The Limits of Labels

I have insomnia tonight – a rare occasion these days. I’m not in the mood to read any more about the use of Gadamer’s hermeneutical circle in Practical Theology so I brewed some coffee and revisited some of the online happenings from the past couple of months.

I found 3 pairs of things that I think are worth bringing up again. I will attempt to state everything in the positive as much as possible.

A couple of months ago, I made a case for the usefulness of labels. That included a couple of clarifiers:

  • that the label was used to more accurately locate a person or a thought – and not as a pejorative.
  • that the label was used accurately and not as a means to marginalize or discredit someone.

As I have attempted to make clear in various places, that when those two conditions are not the case it can be not only unhelpful, but flat-out inaccurate.

The second thing I thought was worth revisiting is that original Roger Olson article that got all of this started. Dr. Olson proclaims why he is not a liberal christian. I too have declared that I am not a liberal christian. However, I vary from Olson in my approach in several key ways.

  1. I say that being a liberal christian is a perfectly valid thing to be and that if I were one I would be so proudly. Dr. Olson doesn’t seem to have such a favorable disposition to it.
  2. I attempt to make a distinction between ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’. Dr. Olson uses them seemingly interchangeably – especially in the beginning of his article. That impacts his conclusions later on.

These two points of departure are illustrative. I say something positive about the liberal tradition and I distinguish it from the ongoing trajectory of some of it’s heirs.

Here is why that is significant:

First, Dr. Olson references 2 renowned scholars as to their summation of the Liberal tradition.

  • Claude Welch: “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity” in theology.
  • Gary Dorrien: defines liberal religion as rejection of any authority outside the self.

I find myself in neither of these maxims. I know people who fit them to a ‘T’ though.
I ,however, have engaged far too much post-colonial, liberation and feminist theology and am too deep into the hermeneutical turn to be there.

Second – and most importantly – Dr. Olson uses the term freely to say “If you don’t hold to this traditional/classical position .. I think of you as a Liberal.” I am saying that the term should be used very specifically by:

  1. Its historical connection to the tradition of Schleiermacher. 
  2. Its basis in the centrality of the conception of the self as primary.
  3. Its ongoing expression as a ‘constellation of loyalties’ that are in line with the previous two as well as in contrast with Conservative/Fundamentalist positions on the ‘foundationalist’ spectrum.

I don’t follow Schleiermacher, I don’t subscribe to the primacy of the self and I am post-foundational. I am therefore 0 for 3 in the classic conception of liberalism.

I hope these clarifications help clear things up. I have been very grateful for the robust conversation of the past weeks. The pushback has helped me greatly to clear up my position here and hopefully to avoid some of the confusion in future conversations by listing the 3 distinguishing marks of liberalism as well as Welch’s and Dorrien’s summations.

 

 

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26 comments
willhouk
willhouk

Ok Bo I listened to the Liberal Masterclass podcast. I got another question for you.

Towards the end of the podcast you started talking about Ottati and Hodgson as examples of contemporary Liberal theologians. Tripp said that Ottati had three main points, decentralizing the human, decentralizing western culture, and his Christology (which Tripp said he disagreed with but didn't go into detail). It sounded to me like hist idea of decentralizing the human does not line up with the primacy of the self. Am I understanding one or both of those terms incorrectly? As I understand it now (I could be totally wrong, correct me if I am) the self as primary means a connection to the Enlightenment ideal of humanism that we need to start with the individual and focus on human reason. It sound like Ottati and Hodgson rejected that idea. What do you think?


philstyle
philstyle

OK, this is critical.

  • that the label was used to more accurately locate a person or a thought – and not as a pejorative.
  • that the label was used accurately and not as a means to marginalize or discredit someone

Unfortunately it's too often that the above conditions are not met. Humans are, unfortunately,  pretty bad at communication...  

