The cultural clash in the religious world today seems to be increasingly drawn as a battle between so called conservative and liberal theologies. In fact, given the current blend of politics and religion, the distinction between theology and ideology has become quite blurry. Ideologues, no matter what position they hold, by nature have a very hard time accepting any view but their own, and all the more so when their ideology is sanctified as divinely inspired.
Webster’s Dictionary defines conservatism, among other things, as: a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional b : marked by moderation or caution <a conservativeestimate>
Likewise, it defines liberal as: 1 b archaic : of or befitting a man of free birth 2 a : marked by generosity : openhanded <a liberal giver>b : given or provided in a generous and openhanded way <aliberal meal>c : ample, full 5: broad-minded; especially : not bound by authoritarianism,orthodoxy, or traditional forms
The tension between these two principles, by rights, should be complimentary rather than oppositional. The question we must collectively ask is: What is it about our relgious beliefs or spiritual practices that most merits conservation, and about what should we be most liberal to secure both our individual and common good?
Orthodoxy, the name with which conservatism is most associated, in its original etymology meant “right (or true) glory (or splendor)”- a definition well worth pondering as a spiritual koan. Bibilcally it could be argued that our true glory lies in the consciousness with with we reflect the image of the divine in which we are created. That belief has been the driving force of much of human creativity throughout our long history. Yet orthodoxy, to some, is the embodiment of all that crushes the soul and dulls the spirit. Misapplied, it becomes merely a forced conformity to convention, denying the infinite variety of expression implicit in the omnipotence of the divine. The grace of God, by definition, is the very essence of liberality- a limitless source of generosity to us all, and has no need of the rigid structures and rules to which the religious orthodox would have us all conform.
Anglican theologians, often priding themselves on having struck a happy medium between Catholicism and Protestantism, famously touted the triad of “Scripture, Tradition, and Reason” as a litmus test for determining the spiritual validity of something. In recent decades, due to rapidly changing social values and new possibilities for which there were no precedents, a fourth component was wisely added: “Experience”. No matter what one’s religious affiliation- or lack thereof- there is much to be said for determining our spiritual choices in the light of whether there is precedent for them in the scriptures we deem sacred, in the tradition that has preserved them, in the gift of reason with which we are endowed, and in the uncensored truth of our own experience.
Conservatism- the force that cherishes the preservation of tradition as a high priority- is not wrong headed in its desire to preserve a vehicle that can lead us effectively to a direct experience of the divine. Nor is liberalism wrong headed in its recognition that the infinite generosity and creativity of the godhead allows for a wide array of circumstances in which that experience may take place. The issue is not which one is right- they both are- but rather, how to discern what truly deserves preservation and what is best understood in and through a fullness that transcends tradition and even reason. That discernment only comes through experience.
To some extent, the false dichotomy of liberal and conservative is a bit like dealing with the hemispheres of the brain. Our left brain is linear, rational, ordered in its thinking- conservative of the structures that allow us to prosper; the right brain associative, intuitive, open to inspiration- liberal in its capacity to make connections, and generous in its sharing of the creativity those connections can unleash. We would all be poorer if we only had access to one and not the other. In fact we would be both emotionally and spiritually half-witted!
Theology is not the source of human civilization, but rather, the by-product. Our cultural diversity and complexity is the result of the unitive genius of a species intent on passing its accrued knowledge and experience on to future generations, and, according to the devout, is a reflection of the infinite creativity of our Creator. Our theologies are just the various frameworks through which we have attempted to pass on our cumulative wisdom, with varying degrees of success. Fortunately, our God-given instincts for survival assure that theologies can be modified or even discarded if found not to promote that survival. As the Book of Ecclesiastes put it, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven”- including both liberalism and conservatism. We need to stop deifying or demonizing either one.