Postliberal ≠ Progressive: A Response to Roger Wolsey

Sometimes it pays to take a closer look…

Recently, Roger Wolsey (known for suggesting that fish should kiss) blogged about the distinction between liberal Christianity and progressive Christianity, and why progressive Christians aren’t necessarily progressive politically. Reading his piece, I had the overall feeling that he “doth protest too much,” but at the end of the day I don’t have a big dog in that fight. My canine did enter the fray, however, when he identified progressive Christianity – again, as distinct from liberal Christianity – as a “post-liberal” form of Christianity.  I quote him here with his own emphases included and at length to hopefully avoid the charge of prooftexting:

“Progressive Christianity is the evolution of liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity was a modern-era movement that was a fruit of the Enlightenment, which embraced academic biblical scholarship, and deferred to the authority of contemporary science. While open-minded in many ways, it was patriarchal, elitist, colonial, and ceded too much clout to the tentative insights of science. It also over emphasized the intellect and reason an minimized passion and the heart. It missed out on the beauty of embracing the apophatic (the ultimate unknowableness of God), paradox and mystery. In so doing it missed the forest for the trees – albeit missing a different part of the forest than fundamentalists do.

Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened. Progressive Christians are open to the reality that God is vitally at work in other world religions; that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth; and that it’s best to take the Bible seriously, but not always literally.”

Notice the logic: liberal Christianity is Enlightenment Christianity, and “progressive” Christianity is post-modern Christianity. Of course, the problem with this is that the very idea of “progress” is an Enlightenment construct; this line runs right through the scientific revolution, receiving (for instance) theological expression in the social gospel of the early 20th century and political expression in the “war(s?) to end all wars,” and continuing in our various modes of discourse to today. The basic narrative: “we” (and Wolsey is right, this is a privileged “we”) are advancing in knowledge, morals, wisdom, art, etc. and – because this is a quintessentially modern construct – we are doing so by the power of our own sublime rationality. The conviction that we must be more enlightened than those who have gone before is also why we moderns have made tradition and authority (and, above all, traditional authorities!) the boogeymen (boogeypersons?) of our cultural landscape. As David F. Watson so aptly described in a recent post, the actual line between “liberal” and “progressive” is hardly as firm as Wolsey suggests:

“At some point, liberal Christians stopped using the term ‘liberal’ and started using the term ‘progressive.’ I’ve really never understood this move, except that the term ‘progressive’ expresses a positive value judgment that ‘liberal’ does not (at least, in our current context). Progressive Christianity now includes a very broad range of positions influenced by a existentialist, process, and identity-based theology. It is still the dominant form of thinking in mainline Protestant traditions and theological education.”

So, if progressive Christianity really is just a more fashionable name for classic liberal Christianity, then it becomes somewhat obvious why it can’t also be “post-liberal.”  We’ll circle back to that momentarily. It is worth noting, for fairness’ sake, that postliberal theology is notoriously hard to define (not unlike the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul).  Associated with the Yale dons George Lindbeck and Hans Frei (many of whose students were my teachers), the postliberal approach is more about method than content (though, because of that method, it tends to  yield particular kinds of content). As John Webster puts it,

“…there is, once again, no ‘school’ here, held together by a firm dogmatic frame. Postliberal theology is more a set of projects than a position…it is not so much an investment in specific doctrines which characterizes postliberal theology as a particular family of approaches to the task of doctrinal construction.” (Webster, “Theology After Liberalism?” in Theology After Liberalism: A Reader [Oxford: Blackwell 2000], 54, emphasis added.)

In his seminal work The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Lindbeck named the two primary ways of theologizing and of conceiving doctrine and, based on their inadequacy, proposed a third: “The difficulties cannot be solved by, for example, abandoning modern developments and returning to some form of preliberal orthodoxy. A third, postliberal, way of conceiving religion and religious doctrine is called for.” (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine [Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984], 7, emphasis added.)

He would go on to name the two primary paths something like cognitive propositionalist (denoting pre-modern and related approaches) and experiential-expressivist (following the modern “turn to the subject” emphasizing experience). For our purposes, his dialogue with the liberal, i.e. experiential-expressivist modes of doctrine is most important.  Lindbeck puts the difference between liberal and postliberal (which, following Clifford Geertz and others, he names a “linguistic-cultural” model) in stark terms:

“It remains true, therefore, that the most easily pictured of the contrasts between a linguistic-cultural model of religion and an experiential-expressive one is that the former reverses the relation of the inner and the outer. Instead of deriving external features of a religion from inner experience, it is the inner experiences which are viewed as derivative.” (Lindbeck, 34.)

