Daniel Liechty's Postliberalism

Daniel Liechty wrote Theology in Postliberal Perspective, published in 1990, a book overshadowed by George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine from 1984, taken as the defining work of postliberalism. Liechty gives a more liberal view than Lindbeck's Yale-postliberalism, and whereas Lindbeck freezes his (apparent) ecumenical theology into an unchanging subculture to define a Christian community, that has no objective reference in the world, Liechty considers contemporary culture and has an openness to the existence and impact of other faiths. He is far more critical of doctrine, and his postliberalism is more open to otherness and to change.

I particularly like him because he also looks at history as I do, which might not concern a more dogmatic postliberal (who would not worry whether doctrine is historical or not, only whether it works as a definer of community). Liechty is concerned with Christian identity in a plural postmodern culture, but this needs several stages of building. I rather approve of this and it is to the history that the direct extended quotations are made here as well as subsequent jumps to building faith. The (difficulty of) history is based on scholarship, and is a starting point to building belief in a plural world. There are two blocks of text below: the first is on the history of Israel up to and including Jesus, and the second a summary of the historical Jesus. I just cannot write these as summaries any better.

(On Israel, in the chapter:
'The Example of Jesus')

Liechty, D. (1990), Theology in Postliberal Perspective, London: SCM Press, 38-41, notes 105-106.
(British English spellings)
Modern sociological research into the origins of this peculiar people, the Hebrew nation, indicates that it emerged from a federal union of two main groups. 2 One of these was a loosely constructed alliance of peasants and mercenary soldiers in Palestine who were in rebellion against the feudal oppression of the city states in the region. Like the city dwellers, these peasants worshipped the god El. The other main group was made up of former slaves who fled from Egypt into Palestine. These runaway slaves, holding to traditions of Mosaic leadership, worshipped the god Yahweh.
The union of these two groups was made possible by the fact that each recognized in the other the common characteristic of rebellion against an established authority of political heirarchy. 3 It was fundamental to the historical experience of both groups that the system of kingship meant, for them, only oppression. Their union into one people was based on an explicit and institutionalised intention that, among themselves, there would be no such authoritarian political office to lord it over the rest of the society. The alternative they developed to the system of kingship was a clan-based tribal federation in which united national policy was subject to the voluntary compliance of the tribes. 4
The tribes united under a religious cult administered by one of the tribes, who for that reason was kept landless, to guard against the simultaneous accumulation of wealth and religious authority in the hands of one tribe. Because of the diverse cultural background of the people, the bonds of cooperation were not easily developed and had to be continually reaffirmed. Their vision of a society free from the oppression of tyranny moved them forward. The function of the religious cult was to be a mechanism of that affirmation of unity and cooperation.
The god of this religious cult was constructed from the religious traditions which the two groups brought with them from before the formation of the union. A new image of God was constructed from these diverse traditions, the image of the LORD GOD (Yahweh Elohim - or simply Yahweh). This God was characterized not only as Creator and Sustainer, but also with moral partisanship in favour of the weak. Most important, the kingship of this God was not mediated by a human despot. The immediate kingship of God was truly an innovation in the people's theological development and stood as a buffer against tendencies to forget the original social vision and appoint a human king. The power of this God was experienced among this people not through the structures of political heirarchy, but in the immediate experience of equality, mutual aid and cooperation among themselves.
Eventually this people did forget the social vision which had empowered and facilitated their original union as a people. After some generations of living in the clan-based tribal federation, the demand for a human king did arise among them. A human king was indeed appointed. Yet even in the texts reciting the history of this decision (which were edited in the king's court!) strong indications remain that suggest this was a fundamentally wrong decision. 5 The image of God as the God who exalts the lowly and throws down the powerful remained with the people in the preaching of their prophets and constantly undermined and relativised the pretensions of the king and his ruling class to absolute power.
