Church needs both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’

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The late Malcolm X was raised a Christian but, at one point in his life, became a Muslim. However, both in his own mind and in his ministry, he never ceased being a Christian. He used to carry both the Koran and the New Testament with him. He felt the need for both. Here’s how he explained this:

Most of the people I work with need the hard discipline of Allah in order to get some order into their lives, particularly their religious and moral lives. Later, after they have the essentials more in hand, will be the time for the more liberal love of Jesus.

What Malcolm X brilliantly juxtaposes here is the tension that perennially exists between prescribed discipline and personal maturity, between the letter of the law and its spirit, between conservatives and liberals. And he affirms that we need both: prescribed discipline and personal maturity, law and spirit, conservatives and liberals.

Sadly today this kind of voice is rare on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Liberals and conservatives, both in the church and in society, tend to demonize and hate each other and to lack basic respect, empathy, understanding, and even civility towards each other. Each side has its own truth and, unlike Malcolm X, cannot see the need for any other truth. Allow me an example:

In church circles today, conservatives and liberals would agree that things are not ideal, that there is a need to do things differently.  However they have very different visions of what the problem is and how it should be addressed.

Conservatives tend to focus on the lack of fundamentals. They see a whole of generation of Christians emerging who have never been essentially catechized, who lack a basic understanding of what constitutes Christian identity and what makes for proper religious and moral boundaries. Hence they insist strongly, sometimes to the point of a near intolerance, on clear identity, on proper boundaries and distinctiveness from others, and on rules and regulations, with a corresponding impatience and (often) anger against anyone who challenges this view.

Liberals, on the other hand, focus on something else. When they look at the church today they see the most educated, literate, and theologically discriminating group of believers that have ever existed in the 2000 years of Christian history. Thus, their insistence, often just as strong and as bitter as that of the conservatives, is for an apologetic and an inclusivity that goes directly against the call for the harder boundaries and the clearer lines of identity so desired by the conservatives. Liberals see the millions of persons who feel alienated from their churches (e.g., the second most numerous religious group in the United States today is made up of ex-Roman Catholics) and argue that what is needed to melt these hearts and attitudes is not clearer catechesis or more tightly-drawn boundaries, but a renewed emphasis on precisely the gospel of love, wider inclusivity, and personal maturity over rules.

And both are right. In essence what we see in the tension between conservatives and liberals in the church and society today is the tension that Malcolm X tried to resolve for himself by carrying both the Koran and the Gospels around with him. We need to also carry with us both some conservative principles and some liberal ones.

There is a need today to strongly define identity and lay out clear boundaries. Experience is showing us that we often lack the personal maturity and inner-strength to live out a gospel of love, without rules.  To come to grips with many of our weaknesses and confusions we need the discipline of law, the clarity of a catechism, and the exclusivity and protection that is captured in the original meaning of the word seminarium. But that isn’t all we need. To live out our faith in a way that, in the end, respects God’s universal love for everyone and respects our own persons, we also need hearts that are not ghettos and a religion of freedom and personal maturity. We need both conservatives and liberals.

But given the present polarization both in the church and in society, we are not going to move easily towards empathy, understanding, respect, and civility towards each other. Each side is so convinced that God is on its side, of the importance of its own vision, and its own critical place in history, that it can only see the other as insincere, ignorant, self-serving, as threat,  as someone to be fought in God’s name.

But the real truth is that we need each other. Liberals need conservatives; conservatives need liberals; society and the church need both. Conservatives rightly look to roots and they, rightly, see that today our roots are anything but strong and nourishing.  Liberals rightly look at maturity and they see, rightly, that we are anything but mature and big-hearted. Perhaps, in imitation of Malcolm X, we might all walk around carrying both a catechism and the Gospel of John, both in our pockets and in our hearts.

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com