“Liberal” & “Conservative”

Our special speaker at Annual Conference this year was Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Overland Park, Kansas. In more than three hours of teaching he shared leadership strategies and tactics that have helped him grow his congregation to over ten thousand people. From everything I see he is doing a great job reaching people, particularly people who have been disconnected from any church. His congregation has sought not only to be deeply involved in mission toward the world (near and far) but also to the United Methodist Church. If you are a church leader and  haven’t read any of his books, I encourage you to do so. I believe you will find them fruitful.

Toward the end of one of his sessions, Hamilton spent several minutes talking about the diversity within United Methodism, and how this diversity is one of our greatest strengths. I have heard this particular claim for many, many years. I occasionally believe it, but clearly not as often or as publicly as Hamilton.

One of the points of diversity Hamilton mentioned was that the UMC contains both liberals and conservatives. If you know anything about the UMC, you’ve known this for years. The common assertion is that we are strengthened by having both liberals and conservatives. Hamilton went a little further, actually offering a definition of each term to show why we need each.

“Liberals,” according to Hamilton, are the open-minded folks who recognize they don’t know it all. They are open to learning more. They are flexible and adaptable.

“Conservatives” are those who recognize that we have important things in our heritage that we need to hold on to. If we let go of these things we will lose our identity.

Given these definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” I agree whole-heartedly that we need both. In fact, it’s not just that we need “liberals” and “conservatives,” but that we each, if we are to be healthy, need to practice both. If we are to lead congregations effectively we need to be humble, open, and flexible – and firmly holding on to our Christian heritage and convictions.

The problem, however, is that his definitions are somewhat deceptive. It is not only that some folks are “liberal” and some folks “conservative.” It is also the case that some people are participants in the tradition of liberal theology and others are participants in the tradition of conservative theology. These traditions are characterized by more than a formal definition of the sort offered by Hamilton. Each tradition has, over the centuries, developed substantive (or material) convictions as well. Inasmuch as “liberals” and “conservatives” are in conflict with in the United Methodist Church (or other denominations) it is these substantive convictions that are the major factor. Consider an example.

When I was an undergraduate at a United Methodist college, Rudolf Bultmann was a major factor in theology. As a participant in the liberal tradition of theology, Bultmann held that the Christian doctrine of the resurrection was a myth – a story humans told to express some existential truth. The first Easter was not the day Jesus returned to life, or rose from the dead. Rather it was the “rise of Easter faith” in the disciples. Given his convictions Bultmann could even say that if the bones of Jesus were discovered by archaeologists it would not harm his faith at all.

If we can count Wolfhart Pannenberg as, in this case a participant in the conservative theological tradition, we find a very different understanding of the resurrection. Instead of being primarily about the disciples, the resurrection, for Pannenberg, is something that happened to Jesus. Jesus, the same Jesus who was crucified, was raised to life by the Father.

Does the United Methodist Church find strength in holding on to both of these substantive convictions – that Jesus was not really raised from the dead and that he was truly raised from the dead? Which conviction is held by the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection pastored by Hamilton? I’m strongly inclined to think that Hamilton’s convictions in this regard are closer to Pannenberg’s than Bultmann’s.

The mistake of defining theological liberalism and conservatism in merely formal terms is by no means peculiar to Hamilton. George Lindbeck’s “post-liberal” theology sought to move beyond both the cognitivist-propositional approach (common to conservatives) and the experiential-expressivist approach (common to liberals) to a cultural-linguistic understanding of doctrine. Lindbeck, like Hamilton, took himself to be moving beyond liberalism insofar as he moved beyond experiential-expressivism. Even if the liberal tradition can be rightly characterized as experiential expressivist in form – and I think Lindbeck is largely right here – over its lifetime the tradition developed various substantive positions in its theology. While Lindbeck and others may argue for a shift away from the experiential expressivist form of the tradition, the tradition can easily continue to hold on to particular sets of convictions even under a cultural linguistic form.

So where does this leave us? A recognition that we need to be “liberal” – open-minded, flexible, ready to learn – and “conservative” – holding on to the treasures of our heritage – is essential. But it doesn’t get us very far, since probably very few of those who dispute across the liberal-conservative divide understand themselves, except in the most self-congratulatory moments, to be disputing about merely formal positions. They are disputing substantive claims. Is Jesus really God incarnate – or is the incarnation just a myth? Did Jesus come to give us the information and example we need to live a life we are fully capable of living – or are we helpless sinners, desperately needy for Jesus to bear our sin and win our forgiveness on the cross? Did Jesus really rise from the dead – or do we “learn” from modern science that dead men uniformly stay dead?

