Topics

Transcript: Can Liberal Christianity Be Reinvented?—A Conversation with Theologian Theo Hobson

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

Thinking in Public

 

Mohler:           This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Theo Hobson is a British theologian and journalist, currently serving as a lecturer in systematic theology at General Theological Seminary in New York City. He’s written a number of books, but, most importantly, his new book is entitled Reinventing Liberal Christianity. He was educated at the universities of York and Cambridge, and he did his doctorate at Cambridge, writing a thesis on protestant theology and rhetoric. He’s speaking to us today from New York City.

Dr. Theo Hobson, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Hobson:          Sure. Thanks for having me.

Mohler:           Dr. Hobson, your new book, Reinventing Liberal Christianity, begins by suggesting that there are really two different liberal Christianities. Can you expand on that?

Hobson:           Yes, I can. I think that there is not just two, but there is a nice polarity. There is a good and a bad tradition. And I would say that the good tradition is very much tied up with political liberalism, and that means the liberal states and possibly secular liberalism (although that is a much contested term). And so the good tradition simply affirms freedom—the freedom of religion; political freedom—and I think that Christianity should be deeply involved with those things. It should be in dialogue with them.

Now the other tradition, what I called the bad tradition, is more like the enlightenment/rationalist kind of tradition, which says that we can modernize Christianity in a rationalist direction, we can get away from faith, we can get away from ritual, we can get away from the Church, and we can create a new thing, a kind of modernized Christianity for enlightened people. And I see that as a very negative tradition. It’s had a deep negative impact on Protestant thought, especially in the last century or so. So, pick [one of] those two traditions.

Mohler:           Well and you do so by means of a rather elaborate narrative, about which I’m going to ask you to speak in a moment, but let me just ask you about these two versions. In fact, you clearly identify them as a “good version” and a “bad version” of liberal Christianity. Isn’t it true that this—what you identify as the bad version, the version of emptying Christianity of its cognitive content, it’s doctrinal content in light of the challenges of the Enlightenment—isn’t that what virtually everyone in the English-speaking world thinks liberal Protestantism is?

Hobson:           Yeah, that’s the problem; that has come to dominate the discussions and, in a way, I think that’s the fault of liberals for not foregrounding the other tradition and also for allowing themselves to be somewhat taken over by the negative tradition. So I think there’s a big task of clarifying and sorting out and saying there has been a mistake in the past and that liberal Protestant theology has gone much too far in the rationalist direction and we need to stop and think and we need to look pretty hard at how the tradition has developed and we need to affirm the positives within it and be critical of the negatives.

Mohler:           Well in so doing you are using the word liberal in at least a couple of senses, maybe even more, but doesn’t that point to the fundamental vocabulary problem we have in the English language where the word liberal as applied to politics, and especially to the longer Western political position, is actually used in a very different way than at least it’s customarily used in reference to theology?

Hobson:          Yeah it is a very problematic word and I suppose one just has to define the terms with each new theological account one’s given. I would say that it’s important to not be too pejorative, not too negative about political liberalism. Although, I guess in this country there is a tendency to do that, but, on the other hand, this country values freedom very much, and that’s a form of liberalism and it comes from modern political thoughts in which religious liberty, for example, is very important and, as the word liberty suggests, that’s something to do with liberalism. So I think we’ve got to look back at the history of political liberalism and see the positive, including the theological positive. Now the theological meaning is complicated again because it very often means the Enlightenment philosophy and so on, and I think we need to unpack that and try and find different strands within that rather than dismiss it as one thing.

Mohler:           When you’re talking about these two liberalisms—and, clearly, you’re encouraging liberal Protestants or mainline Protestantism to move in the direction of this good liberalism. You’re telling a narrative here and, in so doing, you are actually revisiting many of the personages and movements, in terms of theology, and going all the way back, I might mention, basically to the New Testament, but especially since the Reformation. Can you kind of follow that narrative, trace it out for us a bit, so that we understand how you see the trajectory both of the liberalism you want to reject and the liberalism you want to embrace?

