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Liberal Values In An Illiberal Age

Liberals have something very valuable at the heart of their political conviction for which they often pay a price. The word ‘liberal’ embodies both freedom and generosity so that, theologically, it is bound up with the very nature of God, with God’s love and mercy. I am a liberal in the context of both Church and society because I believe that the liberal vision for a just society and a just Church is closely bound to these two essentially divine attributes.

This liberal conviction is also part of the conviction of faith. The conviction of faith depends not on certainties, but on the humility that comes with an implicit trust in the deeper truth which makes the love of God a reality in people’s lives, a truth which embodies kindness. Kindness is what liberal Christians ought to be holding to as they try to help others reflect on the increasingly complex moral questions that face our high tech, money orientated world and society. It is also why some view them with suspicion. People like certainty in politics and they like it in religion, so those who suggest that less certainty is conducive to moral and religious health are perceived as a threat.

In the Church, as in society, liberals have been accused of being neutral, of ‘wishy washiness’, of having no real theology, of sacrificing integrity for the sake of a spurious unity, and even of cowardice. Many, if not all of these accusations are the result of the over-politicised, issue-driven and somewhat lazy mindset which drives the individual politically and which also drives the politics of the Church. Particular mindsets, or to put it more bluntly, prejudices, give a person a political identity, also affording them with (providing it can be squared with other prejudices) a party identity. For those liberals who see truth as bound up with God’s love and mercy, and therefore inherently dynamic and of the Spirit, the difficulty lies in defining the truths which make us fully human, rather than trying to pin them down so that we can identify with them and identify with like-minded people, or with a political party.

But truth is not to be confined in this way. Rather, it must allow for the freedom and generosity which speaks of true liberality. For liberals, the search for truth is an ongoing struggle for a deeper understanding of what is truly good. Christians engage in this struggle in the knowledge that God wrestles with us as we seek solutions to the questions which will inevitably accompany such a search. God wrestles, as we all do, with righteousness and truth as it pertains to the world today – or, put more simply, as it pertains to the question ‘What is the right thing to do in this situation?’ What is most conducive to the common good, to God’s overarching love being worked into the life of any one person in any one context – abortion, for example? or with the way we are as a nation among other nations – Brexit, for the UK, and the politics of immigration both in the UK and the US?

All of these questions, and their contexts, point to the variegated nature of truth, and hence to the near impossibility of providing a single answer to those which pertain to morality and to how a nation sees itself as one among many. At the same time, Donald Trump’s spurious policies are an all too painful reminder of what can happen when we do not pay serious attention to what those in power are doing with the power handed to them in regard to what is righteous and truthful and in the interest of the common good.

In the UK we are also being taught some salutary lessons in taking responsibility for the common good as we watch the disintegration of the Conservative party where the common good, along with truth and righteousness, are easily traded for the gratification of personal political ambition. And while Rome burns the party in opposition watches and waits – silently. This is the worst form of pragmatism. Why is the party of the opposition not opposing? Possibly because its leader wants to keep his options open for later, should he find himself running the country in the near future. But he is doing himself a great disservice politically. Many of those who might have voted for him feel disillusioned by his lack of what the poet Yeats would have called ‘conviction’ at a time when the country so badly needs to hear his voice. Although I would not bracket the leader of the Labour party with Donald Trump when it comes to integrity and righteous thinking, both, to a greater or lesser extent, remind us that weak men in positions of power are dangerous in the longer term.

Liberal theology, and all liberal thinking, needs to be true to itself by not shirking the questions which are asked of it and by seeking to address those questions in new and challenging ways, ways which will enable others to connect with the love of God. This is something Modern Church tries to do each year as we reflect theologically at our conferences. Our annual conferences remind us of the privilege and responsibilities which come with being a liberal voice for the Church and for the Christian faith. Liberalism, as we see it being worked out in the context of Modern Church, involves a kind of quiet passion for a religion which is capable of bringing hope where it is most needed – in the realm of ideas which are capable of shaping the policies of both Church and world into something that speaks of the kindness of God.

In both these areas, liberalism is neither heterodox or ‘fuzzy’, but it does threaten to disturb. It dislodges us from familiar habits of mind, because there is something deep and alive driving its life.

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