Thursday, January 05, 2006

Why "Liberal" Really Is a Dirty Word

2 Christmas

Lately I've been listening to folks throwing around words like "liberal," "heretical," "heterodox," etc. It's irritating. It contributes nothing to reasonable discussions, even when those labels might have some degree of accuracy.

When I hear somebody using the l-word, it is almost always an arbitrary distinction. My opponent's position is liberal, simply because it differs from mine, which I like to call conservative. Just because. The reverse can also be true, if it serves my purpose. "Conservative" and "liberal" are always a question of what spectrum you're using, and where you think you sit on it. Those words aren't descriptive at all, because definitions vary from one discussion to another.

It keeps people from focusing on actual ideas and really learning something because we're so tangled up in rhetoric instead. If somebody calls me liberal, I think they're stupid, because it demonstrates that such a person lacks the good sense to describe a position they disagree with to any degree of nuance. I think the whole point of such words is to shut down debate by putting up an emotional smokescreen.

Never mind the fact that "liberal" and "conservative" are never words that I use to describe myself in repect to any issue.

I know that in politics that those words can to a limited extent describe an attitude of "maintenance" or "progress," but that still doesn't say much about particular issues. In regard to theology, it might look more cut and dry: if it seems to you that people used to believe something, and you see people arguing for something different, there must be a conservative and a liberal position.


Many Christians fail to realize that a great number of their beloved practices and teachings that they consider to be traditional and orthodox are actually inventions of the last two hundred years and are built to a considerable degree upon their local cultures. Attempts to engage the biblical narrative and to read history? Folks calk that liberal.

Let's look at some examples:

The Rapture. Oh yeah. We see the first stirrings of this with William Miller's group in 1844 on the American Frontier. Scofield's Bible popularized dispensationalism around 1908, whereas it has previously been much maligned and denounced throughout the history of the Church. We can thank the Enlightment and Scottish "Common Sense" philiosophy for the Western (but mostly American) insistance on treating the Bible like it's a strange hybrid of a mathbook and Nostrodamus' prophecies.

Altar Calls. So many evangelicals only understand conversion in the context of a highly emotional and individualized way of thinking about salvation that emerged on the American Frontier (is there a pattern?) during the Second Great Awakening, beginning at Cane Ridge, circa 1801.

Dualism. Physical existance is somehow equated with what Paul calls "the sinful nature." People await the liberation of their souls from these terrible bodies... to an ethereal existance in "eternity." Nope. They've been reading Bibles, but preaching to themselves from Plato. This dualism, this hatred of the body and physical existance was part of the Gnostic heresy that emerged in the late first century and has plagued the Church ever since.

Alright, now take notice of how those three theses are the beginnings of arguments, and so just a little bit of thought put into them.

Now check out this sentence:

I insist that people who believe in and promote these three ideas and practices are liberal innovators, pushing heresy into the faith once delivered to the Church.

Do you see how that wasn't an argument? I just slapped a whole bunch of people with emotionally charged labels that didn't add a bit of substance to my argument. It works great to distract people from the fact that my actual arguments (as presented) haven't been fleshed out. If I can get people on the defensive, it's a lot easier to pick apart their objections than to present a strong argument myself.

Do you see why I don't bother?


Anonymous said...

You have shamed me.

I'll not use those words in your presence again.

Kyle said...


Which one? Altar calls?

I'm not sure if this is dry humor or not, but I should say that I've never read anything you've written in which you've used such words in a vitriolic or dismissive way.

Perhaps I should make a better distinction between calling somebody a liberal and trying to use those words in a descriptive way? It can happen, it just doesn't happen very often.

Anonymous said...

Amen and Amen. As it is written so shall it be done.

As usual Kyle, good stuff. Labels are almost always emotionally charged and lead to nowhere in the end.

I have found myself too in the past falling into the trap [but hopefully not too often] of nicely dividing the conservative and liberal argument. I have colleagues in my own denomination [imagine that] that have made it their mission in life to ensure the utter destruction of the "other side". Without as much as a conversation between them, and without any real crticial analysis of their own views, not to mention the others.

God save us from ourselves!

Gosh, now what will I do with all my Left Behind books that have served as the foundation for all my eschatalogical arguements?

Perhaps, I'll be....left behind!

Grace and Peace,


Anonymous said...

It was "dry humor", sort of... But as with most humor, there is often a serious current behind the humor. Your post, though you did not mean it to, stung me a bit, because it made me realize that I need to be very careful how I use those words--any words for that matter--and that I may have used them to freely.

I hate labels, and the little boxes they put people and things in so that we no longer have to really think about them anymore. But yet I use them and I use them too much. It is difficult to function without them.

Your post is valuable for me to again think seriously about how and what I communicate.

Peace bro

Anonymous said...

Oh, and for clarification, the words I was referring to were "liberal" and "conservative."

naak said...

Good post. I personally use words like moderate, conservative, and liberal in the context of my understanding, which may or may not be true at different times; but you make a good arguement how use of such terms are weak in presenting a case against an opposition. I shall try harder not to use such statements, at least in the Theological realm, when making discussion.

Kyle said...

Thanks, guys. My whole post is that we should be honest about what we want to convey with our language - I often go a bit far when I do that, too.

I think if somebody calls themselves a particular thing or uses a particular label, it's fair game. Lots of people use those labels as battle cries or shields to keep us from thinking about things in such a way as to change our minds or lose face. If I can say an idea is liberal, and that keeps me from thinking about it, I've taken an easy way out. If I think about it and call a position liberal (though why bother?) I think that's fair enough.