Hobson:          Yeah, okay. I only deal quite briefly with the New Testament because, of course, you can’t really talk about political liberalism or theological liberalism in relation to it. But I say that the seeds are there of transformations that would occur after the Reformation. One of those things I say is Paul’s idea of freedom from the law, and that is taken up after the Reformation by certain thinkers who say we have a warrant to question religious institutions, religious authority, religious rules, and to rethink the very essence of the gospel. And that’s partly through rediscovering Paul. And another very basic idea in the New Testament is simply the rejection of theocracy, of a unity of church and state, which in a sense you have with the ancient Jews and in a sense you have with most ancient religion. It’s just an assumption that religion would be very much tied up with political order and there’s something pretty new about Christianity rejecting that unity—or at least questioning it, of course, due to developments— [to]go the other way. To begin with, there is that and then I trace the Reformation in some detail. And I would say that Luther is very important in preparing the way for the political liberalism that will emerge in the next century. And he does that by questioning the church and ensuring that politics isn’t fully secular and that religion is within its orbit. But even he is dubious about toleration and only in the next century, in the 17th century, do you get strong arguments for a fuller sort of toleration where instead of imposing one religion, the state begins to allow freedom of different sorts of religion. And you get this in the English Civil War Era in the mid-17th century. Of course, it’s a bit of a mess, that whole period, but within it there are these bold ideas of separating church and state. And I think, by the way, Americans aren’t sufficiently aware that their own revolutionary ideas come from that previous English Civil War.

Mohler:           Absolutely. Let me ask you: in tracing the story—and I do think in many ways the most crucial part of your narrative could be described as from Luther to Locke (that is, from Martin Luther to John Locke)—you describe Luther in terms of what you call intermediate secularism and then you get to John Locke. But as you’re dealing with John Locke, you still have something like secularity or the secularism that would now mark the Western condition in most nations.

Hobson:          Yeah, you begin to get that with John Locke, I think, because he suggests that toleration is almost a natural, rational feature of modern civilized politics. And an important figure just before him is John Melton in the English Civil War time; and there you have a liberal-political vision that is much more strongly rooted in radical-Protestant zeal or enthusiasm, a particular religious vision which says, “We must have a new sort of politics because God willed it. God willed a new sort of state.” And through being a true Protestant you would also be this new kind of political being, trying to create a new sort of liberal state. This was the very earliest form of the liberal state. And so after the restoration of the monarchy, you get John Locke’s more cautious version of that, which separates that liberty vision from any particular religious narrative. And it’s difficult to judge whether that’s a good or bad thing. In a way, I think it’s incredible that you’ve got a separation there of politics and religion and that the vision becomes in a sense secularized—although he still says that you must believe in God and atheists are not really considered legitimate. But, in a sense, it is semi-secular now with Locke, that vision of the religious freedom and toleration.

Mohler:           Before leaving the Reformation and moving too far into the modern age, I want to go back to the distinction you make between Luther and Calvin. You identify Luther, again, as representing a position that might be described as intermediate secularism. But you’re really not putting Calvin in that category.

Hobson:          No, I think not. I think Calvin kind of recreates a unity of church and state, which is kind of in a way mirroring the Roman Catholic situation with a very strong, authoritative church. And, of course, Calvinism could be used to challenge political orders and was kind of used as a revolutionary movement. But I see there’s still quite a strong echo of a kind of theocratic mindset of we must have a unity here of religion and politics. And I don’t think there’s the same openness in Calvinism as there is in Lutheranism.

Mohler:           I would argue that at least part of that has to do with their political contexts; the difference between the princely states of Germany and the city units of Switzerland. But, nonetheless, there are theological issues I can see there that separate the two. But as you come into the modern age—as a historical theologian, I am reluctant to ask you to come up with a list of positive figures and negative figures—but there are clearly those who are major players on the scene of especially English-speaking theology, but also on the Continent, who are representing this engagement with modernity. That’s what separates a Schleiermacher, for instance, in his lectures to the cultured despisers of religion, from Luther, who didn’t know any. And so bring us up into the modern age where the anti-supernaturalism and the increasing secularity of the modern age presents the context for what most of us know as liberal Protestantism.

Hobson:          Right. Well, I think what you have in the 18th century is this huge movement, which is basically deism, which is the rational version of religion, and, in a way, it’s the most important thing to happen in all of modern intellectual history. It’s this huge triumph throughout Protestant nations especially, also some Catholic nations, of a form of rational theology that really preceded the Enlightenment, the secular-rationalist Enlightenment, or prepared the way for it. And I think that the influence of that movement can’t really be overstated. You know it was still dominating theology in the 20th century, mid-20th century I’d say. And I guess the basic narrative is that we must move away from superstition, we must move away from revelation, to a large extent, and we must understand Christianity as the universal human religion.

