Liberals, Labels, and Language Games: An Attempt Better to Respond to Bo Sanders

Last week Bo Sanders, over at Homebrewed Christianity, responded to an assertion (to which he did not link publicly, but that’s not entirely relevant to what I’m assaying here) that he and Tripp Fuller, his fellow host on the podcast, are basically liberals, despite their claims not to be liberal but radical (or HyperTheist or Progressive or whatever other labels they prefer to “liberal”).  In his post Bo objected in terms of what a liberal really is:

There is nothing wrong with being liberal. It is one of many valid ways to participate in the christian tradition. If I were liberal I would be so proudly. I am not liberal. Liberal approaches do not go far enough to combat capitalism, address colonial consequences or repent of the Constantinian compromise that led to Christendom it’s subsequent horrors.

In late July I had begun re-reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, a book that I had attempted about ten years ago (with limited comprehension, I now realize).  So I posed what I thought was a Wittgensteinian response, wondering whether Bo missed the context in which the give-a-theologian-a-label language-game was happening:

I’ll ask the same question I did last time: do we get to choose our own labels?  I realize there’s a fair bit of stock put in denying this or that label in seminary circles (when I was in seminary I insisted that I was not an “evangelical,” so I’m not casting the first stone here, I assure you), but if I can be a sloppy Wittgensteinian for a moment, don’t definitions tend to be working rules that take their shape in the course of the game itself?

In the days since I wrote that (along with a couple other paragraphs which you can see at HBC), I’ve realized that my own response didn’t take into account adequately the broad flexibility of utterance that Wittgenstein’s posthumous book would point up for us, and thus this little essay is going to be less about Bo’s claim and more about how I should have thought about it more broadly.

You are in fact a liberal!

My eagerness to dismiss the game in which one applies labels for one’s self just won’t do.  The utterance “I am not a liberal” (I wish I knew French so that I could reference Magritte here) has its own place, in its own range of linguistic circumstances.  Likewise the utterance “You are in fact a liberal” has a separate but overlapping range of valid contexts.  And in fact, the range of possible overlapping contexts is fairly broad:

  1. Two people, attempting to establish their monarchists bona fides in front of an angry monarchist mob, have the sort of exchange that goes, “I am not a liberal.”  “You are in fact a liberal, and your presence at revolutionary meetings proves it!”
  2. Two people, attempting to establish their relationship to a tradition whose roots go deeper than the Enlightenment, have the sort of exchange that goes, “I am not a liberal.” “You are in fact a liberal, and your insistence that current political fashions affects your interpretation of the tradition demonstrates it.”
  3. Two people, attempting to establish their credibility as theological radicals, have the sort of exchange that goes, “I am not a liberal.”  “You are in fact a liberal, since you don’t regard atheism as the sine qua non of valid a/theological thought.”
  4. Two people, attempting to establish their credibility as political radicals, have the sort of exchange that goes, “I am not a liberal.”  “You are in fact a liberal, and your refusal to regard Communism as the sine qua non of post-ideological political thought is proof positive.”

Now the first item in this series is interesting enough in terms of world history, but it doesn’t seem to be the point in this exchange (unless one wants to dwell on Tripp’s preference for “kindom” over “kingdom” in rendering basileia ouranou for modern English-speaking audiences, and I’m not that concerned with that in this little assay).  The last three seem to have popped up in the ongoing conversation (which you should check out, O Reader), and any of the three seems to be a valid pair of jousting assertions.  What’s more important than the immediate subject matter, though, is the different character-of-assertion that each of the pair seems to assume:

  • “I am not a liberal” assumes that the speaker/writer’s conception of liberal, as opposed to other relevant categories in the same neighborhood (radical, progressive, monarchist, or whatever) should determine the connotative boundaries of “liberal,” so that the name “liberal” is the same as a label like “green” or “red” or “triangular”: once one has established a credible definition, that should end the discussion.
  • “You are in fact a liberal” assumes that technical definitions should, in such exchanges of definition, should give way to connotations that one can detect, with reasonable investigation, in the conversations of broad populations who use the words.  Thus the connotative boundaries shift and expand somewhat, so that “liberal” becomes a category that encompasses in one working category what the first speaker would separate out into distinct and non-overlapping categories such as “HyperTheist,” “radical,” “socialist,” and so on.  The community that determines such connotative boundaries is not the assumed circle of specialists that the first assertion implies but a broader “public” voice that the second implies.

