This is the final volume of a trilogy which totals 1813 small-print pages! Since he is the author of nine other, mostly doorstopper-size books, Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York, has given a new definition to the word "prolific." As a proud owner (and devoted reader) of the trilogy and most of other volumes, I would like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude to the author for giving the theological world the fruits of his scholarship and theological reflection.
As its title makes it clear, the trilogy is a chronicle of the rise and development of American liberal theology from 1805 to 2005, the first volume covering 1805-1900 and subtitled Imagining Progressive Religion, and the second covering 1900-1950 and subtitled Idealism, Realism & Modernity. It is not possible to summarize in detail the present volume, given its scope and size, let alone its two older siblings. It is of course unrealistic to expect general readers and even theological students (except perhaps conscientious reviewers!) to peruse the three volumes from cover to cover. But even a reading of selected chapters will bring immense benefit and enjoyment since they all are brimming with challenging insights and engagingly written.
By "liberal theology" Dorrien refers to "an attempt to create a progressive Christian alternative to established orthodoxies and a rising tide of rationalistic deism and atheism. Fundamentally, liberal theology is the idea of a Christian perspective based on reason and experience, not external authorities.... Liberal theology reconceptualizes the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge and ethical values. It is reformist in spirit and substance, not revolutionary. Specifically it is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its advocacy of moral concepts of atonement or reconciliation; and its commitments to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to contemporary people" (2-3).
This long quotation is not only enlightening for understanding not only what the trilogy is all about and also Dorrien's own theological project, which is to retrieve the heritage of liberal theology as defined above for the postmodern age. Postmodernity of course vastly complicates such a project, with its insistence on fluid and porous boundaries and hybrid identities. In Dorrien's telling, whereas the first three decades of the 20th century were the heyday of liberal theology and the middle decades were dominated by quasi-Barthian orthodoxy and Niebuhrian neoliberalism, from 1960s on, American theology unraveled with the onslaught of postmodernism which produced all kinds of liberation theology.
Dorrien's account of the development of American liberal theology in the last 50 years of the 20th century—summarized in the subtitle of crisis, irony, and postmodernity—is awesomely rich and varied. By my count, at least 40 theologians have been objects of lengthy and learned disquisitions, accompanied by detailed bibliography. In his historical narrative Dorrien continues his method of weaving biographical vignettes with theological analysis; in this way, the complex ideas of the theologians under review are expounded with sophistication and yet the expositions make for delightful reading. From a Catholic point of view, it is a joy to see American Catholic theologians accorded a place of honor; these include Gregory Baum (though he is a Canadian), Richard McBrien, David Tracy, Anne Carr, Elizabeth Johnson, and Roger Haight. Of course, American Catholics may put forward their own favorite liberal theologians, but these are no doubt excellent choices.
For die-hard theological liberals, the most encouraging chapter is the last one in which Dorrien argues that there is an "irony" happening, and that is, the "hidden renaissance" of liberal theology in the United States. This is euanggelion, especially for Catholics, for whom the post-Vatican II era represents a thoroughgoing retrenchment. The last lines of this huge book summarizes the current situation well: "Though deeply in crisis, liberal theology has also thrived in the past generation. To recognize the latter fact is to realize, perhaps counterintuitively, that the liberal tradition is still very much alive" (539), to which I can only respond with clapping hands and full-throated "amens" and "hallelujahs."