Mohler:           And this is a part of the project of human liberation, according to its proponents. This was necessary for humans to be liberated from the past.

Hobson:          That’s right. There’s a good case for that. There are lots of humanistic innovations and movements that come in through some of these insights and they contribute to, well, for example, the founding of the United States. You know, that’s quite an important project that deism is partly to be thanked for. But it creates this huge theological complication of how then do we talk about the essence of Christianity? How can we recover an understanding that is based in something very particular, which is faith in Jesus Christ and the ritual performance or remembrance of Jesus Christ? And even in the 19th century, you get theologians and philosophers moving a bit away from deism and saying, “We’re not rationalists anymore; we’re more influenced by romantic thought, for example, and social thought.” And Schleiermacher is one of them and he, in a sense, is rediscovering the Church as the basis of Christian theology. Karl Barth, for example, gives him some credit for that, but he’s still, I argue, within the overall framework of deism, and so is almost all Protestant theologians of that time—Hagel, for example. They’re still within its framework.

Mohler:           I would say in many ways that I found that to be the strongest part of your narrative. And I think that you very effectively point to the rise and almost imperial triumph of deism within Western culture. But that’s where I want to ask you the question: in terms of the response to deism, and particularly in response to deism in the English-speaking world, but also on the Continent represented by the Germans like Schleiermacher, if the wrong response to deism was the anti-supernaturalism embraced by so many who became known as liberal Protestants, where would you otherwise have had them to go?

Hobson:          Well, yeah, that’s a good question. I think that they needed to find a nuanced middle way, I suppose, in which they don’t simply return to the previous century’s ideas of theological orthodoxy—forms of Calvinism, maybe I would include Methodism and Wesley there. But I think there is a narrowness to that sort of focus and that it was important for them to be engaging with the Enlightenment and with political liberal thought. But I would argue that they needed to start untangling these traditions and to say we must try to affirm a form of liberty-loving, freedom-loving Protestant Christianity that does not have this limitation of deism, but, instead, it begins to understand in a new way its basis in faith and its basis in ritual.

Mohler:           That’s what I found so interesting in your argument and where I wanted to come back and probe a bit because what was particularly being denied, specifically, explicitly being denied, was the supernatural content of Christianity. When Schleiermacher was responding to those he identified as the cultured despisers of religion, they were despising supernatural truth claims and quite directly so, as were the deists at large. To what extent do you project that this good form or healthy form of liberalism as retaining that theological or doctrinal content?

Hobson:          I think it retains it, but it maybe thinks about it in a new way. It maybe changes into a sort of dialogue with biblical criticism and it accepts that we can’t keep talking in the way of the previous century about orthodox doctrine. But I think it needs to start having a conversation with rational critiques of religion. But also to say, “Let’s look at what religion actually is on the ground: it’s about worship; it’s about faith, and so on.” And so I suppose it’s a sort of process of having a conversation.

 

{Commenrary break}

Mohler:           In his new book, Theo Hobson is arguing that there are really two, you might describe them as rival, versions of liberal Christianity. The first is the liberal Christianity most of us know. That liberal Christianity represented by the mainline Protestant denominations, a liberal Christianity that gains that modifier liberal by means of evacuating Christianity of its supernatural content in face of the challenges of the modern age, in the Enlightenment. In contrast to that, Theo Hobson is arguing for a liberal Christianity that is based in the worship and ritual of the church and an eager engagement with the liberal state. In other words, he is arguing for an embrace of political liberalism and he wants to add to that a theological liberalism that is deeply engaged in Christian worship, in ritual, and in Christian symbolism. But what about Christian truth? If appears to me that that is the big question.

{End break}

 

Mohler:           In terms of this new model of liberalism that you are projecting, in looking backwards, you say that one of the faults of the bad liberalism or bad liberal theology was—you describe it as developing a certain phenomenon known as, well, you identified it as sacraphobism. They became sacraphobic. In other words, they not only left behind, according to your narrative—and I think you’re right here—the doctrinal content of Christianity, they also left behind all that went with it, in terms of what sociologists of religion would call the cultus.

