The Roots of Liberal Theology

This essay was written by Rev. Thomas Slater, S.J. and published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, January, 1907.

One who has been brought up in the old system of theology, and whose reading has for the most part been confined to its accredited exponents, is puzzled and distressed when he opens a volume of the new liberal theology. He had been taught that theology is a deductive science, and that in the drawing out of theological conclusions from the divinely revealed premises, great weight must be given to the authority of the Church, to whose safe keeping the deposit of religious truth was entrusted by God.

The new liberal theology shows scant courtesy to tradition, it criticises the teaching Church, and it appeals for its warrant in so doing to scientific convictions, to religious consciousness, and religious experience. It proclaims aloud that the human mind is necessarily progressive, that to live is to move, while the theologians stagnate in the ever recurring round of barren logical deductions from the same worn out formulas. Those formulas did well enough for the time when they were framed, they satisfied a want of the human mind, but a new age like ours must re-interpret for itself in language that it can understand the ever-living truths of religion. The old apologetic, with its elaborate proofs from miracles and prophecies, was framed on wrong lines, more calculated to produce a religious sceptic than a believing Christian. Religion is not so much a matter of the intellect, nor is it susceptible of demonstration, it belongs rather to the affective part of our nature, to the feelings and to the will. Hence the new interest in mysticism which we see manifested on all sides.

These are some of the characteristics of the new liberal theology, whose main object is to re-interpret Christian truth in the light and for the needs of the present day. In the books and magazine articles where liberal Catholics give expression to these views there is no attempt made to establish them, or even to indicate clearly the grounds on which they rest. The effect produced on the reader is one of uneasiness and bewilderment. The truth is, that the hidden principles on which those views rest are antagonistic to Catholic truth. They are drawn directly or indirectly from a new science which in its principles and in their application is subversive of Catholic doctrine. This new science has received various names, but in England it is commonly called the Science of Religion or Religions.

I propose in this paper to sketch in outline the main features of this new science, and then we shall be better able to form a correct estimate of Catholic liberal theology. We shall be able to view it in its native surroundings, in its environment, and thus we shall be able to form a better judgment concerning its nature and tendencies.

According to its votaries, then, the Science of Religion is an exact science, just like the physical sciences whose method it employs. The physical sciences owe the marvellous progress which they have made to the employment of the inductive method of reasoning. They begin by laboriously collecting facts bearing on the subject-matter of the science, these facts are studied and compared with one another, then hypotheses are formed and verified, and finally, we arrive at a body of laws containing the truths which the science has discovered. This scientific method is adopted by the new science of Religion. It glories in the fact that it is empirical, and by empirical methods it hopes in time to be able to show results comparable to those achieved by the physical sciences. Indeed, it boasts that within the few years of its existence it can already show a large body of notable results obtained. The new science has already a very large literature devoted to it, chairs to teach it have been founded in many of the Universities, and its influence, direct and indirect, is already very considerable.

The subject-matter of the new science is Religion, and by Religion it does not understand God. God and His dealings with men constitute the subject-matter of the traditional theology, but these high matters are not the objects of our observation, experiment, and verification; they cannot be the subject-matter of an empirical science. By Religion is here understood ‘the conception of a superior authority, whose potency man feels himself constrained to acknowledge and invoke.’ (1) Or, according to Professor James, Religion is “the feelings, acts, and experiences, of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatsoever they consider the divine.” (2) So that Religion is something subjective, ‘the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men,’ and it has its seat rather in the affective part of man’s nature than in his intellect.

