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Virtues, but little sense of holiness

08 February 2011

Gavin Ashenden finds a big hole in liberal theology


Grace, Order, Openness and Diversity: Reclaiming liberal theology
Ian Bradley
T. & T. Clark £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

THIS is an intelligent and passionate book. The author is unusually sure-footed in the way in which he not only defends liberalism, but remains engagingly open to the flaws that its critics accuse it of. His intention is to lay down a liberal manifesto of “grace, order, openness and diversity”, and to compare them favourably as a theological and intellec­tual value system with the conservative tenets of fundamental­ism. Bradley is even reasonable in acknow­ledging that he, too, struggles with the un­reason­ableness of fear.

One of the flaws in this current debate is the way in which all sides are energised by a sense of threat. Traditionalists claim that liberal secularism is rampant and corrosive; and Bradley, too, writes out of the experience of the threat that liberals feel from what, from their point of view, has become a rampant funda­mentalism.

To his credit, Bradley begins this approach by asking conservatives to help in the pursuit of a balance. Liberalism, carefully defined with ornate nuance, is marked by grace, order, open­ness, and diversity. He invites conser­vatives to help balance these virtues with the correspond­ing ones: grace by a certain judge­ment, order by freedom, openness by de­pendability and faithfulness, diversity by unity.

If it were only a matter of reasonableness and balance, this book could do much to bridge the debilitating and fractious gap be­tween liberal and traditionalist. But perhaps one reason why even such a virtuous book fails is that the liberal mindset cannot, or will not, grasp the central core of the Hebrew revela­tion: the holiness of the Godhead. So it be­comes another round of “Athens v. Jeru­salem”.

If holiness is not experienced, then, of course, “sin” becomes much less of a problem — a blemish on the brow of an otherwise winsome humanity rather than creating a chasm of connection that cannot be crossed from our side. As Bradley insists, “Liberal theology recognizes a world of pain and sorrow, but also recognizes that grace, like love, is all around, continually overflowing from God and being poured into humanity. This recognition encourages a theology of presence rather than of conversion and mission, an attitude of affirming and upholding people where they are, rather than berating them for their sins.”

And so, of course although both tradition­alists and liberals believe in “grace”, the word carries different meanings for each, and we do not discuss the same phenomenon.

Bradley recognises that the liberal view is constrained by a certain naïve optimism about human nature, and does not see Jesus as calling for a gloomy and morbid intro­spection or a radical self-denigration. “Rather, his mission seems to be directed at building up and affirming human beings, remembering that they are credited in the image of God.” The reader may then be forgiven for wonder­ing where Jesus’s teaching about the tax collector who falls to the ground asking “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner” — or Auschwitz — fits into Bradley’s attractive optimism. Humanity may be in God’s image, but our sense of how far we appear from his likeness tempers the theological optimism of the traditionalist.

Bradley’s delightful book is an exposition of virtue rooted, but perhaps also confined, in the confident intellectual tradition of En­lightenment rationalism. But by finding the vision and experience of the holiness of God beyond the reach of its rationalism, it does not manage either to properly represent or to connect with the roots of an experience that lies beyond the Enlightenment experi­ment.

Canon Gavin Ashenden is Chaplain and Senior Lecturer in the School of English at the University of Sussex.

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