Colson on ideology

Years ago, I used to belong to the Church of Christ. One of the distinctive features of this particular denomination is that they believe it’s wrong to have denominations. Christians should be a brotherhood united by their common, Bible-based faith, or at least that’s the theory, anyway. In practice, it turns out that the Church of Christ is the only denomin “brotherhood” that has managed to interpret the Bible correctly. While denying the validity of denominations in name, they make such strict denominational distinctions in practice that they tend to assume anyone who is not a member of the Church of Christ is not truly a saved Christian.

I was reminded of that contrast while reading Chuck Colson’s column, “Dwarves on the Shoulders of Giants,” over at Chuck argues that conservatism is not an ideology, and ought not to be approached ideologically.

Ideology—that is, the manmade formulations and doctrines of both the right and the left in modern American politics—is the enemy of true conservatism, as it is the enemy of the Gospel, which rests on revealed, propositional truth.

Actually, that’s a pretty fascinating comment. Is Colson actually admitting that shallow, right-wing ideology (and not just liberal ideology) is a genuine enemy of conservatism and Christianity? Is he starting to show signs of disenchantment with the because-I-said-so stubbornness that defines “truth” for so many? Or is this merely a posture, like denouncing denominations as one of your own denominational distinctives?

I’d like to think it might be the former, but if that’s so, it’s clearly only the early indications of an as-yet-unrealized potential. Colson is still solidly behind both conservativism and conservative Christianity. He quotes Russell Kirk, a Catholic writer, as explaining the difference betwen ideology and conservatism.

[I]deology is “the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers.” Most tend to be utopian and end up serving not the welfare of the people, but the interests of power-seekers.

Conservatism, on the other hand, is not a set of doctrines, but “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.”

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, conservatism in politics still tends to show up as an ideological commitment to abstract, utopian ideals like “the sanctity of life” and “the purity of (monogamous) marriage,” and similar ideological principles, which Colson wholeheartedly supports. But it is interesting that Colson is at least willing to challenge the fundamental correctness of dealing with politics in this manner.

The first principle of conservatism, according to Kirk, is that there exists an enduring moral order. Christians believe that moral order is revealed in Scripture. Conservatives, and some Christians, may also look to natural law. “Moral truths are permanent,” Kirk writes, and so the conservative “is one who defends the moral order.”

Not entirely wrong: there is an enduring and objective standard on which human morality is based. Actions have consequences, and we prefer the consequences which bring us the most benefit, and avoid the consequences which make us suffer. No divine revelation is necessary or even relevant. If some prophet declared that purple was “more moral” than yellow, we’d just laugh, because colors don’t have the same consequences as hard work (on the good side) or stealing (on the bad side). But Kirk has correctly observed that there is an enduring moral order, whether or not he understands its real-world basis.

One bit was just a tad ironic:

Conservatives also have a deep respect for tradition—those customs and laws that have been found true, handed down to us by previous generations. Kirk famously said that conservatives “sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see further than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time.”

Apparently correct attributions aren’t a conservative forté, though to be fair, Isaac Newton wasn’t the first to make a “shoulders of giants” quote. But we’ll let that pass. The part where I really cannot agree with Colson is this:

Revering what is true, as opposed to embracing utopian fads, is what marks the conservative disposition. It is also at the heart of the Christian disposition—which relies on a Gospel revealed to the apostles and handed down over the centuries.

There’s a difference between revering what is true, and revering what you believe as though it were true. Colson reveres the Gospel, not because he sees God showing up in the real world and behaving as though the Gospel were true, but because it was handed down from the apostles (i.e. from men). Not all fads are short-lived. Part of a genuine reverence for the truth is acknowledging that any man—even an apostle or prophet—could be wrong. The dogmatic insistance that the Bible is infallible, and that the Gospel is the truth, is an ideological insistance. Colson can disavow “ideology” on general principles, but he can’t change that fact. And i’m not entirely sure he wants to.

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