Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Commited and Liberal

Sometime soon Clemency and I will have to choose a church to belong to, and at the moment we're not sure which one that will be. I'm not going to try and speak for her in a discussion we haven't reached the end of yet, but for myself, I guess one of the deciding factors is that I'm a liberal, or at least, that's the label that is least inappropriate for me. On all of the litmus test social issues I can be found on the liberal end of the spectrum, and have been there even when I was a card carrying charismatic/evangelical. On theological issues, things are not so clear cut; although I'm certainly no fundamentalist, I usually feel more at home in theologically conservative churches than in theologically liberal ones. Some of that is about music. True, many modern choruses are musically and lyrically terrible, but modern liberal hymns can be just as bad, or worse, even. For example, I keep my mouth shut instead of singing:

"Peace was your plea, and peace your loving theme, 
let peace be our passport, peace a living dream."

 or, even worse,

"I'm a fish-bowl Christian, watch me flutter my fins;
I nibble at the virtues and I gulp at all the sins.
Sometimes I dream of swimming in the ocean of your care:
to be an ocean Christian is my fish-bowl prayer."

As time has gone on my tastes have got older and older and now most of what really moves me was written so long ago that it was even before the time when  Hymns Ancient and Modern was an accurate title.

But it's not just about music. In conservative churches there is something indefinable: a sense of certainty and clarity which can be reassuring and attractive even as I am disagreeing with a great deal of what is being said. Us Liberals don't do certainty. Partly that is a function of the stages of faith thing. Most of us who call ourselves Liberals didn't begin that way. We started, in our youth, as keen and very certain Christians and over the years we mellowed, giving up our sureties as we realised that issues were more complex and answers less clear cut than we first assumed. We moved, many of us, past middle age and into the time when we grew more reflective and open about many things besides our spirituality. We Liberals are very good at on the one hand this and on the other hand that and seeing the other person's point of view, which is all very caring and sharing of us, but it means we seldom have a cutting edge. Liberalism is bland. It's bland to me who belongs to the club and its even blander to those who don't and who want to know what we believe and what we stand for.

We Liberals are critical. We are very good at stating what we don't believe. But we are pretty reticent when it comes to stating what we DO believe, and that is because on many, many things we just don't know. We even take a kind of pride in not knowing what we believe, making openness a virtue. "We are so open minded our brains fall out." But if we can't articulate what it is we stand for why should anyone listen to us?

And now the ground has shifted under our feet, and to our surprise, all over the world, the political and social victories we thought we had won long ago are proving ephemeral and temporary. We, who dominated the mainstream of political and social thought in the West for decades now find ourselves unseated and marginalised. And it's time for us to wake up.

In the church the Evangelical wing has lost a huge amount of credibility, specifically because of the American election, but more generally because of popular perceptions of their stand on social issues, particularly those of  sexuality and gender. And now is the time for us Liberals to step up to the plate.

Speaking of the American election, one of the founders of Sojourners, Bob Sabath recently wrote
Yes, Bob. Exactly.

We are liberal Christians. We need to preserve our passion for justice (or kindle it) and keep faithful to the perspectives garnered over long years of prayer and thought. But we need, desperately, to recover our foundation in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. We need to do this. The church needs us to do this. The world needs us to do this. Which is why I'm re-reading the Bible from start to finish. Which is why I'm rediscovering the power of the little old prayer,

Lord, renew your church, beginning with me.

8 comments:

Peter Carrell said...

I think you are the only liberal I know who is uncertain!

Kelvin Wright said...

Really? That's what defines us.

Merv said...

Are you sure?

Peter Carrell said...

For example, I have not met a liberal who was uncertain about whether conservatives were in the right!

Kelvin Wright said...

I can appreciate that you might feel that way Peter. I'm sure conservatives are sometimes right about many things, but on the other hand, sometimes they're clearly not.

Gavan O'Farrell said...

The liberal Christians I've met are every bit as dogmatic as conservatives. Is it possible that you are a mellow Christian, rather than a liberal one? I mean mellow in the best available sense.

Brian Kelly said...

"On all of the litmus test social issues I can be found on the liberal end of the spectrum, and have been there even when I was a card carrying charismatic/evangelical." I cannot think that killing unborn children is compatible with the words of Christ. Or an easy acceptance of divorce and remarriage. Or sex outside of marriage. Or a libertarian view about pornography. And so on. Sorry, Kelvin - these points of view are simply not Christian.

Kelvin Wright said...

I think that on most of the issues you cite you and I would have substantial agreement Brian, though over 40 years I have had the privilege of being admitted to the details of peoples' most intimate lives. I have known of hellish, soul destroying marriages as well as wonderful ones. I have been told of deeply committed, life affirming non married sexual relationships as well as dangerous and exploitative ones. The difference in whether a relationship is healthy and holy doesn't, from my observation, lie in the mere presence of a marriage certificate but in a plethora of other, less easily identifiable things: mutual respect, patience, forgiveness, mutual knowledge, self knowledge and a thousand others beside. I have recently celebrated 40 years of marriage and I am writing this from the house of my happily married daughter so I don't think my own commitment to the institution of marriage can be seriously questioned; but people's lives are more varied more complex and more surprising than most will ever admit to and it's just not that simple that a few conservative edicts can regulate it all.

However that's not the issue I have with you. I talked about the litmus issues on which I was liberal. You reply with a list which are ALL about human sexuality. And here is the problem. For me the real issues which define a person's standing as Christian would be spiritual, doctrinal, and broadly moral including economic and political. Yet the conservative church make sexual matters the ONLY issues to be considered. In the USA Trump's - I am sure disingenuous given his personal life- espousal of a conservative line on several contoversial sexual issues was all it took to get the evangelicals rapturously on his side despite his unchristian - and even anti christian- stance on almost everything else including all the issues with which the POTUS should be most concerned . The evangelicals are unworried about racism and sexism; about poverty; about the escalation of nuclear conflict; about the destruction of the US economy just so long as the president is "pro life". In this they have lost all credibility is my eyes and in the eyes of many thousands, perhaps millions of others.

Most conservatives don't threaten to leave the church over economic issues or environmental ones or even over such things as pacifism. They don't get unduly exercised over theories of the Trinity or of salvation. But let two blokes move in together and commit themselves to one another for life and suddenly they are organising and fuming and threatening. If I was their counsellor or spiritual director I'don't be asking some pretty searching questions about that.