Understanding Liberal Theology: An Interview with Gary Dorrien

Regular readers of Ad Fontes have likely never heard of Gary Dorrien. But as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University, he is one of the foremost thinkers in liberal theology for over forty years.

Committed as Ad Fontes is to historic Protestant orthodoxy, our relationship with liberal theology is largely an adversarial one. Yet the fact remains that critics of liberal theology are, more often than not, ignorant of its historical origins and its contemporary developments. Robust engagement cannot be achieved without rigorous understanding, and so, earlier this year, Layne Hancock sat down with Prof. Dorrien for an in depth interview about the history of liberal theology, his own journey into it, and its evolving manifestations.


LH: When we last corresponded, you mentioned that you were using Brad Littlejohn’s modernization of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity for your class on Anglican theology at Union Theological Seminary. How has this Davenant publication been received by your students?

GD:  I’m grateful to Dr. Littlejohn for making Hooker accessible to students. When I first taught Union’s course on Anglican theology, I assigned sections of the Folger edition, and very few students fought their way through the sixteenth-century prose. Making Hooker available to students as beautifully as Dr. Littlejohn has done is a great gift to all Anglican students and students of Anglicanism.

LH: You told an interviewer in 2016: “I am a jock who began as a solidarity activist, became an Episcopal cleric at thirty, became an academic at thirty-five, and never quite settled on a field, so now I explore the intersections of too many fields.” This is a very atypical biographical trajectory into the academy. How did you become a Christian and a theologian?

GD: I grew up in a poor, semi-rural community in mid-Michigan, on a dirt road flanked by trailers and hardcore poverty to the right of us, and working-class homes to the left. My parents grew up in similarly poor communities of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where my father was slurred throughout his youth as a “half-breed” for having a Cree mother. The abuse scarred him, making him someone who shied away from emotional attachments. We were nominally Catholic, but I got to Mass just enough to be struck by the stunning image of a suffering God on a cross. The crucifix caught me like nothing else in Christianity. In fact, I didn’t know much else about Christianity. I knew only the effect that the cross had on me, and something about God as the Creator of the world—a glimmer of transcendence.

I was in high school, and a three-sport athlete, when the civil rights movement reached its apex. Martin Luther King Jr. had a very similar effect upon me as the crucifix above the altar. I read every book that the public library owned on King and the civil rights movement. It was my first book-reading obsession. King was a formative, galvanizing, inspiring figure to me during his last years. Then he was cut down, and this second cross story melded together with the first one in my mind and heart. That was all the religion I had upon entering college. All these years later, it’s still my touchstone.

LH: When you read King and the civil rights literature, were you reading it as a first person participant in the struggle, as a descendant of Native Americans, or was it more a second person perspective?

GD: We were taught in school that America is the greatest nation in the world and the greatest nation ever. The hateful violence on display at the Birmingham demonstration and then at Selma was hard to reconcile with what they taught in school. I had no sense of being an ally of the struggle or any such thing; that would have been impossibly grandiose for a lonely, book-reading jock in mid-Michigan. But King and the civil rights movement were my clues to what it might mean to take the gospel seriously. I read King’s book Stride Toward Freedom in high school. The parade of theologians and philosophers flew over my head, but I kept reading anyway because whatever King was writing about seemed far more important than what I was learning in school.

LH: You teach social ethics, theology, and philosophy of religion as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and as Professor of Religion at Columbia University. Our readers will be familiar with “theology” as a discipline, but less so with “philosophy of religion” and “social ethics.” Could you provide a brief definition of those fields?

GD: Social ethics was invented in the 1880s by activist ministers of the Social Gospel movement who taught in colleges and seminaries, notably Francis Greenwood Peabody, William Jewett Tucker, Graham Taylor, and Richard Ely. The Social Gospel movement contended that Christians have a moral obligation to be involved in reform movements for social justice.

