Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Not Affirming Liberalism

I will advertise the next Affirming Liberalism one day conference. It is on 30th October 2010, around Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Professor Keith Ward will be speaking on 'Can Liberals be Biblical Christians?'and Dr Peter Vardy will be speaking about 'Good and Bad Religion'. There is car parking and the college is a short walk from Crowthorne railway station.

I find this approach to liberalism inadequate and institutionally limited. I use as evidence here Dr Martin Percy's approach as of 2009. This statement, for example, is utterly open to contradiction:

Firstly Liberalism is always receptive to contemporary culture, science and the arts. Liberalism, because it is concerned with freedom, is first and foremost concerned with pursuing wisdom and the truth wherever it is to be found. There is therefore no fundamental or absolute discontinuity between the truth that is out there and the truth of Christianity...

Of course there is discontinuity: Christianity is dependent on supernatural or ontological relationships, in order to defend and uphold the uniqueness or at least the definitiveness of Christ. Defending is in contrast to finding truth wherever it may be found. The truth 'out there' can be far broader and therefore not correlative, and some of us would claim that religion is a human creation so that the 'out there' metaphor won't do - it is a part of human creativity and a liberalism can go in any direction.

Secondly Liberals tend to be sympathetic and syncretic to applying their knowledge and insights to particular situations. This requires on the one hand respect for revelation, texts and traditions, yet at the same time making sure that the hermeneutical methods are praxiomatically relevant. Gay, Black liberation and political theologies tend by and large to be infused with the liberal spirit; they are about freedom for individuals and communities, and at the base of their method lies a relative freedom in the exposition of the material of Christianity.

Not all black liberation and political theologies are liberal, and again there is this assumption that there is a 'knowledge' to be applied.

Thirdly Liberals tend to stress that Christianity has ethical and political implications. Liberals are not content with Christianity being seen as a propositional religion concerned with correct dogma and simply holding fast to the creeds. Liberalism believes that Christianity is relational, and is therefore fundamentally about how religion takes on social evils such as poverty, war or racism. Correspondingly liberals tend to be quite optimistic about the prospects for society, believing that the Kingdom of God can at least start to come on Earth if the Christian faith is lived out in society - even possibly in a compromised form - rather than simply taught to society. Yet this is to be done with humility and patience, not arrogance and speed, even though it may need to be radical at times...

Liberalism is optimistic about society, because we are the builders. Whether there is any sort of God or not, little will be achieved without strategies of human improvement. There have to be modifications even rejection of the Christian notion of original sin, indeed the original sin that Christ apparently redeems. He also says:

Liberalism, in its desire to make itself accessible and understood in the modern World, has sometimes been guilty of enhancing its own self-importance while reducing the credibility of the Christian faith. This is certainly not what many liberals intend and one should certainly draw a distinction between serious Liberal thought and other forms which simply glide over hermeneutical difficulties, and are more vapid in their treatment of doctrinal and moral issues.

If Christianity is found to be unethical, and liberalism is a means to find the ethical, then liberalism is more important that the Christian faith. If it is necessary that the Christian faith is compromised in order to establish a better ethical position, then better that it is compromised. There can only be hermeneutical difficulties if you are committed to a fixed source of textual insight. A point comes, for example on the gay and lesbian issue, or say animal welfare, and the Bible and a tradition, where you simply say the Bible is wrong and reject what it says. No hermeneutical difficulty exists there - it is just wrong. He goes on:

Put more simply, the purpose of Liberal thought is never to compromise Christian faith, but simply to rediscover the means of maintaining it and developing it in the present.

What a load of nonsense! It neither seeks to maintain nor to undermine Christianity: it is just that it may do, and if it does it does. It certainly doesn't intend to uphold it either. But he will say:

To be liberal - to be engaged in the task of free thinking and to be freeing people from their situations in which they are enslaved - we must engage. This engagement must be intellectual, of course. Yet I must also be orientated towards the World and the Church, in order to bring the grace and power of God to situations through piety, respect, mutuality and plurality.

