Liberal Religion

Progressive Versions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

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Emanuel de Kadt
Routledge Studies in Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     154 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There are innumerable scholarly works about conservative religion and various kinds of fundamentalism. Emanuel de Kadt’s Liberal Religion: Progressive Versions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a useful addition to the much smaller collection of works that study their antithesis, socially tolerant and theologically permissive religions. De Kadt defines liberal religion broadly, stating “I use the term ‘liberal’ to indicate those currents within [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] that are more progressive, more open, more willing to challenge accepted views and structures” (3). Unlike other works on the subject, such as Gary Dorrien’s magisterial series The Making of American Liberal Theology (Westmister John Knox Press, 2001) and Michael Langford’s The Tradition of Liberal Theology (Eerdmans, 2014), de Kadt is not merely interested in liberal Christianity; his definition of liberal religion is expansive enough to cover the three Abrahamic faiths. 

Despite this grand scope, de Kadt also has humbler objectives. While other works on liberal religions attempt entirely original contributions to scholarship, de Kadt offers a brief, sympathetic summary of liberal religious thinkers and movements. The book’s six chapters consist of an introduction to “the broader context of liberal religion,” a conclusion, and chapters on liberal Judaism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam. In the brief preface of the book de Kadt explains that his method is to show the “ideal type” within liberal religion, portraying each as “coherent wholes” to make it easier for readers to understand the positions that liberal religious groups espouse, rather than accounting for the messier and more complicated reality of lived religious experience (ix-x).

Many of the examples de Kadt gives of liberal religion will be familiar to specialists in religious studies. The chapter on liberal Judaism, for example, starts by explaining the Haskalah movement, briefly chronicles the rise of German Reform Judaism, and includes short profiles of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Ahad Ha-am. The section on liberal Protestantism contains brief subdivisions that cover German liberal theology in the 19th century, mentioning Shailer Matthews and early 20th-century American modernists, before concluding with a discussion of feminist theology and black liberal Protestantism. The chapter on liberal Roman Catholicism examines the effects of the Catholic modernist controversy, providing a few pages on Vatican II. Almost all these subjects are explored in secondary works on each respective tradition, but de Kadt’s digest of this material does a service by centralizing discussions of liberal religious trends in a single volume. 

The Islam chapter is a departure from the others and is the most provocative in the book. It is also the only one that advances a clear argument. De Kadt expresses concern about the persistence of Islamism and argues that liberal Islam has not found institutional purchase in the same way that liberal religion has among the other groups he studies, though he admits there have been “individual Muslim thinkers who have proposed adjustments to the belief system, in order to make it appropriate to modern times” (104). He argues that the belief among liberal Muslims that the Quran is literally true, and the word of God, makes them distinct from liberal Christians and Jews, who have been more willing to consider scripture as at least partially a human creation. Ultimately the chapter does consider a number of Muslim thinkers and movements, though a few of the inclusions, such as a mention of critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s proposal of an Islamic reformation, may strike readers as pushing the boundaries of who can fit under the rubric of “liberal religion.” 

One issue with Liberal Religion is that the book is based on limited original research, and it draws on a number of questionable online secondary sources. De Kadt cites the website of the Encyclopedia Britannica twice, even using it as the principal citation in his discussion of Catholic modernist Alfred Loisy. The chapter on liberal Judaism makes use of an article from the online version of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia as the central source for information about influential German Reform rabbi Samuel Holdheim. Four of the six chapters in the book cite Wikipedia as a key source. In a typical example, in the third chapter de Kadt uses the Wikipedia articles on Pentecostalism and Arminianism to compare these movements to later Protestant liberals. This would cause me to hesitate before assigning the book to undergraduates. The usage of such sources might lead students to believe that using encyclopedias as key sources is an acceptable practice in academia and they would often be unable to follow de Kadt’s sources back to meaningful discussions in other scholarly literature. 

Liberal Religion’s flaws do not invalidate the fact itis a convenient introduction to an understudied subject. Though it breaks little new ground, the breadth of de Kadt’s book will mean that it could even be helpful to specialists in religion who are interested in traditions beyond their own areas of expertise. This is a satisfactory entry point to deeper and more detailed scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Isaac Barnes May is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emanuel de Kadt is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University, Netherlands. He continues to do some teaching there on religion and society, and has previously written a book on religion in culture entitled Assertive Religion (2013).


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