This is the exact opposite approach of people like Freud who insisted that religion originates from interiorized fears and anxieties, or of Christians like Schleirmacher and Harnack who made inner experience the key to the kingdom in their systematic theology.  Perhaps the best nail in the coffin of Wolsey’s argument comes near the conclusion to Lindbeck’s dense little volume, when he argues

“…the crucial difference between liberals and postliberals is in the way they correlate their visions of the future and present situations. Liberals start with experience, with an account of the present, and then adjust their vision of the kingdom of God accordingly, while postliberals are in principle committed to doing the reverse…Postliberalism is methodologically committed to neither traditionalism nor progressivism…” (Lindbeck, 126.)

Liberals start with an account of the present and adjust accordingly, whereas postliberals do the reverse. Note Wolsey’s own description of “progressive Christianity” (given in full above) once more: “Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, “progressive” Christianity looks around, “experiences” post-modernism, and makes the necessary changes. While on the surface this looks like a “post-modern” move, in actuality it lines up perfectly with Lindbeck’s general description of liberal Christianity: it surveys the landscape, and then alters itself as necessary.

The promise of a postliberal approach is precisely not that, having gained insight from post-modernism, it can tweak Christian faith and practice to better fit the challenges of this new world. Postliberal method seeks to make Christian faith, and the Christian narrative, confident in itself. It does not look outside for cultural credibility, whether to modern or post-modern norms, but rather  seeks to maintain the integrity of Christian doctrine by aggressively avoiding the prostitution that entails from seeking legitimacy from outside authorities. Liberal Christianity has, for centuries, specialized in seeking its authority from extra-Christian sources and translating its content through these foreign modes. However, as Lindbeck argued, “To the degree that religions are like languages and cultures, they can no more be taught by means of translation than can Chinese or French.” (Lindbeck, 129.) Something is always lost in translation. Thus the answer, simply put, is that one must instead retrain the tongue and learn new words if one wishes to “speak” and live Christian-ly. The late William Placher, a great advocate for and practitioner of postliberal theology, narrated the gains of this understanding of doctrine and religion thus: “In the world of academic theology right now, helping Christian theology speak forcefully in its own voice seems to me the most pressing task, and I think the postliberals therefore put the emphasis in the right place.” (Placher, Unapologetic Theology [Louisville: WJK 1989], 20.)

The church, as well as her theologians, owes a great debt to Lindbeck, Frei, and other voices within postliberal theology. There is much work yet to be done. Part of that work is – and I suspect will continue to be – continuing to define the cultural-linguistic/postliberal approach over against the cognitive propositionalists and experiential-expressivists who attempt to Robin Thicke everything (blurred lines, anyone?) and put the genie back into the bottle.

I have dealt here with heavy, complex notions, and I am sure I have been unclear in some places and left important pieces out in others. Nevertheless, I believe I have demonstrated that which I set out to: a postliberal approach to theology is wholly different from anything that would call itself “progressive” Christianity. As we’ve seen, this is just liberal Christianity with different window-dressing.

As I close, hear me out: I have no beef with someone wanting to identify as some iteration of progressive or conservative Christian. In fact, one can be a progressive/liberal or conservative/traditional Christian and have a postliberal understanding of doctrine. But – and this is crucial – neither progressive, nor any iteration thereof (and ditto for conservative and its instantiations) is a synonym for postliberal. 

If you’ve hung on this long, color me impressed. If you think I’m wrong, tell me how and where, and I’ll look forward to the dialogue.  For now, though, I am happy to declare: “mischief managed.”

