Christianity and Theological Liberalism

[Author’s note: my book manuscript What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory has been accepted for publication by Wipf and Stock, and should be published late in 2020 or early in 2021. This essay contains affiliate links.]

I greatly enjoy a slim publication entitled Glimpses of Christian History put out once a month by Tyndale House, a Christian publisher. Usually it is distributed in bulletins of the English-speaking church my wife and I attend in Santiago, Chile. The publication involves just that: glimpses of church history in the form of tightly written biographies of major church figures or explorations of core philosophical-theological debates that have shaped the church over time. These vignettes frequently raise issues relevant to where we are today.

The issue that appeared this past Sunday (December 15, 2019) is worth commenting on, since the history it delves into is relevant to the core of my own philosophical work on worldviews, the role they play in contemporary civilization, and what occurs when one worldview overcomes and replaces a predecessor.

“Christianity and Liberalism” was the title that leaped out at me. It turned out to be concise summation of a work by Princeton seminarian J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937) entitled Christianity and Liberalism (orig. Eerdmanns, 1923), and its theme was the rise of theological liberalism or modernism, which was then splitting Presbyterianism into two factions (though the issue was hardly limited to one denomination), and which Machen traced to the European Enlightenment.

Machen as a Christian theologian resisted theological liberalism and paid dearly for his efforts, eventually having to leave Princeton Seminary and, later, finding himself having to found a new branch of the denomination from which he’d been effectively excommunicated.

Theological Liberalism.

The idea behind theological liberalism was the perceived need to reconcile Christian faith with modern science, and still have something recognizably Christian.

Machen credits (or blames) figures like Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834) with starting the movement. The liberals emphasized not God’s transcendence but His immanence, teaching that believers become “one with God” not through Christ but through feelings such as “absolute dependence on God,” or through a “God consciousness.” God’s presence was experienced subjectively, that is. Christianity, in the hands of the theological liberals, was on its way to becoming a Christianity of feelings, not of substantive claims about a transcendent reality and that reality’s relevance to the human world. Theological liberalism embraced such tendencies as, e.g., the “higher criticism” of the Bible. It would give rise to such movements as liberation theology.

Theological liberalism, in other words, came about as one possible adjustment by Christian theologians to the clash of worldviews I’ve examined elsewhere (in my “Materialism” series on this blog; start here): between the Christian worldview and that of ascending materialist naturalism.

My conclusion was, and is, that the two cannot be reconciled, because they make claims that flat out contradict one another. You cannot be both a Christian and a materialist in your basic beliefs about what is most real (metaphysics). If you embrace one, you must give up the other. Christianity, obviously, begins by affirming God’s existence (“In the beginning, God …” Gen. 1:1). Materialist naturalism is a de facto denial that God exists, or that the issue is cognitively meaningful.

A civilization that embraces one worldview will try to destroy or at least marginalize the other. Under Mao’s dictatorship, Chinese Communists tried to eradicate Christianity. In fairness, a Christian civilization would regard materialism as dangerous and do what it could to limit the influence of materialist ideas. At present, though, there are no such civilizations anywhere in the world.

Western capitalist civilization is hardly Christian! It has effectively marginalized the Christian worldview without repressing it. It subordinates Christianity to the smorgasbord of beliefs and lifestyle choices represented in the marketplace: one commodity among many for the purchase of one’s time and resources, with no special claim for allegiance in the market-driven side of modernity.

In what Harvey Cox called the Secular City (in his book of that title), which is just the urban and perhaps suburban world of modernity, “the forces of secularization have no serious interest in persecuting religion. Secularization simply bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things…. The world looks less and less to religious rules and rituals for its morality or its meanings (pp. 2, 3).”

In what we will come to call the Secular University, an aggregate term for major intellectual centers within the Secular City, the Christian worldview is an historical and anthropological curiosity, because the consequences of assuming materialism to be true has already meant the relativizing and epistemic neutering of all nonmaterialist worldviews.

Theological liberals who were taking over many seminaries in Machen’s time believed Christianity could be accommodated to this. They believed they had articulated a Christianity compatible with “modern science,” i.e., materialist naturalism.

