Why Liberal?

READING: “Why Liberal?” (1939) by James Luther Adams (1901-1994)
(The Essential James Luther Adams, ed George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House Books, Boston 1998, pp. 149-151) 

The question will ever be posed: What is the essence of liberalism? And so it is today [1939]. In order to answer this question we must, of course, have the courage not to over-simplify. A vital liberalism has within it tensions, struggle, a dialectic if you will. With a self-denying ordinance which disclaims finality or authoritativeness, we venture the following characterization of the essential elements of liberalism.

First, liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.

Liberalism itself, as an actuality, is patient of this limitation. At best, even our symbols of communication are only referenda and do not “capsule” reality. Stating this principle in religious terms, we may say that liberalism presupposes that revelation is continuous in word, in deed, and in nature, that it is not sealed, and that it points always beyond itself. Not only is significant novelty both possible and manifest, but also significance is itself inchoate and subject to inner tensions of peril and opportunity, of self-assertion and dependence.

Second, liberalism holds that all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion.

Obviously, this principle cannot be advocated in any strict or absolute sense. It presupposes moral obligations; moreover, it is in fact operative in institutions which maintain continuity in one way or another with those of a previous epoch and order. Education, for example, may be compulsory within the liberal state, if not in the liberal church. All responsible liberals recognize the necessity for restrictions on individual freedom. Moreover, they recognize that “persuasion” can be perverted into a camouflage for duress. This second principle, like the others, can be stated in religious terms in various ways. For the sake of brevity we feature the statement familiar to religious liberals: All men and women are children of one God. The implication intended here is that the liberal method of free inquiry is the conditio sine qua non of both the fullest apprehension of the divine and the preservation of human dignity which comes from our being children of one God.

Third, being an ethical procedure, that is, purporting to be significant for human behaviour, liberalism involves the moral obligation to direct ones efforts towards the establishment of democratic community.

A full definition of the term “community” need not be attempted here. It involves, of course, a common life which gives rise to the expression of the manifold, creative impulses of the human spirit, an expression which presupposes a cooperative life impelled by the motives of love and justice. The statement of this principle in religious terms implies the other principles here adumbrate [i.e. produce a faint image or resemblance of], and especially the fourth one. It will suffice to say here that the moral obligation which makes for community rests upon the divine imperative which demands mutuality, a condition of existence itself, as well as of love and justice. And it is also this which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism.

Fourth, liberalism holds that the resources (human divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.

This does not necessarily involve immediate optimism. In religious terms this principle may be stated thus: The divine element in reality both demands and supports mutuality. Thus the ground of hope is the prevenient [i.e. before any human action] and the actual grace of God.

We may now return to the previous question. Why liberal? And we answer: Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

A few weeks ago, as part of our student ministry project, I gave a talk and led a lively well-attended evening conversation on the intimate relationship between liberal religion and radical democracy (NB: Alan Finlayson's definition of radical democracy appears as a footnote to this address) and, during the past few weeks, I’ve offered you a couple of addresses which have been weighted towards exploring some aspects of radical democracy. Today, to indicate how the actions encouraged in those addresses are firmly rooted in the liberal theological tradition, I’d like to bring before you, the Sunday congregation, what I said about liberal religion because it remains vital to see how our theology definitively shapes our relationship with and engagement in democracy, whether in its most radical forms or  others.

So, in our readings you have already heard the text by our most important theologian of the late twentieth-century, James Luther Adams, upon which I drew a few weeks ago and shall draw upon again today. It was written in 1939 at a time when democracy in both the UK, Europe and the USA was last severely threatened.

§1. Liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism. 


Here we straight away come face to face with our tradition’s developed belief that all ideas — including our own most cherished ones — must constantly be tested and critiqued. We fully understand that all our ideas about reality are always being transformed and that, as they combine and recombine, this process inevitably creates friction, sometimes even white heat, as a new idea or insight is brought to birth. But we have come to understand that this must be understood, primarily, as both creative and necessary and not merely or only destructive and undesirable. This has lead us to acknowledge that there can be for humankind no eternally fixed and final doctrines or ideologies (political or religious) and, in religious language, this is always to affirm that “revelation is continuous in word, deed and in nature, that it is not sealed, and that it always points beyond itself.”