When we survey the whole field of Religion [writes Professor James] we find a great variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives. The theories which Religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary; and if you wish to grasp her essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements. (3)

Again, the religious sentiment is

asthenic affection, an excitement of the cheerful, expansive, dynamogenic order which like any tonic freshens our vital powers. In almost every lecture, but especially in the lectures on conversion and on saintliness, we have seen how this emotion overcomes temperamental melancholy and imparts endurance to the subject, or a zest, or a meaning, or an enchantment and glory to the common objects of life. The name of ‘faith-state,’ by which Professor Leuba designates it, is a good one. It is a biological as well as a physiological condition, and Tolstoy is absolutely accurate in classing faith among the forces by which men live. The total absence of it, anhedonia, means collapse. We saw examples of this in those sudden raptures of the divine presence, or in such mystical seizures as Dr. Bucke described. It may be a mere vague enthusiasm, half spiritual, half vital, a courage, and a feeling that great and wondrous things are in the air. When, however, a positive intellectual content is associated with a faith-state, it gets invincibly stamped in upon belief, and this explains the passionate loyalty of religious persons everywhere to the minutest details of their so widely differing creeds. Taking creeds and faith-state together, as forming ‘religions,’ and treating these as purely subjective phenomena, without regard to the question of their truth, we are obliged, on account of their extraordinary influence upon action and endurance, to class them amongst the most important biological functions of mankind. (4)

Mr. Jordan writes : —

As the result of prolonged and varied studies [the Science of Religion] has reached certain definite conclusions, which it now offers to all who are willing to examine them. It teaches that the earliest and fundamental revelation which God makes of Himself to man is an inner revelation — a revelation in conscience, a revelation that has its seat in the very being of man. Accordingly, Religion does not reveal itself merely in the chance ejaculation of the lips; it is the natural and necessary outcome of the very life which throbs within a man’s breast. Religion is not a matter of mere heredity; it is rather a personal exercise by the soul of those abilities which belong to its separate and responsible self. Religion is not a speculation — a mental abstraction in which the secluded mystic may find recompense for his withdrawal from the world, it is in all cases a life, varying in its intensity, but invariably real and practical, and ever willing to expend itself in the service of others. Religion is not an abnormal or accidental experience, but one that is fundamentally characteristic of the human race. The various faiths of the world are but the evolution of an original constituent principle of humanity. Religions are diverse; but Religion itself, like the air which man inhales, and which everywhere enswathes him, is one. It is just because of the existence in man of this basal and all-pervasive sentiment that, everywhere and always, he has striven to satisfy the cravings of his distinctly religious emotions. No objective supernatural revelation is required in order that man should exhibit the propensities of a profoundly religious being; for, wholly independent of such a revelation, he cannot live without making at least some response to that unmistakably religious instinct which has been begotten within him. A man can no more help being religious than he can help eating or breathing. Principal Fairbairn puts the case very strongly when he writes : ‘Religion is so essential to man, that he cannot escape from it. It besets him, penetrates, holds him even against his will.’ Religion is for man and hence for all men a psychological necessity : it is universal. Religion is not a perishable commodity. The religious sentiment is an inextinguishable sentiment an element of human nature as universal, as ineradicable, as the fact of sex. The Science of Comparative Religion has helped to diffuse a clearer understanding of what religion really is. It is the central, essential, and eternal thing in human life. It is the deepest, strongest, and most universal interest of man. It accompanies him from the cradle to the grave. (5)

It is not necessary to point out how widely and essentially different in this theory of the nature of Religion from that of Catholic theology which teaches that it is a moral virtue by which we pay due worship to God, our Creator and Lord. Not that the Science of Religion leaves out of consideration the divine element in Religion. Some conceptual idea of the divine is necessarily present in the mind when religious sentiments are evoked. But that concept may be of the vaguest and most indefinite. Often it is no more than an uneasy feeling of something being wanting, a dreamy longing for the infinite. A perception of the grandeur and power of nature in the starry sky, or in a storm at sea, or in an earthquake is quite sufficient. Religious experiences are indeed, as Professor James tells us,

only psychological phenomena. They possess, it is true, enormous biological worth. Spiritual strength really increases in the subject when he has them, a new life opens for him, and they seem to him a place of conflux where the forces of two universes meet; and yet this may be nothing but his subjective way of feeling things, a mood of his own fancy, in spite of the effects produced. (6)

If the philosophic student of the Science of Religion is asked whether any objective reality different from the subject who feels them is the cause of religious experiences, so that from them we can logically conclude to the existence of a God : —

Dogmatically to decide this question [says Professor James] is an impossible task. The cultivator of this science has to become acquainted with so many grovelling and horrible superstitions that a presumption easily arises in his mind that any belief that is religious probably is false. The consequence is that the conclusions of the Science of Religions are as likely to be adverse as they are to be favourable to the claim that the essence of religion is true.

