What is Liberal Theology?

Liberal Theology

Contemporary liberal theology is a useful intellectual framework for understanding religion — ours or any other.

Here are some key points:

    • All human description of Deity is necessarily partial, but still some people feel the need to try We create models, metaphors, myths and symbols that reflect our best – but still partial – understanding of Deity, and of the values and energies we work with. Because our understanding is necessarily partial, these are models, not objective or provable facts.
    • When these models are collectively created and collectively held by some group of humans, they are called religious traditions. Our Sacred Texts are merely collections and records of these models, of our experiences and understandings as of the point in time at which they were written.
    • All of these models are conditioned by all the circumstances of our lives: historical period, culture, gender, class and more. That is why peoples’ models differ while Deity is presumably beyond change.
    • Therefore we can and should adapt our metaphors and models to our own lived experiences and our changing cultural circumstances, to keep them useful. Also, as we hope to continually clarify and deepen our understanding of Deity, we should adapt our models to reflect our growth, even though we know that our understanding will always and necessarily be limited.
    • We appreciate and honor our cumulative Tradition. It is not a cage to confine us, but a safe base from which we can, should and must explore further. Sacred Truth can never be definitively known.

    Some Readings

    Note: Judy Harrow listed these in the sequence that she recommended you read them, so that the ideas can build on each other.

    Geertz, Clifford
    “Religion as a Cultural System” in
    The Interpretation of Cultures
    NY: Basic Books, 1973
    pp. 87-125

    Geertz gives a clear and practical starting point for understanding what religion is and how it functions in human life. His definition: “a religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” The essay explains each term in the definition in careful detail.

    Christ, Carol P.
    “Why Women Need the Goddess” in
    Christ, Carol P. & Judith Plaskow, eds
    Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion
    San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979
    pp. 273-287

    Applies Geertz’ theory to the religious needs of modern, feminist women. This essay has been reprinted several times. It’s worth trying to find a copy of the original anthology, however, because it really set the tone for the emerging field of feminist theology.

    Ruether, Rosemary R.
    Sexism and God-Talk
    Boston: Beacon, 1983

    Because this is a Christian book, it may not seem particularly relevant. It is, however, if you read it to observe her method. For each major theological question, she first assesses the resources within the Christian tradition. Some of these she finds useful, others hopelessly contaminated by sexism. Then she looks further for useable material, some of which she finds in the Goddess traditions. Ruether’s approach shows us how to treat inherited texts as precious resources, but not as infallible, invariant intellectual fetters.

    Downing, Christine
    The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine
    NY: Crossroad, 1984

    Downing concentrates on the Greek Goddesses. There’s a long, juicy chapter on each one. Even if you’re not focused on the Greeks, this book is valuable for the model it provides for working with any specific Deity. In each case, Downing draws on the source material about the Deity and then connects it with her own life issues.

    Brown, Karen McCarthy
    Mama Lola: a Vodou priestess in Brooklyn
    Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991

    Brown uses a similar approach to Downing’s, applying it to the loa spirits of Haitian Vodou. She alternates chapters: one looks at a particular loa in great depth, and the next examines how that loa’s energy shows up in the experience of the family Brown studied, and in Haitian society in general.

    Friedrich, Paul
    The Meaning of Aphrodite
    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978

    Demonstrates how concepts of Aphrodite evolved and changed over the centuries in consonance with changes in human culture.

    Christ, Carol P.
    Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality
    Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997

    This book is a “systematic theology” of Goddess worship, looking at our religion through the lens of modern theology. That perspective offers some fascinating new insights. Again, you can also learn a great deal about theology by observing her method of analysis.

  • by Judy Harrow
    updated: February 15, 2000; Š 2000, by Judy Harrow