We therefore understand, intimately and religiously, that human life is, primarily, a “process of conflict and disagreement” and that we are fooling ourselves if we think it is a genuinely achievable aim to set about creating a human society that believes it either can, or has, eternally expressed pure “consensus and resolution”. We know we will always have to be dealing with difference, some of which will always be intractable and friction-making — to the point of white heat. At its best the liberal tradition has accepted this fundamental limitation and we have, therefore, spent much of our four-and-a-half centuries of existence trying to create local community and larger civic structures and behaviours that help lubricate the axle of the ever-turning wheel of continuous revelation so that it can turn as smoothly as is humanly possible and is always capable of carrying us safely (enough) beyond our current selves and self-understandings to new understandings of the common good.

Adams’ next three points offer us something of our theological lubrication of that ever-turning wheel.

§2. Holds that all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion.

Notice that this is offered to us by Adams in a non-absolutist way, not least of all because he understands — as I hope do we all — the necessity for certain restrictions on individual freedom. But, for Adams and ourselves, these restrictions are not merely arbitrary but ones that have slowly emerged from a long history of free inquiry. 

It’s been a long journey along a bumpy and far from perfect road (as point §1 reveals is necessarily the case) but it has given us a sense that we make the best and most fruitful steps beyond our current knowledge, beliefs and selves when that inquiry is genuinely as free from coercion as is humanly possible. At their best the institution of the university and those dedicated to the running of the civic, secular state in general have provided such spaces of mutual free consent — they have been our lubricating oil. Churches have not, historically, been so successful in this endeavour but we, in the Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian traditions, have tried with real, if always modest, success to create a similar space within our own communities.     

For us this passion for the freedom for the individual to pursue genuinely free inquiry is theological and is based, as Adams indicates, in the pantheistic, or panentheistic, intuition that we are all, somehow, one in God-or-Nature. Despite all our free inquiries this feeling has never left us, and nothing has yet given us cause to abandon this intuition even though, in principle, were it ever showed definitely to be a wrong intuition I trust we would abandon the idea. However, in truth, it’s an intuition that has been significantly widened to include the non-human world as, belatedly, we have begun to develop what seems a more realistic, post-humanist, even post theistic perspective on the universe.

So, although we hold to the reality of a radical and, in one sense, indissoluble plurality of appearance, we simultaneously hold that there is at work some kind of radical embracing metaphysical unity. It is this, of course, that explains why we bear the much misunderstood names of “Unitarian” and “Universalist”. To quote the eighteenth century Anglo-French Universalist, George de Benneville, “The inner spirit makes us feel that, behind every appearance of diversity, there is an interdependent unity of all things”  and that is why he thought we must “Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular [and] Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.” It is important to acknowledge that this intuition was first caught sight of by us in the Biblical texts (for example those of St Paul, cf. Ephesians 4:1-5 and Galatians 3:25-29) and, although today we might couch it in different language, we do continue to act on the intuition or belief that all people, all entities (sentient or not) are, in some mysterious, ineffable sense, “children” of one God-or-Nature.

This intuition, plus mutual free consent leading to free-inquiry carried out without coercion, also allows us to say very strongly that although we understand and fully accept the reality of difference we also feel deep in our very being that this need not ultimately mean violent and destructive difference. Indeed, this is what lies behind our local church’s adoption of the saying attributed to the sixteenth-century Transylvanian Unitarian Bishop, Francis David, that, “We need not think alike to love alike”. But this saying can easily be misunderstood because, to be a genuine, full member of this liberal church we do have to think alike, at least in terms of strongly affirming Adams’ four marks of liberalism, and it is only when we can do this that we can also powerfully say to other, different communities around us, “We need not think alike [with your community] to love alike.” But, although this is true, real difference and friction between us all (sometimes generating white-heat) will remain and we forget this at our peril.

