Monday, July 06, 2009

Contra Ideologica

In recent years I have begun to become disenchanted with the modern political system. This is not the disenchantment of the pessimist or the idealist, but the disenchantment of perspective. Specifically, it is a disenchantment with the modern Christian conservative movement, because I believe that the modern conservative movement has completely missed the point. Throughout their material, you see statements about America being a Christian nation and how we need to bring America back to Christ, how if we could just have a revival then all our problems would be solved, if the church would come out from the cave into which it has retreated and would start actually preaching the gospel again, we could get this country back on the right track.

Now, I agree that the church in America has failed in many ways to preach the gospel, and I agree that revival is necessary for the salvation of souls, but that's not my point in this essay. Neither is it my objective to argue about America being a Christian nation, although I think that is a faulty, misguided statement. My primary point is that this mindset in which the conservative movement finds itself is fundamentally misguided. It is an attempt to devise a system with which to save the world, to set forth an "if we only do this, then everything will be all right." I think this is a fundamental mistake, one that affects the way we view and interact with the world. But why is this so dangerous?

(In all that I'm about to say, I must acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Richard Gamble and his Western Heritage Since 1600 class, which has shaped my thinking on this subject significantly. Also, thanks to Rebecca Duberstein and Dakota Fuller, who helped me to refine many of these thoughts on that long car ride home from school.)

Defining Ideology

We must first ask ourselves, what is an ideology? It is a system of beliefs which people put together to explain the world. Think of proponents of an ideology as system-builders. Other words have been used to describe them--Edmund Burke called them the Geometers, C.S. Lewis called them the Conditioners--but let's use system-builders for our purposes. These are men who figure out just how the world works, all of its ins and outs, and boil it down to an understandable system. "What's the problem with that?" you might ask. Burke describes his Geometers as men who build a perfect system in the abstract, full of straight lines, right angles, and flat planes, and then attempt to impose this system onto the real world, a world in which straight lines, right angles, and flat planes don't actually exist.

Examples from History

In other words, system-builders oversimplify the world. Although their ideas may not be wrong, they're far from complete. For some more obvious examples, let's look at three very prominent system-builders from recent memory: Marxists, Darwinists, and Freudians (not-so-coincidentally, the three most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century). Marx, for instance, had some very good insights about class conflict, and figured out just how man works. "Man is an economic being!" he cried. "All his drives are economic drives, and class warfare drives the world forward!" Since he had figured out just how man works, he devised a system of thought around it--an ideology, if you will--which he called communism. Communism showed men just how the world worked, explained human history, and (most importantly) gave them a picture of the future. Since he had men figured out, Marx also knew just what was in their best interest, and thought that if he could just educate men well enough about what their best interest was, the world could not help but turn into a worker's paradise.

Or take Darwin. Darwin realized that man is a biological being, and driven by the need to survive and reproduce. Or take Freud, who realized that man is a psychological being, and driven by the desire for sex with his mother (or something like that). These men constructed systems around their interpretations of the world, often based on true observations, but, as Lewis observes in The Abolition of Man, they take one portion of the truth and "swelling it into madness." The problem with their systems is that they are too complete, too geometrical, too. . .perfect. They're trying to impose straight lines onto a world that has no straight lines.

Burke saw this problem two hundred years ago when he penned his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Before the French Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, Burke predicted that this so-called Age of Reason could only result in a bloodbath. Why? Because he saw that the revolutionaries were mere Geometers. They had an exalted view of natural rights, of the supremacy of man's reason, and believed that if they could destroy all vestiges of the old system, they could build a new system in its place. Reason would triumph over all and would herald in a new age of man, where this reason alone would reign supreme.

Burke saw that these men would fail because they did not understand one crucial thing about human nature: man is fallen and desperate for power. The French Revolution was merely another system being constructed, around reason and natural rights, and it could only fail because reality is much more complicated than any system can allow for. The year after he wrote his Reflections, thousands of heads rolled in the Paris streets. You could almost call it prophetic.

Or take Fyodor Dostoyevsky's critique in his Notes from Underground. His narrator, the unidentified "Underground Man," rants against all forms of determinism, especially economic and biological (i.e. Marx and Darwin). System-builders believe that they know what is best for mankind, and since men always choose that which is in their best interest, if they are properly educated as to what their best interest is, they must choose it, thereby leading man into some kind of utopia. The Underground Man argues that the problem with this theory is that it discounts one of man's greatest desires, the desire that destroys all systems. This is the desire for independence. If man is told that his choice is inevitable, that he must choose this thing because it is in his best interest, he will instinctively choose something else, something that he knows is not in his best interest. Why? Because his own independence, his ability to make an independent decision, even if it's not in his best interest, is more important to him than getting what is best for him. In a sense, his independence is his best interest. This instinct alone destroys all systems, all determinism, because it shows that man is far more complicated than a system can explain.

G.K. Chesterton points out a slightly different problem in his book Orthodoxy. He points out, "The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite." And he goes on to describe an alien being who is observing humans, who notices that humans are very symmetrical creatures: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs. And so he figures that inside everything is symmetrical as well, and sure enough he finds two brain lobes, two lungs. Then he figures that there absolutely must be two hearts, since there are two of everything else. Yet, then, right when he was so sure he was right, when it was perfectly reasonable to assume there were two hearts, he would be completely wrong. Yet a system can't predict these irregularities in life, the ones that throw off all the straight lines and perfect syllogisms. That's why they never work.

Also note that ideologies are much more subtle than the obvious communism. Capitalism can also become an ideology. When we start believing that free markets are the solution for every problem, we've created a system. But they're even more subtle than that. As humans, we love to have everything figured out. The reason that systems stick so well, why so many people buy into them, is because we want to believe in a geometric world. We want to understand things, to wrap our minds around things, for things to make complete sense to us. Yet we ultimately can't do that. Our minds are too limited, too finite. The world is too complex, too close to rationality and yet too far. Any time we think to ourselves "I have the world figured out" in some small way, we have constructed our own little system. These systems are harmful, and I would argue that they are sinful, since they are an example of our selfish pride seeking to take control over a world that only One can control.

That's why at the outset of this essay I criticized the modern Christian conservative movement. Many in the movement think they have the solution to the nation's problems: we just need a big revival and this country will get back on course. With more Christians in power and more Christians behind them, this country must take a turn for the better, right? Can you see the system being built up here? A system is still a system, even if it centers around Christ. No human plan, not even working for revival, can solve the human condition.

The Alternative

So what is the alternative? Surprisingly, I think the answer is hinted at in Voltaire's Candide. The novel, if you've never read it, is a satire on just about every system Voltaire could think of. It follows Candide, a young boy from Germany, as he travels throughout Europe trying to find his true love Cunegonde while suffering all sorts of terrible tragedies. He dies several times, but through various improbably circumstances comes back to life, his friend and teacher Pangloss also dies several times and becomes severely disfigured, numerous friends suffer various agonizing fates, he gains and loses an enormous fortune, Cunegonde is raped and killed, but also manages to survive somehow...the book goes on and on with these ridiculous stories. One of the ideas which it satirizes the most is the philosophy of Pangloss, who insists that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and thus tries to put a positive spin on everything that happens. When the kind Anabaptist falls into the Bay of Portugal and drowns, Pangloss explains that the bay was formed just in order that the Anabaptist might drown in it, and so on.

Finally, at the end, Candide finds Cunegonde, who is no longer beautiful, and, with Pangloss and several others, settles down in a little cottage, where they all begin to live normal, if quiet, lives, learning to garden and sew and cook. Candide and Pangloss one day are out in the garden, eating oranges and pistachios, when Pangloss launches into one of his explanations for why this must be the best of all possible worlds, for if they had not all died several times and undergone all the tortuous things they had gone through, they would not now be sitting in this garden eating oranges and pistachios. To which Candide responds with one of the best put-downs, in my opinion, in all of literature: "That is all well and good, but let us cultivate our garden."

Do you hear what Candide is saying? Stop trying to construct your little system and explain what got us here and trying to put a positive spin on it. What is more important is to cultivate our garden. I never thought I would come to agree with Voltaire in anything, but at least in this point, partially, I agree with the point he's making.

Samuel Johnson also makes this point in his Rasselas, although he is coming from a much more Christian perspective. The young prince Rasselas escapes with his sister Nekayah from his kingdom, where life is inside an impenetrable ring of mountains and in which there is no pain or trouble, in order to try and find the choice of life that will make him truly happy. His journey is remarkably similar to Candide's, as he meets all different worldviews and people who think they have the world figured out, but who demonstrate time and again that their choice of life does not make them happy. At the end of the book, when all choices have been exhausted and the prince and his party are talking together, the princess seems to speak Johnson's mind when she states "To me, the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity." In other words, we're never going to figure out this life in this life, we must focus on the next life.

