My theological work has four stands, though they overlap a bit, especially the first two, which relate to theopolitics and liberalism.
1 Defending Christianity’s affinity with political liberalism
I see the liberal state as a good thing, despite everything. Unafraid of seeming Whiggish, we should salute the vision of those radical-liberal Protestants who rejected theocracy, or unitary theopolitics (Calvinist as well as Catholic), in favour of a new idea: God wills a new sort of state in which liberty is central. I see the Church of England as committed to this, by virtue of having chosen to remain the established church of a liberal state. I think we need to oppose the current dominance of ‘postliberal’ theology, which is at heart reactionary. I have addressed these ideas in Milton’s Vision, and God Created Humanism.
2 Distinguishing between good and bad liberal theology
What complicates the above is that ‘liberal theology’ is wider than this. It also refers to the modern tradition that seeks to ‘reform’ Christianity in the direction of rational humanism. This tradition started life as ‘deism’, which rejected revelation, ritual, the need for faith. It gradually infected a huge section of Protestantism. Kierkegaard and Barth were right to warn against this. But they failed to save the baby from the bathwater, i.e. the positive affinity with political liberalism outlined above. Authentic liberal Christianity is rooted in faith and ritual, and guards against rational-humanist dilution. I addressed this in Reinventing Liberal Christianity.
3 Articulating faith
I have tried to show that faith has a dialectical structure. It is a conversation between two voices in the believer, one that doubts and one that assents. The latter voice should be seen as miraculous, the presence of the Holy Spirit. This dynamic was largely invented by Luther, and it returns in Barth’s ‘dialectical theology’. I see it as the authentic Protestant account of ‘faith and reason’, and reject the (mainly Catholic) tradition that claims that faith and reason are harmonious. An angular fideism makes more sense to me. I have addressed this in various places including Faith, and the final chapter of God Created Humanism.
4 Renewing Christian cult-ure
By ‘cult-ure’ I mean worship. Where to start? Christian culture as I have known it is weak, cut off from most of the dynamism of culture in general. Unless one is drawn to an evangelical or high-church subculture, one has a major problem. Church is unlikely to feel like an engaging cultural event. For some years I evaded the issue, vaguely hoping that some successor to ‘organised religion’ and ‘institutional church’ might emerge. At the same time I became fascinated by ritual, in an anthropological way, and an artistic way. I yearned for a new culture of primitivist-inspired creativity, and of neo-medieval festivity. Then I admitted that I needed church, and the core rite of the eucharist, and that this had to be the essential building block of Christian culture. But I could not drop my awareness that it was problematically weak. So I have wondered how a new energy can be imported to church, with new theatricality and participation. I also feel that parishes should link up to create large-scale events, fusing worship and public art. I have so far written about this in scattered journalism (including a BBC Lent talk about a performance-art ritual I attempted).
I’m proposing a new liberal theology.
It is liberal in that it affirms the liberal state, which means freedom of religion, the rejection of unitary theopolitics. It rejects theocracy and the postliberal idealisation of theocracy.
It is not sympathetic to ‘liberal theology’ in another sense – the idea that religion must be modernised on rational-humanist grounds.
It does not affirm ‘liberalism’ in general, which is too wide and contradictory to be affirmed. But nor should ‘liberalism’ be denigrated, for at its heart is the liberal state.
The new liberal theology affirms the liberal state not just with the normal shrug, but in strangely strong terms. It says that something new happens in modernity – a fuller revelation of God’s will, in the political sphere. God decrees a new politics of liberty, in place of the old ideal of theopolitical unity, and this entails the seeming weakening of his church, echoing the kenosis of Christ – it will now reject the old desire for cultural supremacy, and affirm its co-existence with secularism, in a creative tension or dialectic. The liberal state is God’s gift to modernity.