, how and why questions relating to the nature and purpose of God. Each persons has their own perception of how God moves and works in their lives.
Liberal Christianity tends to have a wider scope in their views on salvation (including universalist beliefs). This inclusiveness often extends to those outside of mainstream christianity who do not declare themselves as 'christians' in the orthodox sense of the word. Right action generally takes precedence over right belief.
Many non-traditional views on heaven and hell and prevalent amongst liberal christians. These range from ideas about seperation from God or temporal punishment to the belief in there being no hell. Views on heaven are similarly varied in their prevalence.
There is an emphasis on inclusive fellowship and community amongst liberal christians. With their more inclusive views on views on God, salvation, women, homosexuality, scripture, and creation the emphasis is placed on people living together in a community based on values of compassion, mercy, and affirmation of human dignity, as opposed to a focus on sinfulness and moral rectitude.
Liberal theology is a branch of religious thinking which emerged in the late 18th and early 19th century, in the wake of The Enlightenment. Like political Liberalism that was emerging at the same time, Liberal theology stresses the value and importance of the individual. Liberal theology became dominant in the mainline churches in the 20th century, though that dominance was waning by the early 21st century with the rise of Evangelical and Fundamentalist movements in Christianity and the associated biblical literalism inherent in these movements.
The tenets of Liberal theology
- Liberal theology is individualistic, and as such values personal and subjective religious experience above doctrines, Church authority or the literal word of scripture.
- It claims that a religion is a community of individuals united by common intuitions and experiences, and therefore the value of the Church is in providing a supportive framework in which new conceptions of God can be explored, not in issuing decrees, upholding rigid dogmas or in exercising power over the religious community.
- It maintains that, while God remains immutable, theists relationship with, and understanding of God change through history, and therefore that no religious truths are necessarily fixed, as each person's experience can reveal a novel aspect of God.
Liberal theology and religious language
Liberal theologians view religious language (i.e. descriptions of God, or of religious experience) as inevitably limited. Our language belongs to the world of phenomena, whereas religious experiences exist in the realm of noumena, so no matter how hard we try, our language can never describe God factually, but only in metaphors and analogies, symbols and myths etc.
These myths, analogies etc. are important in forming religious communities and traditions, and can be a useful way of expressing a particular thought or feeling about God, but we cannot hope for them to sum up God's nature (God is non-reducible, non-naturalisable, and essentially ineffable).
One of the original Liberal theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher argued that theology's place was to describe internal feelings, rather than external truths or facts.
The interpretation of the Bible (hermeneutics) within liberal theology is non-propositional. This means that liberal theologians do not take the Bible as an inventory of factual statements such as 'God divided the light from the darkness', but rather interpret the Bible as a document of the human authors' beliefs and feelings about God at the time of its writing, within a historical and cultural context.
Therefore, religious models and concepts must be updated to reflect the class, gender, social and political etc. context from which they emerge, so that they will appear relevant and interesting. Liberal theologians would not make the claim that any particular apostle's account of their religious experiences could be any more true, or more relevant to an individual than the experience of the individual themselves.
Liberal theology has also been the theistic group most prominent in Biblical criticism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Liberal Christian Theologians and Authors
- Marcus Borg
- Rudolf Bultmann (sometimes considered "neo-liberal" since he rejected some of Liberalism's tenets)
- Karl Heinrich Graf
- Albert Schweitzer
- John Shelby Spong
- Julius Wellhausen
- Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher is often called the "father of liberal theology". He claimed that religious experience was introspective, and that the truest understanding of God consisted of 'a sense of absolute dependence'.
- William Ellery Channing was a pioneering liberal theologian in the USA, who criticised the doctrine of the Trinity and the strength of scriptural authority, in favour of more rationalistic and historicital beliefs.
- Adolf von Harnack was a German liberal theologian who sought to return Christianity's focus to the teachings of Jesus, away from complex structures of thought about Jesus and faith.
- Paul Tillich synthesized Protestant Christian theology with existentialist philosophy.
- John Robinson writer of Honest to God
- Christian socialism
- Emerging Church
- Feminist theology
- Liberation theology
- Postmodern Christianity
- Process theology
- Social Gospel
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