Liberal? What do you mean by that?

This is a kind of follow-up post to a comment I made in my attempt to summarise a few of the talks at Greenbelt. In particular, it was my note that Linda Woodhead’s definition of liberalism was little different from a statement of individualism. After posting it, I was pointed to Eddie Green’s blog on the subject where he made a similar objection to Linda’s usage. In it, he gives a very condensed history of liberal theology. Given the extent of that history, I don’t think anyone could do it justice in the space of a blog post, so I shan’t endeavour to improve upon Eddie’s take. Nor is this really a response to Eddie’s, as I partly agree with it, but it is more a launching pad to explain my own usage of the term liberal, particularly as it applies to theology and church life in general.

With the history noted, I first of all recognise that we are shaped by it, but need not be constrained by it. So some uses of the term liberal may have drifted from what they were originally intended to mean. Depending on the precise context, I tend to use it in one four senses, listed below. I think it is also helpful in each case to identify what we might mean by its opposite, as Eddie rightly notes, the term ‘conservative’ is not always apt. This is another example of a phenomenon I have tried to articulate before, whereby we define what we mean by means to saying what we don’t mean; a sort of chiseling away by means of ridding ourselves of various negatives instead of asserting a positive.

In what follows below, please note that I am not advocating a binary liberal/not liberal viewpoint on each topic. There are grey areas and people can be nuanced, complicated mixtures of each. So this comes very much with a sense of “-ish” about it, where I am aiming for a generally, well-rounded picture rather than pin-point precision within a narrow spectrum.

  1. Socially liberal

In this sense, I am referring to particular hot potato topics which tend to be divisive. One forum I am sometimes found at is the Ship of Fools, where such topics are referred to as ‘dead horses‘ and a whole discussion board is dedicated to them. These include whether women should be allowed to hold any and all positions within a church structure, views on homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, etc. I would also include, in a wider sense, the more individualist view, where one has the right to do as one pleases, provided it does not bring harm to another.

In this sense, I would call the opposite a ‘conservative’ viewpoint. Though it is worth noting that people may hold more liberal views on some topics than on others. For example, I would regard myself as liberal when it comes to homosexuality (you may find me on the list of members signed up to Accepting Evangelicals) and I endorse a fully egalitarian view of church leadership, yet I do err towards a pro-life position with regards to abortion to euthanasia. I say that quite deliberately, as I do not wholly agree with many a pro-life advocate, but I would support a sharpening up of the law to protect both women and children.

  1. Economically liberal

This can be a tricky one, as the term most often used is not really liberal, but libertarian. So while it doesn’t quite fit neatly (Hey? What does?) it ought to be addressed given the similarity of the terms. In reality, this is better described as a right-wing view.

As I wryly commented to someone the other day, a libertarian is someone who wants the freedom to economically oppress others. And if you advocate any measure that tries to stop them, they will retort by calling you an authoritarian.

The confusion when it comes to using the term liberal or conservative in this sense is that those who are most liberal/libertarian/right-wing are in fact those who are more likely to subscribe to the economic policies of the Conservative party, where the ultimate expression of liberty is to be found in free market, laissez-faire economics, such as that advocated by the likes of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman (or even Ayn Rand).

  1. Theologically liberal

This brings us back to Eddie’s analysis where I would take a slightly different, but not wholly contrary view. While it is the modern heir of the views of Friedrich Schleimacher, Albrecht Ritschl or Walter Rauschenbusch, it has moved on rather since then, for a variety of historical, philosophical and theological reasons – for good or for bad. Not least we have the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction against German liberal theology and then modern liberal theology arising as a reaction against fundamentalism. The subtle change this entails is that while liberal theology began as a methodology (c.f. hermeneutical liberalism in Eddie’s post) it is now more about the conclusions one reaches.

So when someone talks to me now of liberal theology, I am minded to think not of christians who are merely opposed to the fundamentalism, but those who have swung too far in the opposite direction and play fast and loose with theology, where a prerequisite is that one does not conform to a recognisable orthodox belief. A prime example of this would be the Jesus Seminar. One could look at one member from that group, Marcus Borg, whose views I have critiqued before. Or one could look at the catholic scholar, John Meier, whose epic look at the Jesus, A Marginal Jew, rules out, a priori, the idea of resurrection and where he joins in with the trend of presupposing that the historical Jesus must be different from the Jesus of faith.