In another place, the same author adds : —

It is in answering these questions [concerning the reality and the nature of the objectively divine element of religious experiences] that the various theologies perform their theoretic work, and that their divergences most come to light. They all agree that the ‘more’ really exists; though some of them hold it to exist in the shape of a personal god or gods, while others are satisfied to conceive it as a stream of ideal tendency embedded in the eternal structure of the world. They all agree moreover that it acts as well as exists, and that something really is effected for the better when you throw your life into its hands. It is when they treat of the experience of ‘union’ with it that their speculative differences appear most clearly. Over this point pantheism and theism, nature and second birth, works and grace and karma, immortality and reincarnation, rationalism and mysticism, carry on inveterate disputes. (7)

The utmost that the scientific student of religions can do is to make hypotheses, more or less satisfactory, which will largely represent his own personal overbelief, while partially accounting for the phenomena; but however helpful they may be to himself, he cannot impose these hypotheses on others. According to Mr. Jordan, the Science of Religions ‘does not regard as ultimate and absolute, the results which it is able to announce : its conclusions are admittedly relative. The goal of this science, as of all sciences, lies ever in the future.’ (8)

The discovery [he says in another place] that the non-Christian religions have aims and resources and excellences which were hitherto undreamed of, suggests that a deliberate comparison of Christianity with the various members of this group is by no means a fruitless task. Some Religions, all are agreed, are better than others; some one of them, it is most probable, is superior to all its contemporaries; but which Religion is actually the best? Such a question, soberly and truthfully answered, will mean an invaluable gain to a man. upon whomsoever the query may be pressed; for such a one will thereafter ground his beliefs upon firmer and more enduring convictions. In many a case, as one cannot but believe such enquirers will be led deliberately to purify a Religion which, while they felt themselves incapable of surrendering it, they now discern to be unquestionably outdistanced in various particulars by several other Religions — Religions of which they have known all too little, and which accordingly they have all too lightly esteemed. As a consequence a progressive type of faith will take the place of empty formalism, whether Christian or non-Christian. (9)

There is no necessity on the principles of the Science of Religion for this progressive type of Religion to be the same for all men. Rather the contrary. Professor James puts and answers the question : —

Ought it to be assumed that in all men the mixture of religion with other elements should be identical? Ought it indeed to be assumed that the lives of all men should show identical religious elements? In other words, is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable? To these questions I answer ‘No,’ emphatically. And my reason is that I do not see how it is possible that creatures in such different positions and with such different powers as human individuals are, should have exactly the same functions and the same duties. No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. So a god of battles must be allowed to be the god for one kind of person, a god of peace and heaven and home, the god for another. (10)

Indeed, on the principles of the Science of Religion, polytheism may, after all, be true. Professor James says on this point : —

The ideal power with which we feel ourselves in connection, the ‘God’ of ordinary men, is both by ordinary men and by philosophers endowed with certain of those metaphysical attributes which in the lecture on Philosophy I treated with such disrespect. He is assumed as a matter of course to be ‘one and only’ and to be ‘infinite'; and the notion of many finite gods is one which hardly anyone thinks it worth while to consider, and still less to uphold. Nevertheless, in the interests of intellectual clearness, I feel bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief. The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union, find our greatest peace. (11)

Evidently we must not expect that the new Science of Religion will solve for us the deeper problems of theology. Still, Mr. Jordan puts to its credit some notable achievements. Religion has at last, he says, been made a subject of exact study, a clearer understanding has been reached as to what Religion really is, the legitimate place of mysteries in Religion has been recognized and conceded, a more adequate interpretation has been put upon the various forms, alike Christian and non-Christian, which Religion has been found to assume, an improved conception of the Supreme Being and of His essential relation to man has been gained, a conspicuous enlargement of charity and toleration for those who profess forms of Religion different from our own is a most beneficial result, together with a new Apologetic and a sounder Dogmatic. (12) Whether, in fact, these results have been obtained, and what should be our estimate of their value, will of course depend on the point of view which is adopted.

The foregoing analysis of the nature, method, aim, scope, and results, actual and prospective, of the new Science of Religion is chiefly set forth in the very words of two of its most representative and accredited exponents. Professor James and his Gifford Lectures need no introduction to the reader. Mr. Jordan has for many years been a student of the Science of Religion. He has a thorough acquaintance with the voluminous literature of the subject, and he has travelled over the world in order to obtain a first-hand knowledge of the principal religious systems. His book is furnished with an appreciative introduction by Principal Fairbairn. The exposition of the subject which I have given in the words of two such representative writers will serve the chief purpose of this paper. That purpose was to lay bare the roots of liberal theology, especially of the liberal theology of that small school of Catholic writers who have been so much in evidence of late years. They are indebted for their terminology, for their ideas, and for many of their principles to the new Science of Religion. Where the ordinary Catholic speaks of ‘feelings of devotion,’ the liberal Catholic writer will speak of ‘religious experiences,’ or of ‘mystical raptures,’ making use of that profane novelty of words which has always been suspect in the Catholic Church. But when we see writers not content with a new and heterodox phraseology, boldly proclaiming the necessity of re-interpreting religious truth in the terms of modern thought in order to make the Christian religion acceptable to the modern religious consciousness, accepting the principle of evolution of doctrine, girding at approved theologians for their obstinate and blind adhesion to traditional dogmas, ridiculing the received Apologetic of the Catholic Church, explaining revelation as an inner experience of religious geniuses, we know that they are writing not as Catholics should write, but according to the empirical and naturalistic principles of the Science of Religion. Such language and such ideas are out of harmony with the Catholic system; they form part of a consistent theory in the Science of Religion. It is not necessary to point out in detail how false those ideas and principles are, the above exposition will be sufficient for the Catholic reader. I may, however, be permitted to make one or two observations before concluding.

The first stage in the formation of an empirical science is the collection and arrangement of specimens or facts. For more than thirty years innumerable workers in all the countries of Europe and of America have been engaged in collecting and sorting the religious experiences of mankind. The monuments of the early history of the East, the Greek and Roman classics, the Corpus Inscriptionum, travellers’ records of the beliefs and customs of barbarous tribes, modern folk-lore, and other sources of information, have been laid under contribution to furnish the material for the new science. One of the results of this process has been to bring into prominence a certain superficial resemblance between the religious experiences of mankind in very different stages of civilization, living widely apart under different religious systems, and in wholly different conditions. Many of the writers on this branch of knowledge, take a pleasure in using the religious terminology of the Catholic Church in their descriptions of the similar sacred rites and ceremonies of barbarous and heathen nations. The implication is that the Catholic religion is a mere synthesis of pagan superstitions and practices. Sometimes these writers are not content with hinting at this conclusion, they boldly express it.

I will take an example of what I mean from Dr. Frazer’s recent book entitled, Adonis, Attis, Osiris. The learned author therein describes a very widespread custom among barbarous and primitive peoples of holding a festival towards the end of every year, at which the souls of departed kindred were supposed to be present and regale themselves. He suggests that this custom is the origin of the Catholic feast of All Souls, and among other survivals of primitive custom in connexion with the feast, he mentions the following : —

