A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Political Visions and Illusions: Introduction

Ideology, Religion and Idolatry

In the post-Cold War era, we are no longer bound, it seems, to two superpowers and their ideologies. Our situation is now one of an "unprecedented shakeup" in loyalty to various ideologies. Christians on the inside of the Soviet Union seemed to be among the few to know that the Marxist-Leninist philosophy was dead long before it died, because its tenets no longer lived in the hearts of the people. In South Africa a kind of nationalist ideology had to die so that apartheid could once and for all be eradicated. Even in the West the ideologies of liberalism and democracy are being critiqued though in less of a dramatic way.

Ideologies are not about to come to an end in our time. Even Cold War ideologies are being expressed in some different ways and in new forms; but we now find ourselves wading through "a cluster of postmodern ideologies" which "have come into being based on similar premises, namely that one's concrete position in life, whether economic class, gender, or race, determines one's overall worldview. This has encouraged what has come to be variously labeled the politics of difference, the politics of recognition or identity politics" (p. 15). Some ideologies may have lost their influence for the time being, but ideology per se is hardly taking its last breath.

So what is an ideology? Koyzis gives his working definition, "...I view ideologies as modern types of that ancient phenomenon idolatry, complete with their own accounts of sin and redemption. From the beginning of its narrative, Scripture inveighs against the worship of idols, false gods that human beings have created. Like these biblical idolatries, every ideology is based on taking something out of creation's totality, raising it above that creation, and making the latter revolve around and serve it. It is further based on the assumption that this idol has the capacity to save us from some real or perceived evil in the world" (p. 15).

Of course, the notion and the term "ideology" itself has been understood differently. Prior to Marx and Engels, ideology was understood positively in various ways of the analysis of different ideas and how they came together. Marx and Engels argued that ideologies were negative because they were "based upon a false view of the real world" (p. 18). Since their analysis, the notion of ideology has primarily been viewed pejoratively.

Of course, the problem with Marxist analysis here is that it reserves the term ideology only for those worldviews understood to be false. Koyzis writes, "The followers of ideologies often wish to impose their own simplistic conception of a monolithic social order on the complexities of a real society" (p. 16).

Koyzis argues that there are four preconditions for the rise of ideologies: First, there must be an awareness of the "long tradition of political theorizing that stands in back of the ideologies" (p. 23). In other words, there are no new ideologies, only reformed and recycled ones that can be found in various forms elsewhere in history. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Second, the preaching of the Christian gospel can pave the way for "false messiahs to promise another path to salvation" (p. 24). As Lesslie Newbigin pointed out many years ago, unlike other religions, Christianity is historically founded and historically oriented, and its understanding of salvation is founded on a succession of real events. With more real events to follow (i.e. the Second Coming), it is possible to distort the gospel in ideological fashion.

The third precondition necessary for the rise of ideologies is "the secularization of the Christian faith and of the cultures" (p. 25). Such secularization is seen as a society's rejection of the Christian faith in general while heeding to its framework of redemptive historical teachings. The framework without the faith inevitably leads to idolatrous ideologies.

Fourth, ideologies presume the "possibility of mass political movements" (p. 25). In the modern world the possibility of political participation by the common folk have made the rise of ideology more powerfully corrupting because its proponents have to convince the masses that their ideology is the one to be followed. Such persuasive arguments by necessity take the form of religious speech and ideals. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in democratic societies. "In North America those calling themselves political liberals and conservatives have simply embraced broader sides of the broader liberal agenda with bits of socialism, nationalism and other strains thrown in. This is as true of Ronald Reagan as of Bill Clinton, of Brian Mulroney as of Pierre Trudeau."

Koyzis suggests that there are five basic characteristics of ideologies: they are inescapably religious; they deify something within God's creation and make that god a source of salvation; the fundamental evil from which humanity needs saving is to be located somewhere within creation itself; given an ideology's defective understanding of salvation, it has a "distorted view of the world, and hence government and politics" (p. 31); and finally modern ideologies are inescapably utilitarian-- the end does indeed justify the means.

While there is no generally accepted way of classifying political ideologies, the most common popular way is along "the so-called left-right spectrum" (p. 34). Koyzis believes that it is the least helpful way of classifying ideologies, but it is so widespread, Koyzis feels the need to comment on it. The terms left and right are unhelpful in that they are relative to the issues of the day, they are one-dimensional, and the left-right spectrum cannot account for the religious differences that exist between the differing ideologies (p. 37).

Finally, Koyzis puts forth the six common themes (in the form of questions) that will bring together the deliberation of the five ideologies treated:

First, what is their creational basis?

Second, what facets of God's creation have they rightly focused on even as they effectively deified them?

Third, what inconsistencies have led to internal tensions within the ideology itself?

Fourth, what do they see as a source of evil?

Fifth, where do they locate the source of salvation?

Sixth, to what extent are they able to account for the distinct place of politics in God's world?

Koyzis sees the Christian alternative to the idolatry of ideology to be found in the tradition of Roman Catholic social teachings and the neo-Calvinist movement, which he will put forth in the latter chapters of the book. And while I agree that there is much to be gained from both these traditions, I wonder why Koyzis has seemingly ignored the Anabaptist tradition.

I am quite interested in how his argument develops.

Next Friday-- Liberalism: The Sovereignty of the Individual

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