Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Arguing Like Conservatives and Liberals

I had an interesting experience this morning that I would like to share with you. It came from the conjunction of two online articles I read back-to-back, and I believe it serves as a great illustration of the different approaches of conservatives and liberals.

Before I share the illustration, I want to attempt to shed a little baggage. I know that I cannot use the words "conservative" and "liberal" without conveying a certain amount of implied moral criticism. But that is not my purpose in this post. My purpose is not primarily to evaluate but to classify. Accurate classification is helpful for proper evaluation.

As I skimmed quickly through my blog reader, I first read this post "Differences and Universals in Music across Cultures" by Scott Aniol. Next, I read this post, "Fomenting a Missional Revolution" by Steve Davis. The first is an example of arguing like a conservative and the second exemplifies arguing like a liberal.

Please note what I am not saying. I am not claiming that Scott is a conservative and that Steve is a liberal. I am not claiming that Scott is right in his arguments and that Steve is wrong in his arguments. One can argue like a conservative and be wrong, or one can argue like a liberal and be correct, in any given argument. Discerning this would require a further evaluation which I do not intend to do right now. My observation has solely to do with the way they went about arguing for their positions.

In a conservative mindset, transcendent order is always present, even if unseen. The conservative mindset thinks that "change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief prudence" (Russell Kirk). Conforming to the transcendent order is the path of wisdom. In a liberal mindset, freedom is the fundamental good and the ultimate norm, with freedom being the option or ability to do as one wishes. Thus, tradition is not seen as a source of wisdom but as an impediment to progress. The change that must take place for the better is self-evident by simply looking at the imminent order. The liberal mindset assumes that man has the ability to get better by altering his education or environment and that it is (usually irrational) attachments to the past which inhibit men from making the obvious choices for improvement needed today.

If you have a moment, read the articles I referenced and tell me what you think. These articles seem to me to be clear examples of opposing ways of thinking and arguing - the former conservative, the latter liberal.

Who is right? That's an argument for another day, but I think we ought at least to be clear on how these men are arguing their positions.


Aaron Blumer said...

I think you're definitely on to something there.
But I'm not sure Steve is arguing like a liberal. In this piece, it's not clear to me what his argument is. Alas, neither conservatives nor liberals have a corner on hard-to-nail-down arguments.
But there does seem to be a freedom-over-order attitude there.

Jason Parker said...

Thanks, Aaron. You make a good observation that Steve's piece should probably not be taken as an argument. Perhaps I could call it a "statement" since no argument is developed.

Stephen said...

Glad neither of you think I am really a liberal or arguing like one :-) I'm not arguing as much as ranting at times. I reject conservatism at the point it exalts human tradition over Scripture and reject liberalism at the point it exalts human reason over Scripture.

john said...

For one who is 'relentlessly biblical' you make only a conservative and liberal contrast -- neither of which is biblical.

joel said...

I think you are comparing apples to oranges. Scott's intention was to argue the transcendence when it comes to music across cultures. Whereas Steve isn't advocating change for change sake, but rather evaluating and ranting how unbiblical the way we've done church and gotten away from what it means to be a Great-Commission oriented Church and what it will take to become missional (Great Commission-oriented) again.

To put it in "conservative" and "liberal" terms is also unhelpful because each contain alot of loaded baggage....

Jason Parker said...

Thanks for the comments. Steve, I'm particularly interested in what you said. Here's why - who wouldn't claim what you have claimed? Everyone who claims the believe the Bible would say the same thing.

It reminds me of the folks who refuse to take any theological positions because they "just believe the Bible." But of course, in practice, everyone really does end up taking theological positions. It is impossible not to do so. We all have to decide what to say and what not to say, what to preach and what not to preach, what to practice and what not to practice. In doing so, we commit ourselves to certain approaches and positions.

So, I'm genuinely curious...what tells you in your mind whether you are unduly exalting "human tradition" or "human reason"?

Scott B. said...

Jason, I think the problem is that you come across as making a false dichotomy: either you're liberal or else you're conservative in your argumentation. While I also often find the "I just believe the Bible" excuse to be insipid escapism, I think Stephen and John are not saying that labels are never appropriate but that your labeling system is too limited.