Kurt van Kraut
Kurt van Kraut

Bo, let me defend Schleiermacher for a moment, hopefully in a way that speaks to this debate. When he gives 'primacy to the self', that's not to be misconstrued as a statement about authority (as in: 'nobody tell me what to do, least of all God and the church'), but about the hermeneutical difficulty to speak about transcendent realities in any other way than by starting with the self. Even Barth acknowledged as much. Schleiermacher also responds to what's problematic with the Kantian and Cartesian self in separation from actual human embodiment and whatnot, and so he tries to describe divine revelation in as much as it leaves a trace in a human subject in the world of finite sensory experience.

In other words, he is attempting to locate the transcendent divine within the immanent world of human experience - universal experience as human beings tend to have them, mind you, not 'I feel that God spoke to me yaddayaddayadda' experiences that are completely unverifiable by anybody else. In this, he might sound very colonial, assuming that one privileged white man's experience of God is also everybody else's experience, but in fact, he has ample place for the always-new work of the Holy Spirit continuously creating the church in a given context.

There's *plenty* more, but I just wanted to say that Schleiermacherian theological thought jives with post-foundationalism, and the important PoMo critiques of what went wrong with Decartes and modernity. And while I don't self-describe as 'liberal' because some nitwits over at Fox News have hijacked that term and misapplied it both theologically and politically, I am very comfortable thinking theologically, and trying to make sense of God, in a way inspired by the tradition inaugurated by the ol'Schleierdude. If he had a cooler name, you could call me Schleiermacherian. But he doesn't, so let's not. :-) 


willhouk
willhouk

One other question. I read the link on hermeneutics, at least part of it, and it seems to me that Schleiermacher is foundational to hermeneutic thought.  If this is correct I'm confused as to why you would not be a follower of Schleermacher, but you are into hermeneutics. Did hermeneutics take a turn away from Schleiermacher after his death so that he's not so closely related to it anymore?

willhouk
willhouk

Hey Bo. I've been following the conversation on the other thread. Even though I took the High Gravity course this summer, I still feel left in the dust as far as some of these terms go. 

Primacy of the self and post-foundational are two terms that I have no context for. It seems like the point of the article is to establish what "liberal" theology is so I won't ask for a definition of that.

I'm starting to think that the GOP propaganda campaign in the 90s to discredit the term "liberal" was the most effective war on a single word in the history of mankind. In the political/historical realm the term "liberal" is so confusing. It refers to people identifying with Enlightenment principles as opposed to the "conservative" monarchies. But when you say "liberal" all people can think of are Bill Clinton and 90s/2000s Democrats. Is this the case in theology as well? I am super confused.


jdharrison
jdharrison

Bo, I'm wondering if you might elaborate a little more on your list of what qualifies someone as liberal theologically. You say the term should be used "very specifically" to refer to people who fall into three categories, but those seem to be pretty general.

"The tradition of Schleiermacher" is almost as broad as saying "the tradition of Luther" with reference to Protestantism. :)

I think I know what you mean by "centrality of the self" (i.e. something like the transcendental unity of reason being the only criterion by which we can know things objectively.) If that's not what you mean, then some clarification would be useful, but if that is what you mean, then that really doesn't have anything to do with Schleiermacher, since he didn't think Understanding could be the starting point (do not read foundation) of religion (I take Understanding to be what most postmodern folks typically mean when they talk about knowing things "objectively.") If you just mean experience more generally, that's a problem too since Schleiermacher only ever talks about the experience of a "feeling of absolute dependence"--again, not the same thing as what most postmodern folks understand as "experience" as it relates to Humean empiricism or something like that. Finally, even if you took Schleiermacher to mean that the feeling of absolute dependence is super important for theology/religion in general, it actually isn't his starting point--it's the conclusion of his theology. Even though the Glaubenslehre begins with his explanation of the feeling, he explains later in his letters to his friend, Friedrich Lücke, that he intended it to be the culmination of his theology but thought that readers would be disappointed his system didn't end with a proper climax (i.e. an eschatology.) His claim was that theology doesn't point us back to "Knowledge" of God (in either the rationalist Cartesian sense or the transcendental idealist sense) but to a feeling of absolute dependence, the "Whence" of which is God.

I say all of this only to illustrate the point that there is a really important difference between "liberalism" in theology and "liberal theology." The former is usually a caricature of the latter. The former is created by both academics reading the latter and lay people trying to put the latter into practice.

To use an analogy, Kant writes about and explains Kant's philosophy. Fichte is a Kantian. If you read Fichte and think you're reading what Kant actually says in the Critique of Pure Reason, you're making a big mistake. Kantianism ≠ Kant. Similarly, Schleiermacher is certainly a liberal theologian, arguably the father of liberal theology, but it would be a mistake to say that all the various strands of liberalism can more or less be traced back to something in Schleiermacher.

All of this to say that I think it is entirely possible to be within the tradition of "liberal theology" without falling into certain depictions of "liberalism" and be able to engage more than adequately with post-colonial, feminist, post-etc. critiques. I believe this was mentioned in a different post, but Tillich, while by no means perfect, is a good example of this. Sorry for the long comment.

Matt Cumings
Matt Cumings

You should create a Sanders Taxonomy of Theology for Happy People.

Matt Cumings
Matt Cumings

That's a legit rubric for categorizing. Shaping the filter in a positive way should lead to more fruitful discussion so maybe one day we can affirm and learn from one another instead of argue. I hear beer helps with this too.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@willhouk Let's ask Tripp when he get back from NC :)  I have only read one Ottati and no Hodgson ...  so.

The truth is that this isn't in my region of study much at all. I only know the historical markers and authors as they relate to my field.  Sorry I  couldn't be more helpful.   -Bo 

jdharrison
jdharrison

@philstyle Okay, but unfortunately, I think you're wrong on both points.

First, I don't think Bo is a mean guy or anything, but the way that he is defining liberal definitely has negative connotations. The implication is that liberal theology cannot be the way into critique because it's 50+ years behind the curve. I don't see that as a good thing.

Second, the label is probably not being used accurately if this is the working definition of liberal theology, hence the comments. Saying liberal theology has not signed on to the critiques of critical theory, post-structuralism, etc. has, at the very least, the implication of discrediting (though marginalizing would be far too strong.)

That's why, for me, I'm not really interested anymore in whether or not a specific person today can or should be classified as liberal. I'm questioning the definition being used to make those distinctions.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@willhouk The progression has come so far that and has been accelerated so intensely in the last half of the 20th century that I never even seen his name come up. It has just advanced so far. 

It is like modern biologist not needing to read Darwin or modern economists not having read Adam Smith  :)  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@willhouk Alright ... let's see if I can be helpful on this one :) 

#1 So take a listen to this older TNT podcast called Liberal Masterclass where Tripp and I have some fun both the historical term and it's political application (which is a different variety).

#2  Here is a short post from the Global Dictionary of Theology about Liberalism and the centrality of the notion of the self. http://books.google.com/books?id=ncqkZnDSeo4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=global+dictionary+of+theology&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ytILUu6aBYG9yAHu_YH4Cg&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=liberal%20theology&f=false

#3 Here is a great and easy to read book if you want to look beyond Foundationalism Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context

#4 The political expression and the theological are almost unrelated for most people at this point. Loosely at best. You might find the rare example but ... 

#5 I am sorry to hear of your being lost in HG this summer. I wrote those initial Cliff Notes for you. Thanks for the honest and good questions.   -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@jdharrison I mean don't tell anyone else this but ... I'm practically a communitarian on most of this stuff.  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@jdharrison Joel :) good to see ya!   Let's start at the end and work our way around: 

- No worries for the long comment. It was thoughtful and irenic. Those kind of long comments I do not mind. 

- You make many good points. Much of which I agree with and would love to engage in due time. 

- You say that my 3 characteristic of liberal theology are 'very general' and that is probably true! But here is the more important aspect: even with those broad general categories I STILL don't fall within the rubric. And that is my whole point. 

- I grew up Wesleyan. I stumbled into a post-modern approach through emergence thought. I then embraced the discipline of Practical Theology including its engagement with critical theory, post-colonial concerns, liberation emphasis, queer and feminist perspectives to name a few. In a attempt to hold onto my after-Lindbeck faith I interacted with Process and like to call myself a Christo-centric hyperTheist. 

- When it was alleged that I was a liberal who was afraid to own up to it.... it bore little resemblance to anything I am familiar with. I'm not afraid to say what I am, as events have clearly illustrated in the past 2 weeks. 

- I have painted with broad strokes 3 indicators for liberal theology and I still don't find myself there. 

- I'm short on time so please allow my to plagiarize part of Goizeuta's entry in GDoT

"Liberalism recognizes the primacy of the individual self. The individual is fundamentally prior to other individuals and society, and selects the terms under which it relates to them. In this sense it is a selective self. The individual is further a law unto itself, and in this sense can be called an autonomous self. Further institutions to which the self subscribes are in principle its own product and derive their legitimacy in some ways from its consent, and so it is a pre-institutional self."  

So ...I mean, this is just between you and me right ... but I see no validity in the pre-social conception of the self. Truth be told I have bought into Social Constructivism almost hook-line-and-sinker. 

 I don't know how I can be any clearer in my refutation of the alleged liberal proclivity ;)  

-Bo 

willhouk
willhouk

@jdharrison @philstyle If you listen to the Liberal Masterclass podcast you'll see that neither Tripp or Bo speak derogatorily about Liberalism. They hold it up as a valid and interesting camp to be in.

philstyle
philstyle

@jdharrison @philstyle

" but the way that he is defining liberal definitely has negative connotations"

If that's the case, then it's even more reason to find the two bullet points "critical" isn't it? Which is all I said. How can I be "wrong on both points", are these things not critical? 

jdharrison
jdharrison

@BoSanders @willhouk Sorry to be blunt, but I think that's just flat out incorrect. We need to draw an important distinction between what philosophers do and what scientists do with regard to the history of their respective disciplines. In science, theories that are widely accepted become rejected, revised, etc. and their old/initial versions fall by the wayside such that they are simply not that useful for scientists except from a historical perspective. 

However, that isn't the case in philosophy. There may be a whole host of folks who reject particular historical ideas or certain articulations of ideas, but no philosopher would ever say we just don't need to revisit those anymore. Across myriad disciplines (political theory, hermeneutics, theology, etc.), scholars find it necessary to revisit ideas of the past in order to see how they work and allow them to influence constructive thought. Schleiermacher is absolutely central to contemporary hermeneutics and is still vitally important for it.

willhouk
willhouk

@BoSanders @willhouk Thanks for the links. Just for clarification I wasn't totally lost in the HG course, I am lost with the additional terms in these conversations. Heidegger left me in the dust a bit, but the rest of it feel like I got a lot out of. The week on Bonhoeffer was downright inspiring. 

jdharrison
jdharrison

@BoSanders Bo, thanks for the response. I guess I'm less interested now in whether or not you (or anyone else) can be identified as liberal and more interested in the general conception of what liberal theology is that has been presented over time on HBC. 

The categories you listed are general, but I don't think the content you're putting in them is. Again, that's not to try to cast the liberal net over you--just to say that I think liberal theology is more nuanced and complex than the strand of liberalism that's being presented (as Kurt's lucid explanation of Schleiermacher also demonstrates.) That's why I wanted to draw that distinction between "liberal theology" and "liberalism in theology." If one can get to post-foundationalism, post-colonialism, feminism, etc. through liberal theology, is that a problem? I just don't think the liberal label as applied to theology prima facie excludes those approaches.

I'm not that familiar with Goizeuta; I just know he's a liberation theologian at BC. That is a good definition of liberalism as it relates to Locke and Kant, but I just don't think Schleiermacher fits in there theologically--epistemologically, yes, he was a Kantian. But that was a problem for him theologically (and ethically).

With regard to social constructivism, I would again want to nuance what that is exactly. One doesn't have to be strictly Durkheimian in positing the role of society in the formation of the self (there is nothing prior to the Social.) Nor does one have to be Kantian (the self is essentially an ahistorical universally transcendental unity of reason.) As Kurt points out, the move to self doesn't have to be a transcendental move--it can be a claim to subjectivity rather than an erasure of it. Schleiermacher's theology can be read as aesthetic, phenomenological, and existential. None of those really fit the transcendental self Goizeuta describes.

