Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The ‘L’ Word

March 25, 2009

In a recent entry I asked about our mission statement and had one response questioning use of the word ‘progressive’ to describe All Saints’. My correspondent’s concern (at least as I understood it) was not so much the idea that we are a progressive parish but the baggage that the word carries in our culture wars. I suggested that our history with regard to civil rights, the role of women in the church including support for the ordained ministry of women and more recently our clarity about the proper place of lesbian and gay people in our common life have been consistently mentioned as important to most of our people when they are asked. All of these commitments have arisen with some difficulty but as a result of the compelling consequence of the Gospel of Grace as we have received it. The word ‘innovative’ was suggested as an alternative.

Some would say that we should be able to identify ourselves as ‘Christian’ and leave it at that, but the reality is that if people in our world who are not Christian have any sense of what it means to be Christian, survey after survey shows that they assume that we are conservative socially and politically, that we are more about organized religion than love and the like (See: for example). As Anglicans we are somewhat unusual among Christians and have a particular way of living out the faith that is distinctive and needs to be shared as such if our invitations to others are to be clear.

I used to like the word ‘liberal’ an still do to some extent. Alan Wolfe (described by The Economist) as a ‘left wing liberal’) is a professor of sociology and political science at Boston College and a contributing editor to The New Republic. He has recently published an essay called ‘Obama vs. Marx Hint: One of them’s not a socialist’ (The New Republic, April 1, 2009 p.21-3). The thrust of his argument is that liberalism stands opposed to both fascism and socialism (in spite of conservative fear mongering claims to the contrary). He defines liberalism as “a political philosophy that seeks to extend personal autonomy to as many people as possible, if necessary through positive government action.” That is a pretty good description of where I find myself. He contrasts this with socialism which “seeks as much equality as possible, even if doing so curtails individual liberty.” These, he says, are “differences of kind rather than degree.”

The problem with our describing ourselves as ‘liberal’ in this sense (potentially including as I understand it both conservatives and progressives) is that we also have to contend with the use of the tem ‘liberal’ in regard to theology. Liberal theology is less to do with any kind of political philosophy and agenda and more to do with the patterns of thought, notably rationalism, developed in the nineteenth century ‘Age of Enlightenment’. We would associate the likes of Schleiermacher and Henry Ward Beecher, or later, Tillich, or even later Marcus Borg with this kind of non doctrinal theological liberalism. It is the movement that gives rise to the whole range of theories that fall under the title ‘biblical criticism’. It is the movement that led to the formation of new seminaries in some mainstream denominations in this country to counter the liberal trend. (Trinity over against VTS in our denomination; Westminster over against Princeton for the Presbyterians and so on.)

While we art All Saints’ have most certainly been shaped by the liberal movement and have received great benefit from it, I would be hard pressed to use the word to define our stance as a parish We are much more likely to hear sermons influenced by the great Anglican biblical scholar N. T. Wright or the Stanford Cultural Critic and Roman Catholic Rene Girard, than by liberals of yesterday or today. At the same time we would not rule out or reject the insights of the Christian Socialists of the 19th Century such as Charles Kingsley and F. D. Maurice or the Jesus Seminar likes of Borg and John Dominic Crossan. (I will have the privilege of spending two days or so with Marcus Borg as part of a colleague group after Easter.) It is only that we would not want to use the ‘l’ word with any theological overtones as defining who we are. So what to say? I think progressive is pretty good as long as it is understood to include republicans and democrats and be something of a synonym for political liberalism. Better suggestions are welcomed and encouraged.

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