Liberalism is a much abused word. In some American contexts it seems almost to be a synonym for socialism, and in Christians contexts it is usually synonymous with unorthodoxy if not downright heresy. The latest incarnation of this phenomenon is its attachment to the word ‘elite’, in, for example, the liberal elite lost Brexit and Trump’s triumph is a revolt against the ‘liberal elite’. Our new Prime Minister, Mrs May, has joined in attacking the ‘smug liberal elite’ who sneered at those who voted for Brexit. In her case one wonders if she was referring to her immediate predecessor and his good friend the Chancellor; she is clearly not referring to herself or her hedge fund manager husband who, whilst most certainly part of the elite, and almost certainly voting against Brexit, clearly do not consider themselves liberals. There is an oddness in this. It most certainly was not a conservative instinct which led to the formation of democratic forms of government, nor was it one which advocated universal education, women’s rights, equal rights for coloured people, or, come to think of it, almost any reform you can name. Indeed, in British politics, the area I know best, where it was a Conservative who pushed some reform or other, it was usually one with a prefix ‘liberal’ such as Peel or Disraeli. One might expect liberalism to have a somewhat better reputation than it has. But perhaps it only has a bad one in conservative circles?
In Christian circles it is perhaps more understandable that those who favour reform should come under suspicion; quite often their motives, like their objectives, appear to be to replace orthodoxy with an ‘anything goes’ version of the ‘faith once given’. Yet, reform is a constant necessity. Newman’s definition of liberalism bears repeating: ‘Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.’ This, to his way of thinking, was untrue. Either the Catholic Church and what it taught was the Church founded by Jesus, in which case its dogma were the expression of immutable truths, or they were not, in which case it really didn’t matter very much because there was no solid foundation from truth.
This was one reason Newman thought that the emphasis on the Bible alone as the foundation of your faith was misguided. Long before the later Victorian obsession with religious scepticism and source criticism of the Bible, Newman was aware, via his friend Pusey, of the work of German Bible scholars in Gottingen who were querying everything from the notion that the world was made in six days, through to the dimensions of the ark and the physics of resurrection. He knew that literal readings of Scripture were coming under question, and he looked for the remedy to the organisation which gave the world the Bible in the first place – the Church. 1900 years of the Church and of men (and a few women) reflecting on the Good News provided a rich resource for understanding the Bible in context – what Newman’s later admirer, Pope Benedict XVI called ‘the hermeneutic of continuity’. Newman distinguished between reform and development. Doctrines developed. So, the Trinity, though not called such anywhere in Scripture, is there, and the Nicene Creed reflects the long discussion within Christendom about how to read Scripture on the subject. That being so, it was not up for renegotiation in some process by which it became something else. That was one of the main reasons he crossed the Tiber. Many of us followed suite for similar reasons.