So succinctly speaking, what am I proposing as the alternative to building systems? Simply this: stop trying to solve the world's problems, and focus on living your own individual life well. That's it. Don't try and explain the world, and be content to tend your own garden.

But what does this mean? Dr. Gamble, as he was closing the final discussion/lecture of the class which inspired and gave me most of the material for this essay, began telling the story of his father, who was a small pastor in a small New England town who served a small congregation. His church stayed roughly the same size during his pastorate. He never led any major revivals or started huge movements. He just faithfully pastored his church for over forty years. He tended his garden quietly. And those men are just as much heroes as the Billy Grahams and Abraham Lincolns of this world.

He concluded with this thought: "As young idealists, we often fail to see how much of life is taken up by mundane things. In our lifetimes, how much of our lives are taken up in getting dressed, brushing our teeth, doing the dishes, or mowing the lawn? We live a mundane life that may contain flashes of greatness. The great challenge, then, is to live the mundane life well."

Author Paul David Tripp also says something very similar, which I will quote at length because I think he hits the nail on the head:
You and I don’t do many significant things in our lives. We only make 3-4 major decisions. Most of us will not be written up in history books. Sorry, it’s true. For most of us, several decades after we die, the people we leave behind will struggle to remember the events of our lives. You live in the utterly mundane. You live in little moments. And if God doesn’t rule your little moments He doesn’t rule you because that is where you live. I think one of the big problems we make in our marriage is when we name little moments as “little moments” and say they are not important. If the character of a life is not set by four or five big moments but is set by 10,000 little moments, every little moment of your life is important. That’s where your life is formed and that’s where your relationships are built and formed. We cannot back away from the little moments because that happens to be where we live. And our God is a God of the little moments. He enters those little moments with his truth and wisdom and grace. (What Did You Expect?)
Our temptation is to get so caught up in those 4 or 5 big decisions that we miss the life we're supposed to be living, the life that God gave us to live. As Christians, we're called to live faithfully in our homes, in our families and communities, in our churches and schools. We're called to faithfully tend our gardens, not to change the world.

But Wait a Minute...

Now, at this point I can see several of you jumping up and down, waving your hand for my attention. "This is all true," I can hear you saying, "but are you saying that Christians are not supposed to try to spread the gospel? That we're not supposed to impact our culture with the truth? That we're not supposed to attempt to sanctify our government with God-glorifying national policies? That we're not supposed to be salt and light to the world?"

And that is exactly what I'm not saying. What I'm arguing for is not a retreat from engagement with the world. Far from it, I am arguing that Christians need to be constantly on guard and meeting the world head on. That's one of the primary purposes of this blog: it's a place where I seek to engage the ideas of the world and counter them with biblical truth.

Instead, what I am arguing for is a reorientation of our goals and priorities as we engage the world. To use Princess Nekayah once again, we will never achieve perfect happiness in this world. We will never contrive the perfect system that will remove all problems from the world. Revival will not solve the world's problems, or even America's problems, because man is still fallen and we still live in a fallen world. Revival springs up and looks flashy, but it quickly dies back down, leaving few people actually changed. We've supposedly had up to four "Great Awakenings" in this country (depending on who you ask), and yet today we are drifting towards an ever more secular society.

Instead, our focus must be on heaven. We know that revival is not the answer to the world's problems, for Christ is the answer. We seek to bring Christ to a lost world, not to save mankind, but to save men, individual men. Burke criticized the French revolutionaries and their supporters for being so concerned with mankind that they lose sight of actual men. Gamble paraphrased him with "Jesus tells us to love all men individually, not all men collectively."

So be a politician. End the Sudanese sex-slave trade. Write a book. Film a movie. Build an orphanage in Mexico. But be clear on what your purpose is. Your purpose is not to find a way to solve the world's problems. Your purpose is to love the world as Christ loves the world, and through loving the world to bring lost sheep back to their shepherd. Ultimately, you are called to live your life faithfully wherever God has placed you, with whatever talents he has given you. You're not meant to save the world. Leave that to the Savior, and tend your garden faithfully.

6 comments:

Amanda said...

I found your blog kind of randomly. I just had to comment on this though.

Wow. Excellent essay! This is exactly how I feel about most of the Christian conservative movement, but I would never have been able to put it so well. It reminds me a lot of what Rodney Clapp talked about in his book "A Peculiar People"; Christians need to stop thinking about how they can overthrow the powers that be in favor of a "Christian" system. "'Church' is a way of life lived not with the expectation that Christians can, through managerial arts or sudden heroism, make the world right. It is instead a way of life lived in the confidence that God has, in the kingdom of Christ, begun to set the world right -- and that someday Christ will bring his kingdom to its fulfillment... In the meantime, Christians are about surviving and alleviating the worst effects of a world bent of self-destruction."

