Beyond Ideology II

For any community to survive it must continually create life as well as preserve it. In short, it must always have both a liberal and a conservative principle.

We see, for example, in the New Testament a certain tension between Peter and Paul. One suspects from reading Scripture that they were, by temperament, very different and not persons who would spontaneously have chosen to work with each other in ministry (not to mention choosing to go out to dinner together!)

In a crass oversimplification, it might be said that Peter represents the conservative principle and Paul the liberal one. They had different temperaments and concerns: Peter more solicitous about memory and history, Paul pushing edges. Together they were two of the main architects of the New Testament. Today, on our Christian calendars, they are given a single day together, the feast of Peter and Paul.

There is, I submit, a certain pedagogy in that two characters who are temperamentally so different, liberal and conservative, both celebrated on a single feast day; both, as we saw, needed for community, each bringing a separate gift.

The liberal brings faith in the future, the push not to stagnate, the demand to ever stretch mind and heart, the imperative of change and evolution, and the important truth that faith, truth, and life are not a baton that is handed on from one generation to the next like a stick in a relay race.

The conservative brings respect for memory and history, the demand for universality in ethos, and the important truth that something is lost when something is gained and that, accordingly, all change must be scrupulously adjudicated.

But each, unfortunately, invariably brings something else to community as well, namely, its own particular neurosis. It is the latter that makes “the family unhappy in its own way.”

What are the faults and neuroses peculiar to each?

Although their temperaments are very different, at one point, liberals and conservatives are the same in that both very often operate out of an anger and bitterness that leads to disrespect and incapacity to genuinely listen. This, sadly, is particularly true within church circles. I am not sure whether my own experience is atypical or whether I’ve had a wide enough experience outside of church circles, but, for myself, the most unhappy, angry, and bitter persons I have met, I have met in church circles and theological classrooms. I wish that weren’t so, but we are a family unhappy in its own way!

Beyond this shared bitterness, liberals and conservatives differ in their faults:

More peculiar to the liberal is the tendency towards self-hatred, to rewrite his or her own past in bitterness. As well, more peculiar to the liberal is the tendency towards intellectual arrogance, to judge that anyone who does not agree with his or her position is backward, unenlightened, not sensitized, a dinosaur. The ultimate accusatory judgment of the liberal is always: “If you were brighter and more informed, you could not think as you do!”

More peculiar to the conservative is the tendency towards timidity and the plain fear of change. As well, the conservative is perennially given over to paranoid judgment and, here, the ultimate accusatory judgment is always: ” If you were sincere, and still prayed, you could not think (and destroy values) as you do!”

Moreover, liberals and conservatives, today, tend to wield power differently. If a liberal doesn’t like you, he or she will write an article against you, accusing you of intellectual backwardness. If a conservative doesn’t like you, he or she is more likely to try to get you fired or silenced. Liberals resort more to intellectual intimidation, conservatives tend more to pragmatic power … and both sides tend to ridicule, disrespect, and selective listening.

The purpose of this listing of virtues and faults is, I hope, positive in that, in examining them, we might be less prone to identify the needs of community with our own temperamental needs. In seeing both the functions and dysfunctions of liberal and conservative ideology we might be more tempted to, first of all, to resist the tendency to identify truth with judgments that are colored by our own temperament and its needs. Moreover, once it is admitted, by liberals and conservatives alike, that both principles are necessary for community, then there is a chance that not only will there be some mutual respect and genuine listening, but, finally, we will be able risk some genuinely new things without hating or losing our past.

We will always be ideologues, all of us. The beginning of wisdom is the recognition of this fact. True dialogue can only take place when this is the acknowledged starting point, on both sides of any debate. Moreover, once this is acknowledged, both liberals and conservatives will, more easily, see what they bring to community, both positively and negatively, In that insight, we, incurable ideologues that we all are, can begin a little to live beyond ideology … and, in that, our family will be less unhappy “in its own way”.