by Jonathan Clatworthy
This article first appeared on the Modern Church blog on 22nd July 2013
When Modern Church began, back in 1898, our forebears called themselves liberals: to be precise, The Churchmen’s Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought.
The trouble is, the word ‘liberal’ means so many different things to different people that it can easily be misleading.
It comes from the Latin for ‘free’, but we can be free in different ways. Sometimes freedom for one person means oppression for others: so neo-liberal economics stresses the freedom of property-owners to use their property as they see fit with minimal constraints to protect the interests of other people.
Political liberalism characteristically seeks freedom from constraint for individuals consistent with freedom for others: so liberals favoured permitting divorce and decriminalising gay sex. More generally, to be a ‘liberal’ is often a mark of toleration.
In religious discourse the term is used differently. It applies to people who consider themselves free to dissent from dogma and think for themselves, as opposed to ‘conservatives’ who defend traditional teachings. Thus, in religion, ‘liberal’ can be a boo word. Christians sometimes use it as an umbrella term for all Christians with whom they disagree.
Notice the difference. In economics and politics, nobody argues that it is wrong to think for yourself. In other words, what makes you a ‘liberal’ in religion is what makes you just plain normal outside religion. Only in religion does anyone claim that there’s a virtue in not thinking for yourself.
This is the liberalism Modern Church was founded to defend, and still defends: the proper use of reason in matters of religion, just as we use it in other matters. We think it is right and proper to reflect rationally about, and publicly debate, questions of truth about God and how God has designed us to live. We expect truth to emerge through this public rational process, rather than through just accepting what religious authorities have inherited from the past.
Contrary to claims often made, this liberal method is as old as Christianity. Most of what we know about Christianity in its first five centuries is the endless debates they had against each other, using all the methods of reasoning available to them.
This kind of liberalism ought not to be contentious. It’s the way people learn, teach and develop. The fact that it is contentious, and still needs defending, is a sign of the reactionary mood at large in western Christianity.