Theo Hobson | Reinventing Liberal Christianity
11:30PM Nov 20, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
This afternoon we're speaking with Theo Hobson. Dr. Hobson is a British theologian. He was educated at St. Paul's School in London. He read English Literature at the University of York, then Theology at Cambridge University where he was a member of Hughes Hall. Dr. Hobson researched the strongest voices of the Protestant tradition, Martin Luther Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. His PhD thesis became the basis of his first book, The Rhetorical word book studies the role of authoritative rhetoric in Protestantism. And today, we're eager to be discussing his newest book, reinventing liberal Christianity, a book published by Herb Mintz in 2013. We're so glad to have you Dr. Hopson.
Thanks Good to be here.
Dr. Hobson, when speaking of quote, liberal Christianity, you distinguish between two streams, the stream that you would like to see reinvented this good stream, you want to see it flourish, the stream that you say you would like to have reinvented and the stream that, quote wants to see the flourishing of Christian culture within the liberal state? And then there's this other stream, this negative stream? How do you How did you come to differentiate these two streams in your own thinking? And when did you decide to write this book calling for the reinvention of liberal Christianity?
Yeah, well, it's something I've always been thinking about, really, ever since I was a teenager, really, I was very much drawn to the liberal tradition of Anglicanism as my tradition, Church of England. But within that are very drawn to the most kind of liberal reforming wing of it. And in some ways, I reacted against that, as I studied theology in more detail, but I didn't react fully I didn't settle in any other point of view. So I think I was always with one foot in Liberal theology and one foot criticizing it. And I began to want to work out how that how that works. So is there a way of bringing bringing them together and creating a synthesis, two strands of Protestantism together? And I gradually came to see that it was possible. I think there's the book comes from the belief that it is possible to reform the tradition. And I think we need to do that by reacting against the liberal rationalist enlightenment tradition. That's the problem that's in the way of authentic liberal Christianity. Hmm.
Let me ask you, sir, liberal Christianity boasts a very proud heritage and he has figures in his past such as Walter Roshan, Bush, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr. Who are some of the influential authors in Liberal Christianity today who you'd recommend that we read, or that gave the movement that you grew up in identity.
Well, the problem is, it's a very fragmented tradition. So that's a really difficult question to answer, I think I would stress the need to just go back through the tradition and reread a lot of the big figures in a critical way. I'd start with Luther, I think he's very important. But I would also go on to people in the 17th and 18th centuries, who are really grappling with the political questions of how do we combine Christianity with liberal politics. And then I'm thinking of people like John Milton, and also people in the American tradition, including some of the founding fathers, who are really grappling with this idea of separation of church and state, that kind of issue. So we need to look look hard at that tradition. But we also need to be critical of that and say, Well, what were they missing? You know, where did they go wrong? And then we need to look at more modern theologians like Carl Bart, who criticized that whole enlightenment liberalism. And in a way, he's paradoxically an important resource for what I'm saying, because we do need to criticize the humanistic kind of enlightenment liberalism. So it's such a complicated tradition that I would emphasize the need to go back and look at these major figures in rather than people are writing today. And of course, of course, I'm drawing on recent theologians as well. But in fact, the most, the most interesting theologians are actually people I disagree with I think a lot more most liberal people have really been the most important theologians of the last 20 years or so. And although I disagree with them in a fundamental way, I think they have important insights that can feed into the thesis.
One of the principal objectives of this book, as you read in the introduction is, quote to show how a form of Christian idealism founded the liberal state. This is perhaps unsurprisingly neglected by secular thinkers you continue, who suppose that liberalism is an essentially secular narrative. More surprisingly, the most influential theologians agree for they see liberalism as an essentially anti Christian tradition, this fairly simple narrative that liberalism was a secular invention suits, both secularists and conservative theologians, but it is false. So let me get this right. Liberalism is the child of Christianity, you're arguing in this book, please help us to understand this idea that you present?
Well, I would put the emphasis on the emergence of the liberal state. Liberalism is, in a way, a slippery term, maybe best to get away from that, I would put the emphasis on the rise of a new sort of politics, that I date from the mid 17th century, that's kind of the English Civil War time or Cromwells kind of time. And then a little bit later, John Locke, and as you know, that feeds into the American Revolution in the following century. But that's the kind of tradition on talking about liberal political tradition, where thinkers are moving away from the theocratic model of the state saying that you need to have a unified church and state in order to create order. It's a radically new idea comes along in the 1640s or so that actually we can create a whole new politics where religious freedom is fully respected. We don't need to rely on coercion and religion, all this sort of thing which is absolutely taken for granted. Basic to secular liberal, humanistic thought of the west today, which I which I affirm strongly that that whole tradition, Christian should affirm. And yes, I'm saying that does come from a form of Protestant idealism. It first came from some of the radical reformers, and it was adapted by more politically engaged thinkers, this complicated tradition.