The giveaway regarding all this is where he says:

...but above all with a commitment to others who do not share our theological construction of reality. Ultimately, the keeping of Liberal faith is not a possessive exercise that is designed to protect the interests of Church or party. Rather, it must be manifest in a form of giftedness in which the treasure of the Gospel is maintained on a trustee basis for the whole of society.

This notion that there is a Gospel different from Church is a make-believe. It is all about 'our theological construction' and is thus defensive engagement.

Liberalism is instead about truth being found from where it exists, in different forms of intellectual discussions, academic languages and common languages of the religions, the sciences, the social sciences and the arts. There are no artificial boundaries. Christianity becomes a series of mythological sub-systems making a system, rather equivalent say to the Aztecs, and a liberal view undermines at least some of its mechanics and ontology.

The point about a liberal approach is that people who have different views come together and actively tolerate, and use the coming together as further truth finding. This is the basis of a liberal Church. The religious aspect is the reflecting, contemplating and some sort of symbolic worship or meditational practice.

The grouping called 'Affirming Liberalism' is a moderate, liberalish, Anglican Church Party: another one to add to the list. I'm not really interested in that. I'm a liberal religious, radical in content. Martyn Percy doesn't even begin to address the breadth of liberal religion: his is just one limited corner.


Erich Kofmel said...

If you haven't come across it yet, check out my blog, the "Political Theology Agenda":


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Depressing view that the range of current political theologies tend to be anti-liberal and anti-democratic. Perhaps a pro-liberal political theology is needed again.

Erika Baker said...

"Put more simply, the purpose of Liberal thought is never to compromise Christian faith, but simply to rediscover the means of maintaining it and developing it in the present."

You call this a load of nonsense.

I think Liberal thought possibly has no purpose and what it achieves is incidental.
But Christian Liberal thought definitely does have that purpose because it is still grounded in Christianity.

When Liberal Christians discover that they cannot any longer avoid compromising the Christian faith they move on and become something else, and most, like you, would probably no longer want to call themselves Christian.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

He makes a statement that the purpose of liberal thought is not to compromise the Christian faith. But liberal thought, if it is liberal, does not set up artificial boundaries. Indeed I would not count myself as Christian: I practise Christianity from time to time (usually weekly or more). Liberal thought is based on freedom, reason and tolerance and is a social gospel at least, about real people with different stances and identities able to live together, share, agree and disagree.

If you want to be Christian, that's fine, but the liberalism of it seems very limited. Those who practise liberalism do often go through its boundaries (of incarnation and resurrection) and even when not, others define the boundaries more strictly and declare that many a Christian is not.

I'm happy to say that I am not. I don't have the pretence. I'm an evolutionist, Jesus is no more than a human, and does not define the divine, and I understand the divine as what is important and may be transcendent, or at least may be transcendent values. I do not regard the Bible as normative but nor is it closed.

But I am a liberal religious.

Martyn Percy is part of an Anglicanism that is pulling in its boundaries. What those who fall outside such boundaries but aren't prepared to be openly liberal to thus meet with others (as Unitarians or Quakers do) is their institutional problem, but there is an institutional problem.

Erika Baker said...

That raises the question whether you can only be absolutely liberal or whether liberalism can exist in context.

I would suggest it's the latter, because experience alone shows us that people are liberal in some aspects of life as a whole and more conservative in others.
You can have economic liberals who are quite conservative when it comes to personal lifestyle, for example.
Or I could be a liberal parent but a very conservative employer.

And so I would contend that each topic has a spectrum that stretches from deep conservatism to liberalism and then out of the sphere altogether to "not interested either way" or "this is not/no longer relevant to me".

Within the Christian context, there are clearly those who define themselves a liberal compared to those to define themselves as conservative or evangelical.
That they may not necessarily be liberal when measured by any other yardstick is a different question.