Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reframing the discussion of religious liberalism and conservatism

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How might we go about redefining the discussion of liberal and conservative in religious terms? I will use Christianity as the example. Let us start with the idea that the "other side" is not the enemy, is not trying destroy faith -- that perhaps they may at times be misguided but that they are still brothers and sisters. One way to frame such a relationship is available through the concept of revelation: The idea that over time, through meditation, study and investigation, via prayer, community and science, our human understanding of the nature of our existence and hence of God becomes clearer. It isn't always linear or cumulative, but the overall tendency is improvement over time.

To make progress, older ideas must be exposed to risk; risk from examination in the light of new experiences and new ideas. Sometimes the desire for progress outpaces the need for patience. Many older ideas require subtle wisdom to fully appreciate and can easily be made to appear stodgy and outmoded. Religious conservatives tend to worry that such traditional insights are being neglected or too quickly dismissed in favor of that which is shiny and new, trendy and popular. They rightly know that this can lead to a corruption and perversion of received wisdom. However, this concern can lead in extreme cases to idolizing tradition, equating it with God. For those whose identity is more bound up with such graven images and bound phrases than that to which those things are pointing, fear and distrust of those advocating any change can transform into bitterness and paranoia. The inclusive Gospel becomes an exclusive club with no room for those who are cannot pass a partisan purity test.

Religious liberals, on the other hand, tend to want to facilitate the process of revelation, seeking to expand that light as far and as quickly as possible where it has been hindered. Sometimes the desire for caution inhibits changes necessary for renewal and growth. While some traditions are worthy and necessary and whole, others may be incorrect at worst and incomplete at best. Religious liberals are eager to see these traditions corrected and completed in the fullness of faith and to see where these new insights will lead. They are justified in worrying that failure to be open to change can lead to a weakening of the relevance and efficaciousness of the faith in future generations. There is a danger however in moving too quickly to adopt new ideas and methods when the implications and consequences, to say nothing of the enduring validity, of such novelties have not been adequately explored. Impatience with those not quite ready to change can lead to arrogance and elitism. Becoming overly fast and loose with what is or is not appropriate or acceptable and how such things should be evaluated and incorporated into the body as a whole can lead to a disorganized and deflated institution whose vision and purpose becomes blurred. In the extreme individuals may become condescending to those who can't appreciate their perspective and intolerant of those not ready or willing to move forward as fast as they would prefer.

For those who build the edifice of their theology primarily on critique and opposition, disagreements over authority can lead to schism. Those who are too dismissive or suspicious of change need to recall that the practices and beliefs they cling to were once considered radical and revolutionary. Those who are too dismissive or distrustful of tradition fail to recognize that even if they had all the changes they wanted there would still be future challenges, only now they would be the traditionalists that future reformers would critique. Religious conservative and liberals are all part of the same process. As St Thomas Aquinas wrote: "We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it."

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