I’m not a liberal, I said in a post last week, in which I attempted to distinguish between theological liberalism and political liberalism. People tend to see the earring, tattoo, and beard and make assumptions about me.
But I’m a post-liberal.
I don’t believe anyone can simply be a Christian nor do I think anyone can cleanly subscribe to any of the theologies of the ancient Church Fathers or even to more contemporary founders of Protestant strains like Martin Luther or John Wesley. Everything that comes to us does so by being filtered through particular lens and schools of thought, to say nothing of cultural prejudice. So, I happily acknowledge my Christianity is filtered through the lens of postliberalism.
Postliberalism was first articulated by Hans Frei, who was inspired by the work of the theologian Karl Barth (above), in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.
Frei argued that modern conservative and liberal approaches to the Bible undermine the authority of scripture by locating the meaning of biblical teaching in some doctrine or worldview that is more foundational than scripture itself.
Prior to the Enlightenment, Christians read the Bible primarily as a “realistic” narrative that told the story of the world. That is, the coherence of the scripture story made figural interpretation possible. Jews and Christians made sense of their lives by viewing themselves as participating within the story told in scripture.
Frei argued that during the Enlightenment this sense of scripture as realistic narrative was lost. People’s own rational experience increasingly defined for them what was “real.” As a result, theologians sought to understand scripture by relating it to their own supposedly universal “reality.” They sought to determine the truth within scripture by translating it into the truer language of their own world.
Frei argued that because of the Enlightenment, Christians overlooked the narrative character of scripture.
Liberals looked for the real meaning of the Bible in the eternal truths about God and humanity, while conservative evangelicals looked for the real meaning in the Bible’s factual references.
Both lost sight of the priority of scripture as narrative. Scripture was no longer a story by which Christians narrated their lives. The Bible was turned into a source of support for modern narratives of progress or for doctrinal propositions.
As Frei writes:
”Interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story.”
Postliberalism seeks a third way, apart from Protestant liberalism and from conservative evangelicalism, which itself is also theologically liberal.
Postliberalism asserts the the primacy of scriptural narrative for theology. The word narrative is key.
Scripture, after all, is primarily told through story not propositions; therefore, the truth conveyed in scripture isn’t rational- or rather its non-rational.
We’re story-telling animals made in the image of a God who communicates narratively and ‘truth’ is best apprehended through story not ‘fundamentals’ (Evangelicals) or rational facts universally accessible to all (Mainline Liberals). The ‘universally accessible’ point is key too. Postliberalism denies that such a thing as universal reason exists.
Religion is like language not math.
Christians and Muslims speak two different languages in which the words we use signify different things not the same, universal reality. The word ‘God’ for example connotes something much different to a Hindu than it does to a Jew.
This stress on language comes from George Lindbeck, who argued for a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of religion as opposed to the “cognitive-propositional” (Evangelical) and “experiential-expressive” (Mainline Liberal) approaches that have, he said, dominated theology during the modern age.
Liberal theologies are experiential-expressive in that they seek to ground religious language upon universal claims of human experience.
Evangelical theologies are cognitive-propositional; they claim that doctrinal statements directly or “literally” refer to reality.
Lindbeck pointed out how no religion can actually be understood in those terms. Religious traditions are historically shaped and culturally conditioned. They function instead, he said, more like language. So, christian doctrines should not be understood as universalistic propositions or as interpretations of a universal religious experience.
Doctrines are more like the rules of grammar that govern the way we use language to describe the world. Christian doctrine identifies the rules by which Christians use faith language to define the world in which we live. Quite simply, a non-Christian has no idea what Christians mean by the word ‘grace’ until they’ve been taught to speak Christian.
Because of this, rational arguments for Christian truth claims aren’t possible until one has learned through spiritual training how to speak the language of Christianity.
Incidentally, this is why my children’s sermons are never ‘object lessons’ but always a retelling of the scripture text.
They’ve got to learn the language before they can extrapolate ‘lessons’ from it.
Rather ‘translating’ scripture into secular categories- as liberalism does- postliberalism seeks to redescribe reality “within the scriptural framework.” If Christians allowed the story of the Bible to become their own story, says postliberalism, they would be less preoccupied with making Christianity relevant to the non-Christian world on non-Christian terms.
Like liberal theology, postliberalism takes for granted that the Bible is not infallible and that historical criticism of the bible is legitimate. Like evangelical theology, postliberalism emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Because of its stress on the particularity of the scripture narrative, postliberalism emphasizes the role of the Church in forming people according to the story.
Because of its stress on the absolute saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ, postliberalism emphasizes the inherently peculiar, countercultural nature and mission of the church.
And this retrieval of the inherently counter-cultural nature of the church is how someone who is not a theological liberal may occasionally end up advancing what sounds like a politically liberal position. Put another way, it’s how someone who is not a theological liberal is not always reliably politically conservative.
To put it in post liberal terms: