In the comments on the last post, which attempted to offer a new definition for liberal religion, Fausto suggested that two things labeled “trends” rather than “core aspects” were nonetheless necessary and defining elements of liberal religion. Without them, he asserted, you have something other than liberal religion. Specifically, he referred these two sections of the post:
3) [Liberal religion] very frequently espouses a high opinion of human nature and the perfectibility of the individual, which reflects a more general tone of optimism.
5) [Liberal religion] often places a high premium on reason, emphasizes the harmony of science and religion, and represses emotional expressions of piety.
Now, these are indeed very important in the history of liberal religion. But are they necessary and defining? Many scholars of the past would say yes, but let’s investigate further.
Universalists of the 18th and much of the 19th centuries often did not hold nearly as high an opinion of human nature as their Unitarian cousins did. Many in fact affirmed a basically Calvinist notion that people were deeply sinful and required the overpowering grace of God as a countermeasure to that sinful nature. Some major classical formulations of Universalism can essentially be called “Calvinism to the nth degree,” where the predestination of the elect is, rather than being refuted, actually taken to such a degree that all of humanity becomes included in the elect. This is salvation not by character, but by the infinite benevolence of God toward God’s fallen children.
Not all Universalists were pessimistic about human nature, not by a long shot. But it was a strong enough and common enough position that it seems unwise to put Universalism under the heading “holds a high opinion about human nature.” Rather, what was consistent was a high opinion about God’s nature–whether or not one felt humans were good or bad, everyone could agree that God was good and that goodness induced God to save all without regard to their degree of sinfulness.
Another example of pessimistic religious liberals are the Neo-Liberals, as Gary Dorrien calls them (previous historiographers often called their party the Neo-Orthodoxy but they were nonetheless clearly liberals of a type and Dorrien makes a good argument for the “rectification of names,” as the Confucianists would say). Reinhold Neibuhr and his fellows were far from optimistic about human nature. Humanity for them was inherently inclined toward sinfulness, at least in the aspect of self-interest. Religion was the force that broke in upon wicked humanity and its fallen social systems to offer a transcendental counterpoint. It is hard to paint Langdon Gilkey languishing in a Chinese POW camp and reflecting on the utter pettiness of unavoidable human evil, for instance, as an optimist toward humanity as a whole or human nature in the individual. Yet these Neo-Liberals certainly stood in the stream of American liberal religion, as Gilkey himself eventually realized.
Reason is another venerable favorite of scholars of liberal religion. Yet we can easily find examples of liberals who accord it no special value. Transcendentalism, for example, talked of “reason,” but by the word meant something closer to “intuition,” rather than to the logical or empiricist cast of mind that we associate with it today. In many Quaker circles it was the intuitions of the Inner Light, rather than the workings of the rational mind, that most counted toward authentic religion. Likewise there are prominent feminist theologians who castigate reason as a patriarchal and imperialist mode of mind, one associated with male supremacy and thus on some level inherently illiberal. And again there are modern mystics and Ecospirituality proponents, often especially found in some Neo-Pagan circles but by no means confined to such groups, for whom reason is not a valued ideal. And to refer back to the Universalists again, reason was not a high value for those on the 18th and early 19th century Northwestern frontier, where enthusiastic Universalist participation in revivalism encouraged a turning over of the heart to God, rather than a rational assent to logically discerned principles. Not that any of these folks necessarily fail to employ reason themselves (even those few who explicitly decry reason as anathema), but it is at least rhetorically not a primary orientation.
Therefore, it seems necessary to demote optimism toward human nature and reason to associated trends, rather than affirming them as core aspects of liberal religion. As stated in the previous post, this means that they are very often found in things we recognize as liberal religion, and indeed are often taken as core values by certain liberals themselves, yet can’t ultimately be considered universally core because of the many exceptions we can find. This is in no way an attempt to argue against optimism or reason in liberal religion, or to deny their irrefutable historical importance as trends. It is only a reconsideration of what liberalism has been and has become, such that we might be able to better discern those impulses we call liberal even when they occur in traditions that we haven’t thought to seek for them in (more on that later).
Many thanks to Fausto for reading through that whole long earlier post and for leaving comments that provoked further thought.