Book Write-Up: Reinventing Liberal Christianity, by Theo Hobson

Theo Hobson.  Reinventing Liberal Christianity.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

A.  The title of this book is Reinventing Liberal Christianity.  I suppose that a good place to start this post is with a definition: What, for Theo Hobson, is Liberal Christianity?  Well, Hobson talks about a variety of historical trends and concepts that he believes have been a part of Liberal Christianity.  There are the ideas of religious liberty and the non-establishment of any religion or church denomination.  There is the de-emphasis on ritual in favor of a mental assent to religion.  There is the attempt to ground religion in reason, while dismissing miracles.

B.  Liberal Christianity has not exactly been a straight line, as far as I can see in reading Hobson’s book; rather, it has been more like a tree.  A belief in an emotional religious experience branched out into Romanticism, which wanted to get emotional, not about the traditional Christian God, but rather about nature and humanity.  Hobson associates the German authoritarianism of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries with the Liberal State and Liberal Christianity.  How that was the case, I am not entirely certain.  Hobbes believed in a powerful sovereign safeguarding liberty, and Luther thought that the state should somehow protect the church, so these may be parts of the equation.  Hobson also says that German Liberalism was not as liberal as it could have been, so there is a spectrum of Liberalism, in Hobson’s mind.

C.  A theme that recurs throughout Hobson’s book is that of religion being a social glue.  If religion is disestablished and secularism prevails, what exactly will hold people together and define their culture?  Some of the thinkers whom Hobson profiles, such as Rousseau, believed that festivals and celebrations could bind the people together.  Whether Hobson is depicting Rousseau and people with similar sentiments during Liberalism’s heyday as Liberals is difficult to determine; they do seem to depart from the Liberal de-emphasis on cult and ritual.  Hobson also talks about Post-Liberals, who are opposed to secularism and believe that religion can contribute to the public life and provide some form of social glue.

D.  What does Hobson believe about religion being a social glue?  My impression is that he believes that liberty by itself can be a social glue, something to unite and define a people, as is the case in the United States of America.  At the same time, Hobson maintains that modern understandings of liberty have some Christian religious basis.  This goes back at least as far as the apostle Paul, who held that Gentiles should be free from the Jewish law and circumcision, and who proclaimed that, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (II Corinthians 3:17).  In addition, there is within the Liberal Protestant tradition the idea that Jesus did not try to compel people to believe in God, and that faith is something that should be embraced voluntarily and authentically, without state coercion.

E.  Hobson looks pretty Liberal, but there are times in the book when he appears to sympathize with, or at least express understanding of, incidents of religious intolerance.  Hobson is probably not anti-Catholic or anti-atheist, but he says that there was a social and political rationale for the times when England suppressed Catholics and atheists: England believed that Catholics and atheists were threatening the social and political order.  Hobson expresses similar understanding of the recent desire in England to limit Islamic religious expressions.

F.  How does Hobson propose to reinvent Liberal Christianity?  What exactly needs to be reinvented?  He believes that Liberal Christianity should shift from focusing on rationality in the direction of emphasizing cult and ritual as the occasions for faith to be discovered and expressed.  My question in reading this book has been, “Doesn’t it already do so?”  A number of theologically liberal churches, such as the Episcopalians, emphasize ritual.  That is one reason that people (such as recovering evangelicals) go to them: they like the liturgy.  Yes, rationality does play a role in the Episcopalian denomination, as when Episcopalians embrace the historical-critical method, or when some of them try to de-supernaturalize the stories of Jesus’ miracles.  Liturgy and ritual are important to them, too, however.  And, as far as I know, that has not enabled Liberal Christianity to make a dramatic comeback in terms of its cultural influence (which I am stating as an observation, not to gloat from a conservative evangelical perspective; contrary to what some evangelicals may imply when they boast of their numbers, popular does not necessarily mean correct).

G.  A theme that occurs in this book is that of keeping up with the times.  Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, John Robinson, and Harvey Cox wondered how Christianity could make sense to people in a scientific, modern, secular age, which did not believe in miracles.  Some of them were open to saying that Christianity needed to be updated.  Robinson compared removing a belief in miracles from Christianity to Paul saying that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to become part of the people of God: Paul removed a hindrance to people believing in God.  One can legitimately ask how truth can be updated, and one can also point out that Paul never said that he was removing a hindrance to Gentiles believing in God; rather, Paul tried to ground his belief in Scripture, as opposed to trying to keep up with the times.  On the one hand, I do not think that keeping up with the times, by itself, is a worthy excuse for theological changes: I believe that theologians have to deal with the historical-critical method, for example, because it has true insights and poses genuine challenges to traditional religious views, not because it is a hip new belief (albeit not that new, since it has been around for centuries).  On the other hand, I believe that God speaks to people where they are, and that God often communicated who he was through people’s cultural categories, both in the Hebrew Bible and also the New Testament.  Can God do the same with us today?

Good book!  I would like to read more about Bonhoeffer, particularly after reading in this book about his struggles with faith and Christianity.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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2 Responses to Book Write-Up: Reinventing Liberal Christianity, by Theo Hobson

  1. Esther says:

    “On the one hand, I do not think that keeping up with the times, by itself, is a worthy excuse for theological changes: I believe that theologians have to deal with the historical-critical method, for example, because it has true insights and poses genuine challenges to traditional religious views, not because it is a hip new belief (albeit not that new, since it has been around for centuries).” — I agree with what you say here. It reminds me of what Thomas Merton wrote in a letter once, that has stayed with me: “At root, one searches for God in only one way: by following the truth with all the sincerity of one’s conscience.” Keeping up with the times cannot in itself be a reason for modifying our understanding of God; on the other hand, there may well be scientific, historical, and other insights from our times that lead us closer to the truth, which leads us closer to God.

    I am curious as to what you see as the most important “true insights and… genuine challenges” posed by the historical-critical method to traditional Christian views.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    It would mainly be seeing the Bible as a diverse document, reflecting its time. That arguably challenges the view that the Bible is a unified, timeless revelation that is all about Jesus. At least I think it does.

    Like

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