Thursday 28 February 2008

Richard Rorty on liberal theology

In an interview, Richard Rorty has offered a very memorable assessment of liberal theology:

“I’m delighted that liberal theologians do their best to do what Pio Nono said shouldn’t be done – try to accommodate Christianity to modern science, modern culture, and democratic society. If I were a fundamentalist Christian, I’d be appalled by the wishy-washiness of [the liberal] version of the Christian faith. But since I am a non-believer who is frightened of the barbarity of many fundamentalist Christians (e.g. their homophobia), I welcome theological liberalism. Maybe liberal theologians will eventually produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore. If so, something will have been lost, but probably more will have been gained.”

I can hardly imagine a more acute commentary on certain forms of contemporary Protestant theology. Is this not, in fact, the precise goal of many theologians (e.g. Cupitt, Spong) – “to produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore”?


Jim said...

Well said- and proof that theologians need not speak lengthily in order to speak truly. Now if only your systematician brothers and sisters would learn this and spare us their 30 volumes of 3 volumes worth of thought.


Bruce Yabsley said...

Is this not, in fact, the precise goal of many theologians ...

The practical (and maybe forseeable) outcome of many people's actions: maybe.

But the precise goal? Really?

Andy said...

Hey Ben,

Nice quote from Rorty. It may be that Spong and Cupitt are after some such version of Christianity. But I do wonder if liberal theology need be determined by its lesser lights. Bultmann, of course, was a liberal. And Peter Hodgson's new little book is compelling.

What I wonder is, what do we do with the thrust of Rorty's argument? In other words, notice that he tells us how banal theological liberalism is, only to go on to highlight that it's still a better option than fundamentalism.

One argument Hodgson raises in his little book is how Radical Orthodoxy does well in critiquing unhealthy ultra-liberalism, but never really addresses the opposite problem of fundamentalism.

If the choices were between Spong/Cupitt and Robertson/Falwell--well, God help us, that's some bad joojoo.

Anonymous said...

It's curious, isn't it, that Rorty does here the same thing that postliberals have been doing for years: painting Christianity in terms of two bad extremes, thereby defining historical, classical theology out of existence? Postliberals, of course, have a different goal from Rorty: they want to step into the vacuum created by their own rhetoric (one can almost hear the muffled voices of classical theologians bound and gagged in a closet somewhere) in order to proclaim themselves the representatives of true theology.

I haven't read all of Rorty's comments, but I wonder whether he defines "liberal" Christianity the same way we do. Judging by the logic of his argument, he might include postliberals among the "liberals".

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Andy, talk about rocks and hard places!

Barth called liberalism "flat-tyre" theology - it gets us nowhere. I would extend the metaphor and call fundamentalism "wagon-wheel" theology - stuck in a 19th century rut and used with covered vehicles that are circled and deployed for shooting at Others.

Patrik said...

Of course, Barth would have been talking about 19th century liberal theology, and I would very much oppose the attempt by many today to put the great 20th century protestant theologians in the same basket as their 19th century counterparts. The distance between say, Ritsch and Tillich is far greater than between, say, Tillich and Lindbeck.

Mystical Seeker said...

I can't comment on Cupitt or his motivations, but Spong's goal is absolutely the opposite of what you suggest, and I think it is a mischaracterization of his theology and motives to suggest otherwise. He has argued vigorously that it is Christian orthodoxy that people are becoming less interested in, and his goal has been to reach out to what he calls the "church alumni society", people who are spiritually inclined but who can't stomach prevailing dogma. He believes that it is possible to make these outcasts interested in Christianity again by reforming the faith. He has spelled this idea out in "Why Christianity Must Change or Die", as well as other books.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrik,

Great to hear from you. But Barth himself had theologians like Tillich in his sights too; nor am I at all sure about your measurements of the distances.

And hi Mystical Seeker,

I'm sure you are right about Spong's motivations, but I reckon his book should be entitled "Why Christianity Must Change and Die". If Cupitt's God is un-real, Spong's is simply otiose. Spong objects to the God of theism, but this theistic God is a straw man who, as Rowan Williams has observed, "bears no relation at all to what any serious theologian, from Origen to Barth and beyond, actually says about God." Sound ironically familiar? The deity Richard Dawkins slaps!

