Why Liberal Is Not a Bad Word
Well, I like Scot very much, and I think he's light years ahead of many evangelicals in his openness to fresh perspectives. But I would express a couple of things differently than Scot did in the review. First, I wouldn't want to promote the widespread evangelical viewpoint that sees nothing or next to nothing of value in 19th- or 20th-century liberal theology. The old narrative that liberal is bad and conservative is good has become toxic, addictive, and harmful to both sides, in my opinion.
I believe that liberal theology had some real strengths along with its weaknesses, which is what I'd also say about 20th-century evangelicalism. (And it's what I'd say about my own life too, for that matter!) So I would hope I have good things in common with liberal theology, whether in its 19th-, 20th-, or 21st-century forms -- such as a less reactive attitude toward scientific discoveries than their conservative counterparts often have had, or a deep commitment to work against systemic injustice to non-whites and women and gay people. Similarly, I would hope to have many good things in common with 20th-century conservative evangelical theology, and many good things in common with Pentecostal theology, and many good things in common with medieval Catholic theology, and so on. I don't want to carry on the black-and-white thinking about liberals that conservatives often promote, or the opposite.
Second, although I respect Scot on so many counts, I wouldn't want to overlook the many ways in which my proposals differ from traditional liberal theology. My attitudes and commitments regarding Jesus, the Holy Spirit, scripture, spiritual experience, institutionalism, personal commitment and conversion, evangelism and discipleship, and many other subjects make many of my liberal friends think of me as conservative. Sometimes I wonder if evangelicals simply use the word "liberal" as a way to say, "Let's stop listening to this person. He's too different from us, and so is not worth our time and attention." I hope that's not the case, but sometimes, this is what I feel like when evangelicals use "the L word."
For me, liberal is not automatically a bad word. If liberal means free from tyranny, I'm for it. If liberal means generous, I'm for it. If liberal means believing that our best days are ahead of us, I'm for it. If liberal means welcoming honest questions and giving honest scholarship a fair hearing, I'm for it. If, on the other hand, liberal means without restraint, or careless about tradition, or dismissive of scripture, or institutional and lukewarm regarding commitment to Christ, and so on, then I wouldn't want to be associated with that. And we could say parallel things about the word conservative.
If you are happy to identify yourself with what is positive in 19th- and 20th-century theologies, then is your "New Kind of Christianity" really new? Or, to use McKnight's language, for whom is your new Christianity new?
Obviously, I think something good and new is emerging. But equally obviously, anything that is both good and new will have a lot in common with antecedents that are good and old. I think of the Bible verse from Ecclesiastes that says there is nothing new under the sun. Then I think of the words of Lamentations, that God's mercies are new every morning, or from Isaiah, where God promises to do "a new thing." How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? The word new can't always be understood to mean "absolutely unprecedented and unique," which is what it seems to mean in Ecclesiastes. It can also mean, "fresh, refreshing, innovative, unexpected" -- as it does in Lamentations and Isaiah. It can mean a new stage in development, or a new recovery of something forgotten, or even a new combination of familiar things.