Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Terms like 'Liberal'

There are a number of terms that are so broad and varied in use that their use as a label is problematic. 'Liberal' is one of them.

I remember encountering this problem in doing sociology and dealing with 'secularisation'. There were two angles to it: either the process of loss of religion, or the process of the dispersal of religion into the public sphere. They are actually quite different: once leads to a rationalistic organisation of society, and the other has that but also civic religion and ceremony. There were more limited uses too, so secularisation also involved the decline of public observance of religion but its maintenance as private beliefs and superstitions. Another approach (the best, I think, and underlying) is the change in the sociology of knowledge, that is what is generally plausible: how with our science and technology, the media and capitalistic institutions, we have shifted towards a common this-worldly explanation for things and for solutions to problems. This just was not so in agrarian society of the continuing round of life and a close-up expertise.

Any theologian today has to work with today's sociology of knowledge, because this is the ideological and social structure of the world inhabited. Of course it is possible to be more or less sectarian in the face of this social compulsion, and develop significant-other friendships and contacts that resist in the face of the dominant force of thought. However, it is always in that relationship of opposition.

Now clearly there is something tangible called secularisation, and it is something that can be denied. But one has to be careful that, in denying it, one is not simply opting for another version of secularisation. This is where labelling something or even denying a label becomes tricky.

The label 'liberal' starts to complicate once subjected to critical attention.

Even fundamentalists might be liberal in the context of them being liberal-democratic in outlook or individualist in perspective. In any case, fundamentalism gets its existence simply because of a prevailing liberal culture. So let's look at the different definitions of liberal, and go outside the stricter confines of religion.

There is Manchester Liberal - the economic liberalism of right wing non-traditionalist Conservatism as well as that of the 'Orange Book' Liberal Democrat politician (the ones happier to be in coalition at present, like Clegg and Alexander). This liberalism is that of Adam Smith. Such liberalism can produce privilege, and yet is opposed to order by privilege.

But liberal is also a term for someone who favours individualism and social progress. Liberals sympathetic to the rise of socialism but without a belief in collectivism were of this kind. They were pro-community but suspicious of the State. Those Social Democrats who left the Labour Party in the early 1980s were mainly social liberals if a little more collectivist. At some point, however, such liberals must embrace the collective and the State to force the redistribution of means to uphold all individuals.

So liberalism can be a cruel individualism, a survival of the fittest, or be something based on communities and mutual support, realising the need to uphold the dignity of every person.

You can be liberal in terms of welcoming and warm, in being generous. Liberal might also mean free and easy, with less responsibility. A liberal might be someone who investigates and doesn't allow tradition to provide a ready-made answer.

There are varieties of being liberal, between the ideological and just being relaxed. Hayek noted the difference between the (Scottish-French origins) ideological liberal and the more practical compromising English kind of liberal.

In religious terms one can have a prior commitment to a religion but be liberal about it. Why one might be liberal could be due to internal contradictions that need critical reassessment, or can be wanting to relate outwardly to those who are not signed up (or both).

Or you can be liberal as a prior position - what I'd call liberal constitutional (this implies some sort of ecclesiology too - either or both decentralised authority and overlapping powers). This means an open and critical use of religion as such in its various forms. You might have your own particular outlook but it is still an openness to any other treated critically.

One can wonder about the difference between being a liberal Christian and a Christian liberal.

There is a confusion between being liberal and having liberty. Neither are against having law - law is contrasted with arbitrary power - but the law should be so framed to enhance liberty in one sense of another, either just a liberty against constraint but also that which upholds the liberty of an individual by preventing social and economic degradation. Someone cannot be free whose stomach is empty. Liberty is not slavery either - and yet people who were liberal in mind once kept slaves! Being liberal is not just about thought, but must extend to action.

Again while it seems possible to be able to deny that someone is a liberal, they might well still be liberal in some sense. Are Protestant fundamentalists liberals in the sense of being individualistic?

In Unitarian terms the word liberal is very confused. The Puritan forebears definitely were not liberal, but they fought for liberty of worship. Their descendents fought for civic liberty in terms of themselves, Catholics and Jews, to undermine the old regime. The English Presbyterians were liberal in direction and had a practical liberalism, but the revival of their congregations came from an ideological French-Scottish liberalism throughout England (a Unitarianism that was pro the French Revolution and American independence). In 1845 Unitarians gained protection from money grabbers partially on the basis of an argument that the Open Trusts of the later 1600s intended a liberty of interpretation. This argument was false and has been called 'The Open Trust Myth'. A liberalism grew about that time that was critical but also allowed romanticism to fill the gap, being a less ideologically driven liberalism. There was still the denomination-first liberalism and the breadth of ecumenism or interfaith liberality where the denomination is just a vehicle for such expression.

So it's all a case of: "What do you mean when you say...?"

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