The experiment with a hierarchical political structure using the kingship model proved to be a total disaster. It very soon cost the people their unity, with the nation splitting into two separate political entities. In this state of disunity they were easy prey for more powerful neighbouring nations. First the Northern kingdom was conquered and sent into exile, where they became lost to history. And finally the Southern kingdom was also conquered and sent into captivity.
But among the exiles of the Southern kingdom, the people were able to construct a new image of God which in the end allowed them to survive as a people, in spite of their exile. Those attributes of God as the God of the weak, opposing the strong, were given renewed emphasis. Furthermore, this God was affirmed as a God whose love and concern, whose care for the people, was independent of their possession of the land.
There had long been inclinations in the religious traditions of the people to ascribe universality to their God, to claim their God as the only true God. These inclinations proved disastrous during the period of kingship because despite the warnings of the prophets it led to illusions of invincibility, to illusions that this God would provide the divine stamp of approval on whatever the political state perceived as being in its own best interest. These nationalist illusions were dashed by the conquering Assyrian and Babylonian armies.
But now, among a weak and defeated people in exile, the attribute of God's universality was reinterpreted in an affirmation that God is God over all the kingdoms of the earth, even as these kingdoms rise and fall. To honour this God as God was a higher allegiance and duty than to honour and serve any of the princes and kings of the earth. Thus the early anti-kingship currents on which the people were founded re-emerged in the period of exile in a new construct of the image of God. This God relativised and undermined the pretensions to power and grandeur of all the princes and kings of the earth.
This new construct of the image of God was built principally on the currents of anti-kingship present from the foundation of the people; on the ancient image of God as having special concern for the weak and powerless against the powerful, which was preached by the prophets during and after the period of kingship; and on the currents of the universality of God, tempered and reinterpreted in light of the disastrous experience of human kingship. This new construct of the image of God allowed the Hebrew people of the Southern kingdom to maintain group identity not only in the period of the Babylonian exile, but also in diaspora, when they spread all over the Mediterranean world. This pure monotheism has remained a central element in exposing and undermining the pretensions to power and glory of the powerful since that time, even into the present. 6
Central to the expression of this new image of God was the promise that God would one day anoint a servant who would bring in God's true kingdom in such a way that the kingdoms of this earth would be superseded and a new era of God's immediate kingship would be recognized by all of humankind. This would be for all people a time of freedom from material scarcity and political oppression. Wars would cease and the creative, transcending and loving works of the soul and spirit would prosper.
(From the history of Israel and belief comes a linking paragraph to a new section in the chapter...)
It is the confession of the Christian faith that that promised one who would inaugurate this Kingdom of God is none other than the lowly carpenter's son, Jesus of Nazareth.
(A new section in the chapter...)
The enduring message of Jesus is the affirmation that the Kingdom of God has come, that the time is now to begin to live in that state of freedom and detachment toward the mundane symbols of immortality which the path of denial tenders, and to allow the creative, transcending and loving works of the human soul and spirit to prosper. As the ancient God Yahweh placed the choice in front of the Hebrew people, so Jesus placed the choice in front of his contemporaries. The Kingdom of God is among you already if you would only reach out, grasp it and live accordingly!
The radical nature of Jesus' message is most clearly seen in his attitude toward those mundane symbols of immortality which, tendered by the path of denial, were current among his people.
One of these was the perennial symbol of wealth. Wealth has always had a daemonic lure for human beings. Throughout much of the history of our species, survival has been a very real struggle against scarcity. Material prosperity, therefore, is easily transformed into a symbol meaning "more life." The accumulation of wealth becomes a symbol of immortality, a denial of death (scarcity), because it carries the psychic signification of accumulating "more life."
Jesus was very harsh on those who pursued the accumulation of more than was needed to ensure survival. 7 Drawing on the construct of God as a God of justice, as having a moral attitude of partisanship toward the poor and the oppressed, Jesus insisted over and over again that the accumulation of more than one needs to survive is in fact to steal from and exploit those who do not have cnough to survive. Wealth stands directly between the rich and their living in the Kingdom of God...