In white Protestant churches, the Social Gospel was centrally concerned with industrialization, economic justice, the emerging labor movement, and Gilded Age corruption. Congregational minister Washington Gladden and Baptist minister-academic Walter Rauschenbusch were the leading founders of the Social Gospel that emerged in white Protestant churches. They were shamed by union organizers, who charged that ministers were on the side of the owners who paid their salary. Gladden and Rauschenbusch wanted to deny it, but knew it was true. To them, everything was at stake for the church in showing that Christians cared about poverty, suffering, and even unions. They proposed to recover the social justice emphasis of the Bible and the centrality of the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus.

In Black churches, the Social Gospel was primarily a new abolition movement. Abolition, the Civil War, and Reconstruction had come and gone. The Reconstruction amendments were being stripped away, a mania of racist terrorism was underway, and the Jim Crow system was being established. The founders of the Black Social Gospel such as Baptist minister William Simmons, AME minister Reverdy Ransom, and AME Zion bishop Alexander Walters argued that Black churches needed to build protest organizations and become involved in political struggles for justice. The political-activist orientation of the Social Gospel was no less controversial and unwelcome in Black churches than in White churches. In both cases, Social Gospel leaders were always in a minority.

The Social Gospel leaders who invented social ethics said there should be a place in the academy to study the reform movements for justice and support them. Salvation must be personal and social to be saving. Now that the emerging social sciences had established that there is such a thing as social structure, Social Gospel leaders said the church must seek to reform or transform the structures of society. A bad society makes reasonably good people do bad things. A good society would make people less selfish and violent, compelling bad people to learn to share and cooperate.

LH: One of the few classes you taught that overlaps significantly with the interests of the Davenant Institute is your Kalamazoo College seminar on Augustine and Aquinas. What did you take from those classes and how did it shape your views on Christian orthodoxy? Was there ever a moment where orthodox Protestantism was a “live option” for you? Why or why not?

GD: I’m an Anglican, so the entire Christian tradition is open to me! I’m interested in all of it and I’ve always been interested in trying to bring as much of it as I can to students in whatever context I find myself. Many of my books are doorstopper-size on that account, including my forthcoming book Anglican Identities: Logos Idealism, Imperial Whiteness, Commonweal Ecumenism (Baylor, 2024).

As for my intellectual formation, I studied Kant, Hegel, Karl Marx, and W. E. B. Du Bois intently in college and have sustained this set of influences ever since. I also studied Rauschenbusch, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, James Cone, and Karl Rahner, so theologians have been in my head since my college days, and feminist theology arose when I was in seminary. But I was at the end of my twenties before I joined a church and decided that I did, indeed, have a theological perspective. King was always my model of living a meaningful life. I came through the door of social justice activism, not through a church tradition.

I finally joined the Episcopal Church because I had recently devoured William Temple’s major works and my beloved Presbyterian-pastor spouse Brenda Biggs told me not to join her church! Temple was a neo-Hegelian, a democratic socialist, a cleric with a deep spirituality, a global ecumenical leader, and the theorist of a mutual-fund form of economic democracy built on an excess profits tax. I entered the Anglican Communion with his compelling thought and witness in mind. It didn’t matter that he was the opposite of me on the social scale—he grew up in castles. His neo-Hegelian refashioning of Anglican logos theology was something that I could preach in Episcopal churches: Spirit is the nature of the Supreme Reality that created all things; the will of Christ is one with the will of God but not identical with it; will and personality are ideally interchangeable terms.

LH: What is liberal theology? In The Making of Liberal Theology (v.1, xix) and Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, you define it mostly genealogically and from biographies of major figures and conflicts–Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Coleridge, Rauschenbusch, etc. Elsewhere you’ve defined it as like a sevenfold cord, writing that “wherever liberal theology bloomed in Europe and North America it was defined by six things: 1) espousing the right to academic freedom, 2) navigating a third way between orthodox over-belief and atheistic disbelief, 3) accepting biblical criticism, 4) allowing science to explain the physical world, 5) looking beyond the church for answers, 6) seeking to be relevant to the modern world,” and then later in some contexts liberal theology acquired a seventh plank which the social justice activism of the Social Gospel sometimes called “Christian socialism” in Europe but on the American front “the Social Gospel movement.” 

