As always, I am deeply impressed by Kelly’s thoughtfulness, moral seriousness and respect for those with whom he (fiercely) disagrees. Even if one finds himself or herself disagreeing with many of Kelly’s arguments (as I do), there is much here for us to thankfully emulate as we seek to communicate and defend our understanding of the Christian faith.
Since I almost certainly fall into the category of a ‘soft’ conservative in Kelly’s taxonomy (Kelly, does my picture appear under this entry in your mental dictionary?), perhaps a modest rejoinder is in order. Given the vast amount of ideological terrain Kelly covers with enviable compentency in his most recent postings, I will attempt to restrain my thoughts within several narrow streams for the sake of providing an adequate rationale for my continued lack of repentance of (what I take to be) an orthodox Christian position in the face of Kelly’s progressive liberalism. I will begin on the defensive, briefly responding to several points of Kelly’s attack, before moving on to mount a positive apologia for my adherence to a traditional Christian ethic.
In Kelly’s last few posts, his critique of ‘soft’ conservatives has been wide-ranging and hard-hitting. Because of the necessary brevity of his points, it is quite possible that I misunderstand some of his positions or—even more likely—the manifold reasons he has for believing as he does. Kelly, please point out where I misperceive your intentions and arguments. Yet the following points come to mind as I read his language. First, when he faults ‘soft’ conservatives, there is a preponderance of subjectivist terminology employed: our viewpoints are “dangerous,” “unhealthy,” “hateful” and the like. This may or may not be true (and who, it might be added, gets to decide what is “unhealthy” and “dangerous”? The liberal-leaning institutions Kelly so dreads?)–yet these lines of attack seem a singularly unsuitable mode of language for expressing disagreement. Indeed, I found myself recalling C. S. Lewis’ warnings in works such as Abolition of Man to the effect that the liberal paradigm inevitably resorts to conceptual language from psychology (healthy and harmful) when appealing to the masses instead of the language of truth and falsehood. Can it be any other way when one both starts and ends with human experience? Is this not why we have become the culture of Freud and of the genre of self-help books?
As a Christian, I am only secondarily interested in what I (and other fallen human beings likewise enslaved to sin and destined for death) find emotionally helpful or liberating, and far more concerned with whether my beliefs correspond to reality as it is—that is, whether they are fact or fiction. Surely we have all experienced a profound dissonance between what we would prefer to believe about the world and what is actually true, between what seems edifying to our aspirations and identity and what actually is? I will come back to this point at the end, but suffice it to say that the prophets of every age are always encountered by the rest of us as promulgating “unhealthy” and “dangerous” ideas and sentiments—the paramount example of this subversive tendency being embodied by Jesus himself. That Christian ethics subvert modern Western moral sentiments provides no stumbling block to me at all as a general truth. Is it really hard to believe that even on the moral issues we feel most certain that we could be utterly mistaken? The only question is whether such-and-such convictions are true, or not. And here we come inevitably to issues such as epistemology and the relationship between (purported) divine revelation, (self-serving, twisted) human reason and experience, and (corrupt and corrupting) historical traditions. On any reading, this morass is a complex recipe not easily navigated—only one more reason to have much patience with one another along the journey.
Second, and immediately building on the train of these thoughts, I worry that Kelly perhaps locates too many of the differences between various belief systems within the domain of motives and personality types, and in doing so does not give enough credence to purely ideological factors. I admit, I may be too sensitive to this because I perceive it to be a generically liberal failing—to diagnose those with whom one disagrees as sick and abnormal and as possessing distinctly dehumanizing tendencies.
In general, I regard myself as believing what I do not primarily because of what my parents did, or because of my Myers-Brigg results, or because of what I could wish was true about the universe. All of these factors no doubt play influential roles in my present intellectual paradigms and convictions, but in the end I remain obstinately convinced that human beings are more than the sum of their environments. Which means, among many other things, that we need to get past a subjectivist orientation and acknowledge the ideological divides that remain beyond the realities of personal experience, history and motive. As a Christian convert of a later age in life (I was already an adult when I entered the faith), I now believe many things I once found repelling and abhorrent. Indeed, I believe some things that I still encounter as difficult and morally challenging and personally distasteful. What kind of universe do we think we inhabit if we fancy that we would ever be in a position for all of our mental convictions to be exactly as we would desire the world to be, if we were the Creator? Reality often fails to conform to our predisposed desires. I would imagine that Kelly agrees with this idea, and I certainly run the risk of misrepresenting his argument here—but I do want to insist that we continuously strive to re-orient our conversations around truth, around ideology, around doctrine—and thus the reasons we have for our worldview, not the subjective effects our beliefs may or may not have in the eyes of others. As a Christian, I certainly believe that everything that is true is also (necessarily) good and beautiful, for God embodies all of these things and is the author of all things.