(The historical Jesus, in the chapter:
'Toward a Critical Christology')

Liechty, D. (1990), Theology in Postliberal Perspective, London: SCM Press, 50-54, notes 106-107.
(British English spellings)
Jesus of Nazareth came teaching a new message to his contemporaries, that the Kingdom of God was at hand, that all we need do to enter that Kingdom was to believe in its possibility and to live accordingly. To live according to this new Kingdom meant to forsake the values which systems of unfreedom thrust upon us and to value instead human community, mutuality and trust. The idols of our immortality projects destroy human community, mutuality and trust, binding us in systems of unfreedom. In answer to the human predicament, Jesus, the Pharisee of love, preached a new construct of God based on the model of a loving parent. In the value system generated by this view of God, the 'least of these' are primarily treasured. The one who would be the greatest should become the servant of all. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It was, in short, an ironic reversal of the value systems of unfreedom.
Jesus' teachings as we have had them handed down to us are neither systematic nor exhaustive. It is clear that a very large part of the impact he had on his followers had not so much to do with his teachings per se, but with his personality, life and example. Around Jesus, many of his followers caught a glimpse of what life in that Kingdom of God, that kingdom of freedom, where the creative, transcending and loving works of the soul and spirit are nurtured and prosper, was like. As with our own experience today, a central place where that new perception became a reality was eating at table. The legends of the tradition go so far as to say that two of his circle did not even recognise Jesus until they sat down to eat with him.
Jesus was killed, murdered by the Roman occupation forces. This was a stark reminder to his followers that this new kingdom of freedom would be perceived as a mortal threat to those whose values were formed by the systems of oppression. It was a very frightening lesson and the tradition says that, at least initially, his circle of followers scattered in fear.
Yet the experience of the Kingdom of God which they had had in their association with Jesus proved stronger than their fear. Exactly how it happened remains something of a mystery. But the vision these followers caught from Jesus lived on in them after Jesus' death. They regrouped and, now with a fervour of genuine conviction, began to spread the good news of God's Kingdom themselves. Because of them, in the words of Willi Marxsen, "die Sache Jesu geht weiter!" The cause of Jesus lives on! 1
Jesus' closest followers, probably following the lead of Simon Peter, began to preach that Jesus, although murdered by the Roman occupation forces, had been raised to new life by God. Jesus, they now taught, had in fact been the promised Messiah, the anointed one, who brought in the Kingdom of God. Dying and being raised to new life became a powerful metaphor for the call to become part of the Jesus movement, those who were living the Kingdom of God already. These people began to refer to Jesus with honourific titles, such as Lord and King, which Jesus had abjured during his own lifetime. 2
It is now well established among scholars that in his preaching, Jesus did not point to himself but rather to God as the proper focus for religious devotion. 3 Yet we find in the earliest strata of Christian documents, such as the first epistle of Paul to the church in Thessalonica, a dual focus on both "God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." In other words, from the earliest times of which we have record, the religion of Jesus was beginning to be turning into a religion about Jesus. 4 There are parallels to this in other religions as well - for example, in Buddhism. We are left to deal with this development as we, the heirs of the Christian tradition, try to make sense religiously in our own time.
Jesus pointed to a construct of God based on the model of a loving parent. The church increasingly focused on Jesus, transforming him first into the eschatological Messiah who would return, then the Lord and Christ who was already reigning in heaven with God, and finally a person in Godself. Jesus was deified.
If we remember that the religious urge is inextricably bound to the human quest for meaning, we can sympathize with those who, in stages, deified Jesus. Their own sense of meaning and purpose could not be separated from their hope for an eschatological redeemer or from that taste of the Kingdom of God which they experienced in communities gathered in the name of Jesus. As they struggled to construct an image of God which would reflect the sense of meaning and purpose they had, it followed that Jesus would begin to play a crucial and central role in that new construction. God symbolised their greatest hopes and Jesus was the centre of those hopes. Each community of "Jesus people" constructed new ways of articulating that fact.
