Nick Clegg gave a convincing interview on last night’s Channel 4 News (October 7th, 2014) It was convincing, because it was neither issue-driven nor overly concerned with protecting his own or his party’s political persona.
Taken as a whole, the interview was a brief reminder of what liberalism is all about which is a certain humility and a common sense wisdom shaped in compassion.
Liberals have something very valuable at the heart of their political conviction for which they often pay a price. I think this liberal conviction is part of the conviction of faith. The conviction of faith depends not on certainty and arrogance, but on the humility which comes with an implicit trust in the deeper truth which makes the love of God a reality in people’s lives. This is what liberal Christians try to reflect upon. It is also why some other Christians, as well as non-Christians, view them with suspicion. People like certainty in politics and they like it in religion, so those who suggest that less certainty, especially in the sphere of morality, is conducive to religious health, are perceived as a threat.
As in politics, so with the Church. Liberals are accused of being neutral, of ‘wishy washiness’, of having no real theology, but also 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 liberals who see truth as bound up with God’s love and mercy, the difficulty lies in defining the truths which make us fully human. In other words, truths which allow people to see God incarnate in each one of us. These truths are subtle and variegated, but when they are defined as ‘liberal’ they immediately acquire a political overtone. This detaches them from the deeper truths perceived through prayer and through theological reflection which is open to the spiritual. I call this kind of reflection ‘heart thinking’. (See my paper ‘Heart thinking: Mediating holiness in ministry’).
Perhaps the only context in which liberalism stands a chance of retaining its integrity is in that of liberal public theology honed and worked in spirituality. I think it is safe to assume that theology needs to be public if it is to have any relevance to people’s lives, and so bring hope into a world which is in political turmoil. Liberal theology matters more than ever in these times because it can, and should, continually return us to those things which speak of hope. This also means looking for ways in which a compassionate God might be working into the issues which divide the Church. How, then, can liberal thinkers help to break down barriers and so bring hope into the bitter conflicts generated by warped perceptions of religion? Not by being neutral.
Liberal theology, and all liberal thinking, needs to be true to itself by continually returning to 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 entails tracing and re-tracing the many paths which lead us to the living reality of that love in the abiding presence of God’s Son, something we try to do each year as we reflect theologically at our conferences. Our annual conferences remind us of the existence of a loving and merciful God and 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. Theological liberalism is neither heterodox or ‘fuzzy’, but it does threaten to disturb. It dislodges us from our theological comfort zones. For this reason, we need a certain amount of heterodoxy in order to test the validity of the ideas we hold to be true, lest these truths ‘set’ like concrete and end by identifying us for all time as another political party within the Church.
Set identities are lifeless, as are set ideas. They take us nowhere. So thinking of ourselves as political, as a group of people with a party interest, would amount to idolatry because the politicisation of ideas which pertain to faith renders faith lifeless. The politicisation of the deeper truths of religion, those things which shape meaning and call forth compassion, leads religion, and the Church itself, into a spiritual dead end.
In his closing address at this year’s conference Martyn Percy hinted at the effect which creeping idolatry can have on liberal thinking and on the Church. To counter this, he described the political nature of liberal spirituality, and of Christianity itself, as proactive. Liberalism is proactive, not because liberals need to be seen to be doing things in order to define who they are, lest they be thought of as wishy washy or neutral. It is proactive in the sense that its thinking and doing are rooted in its liberal spirituality, a spirituality which informs its identity in the Church. Modern Church as a liberal voice is at ‘the heart chamber of what Christianity is all about’.