In Defense of Liberal Theology

Tony Sig

“God has called us to unfold a growing message, and not to rehearse a stereotyped tradition” – B.F. Westcott

I have learned a great deal from Ephraim Radner, mostly having to do with Scripture and with attempting to be an academic theologian in a sentimentalist’s theological world, and I’m deeply indebted to him for this – but lord help me, when he ventures onto First Things I’m never sure what to make of his rather incoherent political ramblings. In a recent piece he seemingly assumes that political conservatism necessarily flows from theological ‘orthodoxy,’ or at least ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics.  Though his piece is purposely vague, Radner is quite clear that ‘liberal’ theology leads to a relativizing of Scripture’s authority, to ‘dogmatic dissolution’, and to a ‘laissez-faire’ view of ‘human relations.’ (Whether this statement is simply about sexuality is unclear. Does this indict conservative laissez-faire’ economics as well?)

The difficulty in engaging an essay like this goes back to language usage. Is all ‘liberal theology’ intrinsically unorthodox? Or is it, perhaps, that only liberal theology that ends in unorthodoxy is ‘genuinely liberal?’ My problem with Radner’s usage is that it needs some historization, something which, as a distinguished historical theologian, he ought to be doing automatically. In rereading the essay several times I think we should understand Radner to be suggesting something like ‘liberal theology is unorthodox, or at least leads to unorthodoxology. If it is still orthodox, it is not liberal.’ Bracketing, for the sake of discussion, the politics of what counts as ‘orthodox’ and what does not, I would like to assert that what has historically counted as ‘liberal theology’ is not often in direct conflict with traditional affirmations of the Christian faith. Indeed it is rather part and parcel of what is required of  theological work attempting to articulate a faithful proclamation of the Church’s witness.

But what is ‘liberal theology?’ Rather than answer this straightforwardly, I think it would be more fruitful to point to theologians who have consistently been called liberal. Classic examples from Germany include von Harnack, Schleiermacher, and Bultmann; in the contemporary anglophone world, J.A.T. Robinson, Raymond Brown, or Marcus Borg. But a great deal more than these have been considered ‘liberal,’ at least by their contemporaries, yet their insights have often been normalized and their reputations vindicated through time. Since Dr. Radner and I are both Episcopalians, I think some Anglican examples are apropos.

Bishop Charles Gore comes to mind, obviously, being considered the father of ‘liberal catholicism;’ So also does the Cambridge trio Westcott, Hort, and Lightfoot, whose work on the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers can hardly be overestimated  (Brown touted the genius of Westcott’s commentary on John in his NT Introduction). We might rightly add the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who, like liberal catholics before him, wasn’t afraid to incorporate historical criticism in his exegesis. With perhaps Gore only excepted (for his creative exploration of kenosis), there is hardly any thought that these scholars are not ‘orthodox,’ and while they may not now be considered ‘liberal’ generally, all wrote works that were controversial in their day using liberal methods. Just think of the stink around the usurpation of the Textus Receptus and the revised translation based on the critical text.

Liberal theology  is responsible for critical editions of the Bible, for advancements in historical work, for experimental integration of science and religion, for feminist theology, and a great many other things that have proved invaluable for Christians. It is doubtful whether conservative theology, left to its own devices, would ever have done as much. That liberals can err is no more remarkable than that conservatives can err, and no more clear evidence that they are fundamentally askew than that all conservatives fall prey to arianesque traditionalism. The continuing task of theology will require renewed pressing at the edges of what is respectable language. The tradition, in other words, should be non-identically repeated.  I don’t think we need liberal parties, or liberal identity policing (what is authentically liberal?), but we need the openness to the strangeness and newness of our encounter with God’s active grace; openness to the possibility that some assumed beliefs have grown wild and must be hacked off; that certain traditions cannot be maintained because they are actively harming people. “Christianity is not an uniform and monotonous tradition, but can be learned only by successive steps of life.” F.J.A. Hort


Future News: Episcopal Edition

Tony Sig

Wednesday, June 5th 2028

Today the Episcopal General Convention discussed a recent blog post from 2013 stating that young people are leaving Facebook at a startlingly high rate. Several Boomer priests concerned about the continued loss of financial benefactors, or ‘parishoners’, proposed that a committee be formed to study if young people are indeed leaving Facebook. The Committee to Maintain Cultural Relevance Among Young People or C2MCRAP would release their findings via group email one month before the next General Convention in 2031, along with some suggestions on what The Episcopal Church should do about it.

Debate was fierce on the floor. Fr. Jim Jefferson, well known for his blog, was fired up, saying that young people are leaving Facebook and TEC because of tired old stale orthodoxies that just don’t make sense in a 2020’s world. “Why are we saying that Jesus rose from the dead? Twitter is 22 years old. Get with the program!”