Hobson:          That’s right. I define sacramentalism in broad terms as religious culture, things you do, and, I suppose, that means beyond just verbal culture of preaching and talking and writing about religion. Religion also needs this basis in lived performance and habits, regular ritual habits. And you know the Reformers, of course, were kind of on the fence about this and were trying to reform the sacraments, and some did it more extremely than others—Luther was quite conservative; Calvin was less conservative—and they created a climate of suspicion of not just icons and images, but rituals and images, and everything to do with performance really, and to do with culture, and to do with the arts and all that sort of thing, and worship. They wanted to keep worship limited, plain, and austere, and when liberal Protestants started taking over, that became a huge problem because they inherited this deep aversion, this deep suspicion of ritual culture, and that led them away from seeing what religion essentially is. You know, most Christians affirm the Eucharist as very essential, and that’s a good example because the liberal Christians were suspicious even of that in thinking that might be something we need to get away from.

Mohler:           Yeah, I found this a very interesting turn in your book, and it was at this point, I just wanted to say, I think this book is in that sense quintessentially Anglican. Because if there’s any church communion where this kind of church culture—you describe it in terms of being cultic liberal, where the cultus is all there, and you describe, well, I think a very crucial point, when Elizabeth tells her bishops to wear vestments, where they are to keep a good bit of the cultus of the Roman Catholic Church, even in terms of the worship of the Church of England. It struck me, and I guess I just want to ask you directly: is this not fairly well described as quintessentially Anglican?

Hobson:          Yes; you’re quite right. I think I am kind of trying to bring out in my own way that balance of the sacramental and the Protestant. I think you’d also find a very similar thing in Lutheranism and probably in other traditions.

Mohler:           No, I think Lutheranism is particularly apt there because Luther made many of the same accommodations actually that Elizabeth made, although less self-consciously I would argue.

Hobson:          Yeah, he did. He was surprisingly conservative in worship and so on. And so, yeah, I think Anglicanism has got this pursuit of the right sort of compromise at its heart. But, on the other hand, I don’t think its theologians were very successful in general in talking about it, making it a central thing to reflect on. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had to write this book and it would have all been sorted out a hundred years ago.

Mohler:           Well, trying to sort it out now, let’s bring it up into the very modern period, our own contemporary era, and who do you see or what religious bodies or denominations do you see representing a form of liberalism that is at least somewhat consonant with that with which you want to see more represented?

Hobson:          Well I think a lot of the Anglican Church is doing pretty well and in a lot of ways. I think in terms of its practice, I can affirm it very much; but I think theologically it doesn’t think as well as it acts in a sense, and it doesn’t know quite how to talk about this kind of balance of the sacramental and the liberal. Instead, it gets kind of caught up in particular liberal causes and, on the other hand, it overdoes certain forms of high-church worship. So I think it’s found it difficult to articulate; but it’s there on the ground, as it were, and, you know, the average, middle-of-the-road Anglican service, I can heartily approve of.

Mohler:           Now as a theologian concerned with theological method, I have to tell you that I thought I could predicate about three-quarters of the way through your book where you would eventuate, in terms of a proposed theological method, and I became unsure as I finished the book. And what I thought would happen is that you would present something more like the theological method of George Lindbeck in his post-liberal model, because I would argue that Lindbeck makes many of the same arguments that you’re trying to make here. He made them some thirty years earlier, and not so comprehensively. But I was somewhat surprised you didn’t seem to identify very explicitly with that kind of understanding based upon the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and others that religion’s a cultural linguistic system, and that doctrine is itself a cultural linguistic system, along with all the ritual and cultus that goes with it.

Hobson:          Yeah, I think that that movement was important and it had an insight that fed into other forms of theology. But it mainly influenced theology in a pretty conservative Anglo-Catholic direction, I would say—is largely what came out of that movement. And so I think it didn’t grapple with certain parts of maybe the more political—theo-political story is what I’m most interested in. But, in terms of influencing our thoughts about the place of ritual and the relationship between doctrine and ritual, I think that book was important, and so were other thinkers of that era—largely they were influenced by Wittgenstein, I think.

Mohler:           Yeah, well, I was thinking of someone—and you certainly referenced Alasdair MacIntyre, but he offers a great deal I think along the lines of what you’re suggesting. But, then again, I think it ends up in a more conservative place. I think you’re right. I think that method of Lindbeck and the Yale theologians would lead to a more conservative conclusion than at least I think you’re trying to argue for.