15 thoughts on “Postliberal ≠ Progressive: A Response to Roger Wolsey”

  1. I haven’t studied these thinkers to anywhere near the depth that you have, but as I was reading your post, I began to wonder about the usefulness or importance of these distinctions beyond the academy. As a good Wesleyan (a designation shared with you), I return again and again to practical (practicable?) application. In my experience, this division between academy/church or practical/theoretical or theology/experience, whatever dichotomy you choose, is not accurate, for any number of reasons. I think that you’re hitting on something as regards to the cultural/theological “air” that we’re “breathing”. Many churches, typically a good bit later than the academy, begins to either actively incorporate or actively resist these theological shifts/divisions – whether it’s modernism, post-modernism, post-liberalism, evangelicalism, or any other ‘-ism’ that cordons itself off from other schools or approaches. Many other churches passively accept/resist these shifts in uncritical, subtle, or even unknowing ways, responding more to the shifts and changes of the so-called ‘secular’ culture than to changes in academic theology or philosophy. In other words, the “work” of popular culture is going to motivate a lot of churches much more than the work of Lindbeck or Hauerwas or Placher or whoever is doing really great work in theology. All of that to say, in all seriousness (and if I weren’t procrastinating on sermon prep, I likely could elucidate an answer), what difference do these distinctions make as it relates to the practice of ministry in the local church among people whose ideological divisions more often than not are falling along political lines rather than theological ones?

  2. Wes, thanks for stopping by and for your thoughtful comments. In many respects, this particular post was much more an “academic” bone to pick than something that touches the life of the church.

    That said, I do think something is at stake in a postliberal approach to theology that matters greatly to day-to-day workings of the church: that is, does the church have its own narrative to tell, or does it seek legitimacy from other stories? Do we adjust the faith based on the winds of culture, or do we look at the culture based on a deep engagement with the Christian narrative?

    I think it impacts preaching as well. There is much preaching that takes its norms from the secular world: from self-help optimism, or pseudo-psychological “advice,” or some kind of ideological agenda masking as gospel. A postliberal approach encourages preaching that takes the Christian narrative as normative, rather than some other lens.

    If nothing else, the preaching and ministry of Bishop Willimon is enough to show the potential for a postliberal approach by the church and her preachers. I am not a triumphalist about postliberal theology but I do count myself as heavily influenced by it; at any rate, I don’t want it confused with exactly the kinds of approaches from which Lindbeck sought to distinguish it.

  3. I hung on till the end but it’s still fuzzy to me. Not that postliberal is different from progressive — I get that. But fuzzy on what is postliberal itself and how it differs from cognitive propositional. Isn’t all theology, to an extent, cognitive and propositional?

    Is postliberal the same as revisionist? (another term I hear) My problem with revisionist theology is that the revising takes out everything worth believing from the faith. All that’s left of the gospel is ‘God loves you’ and ‘do justice.’

    Postliberal is trying to make Christian faith confident of itself again. Luther said faith by its very nature includes confidence and cheerfulness. Maybe postliberals are searching for faith in the first place, a faith modernity lost (think Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold).

    1. Chris, this old article, a response by Placher to some questions by Gustafson, might be helpful to some of the questions you name:

      I don’t think there is much in the usual versions of postliberal that would be branded “revisionist.” I share your concerns with that path. The postliberals would say they are precisely non-propositional and non-foundationalist, seeing the epistemological center of faith in the narrative itself and not in some objective claim to truth; in other words, it isn’t that the Bible is true because archeologists have shown it to be, the Bible is true because of the community and practices that sustain and make possible its discourse (Lindbeck argues a religion is like language, and languages are found to be true not be “proof” but by learning the language). Fuzzy, I know, but interesting (and I don’t pretend to have all the philosophical tools to unpack this adequately. Read some Placher. It’s good stuff when seen in practice.

  4. Roger Wolsey here. Please notice that I didn’t say that progressive Christianity equals post-liberal theology. I simply stated that it’s post-liberal – which it is. Sure, as the postmodern-influenced evolution of mainline liberal Christianity, there are of course going to be certain similarities and vestiges within it. That’s how lineage works. Ever listen to jazz?

    IMO, you are indeed, “protesthing too much.”

    1. Hello Roger, glad you stopped by. I think we have different understandings of post-liberal theology. I understand postliberal as described by the major figures of that movement to represent a wholly different alternative to any form of liberal or conservative theology, not simply a new or better iteration of a previous form. As David Watson pointed out to me, at issue with the postliberals is epistemology, and what you describe does not sound epistemologically different from classic, liberal/Mainline theology. Nonetheless, I am grateful for your time and attention and wish you well in your ministry. Peace.