A very common custom in Belgium is to eat ‘soul-cakes’ or ‘soul-bread’ on the eve or on the day of All Souls. The eating of them is believed to benefit the dead in some way. At Dixmude and elsewhere they say that you deliver a soul from Purgatory for every cake you eat. At Antwerp they give a local colour to the soul-cakes by baking them with plenty of saffron, the deep yellow tinge being suggestive of the flames of Purgatory. People in Antwerp at the same season are careful not to slam doors or windows for fear of hurting the ghosts. (13)

Dr. Frazer’s authority for these details are certain German books which he cites in a foot-note. There is, of course, no a priori impossibility in such superstitions. Primitive customs die hard, and all sorts of curious survivals are met with all over the world. The Church, of course, cannot be held responsible for superstitions which endure in spite of her condemnation. It is merely a question of fact. When I showed the above passage to a friend, a native of Antwerp, who has lived almost all his life in Belgium, he burst out laughing, and said : ‘Stuff and nonsense; I never saw or heard of anything of the sort.’ This suggests the necessity of using the critical faculty in the testing of material for the Science of Religion furnished by travellers and folklorists. By the cultivators of that science the unsupported tales of such witnesses are received without question, while the Gospel narrative is subjected to the most searching criticism.

Of course the existence of a certain superficial similarity between Catholic doctrine, rites, and ceremonies, and those of other religions, is no new discovery. It was a difficulty urged against the first apologists of the Christian faith as it is urged against the Church to-day. A satisfactory answer is not far to seek. Catholics willingly allow that there is some truth in all religious systems; religious feelings and certain ways of giving vent to them are natural to man, and the Church never hesitated to use a rite or a ceremony in the worship of the true God if it suited her purpose, even if it was also used by idolaters. The Fathers called this process ‘spoiling the Egyptians.’ The Church, without doubt, instituted certain Christian feasts, and celebrated them on the days which were sacred to pagan deities, in order to wean the people from the worship of idols. The essence of Catholicism does not lie in such matters, but in the great body of true doctrine which it teaches, and which is partly attainable by natural reason, partly the gift of divine revelation.

Besides a want of criticism in the selection of material for the Science of Religion in some cultivators of that science, I may point out a certain inability to interpret Catholic religious facts correctly. My first example of this shall be taken from the same work of Dr. Frazer. He there draws a parallel between the lofty primitive ideals of Christianity and Buddhism, and the subsequent decline in both cases. On this subject he writes : —

But the austere ideals of sanctity which they inculcate were too deeply opposed not only to the frailties, but to the natural instincts of humanity, ever to be carried out in practice by more than a small number of disciples, who consistently renounced the ties of the family and the state in order to work out their own salvation in the still seclusion of the cloister. If such faiths were to be nominally accepted by whole nations or even by the world, it was essential that they should first be modified or transformed so as to accord in some measure with the prejudices, the passions, the superstitions of the vulgar. This process of accommodation was carried out in after-ages by followers who, made of less ethereal stuff than their masters, were for that reason the better fitted to mediate between them and the common herd. Thus as time went on, the two religions, in exact proportion to their growing popularity, absorbed more and more of those baser elements which they had been instituted for the very purpose of suppressing. Such spiritual decadencies are inevitable. The world cannot live at the level of its great men. Yet it would be unfair to the generality of our kind to ascribe wholly to their intellectual and moral weakness the gradual divergence of Buddhism and Christianity from their primitive patterns. For it should never be forgotten that by their glorification of poverty and celibacy both these religions struck straight at the root not merely of civil society but of human existence. The blow was parried by the wisdom or the folly of the vast majority of mankind, who refused to purchase a chance of saving their souls with the certainty of extinguishing the species. (14)

It is obvious that, with regard to the Christian doctrine, Dr. Frazer fails to make the important distinction which is clearly contained in the Gospels between the Commandments which were imposed by Christ on all, and the Counsels of Perfection which He well knew would be followed only by the select few, and without any danger of extinguishing the species.