I think that'd be a new idea for some of our listeners, that Protestantism actually helped give rise to the secular state. Would you be willing to give an outline just of that, that core of the idea what what writers were producing literature, or what specific contributions did these authors make to that movement?
Well, someone I focused on a lot is John Milton, the English poet, polemicist, and he was criticizing the Church of England, which he said was too much like the Catholic Church. And he was also criticizing the Calvinists, because they also had a model of the Aqua sea of too much desiring to control everybody's opinion, everyone has believed the same doctrines and so on. He said, No, we don't need churches, to boss people around like that, we can have a new culture of freedom in which people choose how to worship and what to believe. Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, because there's a need to resist other forms, more reactionary theocratic forms that might come back in like Catholicism, most obviously. So it can't be simply tolerant of everything. But it is a revolution in thought. And it's Christians, such as John Milton. In fact, Roger Williams is also an important one who goes over to the to the colonies and Rhode Island. And he's an important influence on that tradition in America. So I would, I would say that they're both important. And then I would say in a slightly different way, Jefferson and Madison in the next century are important, just because they emphasize the separation of church and state. There to my mind, too, influenced by the humanistic day ism, but nevertheless, they have an important insight into the need to establish religious freedom essential to politics, and that's the Republican tradition that I'm sure your listeners will be familiar with, and will sympathize with strongly because then basically the United States thanks for having
some conservative evangelicals look to the, quote, fundamentalist modernist controversy in the early part of the 20th century, and the subsequent exodus of J. Gresham mentioned from Princeton seminary, as the story of their beginning is that the saints movement? Are these also significant stories for liberal Christians, this tumultuous change that took place in the beginning of the 20th century? What are some of the foundational stories about the identity of liberal Christians that you will hear told in these circles?
Well, I think that's that's another difficult question. As I've said, it is a fragmented tradition. And it extends right from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King. And that's a long time and a lot happens in between those times. But I think that liberal Christians do need to basically affirm that development, I've been trying to talk about the emergence of liberal politics. And they need to say, this is not just a secondary matter, this is something essential to authentic Christianity, we believe that God wells, a new form of political freedom. And that is very basic, basic to the west. And of course, it's a slow story. And there's no absolutely defining moment where you say, Here it is. And that's unfortunate, it'd be nice if we could point to one events and say, there it is, it's suddenly happened. But if I had to choose any, I'm quite sympathetic to the English Civil War. And then the American Revolution has two pivotal points in at least the political side of the story. But that's not everything.
And yet, as difficult as it is, perhaps, to nail down the specific story of the genesis of this movement, yet you have a very clear vision of what happens when this when this movement does not have a voice or does not have a contribution. It does not fully he's not enabled to make that contribution to the broader Christian world. Why is liberal Christianity so important? Why are you why are you passionate that this movement be reinvented?
Well, I think it simply makes Christianity available to people in the West, who are convinced by the accounts of liberalism, in a broad sense, who say, Yeah, we believe in freedom, we believe in equal rights, we believe in a secular political order. And those sort of people, which is probably the majority, they should be shown that those concerns are compatible with Christian faith. And if they are not shown that then they are very, very likely to reject Christian faith as something backward, something reactionary and of course, you know, there is a tension within Christianity of progress and reaction, but it's important for them to be able to see the strong, strong basis that Christianity has in western values. And that means humanism, liberalism, and so on. And I'm, I'm very wary of a kind of theology that simply dismisses with liberal liberal values as being a temptation or a distraction, we need to see that it isn't important to combine the two things.
Dr. Hudson, you argue that Protestantism is failure to engage in quote, sacramental ism is one of the primary reasons why liberal Christian theology which you take to be a positive thing led to secular liberalism, which you take to be a negative thing. Do I understand your argument rightly? And how does this work? What can liberal Christianity do now to reinvent its sense of sacramental ism?