Among the earliest Christians, Aramaic Jews in Palestine, Jesus was seen as having been appointed by God as the apocalyptic Son of Man who would finally bring an end to history. Jesus taught what has been called a "present-future" view of God's Kingdom. 5 This was carried on in the table fellowship of the Aramaic Jews who were followers of Jesus. But already in ascribing the role of the Son of Man to Jesus, there was a subtle shift in emphasis occurring whereby it was possible to distinguish between the present and future in God's Kingdom. They thought that Jesus would return in his role of the Danielic Son of Man even in their lifetime, topple the mighty and bring an end to human history (cf. Daniel 7:13ff.).
The Greek-speaking Jews who were also followers of Jesus agreed that Jesus would play the role of the returning apocalyptic Son of Man. But they added to the earlier constructions the idea that, as the Christ, Jesus already was ruling in heaven during the interim before his return. Here we see a new emphasis on an ontological teaching about Jesus, not only the functional teaching of the Aramaic community. Finally, as the Jesus movement spilled over into the Gentile world, Gentile converts began to picture Jesus in purely ontological terms, as the pre-existent Son of God, the Logos, who briefly came to earth and then returned to heaven after his death.
It would be too easy to fault these early Christians for this transformation in their teachings about Jesus. However, it must also be remembered that they often found themselves in situations of extremity. As the Roman empire began to collapse, many of its rulers became increasingly tyrannical and drunk with their own sense of invincibility. Many made demands that they be worshipped as divine beings themselves. This demand the early Christians had to refuse. Yet on what basis could they stand up to the Roman Emperor, the most powerful person on earth at that time? The more power and glory the Caesar claimed for himself, the more power and glory the church claimed for Jesus as an antidote. If we remember that the claim the "Jesus is Lord!" had as its correlative "Caesar is not Lord!", we can understand and sympathize with the deifers of Jesus. It was a powerful survival strategy. 6
(The jump is then made from history to ourselves and how we have to make faith from this history in a new situation...)
Sympathy with the process of the deification of Jesus does not, however, mean uncritical acceptance. The fact is that this entire tradition has become very problematic for intelligent Christians since at least the seventeenth century. During the so-called Enlightenment, thoughtful Christians first began to feel uncomfortable with "miracle" stories in the Bible, since this appeared to cast a long shadow of primitive superstition over the narratives. However, even during the Enlightenment period it was never seriously questioned that there do indeed exist transcendent universals which can be objectively known, either through reason or revelation. Yet this is exactly what our contemporary situation of pluralism and post-Enlightenment historical consciousness has forced us to question deeply. Therefore, in our time the problems we have with the entire tradition of an ontological Godman have become acute and have left many of us wondering what, if anything, all of this could possibly mean to us.
It is impossible, both on intellectual and moral grounds, to continue to expect an apocalyptic end to human history, unless it be one of our own making. We can no longer see God as a Being who stands apart from the natural order and intervenes at will in that order. Our quest for a sense of meaning and purpose now takes place in radically new circumstances compared with those of the early Christians - or mediaeval and later Christians, for that matter. We now know that we and we alone must write the next chapter of human history. We cannot depend on an apocalyptic Son of Man or any other force to step in from outside human history to save us should we continue in our march toward collective suicide. If the metaphor of Incarnation can mean anything at all in our time, it can only point to the relativity of even our notions of God. It points to the radical responsibility to our future which this lays on our shoulders.
(At the end of the chapter he writes...)
...Those who have experienced the present-future kingdom of freedom and mutuality at table fellowship with those of other belief systems are not likely to feel much urgency in defending the uniqueness of their Christ.
Nevertheless, for Christians, the God they find in the deepest level of their souls and spirit will likely to continue to wear the face of Jesus. What we affirm about Christ is inseparable from from what we affirm about God and, ultimately, about our own lives. If grasping that present-future kingdom of love and freedom is still an option for us, fidelity and Christian faith obliges us to reach out for it, even if it means demythologising and even abandoning entirely pre-existent/ incarnate/ exalted christological language. After all, this is what Jesus would have done.