Rather than a priori assuming that the status quo should be maintained (conservatism) or assuming that it must be changed (liberalism), a third view says that the status quo must always be compared anew to Scripture (Semper Reformanda). When this comparison is done, it may mean staying the same or it may mean changing.

In a way this means that Stephen's argument falls under Russell Kirk's definition of "conservatism"; the difference being that there is an external standard for the prudence (i.e., Scripture), which Stephen finds quite different than the status quo.

Jason Parker said...

Thanks for your contribution, Scott. I can see why what I wrote could be taken that way. I think you have put your finger on one of the difficulties of this kind of discourse - people come to the discussion with quite different ideas of what "conservative" or "liberal" mean.

I, for one, definitely do not believe that conservatism means "the status quo should be maintained." If that's what conservatism fundamentally means, then I wouldn't want to be labeled as a conservative. On the other hand, I do not believe that liberalism can be fairly described as "the status quo must be changed." Both of these definitions make the mistake of measuring conservatism and liberalism against the present moment.

It seems to me that both liberalism and conservatism want change, if for no other reason than that everyone recognizes that things are not perfect. Everyone wants to make things better. So, in that sense, to say "always reforming" is not sufficient. The question is, "How do we go about discerning what is reformation and what is deformation?"

Of course, as Bible-believers, we would all answer that question by saying that the Bible is our final and sufficient authority. And this is correct. But from that point on I believe there is a divergence in the way people use the Bible. That is what I am trying to get at with this discussion.

Scott B. said...

A couple thoughts;

1. I think the opposing ideas of "conservatism" and "liberalism" can be understood in two ways, both of which are valid.

The first way to understand the ideas is in terms of basic tendencies. Conservatism desires to stand firm on a given set of practices or principles, while liberalism wants to change them. This abstract sense is not very helpful in itself, but it is the foundation for the second way of understanding the terms, which is reached by when a particular set of practices/principles is embedded in the terms. Only once thus endowed can either conservatism or liberalism gain veracity or moral character, and only the particular set of principles or practices embedded will determine whether it is conservatism or liberalism that is the "right" or "moral" option. Thus, "conservatism" may mean conserving free market principles (in America), control market principles (in Europe), the cultural artifacts of a past generation (much of fundamentalism), or adherence to theological orthodoxy (evangelicalism in general). In order for communication to occur effectively, both parties must be embedding the same standard when they refer to "conservatism" and "liberalism."

When I summarized these terms in my previous comment, I was attempting to embed the same set of principles/practices that I thought you were embedding. Since you used terminology of "tradition" and the "imminent order" I thought you were understanding the embedded standard to be the status quo; however, based on your last comment I now realize I misunderstood you.

Perhaps it would be helpful, based on my above abstract definition of conservatism vs. liberalism, to identify what set of principles and/or practices you do understand conservatism to be conserving (and reflexively, liberalism to rejecting).

2. You write in your last comment that your distinction between conservatism and liberalism is to describe Christians' divergence in biblical interpretation after the point of accepting the Bible as "our final and sufficient authority." I'd point out that those who are typically considered "theological liberals" would not accept the Bible as their final and sufficient authority, so you're straying into an unconventional use of "conservatism" and "liberalism." That's not a problem, per se, except that you equivocate by assigning to your definition of liberalism the attributes of theological liberals as traditionally understood (e.g., the belief "that man has the ability to get better by altering his education or environment"). Such equivocation is fallacious.

3. If indeed "the question is, 'How do we go about discerning what is reformation and what is deformation?'," then I believe we don't have any choice but to go back to being "relentlessly biblical." Depending on the embedded standard, that will sometimes make us conservative and sometimes make us liberal. Those categories are supremely unhelpful here. Yes, we do need a standard for our Semper Reformanda, but that standard is Sola Scriptura. Granted, we must soberly weigh the tradition of the church, recognizing the wisdom of our forebearers, but if it is found wanting, we shouldn't conserve it for its own sake. I can't imagine you would say otherwise, would you?

Jason Parker said...

Scott, your thoughtful posts are advancing the discussion in helpful ways. Thank you. This is a good exercise in learning for me.

Of course, we can never discuss everything about this topic in this thread, so I will have to respond selectively.