GD: I’ve operated with the same definition of liberal theology all along. In my trilogy on American liberal theology, I framed it as a three-factor definition for the sake of simplicity, but the third category was the fourfold bundle of things concerning biblical criticism, scientific explanation, looking beyond the church, and trying to be relevant that came from accepting the first two principles. The fundamental principle is intellectual freedom, or negatively, the argument that no external authority establishes or compels right belief on any particular thing. The second factor, mediation, is equally defining of this tradition in every generation of its history: Liberals contend that there is a credible third-way between over-believing dogmatism and atheistic dogmatism, or at least, that a third-way must be carved out if Christian faith is to survive in any form. Within the churches, liberals fight for the right to criticize the Bible and Christian tradition, but the dominant predisposition in liberal theology is to worry more about the atheistic culture of disbelief. Thus, Schleiermacher addressed his speeches on religion to the “cultured despisers of religion.” The varying factor is the Social Gospel. Liberal theology and the Social Gospel are different things, but in the USA these movements gradually folded together to become one thing. So the Social Gospel became part of the definition of liberal theology in the USA and Canada.

LH: Is the contrary case of identifying liberal theology with progressive social movements something like Harnack’s German liberalism, that was comparatively socially conservative and institutionally well-established?  

GD: The American Social Gospel had a progressive-activist spirit lacking almost any analogue in Germany. Rauschenbusch would have been far less radical had his father not moved from Germany to the USA. The Ritschlian School of Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann swept the elite German universities in the late nineteenth century. This was a remarkable achievement when you consider that it had to push aside the traditions of iconic figures. The Ritschlians did it by claiming that none of the liberal theologies deriving from Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, or the mid-century mediating fusions gave historical criticism its due. All claimed to do so, but all were strategies to curtail its reach. The only credible and faithful way forward was to make theology truly historicist. Ritschl said theology needed to embrace historical consciousness, reaffirm the (Lutheran) autonomy of faith, reclaim the kingdom-oriented religion of Jesus, accept Kant’s divide between theoretical and practical reason, and defend the indispensable role of religion in society. The Ritschlian School ruled the field even as it fought bruising internal battles over the reach of Ritschl’s historicism and his attempt to expunge metaphysics from theology. It produced highly distinguished scholarship; we would remember this episode differently had the Ritschlians not signed up for defending the German Empire. It all came crashing down with an apocalyptic fury that stunned Harnack and should have shamed him.

LH: You frequently refer to the 1880s Social Gospel movement as the “Third Great Awakening.” Can you explain what you mean by this and explain why evangelicals should give figures of this tradition a second look?   

GD: The Social Gospel movement was the Third Great Awakening because it was so much like the first two. It preached that the nation had fallen into sin and could only be saved by a movement of God’s Spirit that impelled the nation to repentance. The Social Gospel founders worried that Christianity had been ruinously trivialized into something too private, selfish, and corrupted to manage another Awakening. The God who wrote the Bible cares about justice, yet who would know it from attending American churches? Rauschenbusch was grieved and appalled that massive evils in American society went totally unmentioned on Sunday mornings. He personalized the point, lamenting that he didn’t learn about justice in the church. He had to learn about it outside the church, after which his fellow Christians tried to quash it.

LH: One of the things an evangelical outsider might be surprised to learn is that “liberal theology” and “liberation theology” were not always synonymous terms. Can you talk about the long, difficult road that was taken to bring these two parties together? 

GD: The founder of Black liberation theology, James Cone, was theologically a Barthian when he started, and he retained certain Barthian markers after he re-rooted his thought in Black American culture and history. Jim vehemently rejected the liberal commitment to engaging critical disbelief, putting God in question, searching for the historical Jesus, and making claims to ethical universality, though no one ever roared for his intellectual freedom more than James Cone. In addition, if you asked Jim what he really believed about the divinity of Christ or the resurrection of Christ, he gave a Schleiermacher answer on the first question and a Paul Tillich answer on the second. When he condemned liberal theology, Jim didn’t mean that the doctrinal formulations of Schleiermacher and Tillich were always wrong. He meant that Schleiermacher corrupted theology by letting his over-educated, racist, Eurocentric, bourgeois, atheist friends define its agenda. Jim taught the introduction to theology class at Union, where he devoted half of one class session to liberal theology. He assigned one essay of Kant’s (“What is Enlightenment?), one chapter of Harnack (from What is Christianity?), and that was it, balancing them with J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. His favorite theology story was about how he founded Black liberation theology; his second favorite was about Karl Barth overthrowing the proud German professors.