(On Israel, in the chapter:
'The Example of Jesus')


Cf. Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 BCE (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, and London: SCM Press, 1979).

3. Norman K. Gottwald, 'From Biblical Economics to Modem Economies,' in Churches in Struggle: Liberation Theologies and Social Change in North America, ed. William K. Tabb (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), pp. 138-148.

4. Norman K. Gottwald, 'Sociological Method in the Study of Ancient Israel,' in The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics, ed. N. K. Gottwald (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1983), pp. 26-37.

5. Cf. Frank Crusemann, Der Widerstand gegen das Konigtum: Die antikoniglichen Texte des Alten Testaments und der Kampf um den fruhen israelitischen Staat (Neukirchen: Neukirchen Verlag, 1978). Somewhat less to the point, but much better known, is Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

6. Monotheism, of course, can also function as a religious support system for absolute monarchy - one God, one king. But so long as the loyalty to the ruler is ordered through loyalty to God, monotheism will finally stand as a relativising factor to would-be tyrants. For a feminist perspective on this issue, cf. Marcia Falk, 'Toward a Feminist Jewish Reconstruction of Monotheism,' TIKKUN, July/ August 1989, pp. 53ff.

7. Martin Hengel, Property and Riches in the Early Church: Aspects of a Social History of Early Christianity (London: SCM Press, and Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974).

(On the historical Jesus, in the chapter: 'Toward a Critical Christology')

1. Willi Marxsen, Die Sache Jesu geht weiter (GŁtersloh: GŁtersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, nd).
2. Cf. Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (New York: Random House, 1986), pp. 175ff.; Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (London: Collins, and New York: Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 320ff.; GŁnther Bornkamm, 'The Risen Lord and the Earthly Jesus: Mt. 28:16-20,' in The Future of Our Religious Past, ed. James M. Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, and London: SCM Press, 1971), pp. 203-9.
3. Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM Press, and Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963) and Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM Press, and New York: Harper and Row, 1967). Schillebeeckx, Jesus (n.2), pp. 105ff. Also very interesting in this regard are books being written by Jewish New Testament scholars, since these scholars are less likely than their Christian counterparts to interpret the texts recording the preaching of Jesus in traditionally Christian ways. See as one example Pinchas Lapide, Er predigte in ihren Synagogen: Judische Evangelienauslegung (GŁtersloh: GŁtersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1980).
4. Norman Perrin, 'The Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition,' Biblical Research XIII (1968), pp. 1-23; cf. also the essays in The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ, eds. Carl Braaten and Roy Harrisville (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964); Sheehan, First Coming (n.2), pp. 183ff.
5. This view has been present in New Testament scholarship since the late nineteenth century. Recently it has been given theological treatment in Tom F. Driver, Christ in a Changing World: Toward an Ethical Christology (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, and London: SCM Press, 1981). Cf. also Juan Luis Segundo, An Evolutionary Approach to Jesus of Nazareth, vol. V of Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988).
6. Compare this view to Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christi (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970). Although neither uses the terminology of a tactic of survival, and they discuss the issue specifically in relation to early Christian refusal to serve in the military, the view that the exclamation 'Kyrios Christos' functioned in this capacity is strongly present in Adolf Harnack, MILITIA Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), and Jean-Michel Hornus, It Is Not Lawful for Me to Fight: Early Christian Attitudes Toward War, Violence and the State (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1980). Cf. also Ronald H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960), pp. 66ff., and more recently James F. Childress, 'Moral Discourse About War in the Early Church,' in Peace, Politics and the People of God, ed. Paul Peachey (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), pp. 117ff.

This postliberalism is close to postmodernism, including the place of narrative, and recognises the importance of modernism behind it in the death of the supernatural. We are where we are, and the historical study is important. We do history like the modernists, but we do faith like the postmodernists. This clearly is a reconstruction based on not freezing some inherited language of the tradition, but working on the language of the tradition to take a faith stance. This seems more compatible with where we are and what we can do, and it is not sectarian at all.

Liechty, D. (1990), Theology in Postliberal Perspective, London: SCM Press.

Lindbeck, G. (1984), The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, London: SPCK.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful