A common story about 20th century American theology is that liberalism dominated in the early decades, but gradually vanished in the face of more conservative or orthodox alternatives. Theological modernism and the Social Gospel movement seemed to be the wave of the future, but they were swept away by the winds of Barthian neo-orthodoxy blowing in from Europe and by Reinhold Niebuhr’s devastating criticism of liberalism’s naive moralism and shallow optimism about human sin. As the story goes, liberalism has been in decline ever since, as evidenced by the dwindling numbers of mainline church-goers and the resurgence of a newly confident conservative evangelicalism.
Of course, as folks like Gary Dorrien have pointed out, this story oversimplifies things quite a bit. Liberalism has never completely died out, and some of the most creative theological minds of the last several decades have been those working in the liberal tradition. Moreover, Dorrien has shown how putative critics of liberalism like Niebuhr and Paul Tillich were actually working within the liberal tradition, even as they criticized the forms it took during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A less-known but still important figure who never abandoned the liberal tradition was pioneering Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness (1891-1974). She was the first woman to attain a full professorship at a theological seminary in the U.S. and was a life-long proponent of theological liberalism, albeit a “chastened” liberalism. Harkness began her career as a philosopher, studying at Boston University under the renowned personalist philosopher Edgar S. Brightman, did postdoctorate studies under Alfred North Whitehead, and refined her views through interactions with Niebuhr and Tillich as part of the “Younger Theologians Group” and during a sabbatical at Union Theological Seminary.
Harkness was also active in reform movements in church and society. She was an unflagging proponent of the Social Gospel and maintained her pacifist convictions even during World War II. She was also heavily involved in the Christian ecumenical movement, attending important conferences in Oxford; Madras, India; and Amsterdam. Notably, at one ecumenical church meeting she debated Karl Barth himself on the subject of women’s equality.
So what was the nature of Harkness’ theological liberalism? In her introduction to the excellent collection Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian, Rebekah Miles explains Harkness’ theological outlook using an image developed by fellow liberal Henry Van Dusen. Theological liberalism has two “parents”: modernism–the critical, rationalist spirit derived from the Enlightenment–and evangelicalism–with its emphasis on experiential religion and spiritual transformation. Different liberal theologies share a “family resemblance” in that they contain varying mixtures of both tendencies.
According to Miles, during the critical years from 1929 to 1940, Harkness’s thought shifted from a modernist form of liberalism toward a more evangelical type. An evangelical liberal in this sense accepts the findings of science and critical history; she also sees a continuity, or at least consistency, between God’s general revelation in nature and special revelation in the Bible. But at the same time, the clearest, most reliable revelation of God’s nature is found in the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as witnessed to in the New Testament. Evangelical liberalism is open to insights from a variety of sources but is grounded in the living Christ of the gospels.
Harkness adopted what she called a “synoptic” approach to theological truth, one that, fittingly, echoes the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral. All sources of knowledge–authority, experience, science, logic, and pragmatism–should inform our thinking about God. She rejected any exclusive reliance on churchly authority, bibilcal proof-texting, spiritual experience, or natual reason as the basis for theological truth. Instead, she argued that all of these sources have value, but only as sifted through what she called “the mind of Christ.” By this she meant both the image and teachings of Jesus as presented the gospels and the “indwelling spiritual Christ.” Harkness refused to separate the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” With Christ as the lens, these other sources of truth receive their proper focus.
In her own recounting of how her mind had changed over the years, Harkness emphasized her shift to a more Christ-centered religion, but at the same time reaffirmed her commitment to liberalism:
Ten years ago I was a liberal in theology. I am still a liberal, unrepentant and unashamed. This does not mean that I have seen nothing in liberalism that needed correction. We were in danger of selling out to science as the only approach to truth, of trusting to hopefully in man’s power to remake his world, of forgetting the profound fact of sin and the redeeming power of divine grace, of finding our chief evidence of God in cosmology, art or human personality, to the clouding of the clearer light of the incarnation. Liberalism needed to see in the Bible something more than a collection of moral adages and a compendium of great literature. It needed to see in Christ something more than a great figure living sacrificially and dying for his convictions. It needed to be recalled to the meaning of the cross and the power of the resurrection.
These correctives have come to us. I do not think liberalism ever had as many utopian illusions as it is now customary in retrospect to attribute to it, but its self-confidence has been challenged both by events and by theological trends. With many others in America I have profited from the currents coming out of continental Europe and too superficially called Barthian. These have come to me through books, but more though the forceful personalities of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich–men with whom I do not agree very far but by whom I am stirred to rethink my faith. They have come at Oxford and Madras through wrestling with continental theology for the liberalism which I believe to have the truth.
My liberalism is, I trust, a chastened and deepened liberalism. But I am more convinced than ever I was before that God reveals himself in many ways and that only through the spirit of free inquiry can Christian faith go forward. I believe in the essential greatness of man, in a social gospel which calls us to action as co-workers with God in the redemptive process, in a Kingdom which will come in this world by growth as Christians accept responsibility in the spirit of the cross. My Christian faith has its central focus, not in Paul’s theology or Luther’s or Calvin’s, but in the incarnation of God in the Jesus of the Gospels. (from “A Spiritual Pilgrimage: Ninth Article in the Series ‘How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade,'” Christian Century 56 (Mar. 15, 1939), excerpted in Miles, ed., Georgia Harkness, pp. 19-20.)
In my view, this combination of openness to critical thought, commitment to social reform, and an emphasis on a personal, life-changing encounter with the risen Christ still has much to contribute the church and the world.