Eric, I am… puzzled. Specifically, by this:
The short answer to the question, of course, is that there is. No one can reasonably deny it. There are liberal Christian theists. There are even liberal Christian atheists, though most of them do not put it quite so bluntly.
What is puzzling is that you spend most of the rest of this post talking about those Christian atheists — for, as you note, that is the only possible honest description of Freeman, Cuppitt, Spong, et al — without ever returning to support the claim that there is a liberal Christian theism. Given your prior posts on this subject, there seems to be an intrinsic problem of inconsistency between being genuinely liberal in one’s theology/theism and maintaining any sort of commitment to the scriptures as God’s Word. Frankly, I took that line of argument to be a quite reasonable basis for denying that there can be genuinely liberal Christian theism, because to be both Christian and theistic must at minimum require treating the Christian holy text *as* holy, with all the illiberal implications thereof — those implications being what makes Spong’s “sins of scripture” sinful in his estimation. Indeed, the only Christian theist you discuss in this post, C.H. Dodd, seems to be striving for theological liberalism but failing, because he cannot escape that traditional view of scriptures as being the authoritative “Word of God.” I fear perhaps that, desiring not to go on too long, you left out something important you’d intended to say.
So, is there a liberal Christian theism? I say yes, but then I have to qualify my yes. I was going to write this as a comment in response to our furry philosopher, but it seemed more appropriate to bring it up front and face it a bit more publicly.
Let’s start with Dodd, because I do not think that he fails to be a theological liberal. What I think happens in Dodd’s case is that he takes Christianity as being inherently liberal. The conclusions that he comes to in the course of his book on the authority of the Bible are liberal ones, not liberal so far as the idea of the inspiration and authority of the Bible goes, perhaps, but liberal insofar as the message of the Bible, as he understands it, turns out to lead to a religion with liberal values, broadly speaking. He takes the critical-historical conclusions about the Bible seriously, and then, within the parameters set by the “higher criticism,” endeavours to locate a liberal message of love and toleration, and finds it. You may say, if you like, that he is reading this message into the text, and that is true. But that is true of everyone who reads a text as a sacred text having authority. Christian doctrine cannot be read in the biblical text. It may have seemed natural to the first Christians to think of Jesus as divine, given what is said in the gospels, but at no point in the gospels is there a clear statement that Jesus is the Son of God. In fact, in Mark, Jesus goes to some trouble to stress that he is the Son of Man. So, if you want to take Jesus as the Son of God, or to understand God as Three Persons in One God, you have to do a lot of creative reading. Thus, reading a liberal message in the Bible is not all that hard, if you single out, for particular notice, certain developmental themes that run through the Bible as a whole, but I will let you read Dodd if you want to find out how he does it. Spong does essentially the same thing, though it is hard to think that Spong remains a theist, whilst Dodd certainly was.
That judgement may seem to conflict with what I say about Dodd, as when I say that this simply won’t work, because he brings his liberalism to the Bible. But everyone does that. As I said in the beginning, literalists are not so much literalists about the Bible as they are about the things that they bring to the Bible, the doctrines in the light of which they interpret it. That is the problem with revealed religions. There is simply no check that you can bring to bear that will mark out one reading of a holy text as the correct reading, thus, with the mark of a red pencil, turning all other readings into heresies. Of course, to be fair to Dodd, he has much more to go on than the evangelical protestant who refuses to read the Bible in a critical-historical way. For Dodd can show that there is indeed, if the biblical criticism available to him (and as he understood it) was right, a fairly clear trend in the Bible towards the development over time of a more humane religious ideal, from the very primitive tribal religion of the early patriarchs to the universal religion of the great prophets, and then, for the Christian, on to the Jesus of the gospels, whose good news is represented, not wholly without reason, if you cut away the some of the most egregious examples of sectarianism, as one of love, inclusion, and forgiveness. Dodd is an early example of this trend, which became more liberal as time progressed, producing such theologians as Maurice Wiles, Dennis Nineham, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Macquarrie, and many others. (You will not be surprised to discover that these are all Anglicans, with the exception of Niebuhr.) I might have chosen Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible as my example instead of Dodd’s, and that would show how much had been achieved in a more liberal understanding of Christianity between the 1920s and the 1970s, when Nineham’s book was written. My point is (and I did not make this as clearly as I thought) that these are in fact liberal trends within Christianity. They may fail to justify the claims they make of scripture as a source of revelation, but it is not for want of trying to do that, at the same time that they recognised the need to make what is thought to be revealed consistent with a more liberal understanding of what Christianity is about.