Hobson:          That’s right. I think that they have a very strong insight into the weakness of post-Enlightenment liberal thought, in general, including in theology. And that’s an important moment in ideas that moves away from a sort of complacent evaluation of liberal thought. But I think they go too far in the negative direction and they fail to see that despite certain crudities within liberal thought, we need to affirm something within this whole story. And I think they have a simplicity—I mean they’re largely Roman Catholic or became so, those thinkers—and they have quite a simplistic take of all of modernity should be opposed by a basically kind of medieval synthesis of philosophy and politics and religion. And I think that’s lacking a nuance in a way. I think we need to admit that it’s more complicated than that, and that we need to be both for and against political modernity and say there’s good as well as bad there, and we need to have a dialogue with it.

Mohler:           Now just to kind of bring all this together in terms of your project in this book, in terms of Reinventing Liberal Christianity, as we look to this form of liberal Christianity of which you intend to be the proponent, what is the actual doctrinal or theological content? I mean, for instance, when you talk about this cultic liberal Christianity, you’re clearly talking about a Christianity that celebrates the liberal state and is politically engaged with and within it, and you’re also talking about a cultus, but the theologian in me just wants to know, where is the content to that? I mean, in terms, for instance, of the claims made about the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, are those, in your understanding, to be presented as historical truth claims?

Hobson:          I would be quite keen to root doctrine within worship and ritual and say we say these things as part of our ritual. We recite the creeds in our worship service and so on, so when we’re talking about truth claims and so on, in a sense I want to be a little bit kind of strict about the kind of situation we’re making those claims in. Of course, we also proclaim to the world. But in a sense we’re using ritual language, ritual-based language whenever we talk about Jesus Christ. Though I would root all kind of doctrinal claims just in remembering that the whole tradition is based in worship and prayer and praise and proclamation, and I think that’s the way forward to start thinking about what we mean by that.

Mohler:           I think that’s a fairly radical proposal, but I want to tell you as an evangelical Christian, I think it has the potential of a good bit of traction. And I say that because here’s what I perceive in terms of something of the exhaustion of liberal Protestantism. I think you have a millennial generation that is drawn to a somewhat communitarian understanding of existence. They want to be together in community and they want what is described here as the cultus. They want the practices of Christianity: they want the hymns; they want the liturgy. And yet, they’re not keen on defending the truth claims. And so I’m saying this as something of a lament and as a concern as an evangelical, but I do think there is a cultural opening for the kind of proposal you’re making, probably amongst people who wouldn’t be able to follow your narrative, but end up, nonetheless, where you’re pointing.

Hobson:          Yeah, I think maybe in a sense I am speaking to them or have them in mind to some extent—that generation. I think it might be a healthy thing. It might be a way of finding a way of talking about truth claims that communicate to people outside of the church. That’s been needed for a long time, so we need to keep thinking about how to do that

Mohler:           Well in thinking along those lines, I want to shift gears just a little bit and refer to one of your previous writings. I was asked to write an article for The Wall Street Journal about a year ago on the issue of homosexuality and Christianity. And in writing my article I cited one of yours, and I simply want to say that I think the article you wrote that at least was published in The Guardian on the 5th of February of 2007, may be to date the most succinct and powerful argument about the momentum and velocity of the great moral revolution we’re now experiencing. And you refer to it as, with reference to the church, as a pink reformation. I want to take you back to that article just a little bit because you argue there, indeed it seems to me, that the debate about homosexuality poses such a serious threat to organized religion in this country—and you mean the UK, but let’s include the US—that it is not absurd to compare it to the Reformation of the 16th century. You say that the church as faced moral issues before, but none like homosexuality. You say that it’s because that it has a stark either-or quality to it; as you write, “Either homosexuality is a fully valid alternative to heterosexuality or it is not. There is no room for compromise; no third way. And this,” you say, “is not a normal moral debate, but a pure class of visceral responses.” And then you get to the speed, but before turning to the velocity, let me just go back. Are you still where you were then in 2007, in terms of the scale of this moral revolution?

Hobson:          It’s pretty big. I mean, I think I was being a little bit hyperbolic there.

Mohler:           I am not sure of that. I am not sure you were.