And yet, as is often the case, the presence and reality of sin (the fall) in the human story remain conspicuously absent from Kelly’s paradigm—as it is likewise MIA from most liberal paradigms that I have encountered. As a Christian, I do not believe that we can take our desires, aspirations and senses of identity at face value. They are important, but not infallible barometers of the will of God. What else could sin be but the disorderly, catastrophic undoing of the alignment between “I” and the purposes of God, the severing of the true, the good and the beautiful in my on-the-ground experience of life? If Christianity is true, what seems to make for human flourishing, and what actually does make for it, must be profoundly disparate in untold ways in the cognitive perceptions of God’s fractured image-bearers. This is not a counsel of despair, mind you, as if there were no correspondence between human intuitions and the will of God—we still reflect His image in spite of our rebellion against Him—but it should make us pause far more often and far more seriously in the presence of what strike us as self-evident moral intuitions than most liberals find plausible. Indeed, I do not know what history has to teach us if we do not learn this profound lesson. What culture or age do we not look back on and shudder when we witness what seemed “intuitive” to even the best of good men and women? Do we seriously think we shall fare better in the future annals of history? If not, why do we act now as if that was not true? Yes, Kelly, I am deeply suspicious of myself and of human beings in general! Where shall truth be found? On what foundation shall be build our moral vision? I think this puzzle is far more of a dilemma than most liberals or conservatives think. Indeed, I think my perception of this difficulty is behind much of my “niceness” toward those who fiercely disagree with me, and (if I may venture) behind the increasing hostility, nastiness and intolerance of both modern liberals and conservatives in their dialogue with one another. If truth is easy to spot, then those who disagree with you must be monsters—or worse. However, I think that evaluation of the present human condition disastrously reductionistic and mistaken.
Finally, a few more scattered response. I do not think that “certainty” is the lustful ambition and (feigned) attainment of only conservatives. When I talk or listen to most liberals, I do not sense that they really entertain the possibility that they could be self-deceived and entirely mistaken about their moral convictions. Kelly, I think you are the exception here, not the norm, my existentially angsty friend—and am so fond of you for it. But perhaps, judging from the tone of some of your critiques, not even you are as much the exception as you may think—I do not get the impression that you really think you could be mistaken about your disdain for the historical Christian position on homosexuality. Either way, the illusion of certainty is widespread across the ideological spectrum. We are a culture increasingly uninhabitable for genuine agnostics. Perhaps this is by way of divine design; maybe the human being is wired to both know the truth and to know that she knows the truth. Perhaps not. Either way, I do not think unjustified certainty is the unique possession of either conservatives or liberals. Indeed, would the average liberal layman be nearly so confident in his views if the majority of Western culture did not favor and reward him (as it certainly does)? Would conservatives in other eras (or isolated places today) be any different?
Moreover, this is one reason I find myself dissenting from Kelly’s total, utter suspicion toward institutions and power. Again, I think there is much truth in his wariness—yet another reason I am a Protestant and not a Catholic! But I think absolute suspicion towards power becomes a form of (naïve, blissfully unaware) power-wielding, and absolute suspicion toward institutions and traditions becomes (again ironically) a form of institutionalized tradition that one looks at the world through. What else can Twain’s foolish remark mean except that a commitment to being in the prophetic minority (regardless of the issues or circumstances or arguments at play) is itself—for the liberal—an institutional commitment and a tradition? What if the majority is right sometimes? Then, in a nutshell, there is nothing about traditions or institutions per se that makes them more or less likely to be the bearers of the truth. Anyway, as Alasdair MacIntyre has labored to demonstrate in his writings (see After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?), all human thinking and experience takes place within traditions that predate our conscious adoption or even awareness of them. The only question is whether 1.) we will admit this irreducible fact of human experience, or choose to walk in the darkness, and 2.) we will strive to find the right traditions and institutions, rather than commit ourselves a priori to rejecting all for the alternative myth of Archimedian autonomy. We all see, know and feel from unprovable, biased and distorting vantage points. No, this does not fate us to relativistic despair—that all human knowledge is prejudiced, partial and provisional does not revoke its status as knowledge. But it should make us honest. Obama and Kelly’s favored Marxists inevitably become the defenders and apologists for institutions as soon as they persuade enough people, as much as Bush and the venture capitalists on Wall Street ever were. And this unavoidable fact is not to be mourned, but instead received with a grave sense of stewardship. For power is God’s idea, corrupted power a human invention. Indeed, how else could we critique Bush, Kelly, if we did not believe he could have used his power differently, better?
