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)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Once Again, the Current Liberal/Conservative Spectrum Is Incoherent

"Ever since the French Revolution, politics has been seen in terms of a left-right spectrum. The further Left you go (it is assumed), the more you will favour forms constricting an aristocratic authority, loose structures, plenty of voting about everything and ultimately anarchy. The further Right you go (it is equally assumed), the more you will want a controlling government, producing law and order, proper and firm justice, plenty of people to tell you what to do and ultimately dictatorship.

Of course, pressed too far this doesn't work. When a left-wing government gets into power it quickly passes all kinds of laws to tell people very precisely what they may and may not do. When a right-wing government gets into power they may very well be under pressure to allow for a good measure of 'freedom' for the business community at least, and may want to reject 'big government', which often means government by interfering bureaucrats. Life is never quite as simple as we think" (N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2, p. 166).

This quote from Tom Wright, opens his commentary on Acts 23:1-11 where St. Paul is standing before an inquiry of the Sanhedrin and divides the council by appealing to his belief in the resurrection. Wright notes that New Testament scholars have tended to approach this passage as a right/left issue (more left he says since most scholars lean left), but Wright reminds us that this is a first-century text and so interpreting the passage in this way is not that simple.

I have said before that I refuse to be bound by the modern left/right continuum in thinking through theology, ethics, and politics. The responses from many people to my claim have become all too predictable. Some assume that since I claim neither position, then I must be a moderate, someone who is halfway between the two extremes. This assumes that the left/right continuum remains in place and I am just in the middle; but this mischaracterizes my position. I am not a moderate because I think the left/right continuum is simply incoherent. Thus to be a moderate on that continuum is also incoherent.

Another response I get is that since I refuse to claim allegiance to the left or to the right, then I obviously have no convictions and/or I wish to remain above it all refusing to become involved in the mess that is theology, morality and politics.  The assumption here is that in order to be a person of conviction and one who participates in the important matters of life, I must place myself somewhere on this left/right continuum. Anyone who knows me knows that I have very deep convictions on many matters, but once again, the left/right continuum is treated as an ontological reality that cannot be dismissed any more than one can deny they need air to breathe. For many the rejection of the modern left/right continuum makes about as much sense as saying that 2+2=5.

And finally, there are those who say to me, please tell me more about your views so I can understand? How does your view look? Of course I am always happy to clarify, but what I have found is that no matter how often I clarify, I still get the same request for clarification from the same people over and over again. While I do not doubt the sincerity of these folks, I have come to the conclusion that those who cannot seem to grasp my views are unable to do so because they are so trapped into left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, either/or thinking, that my views just appear too incoherent. But what I want to suggest in this rather long post, is that it is the modern left/right continuum that is incoherent, and that is why I reject it.

So, I have decided that what needs to be addressed, which I hope will clarify, at least a little more clearly, is how the modern left/right continuum even came to be in the first place and why it is so problematic. In this post I am leaning heavily on Crispin Sartwell's excellent essay, "The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus." Sartwell clarifies Wright's reference to the French Revolution:
Transcending partisanship is going to require what seems beyond the capacities of either side: thinking about the left-right spectrum rather than from it. The terminology arose in revolutionary France in 1789, where it referred to the seating of royalists and anti-royalists in the Assembly. It is plausible to think of the concept (if not the vocabulary) as emerging in pre-revolutionary figures such as Rousseau and Burke. The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of "left" and "right" used in the political sense in English is in Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution in 1837, but the idea only crystallized fully with the emergence and under the aegis of Marxism, in the middle of the 19th century. It was not fully current in English-speaking countries until early in the 20th.
This is important because it means that the left/right way of looking at the world has not always been the way people have looked at the world, which one would not know by talking to many people on both sides who seem to assume the left/right spectrum as essentially woven into the fabric of the universe. Of course, even if one acknowledges that the left/right continuum is context dependent, that does not necessarily mean that it is incoherent. Sartwell insists otherwise. "The arrangement of positions along the left-right axis-- progressive to reactionary, or conservative to liberal, communist to fascist, socialist to capitalist, or Democrat to Republican-- is conceptually confused, ideologically tendentious, and historically contingent. And any position anywhere along it is infested by contradictions."

Sartwell gives plenty of examples of why the left/right axis does not work, and I encourage everyone to read his piece before passing judgment on his argument. There is not enough space to go through his examples, but one extended quote will suffice.
The left-right spectrum is often characterized in terms of two extreme poles. One way to see that this is incoherent is that these poles can be defined in mutually incompatible ways. It’s awfully strange that Rand Paul and John McCain belong to the same political party and are generally held to be on the same end of the political spectrum. I'd say they each disagree more profoundly and substantially with the other than either disagrees with Barack Obama, for example. Some of the most historically salient "right-wing" movements are monarchism, fascism, fundamentalism, and libertarianism, which have nothing in common except that they all have reasons to oppose Marxist communism, and vice versa. Yet they also all have similar reasons to oppose one another. Toss in David Brooks Burkeans, security-state neocons, and so on, and you have a miscellany of unrelated positions.
The left pole, meanwhile, could be a stateless society of barter and localism; or a world of equality in which people are not subordinated by race, gender, and sexuality; or a pervasive welfare state; or a Khmer Rouge reeducation regime. The Nazi Party, Catholic Church, hereditary aristocracy, Ayn Rand capitalists, and redneck gun enthusiasts are all on the same side of the left-right spectrum. So are hacktivists, food-stamp officials, anti-globalization activists, anarcho-primitivists, and advocates of a world government. It would be hard to come up with a less coherent or less useful way of thinking about politics.
If Sartwell is right that the left/right spectrum is an incoherent way of thinking about politics (given our current state of dysfunctional government do we really wish to disagree?), I insist that it is also an incoherent way for Christians to think about politics as well as theology and ethics. Why is it that for many Christians the liberal/conservative spectrum is of more significance than (for example) the Wesleyan/Calvinist axis? And if you think this is not the case, just read all the social media memes that clearly suggest that if Jesus were here today he would be a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Either suggestion is a flat-out distortion of the life and ministry and the message of Jesus.

There are other spectra one can utilize in theological reflection. Indeed, why is it that many Wesleyans and Calvinists view the Wesleyan and Calvinist traditions through the lens of the liberal/conservative spectrum, which I suggest distorts both? I am too often astounded (even though I no longer should be) by those trying to squeeze their Wesleyanism into their liberal or conservative mindset, putting Wesley in servitude to liberalism or conservatism. Why are the latter categories more determinative than the former for too many in the church? Why must my deliberations on theology, ethics, and politics be seen through the liberal/conservative lens?

If Christians are to think in a refreshing and decisively Christian way when it comes to politics, theology, and ethics we must wean ourselves away from what Stanley Hauerwas calls the sterile and uninteresting conservative/liberal options, and instead work to see our theology, ethics, and politics directly through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus, without the liberal/conservative filters.

I am not suggesting that if we manage to do this all the disagreements we Christians have will be resolved, but I am suggesting that if we truly attempt to do so, our disagreements will certainly look less conservative or liberal... and more Christian.

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