These are not easy times for extending liberal religious traditions. I am struck by how much has changed in the past two decades, how differently I now imagine the challenges and possibilities of constructive religious thought. What's happened? What are the salient features of our current moment, and the constraints and opportunities for religious reflection that it affords? These are, of course, large and complex questions. But my charge to reflect upon future directions in liberal religious thought must inevitably begin here.1
To provide a sketch of our particular historical juncture I will focus my remarks on the shifting American religious landscape and more broadly on what I am calling a "late secular" age.2 I want to set a context, if only briefly, before venturing a proposal that focuses on the idea of the religious imagination as a metaphor and vehicle for liberal religious thinking. The building blocks for my proposal, however, come not simply from our contemporary moment but from analyses of the broader historical dynamics of the Western Christian tradition. In particular I draw upon, and into conversation, the work of H. Richard Niebuhr and Mark C. Taylor, whose typological reflections on the Western theological tradition offer helpful resources for navigating the crosscurrents of our time. The wide-angled lens that each privileges discloses broad patterns that prove especially helpful in thinking through the extension of liberal traditions in the twenty-first century.
I. Shifting Religious Landscape
In the past few decades, we have witnessed striking shifts in the American religious landscape that refract broader global dynamics of religion and politics. Across multiple regions and traditions, religion has emerged as a primary site of conflict and violence in the post–cold war world. Globalizing trends have rapidly shrunk our world, as markets, international law, communications, and [End Page 23] travel create webs of connections never dreamed of less than a century ago. At the same time, and at least partially in response to this trajectory, religion has resurfaced in a reinvigorated and politicized form across the world to affirm particular identities and values within this global web. Here, as elsewhere, we have seen the revitalization of conservative religious movements that seek to reshape self and society through the assertion of highly exclusivist and absolutist readings of sacred texts and traditions. In some parts of the world, particularly where Christian-majority societies meet Muslim-majority societies in weak states, this dynamic is deeply implicated in horrific violence on both sides.3 It has also generated tensions and conflicts within traditions, as conservative forces square off against more secularizing currents. In the American context, this trend is captured under the rubric of the culture wars following the rise and politicization of the religious right at the end of the '70s. The impact of this movement has been magnified by its ability to "own" religion in public life, rubberstamped by the media and by opportunistic politicians all too willing to manipulate religion for electoral gain. These trends have contributed to what is essentially the public erasing of liberal religious currents.
If this were the primary challenge, then the task would center on strategizing to retake public space. But there are other shifts that complicate and deepen the challenge for liberal religious traditions. To me it feels as if there are two tectonic plates that are moving inexorably apart. Twenty years ago, still imagining it was possible to straddle them, I envisioned a tradition as a chain novel, and the theologian as writing the next chapter, extending the story in the most compelling way possible.4 The religious landscape has so changed, that this model of theology strikes me as too bounded by and dependent on historic mythic forms that are losing cultural traction. It also seems far too implicated in the dynamic to create a single elite rendition of a tradition that effaces and marginalizes popular religious expression. Locating this dynamic squarely within the modern discourses of religion and secularism, Gauri Viswanathan observes that the "degree to which religion and secularism coincide in their inability to acknowledge alternative spiritual...