Gladstone's Library

Liberal Faith and Positive Values

by Richard Martin

A conference at St Deiniol's Library on 10 June 2010

led by Revd Jonathan Clatworthy

Basing his talk on much of his recent book, Liberal Faith in a Divided Church, our General Secretary led us through the history of the relationship between religion and science, culminating in a consideration of the situation today where the desire for certainty often eclipses a more complex, integrated approach.

Modern people struggle to make sense of religion but in the Ancient World religion and the physical world were connected. The early view was of a stable and ordered world created by God. The emphasis on logic from the 11th century onwards resulted in a dualist approach which liberated science to develop but left religion more backward looking as it emphasised the role of divine revelation. The Reformation didn't affect this emphasis, arguing rather on where authority lay for interpreting this revelation.

Following the Enlightenment there were those who accepted only logic, maths and the evidence of the senses as constituting reason, but there were those who accepted a wider interpretation, and Richard Hooker proposed that authority in matters of faith requires the use of Scripture, reason and tradition.

The great advancements in science during the 19th century were accompanied by the renunciation of much religious dogma, and the religious revivals of that period tended to accept a more limited role for religion, resulting in a revived dualism.

Today we can detect four significant approaches:

  • Scientific positivism, where science has all the correct answers
  • Religious fundamentalism, where scripture provides the facts and science the theories.
  • Dualism, where science and religion are each kept in their own place
  • Integrated natural theology, which can cope with no-one having certainty.

Amongst the issues we discussed following this session were consideration of how fact and fiction are defined, the role of scientific thinking today, how we tolerate differing views without inducing chaos, the need for the freedom to challenge tradition in order for it to grow, the need to accept that we may be wrong in order to learn, and the concern that expert consensus doesn't always convince general public opinion.

Jonathan's second session concentrated on the current situation and the role of liberal faith today. A liberal approach requires us to be open to reason, to critical and historical research, and to ethical implications rather than exclusive emphasis on liturgy and the afterlife.

Scripture provides the roots of our tradition. During the first five centuries of Christianity there were vigorous debates between believers, and if our beliefs have purpose then we need to argue about them.

A conservative faith tends to be characterised by statements of belief, by an unchanging and counter-cultural approach, and by an artificial separation for culture & science.

A liberal faith is confident, is open to new insights and able to change without fear.

Defending a liberal faith is challenging but urgent. It is a generous tradition and therefore vulnerable to those who would undermine it. Part of our approach is to eschew the absolute requirement of certainty, so how do we negotiate with those who believe with certainty that they have the only correct answer?

We believe that while we don't (and can't) have all the answers we are committed enough to look for them and that this is an approach which engages with the world in a relevant way.

We expressed our gratitude to Jonathan for providing an analysis which helped us to stand back and see how we've arrived at the different approaches we see today, for the confidence which his talk and our discussions provided in our attempts to improve the relevance people feel for a Christian approach, and for providing us with much food for thought.

Richard Martin is a retired physics teacher. He organizes the meetings of the North West regional group of Modern Church.