  5. It’s usually a good idea to either avoid using terms that have lent themselves to movements, or to say up front that you’re not using them in the generally accepted way. And of course, such effort begs the question: why use a term with such baggage when it can leave your meaning unclear. There may be reasons, but they have to outweigh the negatives. In this instance, Wolsey seems to simply be using “postliberal” in a chronological and developmental sense, and not as a term conveying much content (except perhaps the idea that it is postmodern rather than modern). But, as you rightly highlight, it still relies on the idea of progress. I tend to view postmodernism as a subcategory of modernism anyway though.

    In the realm of Postliberalism, you might be interested in this double book review from The Living Church, discussing two texts that look at Postliberalism from different perspectives:

  6. Thanks for the article, Drew… it helped to clarify. I have read Placher. Narratives of a Vulnerable God. A key issue is certainty. Postlibs are allergic to certainty, while evangelicals and mainline progressives are intoxicated by it.

    1. Chris, I don’t know of any progressive Christians who are into “certainty.” Indeed, that’s why we emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy and embrace apophatic theology, as well as paradox and mystery. Peace.

      1. The certainties have merely migrated, Roger. Progressives are absolutely certain about their politics and public policy positions. They are dogmatic about these things. To those of us who are political agnostics, this is very apparent.

  7. I think I may’ve discovered the root of the Drew’s theological concern; i.e., it’s more than semantics, it’s English. There’s a difference between postliberalism — a theology (Hauwerwas et al); and progressive Christianity as a post-liberal movement. The former has no hyphen, the later does. Grammar matters. Peace, – Roger

    1. Roger, there seems to be a world of meaning in that little hyphen. I confess I have not known other liberal/progressive Christians who claim to be any version of post-liberal/postliberal. Nevertheless, my argument holds, though potentially the blog should have been titled “why ‘post-liberal’ progressives are still liberal.” In the way that Lindbeck, et al. narrate the three ways of doing theology, the “post-liberals” are still very much experiential-expressivists. As David Watson says, the wedge you attempt to claim between what you’re doing and liberal Christianity is rather questionable. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with being at liberal protestant – many of my best friends are and on some days I am – only that the claim you are trying to make is unconvincing.

      As for the apophatic way, the Christian East was doing that long before any 20th/21st century Christians tried to claim it as the newest thing.

      1. Drew, I’m sorry that you don’t discern and agree with me about the differences between progressive Christianity and liberal Christianity. I’m even more sorry that you would think that I am not aware of the origins of the apohatic theological tradition. Just wow.

  8. Thanks for writing this post. I think in many aspects, I tend to be Post-Liberal/NeoOrthodox in my theology. What’s frustrating is that there seems to be so few people like me that I can talk to. Progressive Christianity tends to dominate in Mainline Circles and especially in my own denomination (Disciples of Christ).

    One question I do have is where homosexuality fits in. Being gay and moving in progressive Christian circles, I would say that most gay friendly folk are progressive Christians. Can one be post-liberal and gay friendly? Is there another option for those of us who don’t feel comfortable in Progressive Christianity? I’d like to believe that there is room for those us that want to be confident in our faith without excluding people.

    1. Dennis, thanks for your comment. First, a word of warning: apparently there is a world of difference between “postliberal” and “post-liberal,” though as Roger describes it I have a hard time differentiating “post-liberal” from progressive/liberal Protestant Christianity.

      The short answer to your question is yes. If you read the work of Stanley Hauerwas, clearly a friend of the Yale or Postliberal school, he is someone open to LGBT folks in the church. Postliberals are not monolithic on social issues, though (someone like RR Reno comes to mind as a more conservative postliberal voice). I don’t know if the postliberal godfathers, Lindbeck and Frei, ever weighed in on this or not.

      I would especially point you to the work of Gene Rogers, a professor at UNCG here in North Carolina. He is a lay episcopalian with a PHD in theology from UVA who does some of the most rigorous theological work on sexuality, and would be hard to identify as a progressive in terms of doctrine and theology. He has a great piece in Christian Century that would be a good place to start; he also was the principal author of the progressive side of a great Episcopal Church USA document seeking a theology of same-sex marriage. His book Sexuality and the Christian Body is dense, but that is where his full argument is developed.

      I think there is a serious need for LGBT-affirming Christians who are not shackled to progressive Christianity, which is so often little more than a kind of warmed over Social Gospel, light on doctrine and long an works righteousness (in the form of activism and other forms of “social justice”). Be the change you want to see! I suspect you are not alone. Thanks for stopping by.

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