Mystical Seeker said...

Kim, I have my disagreements with Spong, but I disagree with you that he is addressing a straw man. Both he and Dawkins may be slapping the same theistic deity; but the difference is that Dawkins seems to think that a certain kind of supernaturally theistic, omnipotent, interventionist God is the only possible kind of Deity, while Spong knows better--which is why Dawkins leaps to an atheistic conclusion while Spong does not. Dawkins addresses a straw man, while Spong does not.

The biggest problem I have with Spong is that he is rather vague on what he proposes as an alternative, or at least I've never entirely figured out what he is advocating. But even if you disagree with Spong's vague theology, I mainly just wanted to respond to the suggestion that his motivation was simply to make no one interested in Christianity, when quite plainly his goal is the exact opposite of that. You may disagree that he accomplishes what he sets out to do, but I think it is unfair to accuse him of trying to do something he is not. For what it's worth, there are a lot of us who are turned off by the theistic God of Christian orthodoxy and who seek something different. Spong may be rather dogmatic in his response to this problem, and I don't share exactly the direction he is going, but at least he understands the problem of the "church alumni society", which is not the same with the apologists for orthodoxy, who continue to cling to notions of Divinity that many people in the post-Enlightenment era cannot accept.

Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled, I wonder when the interview took place. I read a few months ago that Rorty is recently deceased. Eric Alterman in Media Matters expressed his appreciation to Rorty for writing a recommendation letter to him as he was dying of pancreatic cancer.

Anonymous said...

Here's the post from Eric Alterman:

Anonymous said...

Mystical seeker said, "there are a lot of us who are turned off by the theistic God of Christian orthodoxy and who seek something different."

As an orthodox Christian that is a difficult statement to read. However, you also mentioned that you have problem with the "church alumni society". Maybe that's more of the issue than the God these alumnists claim to worship?

I guess we all have a journey of faith we must walk. God speed. I pray that you keep listening to the "echoes of a Voice" in your life. In the end, I hope you find the God of Easter.


James F. McGrath said...

I think it is important to be very clear what one means by "liberal theology". For fundamentalists and conservatives, Barth and Bultmann are often grouped together under the heading of "liberals", by which is meant simply anyone who doesn't presuppose their precise view of the nature and authority of the Bible.

One wonders whether all of the apologists (apart from modern fundamentalist ones, perhaps, but perhaps including even them) have been "liberal" in the sense of willing to take seriously the views of the educated or the prevailing culture in their time. Would Clement of Alexandria be a liberal theologian, for instance?

Anonymous said...

I agree with James. Words like 'Liberal,' 'Conservative.' or 'Evangelical' are almost entirely useless unless they are carefully defined.

byron smith said...

No, they're not useless - on the contrary, they're highly functional. But without careful definition, they usually perform a cheerleading function: "ra, ra for our team! Yay us!" In functional linguistic terms, they are all interpersonal without experiential content.

Anonymous said...

To "mystical seeker": The God of scripture and Christian orthodoxy is difficult, offensive, objectionable, not "nice", and therefore likely to "turn us off"; but he is indeed just and merciful. This God is worthy of worship. Any god who simply "turns me on" will, by definition, be an idol.

Doug Harink

::aaron g:: said...

One of my favorite Rorty-isms is that when postmodernists reach the end of their road, they will find that John Dewey was there waiting for them.

Who will liberal theologians find at the end of their road?

Doug said...

Sorry - Spong's a theologian?? Have I missed something somewhere?

Anonymous said...


I didn't say they were entirely useless!

And, yes, your example is a good one. Saying "Ra! Ra!" captures the way in which words can be used to say next to nothing. Of course, that's fine at a football game, but, in an academic discussion, it could be a problem.

(Note: I'm not saying this is a problem with Rorty, since I don't know whether or not he has defined his terms somewhere -- but I think it is frequently a problem in theopolitical discussions.)

Lumière et Possibilité said...

i work in my college's library and was putting away periodicals when, low and behold what caught my attention? well, it was the scottish journal of theology. curious, i opened it up and on the first page was an article penned by a name burning with familiarity. 'the stratification of knowledge in the thought of t.f. torrance' by benjamin myers. well done, sir. well done, indeed.

