At least in this part of the States, American Christians so overwhelmingly align themselves with the political right that there’s a perception that you can’t be a Christian and not be a conservative. (I should point out that this is Texas, however, and in the last election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, most Texans voted for Quark of the Ferengi.)
“Liberal” has come to more or less mean “evil”, and is associated with all those things that Good Christians Don’t Support. You hear “so-and-so is dangerously liberal” or “Christians shouldn’t support their liberal agenda” or other things. As far as usage goes, you could substitute the word “bad” or “evil” with little difference.
But regardless of your political leanings, “liberality” is a good and useful word, and it does not deserve to be have a lot of the associations it seems to. I’d like to explore some of this original spectrum of meaning.
Liberality in its traditional, non-political sense is first and foremost about generosity. The King James version of the Bible translates Romans 12:8 as “Let him who gives do so with liberality”. Generously. Not with a measure, no matter how big the ladle. “Liberal” itself derives from the Latin word for freedom, and with this in mind we are brought to Jesus’ challenge to us: “Freely you have received. Now freely give.”
God’s generosity expressed in His grace to us is not measured, but lavish, measureless, disproportionate, not counting the cost. He doesn’t dole out His favour with a teaspoon, nor even by the bucket. Unconstrained in the resources He is able to deploy, He is truly free in His giving and His favour, and He calls us to the same liberality of spirit.
Liberality was also traditionally connected with the idea of liberal study – that which desires knowledge for the sheer joy of knowing rather than for some practical purpose. This is to all intents and purposes the opposite of a modern education, which is intended to be useful in the job market, always having in mind the goal of producing competitive worker bees and salary-earners. It’s instructive to note that CS Lewis, in his Narnia chronicles, often describes his witches and evil magicians as being “very practical”, by which he means that they are only interested in things or people if they wish to make use of them. This utilitarian “practical” streak is the opposite of liberality; the liberal pursuit of knowledge will not be constrained by ends and use and profitability, but with the higher goals of expanding the field of human knowledge. Knowledge not for an end, whether economic or poltical, but on its own terms, following the evidence wherever it leads.
Now, obviously we need both. All the high ideals of the world won’t put bread on the table. But it seems to me that at the moment we’re much more in danger of losing the idea that the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself is a good thing.
It’s obviously difficult to be truly liberal in our pursuit of knowledge. Everyone has an agenda, whether stated or unstated, conscious or unconscious. Even me. But perhaps if we held our agendas a little more loosely we might avoid some problems.
Thirdly, and by way of its first meaning of generosity, liberality is the antithesis and cure of the plutonic, covetous impulse. Freedom from the captivating desire to possess and to own; it is able to use worldly wealth without being mastered by it. St Francis of Assisi was radical in this regard. If we are to be masters of our money and not servants of our mammon, we must cultivate liberality. Freedom to give, open-heartedness and peace, in the place of the shrunken, close-fisted, avaricious spirit that always wants what it does not have and cannot be content.
Then, too, liberality does not consider the objects of its generosity, but bestows wherever there is opportunity. Like the rain, which “raineth on the just and on the unjust”, like the sun which sheds abroad its light to both the good and the evil among men. This is another trait that I would venture to suggest is desperately needed in our society, particularly as Christians. We’re so often so caught up in what we do and don’t support that we lose sight of the sheer grace of giving. To give without an agenda, just to bless… Isn’t this how the Lord gives?
So here’s to liberality.