Why I Am Not A Liberal

I’ve suggested a number of times that I’m not a liberal; I’m uncomfortable with the ways bedfellows get parceled out by the superficial horse-race-consciousness of theological partisanship (“And it’s Gay Bishop by a nose!”). A while back, I offered to spell out why I don’t fit with the faction to which I’m usually assigned; “I’m not a liberal, because. . .”

In what follows, I’ll be using the term “liberal” in a conversational way, not as a technical term in political theory, or U.S. electoral politics, or even in technical theology. Many people would be inclined to call me a liberal because I believe that the Church’s wisest way forward includes admitting lesbian and gay people to sanctified intimate relationships, and to the highest roles of church leadership; it’s that sense of the word “liberal” that does not fit.

  • First, I don’t construe faith or theology as a discourse supplementary to the real, genuine, scientific accounts of truth. After science, philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology have sated themselves at the table of knowledge — theology does not come in late to gnaw on the problems that other discourses either can’t or don’t care to resolve.
    I’m not against scientific inquiry — I just confess the faith that the saints know something about the world that one doesn’t learn apart from life in the church. The gospel is not dispensable in deliberation about truth. When somebody begins talking about “what we all know now” (based on X or Y non-theological master discourse), I realize that they are talking about a “we” that operates with presuppositions I just don’t share.
  • Second, I do not accept the premise that change and novelty are good in and of themselves. The church is a body that includes generations past as well as its present participants — and it must bear in mind its responsibility to generations yet unborn. Those of us active in the church this year constitute a relatively insignificant proportion of the church’s life, and it behooves us to show respect for the saints who have bequeathed this endeavor to us by not casually shucking off the life and teachings they have died to uphold, and by not impetuously imposing our will as a norm for future saints. We frame decisions in ways that show the maximal respect for all our forebears and all our children. Though the church can err, that’s not the same thing as the “liberal” notion that “up till this moment everything was a barbaric kludge, and now we’ve finally understood things right.” I affirm the need always to be ready to reassess the church’s teaching (especially on matters about which the church has never before undertaken comprehensive deliberation); I deny that the church needs to play the modern game of continual (illusory) self-reinvention.
  • Third, my humanism is always conditioned by my theocentricity. Human beings are pretty cool, and our capacities extend beyond anyone’s imagination — but Protagoras to the contrary notwithstanding, we are not the measure of all things.
  • So, fourth, God is not there to make us feel better or to affirm us as we are. We confess that we will be transformed in ways we neither control nor anticipate in advance. That implies that our selves bear witness to God’s truth not by the extent to which a hypothetical account of God assures us satisfactorily of our own goodness; rather, we bear witness to God’s truth by allowing that we will be changed apart from our desires (our desires themselves will be changed). If we can stipulate in advance what God must be willing to do, how God must relate to us in order to win our approval, we are no longer talking about God or faith as I understand them.
  • Fifth: doubt, idiosyncracy, questioning, and freedom of choice all come after confession of faith and affirmation of trust in the wisdom of the saints. All too often, people treat doubt, skepticism, and questioning as though they were intrinsically virtuous; the romantic appeal of the fearless doubter will sell a lot of books, win a lot of votes, rack up big points in the people-pleasing business. I am not an Aufklärer, an Enlightenment thinker; I am a priest and theologian, a servant of a truth that did not originate with me. Yes, emphatically, I can and must question the church when I think it in error; but if my inclination to consider the church in error becomes a full-time occupation, I am probably worshipping a very different deity, one who looks an awfully lot like. . . me.
  • Sixth, catholicity (the shared character of theological conviction) and unity matter more than individuality and unique authenticity. Yes, we’re all different (“I’m not”) — but our difference always contributes to a greater whole. An individuality that impairs our capacity to share, to sustain a lived connection with our neighbors, diminishes our humanity; those who celebrate their individuality by reveling in alienation misconstrue the meaning of being human. Yes, large numbers can exercise tyrannical short-sightedness and bigotry. Yes, the church shows some of that behavior. Bigotry constitutes a problem, though, not because all differences are beautiful, but because bigotry elevates locally-preferred grounds for association and connection to unduly general authority.

So, am I a liberal? If so, the term shows so much elasticity as to lack useful meaning except as a term of opprobrium. I may be wrong, I may be deluded, I may be many things — but I don’t understand how I can plausibly be labeled a liberal.

9 thoughts on “Why I Am Not A Liberal

  1. I found myself nodding my head with you in many places.

    The one place I struggled is where you said, doubt, idiosyncracy, questioning, and freedom of choice all come after confession of faith and affirmation of trust in the wisdom of the saints. My problem is with the crowd whose confession of faith includes the Bible-as-absolute. Given that presupposition, beliefs like yours and mine about GLBT people put us in the “unbeliever” column, and discussion ends – because we have declared ourselves (in their eyes) as the “general unwashed.” Of course, that particular group of folks (which cuts across a lot of other “lines” and “boundaries” often have told me that “liberal” is “anyone not like us.” So that just adds to the mess.

  2. Steve, part of my motivation for writing this out lies in my conviction that there’s a strong traditional case to be made on behalf of a particular vision of full GLBT participation in church life. It’s a case and a vision that don’t satisfy a lot of “liberal” Christians, and certainly they don’t satisfy most “traditional” Christians, but there we are.