Anonymous said...

'Is this not, in fact, the precise goal of many theologians (e.g. Cupitt, Spong) – “to produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore”?'

Sorry, isn't that what St. Peter said about St. Paul (and vice versa)?

Andrew said...

I am troubled when we assign negative motives to someone, primarily based on the fact that we simply disagree with them. I am no Spong fan, but I think it is a little conspiratorial to think that he is out water down then wash away Christianity.
Gandhi said (I paraphrase) - If you cannot believe that the other man's faith is as true as your's, at least believe the man is as true as you.

Anonymous said...

Andy, If you cant see the difference between the political and cultural implications of Spong/Cupitt vs Robertson/Falwell then you really do need to go back to school.

Roberstson and Falwell are essentially kissing cousins with Islamic fundamentalists, and they both have the same agendas. Convert or die and an apocalyptic showdown.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in hearing what theologically yall believe leads to this wishy-washy theology. I thought at first Christology or maybe ecclesiology, but now I am thinking anthropology may be the biggest culprit. When I read Spong's 'New Christianity' I thought he had an inflated view of humanity, so much so I jokingly called him a Jesus-flavored humanist.

John B. Higgins said...


Spong has denied every central Christian doctrine. The Church used to call that heresy.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, when Rorty talks about "liberal theology," he almost certainly has Tillich in mind. Rorty knew Tillich's work fairly well and, for better or worse, commonly talked about his theology in precisely these terms.

One more thing: some version of "liberal" theology is likely to make a serious comeback in the next decade or so, though it's not likely to be the sort of "wishy-washy" liberalism that Rorty has in view. I suspect, rather, that we will see a renewed commitment to theology's "public" intelligibility, "public" accountability, and "public" relevance, over against increasingly wishy-washy (!) commitments to incommensurability, anti-foundationalism, and communitarianism. (Warding off two objections: first, the fact that "public" deserves to be marked off by scare quotes does not entail that it's wholly passe, as recent social theorists will attest. Second, I am not suggesting that theology's "going public" means a return to representationalism, foundationalism, or "Constantinianism"; I am suggesting that it will join a wider trend of theorists who are moving beyond incommensurability, antifoundationalism, etc.)

Andy said...


Wow, did you even read Rorty's quote, or my full comment? Maybe you need to go back to school and learn how to read. If you had actually read my comment you would have noticed I was arguing the two camps are two bad extremes, not the same extreme. I happen to think those are NOT our only options, but maybe you wouldn't get that if you didn't actually read what I wrote.

How about you come down off your holier-than-thou pedestal, and actually read what other people are writing before you criticize them. Nobody needs more half-informed morons in these conversations. I would be happy to discuss any substantial matter you might actually raise.

Also, thanks for hiding behind your anonymity when erroneously attacking people. It only fuels the ire you are likely to incite.

Andrew said...

John, there are lots of things the church has done that I wouldn't recommend. Torturing "heretics" comes to mind. I think throwing out the word heresy at someone is simply a cop-out. It is meant to intimidate someone into silence. Ideas need to be wrestled through, not simply shot down by those who have got all of their answers lined up in neat boxes and bows. People need to make decisions. That cannot be done when only one view is given voice.

"Every story sounds correct, until the other side is told" - Prov.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, could it be that in the Protestant mind the term 'heresy' equates with 'whatever I think in incorrect'. For as much as I enjoy the theological discourse on these blog chats everything really only comes down to opinion. Can Protestantism speak definitely? I don't know.

Andrew said...

Brian - I think that is true. Although I would say that every group does it to some degree, we just use different verbiage.

George Carlin described it like the guy driving on a highway. Everyone who zooms past you is an ffing speed freak, and the tortoise whose tail you are on is an ass. The speed we are going is the "correct" speed. Everyone considers their point the standard, and everyone else is off in proportion to their distance from our well reasoned perspective.

This is why I think we need to hear many voices; particularly those we don't feel comfortable with. Inbreeding is bad in genetics and worse in theology. Paul said, " When they judge themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves - they are not wise".

It is understandably uncomfortable to speak with someone who disagrees with you. To do so civilly and to be open to true conversation (I believe) takes intention and practice.

Anonymous said...