Fr. Jeff Jimmerson, himself famous for, decried the conversation, saying that the reason young people are leaving Facebook and TEC is because the church abandoned the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. “None of this would ever have happened if we had stuck with Eucharistic Prayer C.” When it was pointed out that Fr. Jimmerson wasn’t even in TEC anymore but in a random splinter-cell that used a mixture of the 1549, 1928, 1979 BCPs and the Roman Missal, he started screaming something incoherent about apostolic succession until escorted out by security.

Shortly after that the Super Ultra Very Right Rev Dr Feff Fifferson told a very moving story about a young person in his diocese which, while sentimental, had almost nothing to do with the topic at hand, though somehow everyone felt moved to “be more missional” after his speech.

As debate rose to a fever pitch eyes turned to the young Rev. Sarah Evans, aged 42, as everyone demanded to know why young people like her weren’t coming to church anymore. When she said she’d love to stay and chat but had to go pick up her 15 year old daughter from school, murmurs of “kids these days” filled the arena.

Mission, Discipleship, and the Daily Office II

Tony Sig

In my previous post on this topic I addressed how, in our post-Christian context, the Office can serve to renew the catechumenate and foster discipleship. In this one I want to point out how this can relate to the issue — rather obsessively pushed by some in TEC in recent times — of Communion Regardless of Faith and Baptism. I use this phrase because it gets beyond the spin we get talking only of “Open Communion.” Open Communion appears to mean not simply “pastoral” generosity in not “policing the table” — to use the phrase — but hostility to the very idea that discipleship is an essential part of life in Christ, a life we receive primarily in the Eucharist.

Part of the reason that this has become an issue, it seems to me, is because we don’t want to appear “inhospitable” to guests who visit a parish. We are told that this is “Christ’s table, not the Church’s table” and “Christ was inclusive” or whatever. It’s not my intention to comment substantively on “when” people ought to share in the Eucharist. There are many resources available on that and the bishops of TEC were rather strong in their rejection of the current mood and stood by the tradition on this. (Though I ought to point to the helpful resources of Fr. Matthew Gunter, especially here and here) Rather I wanted to suggest that a parish or mission that utilized the Daily Office as a tool for evangelism in some capacity can escape the pressure toward an uncritical “hospitality” because it is not necessary for participation in the Office to be a baptized Christian.

The Office, to be sure, arose from within the Church, being passed on from Judaism, and serves the spiritual needs of the Church. I don’t believe I’m talking about a functionalist reduction of the Office to a mere tool to get more bodies in the Church. At the same time, as TEC prays the Office, it is participating in the prayer of Jesus, it is incorporated into his life, and evangelism is nothing less than exposure to Christ’s life, and a call to share in it. (cf. Rowan Williams in multiple places, including here and here and here) Prayer, then, and mission, are intertwined and ought not to be separated. Prayer is a fitting and appropriate way share the Gospel, yet one which “preserves the symbolic integrity” of the Eucharist, operating as it does in a different field than the celebration of the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day.

Mission, Discipleship, and the Daily Office

Tony Sig

One of the great achievements of the liturgical revisions of the last century for Anglicans lies in making the Eucharist the central act of worship for the church. Yet one of the attendant misfortunes, which seems to have happened almost by accident, and which scholar and blogger Derek Olsen has repeatedly lamented and sought to change, is how the Daily Office slowly yet systematically began to be neglected in the public worship of parishes.

There was a time, as readers of this blog surely know, when it was in fact the Office which was the central liturgical act for Anglicans. And while I am glad that the Eucharist has taken its proper place, I would like to suggest there is still some heavy duty lifting the Office can do in the current missional situation in which we find ourselves.

There are at least four ways, I believe, that the Office can function as a tool for mission that addresses some pressing contemporary issues facing TEC:

1) In the post-Christian situation it can serve to renew the catechumenate and foster discipleship;
2) Which aids in thinking through the pressure for Communion Regardless of Faith and Baptism;
3) Yet which is sympathetic (in a way) toward those who clearly crave “spirituality” but who have an abiding distrust of “organized religion.”
4) Much of the main work in this scheme can be done by lay people and deacons. Given our financial situation, this is something at least to consider.

I will address each of these in their own post.

While it is true that in America religion is still a focus of public attention in a way that it’s not in other Western countries, yet, at least in my own experience, it’s rather common to meet people who have never darkened the doors of a Church, or at least who haven’t since they were kids; and even those who perhaps had been involved in a youth group or who have had some other connection to the Church do not necessarily know even basic Bible stories or central Christian teachings (being fed on the fluff of motivational moralistic therapeutic deism). On a purely pragmatic level, given the rapid shrinking of our own church, the option is either to engage in mission and evangelism or fade further. That notwithstanding, it’s the world we’re called into to make disciples.

