January 2008
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Perspectives Journal
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January 2008: Review

Liberals in Search of a Bigger Theology

by Carol J. Cook

These two books have urgent agendas. In their own way, each attempts to articulate an alternative theological voice to that of fundamentalist Christianity, which quite systematically seeks to drown out other Christian perspectives and dominate national and international politics. Both authors embrace the task with boldness, theological integrity, and thoughtful, substantive cultural critiques.

Jan G. Linn's Big Christianity is a rallying cry for liberals to claim their identity as Christians first, and to proactively and positively frame their own beliefs rather than react to fundamentalism. Writing as co-pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church in Minneapolis, Linn reminds readers that the adjective "liberal" is a "perfectly wonderful word" denoting freedom, giving generously, respecting others, and favoring civil liberties. "A liberal faith is bigger [than fundamentalism] because its message is reconciliation, its method is love, and its goal is the oneness of the human family." In his words, "Bigger Christianity is a new frame for an old faith."

Guided by the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, Linn makes a compelling case for what liberal Christians can contribute to our country's role in the global community. Among others, a theme that resounds throughout the book is the importance--especially at this point in world history--of being open to other religions and celebrating diversity as a gift of God. Big Christinity "We are not pluralistic in spite of being Christian. We are pluralistic because we are Christian. We trust that the heart of God is larger than our own." Christian morality includes acting with compassion toward all people, being stewards of the gift of creation, eradicating poverty in a world rich in resources, and striving for peace. Liberal Christians refuse to reduce morality to a narrow fear of same-sex relationships and abortion.

Linn does not pretend that liberals are any more faithful in following the way of Jesus than those who are more conservative, including fundamentalists. But he dares expose the extremism espoused by Christian fundamentalists as a distortion of "the nation's history and the Christian message to justify a grab for power." He names their drive to dominate those who disagree, their exploitation of people's fears, their opposition to diversity that operates as discrimination, their biblical literalism and authoritarian belief that questions undermine rather than facilitate the search for truth, and their angry anti-intellectualism and dogmatism. Not a pretty picture. And a far cry from the Golden Rule.

As an antidote to fundamentalism's grip on mainstream America, Linn issues a clarion call to liberals who have left the church, inviting them back into community and to help constitute a Religious Left, an interfaith "coalition of the willing" that "affirms universal values that undergird life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, not just the majority." It would be modeled after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa established in 1995 after Nelson Mandela became the nation's first black president. Such an enterprise means that current exiled liberals would need to renounce their radical individualism for the sake of authentic community participation. And it means that churches need to be places with big hearts and open minds that empower persons to live into mature faith.

Part of what makes this small powerhouse of a book an inspiration is that it reminds liberal Christians that they are not alone in their vision. The choir of those seeking an alternative to the overbearing fundamentalist megaphone is comprised of Republicans like John Danforth, evangelicals like the factions from Calvin College who protested Bush's 2005 commencement engagement, religious researchers like Diana Butler Bass, Robert Wuthnow, and Diana Eck, and contemporary prophets like Wendell Berry, to name a few. Only by working together can we hope to stand up against the erosion of the separation of church and state and the fundamentalist, hegemonic aspirations that fuel it.

Speaking out of his Presbyterian heritage in Theology for Liberal Presbyterians And Other Endangered Species, Douglas F. Ottati strikes several similar notes but plays them in a different key. He sets forth some of the distinctive contributions that Presbyterian liberals can make to the church and the world. For him, the heart of this contribution lies in the ability "to retrieve, restate, rethink, and revise traditional theologies and beliefs in the face of contemporary knowledge and realities." Ottati's own retrieving and rethinking of traditional theology revolves around the Reformation theme of sovereign grace. Theology for After some explication, he ultimately rejects both the doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement in favor of the core confession, "We belong to the God of grace." Exploring the implications of this overarching confession determines the theological agenda for the several short, self-contained but related essays that follow.

Ottati portrays liberalism as best represented by a cluster of shared characteristics rather than a singular definition. From his Presbyterian perspective, liberal Protestants are inherently pluralistic, reformed and ecumenical, theocentric and worldly, Christ-centered and generous, realistic and hopeful, and ecologically inclined and humane. The opening chapter elaborates upon each of these qualities. The eleven subsequent essays show how these characteristics are and can be made manifest in our understanding and practice of worship, the historical confessions, evangelism, and citizenship.

Throughout these thoughtful, theological essays, Ottati retains an even tone, encouraging liberals to keep the tradition in dialog with necessary cultural critiques. His theocentrism keeps him honest and allows him to hold liberals accountable for their shortcomings, always a necessary corrective to the temptations of self-righteousness or vilification of those with differing views. Fundamentalist tendencies to make idols out of the nation-state, the militar y, or a particular family structure must be called to account. But Ottati also maintains that liberals must in turn "affirm and appreciate the admittedly nonabsolute and relative but also positive worth and value" of these institutions. Rather than simply "soothe ourselves with immediately satisfying and blustery condemnations of American society...and rather than excoriate evangelicals for their effective political activism and participation" he challenges liberals to "get to work on our own theological interpretations of contemporary American culture and society" and thereby build up some sorely needed "vibrant and relevant intellectual and theological capital."

Both Ottati's and Linn's books in their own way exhort liberals to claim the richness of their theological perspectives. Instead of reacting to fundamentalist framing of reality, they build a new frame that can capture people's imaginations and "feed on love, not fear." As Linn asserts,

A Bigger Christianity does not exploit fear. It seeks to overcome it with an ethic of nonjudgmental love... It offers people an open circle of faith, the bonds of which are made stronger as the circle enlarges... It works from the conviction that differences do not have to evolve into divisions and that diversity can be embraced without losing one's own identity... It is a faith that is strong because it is flexible, particular because it is inclusive, and credible because it makes no claims for absolutism. Bigger Christianity is a faith whose time has come.

Carol J. Cook is associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. She is also a contributing editor to Perspectives.