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Toward a Perfectionist Liberal Theology: Reading H. Richard Niebuhr through Stanley Cavell
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This essay responds to the contemporary anxiety in theology over the relationship between Christian and non-Christian discourse. My argument proceeds as follows. First, I construe the debate between liberal and postliberal theology as turning on the wrestle between the idiosyncrasy and intelligibility of Christian discourse. While the liberal tradition insists that Christian discourse can be rendered intelligible to non-Christian forms of thought and life, and so can contribute to the flourishing of a shared social life, postliberal critics worry that this insistence leads to the capitulation of that discourse to foreign, hostile criteria, and so to the loss of the idiosyncratic Christian identity. Second, I discern a figure of this postliberal worry in Stanley Cavell's account of Emersonian perfectionism, an account of the moral life in which the self is understood to struggle between social conformity and self-reliance, moving from the former to the latter through a mode of perpetual conversion—is this not the Christian self, tempted by liberal capitulation but called to a visibly alternative discipleship? In fact, Cavell's account of perfectionism involves more than the mere rejection of impinging social forces, so that third, I show that reading H. Richard Niebuhr's works through Cavell enables us to articulate a fallibilist confessional form of liberal theology, attuned to postliberal anxieties but rooted in a posture of theocentric self-reliance. On this view, extreme versions of postliberalism conform to prevailing social forces. I conclude by suggesting that such a liberal theology is best pursued in and through microsocial personal relationships, and so is a perfectionist task set for all Christians.

I. The Wrestle between Idiosyncrasy and Intelligibility

On the standard account, liberal theology was responsible for an impulse to intelligibility, ultimately manifesting as an impulse to social amelioration. This was accomplished by distinguishing an essence of Christianity from its external contingencies, discerning an ahistorical kernel amid the layers of historical, and often distorting, accretions that developed around it. So, Friedrich Schleiermacher endorsed religion to his Romantic colleagues by distinguishing it from metaphysics and ethics and identifying it with piety understood as the feeling of absolute dependence. Later, he distinguished the particularly Christian religion by relating the feeling of absolute dependence to the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ. Albrecht Ritschl abandoned Schleiermacher's concern with self-consciousness, understanding Christianity's distinctiveness to reside in Jesus Christ as a historical norm, inclusive of the Kingdom of God as Christianity's ethical ideal. Still, this norm remained inextricably anthropological insofar as it was understood to result from human value judgments. Adolf von Harnack continued Ritschl's historical approach, locating the essence of Christianity in the gospel of Jesus Christ, a three-part permanently valid norm that outlives any and all historical formulations. In America, this tradition continued in Walter Rauschenbusch, a leading proponent of the Social Gospel movement who identified the essence of Christianity with its most primitive form, Jesus's message of the Kingdom of God understood as the socially concrete redemption of human life, here and now. In each instance, liberal theology made Christianity intelligible by picking out one feature, to the exclusion of others, that could find traction in the contemporary context.

For Karl Barth, the results of this movement were disastrous. The complaint was that liberal theology made the divine revelation beholden to human standards; theology became the philosophy of the history of (Christian) religion, and more disturbingly, theologians capitulated to the prevailing political authorities. Animated by this neoorthodox complaint, George Lindbeck explicitly took up the mantle of postliberalism, articulating an approach to religious belief and practice distinct from that of liberal theology. For Lindbeck, liberals are indebted to an experiential-expressive model of religion in which doctrines are understood to be symbols of a human experience that is invulnerable to historical contingencies. Postliberals should adopt a cultural-linguistic model, in which religions are understood as languages or cultures, and doctrines as rules for speech and action. Religions are thus ineradicably historical, and epistemic access to them must come through some catechetical form. Lindbeck's point is that the intelligibility of a religious tradition is a function of its idiosyncrasy. We understand our own religious tradition not because it articulates universal human...

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