Theo Hobson's "The Good Kind of Liberalism"

Ron Robinson asked what I thought of this article in Christian Century.  In it, Theo Hobson argues that there is a good kind of liberal theology and a bad kind of liberal theology.

The good kind:

The good tradition of liberal theology is that which affirms a deep affinity between the gospel and political and cultural liberty. These things don’t exist in the abstract; they exist when a state promotes and protects them. Good liberal theology affirms the liberal state. Indeed, it was this tradition that first imagined the liberal state, in the mid-17th century. It rejected the assumption that a state needed religious unity (or “unitary theopolitics”), and it proposed liberty as the authentic basis for future national unity.

The bad kind:

The bad tradition of liberal theology is that which seeks to reform Christianity in the direction of rationalism and optimism about natural human capacities—a direction that can probably be summed up as “humanism” without too much confusion. Soon after the Reformation this ideal deeply infected much of Protestantism.
This version of faith can be critiqued in different ways. It can be accused of denying certain core Christian doctrines (the more Protestant response) or of denying Christianity’s basis in certain cultic practices (the more Catholic response). These critiques overlap. This liberal theology fails both to proclaim and to ritually perform the saving authority of Jesus Christ. In its attachment to universal rationality, it fails to affirm the particularity of Christianity, expressed in certain ritual practices and speech forms (celebrating the Eucharist, proclaiming God’s word) that are intrinsically authoritative.

The difference is that liberal theology has apparently given with one hand, but failed to take back with the other.  The good kind of liberal theology says that gospel has a deep affinity with liberty, but neglects to proclaim and ritually perform the saving authority of Jesus Christ.  But the good kind and the bad kind are inseparable. At the level of institutions, a liberal state does makes room for religious institutions that proclaim a particular authority, and the people are free to choose whichever one they prefer.

At the level of a person however, the liberal state would allow the person to freely choose not to recognize the saving authority of Jesus Christ, which means that one is not saved, which means either that either good citizens are not genuinely good citizens, or that salvation is optional to good citizenship.  Neither position accords with liberal theology.

Hobson continues:
The most obvious form of this tradition was deism, which located the essence of Christianity in rational morality while sidelining or dispensing with its outmoded “superstitious” forms.

Notice what was done here: the countering of "rational morality" with "Christianity".  If you understand that what we call "rational morality" is a cultural code created in the Christian West, you will understand that "rational morality" is just de-sanctified Christian morality.  Both are slippery and contested and capable of motivating everything from breathtaking altruism and self-sacrifice to gut-wrenching butchery.  The Christian tradition brings nothing not already present and available to moral consideration.  If no one were to ever be baptized again, people would still find the glorious history of Christian moral reasoning an invaluable resource to their reflection.

Hobson ends with this sentence:
Only a reinvented liberal theology can substantially revive the cultural fortunes of Christianity in the West.

Seriously? Is that the goal? "the cultural fortunes of Christianity in the West"?  And what depends on the revival of the cultural fortunes of Christianity in the West?  The fate of the planet? The end to global inequality? The liberation of the world's women?  The avoidance of nuclear war in the Middle East?

The affirmation of the soul's liberty by the gospel, through all its twists and turns, has sparked a global moral revolution, still unfolding after all these years.  It now reverberates beyond Christianity and is global.  It is carried in secular society and will stay alive even if no one believes in the saving authority of Jesus Christ.

This is why I say that liberal Christian theology ends in kenosis -- the self-emptying of God dying as a man.  Christianity as a vehicle of the soul's liberation has emptied itself into all the various forms of secular liberalism.  That river has flowed into that sea.  And if it means that liberal theology dies, then we must remember the final moral of the Christian story: that death is not the end, and something more glorious will rise as joy cometh in the morning.


  1. Jamie H-R10:29 AM

    >>And what depends on the revival of the cultural fortunes of Christianity in the West?

    People's eternal destiny? That's not my belief, but I thought eternal life through Christ remained the essence of the Good News for most forms of Christianity. I don't know the Christian Century, but do you think most of their readers would say all good people go to heaven regardless of their relationship to Christ? (Or maybe will experience the resurrection of the body. I get confused on how heaven and bodily resurrection fit together in the different Christian understandings of the afterlife.)


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