U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lilian Barger Responds

Editor's Note

This response essay is the final entry in our roundtable on Lilian Calles Barger’s book, The World Come of Age:  An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Thank you to the blog’s senior editor, L.D. Burnett, for organizing this roundtable and to Mark Edwards, Janine Drake, Paul Croce, and Skylar Ray for taking time out of their own work to read and comment on The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology (Oxford University Press, 2018). It is an honor to have intellectual historians read my work, particularly since I see the field as my home discipline, and it is a pleasure to see my work through fresh eyes. Eyes that both appreciated my attempt at understanding the origins and reverberations of liberation theology and raised questions regarding implicit ideas I did not address.

During the research process, one often wonders if the topic chosen merits the attention and time given to it and whether the writing will communicate anything new in a clear way. This was particularly true for me, since I was told more than once that the words theology and intellectual in a title of a book about a moribund movement spelled death on the bookshelf. Wisely or foolishly, I persisted. I did not begin the project with any clear assessment of liberation theology, just curiosity and a general theological interest. I had no ax to grind as either a champion or a critic (although there are plenty of both among theologians and cultural observers).

Neither did I approach this topic as a historian of religion, even though I hoped to contribute to that fertile field. I regard religious ideas as a part of the whole of social thought, not segregated from it, because I see they have political and social consequences that call for examination. I was searching for a larger synthesis, more connected to the broader history of hemispheric thought. Maybe something that would help us understand the fissures in American culture. But none of us can plan to find that. Research unfolds slowly and unpredictably, offering the hope of arriving at some point of greater clarity.

Mark Edwards’ generous assessment of my work captured the tone of the ideas I examined. He wrote a passage that left me somewhat startled: “Barger also overcomes the divide between story and storyteller. At several points, she speaks with and alongside liberationists and not merely for them or as their archivist.” Not that Edwards finds this a problem. He detected the blurring of the boundaries between a sympathetic historian and her subjects that is both a strength and a danger in seeking a deeper understanding. I have thought more about this and give no apology for it. When working, I do not just think ideas, I feel them, and this is what the perceptive Edwards detected.

Edwards also sees my interpretation of what liberation theology accomplished as an unwelcome change. I argue that liberationist thought broke down the illusion of a wall between the immanent and transcendent, between politics and religion, opening the way for multiple religiously inspired claims in the public arena. Religion no longer remained a private matter but became one of public concern. Edwards wants to secure the separation of church and state. I have no quarrel with that. However, my claim was not about the formal separation of church and state but about the myth that modern religion and politics have been or can be separated regardless of what we might wish. My attempt to deconstruct this modern myth is against Mark Lilla’s attempt to rehabilitate the crumbling walls of the “Great Separation” in his book The Stillborn God (Knopf, 2007).

Historians of religion and politics have clearly shown that in the American hemisphere, these two are mutually constitutive. Modern politics and religion, I claim, occupy the same space vying for preeminence over what Paul Tillich called an “ultimate concern.” They have competitive visions for a viable society in what is allowed and what is censured. The struggle is evident in the Catholic Church’s historical battle with modernity. For individuals in a pluralistic society, does the Church’s teaching or liberal state law take precedence in decisions concerning abortion, same-sex marriage, and divorce, just to name a few? This has rattled any number of Catholic minds. In Protestantism, we can look to the religiously laden debates over abolition and women’s rights that tore churches and the nation asunder. The battle continues to this day in the minds of many of the faithful, with divergent conclusions. Dispassionate clarity about this problematic relationship, rather than ineffective sequestering of religious values and opinions, is the beginning of finding an effectual social democracy.

Janine Drake, as a scholar of religion and labor, offers a detailed and pointed critique of my handling of early-twentieth-century social Christianity. She proposes that there are more consistencies between liberation theology and social Christianity than I allow. This is a matter of my focusing on the formal construction of theology and liberationists’ own critique of a social Christianity that they found lacking. Liberationists believed that what was needed was a foundational change in theology itself. My work follows that theological change rather than tracking the history of Christian social engagement or lived religion, which often clashed with and opposed established theological authority.