Machen was concerned that their Christianity was a “Christianity” that saved no one, because Scriptural salvation played no role in it. Theological liberalism, as we saw above, was about religious experiences, subjective feelings, instead of substantive claims about the world, our place in it, and our nature as sinners in need of redemption.

It had replaced the idea that Scripture-based revelation is a source of knowledge with reason and the empiricism of natural science.

In Machen’s judgment, this wasn’t Christianity at all. It was a different religion altogether.

In the history of philosophy, pure reason had sometimes been used to try to prove God’s existence but sometimes to disprove it. Both modern rationalism and modern empiricism as theories of knowledge led to doubts about God’s objective existence, moving quickly to the idea that Christianity, like any and all religion, is about subjective encounters, not salvation by faith in a Jesus Christ who had miraculously risen from the dead. Miracles, the philosopher David Hume (1711 – 1776) had argued in his classic Essay based on his British empiricist premises, could not be believed rationally nor serve as a foundation for religion.

Theological liberals also set aside the idea of sin. The door was open to one of the core tenets of modernity, that we can use modernity’s tools — science, technology, commerce, education public or private, etc. — to improve ourselves morally, by our own efforts.

Note the emphasis here. No one has ever claimed we can’t improve ourselves materially. But can any of these instruments improve us as moral agents.

That’s a whole different animal, and the crux of the issue.

“Raze It To the Ground”: The Cartesian Roots of Theological Liberalism.

My takeaway, almost a hundred years after Machen wrote and having stumbled onto this chapter of the larger debate just last weekend: the pivotal philosopher René Descartes (1596 – 1650) set the conditions for the clash of worldviews generally, and for the debate between theological liberals and conservatives — or “fundamentalists” if you prefer as they preferred Christian fundamentals they saw as nonnegotiable.

I don’t know whether Machen mentions Descartes and Cartesian philosophy, or Cartesian method. Few theologians or historians of Christianity’s decline in influence see the need for forays into Cartesianism and its legacy. They should.

Descartes, the first voice of French rationalism, believed Western philosophy needed to be started over. Both the advances of the scientific revolution in his time and the discovery of other peoples with very different beliefs during the Age of Exploration seemed to call for a new beginning. We couldn’t be sure of ourselves unless we uncovered an epistemological bedrock of certainty, something immune to doubt by any rational person, anywhere on the planet.

The way to discover such a bedrock, Descartes reasoned, was to methodologically raze his beliefs to the ground: all beliefs about experience, about God, about everything. Find something — a belief or proposition — that was immune to doubt. Start over building on that.

Hence the infamous cogito. “I think; therefore, I am” is the way this is usually rendered, although Descartes never wrote those exact words.

This is the origin of Cartesian philosophy, which took Western thought in a new direction, with epistemology at its center. That Descartes’s reasoning quickly recovered, unchanged, every belief he had relinquished during methodical doubt, ought to hint that something was wrong. Yet Cartesian ideas soon moved to the forefront of the Western philosophical tradition.

Cartesian influence was hardly limited to philosophy. This idea, that all beliefs, all institutions, all traditions, can be razed to the ground and that one can start over, building an intellectual edifice on Reason alone, lies at the heart of the European Enlightenment. All our political institutions and societal practices could be put under the microscope of Reason and, if found wanting, replaced by new ones designed and constructed by rational “experts”: in the sciences, in political economy, in administration and management.

The idea that we can do this stands at the core idea of Enlightenment liberalization, and it gradually built the Third Stage of civilization postulated by Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857; more on Comte’s thinking here).

Reason was soon embodied as empirical Science and as Technique. The church was expected to submit to the new epistemic tribunal. Liberalization substitutes Reason for God as its surrogate. Enlightenment thought promised a “philosopher’s stone” leading to better and better until we reached a veritable Utopia — provided, of course, that we mass men and women trust the  “experts.”

Revelation as a source of truth drops out of this picture.

The reason is obvious.

