A dominant narrative of recent American religious history posits that evangelical Christians have triumphed and mainline Protestants have declined. The idea has insinuated itself into everything from accounts of church-related colleges to analyses of electoral politics.
But it never was sufficiently nuanced to take into account things like the increasing presence in America of different faith traditions such as Sikhism and Islam, "blended" traditions such as "Buddhist Christians," and those who say they are "spiritual but not religious."
A little more than a month ago, another shoe dropped. The New York Times reported that some American historians are reconsidering the legacy of liberal Protestantism.
Could it be that the narrative hasn't been a bust after all?
In his latest book, Theology for Liberal Protestants: God the Creator, Davidson College theologian Doug Ottati says that liberal Protestants need to sharpen their theology. "Rumors of their death are exaggerated," he said. "What really threatens to make them irrelevant is not a decline in their numbers, but a diminution of their readiness to draw on explicitly theological language, ideas and symbols as they engage the contemporary world."
Protestant liberals sometimes are considered weak because of their tolerance of new forms of religion and their social progressiveness, but Ottati defends their support of gay people, same-sex marriage, and voting rights, and concern for the poor, the homeless, and the unemployed. He also argues that liberal Protestants should continue to contribute what, at their best, they have always tried to contribute – faithful ways to restate, rethink, and revise Christian believing in the face of current knowledge and realities.
For example, Ottati notes we recently have come to realize that the cosmos is incredibly vast, replete with billions of galaxies. "The chances of it having been created especially for Earthlings aren't great," he said. "Again, we also know that species rise and fall, that humans are a species, and that ergo . . . Liberal Protestants should try to take reflections like these into account, and ask how humans fit into this wider view of the cosmos."
But if they are going to engage realities and ideas such as these, Ottati says they need something more than historical reassessments of the liberal Protestant movement. "They also need contemporary liberal theologies," he said.
This book, plus a future volume subtitled God the Redeemer, is intended to provide just that.
Ottati explained that a complete theology not only engages current knowledge and realities, but also outlines a faithful orientation in life. He uses central theological symbols, ideas, and arguments to describe a posture that refuses both easy optimisms and cynical pessimisms. His "hopeful realism" suggests we do not really know ourselves when we concentrate on our abilities apart from our limits and our faults. But it also claims we do not truly know ourselves when we consider our limits and faults apart from our gifts and from the opportunities for reconciliation and life that grace God's world. "Overall, I suppose I'd say there are things to be sorrowful about, but also things to try and to celebrate," he concluded.
Ottati, the Craig Family Distinguished Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice, joined the Davidson faculty in 2007 after teaching many years at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond.
His scholarly interests include contemporary theology and ethics, as well as the history of theology and ethics, particularly in America. He has written several previous books that have served as "homework" for this most recent project. He is a co-general editor of the multi-volume series, The Library of Theological Ethics. His most recent books include Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species; Reforming Protestantism: Christian Commitment in Today's World; and Hopeful Realism: Recovering the Poetry of Theology.