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READING LIBERAL THEOLOGY

  • J. DAVID HOEVELER (a1)
Abstract

Gary Dorrien has presented to all who have an interest in religion, and religious ideas especially, a magnificent piece of scholarship. These three volumes on liberal theology in the United States have value in the massive amount of writings they bring under study and into the mainstream of American intellectual history. To that extent they address a historiographical gap; conservative thinking in the long evangelical tradition down to the contemporary “religious right” has received greater attention. Liberal theology, as Dorrien treats it, interconnects with a wide range of ideas—in philosophy, science, and history most importantly, and other topical maters like feminism and race. This trilogy should attract the attention of intellectual historians not only for its rich content but also for the suggestions it has for this discipline itself; that is, for practicing intellectual history and recognizing some of the contrasting approaches to its subject matter.

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1 On the significance of liberal theology see the review essay by Hollinger David A. in the inaugural issue of this journal. He discusses four recent books about American religion. “Jesus Matters in the USA,” Modern Intellectual History 1 (2004), 135–49.

2 Dorrien claims that he is the first to place Reinhold Niebuhr, John C. Bennett, and Tillich in the camp of liberal theology. But Richard Wightman Fox had done so previously. See his Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 147.

3 Quoted in Mueller David L., Karl Barth (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1972). See also the discussion of Barth, at 13–53.

4 Dorrien Gary, The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

5 Quoted in Dorrien, Barthian Revolt, 133.

6 Dorrien, Barthian Revolt, 135–9.

7 Theological liberalism, to be sure, always had a certain fault line, one that might merit attention in a larger discussion of this subject. Thus Dean William, in his 1986 book American Religious Empiricism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), distinguished between liberals who appeal to a transhistorical realm of spirit and liberals who place God in the historical process and believe his true nature is revealed teleologically (2, 13). I suggest here, though, that these differences point to two kinds of liberalism that nonetheless existed within large commonalities and that these parties coalesced in opposition to Barthian theological “purity.”

8 Kramer Lloyd, “Intellectual History and Philosophy,” Modern Intellectual History 1 (2004), 8195.

9 Kramer's words; ibid., 81.

10 Ibid., 85.

11 I am trying to highlight points of emphasis drawn from the review essay. Both Kelley and Bevir mediate these differences somewhat in the larger, more subtle points they make in their books, and, to be sure, other mediating practices have found their way into intellectual history writing. A recent forum on the status of intellectual history gives a new illustration of its eclecticism. Now, Daniel Wickberg suggests, intellectual history has become essential to other modes of historical inquiry. “Today,” he writes, “there is evidence everywhere that intellectual history speaks to the dominant historiography of our day; its insights and methods have become part of the common coin of the most significant work currently being done.” But, paradoxically, Wickberg believes, it has done so somewhat at the expense of its own identity. “Is Intellectual History a Neglected Field of Study?”, in “The Current State of Intellectual History: A Forum,” Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society 10 (Sept. 2009), 14–15.

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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