Which point brings me to Adams’ third, again a lubricating, mark.

§3. Liberalism, being an ethical procedure, that is purporting to be significant for human behaviour, liberalism involves moral the obligation to direct one’s efforts towards the establishment of democratic community.

Given that difference and friction is always-already present we are morally and theologically called to create democratic community one that, in as non-coercive a way as possible, always attempts to keep our real and important clashes at the non-violent end of the spectrum.

As Adams indicates, community is always a complex thing and always lies beyond a full definition but his broad, essentially religious outline bears repeating:

“It involves, of course, a common life which gives rise to the expression of the manifold, creative impulses of the human spirit, an expression which presupposes a cooperative life impelled by the motives of love and justice.”
 

This kind of community is always hard to create and maintain and it is always at risk unless it is actively maintained and committed to by every succeeding generation. Today we find it is being threatened once more, as it was in 1939, and this is why Adams says “the role of the prophet [is] central and indispensable in liberalism.” It has always been the prophets, from Isaiah to Jesus, from George de Benneville to ourselves (I hope) to proclaim prophetically that, somehow, in this world full of difference and friction we can find ways for it to be possible, as Isaiah so memorably and poetically put it (Isaiah 11:6-9) that even the wolf [like human] shall live [appropriately, respectfully, non-coercively] with the lamb [like human], the leopard [like human] shall lie down [appropriately, respectfully, non-coercively] with the kid [like human]” etc..

We know this is an impossible dream but the prophetic, ethical, infinite demand Isaiah's vision contains is what continues to drive us in our attempts to build democratic community so that, in as non-violent, non-coercive a way as is possible we (all beings, not just human ones) may always be getting get close (enough) to each other, despite our eternal differences and necessary frictions.

§4. Liberalism holds that the resources (human divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.  

Faced with the inevitability of difference and conflict in our world — the conditio sine qua non of all conceptions of radical democracy — many people do despair and give up (or are tempted to give up) on our world, either passively or actively. But the genuine **religious** liberal cannot give up on the world because the prophetic, infinite, ethical demand reminds us that there is always something that can be done, if only with those immediately around us and even if only in the smallest ways imaginable, like a smile, a thank-you, or a gentle, healing touch. As Adams says, “the divine element in reality both demands and supports mutuality” an insight contained in Jesus’ great commandment that what is most important of all is the love of God and love of neighbour — none of us has ever seen God and so love of neighbour is the only meaningful expression of love of God there is available to us and this love can always be shown, even on our darkest days and even in our darkest epochs. 

Importantly Adams reminds us this ultimate optimism — which is another way of saying hope, a theological virtue — does not necessarily involve immediate optimism.

Note too, Adams’ use the word “justify”. Our theological liberalism always justifies our optimism even though it can never assure us that it will, ultimately, turn out to be well founded. All we can say (and it is enough) is that the inner spirit — God-or-Nature’s prevenient and actual grace — grounds our hope and keeps us going.

Adams concludes his piece by repeating the question, “Why Liberal?” his answer remains as true today as it did in 1939 and with it I conclude. We remain loyal to the liberal religious cause

“Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today.”

—o0o—


Alan Finlayson, the British political theorist and political scientist who is currently Professor of Political and Social Theory at The University of East Anglia, defines radical democracy as follows:

“The simplest definition of radical democracy is this: it is the theory and practice of democratic political contestation. While many contemporary theories of democracy emphasise the aggregation or accommodation of various identities and interests, radical democracy emphasises how these are permanently contested in ways that transform them as they combine and recombine in the white heat of political action. And where other theories of democracy emphasise the consultation or the participation of citizens in political decision-making, the theory and practice of radical democracy emphasise that this is a process of conflict and disagreement rather than one of consensus and resolution.”


(Finlayson, Alan. “Rhetoric and Radical Democratic Political Theory.” The Politics of Radical Democracy, Edited by Adrian Little and Moya Lloyd, Edinburgh University Press, 2009, pp. 13–32, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r26jv.6.).

Post a Comment

Popular Posts