challenging liberalism: why i am less liberal than conservative evangelicals
I’ve been mistakenly called a “liberal” Christian many times (I imagine many of my readers have had this same experience, rightly or wrongly).
One particular experience stands out for me. I remember several years ago visiting a sick friend. I had just attended a conference, and I was sharing my experience, lamenting the singular focus of this particular conference on “church growth”. My friend sought to correct my frustration – “Church growth is great,” he said, “because it means less people are going to Hell.”
No doubt this reasoning is common in Western Protestantism. I responded with a polite understatement: “Well, I think it’s a bit more complex than that.”
The retort came quickly – “Oh, but you’re a liberal.” In other words I am apparently a liberal Christian.
Interesting. So easy to say – “you are a liberal!” This of course begs the question – what exactly is a liberal Christian? This person, like many other conservatives, seemed to think that a liberal Christian is simply one who holds certain theological views, particularly about the Bible, Hell and salvation, that are not “orthodox” (i.e. conservative).
In the same conversation this friend told me that I was a “postmodernist”, but that he was a “staunch modernist”.
To me this represented a fundamental ignorance of what liberal Christianity actually is. While I don’t have the time or space to get into this now at any great length, I will say that one key reason why I don’t consider myself a liberal Christian is because I think true theological liberalism has too easily surrendered its Christian identity to the more general ideology of liberalism. This, however, is not limited to “liberal” Christians – conservatives have done exactly the same thing!
What is “liberalism” in this general sense? I would define it as a broad political and intellectual ideology that, in short, espouses individual freedom (yes, I realise this is a perverse simplification).
What is interesting is that it is not only “liberal” Christians who have incorporated liberalism into their faith systems – conservatives, having unquestioningly adopted political and intellectual liberalism, are just as liberal as the “liberals”! Their faith is, in fact, often far more individualistic.
I realise that this may not be very clear to some readers, since most critics of theological liberalism have never actually considered its connection with the political ideology of “liberalism”, or indeed their own subservience to this worldview.
Stanley Hauerwas puts it well:
My problem with liberal political arrangements is not that they are liberal, but rather that Christians confuse such arrangements with Christianity. … when I develop criticisms of liberalism using what I have learned from non-theological sources (Wolin, Coles, Connoly) I do so because I think liberalism is not only bad for Christians but also for liberals. It is so because the self that is formed by liberal practice lacks the substance to be virtuously habituated to acknowledge our character as ‘dependent rational animals’… (A Cross-Shattered Church, p. 148-149)
A core Christian conviction is our dependence on both God and each other; liberalism dispenses with this conviction. Thus a truly historic Christianity can never be permeated by liberal ideology whilst remaining intact. Such statements will no doubt be construed as completely blasphemous by Christians both “liberal” and “conservative”, precisely because both are under the spell of liberalism.
None of this is to say that every aspect of liberalism is inherently wrong—it is simply to say that as a collective ideology/worldview it is harmful for the world (as we have seen for the last few hundred years) and that it is not Christianity.
My friend, bless him, by identifying himself with modernism, surrenders himself to the doctrine of personal autonomy, of the ultimacy of the ability to reason, judge, and act for oneself. He is well within his rights to choose this, but this is a liberal commitment, not a Christian one.
Not that I have worked this out, much less worked out my own worldview. I daily recognise my own liberal assumptions. I don’t intend this to be anything but a reflection – it is certainly not anything like a comprehensive statement. It is, however, a challenge for us to consider our own appropriation of the liberal worldview that so pervades our culture.
Can we even tell the difference between liberalism and Christianity anymore?
Given that I’ve just said a lot of things that will no doubt be misunderstood (you can’t say everything at once), I look forward to the conversations that will ensue.
Posted on July 31, 2012, in Politics, Theology, Uncategorised and tagged Autonomy, Conservative, Liberal, Liberalism, Modernism, Stanley Hauerwas, Theological Liberalism. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.