The question will ever be posed: What is the essence of liberalism? And so it is today. In order to answer this question we must, of course, have the courage not to over-simplify. A vital liberalism has within it tensions, struggle, a dialectic if you will. With a self-denying ordinance which disclaims finality or authoritativeness, we venture the following characterization of the essential elements of liberalism.
First, liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism…In religious terms, we may say that liberalism presupposes that revelation is continuous in word, in deed, and in nature, that it is not sealed, and that it points always beyond itself.
Second, liberalism holds that all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion. It presupposes moral obligations; moreover, it is in fact operative in institutions which maintain continuity in one way or another with those of a previous epoch and order…[and] liberals recognize the necessity for restrictions on individual freedom. Moreover, they recognize that ‘persuasion’ can be perverted…All men and women are children of God. The implication intended here is that the liberal method of free inquiry is the condition sine qua non (a condition without which there is nothing) of both the fullest apprehension of the divine and the preservation of human dignity which comes from our being children of one God.
Third, being an ethical procedure, that is, purporting to be significant for human behavior, liberalism involves the moral obligation to direct one’s efforts towards the establishment of democratic community. It involves, of course, a common life which gives rise to the expression of the manifold, creative impulses of the human spirit, an expression which presupposes a cooperative life impelled by the motives of love and justice.
Fourth, liberalism holds that the resources (human divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. The divine element in reality both demands and supports mutuality. Thus the ground of hope is the…actual grace of God.
Why liberal? Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today.
By James Luther Adams, from The Essential James Luther Adams, as read by the Rev. Sara Ascher at 1stUUPB on March 15, 2015.