It cannot meet the tribunal of either liberalized method: deductive proof from absolutely certain first premises, or empirical testability and replicability in the scientific laboratory, or its sociological equivalent the data-driven study.

Hence theological liberalism.

Liberals adopted the Darwinist view writ large, that we do not live in a universe designed by a rational Creator but rather one that has evolved, with us having evolved, unguided, unplanned for, products of blind laws of nature. By the time Machen was writing, materialist naturalism underwrote almost all inquiry in the Secular University.

Morality, given materialist naturalism, can never be more than a cultural artifact with no transcendent significance. It can be studied like any other natural phenomenon, which is what cultural anthropologists like Franz Boaz (1858 – 1942) and his star student Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948) did. Anthropologists wrote not of morality as such but mores: culturally accepted norms based on expected and socially-approved habits. The “immoral” was only those habits a culture did not use or approve of (e.g., homosexuality in Christian and other religious cultures).

Theological conservatives by Machen’s time had surely begun to wonder: is this what Christianity should accommodate? How can it do so and remain Christian???

Nietzsche’s Warning, Russell’s Plea.

One can, of course, blindly follow the moral dictates of one’s culture and peers. Most do. But in any population there is a minority that is able, mentally, to step outside the box as it were, and ask for justification other than authority and expectation.

This invites the nihilism Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) warned of.

Nietzsche, contrary to one philosophical superstition, was not a nihilist. He was warning against nihilism — belief in nothing at all, no principles able to transcend immediacy.

The essence of Nietzsche’s warning: once you’ve removed God from your map of reality, by default you remove everything that God’s existence makes meaningful.

Nietzsche was not, of course, claiming the world could backpedal to a Christian worldview. He, like other intellectuals of his time, considered the Christian worldview dead and science to have been its killer.

We could only go forward.

The onus was on humanity to develop a substantive morality suitable for life in the universe posited by materialists.

Are you up to the task? he challenged, implying that it would be a formidable one.

What Nietzsche advocated was a morality based on strength, on endurance, on empowerment: on that which stands in defiance of the material world’s indifference and death’s inevitability: a master morality instead of the slave morality of Christianity. He, like Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and numerous others, owed this dichotomy to Georg W.F. Hegel (1770 – 1831), pivotal German philosopher and arguably the most influential thinker after Descartes.

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) reissued, for English readers, the challenge of furthering a morality for secular modernity in his melancholy essay “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903).

Russell stated that in the “dead universe” disclosed by modern science we must find a way to further our “highest ideals” of peace and justice.

Again, refusing to accept “dead universe” metaphysics as one’s starting point was no longer an option. Again, we could only go forward.

So we did. Two decades later, we arrived in the era in which Machen wrote. By that time, of course, Europe had succumbed to the most destructive war in all its history. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, further Marxist-Leninist materialism as they understood it, had marched into totalitarian control over what had been Russia. When Hitler rose to power in the subsequent decade, even more would we see the consequences of what materialism allowed, including writing entire populations completely out of the moral community so that they could be summarily exterminated.

Theological Liberalism: “Christianity” Trivialized.

To make a long story short, the history of both prior and subsequent decades reveals a world increasingly dominated by elites who answer only to each other. Some of these elites assumed dictatorial political power over their societies; many others recognized that subtle encircling controls over populations which enormous amounts of money enabled would prove far more effective than barbaric repression.

The Secular City became home to a “Sunday Christianity” that was impotent against the growing control of every institution in society by moneyed interests. Eventually it was impotent against the more visible sexual and subsequent revolutions in the name of complete personal liberation, including from all moral restraints as the good life became a life of instant gratification and pleasure.

Within the Secular City, the Secular University became home to further research into human behavior of all sorts, including how behavior could be manipulated and brought under control. Millions of foundation research dollars were thrown into research into, e.g., consumer behavior and how it could be reinforced.

To reiterate: theological liberalism allows you your subjective “God consciousness.” That is, you may believe essentially whatever your feelings tell you about who God is and what He wants. You may believe in a God whose “commands” are mere suggestions, who demands nothing of you, and whose only real purpose is to provide you with some emotional comfort in the cold, dead world of science, technique, and finance capital.