In this sense, the opposite of liberal is not conservative, but orthodox. It is worth noting the warnings of Richard Niebuhr about overly-liberal outcomes:

“In a similar manner the idea of the coming kingdom was robbed of its dialectical element. It was all fulfillment of promise without judgement… In its one-sided view of progress which saw the growth of the wheat but not that of the tares, the gathering of the grain but not the burning of the chaff, this liberalism was indeed naively optimistic. A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

– H.R. Niebuhr (The Kingdom of God in America, my emphasis)

The above quote was made in an essay by J.B. Stump in The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought. Yet he (Stump) continues:

“…before joining with him [Niebuhr], we should remember that Christian doctrine has not been static throughout its two-thousand-year history. There was significant development in the fourth and fifth centuries as the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity were articulated in the Greek language; in the Middle Ages, it was the doctrine of Atonement that underwent significant revisions…”

So we would be wrong to think of orthodoxy as something that is necessarily fixed. We must always reserve the right to be wrong and to be corrected. Rather, I think of orthodoxy as something that is faithful, but where a change of view may be necessary. The theological liberalism at the other end of the spectrum is one that looks at orthodoxy and declares it to be old hat, and must be in need of change or updating. So the belief in the historical, literal, physical resurrection comes under fire primarily because it has been a lynchpin of orthodox belief. Yet the older form of theological liberalism, arising out of the dust settling after the renaissance and reformation, need not have had a problem with miracles. Rather, it is naturalism (or hyper-naturalism – at the exclusion of other ways of looking at the world) that gives rise to problems with the resurrection and other miracles.

  1. Ecclesiastically liberal

This is the final sense which I use, which seems sensible to me, but which others consider to be slightly idiosyncratic. While the others have been more to do with beliefs, this is to do with praxis. In particular, a liberal church is one that has a free and open worship, informed by, but not tethered to, tradition. The opposite of this would be a traditionalist, or conformist, church, whereby the practice is very much as it has been for centuries.

Dropping into a Sunday morning service, one would be immediately struck by the differences between, say, a high Anglo-Catholic CofE church and a New Frontiers church. At first glance, one might wonder what similarities there are. Are they even the same religion? Well, to that, I would answer ‘yes’. What differentiates them are what aspects of that religion they choose to emphasise and to then display as the public face of their churches.

To give an example, my parents are very much post-Anglican but after moving house earlier this year went to an Anglican church and described it as like going back in time to the 1950s; nothing had changed in the last few decades.

Another hallmark that can be used to discern between liberal and traditionalist churches is whether they have, and if so, to what degree, any level of segregationalism. This tends to be a hangover from catholic clericalism whereby the church leaders are in any way segregated from the rest of the church. Any use of the rhetoric of ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ would be indicative of this, as would the requirement of the church leaders to wear special clothes which demarcate them from everyone else.

The more ecclesiastically liberal churches have less of this and, tending to have a more congregational approach where one may extend Paul’s great equality slogan of “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” to include “[there is neither clergy nor laity]” just as the more socially liberal (see above) may use “[there is neither gay nor straight]” and in areas where racial tensions may be running high, one might hear “[there is neither black nor white]”. Whether such paraphrasing makes for good biblical study may be answered differently by those who take differing stances on the question of theological liberalism!

So hopefully, you can see that all are in some way linked. Just to reiterate, I use these only as rough guides and recognise that individuals and groups have a variety of ways of expressing themselves and their beliefs which defy simplistic categorisation. To illustrate, let’s look at 3 case studies.

So what sort of person am I?

  1. Well, when it comes to being socially liberal or conservative, I would regard myself as broadly liberal. That doesn’t mean I adopt the label first and then, consequently, sign myself up to what might be consider THE liberal position on each issue. Rather, I consider each on their own merits, think about them and arrive at my own conclusions, and then look at who happens to be my nearest neighbours.
  2. In terms of the economics, I am left-wing. I’ve written about that before so shan’t further elaborate on that here.
  3. In terms of the theological, I would say I am mostly orthodox. The only chink in this is that I do not affirm the historicity of the virgin birth. I simply find the evidence for it to be unconvincing and that I do not think that it is a necessary prerequisite for an incarnational theology. It is not that I reject it as a consequence of the rejection of the possibility of miracles, as seems to be the case with some. Rather, my hermeneutical liberalism doesn’t lead me to the creedal conclusion. I’ve given a sketch of my theological approach before both here (recently) and here (a few years ago).
  4. In terms of ecclesiastics, I am most definitely liberal. I am no great fan of traditionalism and find freedom in worship to be far more preferable to liturgical chanting. Part of the reason I am part of the charismatic church rather than a conformist is because the charismatic gives more room for the Holy Spirit, whereas I’ve found more traditionalist churches, by dint of their rigidly scripted services, make no such room for the Spirit to move and may even, in some cases, verge on the warning of quenching the Spirit.

So that’s roughly where I stand. On the balance of the above, I would choose the epithet ‘liberal’ but I hold onto it very gently, willing to let go in case by doing so I end up aligning myself with views and practices which are less than helpful or faithful.

Another example

I had the mixed pleasure of visiting a different church a few weeks ago. It was a part of the Nigerian denomination, the Redeemed Christian Church of God. What sort of church were they?

