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.