Is This Case, Why Be a Christian?

Liberalism, whether theological or more generally, defines a mindset appropriate for a society in which it is simply assumed that in the last analysis, we are on our own, to make of ourselves what we will, with or without a God in our lives, and do what we will.

The Secular City, that is.

And in the Secular University, your best bet is to learn a profession or trade. Learn to be useful, and make money. So that you and a spouse can raise children who will do the same things with better and faster technology.

But in this case, there is no reason to be a Christian, to take it seriously, because there no longer is a Christian worldview as such. There is only the latent materialism underwriting every area of knowledge and human life, which by Machen’s time had already begun to spread via cultural osmosis from the Secular University and artistic enclaves to the rest of the culture, which accordingly became a culture of “do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” even if this was rarely articulated as such.

Failed Liberal Narratives.

Clearly, whatever creature comforts and technological marvels our times have unveiled, in terms of morality, Nietzsche’s and Russell’s challenges stand unmet.

For when your only “morality” is pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain (utilitarianism), or abjuring the use of force against others (libertarianism), without any viable enforcement system to ensure accountability, or just what liberates and empowers your tribe (identity politics), you have no substantive moral beliefs at all, just bald assertions suspended in mid-air as it were.

And you are in a position of wondering, whether silently or in the company of your like-minded fellows, why you shouldn’t pursue exactly what you want and adopt the most efficient methods available to achieve it, provided you are positioned to get away with it.

The wealthy and powerful are.

And if their wants and their methods run roughshod over some (many?) of those outside their immediate associations, well, then, so much the worse for them.

Do you honestly believe this has not been done? Read John Perkins, The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2016).

In many cases, the losers are all little brown people, anyway.

Or white “deplorables” in “flyover country” who couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to global change and “reinvent themselves.” Who voted for Donald Trump.

The most important fruits of theological and other forms of liberalism over the past century have been to liberate elite thinking and activity, so that they are exclusively or almost exclusively about maximizing the three P’s of our time: power, profit, and pleasure.

From that combination, one gets Maos, Monsantos, and Jeffrey Epsteins.

As the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) presciently framed the issue in his final novel The Brothers Karamazov (published right before his death and right around the same time Nietzsche issued his challenge):

“If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted.”

Except getting caught … or ensuring that if one are caught, one will have enough money and power to skate having to accept responsibility for his actions, even if they destroyed entire nations or ecosystems or killed or maimed millions of people.

Theological liberalism unleashed every other sort of liberalism. Including neoliberalism, which is just corporate elite-driven profit maximization on steroids.

The present global situation has seen the emergence of an economic cabal so small it would fit comfortably into a college lecture hall with room to spare, and yet controls more wealth than the entire bottom half of the world’s population.

There is not space in this essay to explore how this came about, or the full ramifications, except to note that — as everyone not living in a cave has surely become aware — the present world situation has begun to destabilize.

Massive inequality tends to do that, especially when the masses have sufficient access to information-dispensing technology to learn the truth and develop the suspicion that they’ve been scammed blind.

The plain truth: liberalism in whatever form is a failure: philosophical, theological, and political-economic.

J. Gresham Machen did us a service illuminating theological liberalism and its role in undermining and helping to marginalize the Christian worldview — even if he appears not to have gone all the way to the root of the crisis: in the Cartesian philosophical and political-economic paradigm that lay behind Enlightenment liberalization.

Christians should pray for the Lord’s guidance as many struggle to restore or maintain this worldview in their lives, families, communities.

Christian philosophers and other Christian intellectuals who support an actual Christian worldview should pray and work toward a philosophical program outside Cartesianism, outside the false premises and unfulfilled promises of Enlightenment “rationalism” and liberalization, outside all that materialism has unleashed in modern Secular City and Secular University cultures, and outside the control of any elite.

A program answering only to our Creator and the rules and laws of His Creation.

This may mean separating ourselves from the Secular City. So be it. We are already “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth” (Heb. 11:13).

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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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