Traditionally, church plants are oriented toward Sunday morning worship, but this has an inbuilt problematic: If the Eucharist is the central act of worship for the baptized faithful, then we’re asking people new to the Church to come and witness only and not participate in worship. Moreover they lack the education necessary to “make sense” of what’s going on.

In no small part through the sizable influence of Stanley Hauerwas, we’re all being reminded that discipleship is notably absent in most of our churches. We’re running on the steam of a cultural Christianity that no longer exists and that was mostly ineffective anyway. This is both to be lamented and celebrated because while it’s unfortunate that we’re failing to form Christians in holiness, we’ve got a new opportunity with people who don’t already “know” what the Church is about, for whom the message and practices are new.

And this is where the Office comes in. In the Office, people can come to know many of the basics of the faith and even participate in its performance without needing to come under the discipline of the Church and be baptized. It’s, to use the phrase, “inclusive,” but it’s still in keeping with the baptismal ecclesiology of the Prayer Book. On Sundays, the core group of the plant would meet to celebrate the Eucharist if they had a priest or receive the reserve elements from a deacon, it being understood that catechesis and baptism is necessary to participate.

What I’m suggesting is that church plants and parishes ought to consider the Office, maybe a sung Evensong or Compline, as a fitting way to expose fresh faces to Christ. From there, emphasize the necessity of catechesis and baptism as a way to come to know Christ and the fellowship of the Church most fully. It might mean, as it used to in the early Church, that people “sit at the edges” of the Church for years — I’m not saying this is a church-growth strategy! — but it also means that we would be making disciples. And what’s not to like about that?

Sad But Familiar Voices

Tony Sig

In a previous post, I cited some examples of Christian life in the Middle East I found strange and hard to reconcile to my own experience. Two were to do especially with violence, one toward and one by Christians. At a certain point in my reading From the Holy Mountain, I was beginning to despair of ever really feeling at home with them, and thus (not that this is a bad thing) the book was relativizing my inherited beliefs. Luckily for my mental health, later in the memoir I race across a few stories that shot the narrative through with glorious light.

One such story is that of the Christian town of Kafr Bir’im near Nazareth. Dalrymple comes to the village of Safad and is welcomed by the married Marionite priest to have Turkish coffee while he tells him the story of what happened to Kafr Bir’im. Not long after everyone is getting situated, an old man comes in with a piece of paper with all sorts of dates and information relating to the story written on it, lest someone tell the story wrongly. (Enter sarcastic comment against the normal comparison of ‘modern history’ to ‘popular history’ here…)

On October 29th 1948, Haganah soldiers arrived in the village, who were received by the old men and priest with a white flag. The villagers gave them food and allowed them to occupy some houses for a little while. After 15 days, though, the villagers were told they must leave. They had to be five kilometers away from the village or they’ll be shot and killed. So it was in the cold of December they were forcefully evicted without shelter or aid from the village to live in caves or squat under trees, all without justification despite longstanding ‘friendly’ relations with Jews to this point. Several babies died from the exposure.

A twist in the story comes with the information that all 1,050 people of the town were given Israeli citizenship. When the Minister for Minorities arrived and saw them living under trees he ordered the Christians be given the homes of the nearby village Jish, which had been abandoned by fleeing Muslims. After 15 days, the minister said, they would be allowed back to their homes in Kafr Bir’im. There were even allowed a few men back into Bir’im to guard the houses and crops. But after six months, even these were ordered out of the village.

At this point, the village brought their concerns before the Israeli High Court.

The (Maronite!) priest here told Dalrymple:

“The people of Bir’im have never resorted to violence. We have always fought by law and by Christian principles.”

This story came as a surprise in this the last  fifth of the book. It was as an oasis in a desert. I noticed immediately the casual matter-of-factness with which the Father indirectly said that ‘Christian principles’ would not allow his village to offer reaction with guns and violent retaliation. Sadly, the story continues all the way to an ironic post-apocalyptic end.

The people of Bir’im won the case. The court declared the evictions unjust and ordered them back to their village. Yet the very next day the Israeli army declared the area a military zone and they were once again forbidden from coming home. In the afternoon, by an aerial bombing, they destroyed Kafr Bir’im, the buildings with all their possessions, as the people watched from afar, as if at some bizarre fireworks show, on a hill subsequently named the ‘Crying Hill.’

Their fields were given to a new Jewish settlement and the town made into a National Park. The history of the town, and the fact that their real citizens were still alive and nearby, is erased from the public memory. Instead, signs draw attention to the ruins of a second temple synagogue near the center of town, yet the homes built by the people of Bir’im, are imagined as ancient ruins by the Israeli school children who come for field trips; a well dug by one who told the story was labeled instead as one built by a leader of the Jewish revolt circa 66AD.