It’s not the Sum Total, but it’s Part of the Picture

And there’s where my response was inadequate: I made the categorical error of implying (even if not asserting) that, because the self-label is not the sum total of the theological-label game, that therefore it can’t be part of it.  That just doesn’t bear out in the ways that we actually utter such assertions as “I am not a liberal” and “You are in fact a liberal.”  The fact of the matter is that the self-label and the public-label are complex phenomena that involve both the responsibility of the namer and the communities that make the name intelligible, and both sorts of assertions are valid and, when regarded with an ear to hear, helpful for making sense of the divisions that the exchange is trying to name.  Where I should have drawn the circle big enough to encompass both sorts of sentences, but instead I merely shifted the too-narrow circle towards the public-naming side.

I have to ask myself, though, how does this bear out ethically?  In other words, when I’m neither the person making the first assertion nor making the second, but a third person who’s butting into the conversation, what can I say that’s actually helpful?  (No, since you asked, it never occurred to me simply to stay out of this particular conversation.  The nature of Internet discourse is that everyone is potentially a new interlocutor at any given moment.)  It’s far easier to say what’s not helpful, namely what I did: nobody benefits when one meets a “technical definition” assertion with a “communal meaning” counter-assertion, with no attempt to bridge the two, valid sorts of discourse.

What I should have done, now that I’ve had a few days to think, is to ask some Aristotelian questions: for what sake is the self-label?  Towards what good does a community-label observation point?  If I had that initial response to do over (and the conversation has decidedly moved on at this point, so it’s not really a live option), I might have attempted to locate the two in ways that would at least have helped those objecting to understand each other’s concerns and perhaps even to propose some further questions so that another step that discloses more truth (rather than less) were possible.  As it stands, I just didn’t do those things.  But then again, naming one’s mark-missing does provide some promise, should the epistle of James be right, to bring some life to the next exchange that didn’t emerge from the last one.

That, or I’ll just get accused of mansplaining.

I suppose either one is possible.

8 thoughts on “Liberals, Labels, and Language Games: An Attempt Better to Respond to Bo Sanders

  1. I do think that instead of saying “I am not a liberal,” it is much more helpful (although perhaps painful) to say, “In what ways to I look like a liberal to you?” (Or even, “In what ways do I look like a fish to you?”) Otherwise you may make the mistake of pretending that your “accusers” are in the position to be taught by you (about fish, liberals, or whatever). I’m almost sure that your “accusers” are actually, in their own minds, letting you know something about their experience of reading/ hearing your words.
    In other words, as is often the case in “language games,” both sides probably feel like someone else is trying to tell them what they are thinking/ feeling/ experiencing. And both sides, properly, object.

  2. One of the biggest problems I see in this whole situation is that when the public-label “liberal” is used, especially when related to theology, it is a devil term used to discount or dismiss the person being labeled. I think much or most of the time the person using the term could not define the term according to the assumptions that those who claim the term liberal bring to the table, rather they only understand the term by the conclusions that most, but not all, liberals come to.
    One example of this was Roger Olson post a few months ago: And Tony Jones’ response to it:
    Most people would group group both Tony and Bo in with liberal but they do so out of the conclusions these two and “liberals” come to not by the assumptions that they bring when starting their work.

    Finally, I think liberal and conservative have become so broad as to basically be useless. Most of the time they merely describe left or right of center, nothing more. Also, if liberal is simply a term to dismiss someone it needs to be trashed.

