Saturday, August 08, 2009

Liberal, Conservative, left, right, Evangelical or what?

Yesterday evening I was at the student lounge chit-chatting with friends. And the question, "How to define a 'liberal'?" came out. My Thai friend, Ong, said that the definition of the term is easier in the past but not now. My Indonesian friend, Andreas, and I agree. It is hard for us to describe a theology as liberal or conservative. Therefore it's difficult to label someone as liberal or conservative.

Andreas drew a good example. He said that me and another college-mate belong to the Reformed tradition, but that college-mate is at the far 'right', while I'm at the far 'left'. I replied by telling a (historical) parable.

J.D. Crossan made a provocative remark during a dialog with N.T. Wright a few years ago. From within the context of the polarization between the 'left' and 'right' in America religious communities and national politic, his remark is provocative:

"... Jesus has been exalted, maybe even to the right hand of God. (By the way, remember, if Jesus is at the right hand of God, then God is to the left of Jesus.)"
(The Resurrection of Jesus, p.26)

We laughed.

The point that I was driving at is that even the category of 'right' and 'left' is not clear.

Later in the evening, Andreas recounted to us about a correspondence between him and Gordon Wong, a professor of Old Testament at Trinity Theological College. My friend was in his first year and was exposed to the many facets of OT studies in Gordon's class. So he emailed Gordon to clarify some issues.

To Andreas' surprise, the first paragraph in Gordon's reply was something like this: "I don't care if anyone call me liberal, conservative, non-Evangelical, or what..."

And our lecturer in New Testament Tony Siew said about the same thing. I think the gist of these lecturers' remarks is to cultivate in students the ability to be intellectually critical and independent, without playing into the labelling games. We have moved on and over the labelling which unhelpfully inherited (from the West?).

In case anyone wonders, both Gordon and Tony are committed Christians who love Jesus and the Bible.


Steven Sim said...

Good discussion.

But why should we even have a caveat that they are good men and committed christians?

Liberals or conservative, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of god. And all are potential good men, god's kids.

Steven Sim

Arthur KohsL said...

Take a look at how Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, 16th President of Union Theological Seminary of New York City, talks about conservative and liberal labels in a CNN interview at the link below:

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Steven,

Good men and committed Christian are social observations in contrast with their academic achievement and stature.

To some that serve as an encouragement that even independent and critical thinkers able to be socially recognized as 'good men' and 'committed Christians'.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Arthur,

Thanks for the link. It's a deep polarization in the States. Hopefully we don't have that here.

Arthur KohsL said...

If you follow Serene Jones' argument, all seminaries are thus evangelical. Union Theological Seminary is on the evangelical left.

However, I still think the labels are over-loaded with meanings for them to be used meaningfully for constructive dialogue.

reasonable said...

I once had a debate with a famous clergyman who is widely labeled by other Christians as liberal.

Relative to him, I would be conservative.

But in that topic of debate, it turned out that he was super conservative and I was super liberal.

So the same person may be conservative in some topics but liberal in some other topics.

While we use conventional labels to facilitate communication, we should always realise that these labels are just very simplified tools that do not literally represent the reality.

Arthur KohsL said...

Hi, reasonable, I just want to feedback that your comment on the labels "conservative" and "liberal" in your interaction with the minister is too loose. It will be helpful to me if you could pinpoint specifically what issue you were debating about, the viewpoint you had and his perspective. I am aware that the labels "conservative," "liberal," "evangelical," "fundamental" arose out of their historical context. The Scopes Trial in 1926 in USA is the watershed where the so-called "fundamentalists" and "liberals" got polarized. The various reactions of mainline Protestant churches in the 1960s to the US policy further divided "conservatives" and "liberals." So, if we intend to use the labels in SG, it would be helpful if we could locate the context we are using it, and the purpose of the labels. Otherwise, I don't see the meaningfulness of the labels.

reasonable said...

hi Arthur KohsL,

My point in my previous post was to say that a person can be conservative in one area while being liberal in another. My example about a clergy-guy is just to illustrate that point and there is no need to go into details since the details are not needed to bring across my point.

Also, I have said that labels are just simplification of reality and that we should not think that labels literally represents reality.

So if u have read my post carefully, I hope u do realise that I myself do not take labels seriously. I dun think we can easily put people into a box.

Arthur KohsL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arthur KohsL said...

(Hi, Josh, sorry for posting the 3rd comment in a row. Pls delete the 1st two as they do not sufficiently express what I wanted to say. After thinking through, this comment might be more suitable than the 1st two:)

Hi, Reasonable, thanks for highlighting that. Pardon me for being a slow learner. In addition to what you have said, I wanted to point out that labels have to be used with reference to something or issue. For e.g. if I said that I am more liberal with regards to the interpretation of Gen 1-2, you would roughly know what I mean. I said roughly because you would know that I am certainly not in the seven-day literal creation camp. So, the label is still useful in a sense. But if I were to say that I am a liberal Christian, the meaning would be up for grasp, and it can range from the interpretation of Genesis, Revelation, Gospel, sexuality issue, Integrated resort, to lifestyle, etc. Then it is better for me not to use the label at all.

reasonable said...

People should not be afraid to be called a liberal or a conservative or whatever labels others put on them. People should just focus on trying to be on the side of truth.

All these labeling has the effect of frightening people from exploring and from critical thinking and from speaking out honestly their innermost convictions.

Sivin Kit said...

Let's just say for some of us, the word of the day is "beyond".