Hobson:          I say it’s still pretty unique. It’s different from other moral problems or issues that the church has faced, and that is to do with if you’re not for it, you seem to be immoral rather than just neutral.

Mohler:           But that’s the point isn’t it. As a matter of fact, I think that’s the point you made more clearly than anyone else I know. You say that the moral revolution only—I’m paraphrasing you here—but it only really has taken place when there’s an entire inversion such that the thing that was sanctioned is now authorized and the thing that was authorized is now sanctioned. I think this is what many Christians don’t realize is indeed happening.

Hobson:          Right. I think you’re right and I think that the Church of England, in particular, is still dealing with that sort of concept. The new Archbishop of Canterbury—unfortunately he didn’t cite my article—but he was saying something similar: we still need to reckon with just how revolutionary this new attitude is. And it’s part of secular liberal attitudes, but it’s still very difficult for Christians to deal with.

Mohler:           Well that is the scale; now to the speed. I want to read you a few of your sentences. You write: “And there is another more complex factor: the public change in attitudes towards homosexuality is not just the waning of a taboo; it’s not just the case of a practice losing its aura of immorality; instead, the case for homosexual equality takes the form of a moral crusade. Those who want to uphold the old attitude are not just dated moralist; they are accused of moral deficiency. The old taboo surrounding this practice doesn’t disappear, but bounces back at those who seek to uphold it.” Then you wrote, “Such a sharp turnaround is I think without parallel in modern history.”

Hobson:          Yeah. It’s incredibly fast. It’s just since probably the 1970s—amazingly fast.

Mohler:           In the article I wrote for The Wall Street Journal, I cited historian Kwame Appiah, who points out that the abolitionist movement in slavery took the better part of three centuries. And this is taking a little bit more than three decades.

Hobson:          Right.

Mohler:           To what, in terms of the conditions of modernity—let me ask you to speculate here—would you attribute this radical turn, as you say, “a turn without parallel in moral history”? How did this happen? What were the social and theological conditions that allowed this to happen?

Hobson:          I don’t know. I suppose that’s got a lot to do with social changes of the mid-20th century, and also maybe the desire for reform that you get in the 1960s, that there’s a huge kind of moral reformist energy that demands a new cause after civil rights, after feminism, and so there’s a huge appetite for something controversial to get stuck into. That’s partly it. That’s the kind of sociological reason. And, of course, you just have a waning of patriarchy. I mean, it’s tied up with feminism to a large extent. You got a waning of assumptions about gender roles and, you know, that suddenly opens up the issue of sexuality.

Mohler:           Indeed it does, and I think it opens up a host of other issues. But I think one of the preconditions had to be the waning of biblical authority writ large such that the culture is no longer informed by, perhaps even haunted by, a biblical morality that once had been taken for granted, if not legislated.

Hobson:          Well that’s partly the case. But, you know, you obviously get liberal Christians as well who are citing the Bible in a different way. So I think it’s been an intense problem for the liberal church, in my opinion, because you get this extreme polarization. And, you know, I’m vaguely liberal on the issue, but I regret the way that it has been heightened up into such an extreme crusade by the liberals, I think, in a way that’s counter-productive. And so I would have liked to see a more gradual movement. So I’m a bit of a conservative liberal on the issue I suppose.

Mohler:           That’s something of a context that I think I understand, in terms of this conversation: a conservative liberal. There are many gradations. But, on the other hand, I think where the liberal Protestant denominations are is well-described in the article I just cited by you in which you say there really isn’t any middle ground; that it is a yes-or-no question. Either homosexuality is a perfectly valid sexual expression, and thus homosexual relationships are too, or they’re not. And I think that’s why it’s very hard to try to understand where that middle ground might be.

Hobson:          Yeah, you’re right. I think at the end of the day, people have to get off the fence. But I think that it’s important, nevertheless, to try and find a nuanced way of making your position. I think, for example, Rowan Williams did reasonably well as Archbishop of Canterbury just in showing the complexity of it through his very difficult and sort of torturous thinking and position on it. I think that was in a way quite an honest position to be in because he was really reflecting what the whole communion was going through. So I think it’s possible to deal with the issue, taking on its complexities, even if at the end of the day it is either/or.

