24 October 2007

beyond liberal and conservative

Recently a friend drew my attention to a bevy of Particular Baptists who have launched a new website called "Humble Orthodoxy," complete with a blog and a conference. If these leaders are serious about "representing biblical truth with humility," then I can only support them heartily, given the polemical pyrotechnics that often seem to radiate from their compatriots, particularly online.

Yet, I do wonder how much "humble orthodoxy" is packaging over substance, especially given the way in which the moniker seems designed to counter the "generous orthodoxy" of the emerging crowd and of post-conservative evangelicals. It is especially the post-conservatives that I imagine stand as a target by way of critique or competition, especially humble orthodoxy's eschewing of "reinvention."

Advocates of a generous orthodoxy or post-conservative evangelicalism often speak of moving beyond theological liberalism and conservatism. The notion of moving "beyond theological liberalism" should be a welcome one to orthodox Christians, evangelicals included.

In the mainline churches, developments within the fold of "post-liberal" theology evidence a marked return to orthodoxy and orthopraxis, even if one might think things should go further. When theological liberalism has run its course and been found wanting - something we need to move beyond - this is welcome news.

Yet, it is likely the "post-conservative" bit that bothers many evangelicals, especially the (politically and theologically) conservative sort behind "Humble Orthodoxy."

For some, "post-conservatism" no doubt sounds like a call to let go of evangelical distinctives such as biblical inerrancy, the necessity of conversion, personal evangelism, or the doctrine of hell. If that's the case, then perhaps there is some cause for concern, though the precise contours of those doctrines may truly need some reconsideration and revision in light of Scripture and historical theology, without thereby abandoning them altogether.

On the other hand, it seems to me that a post-conservative theology might equally well suggest letting go of evangelical distinctives such as pietism, revivalism, anti-sacramentalism, individualism, and so on, along with the complicity of these trends with modernist projects, American culture, and Republican politics.

If that's the case, then I think the post-conservative move is a welcome one that evangelicals should heed and from which they may learn. After all, in these specific areas, "humble orthodoxy" represents an evangelicalism that is already in large part a "reinvention" of the more catholic faith of the Protestant Reformers.

One might suggest, however, that there is something deeper to the notion that moving beyond liberalism also requires moving beyond conservatism. Indeed, it might be the case that conservative evangelicalism covertly (or even not so covertly) shares many of its core distinctives with liberalism.

That is to say, it is quite possible and plausible to argue that theological liberalism and theological conservatism, rather than representing, respectively, a departure from and a preservation of orthodoxy, both significantly represent a departure from orthodoxy and, moreover, a departure that follows substantially the same trajectory.

Consider: in the early 20th century both the (liberal) Social Gospel and (conservative) Fundamentalism equally claimed the mantle of "evangelicalism." In the case of fundamentalism and its neo-evangelical offspring, they were able to make the claim stick. The parallel, however, is instructive.

In part it points to a common ancestry, in particular, a 19th century Christianity that embraced personal piety, religious experience, a rigid moralism, and social action - not that these elements are in every respect negative developments or departures from a more historic faith. But in their particular, 19th century configuration something new was certainly afoot - redefining and reinventing Protestantism.

Whether liberal or conservative, the heirs of the Great Awakenings stood together in the causes of abolition, temperance, improved working conditions, even if they eventually parted ways on issues such as women's suffrage. Whether liberal or conservative, they held to a piety that placed religious experience of the sacred over the particularities of dogma, along with practices of self-reliant spiritual discipline and holiness. Whether liberal or conservative, they shared an attachment to ever new measures to instill piety, embolden faith, and disseminate the message, developing new forms of sacred music and deploying new modes of communication. Whether liberal or conservative they held to a literalistic hermeneutics that spawned, respectively, either a creeping skepticism about the veracity of Scripture or an increasingly fantastic apocalypticism.

It is no surprise, then, that the two major 20th century studies of "New Side" Presbyterianism were written by liberals who thought the emergence of revivalistic piety provided a historical precedent for more liberal interpretations of the Christian faith.

These observations, therefore, suggest that moving beyond liberalism will naturally involve a concomitant move beyond the conservatism that emerged alongside liberalism from the same religious experiment - an experiment that many orthodox Christians have seen as having gone wrong, even before the more recent diagnoses emerging from post-conservative critics.

I would suggest that any "moving beyond" might also prove, at the same time, to be a move that must first go back in order to go forward, to draw upon the resources of a pre-modern and pre-revivalist catholicity in order to find a way forward in a world where the forces of modernity and revivalism have run their course and are fading away.

If I'm right about that, I hope it's a perspective the conservative orthodox might be willing humbly to consider and, in doing so, come to better believe, live, and represent biblical truth.