Yeah, well, according to my kind of arguments, liberal Protestantism became very narrow, it became very rationalistic and it moved away from anything really substantially Christian in a way. It just bought in much too heavily to the idea of humanist rational humanist progress of the moral capability of human beings and also the rational critique of religious mythology, religious ritual and so on. And that was that turned out to be a massive problem that led to a kind of arid form of semi religion that really drifted into agnosticism in the 19th century or so. And someone like Cobalt is quite right, that, you know, a massive reaction is needed. We need to rediscover Christianity's basis in faith, obviously, but to my mind also in ritual. So there's a need to in a way, look again at the move away from Catholic sacramental ism and say, Hang on, you know, we need to think again and see that there was an overreaction against that sort of thing against worship, with images against the sacraments as very central to worship and the Eucharist and so forth. And when a form of Protestantism dismisses that, as dangerously Catholic or pagan even, it's in trouble, because it's very likely to move into a rather bloodless rationalism, and, and simply saying that we need to remember that Christianity is based in worship, it's a cultic thing.
And how can we recover that sense of sacramental ism today?
Well, I think partly it's a matter of reaffirming what happens in worship. Partly, it's a matter of trying to think afresh about the Eucharist, especially but also other forms of ritual and saying, Why is this so important? How does it work? And thinking about these things are difficult, you know, because they are, in a sense, difficult to think about, by definition, because they're not based in language in the same way as other things. It's more about performance of something physical. But there are some important thinkers who help us to reflect on that. And that's one aspect, I'd also say that the arts is very important. That includes literature that includes visual arts, theater, that kind of thing. I think we as theologians need to make connections between the arts and worship, partly in order to draw people in and say, look at what we're doing in worship, it's very strongly related to what you're doing when you go to the theater or what you do when you're looking at paintings and so on. And I think with those sort of connections, we can we can rediscover that. Religion is not just about idea, it's about culture and doing things.
Dr. hops in the 1960s were a tumultuous decade by all accounts. And it was also a such an important period for the development of liberal Christianity. What happens in the 1960s? That's so pivotal for your thesis?
Well, actually, I have a fairly negative view of the 1960s. From my arguments point of view, I think it was largely about the the last gasp of the bad old days of the humanistic form of liberal Protestantism were in a way the critique of Kobato somebody was somewhat ignored. And there was a lot of rather naive belief in simply reaffirming what I would call the Taoist humanist narrative of human beings have innate potential and that rational morality is the essence of Christian religion and so on. You get that in, in certain interpretations of Protestant tradition, you get it in someone like both mundo de mythologizing, you get it in the interpretations of Bonhoeffer that were being made, then. So an idea that we can just move into a secular morality and that will do that. That's the the future of Christianity. And that's an that's naive, in my view, because it, it doesn't see what went wrong in Protestant tradition, it doesn't see that there was this massive over investment in the rational in the humanist an in progress and all those sort of things. It fails to see that we need to return to the core business of worship, of ritual of faith and so on. And we need to reconcile that with the political, the political side of things, freedom and so on. So it wasn't a great decade in my opinion. But I think I thing maybe it was it was a necessary one for theology to react against that. And then it could start thinking more more clearly.
And what does liberal Christianity need to learn from this period of the 1960s? In order to reinvent itself today?
I think it's, it's always important to see where the temptations lie where it's possible to go wrong. And I think one aspect of that was a rather excessive belief in religious socialism. I think that's a it's a constant dilemma for liberal Protestants, I think, that sort of almost utopian belief that we can bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, you know, elements of that came in. And I don't entirely dismiss that whole tradition. It's an important part of the tradition. But of course, it needs to be balanced with more traditionally theological concepts of sin of God's grace, and so on. And that's a very difficult balancing act. But it's important to go back and look at what people were saying then how they were trying to grapple with that, in order to think about what we can do now.
Dr. Hudson, thank you so much for speaking to us. Let me just commend this book to our listeners. This is an amazing book. It's one of the very few theology books that I've seen in a long time. That's a real page turner. It's a pleasure to read very smartly written. And Dr. Hobson, if I can ask just one final question. It's a question that we've been asking all of our guests on this program. And that is this, despite the tremendous diversity of the expression that we witness among Christians around the world, what is it that gives the church her essential unity?
Well, I think that the church is united by authentic worship, I would say authentic worship of Jesus Christ. And that means a deep respect for the the ancient creedal traditions and the forms of worship that we find, you know, right from the beginning, even in the New Testament. So that that's really the essence of it. But also, from my point of view, I would say that authentic Christianity will really wrestle with this question of Western liberal values. And it won't just turn its back on that. But it will say, how can we? How can we find God's Will throughout the good of human freedom and human equality, these sort of values. They're not secondary and their primary, bring that in and say that that to belongs to the efforts of the gospel.
It's been our pleasure this morning to be speaking with Dr. Theo Hobson, and speaking about. Dr. Thompson, thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you. Pleasure.