The last few weeks have found me reading through some of the recent scholarship on both liberal Protestantism and religious liberalism. Thinking about such topics always leads me to questions of definition. What does it mean to be liberal in terms of religion and spirituality, Protestant or otherwise? Is it primarily a theological category? How does “liberal” relate to other aspects of religious life and practice? And how does liberal religion intersect with conditions of modern life and culture? As such questions have been gaining greater ground in scholarly circles as of late, I would like to call attention to an article that has helped me to broaden my own understanding of liberal Protestantism at the turn of the twentieth century.
Kathryn Lofton’s “The Methodology of the Modernists: Process in American Protestantism” (Church History, June 2006) provides a useful contribution to discussions of Protestant modernism and liberal Protestant identity. Lofton correctly observes that William Hutchison’s The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism still stands as the dominant historical exposition of modernist thought. Hutchison argued that modernists were defined by three characteristics: their emphasis on God’s immanence, what Lofton calls their “postmillenial progressivism,” and their unique understanding of the intimate relationship between religion and culture, a stance that compelled Protestants to actively adapt to modern cultural challenges and imperatives. It is this latter aspect of modernist thought - the willingness to engage and adapt to new knowledge and shifts in modern culture - that, for Hutchison, most distinguished the modernists from other liberal Protestants.
Lofton’s article argues for another critical characteristic of modernist identity: their method. Modernist coherence was not based in a foundation of shared doctrine or theological precepts, but rather in a shared understanding of religious belief and experience as an ongoing and rigorous intellectual process. Modernists incorporated the self-evident soundness of the scientific method into religious life by directing the processes of analysis and interpretation toward the twin pillars of Christian faith, the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ, in order to consciously rearticulate them in light of new knowledge and circumstances. This emphasis on method redefined the nature of Christian practice by aligning faith with constant study and interpretation rather than simply doctrine. To stress inquiry over content or conclusion, however, risked undermining the usefulness of belief. “While evangelicals and fundamentalists told their followers precisely what to do and how to think,” Lofton writes, “modernists encouraged curiosity, relentless skepticism, and expansion. Into such an abyss of knowledge, little Christian clarity could emerge” (400). The emphasis on process within modernist practice opened up new possibilities for Christian faith in the twentieth century, but it left many believers unmoored and uncertain.
Although published in 2006, I have not seen Lofton's article referenced in any of the recent literature on liberal religion - this is unfortunate, as the article accomplishes two things for students and scholars of religious liberalism. First, she helps to situate religious modernists alongside other forms of modernism, thus placing the movement within a broader cultural context that can be easily overlooked. In emphasizing method over content, Lofton suggests, the religious modernist enterprise paralleled similar movements in other cultural fields, especially in art and literature. But her article makes another useful, and perhaps more important, contribution. By redirecting our attention from theological content to religious life as process, Lofton provides a valuable entry-point for thinking about liberal religious practice as opposed to liberal religious theology; it gets at the dynamic, searching quality of liberal Protestant thought, a quality that clearly influenced later generations of Protestant thinkers. At the same time, it raises questions, old and new, that speak to major themes in a number of recent works (including Matthew Hedstrom’s The Rise of Liberal Religion and Schmidt and Promey’s recent edited collection, American Religious Liberalism). How did modernists and other types of liberal religious thinkers work to change the contours of day-to-day belief and practice? How did the average mainline congregant incorporate this notion of process into their own spiritual lives? Did the Protestant method have equivalents within non-Protestant traditions? And, perhaps most importantly, what effects did liberal religion as process have on broader currents of American culture? Indeed, Lofton's article is proving an excellent companion as I consider these and other recent works on religious liberalism, and I encourage those interested in related subjects to give it a good read.