"Liberal" and "Conservative" Labels

It looks like The Biblioblog Top-50 might reinstate the practice of labeling us by our liberal/conservative leanings. I can’t say I’m upset by this idea in the way Jason Staples is, and wonder if strenuous objections owe to a certain insecurity about the way one is perceived. We shouldn’t take this stuff too seriously. I’m amazed at how I’ve been pegged over the past five years: flaming liberal, moderate liberal, secular liberal, Christian liberal, moderate conservative — one reader even thought I was an evangelical if you can believe it — but it’s been more curious than troubling.

For the sake of fun experimenting, however, I do like Jason’s proposal (in the second of his six reasons for objecting) about expanding our platform for assessing what it means to be liberal/conservative. It puts me in mind of The Political Compass which rates one’s politics on two scales — a social axis and an economical one. For example, I’m a strong social liberal (way down on the vertical axis) but a fiscal moderate (only slightly to the left of center on the horizontal one).

In like manner, Jason proposes three axes to assess liberal/conservative leanings in biblical studies: a theological axis (one’s reputation based on personal beliefs), a scholarly axis (one’s openness or resistance to new scholarly ideas), and a critical axis (one’s willingness or not to engage and interact with those outside one’s camp). This isn’t a bad start, and based on the way Jason describes them I suppose I’d be liberal across the board. I’m obviously a secular liberal in terms of personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof); I continually endorse thinking outside the box; and I’ve always warmed to the philosophy of John Meier which is mirrored on the biblioblogosphere — interacting with and taking the best from all camps of scholarship, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, evangelical, agnostic, and atheist alike.

Why is it, then, that I’ve been pegged as conservative on some occasions? The only thing I can think is that certain conclusions I reach are rather traditional — and perhaps boringly so. But as Mark Goodacre often says in his podcast, being scholarly sometimes requires being a spoilsport. (I.e. Biblical scholarship can’t always do for us what we want it to do, and sometimes the traditional, trite and mundane is exactly what was originally meant.) So maybe we need a fourth axis for Jason’s model, based on conclusions one reaches after testing ideas however wild and radical. On this axis I suppose I could be properly construed as a “moderate” or even “moderate conservative”, which would account for the way I’ve been pegged in certain quarters.

So here’s a homework assignment for someone: come up with a test analogous to the Political Compass, but with four axes instead of two, and we’ll have a decent way of assessing ourselves. But smile and have fun about it, if we really must. Getting down to it, I don’t care too much how I’m labeled — whether by the Biblioblog Top-50 or others — even if it’s interesting to see the variety of perception.

UPDATE: Stephen Carlson makes crystal clear how he feels about the issue.

UPDATE (II): Rick Sumner weighs in, and it’s been nice to see him blogging again.

UPDATE (III): The Biblioblog Top-50 has decided not to proceed with the idea. They will introduce “periodic surveys of bibliobloggers on various topics” instead.

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11 thoughts on “"Liberal" and "Conservative" Labels

  1. The reason why some (including me) strenuously object is that should categorization too easily enables scholars to be pigeonholed (as liberal and conservative) and then ignored without addressing the merits of their views.

    I suppose we all pigeonhole each other, but there's no reason to centralize this.

  2. I suppose I might feel more like you if I were a professional working in the field. Currently I don't have much at stake if people ignore me, and as I said, their skewed perceptions don't bother me.

  3. They are tiring labels, not least because there are many ways we can be one or the other. That's why I think working more factors (axes) into the picture could result in an interesting experiment.

  4. They're worse than tiring, they're wrongheaded. What constitutes “conservative?” On some points I tend more toward the “traditional” reading than many of the most typical “conservative” scholars, but am I farther to that end of the spectrum than, for example, Ben Witherington? I don't think many would put me there.

    The combination of your post and Stephen's really captures the problem with the proposed categorization. The line is arbitrary, and will end up classing people “wrongly,” as you point out, and the terms will–at least in the eyes of some, and doubtlessly despite the best of intentions–will end up being perceived as a pejorative. The content is determined before the material is absorbed, and everyone is prone to that to some degree. As Stephen notes, it's inevitable.

  5. Loren and others,

    I am encouraged by the fact that there has been so much opposition to this labeling idea. I finally took your advice, Loren, and started a blog. I have no idea how my blog would be classified since I come to conservative conclusions about Acts, but liberal conclusions about the disputed letters of “Paul”.

    I find it worrying that so many researchers ARE easily classified in terms of their position on the conservative-liberal spectrum. What I mean is that someone's view on the partition theories of 2 Corinthians, for example, IS a good predictor of his/her views on the reliability of the Gospels, the date of Galatians, etc.. People often DO tend to fall in line behind others in their camp.

    Protestants seem to under-play the role of Mary in the NT, and I suspect this is a reaction to the Catholic position. I wonder if a similar kind of thing happens in NT scholarship. For example, some seem to hold the North Galatia theory as a reaction against the conservative preference for the South. The polarization in scholarship is unhealthy, and labels do not help.

    Anyway, I appreciate your non-aligned, independent approach, Loren.

  6. I'm glad to see you blogging now, Richard! Thanks for the heads up. And yes, your own example of conservative conclusions regarding Acts but liberal regarding Paul's letters is an excellent example of how the labels become so problematic.

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