Over at the Guardian, Theo Hobson is questing for an authentic liberal Christianity
, and has come to the conclusion there are really two
separate "liberal" Christian traditions.
One sort of liberal Christianity edges away from supernatural belief, and church ritual: it presents Jesus as a great moral teacher, the first humanist, through whose example we can learn to mend our world. It assumes a basic harmony between Christianity and the rational Enlightenment.
The other sort of liberal Christianity affirms political liberalism – the ideal of a state that rejects theocracy and protects people's liberties. But it does not seek to reform Christianity in a rational-humanist direction: it understands that such "reform" undermines this religion, falsifies it.
Very simply, the latter sort of liberal Christianity is the only authentic version; it must be rescued from the deathly embrace of the former sort. Only thus can liberal Christianity be renewed.
As a post-liberal Anglo-Catholic mystic, you might guess that I, like Hobson, would prefer the "ritualist" version of liberal Christianity over the "rationalist" one. And insofar as that goes, that's right. But I see a couple of problems with Hobson's binary division of liberal Christianity:1.) Both versions are firmly rooted in the same Enlightenment project,
so much so that it strikes me as naïve to just assume they can be separated out from each other. I share Hobson's distaste for "Christian-tinged humanism"--what I've often called "ethical Jesus-ism"--but am skeptical of his refusal to similarly critique the Enlightenment values that underlie the modernistic liberal political project:
I studied theology, and learned that cutting-edge thought was strongly "post-liberal"; it sought to purge theology of Enlightenment corruption, and restore its autonomy. I largely agreed with this agenda, but retained a nagging sense that such theology over-reacted against liberalism.
Hobson describes the rise of political liberation and the growth of rationalism as two separate trajectories that just happened to occur at the same time:
I found that the Reformation gradually gave rise to two forms of liberal Christianity. One of these was deeply involved in the first phase of political liberalism, in the mid-17th century. Its clearest theorist was the poet John Milton. He said that the Protestant Reformation, launched a century earlier, had now entered a new phase. God willed a new sort of state, with no official church enforcing religious unity. Instead, the state should protect people's freedom to believe and worship as they wanted (as long as they did not threaten the new political order).
He criticised any authoritarian church, established or not, that tried to impose moral and religious rules on people (he pointed out that St Paul had attacked such rules). This is the liberal Christian tradition that I affirm. It is a religious vision that entails a political vision, of the post-absolutist state, in which the ideal of liberty unites people.
But something else happened in the 17th century. Protestantism gradually absorbed rationalist assumptions about the need to reform Christianity away from both ritual and supernatural belief. This was a disaster.
But this ignores the way that both the turn towards political liberty and towards reason were part and parcel of the same modernist moment, the same historical dialectical processes, born of an emerging paradigmatic shift which changed humanity's understanding of themselves, their place in the universe, and the nature of knowledge.
Hobson wants to dethrone the modernist worldview when it comes to faith and ritual but leave it firmly in place when it comes to politics. Sorry, but it doesn't work like that. If we're going to reexamine the role of reason in our theology--and we should!--then we're going to have to do it in our politics too. 2.)
Hobson's desire for a "nuanced liberal Christianity – one that affirmed political liberty, but also understood that authentic Christianity must be rooted in faith and ritual practice" is my own desire; after all, one of the reasons I identify as Anglo-Catholic is because I recognize the power of ritual. I find little to disagree with when Hobson says:
For authentic Christianity cannot dispense with faith, nor with ritual expression. If it cuts itself off from the basic, rationally unjustifiable practices of worship (prayer-speech, communal cultic action), it commits suicide. One need only recall that this is a religion that makes regular use of (what might be called) fake blood – that involves the drinking of fake blood!
But in his statements that rationalist liberal Christianity "edges away from supernatural belief" and that "Protestantism gradually absorbed rationalist assumptions about the need to reform Christianity away from [. . .] supernatural belief" (resulting in disaster) Hobson seems to assume that "faith" must require belief in the supernatural.
That seems to me to be both a musunderstanding of the original Pauline understanding of what Christian faith ought to be, and wrong (or at the very least undemonstrated) on its own terms. Now part of this might just fall to differing definition of terms; I do after all affirm the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which seems to be Hobson's example of the sort of rationality-defying practice which is necessary for faith. But I don't consider such a thing to be supernatural; instead, I'd classify it as transcendental. No one--at least no one properly catechized--actually believes an empirical
change (a change in the accidents) is effected in the Communion elements; instead, the change is mystical, or metaphysical (a change in "substance," to use Trent's problematic neo-Greek metaphysics).
The problem with supernaturalism as I define it--which includes bleeding statues and ghostly apparitions but not purely spiritual transformations--is not that reason causes us to deny it. Drawing on Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and the insights of postmodernity in general, I'm perfectly comfortable recognizing the limits of our reasoning and turning to religion to fill in the gaps. It's that even when he have done so, belief in the supernatural remains unmotivated.