Are Reason and Optimism Toward Human Nature Necessary Components of Liberal Religion?

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.



Filed under Defining Liberal Religion

8 responses to “Are Reason and Optimism Toward Human Nature Necessary Components of Liberal Religion?

  1. Your references are all to Liberal Christianity. Should you be talking of Liberal Religion if that religion is Christianity, and if not, shouldn’t you then be referencing other Liberal Religions? Of which they only one I can think of that would self identify as Liberal would be reform Judiasm…

  2. ok, I guess I just the point they were religious liberals… Paganism, that seems so steeped in family, clan, tribe, and the Chief… just doesn’t strike me as particularly Liberal in the sense of respecting the sanctity of the individual.

    Sometimes I just think its best to deal with Theological and Intellectual History within a will defined Historical Context… Liberal Christianity I can do that with… name names of leaders, dates, key documents… Liberal Religion becomes a kind of catch-all I can toss different streams of thought and belief into, although I think if you put them back into their historical context… it doesn’t make much sense…

  3. “Paganism, that seems so steeped in family, clan, tribe, and the Chief…” Only if the only Pagans you know are Native Americans. I am a NeoPagan, and I can testify that the average NeoPagan is more individualistic than a Unitarian. Most Wiccans hold as central to their credo, “An it harm none, do as you will.” At least three other sects use the older version, “Do as you will is the whole of the law.” It’s kind of hard to get more individualistic than that.

  4. Jeff

    But Bill, this post explicitly lists Neo-Pagans as an example, as well as Transcendentalists (many of whom didn’t consider themselves Christian). We can of course think of examples beyond Christianity (and Judaism, which you bring up). Howabout prominent lineages in convert Western Zen Buddhism, which fit all four core aspects of the last post, yet often disclaim reason in favor of some sort of direct, unmediated experience of reality? We can likewise find versions of Hinduism that would fit this bill.

  5. NeoPaganism is sundry paganism reinvented with a liberal face.

    My point here is when we look at religoius traditions its best to keep them in their historical context, even if that context is only a few decades old.

    It’s easier to do what with Liberal Christianity, then it is with Liberal Religion. Does every Religion have Liberal and Conservative wings? And we’re just uniting the Liberal wings with this term?

    Our European blinders may say so, but I’m not certain other religions would see themselves that way, and we ought to defer to their historical and cultural context; not ours.

    Unless we’re starting a new tradtion called Liberal Religion, or like Neopagans claiming an old one with a modern twist.

  6. I think I’m persuaded by your argument citing Transcendentalism as a liberal religious movement that did not depend on reason. I’m not persuaded by your argument that liberalism does not require an optimistic view of human nature, though.

    Unitarians and Universalists rebelled against Calvinism differently. Of the five points of TULIP, Universalists most vehemently rejected the “L” (Limited Atonement), while Unitarians most vehemently rejected the “T” (Total Depravity). I would argue that it is out of the particular rejection of Total Depravity that liberal religion emerged, and not more broadly out of discomfort with the rigidity of Calvinism (or any other Christian orthodoxy). You’re right that many 19th-century Universalists retained Calvinism’s (and Augustine’s) pessimistic view of human nature, but I don’t agree that they were especially “liberal”. Universalism, I think, came late to the liberal religion tent, when it recast its idea of “universal” as encompassing common truths and moral apprehensions across differing cultures and faiths in the late 19th and 20th centuries. By then, its insistence on the atonement of fallen mankind through the Cross had much receded.

  7. BTW, I’m open to further argument, but I’m not persuaded that redefining 20th-century “neo-orthodoxy” as “neo-liberalism” is valid. Much of the impetus for neo-orthodoxy arose out of the failure of liberal religion to anticipate or answer the unspeakable inhumanity of WWI and WWII. In fact, it was Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother Richard who delivered one of the pithiest and most cutting indictments of liberal religion, saying, “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

    It may yet come to pass that, in response to the evils of the 20th century and criticisms such as Niebuhr’s, liberal religion is able to incorporate into its view of human nature the darkness that co-exists with the goodness in the human heart. I’m not aware of such efforts, however.

  8. Jeff

    Fausto, I think most people do see the Universalists as liberals, even during their earlier “Ultra-Calvinist” phase. But the question is an open one, of course: can one be a religious liberal and hold a pessimistic view of human nature? Gilkey is an example of a very influential theologian with a pessimistic view and the reluctant realization that he and his predecessors (Neibuhr and Tillich) stood squarely in the liberal stream, even if they critiqued its classic manifestations.

    Just as a thought exercise, what happens to a Unitarian-Universalist if, through the use of reason and individual conscience in the pursuit of truth, they come to the conclusion that human nature isn’t such a great thing after all? Do they cease to be a liberal, even if they still hold to all the other characteristics of a liberal and remain active in the denomination? This isn’t meant as a rhetorical question.

    Gary Dorrien argues in the second volume of his trilogy on liberal theology that the Neo-Orthodox movement is better described as Neo-Liberal, giving reasons for his revisionist take and offering evidence from the writings of the Neo-Orthodox/Liberals themselves. He is right there with you in emphasizing their savaging of the earlier liberal tradition in the light of the horrors of the World Wars, but he finds this critique to be an extension of, not a total repudiation of, the liberal theological tradition in America. His arguments are worth checking out, if you’ve got the time–they may or may not prove convincing to you.

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