  1. Socially fairly conservative – Though very welcoming on a Sunday morning, one need only do a little reading around to find that the official line of the church is at times very homophobic. That said, they do have egalitarian leadership. I’m not sure on their stance on other divisive issues.
  2. Economically right-wing – they place great value in personal wealth and seem little interested in matters of social justice. The posters currently adorning the front of the church depict a woman dreaming of a bigger home with a quote from Isaiah 55:8-9 above it.
  3. Theologically liberal. Linked to the above, they have taken a view that endorses the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. This is not something I would regard as orthodox.
  4. Ecclesiastically liberal. As with most pentecostal churches, their expression is about as far removed from the traditional idea of the English church as one could hope to find. This is loud worship, unscripted, with all joining in. It’s not for everyone, but one would be hard pressed to call it staid.

So here, we would see them mostly as ‘liberal’. Yet because of their socially conservative values, they are sometimes branded as just being a conservative church. Yet I hope that I have shown that it’s not necessarily quite as simple as that.

Yet another look

For further contrast, it might be worth looking at a very different kind of church. This is a description that I have gleaned from a number of conversations with a colleague of mine. He attends a very high Anglo-Catholic church in a fairly rural parish. The church is part of the sub-faction of the CofE known as Forward in Faith.

  1. Socially, it is rather conservative. They certainly adopt a pro-life stance and in the wake of the general synod’s decision to allow women the possibility of becoming bishops, there have been grumblings about the church crossing the Tiber and fully converting to Catholicism in protest. Their views on homosexuality are mixed, with some members being very set against it, others are more accepting and some are affirming.
  2. Economically very right wing. The colleague from whom this information is gleaned is a staunch Thatcherite and very much epitomises the idea of “the CofE is the Tory party at prayer”. I know that’s not true in the whole CofE, as it is a richer, broader church than just that. I’m just looking at one example here.
  3. Theologically orthodox. For the most part, anyway. My colleague is actually rather theologically liberal. As he puts it: “Well, it might be true. I don’t really know. I say the creed and I pray the Lord’s prayer, but that’s because you’re supposed to, not because I’m certain of it.” In some ways, he adopts a Pascal’s Wager approach to faith. As for his particular church, I get the impression they stick fairly closely to the Anglo-Catholic line, even if the Anglo part is rather quiet.
  4. Ecclesiastically traditionalist. This is VERY high church, or “smells and bells” as it’s sometimes called. The kind of church where one might well wonder, ‘do they realise there’s been a reformation or not’. Again, to quote my colleague: “Well, that’s what religion’s supposed to be, innit. It’s less about what you believe and more about what you do. Church without the ceremony just wouldn’t be a proper church.”

Wrapping it up

That’s turned out longer than I intended. If you’ve read this far, thank you for doing so. While I doubt many will agree with me wholly, I hope you’ve found it some of it useful, or at least thought-provoking. If anything, this should serve as a guide for any of you who interact with me regularly to have a clearer idea of what I mean when I use terms such as ecclesiastically conservative, theologically liberal or orthodox.

If anything, this should help explain why I find the epithet “conservative evangelicals” to be rather unhelpful. There are some ways in which evangelical christians are more conservative than others, but there are also some in which we are more liberal. And within evangelicalism, there is great variety and a richness of diversity, without necessarily causing division; as there is in other churches too. To some, single issues may define one as conservative, but that is not my view.

As people, as churches and as Church, we walk along the way to the kingdom of God. The path may be narrow and we may stray off course from time to time, both individually and collectively. I believe that Jesus is the way, not christianity. Christianity is the searching for the way. Sometimes we need minor corrections, sometimes we need big reformations and renewals where we’ve gone completely the wrong way or forgotten things. Even then, we don’t necessarily fix everything, sometimes making wrong that which was right. So of course, I may be wrong; or rather, I may well be wrong about a number of things, as you probably well know!

So, over you now.

  • Do you recognise these 4 criteria as being fair and reasonable, or do you think a different way of looking at things is preferable?
  • Are there any issues which ‘flip a switch’ and make one automatically liberal (or otherwise)?
  • How might you describe a) yourself b) your church in such terms – and is there a difference between the two?

One response to “Liberal? What do you mean by that?

  1. Now as an Anglo-Catholic Charismatic you know that I might have something to say about being ecclesiastically liberal!

    I know dressing up isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but on a typical Sunday our altar party will include people of every generation and background. All leading us in worship. Liberalism extends to who gets to stand at the front. In an inclusive catholic worship tradition that can be hugely diverse – not just a limited ‘Leadership Team’. When we stand around the altar we believe we are participating in the greatest ongoing supernatural in history – not because we are ‘more special’ but just because we are His.

    As for liturgy – you can read about it in 1 Corinthians. I consider the liturgy of the church which is discerned by the community of the church to be as much a charismatic gift to the church as something more immediate. Yes great to have both.

    As for the Virgin birth … maybe another time. 🙂