by Stephen Parsons
from Signs of the Times No. 48 - Jan 2013

Most of those reading this article would resist having the label  of 'conservative Christian' applied to them. But the majority of this group of 'not-conservatives' know how they often find themselves in a weak position over against the strength and confidence of those who hold to conservative beliefs.

In reflecting about this position of apparent weakness, I want to suggest that it is in fact a position of strength. The strength of those who parade their orthodoxy and the traditionalism of their position is normally a strength with little real substance.

Between the wars, psychologists and sociologists following the writing of Freud,  who in 1921 wrote Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, were fascinated  by the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe. Freud, following earlier writers, was trying to explain the way that a group operated. The group was a powerful entity and at the same time possessed a corporate mind which somehow took over the individual consciousness of those who were part of it. Fascism from this perspective was the politics that encouraged the surrender of the individual thinking person to the crowd. Within the crowd the individual knew himself to be strong. This experience of being part of something far bigger than the individual was indeed intoxicating. The normal day to day sense of being unimportant and insignificant could for the moment be forgotten.   The tribalism that we see in many parts of the world expressed through political parties, racial or religious groups, is also a means to provide relief for the individual from their normal deadness or isolation. In the same way in our inner cities,  many young men and women will risk their well-being, their future and their health  to be part of a tribe or gang. Clearly to belong in this way has a compelling attraction to anyone who otherwise would feel fearful and alone.

It is one of the features of conservative Christianity that the individual knows clearly  what he or she believes but at the same it is clear that they are strongly bound up with a distinctive group. We can talk about a party line in describing the way a conservative Christian responds to one or other of the contemporary issues over which strong passions are aroused. It is as though the conservative Christian  might be saying to us 'this is what I am required to say to you as part of the tribe to which I belong. I believe this or that to be true because it allows me to belong and to belong allows me to feel both safe and affirmed.' Even when we suspect that an individual wants to stray from the party line by doubting some part of official teaching, the implications of losing the protection of the 'gang' are too costly to be worth exploring. Discussions with conservative Christians, whether Biblical fundamentalists or ultramontane Catholics, are seldom rewarding because one is encountering not an individual but a fragment of a group-mind. In the case of conservative evangelicalism, the 'orthodoxy' that one encounters has normally a distinctly American flavour wherever in the world it is found. What the American writer Steve Brouwer described as the 'American Gospel' has proved remarkably adept at being received across cultures but without losing the clear traces of its origins.

In contrast to this tribal thinking, one would like to claim that liberal Christians, if one can use this much maligned word, are taking positions on a variety of topics which had more to do with an individual pilgrimage than in adopting a tribal line. A reason for not being a conservative Christian is likely to have something to do with the personal history of the individual. Each liberal Christian is likely to have encountered a whole variety of experiences, met different Christian people who have influenced them so that their faith is likely to be distinct and probably unique. If someone calls on them to defend their Christian faith, the authority for the position they hold may seem fairly weak when ranged against the articulate tribal belief system of a conservative Christian. They have no recourse to the slogans and mantras of the party. And yet there is in refusing to be part of a tribal faith an enormous strength and power.

What are the strengths of the liberal Christian which we trust will ultimately win through?  In summary, the liberal position is one of honesty, integrity and the pursuit of truth. The first thing that makes the liberal position strong is that it is paradoxically always in a situation of provisionality. We do not own the truth, as conservative Christians seem to claim, but we constantly seek the truth. A common analogy is that the Christian path is one of pilgrimage, always travelling and never quite arriving. One of the advantages of continually travelling is that in the process we will often find far more in the way of truth than if we believed we had the truth at the beginning of the journey. Those of us who have travelled along the liberal path of seeking truth have, I believe, found it a far more exciting and rewarding process. Until the day of our death we can always be open to newness in terms of insight and truth. God like beauty is always capable of being discovered  more deeply and fully. Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century Greek Father,  described the Christian journey as one of travelling from 'glory to glory'. He was, of course, particularly talking about the mystical way and his imagery drew on the journey of Moses to the top of Sinai. The journey towards theological truth is also, I believe, one that will never embrace its object by means of words. Truth will always fascinate, enthrall and captivate the one who pursues it. It will never be captured or owned. Just as Gregory and all the mystical writers through the ages have emphasised the unknowability of God, so the liberal pilgrim journeys onwards and upwards on a path that will never be completed except perhaps beyond the grave.

In this article I have been trying to contrast the strength and vitality of a Christian life which is one of never ending exploration and journeying  and the weakness of a position which allows no questioning or discovery. To use another analogy, it contrasts the poverty of being given a book  with all the answers ticked in at the back, so there is little point  in actually reading it, and the richness of searching for truth from numerous books over a whole life-time.

It is in that richness of discovery and joy of learning that is the strength of so-called liberal Christians. May they celebrate that richness and in doing this perhaps provide a witness to the strength of what they stand for. May others through us be drawn into the journey towards truth,  the journey, the adventure that does not end.


Stephen Parsons is a retired priest living in Northumberland.