  3. NedEdmund Interesting, Ned.  I actually resonated somewhat with Olson’s post, but I did so largely because his descriptive work seemed to name truthfully some of the big-picture differences in approach between theologians whose work I could name as my influences and those whose work I couldn’t.  In other words, if “liberal” is a term that arises from rhetorical invention rather than laboratory experiment (and I tend to think it is), Olson’s rhetoric strikes me as truthful enough to help me, at least, make sense of some things.  
    The fact of the matter is that I do theology differently from the ways that (I’m going to use the term here) liberals do, and although I grant that there are intelligible differences among liberals, I’m inclined to say that the category is broad enough to encompass them in the same way that the term “traditionalist” is broad enough to encompass certain Calvinist, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox approaches, as different as those traditions are.  The helpfulness of the category, as far as I can tell, is to note certain relationships to received tradition that stand as common among all of the above, plus my own approach, which is neither Calvinist nor Catholic nor Cappadocian but still runs more closely parallel to those approaches than it does to the (varied and intelligibly different) ways of doing theology that I would call “liberal.”  In other words, I would point to “liberal” and “traditionalist” not as monoliths but as sets-of-sets.
    Certainly I grant the danger of devil-terms, being a disciple of Richard Weaver, but I wonder whether the metaphors “right of center” and “left of center” (leftovers from the French Revolution) do any more descriptive work than “liberal” and “conservative” do, if we assume that the concept of “the center” as problematic rather than axiomatic.  Depending on where one locates “the center,” the geographic metaphor takes on wildly different connotations.

  4. BoSanders First, thanks for responding.
    Here’s my problem with your basic refutation-move: the structure of your objection assumes that “liberal” is something like “red” (which one can delimit, with relative consensus, based on frequencies of electromagnetic waves) or “fish” (which one can delimit, with relative consensus, based on anatomical and environmental characteristics) when (in my experience at least) “liberal” is something not so easily defined in optical or zoological terms.  
    Let me attempt a parallel, and you can guess whether this scenario is rooted in actual classroom experience or not.  Suppose I’m teaching Fences by August Wilson, and when my students (predictably) start to moralize about the play’s use of the n-word, I note that their eagerness to judge (and to say that my refusals to condemn Wilson for writing it into the script and to pronounce that word out loud constitute a “double standard”) might be linked to their un-examined “white privilege.”  The following exchange breaks out:
    “I’m not privileged, Dr. Gilmour.”
    “You might not regard yourself that way, but consider the possibility that you’ve just not acknowledged it.”
    “No, I know what privilege is.  It’s the people who live in million-dollar houses, who send their kids to private school and never have to worry about money.  My dad worked two jobs to make the money to send me even to this college, and he just lost one of them.  My parents have to worry now about whether they’re going to be able to keep our house and help m with college.  That’s not privilege.”
    Now I could say that, since the student asserts that “privilege” does not describe himself, and since he has no interest in establishing further that he is not privileged, the conversation is over.  But my hunch is that there might be more to explore here.
    As I said to Ned above, I wonder whether your univocal limits on the category “liberal” aren’t cutting off some potentially useful investigations that could happen.  I’m not saying (at this point) that your self-conception isn’t part of the picture; I’m just wondering if a larger picture might disclose more truth.

  5. Bo,
    I did read the original post as well as the earlier ones you
    liked to. I agree with the distinctions you made between liberal and
    progressive, specifically those on McKnight’s blog, and I would claim the
    self-label of progressive as well.
    What I was attempting to point out is that any such nuances
    to the term liberal and inevitably lost when the term is used as a
    Like I said originally, there are so many problems with the
    label that I find it basically useless beyond a general left-of-center, which
    Nathan points out  is itself problematic, and I think we should leave it
    behind for more precise descriptors.

  6. BoSanders NedEdmund Disappointed?  No.  I am a bit puzzled, though, that a fiat declaring most historical uses of a term suddenly invalid, accompanied by a strange appeal to authority (John Cobb said it, I believe it, and that settles it) count as linguistic precision in your book.  I found your piece on McKnight’s blog baffling, given that you’ve cited Hans-Georg Gadamer as an influence in the past.  I just got around to Truth and Method this summer, and part of what makes his project so compelling is that he allows language to be the living, meaning-generative medium that I’ve so long experienced, and he makes quite a convincing case against the coining of “technical terms” whose parameters are so narrow that nobody who’s actually used the word before hasn’t actually ever used the word.  He’d hardly be congratulating those who declare such “technical terms” over against the historical flourishing of meaning for “precision.”
    With regards to the set-of-sets, Bo, I largely drew that concept from Olson’s piece, with which you seem to take issue.  I’m confused as to whether you’re agreeing with him or disagreeing.

