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The term “postliberal” gets bandied about these days. For the most part, it’s used in political debates. But to the best of my knowledge, the word was first coined in a theological context. In 1984, George Lindbeck published The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. The book ends with a call for the development of a “postliberal theology.”

Liberal theology has a special meaning. Its origins are found in German Protestant theology in the early nineteenth century when university study of philosophy and history were becoming independent of ecclesiastical authority. Scholars claimed the freedom (hence the term “liberal”) to assess Christian claims with the tools of these new sciences.

The history of liberal Protestantism is complex, and parallel developments occurred in Catholicism. But I can make some general statements.

Liberalism in Christianity invariably stokes distrust of tradition. Famously, nineteenth-century scholars raised doubts about the Bible. Not only was it deemed untrustworthy as a witness to historical events, but it was also increasingly pried apart as scholars looked at the many layers of authorship. A similar skepticism was applied to church history (a critical attitude already at work during the Reformation).

As the authority of the Bible and tradition waned, liberal theology turned inward. Our feelings and experiences became the arbiters of true doctrine. Karl Barth’s bon mot about Friedrich Schleiermacher, the patriarch of liberal Protestant theology, captured the spirit of liberalism in theology: “He talked about God by talking about man in a loud voice.”

My teachers at Yale, which included George Lindbeck, were not anti-modern, and they certainly were not fundamentalists. But they recognized that liberalism in theology has a disintegrating effect. The through-line of the Bible was lost as it was atomized, turned into data for historical speculation. Everyone became his own judge of theological truth, which, given the power of secular culture to shape our sensibilities, means that the fickle fashions of this world dictate doctrine, not the Word of God.

First Things has always opposed liberalism in theology. Our founder, Richard John Neuhaus, recognized that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews would necessarily differ in theology, often profoundly. But he never wavered in his conviction that we must be illiberal in our faith, which is to say, we find fullness of life by harkening to the authority of our traditions rather than distancing ourselves and reserving the “right” to bring our faith to the bar of other, more recent and more modern authorities.

Moreover, in our earliest issues, authors have warned of the danger of unbridled liberalism in public life. America’s often wild genius for freedom must be disciplined by faith’s obedience to God’s will. Something similar can be said for our cultural engagement. The spirit of T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” presides over our pages: Deep creativity comes when one stands under the authority of what has come before. In a liberal era—our era—it is not freedom that nurtures genius but obedience, the spirit of grateful reception.

In its proper meaning, a liberal soul is capacious, able to suspend judgment in order to hear out others. It is calm when confronted with error. I wish for  First Things to be liberal in this true sense. But as I learned from my theological mentors, one must be firmly anchored in truth if one wishes to be liberal. Paradoxically, unbridled liberalism has paved the way toward today’s illiberal denunciations, cancellations, and hectoring political orthodoxies. One must be postliberal—one must be a patron of the old and trustworthy authorities—in order to attain the strength of soul necessary to weigh arguments without distorting passions and fight evil without rancor.

Let us tarry together under liberating authorities—the orders of creation, the traditions of the West, the power of beauty, and most of all, the Word of God. Our disordered and disintegrating societies need our witness.

And that witness depends entirely on your charitable support. Thanks to your generosity, our Spring Campaign delivers 20 percent of the annual giving we need to publish  First Things and execute our core programs. The 2024 Spring Campaign seeks $600,000 from 900 readers like you before July 1. Your material companionship will strengthen our shared endeavor—to restore commanding truths that liberate us.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

Image by Joe Ravi, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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