The continuing power of liberal theology today

Rev. Dr. Gary Dorrien

The Rev. Dr. Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, spoke on Friday on the topic “The Spirit and Necessity of Liberal Theology.” Dorrien is a renowned social ethicist and historian of liberal religion in America, and the author of the monumental three volume The Making of American Liberal Theology. He spoke to a crowd of well over 300 people at General Assembly.

Kant and the early Unitarians

Dorrien traced the grand history of liberal theology back to its original roots in the philosophical work of Immanuel Kant. “Until Kant came along, philosophers viewed the mind as a passive receptacle,” Dorrien said. But Kant showed how structures of space and time come from within. Secondly, Kant was seminal because he “based religion on morality, not the other way around,” Dorrien said. “To act as moral beings, Kant said, we must postulate God as the ground of being.” Thirdly, Kant is foundational for liberal theology because “Kant argued that reason is a vault whose keystone is freedom,” Dorrien said. “Freedom is autonomy.”

In addition to Kant, Dorrien traced the German origins of liberal theology to Friedrich Schleiermacher. “True religion, Friedrich Schleiermacher argued, consisted of a relationship, a spiritual feeling,” said Dorrien. Dorrien then outlined how William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, two foundational thinkers of American Unitarianism, interpreted the German thinkers for their American congregations, and for wider American Unitarianism.

The twentieth century and liberal theology

From Channing and Parker, Dorrien skipped quickly ahead to the Chicago School of the first decades of the twentieth century. The Chicago School affirmed a kind of humanism (though not as we usually think of humanism today), historicism, pragmatism, and radical empiricism. After Henry Nelson Weiman, another Unitarian, explained the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead to the Chicago School, they began to evolve what came to be known as process theology.

The First World War, said Dorrien, “obliterated” liberal idealism in Europe, but it took the Great Depression to do the same in the United States. Yet in spite of the rise of neo-orthodoxy, which attacked liberal theology, a few “stubborn” liberal theologians held on. Like the liberal minister, the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, they wanted “either liberal religion or no religion at all,” according to Dorrien.

James Luther Adams, the greatest of the twentieth century Unitarian theologians, was one of those who stubbornly held on to liberal theology. “JLA put his beliefs on the line,” said Dorrien, and was active in social justice work.

Liberal theology today

Having traced liberal theology from its beginnings in German idealism through the twentieth century, Dorrien turned to the present day. He asserted that today, there is a “fluid boundary” between liberal theology and liberation theology.

Where in the past, liberal theology was about “getting rid of bias, not about abolishing white privilege,” liberation theology was about “how to be liberated from the structures” which oppress millions. Dorrien said that he thinks the interesting area today is mutual conversations between liberal theology and liberation theology.

“Today, the only promising school of liberal theology is Whiteheadian process theology,” Dorrien said. Many theologians in this school are in fact dealing with the issues raised by liberation theology. The most interesting liberal theology today is confronting issues such as dialogue between religion and science, ecological problems, and inter-religious dialogue. Among the more interesting Unitarian Universalist theologians working in this area today, Dorrien named Rebecca Parker, Thandeka, Jerome Stone, and Galen Guengrich.

The future of liberal theology

“Liberal theology has an extraordinary growth and diversity” today, Dorrien said. “This is the most interesting time to be part of liberal theology.”

Dorrien’s first respondent, Dr. Dan McKanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, said, “The tradition that you just heard about is a tradition that you are invited to be a part of.” He added that we preach and live out the ideals of liberal theology in our congregations.

The second respondent was the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president and professor of theology at Starr King School for the Ministry, who said, “We are at a moment of incredible richness.” She pointed to the large number of emerging “brilliant young scholars,” including some 20 Ph.D. students who were Unitarian Universalists at a recent conference. These emerging scholars are working on the intersection between ecology and environmental justice, and many other timely topics.

Dorrien, McKanan, and Parker all asserted that liberal theology today is stronger today than it ever has been. All three of these scholars also asserted that the most interesting contemporary liberal theology is actively concerned with the massive problems facing the world today, including racism, sexism, the ecological crisis, etc.

  • Rex

    Parker’s comments point out that liberal theology need not be confined to what is approved in existing denominational structures. I find some of the best UU theology outside UUism, in the larger world of cultural discussion with philosophy, literary theory, and ethics. Those writers may not identify with UUism but what they have to say is in all ways consistent with UU purposes and principles. Scholarship has exploded in our time.


Previous Coverage


UUA logo

Unitarian Universalist Association
24 Farnsworth Street
Boston MA 02210-1409