The prefix “post” has any number of proper usages. And most of those – postscript, postlude, posterior – clearly fix its meaning. Whatever is “post” comes after the main thing, such as after the letter, after the liturgy, or after the rest of the body.
The usage of this prefix in such words as postmodernism and postliberalism, however, is more ambiguous. Postmodernism suggests a period and intellectual sensibility that has moved beyond the age and mentality of being modern, though some argue that the intellectual and cultural fads going under the name, “postmodern,” are actually a heightened form of modernity. Postliberalism is even harder to explain. And part of the reason stems from whether those advocating postliberalism have actually moved beyond liberalism into a theology that is clearly “after” the sort of teaching that has characterized twentieth-century mainline Protestantism.
JAMES GUSTAFSON, FOR MANY years a professor of ethics at Emory University, raised questions about postliberalism for the mainliners who read the Christian Century (March 24-31, 1999). Gustafson himself may not be the best inquirer since his survey of the theological landscape is about as nuanced as the famous New Yorker poster of the world where everything west of the Hudson River dissolves into Walmart and Disneyland. For instance, Gustafson wonders if there is any difference between postliberal affirmations of “divine personhood and activity” and “the virtually magical expectations of divine interventions that one hears proclaimed by television evangelists.” In Gustafson’s universe, Karl Barth is next to Jerry Falwell. (And we thought liberals were supposed to be the rocket-science party in American Protestantism.)
Notwithstanding Gustafson’s fundamentalist-like version of liberalism, his article does help to expose the limitations of postliberalism. In many ways, Gustafson’s piece has a stale smell to it. If he is any indication, liberals are still spooked by world religions and natural science, and so adjust the claims of Christianity in order to avoid giving offense either religiously, culturally or intellectually. But the big question, and one that he acknowledges comes from Ernst Troeltsch, concerns Christian particularism. Did God “choose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” If postliberals answer “no” to that question, then they are really liberals, according to Gustafson. And so after 150 years of theological development in the United States, liberalism still boils down to being uncomfortable with Jesus only. (Could it be that the origins of not keeping score in Little League baseball games may reside in liberal Protestant timidity – wouldn’t want those little tikes scarred by the exclusive brands of “winner” and “loser”? Mind you, losing in baseball is a lot less painful than losing eternal life. But the good news of the gospel is that Christ made his exclusive salvation available to all people through the ministry of the church – something liberals gave up when they replaced the gospel with culture, and the church with institutions of cultural transformation.)
WILLIAM PLACHER, WHO teaches theology at Wabash College, was the only suspect the editors at the Century could round up to respond to Gustafson’s questions (April 7, 1999). And we must give him credit for answering Troeltsch’s big question pithily and Christianly. “Do postliberals claim that God chose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” Placher’s unequivocal response is “yes.” To be sure, Jesus Christ’s ministry involved more than one event as the various stages of his humiliation and exaltation indicate. Still, Placher deserves credit for not blinking.
HE ALSO MADE SOME interesting observations along the way which suggest just how hard it is to move beyond liberalism. For instance, when Placher was in grad school in the early 1970s, Schubert Ogden, Gordon Kaufman and David Tracy were at the center of American mainline academic theology. He adds that Barth tended to be dismissed “out of hand.” Which raises an interesting question – what kind of mark did neo-orthodoxy make in the United States? Placher’s recollections, along with other impressions, suggests that the brothers Niebuhr, Tillich and Barth were far more of a fad that allowed the mainline denominations to absorb an existentialist form of Christianity than any kind of movement that righted the ship of American Protestantism.
Placher’s own positive comments about the gospel imply as much, and suggest that postliberalism may reach a similar outcome. As much as he is willing to affirm the particularity of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, his affirmation carries all the baggage of liberal Protestant timidity and turns Christ into a strange brew of abstract particularity. “Jesus Christ reveals and anticipates,” Placher writes, “the culmination of God’s will for creation, and in that sense Christianity is uniquely right about what is most important in the ultimate purpose of things.” How’s that? The real question isn’t just whether Christ is unique but whether what he did makes him unique. Did he die, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven for sins, and will he one day return to judge the world? To be sure, that is a whole lot more exclusive than anything Gustafson is prepared to accept. But it also makes the uniqueness of Christ much more lively (and efficacious) than the neo-orthodox-inspired maneuvers Placher executes.
In the end, the Gustafson-Placher exchange is eerily reminiscent of an essay Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote also for the Century, sixty-five years ago when the theological grenade-thrower took back some of what he had said in his inflammatory sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s topic was “Beyond Modernism” (Dec 4, 1935), and the reasons he gave for being a postliberal stemmed from liberalisms’ over-intellectualizing of the faith, sentimental belief in progress, and watered down theology. But the worst feature of modernism, according to Fosdick, was its loss of nerve. “We cannot harmonize Christ himself with modern culture,” he declared. “What Christ does to modern culture” is not accommodate but “challenge it.”
THIS MAY BE WHY IT IS impossible to go beyond modernism. If liberals and postliberals can’t figure out that Christ’s work of redeeming and judging sinners is more challenging than simply being the moral compass of the culture, then both groups, whether followers of Troeltsch or Barth, miss the point. Christianity is not about culture, whether cheerleading for it or self-righteously condemning it. It’s about sin, grace, and preparing for the world to come. For that reason, the only way we will be convinced that significant theological developments are afoot in the mainline churches and seminaries is when the prefix “pre” comes into vogue, as in preliberalism.
Henry M. Lewis