Beyond Labels: Liberal or Conservative

By Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Several years ago, while giving a workshop in England, I was approached during a health-break by a couple of participants who asked me, “What are you? We’ve been trying to figure out whether you’re liberal or conservative.” My response? “What difference should that make? Why don’t we just weigh the value of what’s said as to truth or falsity, depth or faddishness, without having to consider whether it’s being driven by a liberal or a conservative agenda? Labels aren’t important. What’s important is truth, depth, God’s consolation and challenge, things helpful to build up the community. No ideology has a monopoly on these.”That needs to be said out loud more often. It’s generally unhelpful to label others. As soon as we define others in terms of their ideology, ecclesiology, politics or agenda we insert an extra, unneeded, hermeneutical-filter between them and us and become more selective in our acceptance of truth. Granted, we are always somewhat selective in any case. Everyone operates out of a certain software (philosophically termed a “pre-ontology” and more commonly called a “bias”). The discipline of Epistemology (more recently renamed, Hermeneutics) has forever put an end to any naivety about this. Nobody is completely objective and the route towards objectivity is best pursued when everyone precisely tries to name his or her biases rather than assuming that he or she hasn’t got any and are in a position to point them out in others. Whenever we label, we further distort our perception of reality.

That’s also true when we label ourselves. As soon as we self-define and label ourselves as liberal, conservative or even as someone trying for middle ground, we become unhealthily selective in our listening.

Sadly, both in society in general and inside of theological and ecclesial circles, we are obsessed with labelling. And we do it equally on both sides of the ideological spectrum: “She’s a liberal! He’s a conservative! She’s a feminist! He’s one of those young neo-conservatives! He’s Opus Dei! She’s from Call to Action!”

The most helpful response might be: So what! None of these labels determines the truth and none of them, in se, distorts it. God’s house has many rooms, just as truth lies in many places, and God’s consolation and challenge is always somewhat colored by the biases of those who bring the good news: liberals, conservatives, feminists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, New Age people, Social Justice advocates, Opus Dei members, Charismatics.

The challenge is precisely to be open to the truth beyond labels, beyond our own temperament, beyond our circle of ideological intimates, and beyond what’s prescribed for us as politically correct by either the left or the right. Part of this openness too is having the courage to ask ourselves: In what am I ultimately interested? The truth or what fits my ecclesiology? The truth or what’s politically correct? The truth or my being right, even if being right means being bitter and at odds with many sincere people? It’s not easy to ask these questions because, once we ask them, we have to admit that a lot of truth lies outside our own circles.

Recently, there was a survey done on the reading habits of both Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy. Each was asked: “Other than the bible, what authors do you read most often to help you in your ministry?” Here are the top five picks in each tradition. Roman Catholics: 1) Henri Nouwen, 2) John Paul II, 3) Raymond Brown, 4) William J. Bausch, 5) Walter Burghardt. Mainline Protestants: 1) Henri Nouwen, 2) William Willimon, 3) Frederick Buechner, 4) Max Lucado, 5) Eugene Peterson.

What’s interesting is that everyone on both lists defies simple classification in terms of liberal or a conservative. Some will probably object and immediately label John Paul II as a conservative. But that can only be done if we haven’t read his social encyclicals or his apologies for the historical sins of institutional Christendom or witnessed his prayer and gestures as he walked in the old city of Jerusalem. The same is true of those who would simplistically label Raymond Brown a liberal. That’s more easily done if you’ve never met or read Raymond Brown.

Recently, I was at a dinner party and the conversation turned to psychological and ecclesial labels: “What’s your Myers-Briggs personality chart?” “What’s your Enneogram number?” “Where do you place yourself on the ecclesial, ideological scale?” There was an eager and animated sharing in this. One person, however, a young mother and nurse, remained silent throughout. Finally, someone prevailed upon her: “Where do you land in all of this?” Her answer: “I have an unlisted number!”

There’s wisdom in her answer. We need to let go of labels and try to let the truth speak independently of them. We need too to have the courage to face up to where our own ideologies are blinding us to truth, keeping us in unnecessary anger, and dividing us from others of sincere will. The truth can set us free, no matter which pulpit it comes from.

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