If you forced me……..the problem with labels

I suspect many of us hate being labelled.Labels carry plenty of dangers, but they can be useful, in that they  provide consumers with necessary information; what are the ingredients, or the calorific value of a given food. Or, how long and what temperature should I wash a particular garment. In the Church labels can provide an indication of what to expect in an act of worship. So labels can be useful but…….

The trouble with theological (philosophical or political) labels is that they are abstract and nuanced. They are open to use, misuse and abuse. When we self-describe we need to be continuously aware of the potential discrepancies between that which we espouse and enact. Liberals and conservatives alike have an amazing tendency to throw away espoused positions as and when it suits. When labelled by other people we also need to be on our guard, for the label ascribed to us can be used to either align us with a particular group, or to exclude us. 

Many of us, throughout our lives and ministry, will be required to self label. This is a reality. If my back was to the wall and, I had no choice, I would label myself as a Liberal Catholic .But, what I would also ask for is a few minutes to explain myself for my real worry is the set of assumptions that any given label may lead to.

Let’s start with the easy bit, Catholic. I am quite happy to affirm a highly orthodox commitment to the Catholic (Nicene and Apostolic) Creeds. I have a ‘relatively’ (compared to some protestant) high theology of the sacraments. I also believe in the concept of representative ministry, where we are called onto to represent Christ in and to the world. My hope is that whatever your own position on these and other issues you will at least be able to regard me as an orthodox Christian. Now for the tricky bit; liberal.

First, I would want to suggest that liberalism is not some form of wishy-washy make it up as you go along version of theology (after all I have tried to convince you of my orthodoxy). Instead I would want to suggest that my liberalism comes from studying the gospels and, in particular the ‘person’ of Christ. Liberalism and humanism are after all close friends. Theological liberalism in this sense is highly humanistic. In no sense does this mean that I do not accept Jesus’ divinity. But what it does do is force me to consider how Jesus lived in the world as a human being. 

Studying Jesus the man allows me to suggest that when espoused and enacted liberalism are aligned three of the hallmarks are: openness, inclusivity and hospitality. One of the the criteria that allows me to stand next to Peter and declare Jesus to be the Messiah is the company he kept. He mixed with smelly people (fishermen), dodgy people (tax collectors, publicans, drunkards), clever people (Nicodemus), artistic people (John), female people, Romans, Samaritans, zealots Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. Liberalism is paradoxical in that whilst being a label, one of its real aims is the removal of other major distinguishing categories.Most liberals never get this far (in fact we haven’t even got as far as the removal of the categories Paul suggests for those who are ‘in Christ.)

This may not be possible because true liberalism is more of a process than a destination. It is a grounded way of thinking, feeling and behaving. (Thank you David). Process liberalism can for this reason make no claims to either perfection or destination.

I would like to suggest two further characteristics of theological  liberalism, both of which follow from the suggestion that liberalism is at its best about process and behaviour, rather than doctrine and dogma. First, and this draws on the philosophy of science, true liberalism is characterised by provisionality. Provisional truths (according to Karl Popper the Philosopher of Science) are judgements made following a rigorous process of enquiry yet, which remain open to falsification, as a new and more reliable ‘data’ is obtained. As an interesting aside this is why scientific (liberal) atheism is an intellectual misnomer – you cannot falsify God! The most the liberal can in reality say is that ‘this I hold to be provisionally true.’ Humility is therefore a mark of the true liberal, for liberals must always allow for the fact that their stance on a particular issue may be wrong. 

Because ‘process liberalism’ can be characterised by openness, inclusivity, generosity and provisionality it’s final hallmark is that of unity. ‘Liberal leaders’ (i.e. those who enact liberalism) may not be able to offer doctrinal certainty, and this is one of the reasons why liberal institutions are frequently smaller than conservative ones, however, what they can offer is breathing space and the acceptance of genuine and thought through difference. And this is where Catholicism (in the reformed variety) comes back into play through its ability to offer to any given community a set of binding practices (such as the Eucharist) as opposed to doctrines.

I hope I have explained myself!

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