Postliberal and Progressive: A Primer from a Postliberal English Teacher

Lately a number of conversations around the God-bl0g-o-sphere have caught my attention, and all of them seem to take their impetus from the notion that theologians in the twenty-first century come to be known for “camps” more than by denominational or other official affiliations.  We’ve already linked to James K.A. Smith’s meditation on the topic, over at the Roger Olsen blog,  guest blogger Brandon Morgan wrote a critique of the Wild Goose Festival that called for Emergents to take a page from the post-liberals’ book and carve out a space as distinct from the liberal mainline as it is from the evangelical world.  In response to that, Tony Jones recently called for readers to propose alternatives to “Liberal” or “Progressive” as the identifier for those whose theology is after the same projects that Jones’s seems to be.  (“Incarnational Christians” won the contest.)  More recently, in a series of very good podcasts, Tripp Fuller and Deacon Bo (whose last name I cannot find on their website) discussed the terms liberal, progressive, emergent, and evangelical and the ways that their use as sociological markers blur the content of the philosophy that informs each.

I say all of this to note that my little contribution here is neither the first nor the final word, and although I write as an answer to the question that my good web-friend linda over at i wonder as i wander asked, I figured other folks who have been following all of this chatter might benefit from reading what an English teacher, not a made man in the Hauerwasian mafia but a self-identified post-liberal nonetheless, makes of the distinctions.  So I undertake this mini-taxonomy hoping to draw clarifying comments, not to shut the discussion down.

Progressive Christianity Oversimplified

To say that progressive theology is Hegelian is not to make a genetic claim: of course people were writing about human progress earlier in the Enlightenment (just think of Voltaire and Tom Paine and Immanuel Kant), and many (perhaps most) of those who would call themselves “progressive” in the early twenty-first Century Church have not read Hegel’s Philosophy of History.  Nonetheless, progressive thought tends to follow a narrative similar to Hegel’s: history tends to progress, not uniformly but in intelligible manners, from liberty limited to a few (a very few in places and times like the Egypt of the Pharaohs) towards freedom for more than before.  Although the content of history is quite complex, still there is an intelligible vector to it, namely from liberty-for-fewer-people to liberty-for-more-people.  There are places and times when the spirit of the age contradicts itself, like when post-Reformation Europe became part of the Atlantic slave trade in the sixteenth (and seventeenth and eighteenth) centuries, but Hegel is a sophisticated enough philosopher to note that material conditions are entirely capable of slowing and even reversing spiritual urges towards liberty for a time.  But eventually, and always through the intentional and reasoned organization of human communities (often through events such as the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution), liberty progresses, and the spirit of the age (Hegel’s famous Zeitgeist) comes to impose its form on the world as it’s already been shaped the imaginations of the historically-important leaders.  When such revolutions take place (and I realize I’m mixing some Marx in with the Hegel here), old forms of enslavement cease to threaten liberty, no longer a threat because the intellectual frameworks that kept the many subservient to the few no longer stand as intelligible to the masses.  But in the long transition period, those who help the Zeitgeist take its form must articulate the reasoned arguments for the new way, exposing the contradictions inherent in the old order.  Otherwise, history stagnates or even regresses.

And that’s where Progressive Christians seem to find a sense of calling: whether through grassroots consumer changes or influence within educational institutions or the state power of the Democratic National Committee or (more often than not) a mix of all those and more, Progressive Christians seek to help the world considered more or less broadly to realize the spirit of freedom by means of large-scale shifts in consciousness, public policy, and patterns of consumption.  Some prefer the “Think Globally, Act Locally” approach of example-setting while some tend more towards nation-state partisanship as the best means towards such ends, but by and large there’s a sense that increasing the freedom of all individuals to actualize themselves must be close to the core of the Christian life.  That means a concern for the economic poor certainly, and it often (though not always) also involves advocating for political rights and social recognition of lesbians and gays; promoting the political power of racial minorities; and opposing traditions and laws governing sexual conduct that restrict the individual’s right to enjoy sexual contact on terms that the individual, not any super-individual community, deems appropriate.