Like when Arlen mentions being in a (was it "slightly"?) "liberal" Catholic parish, I have an idea what that means. He doesn't say it to be ugly, or dismissive, but as a set of ideas he means to convey. It's a legitimate shorthand, I think. Hell, ECUSA is pretty liberal, and that on any spectrum. It's kind of about the motive of the heart and how that impacts theological debate. We want the debate to be fruitful after all, if we're going to have it.

None of this "how to talk to a liberal - if you must" kind of bullshit.

Steve Hayes said...

In my experience political liberalism often goes together with theological conservatism, and vice versa.

But terms like "liberal" have been well and truly skunked nowadays, because people use them to mean just about anything. So when people start talking about "liberals" I often have to ask what they mean by the word, and whether they are talking about political, economic or theological liberalism.

Anonymous said...

kYLE SAID BULLSHIT! Damn you Kyle! You're worse than I am! And I don't see any Boyce kids going off on you... Maybe it's my hair...

Good post.

Anonymous said...

Great post Kyle, one of the best I've read for a while.

It's always interesting to point out to many 'conservative' folk actually hold very liberal ideas on many things, especially as regards personal piety and Enlightenment modes of thinking.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying I can be a liberal and still be raptured?

Where is that in the Bible?

Kyle said...

Methodius brings up a good point, and one that I've heard from a couple of British friends: while it's often assumed in the US that left-wing politics belong with left-wing theology (and so on) in other English-speaking countries it's the theological conservatives who would be expected to push for "liberal" social action.

Mike, I maintain that you're predestined to be a reprobate. There's really nothing more I can say to help you. Bastard.

Hey, thanks, Sven. I'm also glad to learn that I'm 100% Chalcedon Compliant. One always hopes, but it's nice to have a lil' certificate.

Tom, I see no biblical indication that a liberal will be raptured. Or a conservative. Oh, well.

Anonymous said...

The problem with categorization is, to me, it trends toward following a group psychology or herd mentality rather than one's own (informed) conscience. Clearly part of informing my conscience involves interaction with others, particularly people of faith, but I cannot typically adopt another's agenda without sacrificing the pursuit of truth. As I pursue truth those who prefer the categorization approach may call me liberal, or conservative, a heritic or orthodox. This has been my experience.

Those times when I have forsaken truth to "fit in" - which I have done in both evangelical and Catholic venues - those are the times I regret the most.

Standing up for what you know is true always comes with a price, Jesus called it death, but it is a sweet death.

Michael F. Bird said...

Just discovered your blog and I'm enjoying it very much.

Matt said...

am very much enjoying your rants, Kyle. keep em coming! see you when you get back to Oxford.

Kyle said...

Hey Tom, that's a really good point. I think people do it to protect themselves, to feel safe. It always confuses me when Christians feel the need to protect themselves from a search for Truth.

Hello, Michael! Thanks for your interest, and the link. "I was born in Germany but despite that I really, really, really do believe in the resurrection." Priceless. :0)

Hiya, Matt! I look forward to seeing you; I'll be back in a few days.

Anonymous said...

The difference between a "liberal" and a "conservative" is that a conservative is proud of their label where a liberal usually is not.

Kyle said...

That's moronic.

James Church said...

lol... very good post although I sympathise with the people who have said 'you shame me'. I too often use labels like liberal and conservative in a lazy manner (guilty of not taking the time to explain my self or give my argument nuance). I guess that sometimes this is part of a deliberate retreat from intellectual discussion to ideological manipulation (perhaps, in acting in this manner I become Nietzsche's overman... a scary thought). I take your rebuke.

Kyle said...


Anonymous said...


Not sure I agree fully. I agree that labels can be damaging if we use them in a uncharitable way. I do not like labels when used in an untrue, but if there are certain major differences in theology then I have no problem with it. The best example I can give is that if any Christian (allow me to assume a protestant understanding) denies some central aspect of the Nicean Creed, like the divnity of Christ, then I think that I am well within my rights to label them as heterodox, liberal, or allow me to be more emotional and say heretic. This may be due to my "fundamentalist" background, but I will shut up now and wait for your response.
Grace and Peace

Anonymous said...


I forgot to edit sorry:

"I agree that labels can be damaging if we use them in a uncharitable way. I do not like labels when used in an untrue MANNER, but if there are certain major differences in theology then I have no problem with it."

Kyle said...


You might not have meant it so strongly, but asserting 'rights' over against our brothers is not going to be a Christlike stance. I don't think there's anyway to cally someone heterodox or heretic and to do so in any way that is charitable.

To factually describe a particular position as heterodox or even heretical is one thing, but to use it to evaluate and judge a person is another matter. Baptists, for example, deny the creeds. They might come around to believing what's in them, but they do deny the validity of the creeds as creeds. Whose orthodoxy will provide the measuring rod? (see also here)

And yes, a denial of (for example) the divinity of Christ is technically theologically liberal, that would be fair enough. How often do you hear it reserved for cases that are so technical or extreme? If I'm using a label as descriptive and not merely as a perjorative, wouldn't the labeled person agree with the label?

Anonymous said...

Point taken! :). I would never use a term like that against any specific person. I have a few friends that I disagree with rather strongly on some major issues. I do not hate them or loathe them, but I worry about their souls. Does this make any better sense than what I posted above? I guess more of a "compassionate orthodoxy" :)!

Grace and Peace,

Kyle said...


Yes, certainly. Theological ideas matter. Truth is good for us, and untruth is bad for us - theology forms us. I think it's important as part of a "compassionate orthodoxy" to say that this is what it means, rather than, "I'm worried God's gonna get you." Which is how I think people usually interpret things like that.


Kyle said...

I kind of thought I said that. My point was that unless one says that "worrying about souls" means just what you've said above, it sounds like "I'm worried about what God's going to do when he gets his hands on you."

And I don't know these "logical positivists." Or their line. But as long as they don't track mud on the carpet...

byron smith said...

Good point. I enjoy your rants.