Also, just wondering... have you read Steven Keillor's "This Rebellious House"? He has some interesting views on whether or not America really began as a "Christian" nation.

Stephanie K. said...

Glad you finished this. :) I really enjoyed reading it, as you bring up a lot of thought provoking concepts.

alex t. said...

Nice work, Sam.

However, couldn't you say that the proposal to "stop trying to solve the world's problems, and focus on living your own individual life well," is an attempt at solving the world's problems? The anti-system becomes a system.

Do you think that the call of Christ is a system? God calls the whole world to love and obey Him, accepting His Son as the only means to eternal life. Isn't that a system?

Correct me if I'm thinking about this the wrong way, but it would appear that we are to strive at the truest, most effective system, instead of throwing out systems altogether.
The manner of striving seems to be the point of contention. You propose a focus on individually living and affecting those around us. Others propose changing the world through revival. But you both have the same system in mind.

Let me know what you think...I'm sure I haven't covered everything.

Dakota said...

I think a few points in this generally excellent post are worth clarifying. I find myself in agreement with the sentiments expressed and find many of them to be my own. That said...

First, we need to be careful swapping the words "conservative" and "Christian" as interchangeable identifiers to the same movement. They are not the same, despite the many efforts by misguided souls to make them so. It is true that they frequently run on parallel courses, but a conservative is not necessarily Christian or via-a-vis. In our discussion of ideology, I would prefer we keep them separate as their confusion seems to be part of the greater problem. I would identify myself as a Christian and a Conservative, but my conservatism is influenced by my Christianity, not the other way around; one is clearly more important than the other. This is of course part of the problem you are addressing: how we take two very separate strands and wrap them into on "Conservative Christian" ideology.

Second, when you speak of the "Conservative" movement I'm pretty sure you are thinking of the religious element of the so-called "Reagan Coalition." The Ralph Reeds, the Christian Coalition, the Pat Robertson and Evangelicals who found themselves wielding a fair share of political power between the 70s and 90s. You address this towards the end, but I think it still worth defining. They made up a large part of the greater conservative movement, but I would they they do not necessarily form the basis of the conservative movement. So, as a book-certified Evangelical, I'm offering a definition: the conservative movement as a whole recognizes the limits of man's ability and his tendencies, relies on the wisdom of the past to guide us in the future and takes refuge in the local institutions—the family, the church, the village—to handle most of man's needs and cares. It is by no means complete or perfect, my point is to illustrate that a Christian would agree with all of the above—and then go further beyond. In the language of this post, it is a way of seeing the world that is highly skeptical of its ability and knowledge, and in that sense it is an ideology without ideology, or contra-ideology.

Dakota said...

[I am distressed to learn that Blogger has a comment limit. Continued.]

Semi-finally, I'm hesitant to call Darwin and Freud system builders, it seems they were more cogs in a great a-religious structure of science and Enlightenment thinking that gradually developed. Eric Voegelin called the Geometers and system builders Gnostics—people who have corrupted the Christian understanding of the world as a place in perpetual waiting and trial for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God into a calling to fulfill the Kingdom or Utopia on their own part. As you note, they stumble over earth on their way to the stars.

Finally and somewhat editorially, much of your—and my own—frustration has to do with how Christians view themselves in the world. It is fine to see good through the political process, but mistaking ourselves for Israel or a people called by God leads us into the errors you mention, believing that a revival or Christian president is all we need to "get the nation right with God." If we think we are called as the church to save the world, we have gone as horribly astray as Marx or Ingles—we have lost sight of our goal and place in creation as Christians. We know that no perfection can come until Christ Himself returns to us, yet we have the impulse to do something here on earth. We have been sucked into the error of the Geometers and Gnostics as you said, and try to build the Christian system or state here on earth. We are not serving Heaven when follow the desires of the world for earthly perfection. Only when we follow the Heavenly directives to do good — to tend to the tasks he has given us, to tend our garden until he returns—do we begin to realize how great our lowly task is.

Also, Alex T. has an good point. I would argue that Christianity is a system--but it is a system with a different goal in mind, a system that understands it is merely to maintain earth and the things of home, rather than bring heaven to earth. It's Chesterton's idea of the nearly reasonable system, something not set up to lead to completeness except for divine means.

Adam said...

Wonderfully done Sam.