Being open-minded, flexible, and ever ready to learn is clearly compatible with holding firmly to our Christian essentials. But some of the particular substantive claims of the various theological traditions (which differ beyond merely being liberal or conservative) are not compatible with each other. And insofar as some of these convictions shape our ministry and give it direction – we say that our mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – the option of saying that we need the contrary point of view is incoherent, while the other option of saying we should just agree that we disagree is a recipe for inaction. I’d argue instead that we need to continue contending with each other, refusing to surrender our convictions until convinced otherwise.

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2 Responses to “Liberal” & “Conservative”

  1. Kim Thompson says:

    It seems to me that both the “liberal” and the “conservative” streams of thought have both “Hamilton’s liberals” and “Hamilton’s conservatives” inside of them, if you follow me. The “liberal” tradition has those who identify their heritage and tradition as the Scripture-as-mythology belief system (I believe this was once referred to as “modernism”, correct?). The “conservative” tradition has those who realize they don’t know it all and that they must remain flexible and open to experience. To say otherwise, would be to say that the liberal/modernist belief system is not rooted in heritage and tradition, and that the conservative/evangelical belief system is a closed system. Neither can possibly be true, given what I know about each.

    I still self-identify as a conservative/evangelical … because I do believe that the events described in Scripture as factual really happened, and that it DOES matter whether or not they really happened. However, there are certainly a lot of people in the conservative/evangelical tradition who regard it as a closed system … and this is where I wriggle with discomfort. What is the purpose of staying alive if not to grow, change, become better, “go on to completion”? It is not just about refining our practice of the faith, it is also about growing our understanding of the faith too. So in this regard I would identify as a “Hamilton liberal.” I am not satisfied to be the sort of person who, once you hear my self-identified label of “evangelical/conservative”, you then can extrapolate where I stand on every issue, which political party I belong to, what type of car I drive, and what kind of music I listen to. If I’m not interested in spending the time or energy to think for myself, I at least want to say “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.”

    On the other hand, at that self-same UMC undergraduate institution you mention, I noticed there were just as many young liberal students as conservative ones that thought the way they did because they were raised in that tradition. It had no more occurred to them that there were people out there that really believed the Bible stories, than it occurred to their conservative counterparts that there were people out there who didn’t. They hadn’t thought personally about whether or not the Bible described actual events … it hadn’t occurred to them to question the mythology of their own particular heritage. Of course Jonah wasn’t really swallowed by a whale, of course God didn’t really part the Red Sea, of course Jesus didn’t really feed 5000 with two loaves and three fishes, of course He didn’t really literally rise from the dead. The very idea that such supernatural things could happen was patently ridiculous.

    Digressing a bit, I am both amused and intrigued by a whole Discovery Channel series called “Ancient Aliens.” I have watched a few segments, mainly to filter the interesting information through my own lens rather than because I buy that the ancients were actually beneficiaries of advanced technology courtesy of extraterrestrial life forms. My amusement mainly comes from my observation that there are actually a LOT of people out there that find alien intervention into human history more believable and palatable than divine intervention.

    I have only attended one bar mitzvah, but something important has stuck with me from that experience. When the Torah was brought into the service, the faithful kissed it as it passed, and the liturgy (?) said something like … “the Torah has been handed down from generation to generation through the lifeblood of our people … it was carried into exile in the arms of our ancestors …” All in all, what you believe about the Bible and the events it contains, depends on WHO you believe, or who you do NOT believe. This is the essence of heritage and tradition. There is nothing REALLY new under the sun.

  2. Thanks, Richard. This issue of substantive, incompatible differences on core doctrinal matters is exactly the place I think talk of our “strength” of being theologically diverse is incoherent. Seems to me that the dictum Wesley reportedly embraced of “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” would be helpful to us if we had a clear understanding of what belongs in the “essentials/unity” category and what belongs in the “non-essentials/liberty” category. But the problem seems to be that we lack either the clarity or the will to be clear about what goes in each category.

    I’m ok with theological diversity, but in that way of getting at it: “essentials/unity” and “non-essentials/liberty”. If we won’t put stuff and keep stuff in the “essentials/unity” category, then we’re not in a position to practice the second phrase faithfully.

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