A friend of mine likes to explain his religious background this way: “I have powerful conservative roots. I was raised in a very strong conservative, Roman Catholic, immigrant, German, farming family, with all the inhibitions, protectiveness, exclusivity, and reticence that this entailed. It would be hard to find a more strongly conservative religious background than mine. And I’m grateful for that. It’s one of the greatest gift you can be given. Now I’m free for the rest of my life!”
There is something both healthily conservative and healthily liberal in that assessment. The instinct within the liberal wants to push edges, to widen the circle, to move away from narrowness, to be more inclusive, to not always see the other as threat, and to protect the ineffability of God and God’s universal salvific will. Whereas the conservative intuits the necessity of being rooted in truth, in grounding yourself in the essentials, in having proper boundaries, and in not being naive to the fact that everything that’s precious and true will invariably be under attack.
Both protect the soul. The soul, as we know, has two functions which are often in tension with each other. On the one hand, the soul is the source of all energy inside of us, the fire that fuels everything we do. We know the precise moment when the soul leaves a body. All energy ceases. On the other hand, the soul is also the source of unity and integration. It glues us together. Decomposition begins the very second the soul leaves the body. Without the soul, every element goes its own way.
The liberal instinct is mostly about the fire, the conservative instinct is mostly about the glue. The story of the man who was raised in such a strong conservative background and who now feels rooted enough to be more liberal illustrates that both are necessary. There is a time to be liberal and there is a time to be conservative and it is important that we know which time is right both as regards to our own growth and as regards to the growth of others.
Malcolm X once said something to this effect: I have a strong allegiance to both Christ and Muhammad because we need them both. Right now, so many of the men to whom I am trying to minister need the discipline of Allah. Their lives are in such disrepair that they need clear, hard rules of discipline that are spelled out for them without ambiguity. Later on, once they have their lives more in order, they can turn more to the liberal love of Jesus. First we need the discipline of Allah, later the freedom of Jesus.
He understood that there are stages to the spiritual life and that what is needed in one stage will sometimes be very different than what is needed in another. What are the basic stages of the spiritual life?
The gospels, the mystics, and the great spiritual writers, with some variation in how they express this, concur that there are three clear stages to the spiritual journey or, in another way of putting it, three levels of discipleship:
The first level, which might aptly be termed, Essential Discipleship, is the struggle to get our lives together, to achieve basic human maturity (which itself might be defined as the capacity for essential unselfishness, the capacity to put others before ourselves). The second level can be called Generative Discipleship and is the struggle to give our lives away in love, service, and prayer. The third level can be called Radical Discipleship and consists in the struggle to give our deaths away, that is, to leave this earth in such a way that our deaths themselves become our final gift and blessing to our families, churches, and society.
The first stage, Essential Discipleship, is precisely about essentials, about getting our lives together by properly channeling our energies through discipline (the origin of the word, discipleship). By definition, that task is mainly conservative: learning proper teaching so as to have a healthy vision, submitting to rules of behavior that ground us and move us beyond our instinctual selfishness, and being a learner within family and church community. Metaphorically speaking, at this stage we are learning the “discipline of Allah”.
But, once this stage is achieved with a certain proficiency, the challenge becomes different. Now the task is to give our lives away – and to give them away ever more deeply and to an ever-widening circle. That’s a more liberal task and it becomes even-more liberal as we move towards that truly great unknown, death, where all that we have grounded ourselves in must be left behind as we are opened to the widest circle of all, cosmic embrace, infinity, and the ineffable mystery of God.
In our discipleship, our spiritual journey, there is an important time to be conservative, just as there is an important time to be liberal. We are not meant to pick one of these over the other.