Postliberals in theology are reacting against people like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, as correctly pointed out before.

Rorty's comment is nothing new though it certainly is an appropriate challenge to the faith. But what must be acknowledged is - whose fundamentalism? which christianity? John Howard Yoder's fundamental beliefs about the basis of appropriate Christian faith and practice are going to be different, for example, than Jerry Falwell (and praise God for that!).

The discussion and exploration, however, of what that is is not liberalism, it is the basis of community. Absolute certainty is a value of liberal tradition, not of faith (for faith wouldn't be faith otherwise). Capitulating to this epistemic standard would be liberalism.

Anonymous said...

Absolute certainty is a value of liberal tradition, not of faith...Capitulating to this epistemic standard would be liberalism.

This can't be right. Consider a list of "liberals": Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Ritschl, Troeltsch, Bultmann, Tillich, Ruether, Farley(s), Kaufman, McFague, and Tracy. Not a single one of them could rightly be characterized as valuing absolute certainty; quite the contrary. It would be closer to the truth to claim that absolute certainty is not a value of liberalism, or, better, that it is something that liberals value not valuing. In any event, the claim as it stands is demonstrably false.

Phil said...

I've just started following this blog and love the intellectual debate that is going on here. The weird thing though is that everyone is debating Barth, Carlin, Tilich and a whole load of other theologians and philosophers. What about the authors of the Bible?

Spong's idea of Christ is not Christian because Jesus says He is God. Any 'theology' denying Jesus' deity makes Jesus either deluded or a liar as CS Lewis so rightly states. So John Higgins was right when he called Spong's teaching heresy.

Andrew, we should discuss our theology with others - that is how we learn BUT if someone denies the central doctrines of Christianity then we have to confront them as gracefully as we can. Should we kick them out of church? No, we need to love and correct them. But should they lead a church? No, otherwise they become a false witness. Jesus is God. No other doctrine is Christian.

A liberal view to the core tenants (i.e. Spong) of Christianity will be its demise. Not clinging to them and preaching and living them.


Andrew said...

Heh! Nothing like picking up a conversation two years later. :)

I just don't believe Christ being God is central Christian doctrine. I think we have been taught that a lot, to the point where we generally no longer question it. I think however, had I not been indoctrinated with it, I would have a hard time grabbing that idea purely from the bible.

To be honest though, I am a little agnostic on that point. I tend to believe with Peter that he is "the Christ, the son of the living God." I believe he is the image of the invisible God, that he sits at God's right hand, and that God has put all things under him. But (and this is the important bit) that does not include God himself. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.

Now, many Christians may disagree with that... but those scriptural contexts (and the fact that Paul doesn't push the deity of Christ when preaching) at least makes it iffy. I don't see where iffy things get to be central things. I get nervous when Christians go to the carpet about doctrinal points ... I just never get the impression that the Jesus of the Gospels is all that doctrinal.

Phil said...

Hehe sorry about that. Noticed the date of the discussion after I posted.

Would be interested in your view on John 1 then? As gospels go, John is the most definitive on Jesus being God.

I find it quite easy to justify Jesus as God biblically rather than finding myself indoctrinated. You quote Colossions 1 - "He is the image of the invisible God" but it then follows ", the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him." Not sure how a man could be creator as well?

I don't see any other way to explain the balance between Jesus the Son, God the Father and the Holy Spirit other than in the trinity.

Leaving out Jesus' deity negates his power and we end up worshipping a man and therefore setting up an idol and contradicting other scripture. Jesus was killed for calling himself/equating himself with God. If he wasn't God, I cannot worship a liar.

Anyway, I understand if you don't want to reignite a discussion from two years ago - but I would be interested in your response. If you don't want to discuss it here feel free to email me at britmangi04 at hotmail dot com.

Andrew said...

Oh, no sorry I needed. I just thought it was funny how much time had passed. I have never seen a conversation pick up two years later before.

My point is that the deity of Christ may be argued scripturally... as can his non-deity. One can maintain a scriptural view in either case and each has some worthy arguments. But it can be argued... and as such, I think Christians on both sides of the isle can remain faithful to the faith.

There is a good, very scholarly, debate that has gone on at Parchment and Pen... the author is very pro-deity, so I give him props for having a very objective debate on his site.

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.