The modern theology that liberationists inherited from elite U.S. and European seminary training was highly formalized and abstract. It minimized the social realm as a place of theologizing beyond acts of charity toward others. While formal theology and pastoral direction did encourage individual benevolence, for the most part, it did not call for the divestiture of political and social power among the comfortable classes. Liberation theologians argued that modern theology accommodated and legitimized an unjust state. Liberationists were concerned with changing the theological hermeneutic lens to include the religious and political perspectives arising from below. A trite way to say it is: Liberation theology was not about being nice to marginal people but about power—who held it and how it was exercised.

I do point to the ideas that liberationists inherited from social Christianity. Its influence was mainly in the twentieth-century process of recognizing the whole of society as a salvific space. The social gospel promoters did not challenge the foundational ideas of theology and were not theologically innovative. Their chief contribution was articulating the kingdom of God as a social, rather than a spiritual, goal. Theirs was a project of liberal reform. Liberationists were not reformers but theological radicals. I will concede that more attention needs to be given to the connection between social Christianity and the development of liberation theology, particularly in labor and African American social gospel ideas. I am aware of the complexity of these connections, so in considering what may be lacking, I must cite the limits of time and space, as well as the need to narrow my focus somewhat. My hope is that others will take the outline I offer and fill in the gaps in what I theorized.

Paul Croce’s erudite review has homed in on the issue of dualism and offers additional leavening to ideas expressed in my book. He notes scholars and sources I did not reference, such as James Turner’s Without God, Without Creed (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), a book that influenced me early on, and George Fitzhugh’s pro-slavery tract Cannibals All! (1857). As a scholar of William James, Croce touches on one of my central concerns, which is the dissolving of dualism in pragmatism and adopted by theologians. He eloquently restates that critique of dualism that finally found a full religious expression within liberation theology. Pragmatism spread in the Americas and globally and was a significant contributor to reformulating, but not rejecting, religious knowledge.  Once theological thought and lived religion are seen as politically and socially constituted, the consequences are significantly evident for subordinated people. Croce’s review shed additional light and helped me understand my own work better. You cannot ask for more than that from a reader.

I also approach the rejection of dualism in the changed relationship between social scientific theory and theology. In my book, I spend a significant amount of space working this out. The two disciplines had been at odds since the emergence of the enlightened “science of society” and shared a set of concerns in defining community, authority, status, the sacred, and alienation, making their convergence unsurprising. Both disciplines attempted to provide an explanation for the fact/value distinction introduced by modernity that became untenable by the mid-twentieth century. Theologians adopted social scientific theory, and social scientists were more willing to acknowledge the role of religion in values formation without finding an empirical basis. We can now say that theology is a theistic social theory, giving intellectual historians an entree into finding its pathways in broader social thought.

Finally, Skylar Ray’s kind review raised David Hollinger’s post-Protestant thesis, a significant thesis that I did not take up but that is relevant in this conversation. Hollinger has argued that the decline of Protestantism in America is the result of the broader adoption of its values. With society adopting Protestant values, the particularity of the Protestant churches is diminished.

My argument is somewhat different. The starting point of analysis, theology or liberal society, determines the directional flow of ideas. Has society adopted Protestant values or has Protestantism adopted non-duality and secularized its theology? I would argue that the decline of the Protestant churches in the twentieth century is due to an internal theological change that increasingly saw the world as the place where the kingdom of God can be realized. Politics, rather than private religion, became the place of divine action. I began from the sociologist Jose Casanova’s Public Religion in the Modern World (1994) and went further. Over the course of the long twentieth century theology became secularized, primarily concerned with this world rather than the next, and incorporated modern social scientific theories in understanding its social role. Liberation theology is a chief, but not the only, example of this change. Breaking down the dualism within theology made the churches look more like the rest of liberal society rather than society adopting the ideas of the churches. As the world became the space where ultimate values form, it hastened Protestant decline, except for the satisfying need for self-actualization or political organizing. This is evident today in the liberal Protestant mainline, but also among the conservative evangelicals who engage in both. Religion did not disappear; it just relocated. Seeking to reconcile my work with the Hollinger thesis, I am sure my argument will invite further critique.

A final note: one of my unstated intentions in writing the book was to demonstrate, if only to myself, the fruitfulness of examining religious ideas in a wider context. With a long and fascinating intellectual history, theological ideas converge with many other systems of thought and run though the minds of thinkers we study, often with unexpected consequences. After all, the modern secular/sacred divide is an untenable myth. Thank you again to those who made this exciting roundtable possible.

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