One striking aspect of the popular liberal theology of the last century was a retreat to the subjective in the face of the bullish confidence of the scientific era. Liberal theology had its doubts because scientists had none. There are lessons to learn as the battle is not yet won.
Three defining texts of British Liberal Theology bear the same mark: Lux Mundi (Gore, 1889), Honest to God (Robinson, 1963) and The Myth of God Incarnate (Hick, 1977). The honesty of the authors makes their theological suppositions easy to uncover. In each case, the theologians evidently capitulated to modern scientific knowledge. Liberals retreated from orthodox interpretations of scripture and tradition to a defensive position where internal experiences of love were claimed to be the supreme source of Christian truth.
For example, the opening essay in Lux Mundi is ‘Faith’, by the Rev H.S. Holland. In it, Holland sets out to defend Christian faith against modernism and speaks about faith as “an elemental energy of the soul”, “a profound and radical act…these innermost convictions of our souls”, “an instinct of relationship based on an inner actual fact”, “an affection of the will, by which it presses up against God, and drinks in divine vitality with quickened receptivity.” Christian faith then, according to Holland, is not primarily based on an objective view of Christ on the cross but on an internal feeling, an inner experience in God, which can neither be measured nor prodded nor discovered by scientific enterprise, and thus it was deemed safe from modern criticism.
Having placed faith beyond measure, investigation or reason, Holland attacked the modernist, pointing out that their “immense”, “complicated”, “confident”, “successful” and “powerful” scientific knowledge “is but an empty and hollow dream, unless they are prepared to place their utmost trust in an unverified act of faith.” Modernism’s arrogance was clearly palpable and Holland had no means of rebuttal except to say it was an act of faith. This is a good argument, except that the modernist would say it was fact not faith. What made this “fact” hard to argue against was the high degree of scientific specialisation. Atheist geneticist Richard Lewontin points out in his book Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (1991) that scientists superceded theologians as “the chief legitimating force in modern society.”
It is easy to sit in a post-modern culture and criticise liberals for crumbling before modernism. In today’s world, science is discredited and new legitimating forces battle for supremacy. We don’t share Holland’s sense of overwhelming inadequacy when faced with the “rapidity” of the growth of modern knowledge. It understandable, to some extent, that given the tidal wave of confident scientific assertion, Holland and others found themselves, as theologians, ill equipped to construct a rational and systematic critique of specialist modern knowledge.
Bishop John Robinson caught the mood of the UK in his little 1963 book “Honest to God”. In it, he describes again the effects of modern truth claims on theology in experiential terms:
The only way I can put it is to say that over the years a number of things have unaccountably ‘rung a bell’; various unco-ordinated aspects of one’s reading and experience have come to ‘add up’. The inarticulate conviction forms within one that certain things are true or important. One may not grasp them fully or understand why they matter. One may not even welcome them. One simply knows that if one is to retain one’s integrity one must come to terms with them. For if their priority is sensed and they are not attended to, then subtly other convictions begin to lose their power: one continues to trot these convictions out, one says one believes in them (and one does), but somehow they seem emptier. One is aware that insights that carry their own authentication, however subjective, are not being allowed to modify them.
The growth of Robinson’s doubts is obvious:
“one continues to trot these (Christian) convictions out, ..but somehow they seem emptier.”
The recent series of programmes on the BBC celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species has one striking theme. Poor old David Attenborough has been saying things like “it is very well attested fact that birds evolved from dinosaurs as we have found some very good fossils of dinosaurs with feathers.” This is hardly the stuff of the grand, old, confident scientific enterprise. Far more the wistful speculation of a man with growing doubts in his belief that there is probably no God.
The process of doubt might yet be reversed. How long will it be before the confidence of theologians, pastors and Christians in general returns and no doubt in Christ remains? And how long until a prominent bishop of the church of scientific endeavour says “one continues to trot these (Darwinian) convictions out, ..but somehow they seem emptier”? The Intelligent Design movement may have dented neo-Darwinian confidence but only a full scale return of confidence in Christ crucified will finish the job.