Mohler:           Now just with a final question about that Anglican context: where do you see the Anglican Communion? That’s one question, and I guess the sub-text to that would be the Church of England. Where do you see these church bodies going? You’ve written a good deal about this.

Hobson:          I think it’s quite difficult to read at the moment. I think there’s an optimism still surrounding Justin Welby, the new archbishop, but no one quite knows whether that is well-founded in anything he’s actually going to do, any ability he really has to find a way forward on the issues that are such a problem. I think that the Church of England has quite particular issues and problems of its own that are in a way exclusive to it, and they are a bit different from the rest of the communion. And I think one issue is that they need to be sorted out so that it can lead a really united church, and that partly has to do with issues about church and state and establishment. I think it sort of needs to refresh its situation within the nation and create a more coherent ideology, really of Anglicanism. And I think that’s possible. And I think that the American church has a role to play, but, at the moment, the American church is conforming a bit too much to a kind of rebellious liberal script and is not really taking the lead either. So I think there’s a question of leadership in a sense: which side of the Atlantic should lead?

Mohler:           I want to conclude with a question that might surprise you a bit, but I think it is entirely appropriate given the context. So you are a proponent of reinventing liberal Christianity and talking to an evangelical Christian and a largely evangelical Christian listenership to this program, what would be the one thing you would think we had better see or we had better know based upon your analysis of these things?

Hobson:          I think the most important thing is that we need to refresh our thinking about political history and we need to see it afresh, the role that Protestants have played in creating the modern world, including the secular world. We need, in a way, to have a more positive account of our role in that, and instead of saying, “Secular liberalism is the enemy, we must oppose it with everything we’ve got,” we should identify what’s good within it and what we as Christians, as Protestants, have contributed to that. And I think that if we could start a conversation like that, then we can get away from certain unhelpful kinds of assumptions.

Mohler:           Well, Theo Hobson, I want to thank you today for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Hobson:          Thanks very much.

 

{Closing commentary}

Mohler:           I enjoyed that conversation with Theo Hobson; and I had been looking forward to it for some time because I had been reading, part-by-part and essay-by-essay, much of the material that ended up in his new book, Reinventing Liberal Christianity. As an evangelical Christian, I take liberal Christianity very seriously. I take liberal theology as a matter of tremendous academic interest and, furthermore, in the contemporary context, just as I said to Theo Hobson, I believe there’s a new cultural opening for liberal theology and for liberal Christianity. And that’s something I see as a matter of concern and certainly of deep interest.

The basic premise of Theo Hobson in his book, Reinventing Liberal Christianity, is the existence of these two versions or variants of liberal Christianity. The one that moves forward by evacuating Christianity of its doctrinal and theological content and the other that, as he proposes, would engage the liberal state and continue all the practices and rituals of the Christian faith. I think he’s actually on to something in that this new version of theological liberalism he proposes doesn’t yet exist or it doesn’t exist certainly in any full or comprehensive sense as he proposes it. But, on the other hand, I think the reason that it doesn’t exist is because it probably is inseparable from that other form of theological liberalism that he wants to reject. That is, the liberal move of surrendering the distinctive theological and doctrinal truth claims; in other words, the cognitive content of Christianity.

As Theo Hobson tells the story, he weaves a very interesting theological and historical narrative. He goes back, indeed, to the New Testament. He doesn’t stay there long. He moves most swiftly to the Reformation and that which follows: very interesting readings of figures such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, and later fascinating readings of theologians ranging from John Henry Newman to Karl Barth to Friedrich Schleiermacher. In terms of the contemporary scene, there’s almost no one who escapes his attention. This is a very widely-read theologian who’s trying to understand the contemporary theological landscape and, for that matter, the theological context that has brought us to this contemporary moment. Along the way, he draws some considerable insights. For instance, when he’s dealing with what he describes as the sacraphobia of much of contemporary Protestantism, he really is on to something when he describes the sacraphobia of much contemporary liberal Protestantism. In other words, Protestants are generally unsure what to do in terms of Christian worship. What do you do with these acts that are no longer substantiated by the theological truths that you once believed?