Post-Liberal Christianity Oversimplified

The name Post-Liberal, as far as I can tell, comes from the subtitle of George Lindbeck’s seminal work The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post-Liberal World.  (Do pardon the inconsistent capitalization and hyphenation of that term in this post, but it is a blog, after all.)  In that work Lindbeck, a Yale theology professor, attempts to articulate the difficulties that ecumenical conversations encounter by naming two tendencies in twentieth-century theology that work at cross-purposes.  One, which Lindbeck calls the cognitive/propositional model, holds that Christianity is best described as a core of true indicative sentences (the Father is co-eternal with the Son and Spirit, there will be a general resurrection of the dead, and so on) and the people who agree to their truth are Christians.  There certainly might be a set of practices and narratives of personal experience that follow logically from the content of the doctrine, but the propositions and their correspondence to divine reality is first and foremost.  The other, which Lindbeck calls the experiential/expressive model, holds that the core of Christianity is the religious experience, the sense of dependence on the “other” that leads to a conversion experience.  Within that model the symbols that one uses to name the experience might well be the vocabularies of the Scriptures and the Creeds, but they need not be.  As an alternative to those two, and as a model held forth as more adequate to ecumenical conversation, Lindbeck proposes the cultural/linguistic model, in which the Scriptures and the Creeds do in fact form a canon by which utterances and practices can be judged rightly as Christian or non-Christian but that the parameters are on the level of symbol and narrative rather than on the level of syllogisms and propositions constructed from those symbols and narratives.  In such a system theology, the formulation of syllogistic systems using those vocabularies; and emotive states of being, which flow from the realities to which the vocabularies point; do indeed have a place, but the systems and the experiences stand logically posterior to the complex of symbols, stories, and traditions that shape the parameters of historic Christianity.   Lindbeck’s hope seems to be that, within those loose but intelligible bounds, a genuinely Christian and genuinely ecumenical conversation can happen without as much fogginess as to what is Christian utterance and what doesn’t count as Christian utterance.

The later Post-Liberal (or Yale School) theological tradition takes that same disposition towards Christianity-as-culture and brings it to bear on questions of relationships between the Church and the regime of multinational capitalism; of Christians’ relationships to other human communities; and a range of other questions.  If the role of Christians for Progressives is to alter the world, broadly conceived, the role of Christians for postliberals is to sustain the core of the Christian tradition, embodying a way of life (a culture, to use Lindbeck’s terminology), among the nations but not identical with them, for the sake of pointing the nations (bearing witness, to borrow from Acts) to a way of life beyond the horizons of the systems of unredeemed politics, philosophy, and cultural expectations.  Where those aims coincide with the aims of other such communities, we can rejoice that we share common ground, but our main thought processes in doing ethical discernment have to do not with making the world emerge into new forms by our efforts to grab its levers of power but in living in manners that throw the ideologies and the sins of the world into stark relief, in hopes that the Spirit might convict some of the sinfulness of the status quo (whether that status quo be ahead of the curve or behind it) and bring them to desire a way of life intelligible only in the resurrection of Christ.

The Complications

The tricky thing, of course, is that neither of these philosophies necessarily excludes all elements of the other.  To use myself as an example (and I’ll write simply for myself for the rest of this essay, not as someone speaking for any other post-liberal), I find both Hegel’s model and Marx’s model of history as a non-uniform progress towards individualism helpful for articulating differences between the way I experience the world and the way Dante does.  In other words, I think that Hegelian historicisms are good tools for making sense of the content of history.  But I’m not sure that movements towards individualism are always good, and I’m inclined to say that some historical developments that have advanced the ability for the individual to become one’s own law, separate from intermediate institutions as the Church and the guild and the extended family, have in fact not empowered the human soul but made us more the thralls of the State.  Likewise, although I see good things going in many iterations of Liberation and Feminist theology, I see other iterations as turning the soul over to its own worst impulses, a sort of slavery that I fear often escapes the notice of certain practitioners of materialist (or functionally materialist) philosophies.

