A Revival in Liberal Theology?

Posted: October 5, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Uncategorized
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I wouldn’t really recommend watching the entire Bill Moyers Journal panel discussion with Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary president Serene Jones, and Union professor Gary Dorrien (video and transcript here).  They talk about the economic crisis in the ways that you might expect three liberal theologians to talk: a lot about how greed got us into it and how economic democracy is the key to fixing it.  Not bad points, necessarily, but nothing too new, either.

But you might find the end of the conversation interesting.  Union has a long history in the liberal theological tradition, and these three are teaching a course together there.  It’s no secret that the more theologically liberal mainline Protestant churches have been losing a lot of members, so the most intriguing portion came when Jones claimed that there is a new wave of students at Union:

BILL MOYERS: What are you seeing and hearing right now that give you some sense of encouragement, despite the fact that everything that’s tied down is coming loose?

SERENE JONES: What I see in my students is powerful. It is a sense that, in the crumbling of all of this, what is being unleashed is an intense sense of the embodied character of faith. Call it Pentecostal. You can see it in my students now. What does it mean to call them Pentecostal? It’s not the traditional things we think of. But these are students who are coming off the set of “American Idol.” Or they’ve been on a war ship outside of Iraq.

Or they’ve been stocking shelves in Texas. And they’re coming to Union committed to social justice. And open to the power of the spirit in physical ways that give them this kind of zealousness that, for a large swath of time, the liberal left lost. They’re doing this as a whole new generation for whom tactility, thinking about the way the body lives in the world. It’s actually exciting to me. Because I think, in their own lives, we’re seeing the contestation of the power of the market to configure desire. Because they don’t want those market desires in the same way my generation did. They’re critical of them. They’re coming up with new forms of music. And they’re very committed to a sense of passion in it. To use a very scholarly term, I think we need to use it more often, I think it’s a crisis of metaphysics. These students are asking, and their liberal professors, questions about, you know, “Do you really believe that God exists?”

Now, the liberal church is sort of, you know, wanting to say, “Well, it might be a myth. It might be a symbol. We can say this about it. We can back away.” These students are saying, “I’m not going to get out there on the front line, and I’m not going to reconfigure my interior world to desire different things…” If this isn’t real, they want something real that is an alternative.

GARY DORRIEN: Certainly, from our experience of the course, this is an extraordinary generation. I mean, it’s, they are connected. They care. They’re looking for, they’re always sort of obsessing about what’s real. I mean, they’ve got radar for what’s unreal.

For what is just merely abstract, or it doesn’t really speak to their condition. What isn’t going to make a difference. What kind of learning doesn’t make any difference at all. They’ve got radar for that. But they’re very hungry for what is going to make a difference. And how it is that they can live out their faith in this world that we’re creating.

SERENE JONES: They’re not afraid of hard thinking. But they also want, they want beauty. The beauty of the thought to inspire.

CORNEL WEST: This is one of the reasons why these new forms that we’re talking about find black forms and afro-American forms so attractive.

SERENE JONES: Absolutely.

CORNEL WEST: Because here you got this leaven in this larger American loaf been sitting here all this time. These young white brothers and sisters, they want to get into hip hop. They want to be able to move their bodies. They want to have an orality that is smooth like Jay-Z. There is something about the black experience in America, at its best.

We know we got black gangsters like anybody else. At its best that speaks to these kinds of issues. You’ve got Martin as the best, in many ways, in the political sphere. You got Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin. So much of the best in the cultural sphere. Now the young folk are hungry for it. We’ll see. We’re in a new transition.

I hope that these students keep asking the tough questions and see that while liberal theology has perhaps preserved some important parts of the Christian faith, it has not preserved the heart: God’s justified wrath against us and His gracious offer of salvation by grace through faith in His crucified and resurrected Son Jesus Christ, which are told to us in His authoritative Word.  It is a message that is offensive to the modern sensibility in which liberal theology is grounded, but I hope that God will use the serious questions that the students are asking to lead them to Himself.

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