Editorial by Steven Shakespeare
from Modern Believing Vol 58:1 - January 2017

After two special issues last year, this edition of Modern Believing returns to a more diverse array of topics: from the religious undertones of popular music culture to the lessons to be learnt from the centuries old legacy of firebrand Quaker, George Fox.

What I believe is shared by the present set of essays is a sense that liberal theology lives in and through opening itself to the voices, cultures and experiences beyond its borders. In the process, those very borders – products often of our insecurity and narrowness of vision – become porous. Liberal theology should not be afraid to allow itself to be repositioned by genuine encounter with the other.

Such encounters are not merely exercises in self-criticism. They are constructive moments of theological creativity. Gerald Downing exemplifies this, as he traces the Pauline significance of concepts of reconciliation and atonement. The richness of Paul’s emphasis on the new creation is often missed by accounts of atonement, which turn it into some kind of supernatural transaction, carried out above our heads.

Downing’s critique of the paucity of some theological reflection, and his discovery of correlations with the work of secular lawyers, suggests the need for theology to find renewal outside its customary sources. A turn to the world can be a turn to a truly incarnational theology.

This dialogue with wider culture is explored through Clive Marsh and Vaughan Roberts’s engagement with the religious and spiritual dimensions of popular music. Their interdisciplinary approach helps to move us beyond superficial dismissals or appropriations. Alive to the ambivalence of popular music, and its expression through a whole range of embodied practices, they set out an agenda for further research which promises to expand our understanding of contemporary spirituality.

In contrast, Hugh Rock turns to the past for inspiration, in the form of the great Quaker pioneer, George Fox. The vitality and openness of Quaker tradition is not in doubt, but Rock demonstrates the inspiration it derives from three key themes in Fox’s presentation of Christianity: the raising of deed, or a life lived well, over doctrine; the priority of God’s light over written scripture (‘The Word was before writings were’); and an incipient humanism, in which the lines between the supernatural and the human are blurred. For Rock, this is of more than historical interest. It offers a constructive, living vision of faith. And this is sorely needed in a liberal tradition which can err on the side of the negative and cerebral.

That constructive spirit is also exemplified in Simon Taylor’s essay, in which he presents a biblical argument for equal marriage. This is an area liberals can neglect, falling back on secular models of equality. Nothing wrong with that, you might say; but it fails to engage with the debate in the Church where opponents to same sex relationships stake out their ground on the Bible. Taylor offers us, not another reading of those texts which seem to refer to same sex relationships, but something more holistic: a biblical vision of marriage as the image of God’s relationship with creation.

As he points out, marriage is really not all that important for Jesus and other major biblical figures. Returning to what the Bible actually says also challenges more conservative obsessions with heterosexuality, which are often projections on to the text. Seen in that light, a positive scriptural case can be made for recognising the giftedness of same sex unions.

All these essays have dialogue at their heart. And dialogue shapes the form and content of Keith Ward’s contribution. With typical incisiveness, he offers a critique of Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s argument (from Modern Believing 57.1) that there are four possible views of truth when considering the existence of a diversity of religious traditions. Ward argues that we should not focus solely on the propositional truth claims made by religious adherents. Religion is much more of a fuzzy term, a rule of life more than a set of ‘beliefs’. Such an approach, he argues, opens out a more nuanced, but also more true to life appreciation of different ways of relating to the truth in a religiously plural world.

It is heartening to see the journal continuing to attract articles which combine rigorous thought with dialogical and constructive imagination. If liberal theology is to mean more than defending a pre-existing territory, such generosity of vision will be needed.