Can conservatives be naïve about tradition? Absolutely. Can they be hopelessly individualistic and ignore the systemic aspects of institutional evil in the world? Yes, and such tendencies are part of the reason I am a “soft” conservative, no doubt, and look like a liberal to some conservatives as much as I look like a conservative to Kelly. But tradition and power is here to stay—by God’s own design. To respond to the presence of power with a Foucaultian (and inevitably self-righteous) refusal to be dirtied by power or influenced by tradition is to lay the groundwork for the worst kinds of human tradition, the most horrific abuses of power. For such a stance requires a deep level of self-deception about what precisely is going on in one’s own life. Suspicion of power and institutions is good and right, Kelly. But not absolute suspicion. Instead of spending all of your doubt on past traditions and those who wield power, I encourage you to redirect some of that wariness towards your own moral sentiments and ideological vision. To do so, I am persuaded, is neither a liberal nor a conservative insight—but instead a distinctly Christian one. There is more than enough to be suspicious about in this present evil age, Kelly. Let’s not spend it all in one place.
I have already loitered here too long (and not nearly as skillfully as Kelly), but I think it would be worthwhile to conclude by positively stating two ideological convictions that—unless I am mistaken, though I very well may be—set my version of the Christian faith in opposition to Kelly’s version. In a word, our differences revolve around creation and cross. Here is what I mean: as a Christian of the sort I am, I believe that God’s designs and purposes for human existence (good, true and beautiful as they are) are 1.) objectively inherent in creation and 2.) revealed through the Scriptures and the life of Jesus, and not (therefore) discoverable primarily through human reason or felt through the fallen, sinful moral intuitions of human beings. Again, since we are made in the image of God, often there will be significant points of contacts between both reason (even the idolatrous kind) and intuitions (even the self-centered kind), but as a Christian I cannot bow down to either or both of these “sources” of knowledge of reality as the final word on the human condition. Nor, I think, have any Christians before quite recently in Western history. To confess that there is a creation “order,” however, commits one to a life of discovery rather construction, to observing rather than inventing. All human experience must be evaluated in light of the original designs of God in creation, for redemption itself in the Christian faith is the recovery of (and not the abandonment of) God’s ancient purposes for human beings. To be saved is to become truly human, as we were meant to be human from the beginning. To be redeemed is to go backwards in a great many ways—thus the (partial) conservative ethos of Christianity. Of course, since no individual human being (excepting Jesus) and no human civilization has ever come close to realizing these creational designs of God, there is a corresponding liberal ethos within the Christian faith, too, seeking to free human beings from sinful distortions and patterns of living together. This is the aspect of the Christian faith that Kelly especially sees and seeks to preserve. Can you bear to also become something of a conservative, Kelly? I would love to persuade you that this is a distinctly Christian sort of hybrid, quite different from being a spineless centrist!
However, if creation is a stumbling block to the modern liberal—not creation in the sense of science (I dissent entirely from the fundamentalist mindset here), but in the sense of an objective moral order that is given and not constructed, and revealed by God and not attained through human achievement—I fear that the cross proves even more disastrous for the liberal paradigm. I do not know how any person could read the Gospels and not come away with the impression that the first and indispensable step toward becoming a Christian is to die. To take up one’s cross and suffer death to all that one is apart from Jesus. Yes, life and resurrection are promised afterwards, for creation is being rescued and recovered, not abandoned and ignored. But death always comes first. To everything in our sin-soaked existence. Yes, the conservative church gives lip-service to this, but utterly denies it in practice. And this profound corporate unfaithfulness makes the gospel dreadfully implausible to our culture. But here we are talking ideas, not human failure. And the death of the individual is the first step of the Christian life. The liberal promise of going straight to life without first being buried with Jesus must be rejected.
So now let’s put two and two together, shall we? If redemption is the recovery of God’s good project in creation, and if the way of redemption is through the voluntary experience of death (both Jesus’ and ours), then at the heart of the Christian faith is this movement in one’s life: back to creation, through the cross. Christians are on a journey towards God’s purposes in creation (which are radically out of joint in many places with modern liberalism), and the only way to travel this path is to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus.
Any person is, of course, free to disagree passionately with this construal of reality or of the Christian faith. But at the very least I hope it gives a little more understanding into how we “soft” conservatives can believe what we do and at the same time be sane and decent human beings, a combination perhaps paradoxical to Kelly’s liberal paradigm. At the heart of my perception of reality is the tragic fracturing and de-alignment of my desires from the good intentions of God in creation, as well as the hope of resurrection that aimed back toward creation yet only runs through my participation in the cross of Jesus. Thus, as the apostle Paul once put it, the lives of Christians give off the aroma of death to the world. But herein lies the secret: life is actually at work, ready to bloom even in the midst of the most unbearable kinds of death, and as sure to come after the crucifixion of our desires as the spring after winter. To forgo the possibility ahead of time that any intuition or desire in our lives might be mixed with sin and called to participate in the cross of Jesus is to forget the story we are in as Christians. Do you have a place for creation and the cross in your story, Kelly? I look forward to hearing your reflections, my friend.