Now, the villagers – at long last! – can visit their homes, but only if they pay the entrance fee and compete with tourists for a view. Fr. Suleiman laments:

“They say that once you let one Arab back, you admit that the others have rights too. That is why, despite everything, they dare not give us back what is ours. Israel says it is a democracy, and it is true. But it seems that for us Palestinians there is no justice.”

There are many more interesting details, and I strongly recommend you read this engrossing book for them and all the other stories.

Unfamiliar Voices

Tony Sig

One of the books I read over the summer was a travel memoir by William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain. In it, Dalrymple follows the footsteps of a Byzantine monk, John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist, who traveled through the Empire from Mt. Athos down to the Egyptian desert oasis Al Kharga. The book is a totally fascinating and engaging description of the very complex situation Christians are finding themselves in in the Middle East. Mostly it is a tale of the degeneration of Christianity in her historic home — an often tragic and brutal tale. Eerily, the book, written in 1997, already seems out of date. The situation is almost certainly more grim now.

The second part  of From the Holy Mountain takes place in Turkey. After a brief respite in Syria, being at the time the most stable and safe home for Christians, Dalrymple moves onto Lebanon. The book to this point was unrelentingly strange to my world. Turkey, though officially a secular state, has systematically suppressed Christians there, including especially a physical and historic genocide of the Armenian Christians. By ‘historic’ I mean that the authorities literally travel around to towns and destroy any physical proof of Armenians: their churches, their homes, their graveyards, their monasteries. I found it very difficult to hear described. One thing I wasn’t expecting was for this memoir to challenge my pacifism. It doesn’t take any sacrifice on my part to say that I affirm a non-violent Kingdom here. Upon hearing these stories, perhaps for the first time in years, I became quite sympathetic to the felt need to defend oneself, one’s family, church, and home. Some monasteries that were taken over or destroyed had been there for well over a thousand years. A thousand. years.

In Lebanon, Dalrymple gives a brief history of the the Maronite eastern Rite Catholics. A shockingly bloodthirsty and cruel band of Maronite gangs had waged a long ‘civil war’ with other ethnic and religious groups in what is now Lebanon in an effort to defend what was seen as their own country — aided in no small part to a close relationship to the French. There is one particularly dark incident where Dalrymple is having a conversation with a certain Christian about the Maronite leader Samir Geagea. This man was comparing two towns, one Christian the other not:

“You can eat in Ehden, but make sure you sleep in Bsharre. Sleep in Ehden, and they will shoot you while you are asleep.’ [Bsharre was a town under the authority of Geagea. Dalrymple proceeds to question this man, listing many of the more gruesome crimes of Geagea, including the night murder of a Christian rival, the killing of women and children, a church bombing, and others.] “Geagea is a very honourable and very holy man,’ he said. ‘We are very proud of him in Bsharre…You must not believe what people say about Samir Geagea,’ said Ch’baat. ‘But you can hardly call him holy,’ [Dal.]

‘Certainly yes,’ he said, quite serious. ‘He went to mass every day and prayed by his bed every night. He had a church built wherever he was, where he fought. Every Christmas his troops expected money as a present, but instead he gave them prayer books and rosaries. Of course he went to confession ever week. He never went into battle without his cros. In his office, he always had a picture of the Virgin and a cross: never any picture of Che Guevara or anything like that.”

Another strange phenomenon was reported on multiple occasions. In some places in the Middle East there was a strange fusion of Christianity, Islam, and paganism that I found, to be perfectly honest, curious but repugnant. Apparently there are several churches, monasteries, and Mosques, where people of both faiths will come and pray to saints for healing, or for a job, to get pregnant, or for good weather. This is itself not too disconcerting, though it seems like it has potential problems. Far more troubling is that if the prayer is answered, that person will return with a goat or a sheep and the (Orthodox!) priest or Imam will sacrifice the animal in thanks to the saint! How strange! How utterly foreign to me, and foreign to the strong anti-sacrificial polemics of the Church fathers and New Testament.

I kept going over these sections in my mind. In the end, I found them impossible to understand. I couldn’t wrap my head around this man who praised Geagea, or this, well, gang leader, who could shoot a woman and child over 24 times one day, and go to Mass the next; or the animal sacrifice for saints. I was beginning to question myself strongly. In what ways has my Christian life been truly normative, and in what ways has it been exceptional?  According to how I’ve been taught to understand the Gospels and the witness of the persecuted Church, even under severe pressure, the Church shouldn’t be reacting by taking up arms, but caring not about the risks, they should be testifying to another kingdom. Is that simply a position that one in my position can take? Or can it truly occur? Luckily for my sanity, I found several stories that filled me with joy and relief. Perhaps these Christians are not so strange after all?