I get accused of this often. Or commended for it. So I wonder, am I one? Am I a liberal? And what is a liberal anyway?
Let's start with theological liberalism. Liberal theology (or liberal Christianity) at its most basic is a movement, informed by the Enlightenment, that employs modern philosophical and scientific perspectives to the interpretation of Scripture.
What this means in practice is that liberal Christians approach the interpretation of Scripture much like they approach the interpretation of other texts. They begin with things like historical context, or literary style, or cultural criticism, and bring these interpretive frameworks to bear on their reading of the text. Authorship matters. The fact that the text was written at a specific time matters, so liberal theologians take into account the gender, race, and social and political situation of the authors who wrote the texts.
The alternative is a more propositional approach to interpretation, that the text should be read in light of certain doctrinal or creedal assumptions. In a sense, non-liberal reading of Scripture believes the text just "is" and all our experiences and other modern interpretive models have to take a back seat to the authority of the biblical text itself.
So, if this is liberal, then I would say I'm about half liberal. I do believe the historical and cultural context of the Scriptures matters for our contemporary reading of the text. I am most interested, when reading Scripture, in what the text may have originally meant to those hearing or writing it. That's liberal.
But I'm interested in understanding Scripture in this liberal way in order to stand under it, to recognize its appropriate authority in my own life, and to gather or gain doctrinal or propositional or narrative truths from it precisely by reading it in a liberal way. I guess this second move is what you'd call conservative. So I'm a liberal in service to another kind of conservatism.
Ultimately, as a preacher, I want to approach the Scriptures in a generous manner. My goal is to assume I stand under rather than over them, that my life is shaped by them rather than my worldview shaping my read of them.
So here's where things get interesting again. Some people (conservatives?) like to accuse people like me (liberals?) of conforming our faith to the culture and the ways of this world. But is that actually an fair accusation? So, for example, the most prominent one, if I support marriage equality, am I just abandoning Christian faith and conforming Christianity to the culture?
The assumption by those who criticize my position is that their position (let's call it a traditional view of marriage) is "against" the culture and not at all conformed to the ways of this world.
That's the part I disagree with. Traditional views are just as conformed to the culture as are contemporary or liberal ones. So again, as a liberal, I guess I do agree with the notion that we are all shaped by our context and culture, without exception. And the fact is, the traditional view of things is often still the dominant one. So who is conforming to who and to what?
Weighing in the balance here is the authority of Scripture over the authority of experience. To what degree does personal experience have some kind of authority in the life of faith, over against the norm of Scripture? I'm not sure where this puts me on the liberal-orthodox spectrum, but I think the answer is, we can't really say. The two are mutually intertwined, and the truth is, although I stand under Scripture and consider it an authority in the life of faith, I also trust the experience of others as they articulate it to me, and accept the authority of my and others' personal experiences.
I am also "confessional." I have committed to interpreting Scripture in light of the Lutheran confessional texts. In this sense, I am not a liberal. I am confessional, catholic, orthodox, Lutheran. However, I believe the Lutheran confessions were shaped by the culture, piety, and historical context of its authors, so I can't help but be confessional in a liberal way. So here I again I guess I'm a liberal, modern, ecumenical.
All of this is likely connected to my commitment to the liberal arts. I went to a liberal arts college, am a member of Phi Beta Kappa, one of the nation's oldest liberal arts societies, and in general believe it is a good idea for people to be formed in ways that prepare them to function as free people in a civic society.
I find the notion, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it," itself unsettling because I don't believe such a phrase is even consonant with the logic and sense of Scripture itself. The Scripture itself is a kind of school, a library for the liberal arts, open to readers not in order to be closed and dogmatic, but to stand comfortably as those set free by God for life in the world.
Is that liberal? Well, in the classical sense, it is, kind of. Classical liberalism emphasizes freedom of speech, freedom of religion, democratic society, secular government, and international cooperation. This is why Republicans are actually liberals.
So also free markets. They're very liberal. I'm a pretty big fan of almost all of the liberal things, although as the kind of socialist liberal that I am, I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the impact of free markets on civic society. On the other hand, I benefit so much from free markets I probably can't critique them too much.
Anyway, pretty much everyone, Republican or Democrat, is a liberal (and most Republicans neo-liberal) according to the classical definition. Unless you aren't, but then you probably also weave your own clothes and live off the grid or something.
There are other marks of a liberal. There's the popular use of the term in politics. A liberal is someone who votes Democrat, and holds to a certain political platform. Here again, I guess I'd beg my way out of the liberal label. In terms of political views and social justice commitments, I'm much more of a socialist. In terms of social values, I'm aligned, with a few exceptions, with the Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops more than I am with the Democrats. I'm pro-life (broadly speaking), pro-immigrant, and so on. I've voted for Green party candidates, and progressives, and sometimes for Republicans.
If anyone matches my social political perspective, it's probably Jim Wallis of Sojourners. But only to a point. I am a humble Lutheran, after all, not a liberal evangelical.
In the end, the problematic caricature of liberal pastors like me is that we don't take the Bible seriously, or even read it at all. It's regularly assumed you can't find one in our offices, and they don't inform our preaching.
But people listen to my sermons with some regularity, and although they find all kinds of things that could be improved in my preaching, one thing nobody criticizes is a lack of Scripture. It's all the way in and through it. I try to live and breathe it. You might disagree with my interpretation of Scripture, but that's quite a ways from assuming I've abandoned it.
So I'd argue that I'm not a liberal, I'm confessional, or orthodox. Just in a liberal way.