The major sticking point seems to be what "conservatism" and "liberalism" are. As you observed, I am using these terms to speak of basic tendencies or ways or thinking or even presuppositions. In the original post, my description of liberalism was influenced by this article:

However, I still don't think that you and I are entirely on the same page when it comes to our understanding of what those basic tendencies are. That's my fault, not yours, so I will try to further describe what I am picturing.

You wrote that conservatism desires to stand fast on a given set of principles or practices. But I am thinking of conservatism (and liberalism) as a basic stance toward the world or thought framework that precedes any isolated principles. It is a "faith position." In fact, conservatism tends to not trust isolated principles. In this sense, conservatism and liberalism may agree on any given isolated proposition, such as "The Bible is our ultimate rule of faith and practice." However, they will work out the implications of that proposition differently.

Conservatism, as I am picturing it, has a strong sense of human limitations. It has a strong sense that we are never completely in control of ourselves or our situations. Thus, it always seeks to ground human thinking in transcendent authority. While it believes in reason, it will not put confidence in reason cut loose from authority and tradition. It believes in the wisdom of tradition, but it will never put confidence in tradition apart from authority and reason. (I should add here, though it is a side-point, that conservatives can and do sometimes get the proper relationship between authority, reason, and tradition mixed up, and in that way they can err badly. But they will never try to fix the problem by abandoning this full-orbed perspective.)

Liberalism, on the other hand, has the tendency to have confidence in human ability. This might take the form of confidence in experience, or it might take the form of confidence in reason, or it might take the form of confidence in human institutions, etc. This is what I was getting at with my comment about man getting better through education or environment. This was not a reference to the historical phenomenon called theological liberalism. It was referring to a basic presupposition. An example here would be Descartes, who, although he wanted to defend the teaching of the church, sought to ground his knowledge in himself. This is a kind of liberalism.

Here is an example of a kind of liberalism that is common among contemporary Bible believers. If a man thinks of his exegesis alone as the sole arbiter of what is right, then he is thinking like a liberal at that point. He has great confidence in his own reason. For another example that comes from charismatics, if a man thinks of his experience alone as the primary arbiter of what is right, then he is thinking like a liberal at that point.

Perhaps this will help to bring additional clarity to our discussion. I still have not been able to respond to your third point, but other responsibilities dictate that I will have to return to that later.

Thanks again!

Jason Parker said...

Scott, re your 3rd point. No, I would not say otherwise. In fact, at one level I could just say Amen to your paragraph and leave it at that. But part of the point of my original post was to get us to think beyond phenomena down to presuppositions.

Yes, it is true that in any given historical situation we might be considered "conservative" or "liberal" when measured against the status quo. But this is not what I am getting at. Thus, when you say that those categories at unhelpful here, my response is that it all depends what you mean by those categories. We all do categorize, and I am attempting to categorize accurately by using categories that are not tied only to any particular historical moment.

Jason Parker said...

Now that I've interacted on this a bit, I'd like to move on to applying these categories to our view of our own history. Perhaps this will also bring more clarity to why I said Scott was arguing like a conservative and Steve was arguing like a liberal.

Currently I am teaching a course on a history of Reformed doctrine from the early 16th century to the time of the Westminster Confession. It is interesting to consider these categories applied to the reformers. Although no one is entirely consistent, we can give accurate generalizations. Was Calvin a liberal or a conservative? My answer would be that he was a conservative. Although when measured against the status quo he could be called a liberal, his fundamental orientation was conservative.
Zwingli, on the other hand, was less conservative, and the Anabaptists were liberal. Luther, in keeping with his character, was sometimes quite conservative and sometime quite liberal.

I think it would be accurate to categorize American evangelicalism of the past two centuries as basically liberal (and this includes fundamentalism). Of course, I recognize that we typically call fundamentalism the conservative reaction to theological liberalism, and that is true when they are measured against each other. But I think it is quite valuable for us to recognize that the fundamentalist movement was part and parcel of American evangelicalism which was largely democratic, populist, and individualist. That is a basically liberal stance.

I think seeing ourselves accurately is a very helpful exercise.

Jason Parker said...

I came across this post and thought of this conversation. The post serves merely as another illustration of the difference I am trying to describe between conservatives and liberals.