I cannot refrain from taking another example of inability to explain Catholic religious facts from Professor James. In his Varieties of Religious Experience, this writer gives what he conceives to be the explanation of the saintly character. He finds the gist of the explanation in emotional excitement, which has the effect of inhibiting the lower and baser propensities of human nature. One of the characteristics of the saintly character is the total self-surrender of the saint into the arms of the higher power. This leads him to self-renunciation, self-sacrifice, and the practice of asceticism. Under this head Professor James treats of the vows of religious life, and tries to explain how it is that some people do such very unnatural things as bind themselves to obey another, and renounce the right of ownership of property. I have only space for what he says about obedience :

I confess [he writes] that to myself it seems something of a mystery. Yet it evidently corresponds to a profound interior need of many persons, and we must do our best to understand it. On the lowest possible plane, one sees how the expediency of obedience in a firm ecclesiastical organization must have led to its being viewed as meritorious. Next, experience shows that there are times in everyone’s life when one can be better counselled by others than by one’s self. But leaving these lower prudential regions, we find, in the nature of some of the spiritual excitements which we have been studying, good reasons for idealizing obedience. Obedience may spring from the general religious phenomenon of inner softening and self-surrender and throwing one’s self on higher powers. So saving are these attitudes felt to be that in themselves, apart from utility, they become ideally consecrated; and in obeying a man whose fallibility we see through thoroughly, we, nevertheless, may feel much as we do when we resign our will to that of infinite wisdom. Add self-despair and the passion of self-crucifiction to this, and obedience becomes an ascetic sacrifice, agreeable quite irrespective of whatever prudential uses it might have. (15)

It is not difficult to see that here Mr. James has missed the whole gist of the matter. The merely subjective reasons for religious obedience which he lays down probably never decided a single religious vocation. The true explanation of religious obedience is the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. He proposed His own example of obedience, even unto death, as the model which all Christians were to follow in matters which are of precept for all, and a model which those who were called to the practice of the counsels would follow in the pursuit of perfection. The true explanation of the very difficult practice of religious obedience lies in the example, love, and desire to imitate Jesus Christ.

The foregoing examples of gross credulity and failure in the obvious interpretation of religious phenomena, taken from the very élite of the cultivators of the Science of Religion, — and they could easily be multiplied, — suggest the following observation. Here we are concerned with the very foundations of the new science. The worth of any conclusions which may subsequently be drawn, depends entirely on the accuracy of the facts recorded, and on the correct interpretation of those facts. And yet we find these eminent pioneers of the science blundering in questions of fact, which are capable of easy verification, and which belong to a religious system which is flourishing under their very eyes. What probability is there that the explanations which they give us of the religious beliefs and practices of primitive peoples represent anything more solid than the dreams and fancies of learned pedants?

T. SLATER, S.J.


1. L. H. Jordan, Comparative Religion, p. 217, 1905.
2. The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 31, 1902.
3. Ibid, p. 504.
4. Professor James, op. cit. pp. 505, 506.
5. Comparative Religion, pp. 335, 339, abridged.
6. Op. cit. p. 509.
7. Op, cit. p. 490, abridged.
8. Ibid, p. 510.
9. Op. cit. p. 408.
10. Op. cit. p. 486.
11. Op. cit. p. 524.
12. Op. cit., chaps, x., xi.
13. Op. cit. p. 249.
14. Op. cit. pp. 202, 203.
15. Op. cit. p. 311.

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Posted on January 3, 2011, in Irish History, Media Archives, Modernism. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Do you think it is a coincidence that the figure on the last step resembles Sigmund Freud?

  2. Eoin I didn’t notice that until you pointed it out. You’re right though, they do look curiously alike. Poor Sigmund.

  3. Interesting that Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” was the ‘inspiration’ for T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, a load of baloney if there ever was one.

  4. Shane, many thanks for transcribing this paper. I am using Slater’s Manual of Moral Theology as a reference source in my next post, and this paper by Slater will also be referenced now that I found it here. I will link to this post. Thank you again.

  5. No problem TH2. Thanks for your comment.

  1. Pingback: Untitled | Augustinus

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