I’ve spoken a lot in Germany, and whenever I came home, Jim would ask if anyone still talked about Barth. He was always disappointed in the answer. Cutting loose from Barth in the early 1970s was the turning point of Jim’s career, which saved his career in theology, but he plainly said that he could not have become a liberation theologian if not for Karl Barth.

LH: You wrote The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (1998) partially to correct the secular impression that modern evangelicals were “merely fundamentalists with better manners.” You also wrote in hope of an emergent fourth wave of post-conservative or progressive evangelicalism in the coming years. Granting that the politics and religion schisms of 2016 provided a generational shake up of many denominations and tribes, if you were forced to add a chapter to this book today, what would you be inclined to investigate or write?

GD: If I updated that book, I would have to emphasize political developments of the succeeding twenty-five years. Evangelical feminism still had major proponents and a few organizations when I wrote that book. I had written frequently for Sojourners in the 1980s and knew the feminists in its orbit. They were battered by the 1990s, but not yet with a sense of being routed. I stuck to a theological argument in the Remaking book, treading lightly on the Christian Right, determined to keep theology in the foreground. Some of my friends pushed back: “You’re taking their theology too seriously!” I ran long on evangelicals of that period who sought to reestablish the heritage of catholic orthodoxy, especially Donald Bloesch and Alister McGrath, and evangelicals who drank from postmodern wells, especially Stanley Grenz, Rodney Clapp, Roger Olson, and Henry H. Knight III. The subject that I repressed in Making is the history that my brilliant doctoral advisee Isaac Sharp recounts in his book, The Other Evangelicals (2022). As for the theology arguments in that book, they hold up on their own ground. But evangelicals have not sided with Donald Trump on the basis of theology.

LH: In “Social Ethics for Social Justice: The Legacies of the Social Gospel and a Case for Idealistic Discontent,” you cited three counterweights to the “too much advocacy” concern that you admired: (1) Francis Peabody’s inductive study of social crises; (2) Catholic Social Teaching and the work of John Ryan; (3) the Christian Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. You wrote: “I treasure the modern Catholic tradition of social teaching [especially Rerum Novarum of 1891 and Quadragesimo Anno of 1931] because it focused from the beginning on the problem of capitalism and labor. It is based on one of the great philosophical traditions, with a method that works in various cultural contexts and reaches beyond Christianity. Every Catholic institution teaches some version of Catholic Social Teaching [CST]… Catholic institutions will be teaching Rerum Novarum long after the Protestant Social Gospel is forgotten.” Davenant is doing its best to try and keep one version of Protestant Social Teaching alive, but this last sentence is quite provocative–could you unpack it for us? 

GD: Roman Catholic institutions teach their own history; Catholic periodicals usually have a wider scope than Protestant periodicals, with a higher threshold for intellectualism; the Catholic commitment to philosophical reasoning is an enabling factor; and CST ranges over many of the same issues of social justice, the social question, unions, moral critiques of capitalism, and the like that the Protestant Social Gospel was founded upon. Protestants who throw out philosophy impoverish their own discourse. I tell my students that the Catholic tradition is right about philosophy regardless of the judgment that one might make about Thomism. No theology is stronger than its philosophical undergirding. If you haven’t thought about your philosophical undergirding, you’re sure to assume a bad one, and to cut yourself off from everyone not belonging to your theological group. I take some comfort in knowing that at least some of what I care about will always be taught wherever CST is taught.


Layne Hancock is a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame in moral theology and is currently writing a dissertation entitled “Saving Jonathan Edwards’ Ethics.”

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