    My specific worry about “doubting” lies with the prophets of dubiosity who propose that true Christianity is all about denial, indecision, and ambiguity, so that people who question even pivotal ecumenical doctrines can count themselves intellectually and spiritually superior to those who adhere to those doctrines. That stuff gives me headaches — but I take your point, and acknowledge that we’re both “unbelievers” according to some categorizations. That, too, seems a dysfunctional use of categories.

  3. AKMA, I appreciate your response. Your comments remind me a bit of Christopher Lasch. What you are right about is how the term liberal is used very imprecisely.

    It seems that you are saying that your justifications for the revelation of Gay and Lesbians in church life are justified not by appeals to justice or upon rights, but by appeals to the life of the church, in a form that would be recognized in a church and theological context. Your justifications happen within the systems the church has in place without appeals to public discourse.

    Liberalism typically avoids metaphysical claims [although this is controversial, as Franklin Gamwell might argue] but can be useful as a warning sign in a political framework, is it builds a secure space for the individual and individual conscience, agency and respect. But this is in the technical sense that you have decided not to appeal to.

  4. Fr Adam,

    For what it’s worth, I had already come to the conclusion that you are not a liberal. You seem to have a genuine commitment to the orthodox Catholic faith.

    Given that, I remain puzzled as to why you end up on the “liberal” side of this particular controversy. You say that there‚Äôs a strong traditional case to be made on behalf of a particular vision of full GLBT participation in church life, but I have never seen that case made. From where I sit, it looks like Scripture and tradition speak quite clearly and straightforwardly on this matter, and they don’t support the “liberal” view.

    In particular, it does not seem to me that the ECUSA presentation at Nottingham in any way constitutes the “traditional case” you are talking about. A “traditional case” would take the normative authority of Scripture, and the need to take the authentic apostolic tradition as a guide to the correct interpretation of Scripture, as givens, lay out a vision of the proper role in the Church of GLBT folks that is coherent within that “traditional” paradigm, and proceed to make a case for that vision building on that “traditional” foundation. I haven’t seen that even attempted, and the Nottingham presentation certainly doesn’t do it.

    You may be right that there is a “traditional” case to be made, in place of the “political” case that is usually advanced, but I remain skeptical. But then again, I’m still waiting for the “traditional” case to be made for the ordination of women, thirty years on. I’m a patient man.

  5. Fr. Adam,

    In general I find myself in agreement with what you have said–I’m firmly planted in our dogmas and stay there, I appreciate our ancestors in the faith (as I’ve said before, they got some things wrong, they go so much right) including many little known, theocentricity as the proper starting point, and an understanding of diversity that builds up one another–a Trinitarian approach that ECUSA’s presentation at the ACC nicely took. You’ve perhaps best yet outlayed reasons similar to my own (much more cogently of course) why I am not a liberal–more an affirming catholic type with this twist:

    We frame decisions in ways that show the maximal respect for all our forebears and all our children.

    All? Whose forebears? My great-aunt, now in her eighties, who is a lesbian Christian? Who stood up for the black woman in her town when no other G-d-fearing person would? The queer folk from earlier times? Women? The number of men to women we remember as influencing what we term catholicity is overwhelming. ++Williams’ et al recent “Anglican Identities” shows the general trend quite well–a handful of women, mostly men. And the one partnered homosexual man, William Stringfellow, has his partner and life conveniently disappeared in his short bio. Can we imagine a work published called “Anglican Identities” that was nearly all women with a few queer men? Hardly. And not because these forebears did not shape us…but because unless we’re blessed with family who remember, their stories are lost.

    Some forebears’ thoughts on matters and lives have dominated the discourse and public living to date, be it celibates before the Reformation or married folk after, and clergy all around. While I appreciate very much a range of the greats, from Augustine to Aquinas, Cranmer to F.D. Maurice, and read them regularly, there is a shift underway that moves us away from seeing only a certain group–usually men, white, straight as the Anglican Identities. Many more Anglican Identities are rising to the surface, others are taking shape. Not every organ of the body has had a share in shaping our present “catholicity” in discourse and lives remembered. Not all forebears have been remembered.

    From here the some organs of the church have tended to elevate themselves to the point that it has impaired a capacity to share and sustain a lived connection with a whole variety of the church, including queer brothers and sisters that does not diminish our humanity–and the result has been division and fragmentation, as could only be the case–and a formation of our identities heterosexual/homosexual/bisexual whatever all around that pushes us further apart.

    For me the question becomes who is the church in this understanding? It seems that what is subtly implied is that a rather small group of those who have publically shaped the discourse or who have been allowed public lives are those who count as church be they theologians or clerics or married.

  6. I’m not sure your points do enough to distinguish your position, taking, say, Bultmann and Tillich as foci for liberalism. The first is consistent with, for instance, demythologization: faith merely needs to know “something” that science doesn’t, but might. That is pretty loose. The sixth, a kind of theological communitarianism, is interesting, but who is it ruling out? Two through five seem like straw men: change is good in itself; humaninsm shouldbe unqualified; Godisthere to validate us; skepticism has intrinsic moral value–who is carrying this mish mash around? Who are you talking about?

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