The problem I think for his theory is that there’s no way around that awkwardness. But, as I said in my conversation with him, I do think there is a rising generation of young people who would like to try to find something like this liberal Christianity that Theo Hobson is projecting. In the face of modernity and all that’s anti-supernaturalism, in the context of the American college and university, not to mention the millennial culture, there’s a lot of temptation to say, “We can do without all those distinctive truth claims, all that cognitive content, all those propositional doctrines of Christianity, and we can still go and sing the hymns and be involved in the liturgy, and be involved in congregational life. We can be surrounded by all the same glass (or for that matter all the contemporary sound system) and we can feel ourselves situated in something that would be called Christianity.” But without these distinctive truth claims, without believing in the actual truth of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ most centrally, what’s really there to be embraced in the cultus, other than a mere practice?

I found it very interesting and illuminating that in my conversation with Theo Hobson he was very honest when I pressed him on the truth status of the theological truth claims of Scripture: he pointed to the fact that these are all imbedded in ritual. In other words, we say these things because they’re a part of the liturgy. In other words, we say them as if we’re saying them in a different sense than we would say them on the college campus or to our neighbor across the fence. That, in a nut shell, may be the clearest distinction between evangelical Christianity and liberal Protestantism. Evangelical Christians affirm the doctrinal content of Christianity, and we mean to affirm it in the same way whatever the context. Whether we’re speaking to a research scientist or a kindergartener, whether we’re involved in a catechesis of children or education of college and university students, the truth claims are to be understood as equally in force. An argument can be made that much of evangelical Christianity is barren of some of the ritual and liturgy that is necessary for authentic Christian worship; but you can certainly look at the other side of the fence and see that the presence of those things doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of any cognitive commitment to the doctrinal and theological truth claims of Christianity.

I think one of the most important insights of Theo Hobson’s book is the intellectual victory of deism. Going all the way back to the 18th century, and certainly fast-forwarding to the modern day, he’s right—as he writes in one of his essays he came as a young person to understand—that the doctrineless Christianity of that bad liberal Protestantism he wants to replace basically just becomes a form of humanism and a barely disguised agnosticism. He’s also right when he writes about deism and its victory that that basically explains the trajectory of that old form of liberal Protestant theology, going all the way back to Schleiermacher and continuing to the present day.

A conversation with Theo Hobson about his new book, Reinventing Liberal Christianity, affords evangelical Christians an opportunity for a sobering moment. It’s easy for many evangelicals to believe that liberal Christianity is simply imploded. Certainly, you look at the collapse of mainline Protestant denominations, both in terms of membership and in terms of cultural influence, and you could say that it seems to be something that is disappearing rather than coming. And looking at liberal Protestant theology, it is easy for many evangelicals to say that’s simply old school; that’s no longer a continuing challenge. But, as the history of the Christian church, and as the history of Christian theology specifically, will both demonstrate, these issues come back again and again.

This is a very honest book with a very honest title: Reinventing Liberal Christianity. The cultic liberal form of Christianity that Theo Hobson proposes is indeed a new variant of liberal theology. But as my conversation with him made very clear, it’s really not a return to the kind of truth claims and doctrinal commitments that were the hallmark of orthodox Christianity in times past. Rather, it’s an effort to try to have the modern state and the modern world, in terms of the Enlightenment and all its patterns of thinking, and have the liturgy and the ritual of Christianity as well—to have an engagement with a liberal-political state from the standpoint of a liberal Christianity, but without paying the price for the cognitive commitments that historic Christianity has always represented.

Finally, I was glad in my conversation with Theo Hobson to be able to draw attention to that article he wrote back in 2007 on the great moral revolution represented by homosexuality. Remember the title of that article? It was about a pink reformation. In other words, Theo Hobson argued then and affirms even now the challenge of homosexuality is theologically, not just ethically-speaking, tantamount to a demand for a new reformation in the church. In that regard, I can’t go where Theo Hobson wants the church to go, but I certainly affirm that I think that he has rightly understood the scale and the speed of the moral revolution taking place around us.

It is always a privilege to have a conversation with a highly-engaged mind and that certainly describes Theo Hobson. I want to thank him again for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Before I close, I want to invite you to join us on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Tuesday, October 29th, through Thursday, October 31st, for the Expositors Summit 2013. This year’s Expositors Summit aims to contribute to the health of local churches by restoring the centrality of expository preaching. Preachers, pastors, students, and all who love the Scriptures are invited to hear H.B. Charles, Jr. and Alistair Begg who will join me as keynote speakers at this word-driven event.

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.

I’m Albert Mohler.