Leo Tolstoy begins his famous novel, “Anna Karenina”, with the words: ” All happy families resemble each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The church today, despite a growing health that manifests itself at a deeper level, is an unhappy family … unhappy in our own way! Tension, anger, and bitterness is dividing not just the sincere from the insincere and the committed from the non-committed, but is, more distressingly, dividing the sincere from the sincere.
Liturgical services, theological classrooms, religious publications, renewal centers, and religious meetings and discourse in general invariably have a certain edge and edginess to them: conservative versus liberal, European theology versus liberation theology, universal church versus local church, feminist versus antifeminist, pro-life versus pro-choice, pedagogy versus andragogy, social justice versus the economic status quo, those for women’s ordination versus those against, left brain versus right brain, piety versus criticism. Increasingly, it is becoming harder for sincere Christians to even worship together.
Much of this is, of course, good. Tension is a sign of life and, as Freud once put it, the only body with no tension in it is a dead one. Love that does not confront is more properly called sentiment and so the path of faith and community, this side of eternity, is always marked by tears and misunderstanding. In this, all families are similarly unhappy.
Some of this tension, however, does not afflict all families. Behind the ugliness (and it’s ugliness that makes people not want to worship with each other) lurks ideology.
Simply put, most of us have bought into either a liberal or a conservative consensus which now functions as an ideology, acting as conscience, as hermeneutical key, and as eye and ear through which we then selectively see and listen. Accordingly, most of our reactions, opinions, rhetoric, indignations, enthusiasms, and causes then become highly predictable according to whichever ideological catalogue we are following. If it prescribes an indignation, we produce it, if it prescribes an enthusiasm we produce it, if it prescribes a cause we take it up, if it prescribes a cliché we mouth it … small wonder nobody has, as yet, set up a DIAL-AN-IDEOLOGY hotline!
In such an atmosphere free critical thinking, not to mention basic human respect, is generally absent. In its place we frequently see what’s worst in both conversativism and liberalism, namely, ideological rhetoric paraded as criticism and intimidation replacing respect. This is unfortunate because the good scribe should pull out of his or her sack the new as well as the old … there is a demand for both the liberal and the conservative principle in the church and within all human community. Let me try to explain:
Liberal and conservative are, long before they become ideologies, first of all, temperaments that we are born with. We are born, temperamentally, as one or the other, just as we are born white or colored, female or male, light haired or dark-haired. Granted many other factors – sociological, political, and economic – play into this, but, in the end, we are either liberal or conservative by temperament. Moreover, it seems that, like the ratio of females to males, at any given time the church and the larger family of humanity seems to divide itself roughly 50-50 between liberal and conservative (as voting habits and power blocs give ample testimony of).
This, while it is perennially irritating for both liberals and conservatives, is healthy and the survival of community depends upon it. A community comes together and stays together and grows together only when there is both an active conservative and liberal principle present.
Thus, for example, in a family it is very important that there be a conserving principle, someone who holds things together, who preserves the family traditions, who demands a certain ethos of family members, who makes sure the house runs, that the meals are cooked, that the bills are paid, that everyone contributes, and who, at times, has the authority to call to order and demand that family members be home sometimes and assume certain responsibilities. Without this conserving principle, as many a frustrated parent knows, family life soon dissipates, a home becomes a boarding house, and a family degenerates into a number of individuals each doing his or her own thing.
On the other hand, however, for a family to survive you need, as well, a liberal principle. You need someone to constantly push edges, to critically examine the family traditions, to show where ethos is bias, to open windows, to invite the family to do new things, to bring new people and new attitudes into the house, and to generate new life so that the family does not suffocate in its own traditions, biases, limits, and idiosyncrasies. To have a family you have to do more than preserve life, you must constantly also create life.
It is no accident that God populates the world with both liberals and conservatives. Each is vital for the formation of community.