There ARE liberal theologies and theologians who fit the description you've put forth. I just want to emphasize that they don't capture the tradition as a whole.

Jeremy R
Jeremy R

@BoSanders @jdharrison

Bo,

One of the confusing things about all these posts is that you've failed to name any contemporary theologian who would count as liberal, according to your criteria. Instead, we are treated to all of these definitions as you attempt to define liberal and then dis-identify yourself with those ideas. You're major justifications for being totally outside of the liberal tradition is that: a) You've taken the post-colonial/liberationist turn and b) You're methodology is different.

I can totally grant you both of those premises. However, I'd challenge you to find some actually existing theologians who still would meet your criteria as "liberal theologians" who have not also accepted the liberationist theology critique. Moreover, most theologians have probably also rethought theology beyond some of the trappings of foundationalism.

You want people to acknowledge that you've been informed by liberation theology, postmodern philosophy (especially hermeneutics) and postcolonial theory. Everyone knows that. There's no disputing that. i don't know of many existing theologians in the liberal tradition who wouldn't likewise embrace many of those notions. As I said earlier, it seems like you critiquing liberal theology as if it's stuck in the 1950's.

Union Theological Seminary is often associated with liberal theology. However, I'm pretty sure most theologians working there identify with many of the studies and philosophies that you've outlined in these posts. In fact, I'd venture to say that liberal theology took the liberationist turn (for the most part), starting in the late 1960's with Cone and Gutierrez. Of course, not all liberation theologians are created equally. It just strikes me as a bit odd to try to distance yourself categorically, whenever most liberal theologians are working in the same intellectual space you are currently inhabiting. 

jdharrison
jdharrison

@willhouk It's a constellation of loyalties in line with what I take to be a bad reading of Schleiermacher and a view of the self that hardly anyone holds anymore. Liberal theology is not necessarily foundationalist, even in its earliest forms. Schleiermacher is not a foundationalist in the way Bo is talking about it.

I know all the things I listed are in contrast to foundationalism/fundamentalism. That's the point. On Bo's account, liberal theology is somehow still beholden to foundational ideas about self, evidence, etc.

willhouk
willhouk

@jdharrison
I don't see Bo limiting Liberal theology in that way. In fact in #3 said: Its ongoing expression as a ‘constellation of loyalties’ that are in line with the previous two as well as in contrast with Conservative/Fundamentalist positions on the ‘foundationalist’ spectrum.

All of the things you listed are in contrast to foundationalism or fundamentalism. In fact in the podcast they discussed how Liberal theology at the turn of the 20th century was rooted in many of the things you just listed.

Am I missing something?

jdharrison
jdharrison

@philstyle Ha my fault. I didn't realize you were quoting the post and not providing your own two critical points. In the context of you quoting the post, yes, I agree that those two criteria are often not met. I guess I'm just not willing to shrug my shoulders and chalk it up to miscommunication. These things need to be articulated as clearly and accurately as possible to avoid these sorts of misunderstandings, and the problems being raised about the definition set forth are glaring, in my opinion, and not small matters of misunderstood nuance.

@willhouk I don't think that either Tripp or Bo have "derogatory" feelings towards theological liberals, liberal theology, or liberal theologians. But I would say that any claim regarding the validity of those in light of the definition of "liberal" set forth isn't doing anything but paying lip service to it. If a person says one cannot enter into post-structural, feminist, post-colonial, marxist, etc. critique via liberal theology, that is in effect a claim against the validity of liberal theology, since the implied claim is that liberal approaches have perpetuated and continue to perpetuate oppressive systems. There's no disputing that they haven't in the past, but so has all of Western philosophy.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@jdharrison @BoSanders @Jeremy R @Kurt van Kraut @willhouk

Thanks for the vibrant engagement! I am heading out of town so I will just have print this whole feed out and file it under "future research".  

I thought it would be good to sign out by paraphrasing Alasdair MacIntyre who famously said that all contemporary debates are really between conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals. (thus leaving little room for criticism of the system itself) 

Thanks again - nice to have such knowledgable sparring partners  -Bo