What interests me more, however, because it is more in tune with where I was at the time that I stopped taking an active part in the church, is the Sea of Faith type of Christianity, that accepts the Christian story, as Spong suggests, more or less as a cultural epic, and tries to live within that circumscribed understanding of the church’s sacred things, including Bible, liturgy, sacraments, etc., in such a way as to be at the same time contemporary, yet culturally faithful in its appropriation of the past. This provides at once a way of life that retains a link to the tradition, at the same time that it permits one to engage without qualification in the modern world, accepting the findings of science, including the scientific discoveries that have been made about the psychological and other factors that underlie religion, and engaging fully in the world as at once religious (in what most religious believers would judge an unacceptably attenuated way) and secular.
But that, I have argued, still won’t do, and it won’t do for fairly straightforward reasons, and if this kind of liberal religion won’t do, then genuinely believing liberalism won’t do either. The problem as I see it is simply this. Even this attenuated belief system, in which religion is recognised as a human creation, not least its gods, still leaves too much of religion in place. It seems pointless to try to create a liberal religion from scratch, for then it would lack all seriousness. What gives religion the extra jolt of psychological gravitas is its long tradition; however, if that long tradition is retained to provide the sense of depth to the experience of religious belonging, it brings along with it all the other aspects of religion which are, in fact, not only illiberal, but often downright dangerous. It is all very well for some members of the Christian family to claim, as do the Sea of Faithers, that they only accept Christianity as a human creation, including the gods that are worshipped and the liturgical practices which, in their original context, bespoke the “real” presence of the god being worshipped; but it is hard to see how this can be done without leaving all this cultural impedimenta in place for those who will eventually think of the Sea of Faith interpretation as a departure from the true faith. In other words, everything that those in the Sea of Faith movement find objectionable about religion will be left in place to be picked up by some zealous reformer in years to come, whose zealotry will be that much more dangerous because a reaction to what is perceived as godless unfaithfulness. I see no way of obviating this problem. If I had seen such a way, I might still be a member in good standing of my church. Greta Vosper, whose book With or Without God I have not read, may think differently, but I see no way of making a religion safe for liberal believers, let alone liberal unbelievers; therefore, it seems to me, we are better off opposing religion entirely.
That, of course, does not mean that I do not think that something may be missing when we do that. As I said in my last post, it is hard to believe that the loss of something to which so much creative energy has been devoted, as so much energy has been devoted to religion, will not be culturally impoverishing. I may agree with Richard Dawkins when he speaks about the wonder of the natural world, and how much more wonderful it is when we understand its inner workings; but this is not obviously something which can take the place of the social and cultural functions of religion. And there are other things that will be lacking too. Religion has a way of providing a place for the most ordinary of ordinary persons to play a role within a living community, a role which can, in fact, contribute much to the richness of a person’s inner life, giving them a sense of identity that they would lack without the social participation that religion provides them. It also enables people to take their inner lives seriously, to refine them in various ways — the rite of self-examination and confession, for example, is often a liberating and deepening experience for those involved, in much the same way that psychoanalysis can be – and to attune them with the inner lives of others. To take but one example, almost all religions have evolved rituals and customs surrounding death that help people assimilate loss in creative ways. I could go on, but will forbear. My point is only that, at the same time that I do not see a way in which these aspects of religion can be preserved without at the same time preserving the dangerous and damaging aspects of religion, we are left with the realisation that with the loss of religion (were that to happen, which is unlikely) there would be some cultural impoverishment too. In this respect, I suppose, though I have not read his book, I am agreeing with de Botton. On the other hand, it would be a good thing if humanists could devise some reasonable alternative to those characteristics of religion the loss of which prevents religious adherents from abandoning commitment to religious institutions they no longer fully support.