Faith that distinguishes itself as liberal or progressive need not be regarded in the vast religious ocean as “less filling” or “more tepid”. In actuality, it can elicit a great deal of spiritual fulfillment. Making a conscious, committed, and personal choice to live and address the issues confronting ourselves, our communities, and our world takes great fortitude. There are no easy answer to the complexities and challenges that bombard us daily and we must remain diligent and awake in a host of ways to effectively engage.
Gary Dorrien, an Episcopal Priest and American theologian, characterizes liberal theology in this way: “From the beginning, liberal theology was a third way. It was not radical, agnostic, or atheist, though it was routinely called all of these; liberal theology was both a morally humanistic alternative to Protestant orthodoxy and a religious alternative to rationalistic atheism”.
Liberal theology is based on the premise that religiousness should be understood and interpreted from the perspective of modern knowledge and modern life experience. In other words, members of a liberal faith are committed to making religion intellectually credible and socially relevant. Theirs is a belief that a working religion is not one that is separate from the modern world in all its brokenness, but one that firmly links their religious life to the present.
It is certainly true, and uncomfortable for some, that definitions of divinity can vary widely in an atmosphere of modern inquiry and perennially changing and growing perspectives. Yet Sharon Welch, a popular Unitarian Universalist ethicist emphasizes divinity, not as a shorthand for a particular quality of the universe, but as a “quality of relationships, lives, events, and natural processes…that provide orientation, focus, and guidance for our lives.” This definition can hold a spectrum of frameworks for who or what God is and an unending supply of what gives meaning.
Spirituality in this sense is deeply tied to a personal and direct communion with the Other, the Divine. Living the sometimes messy work of relationships as a vital part of one’s faith leads to another primary tenet of modern faith, a focus on moral ethics. Ethics and social justice are natural outcrops of those who are concerned with this world. Salvation is about healing in the here and now and not focused solely on an eternal paradise in a yet unseen afterlife. `
Modern faiths do place a high value on the autonomous authority of individual experience and reason, but that doesn’t mean (like some more conservative folks conclude) that not having a dogma means you think that you are your own god. It’s rather what David Tracy, a Catholic theologian, relates: “Liberals are those members of a church or religious sect who hold opinions ‘broader’ or more ‘advanced’ than those in accordance with its commonly accepted standards of orthodoxy.” Of course, I would like to believe that progressive views are “more advanced” but I know that it is not always necessarily true. What I do believe to be true is that liberals may hold strong opinions, but they rarely think they, or anyone else, have the whole or final truth.
Galileo, paid the highest price for his discovery of a scientific truth and Rene Descartes, known as “The Father of Modern Philosophy” (1596-1650) questioned every aspect of what is true. Both men opened the flood gates of reason, giving “license” to the testing of scientists and those skeptical of external authority. Instead of a prescriptive belief system causing them to feel adrift in the religious sea, the liberal mindset is one of seeking and searching and working towards a more hospitable planet.
Religion at its best helps us to find meaning and orientation in life. Sallie McFague, a theologian with a passion for environmental issues, revels it thus: “Thinking theologically is not an end in itself; it is for the purpose of right action, for discipleship…theology is therefore essential, even though it is not the central enterprise of the “religious” life. The goal of theology, as I see it, is to be functional, that is, to actually work in someone’s life. It is meant to be an aid to right living. There are two criteria it has to make sense and it has to make a difference.