Certainly any extended conversation with a self-named Progressive (and once again I point to Tripp and Bo’s recent series of podcast discussions as a fine exemplar of fair treatment of difference) will reveal similar reservations, and one of the singular vices of my own generation of Christian thinkers (and I’ve got three fingers pointing back at myself here) is our tendency to refuse labels for ourselves while insisting that we can brand gigantic swaths of people who disagree with us simply as “liberal” or “fundamentalist” or some other such name and therefore cease to listen to them.  The point in writing little primers like this one is not to say that “you” or “they” are in this category or that and thus unworthy of attention but to give some sort of framework in which particular thinkers make sense relative to one another.  So if in one encounter I seem to think of history in Hegelian terms but in another hold that a resistance to certain central tenets of modernity should be part of Christians’ core mission in the twenty-first century, I’ll admit that I’ve been inconsistent in terms of these categories, but I would maintain that consistency is ultimately less important than intelligibility and (more importantly) faithfulness to Christ in the terms of the “school” of theology we can most honestly call faithful.

In that spirit, once again I invite clarifications, especially from self-identified Progressives or Liberals, where my account of things muddies the water or gets things outright wrong.


6 thoughts on “Postliberal and Progressive: A Primer from a Postliberal English Teacher

  1. Thanks for that, Nathan! I especially appreciate the perspective on what it means to be “post-liberal” (or “postliberal”). I was intrigued by Roger Olson’s appeal to that tradition in his book on “post-conservative” evangelicalism, but hadn’t fully appreciated the move Lindbeck was making. All this, of course, just makes me curious as to how you would define “evangelical.” As a self-described “Pietist,” of course, I would probably stress conversionism among Bebbington’s evangelical distinctives, though Lindbeck seems to lump that emphasis on convertive experience with “progressive” Christianity. Perhaps this spectrum, like most others, curves in on itself and I should be reading the Christian Century more than I do…

  2. Chris,

    The way I understand Lindbeck, he wants to keep theology (the second-order discourse on the symbols and narratives) and conversion (the experiences made intelligible in terms of the symbols and narratives) as core elements of Christianity. He just wants to note that the narrative accounts of Israel and Christ and Church, found primarily but not exclusively in Scripture, are logically prior to any distinctively Christian account of any of the above. So what Lindbeck sees as the flaw in the experiential/expressivist model is that it tends to treat Christ as a secondary and even incidental decorative addition to the prior “human experience” when historically, the “human experience” of conversion is a second-order, common-ground point of meeting between prior, distinctive traditions.

  3. thanks nate! 🙂 post-liberal is a new term to me so i appreciate you fleshing out its distinctiveness. would you say as an example that jim wallis’ sojourners would be progressive while the sorts of ministry experiments in walter brueggemman’s the prophetic imagination are post-liberal? the sense i’m getting is that post-liberal ministries or communities would tend toward being more countercultural. interestingly, i came across a book by andy crouch that talks about rather than transforming culture or even copying culture christians focus on making culture in order to change it. i haven’t read it yet but that’s what the blurb says on creating culture.

  4. I’d say that Wallis in 2011 is certainly progressive. The old-school Sojourners movement, living in the projects in Washington, D.C., you could narrate either way, I think.

    Brueggemann is a bit harder to get a grip on, largely because he insists on the plurality inherent in the Bible. So, for instance, when he’s writing on the Babylonian exile and the Persian occupation, he definitely tends towards the postliberal, but when he writes on the Torah and Israel as a self-governed covenantal community, he writes as a progressive. But honestly, that complexity is what draws me to Brueggemann, so I can’t complain. 🙂

  5. I think that there’s an interesting combination of these accounts of history, Nathan. In my understanding, a MacIntyre version of history is one of decline/decay. This is undoubtedly a (if not the) source for contemporary pl’s understanding of history. Thus, to bring a Hegelian sense of progress to the pl understanding of history is a hard sell for me. Then again, I’m treading in waters where I don’t normally tread. Please correct me if I’m getting things wrong here.

    In speaking to the notion of “culture(s),” which is a fundamental place where pl theology breaks down for me, I highly recommend Kathryn Tanner’s “Theories of Culture” (Fortress, 1997).

  6. Rich, I’ll agree it’s not intuitive to reconcile those accounts of history, but I do think it’s intelligible to take Hegel and Marx to be descriptively precise without sharing wholesale their moral preference for individualism over what came before. (For what it’s worth, I think I got this dual sense of historical change from Macintyre, who started his intellectual career as a Marxist before turning to Thomism.)

    To hold me over until the day when I read Tanner, could you give me the upshot of her critique (or her ideas that could serve as a critique) of Lindbeck’s notion of Christian doctrine as cultural system?

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