  7. BoSanders ngilmour NedEdmund cellarcoat No, I’m more inclined to say that refutation is hardly ever possible.  Except when it is.  But as I said in the OP, I’ve been reading Wittgenstein this summer. 🙂  I’m not sure why you think that privilege is a bad analogy, but your rhetorical question does indicate to me that you do disapprove.  Let me try to articulate the analogy further, and you can let me know where you’d argue against it.
    – In the language-game that I was trying to get the student to play, “privilege” names a social position, something that one can describe intelligibly in historical terms and which does some work to make sense of otherwise hard-to-explain differences.
    – In the language-game that the student insisted on playing, a definition that she posits, one that rules out most historical uses of the word “privilege,” guarantees that only those people she wants to regard as “those privileged people,” will ever fit the definition.
    – In the exchange, the student takes offense when I suggest that the connotations of the word might have some validity beyond her own self-conception.
    I was trying to get at the same sort of thing with my discussion of the term “liberal” in the OP: where you (and the commentator at HBC) want to posit “precision,” I see a prescriptive linguistic fiat that obscures rather than explores the history of the word.  As I said in response to Ned, I thought that Roger Olson’s piece (which you seem to disapprove of as well) does a fair job bringing the history of the term to bear on the ways that folks are doing theology in our own moment.  That’s not to say that all “liberal” theologies are identical, that they constitute an intellectual monolith, but it is to say that there are enough family resemblances (there’s Wittgenstein again) among the positions that Olson (and many other historically-minded thinkers that I’ve read) call “liberal” that I’m inclined to retain the term.  
    With regards to “liberal” as a devil-term, once again I’m not sure where your argument is going.  Is calling you “liberal” part of a polemic, or is “Liberal” something to be proud of?  I’m not sure how those two propositions fit together.
    Concerning the “Anglo-mergent vegetarians,” just such a neologism is what I’m interested in discussing here.  “Liberal” is a word with a relatively long pedigree in modern theology (J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism reaching its ninetieth birthday this year).  Obviously John Cobb’s magesterial one-liners attempt to frame things differently from the ways that Machen, Barth, Kenneth Burke, Richard Weaver, Walker Percy, Alasdair MacIntyre, and a whole mess of helpful thinkers from the last thirty years have to say about the contours of “liberalism,” but I’m still not inclined to think that a term like “liberal” is something to be tightly defined in the way that the biological term “fish” gets defined (in other words, few books from the last couple hundred years, other than Moby-Dick, will deny that a grouper is a fish but a sperm whale is not).  The difference between words with histories like “liberal” and neologisms like “HyperTheist” or “Anglo-mergent vegetarians” is that the latter set haven’t had time yet to prove their worth in actual conversation.  If in fact the category “Anglo-mergent vegetarians” comes to be part of the long conversation in the way that “liberal” has over the last hundred years or so, we can talk.  
    (And yes, I recognize that you were attempting a joke with the neologism, but it seemed useful at the moment as a hook to hang some of the ideas with which I’ve been wrestling, so I ran with it.)

  8. BoSanders ngilmour NedEdmund Bo, sorry I disappeared into a hole for a week or so.  A new semester begins, and I must pay the piper, no?  
    My point in citing Gadamer is that part of his project is to keep language historical, not cede it to people who declare hermetically-sealed definitions and assume that everyone should follow.  I found it curious that the history-of-language end of his project doesn’t seem to have rubbed off.  
    Also, I’m not clear on where I’ve been rigid.  If anything, I thought (I may be wrong) that I was trying to loosen up a too-tight definition and note that words actually become more interesting as they accumulate historical changes.

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