SEARCHING FOR ALTERNATIVES TO LIBERALISM
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[These notes written earlier in August 1989 were included in a sermon preached in January 1991 at the induction of Rodney Horsfield as Director of Continuing Education for Ministry, Uniting Church Synod of Victoria, at Queen's College Chapel, University of Melbourne. It is an expression of the concerns I had developed over the previous decade foreshadowing the breakdown of the liberal academic and church traditions within which I had worked until that time and which led to the what became evident in 1991 as "political correctness"of the left and a little later as "economic rationalism" on the right. It turned out to be a much truer guide to the next ten years than I would have wished. DB August 1999.]
There seems to be a slow but general recognition that liberalism which has been a pervasive force in Western culture and religion is coming to an end. Whether it be of the right or the left it has run into serious trouble in political, social and economic terms. In national politics the liberalism of Deakin and Menzies is as dead as that of Fisher and Whitlam. On the right, valuing the individual in a rational and tolerant regard for conventions which balanced competing interests has given way to outright selfishness in the pursuit of one's own interests without regard for social consequences. On the left, the use of centralised power to advance by positive intervention the interests of the less advantaged has lost its compassion, idealism and confidence and is degenerating into raw pragmatism seeking short term material advantages for favoured sections of society. More generally, libertarian abuses of individual rights have serious consequences for the health and safety of the population.
Yet liberal intellectual cynicism, once a bold alternative challenge to forward thinking youth, now appears in the media to be the dominant culture: its assumptions are received doctrine among ABC interviewers and writers for `The Age'. Its difference from the old liberalism of the right and the left is in its cynicism. What it has in common with old liberalism is trust in humanity, somehow in spite of all its faults, but there are doubts. The new cynical liberal is keenly aware that alternatives are being sought by the less intellectual sections of society, and even the intellectuals find room for less rational expressions of the their humanity.
Theologically, liberalism has been rejected in the mainstream churches because of its trust in man rather than God. Barth's teaching in particular and the continuing emphasis in theological education on grace has made it theoretically unacceptable. But in practical terms many ministers espoused liberalism of one kind or another more or less of necessity as they attempted to live and witness in a secular society while failing to recognize that it was essentially a compromise: the theology of grace was turned around to draw a contrast with rigid law and salvation by works, to encourage freedom in the Gospel and social action out of love for the oppressed. In the sixties and seventies this social liberalism was often associated with attempts to enlarge human life through civil rights and socialist reconstruction, but it still had the fatal flaws seen by the continental theologians in the mid twentieth century. It was easy to forget those lessons in the period of prosperity. It was extraordinarily damaging to the Church.
The more conservative members turned to fundamentalist or pentecostal alternatives and became alienated from the official church leadership; there were splits in congregations and many left to form or join small sects. To some degree this can be seen as a retreat from the uncertainties of living in a time of rapid social change including church union. There was a search for certainty as in other kinds of fundamentalism, eg. Marxist or Moslem extremism; but it was also an insight into the truth that liberalism represented a loss of faith in God. That loss was clearly evident on the other side. Many believers who ventured out to change the world in a secularization of the Gospel lost contact with the church. Sometimes the roots of their faith were torn up and it died. Together with those who had little or no faith they went along with the dominant culture which was already swinging away from a basically Christian orientation by the early sixties, careless or confident in their ability to live without God. Those who remained in the Church as we know it have a residue of the same reactions in a less extreme form. So we have charismatics and social justice enthusiasts, together with conservative congregationalism or parochialism and a tired old centralist management.
Another consequence of the moral collapse of liberalism with its rationality and scientific values has been the increased appeal of the symbolic, and a less rational, more personal consciousness. So we not only have charismatic excitement and the passion of political involvement in the church, but, in society at large a much greater interest in the arts, a quasi-religious commitment to the biological and physical environment, gambling, drugs, spiritualism and alternative religions. Thinking that is characteristic of science is being undermined in education by subjectivity and an emphasis on varieties of perception. Commendable respect for human uniqueness becomes an excuse for disregard of facts and logic. Science is being replaced in popular thought by a belief in technology which is not far removed from witchcraft. Strangely, the enormously liberating effect of science, a legacy of Christendom, which overcame much fear and superstition is being replaced by a new kind of credulity. Publicly verifiable findings of observation and rational thought have given way to private knowledge not subject of any kind of test.
So the alternatives to liberalism that have appeared so far are not very attractive if one is concerned with the well being of the church. Much the same applies to society at large. If our analysis is correct, however, and we are dealing in fact with something much more significant than a passing theological or social fashion or preferred emphasis, it is not a question of what has happened to one among many ways of thinking which happens to have run into trouble. If liberalism was indeed a weakening belief in God and it ran into trouble as that became more apparent, then any viable alternative will require a recovery of belief, not merely an alternative expression of faith already known. Any such recovery will have to compete with all the alternatives that are appearing in great diversity.
We can expect that it will be difficult for the church to recognize and accommodate belief in a new form. We will look for revival of forms previously known. While talking about freedom of the Spirit to lead us into truth, we will find it hard to foster the embodiment of the faith response in cultural forms which are strange. We can guess from the way the old system has broken down, and the cultural forms that will have to be transformed, that we will probably see a less verbal expression of faith; there will be more symbolism, more room for private acts of devotion on the part of some and more intensive interpersonal expression of faith by others. Both Pentecostal and catholic elements can be expected to increase. Loyalty to institutions will be difficult to maintain although it will be necessary in some form if the response is not to disappear as quickly as it comes. Heresies that need to be challenged and corrected will be destructive if values of the old liberalism are reasserted, while at the same time the question of authority in the church will be difficult to answer. The likely outcome is a much more catholic form of church life with a fairly open sort of grass roots ecumenical endeavour, but that may be fanciful. We do not know. We can have faith that the forms of the faith response which are genuine alternatives to a loss of faith will be lively, true and durable.
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