A ‘Kind’ of Conservatism

Three encounters in the past month have opened my eyes to a ‘kind’ of conservatism that I am suspicious I was not hip to previously. In the heated spectrum-thinking cultural climate that exists today, it is easy to get distracted by the exaggerated and inflammatory. What is more difficult to perceive is a kinder, gentler conservative mentality.

Here are 3 places it showed up recently:

  1. In fielding some criticism about our interview with the Cambridge Intelligent Design guest.
  2. In my tussle with the Aquinas crew (and their follow up blog posts)
  3. In conversations with two different pastors that I have known for decades – both inquiring as to my new progressive/emergent take on two thing quite ‘foundational’ to them (creation & evangelism).

The sentences are subtle – but once you pick up a pattern you begin to hear them more clearly.

“Since God is not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, we gain nothing by using feminine pronouns for God … so let’s just stick with the tradition we have and the way it is in the Bible.”

That was the one that caught my attention. Then I started hearing that same formulation in other places.

“No one has ever provided iron-clad proof of macro-evolution … in the lack of definitive conclusion,Biblical creation is just as valid as any other ‘belief’ since we can’t prove it either way”

or

“You might be right about these cultural changes and the future of the church … but who is to say that your fancy new way will be any better than what we have now?  We might as well not tinker with anything since there is no guarantee it will fix the problem – and might possibly create different or bigger problems.”

This is a subtle type of conserving. It is not the blatant ideological animosity that gets all the press and dominates the airwaves. It is a more quiet concern that we not move too far too fast.

Here is my fear: it seems to me that this tactic is employed by – and born out of – a status quo that seeks to protect / preserve itself.  It is neither aggressive or egregious but is potentially just as harmful as it’s venomous counterpart. MP9004065481-196x300

“I get what you are saying Bo … but what’s not to say that 10 or 20 years from now your new fangled ideas don’t look just as dated and flawed as those you are criticizing today?”

See how it works?  Since my innovation today might seemed cliché to the next generation … let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and think that we have it all figured out. In fact, why change anything?

This ‘kind’ of conservatism doesn’t necessarily have a radical agenda. It doesn’t need one. It would be just fine if things stayed mostly as they are. It is perfectly suited to the current conditions. Stasis and a romantic reflection on the past is a perfect incubator for its ongoing preservation and, consequently, promulgation.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. 

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20 comments
salishsea
salishsea

IN work I do with mostly progressive congregations "too far too fast" is the core fear.  Sometimes expressed as "we'll leave people behind."  Kind of the opposite of the rapture!

kristenfilipic
kristenfilipic

It sounds like an Edmund Burke approach, which is not a terrible thing.

It certainly CAN devolve into "don't ever change anything" but doesn't have to.  Edmund Burke after all, as a British MP was writing in his opposition to the French Revolution.   He felt it necessary to write in opposition to the French Revolution because he had been such a supporter of the American Revolution.  The Americans did substantial change right.  The French were doing it wrong.  Let's talk about the differences.

BenIrwin
BenIrwin

So 150 years ago, this argument might've sounded like, "All this talk of 'human dignity' is a passing fad, so let's just stick with slavery and oppression."


One of the things I've come to appreciate about the liturgical-yet-progressive Christian tradition I'm now apart of is that we try (not always successfully) to live in the tension. We are mindful that we practice an ancient faith...that we confess things which Christians have confessed for centuries. When we anoint someone to ministry, we believe they join an unbroken chain going all the way back to the apostles. But we also recognize that our faith cannot remain static. Jesus told his disciples to "bind" and "loose." In rabbinic terms, that meant "forbid" and "permit." In other words...you're going to have to figure some of this stuff out as you go. There is not a fixed point at which everything has been settled and nothing new can be learned or discovered. 


Conservatism (at least the kind you described above, which I've run into as well) seems naturally averse to this kind of thinking. Yet I find that openness to change, exploration, new discoveries, etc. is part and parcel of being a Christian. 

cassowary
cassowary

Nub here, hope I don't do something wrong. (I got here via Roger Olson's post, but only recently.)

I'm not exactly conservative (e.g. I'm not at all convinced that scripture attempts to tell us, living today, in our societies, that same-sex relationships are necessarily bad), but I'm not exactly liberal/progressive either.


One particular example I would give for why change needs to be considered and not rushed into and certainly not done for its own sake is that, even though low-density zoning and car-oriented development is now considered "conservative", at one stage they were new. Car-oriented developments have always been advocated for on the basis of scientific research showing that it'll be safer or cleaner or greener or... But even before it was decided that, as a society, we should go down these paths (and it was automatic or the consequence of conservatives saying "individual freedom"; but the consequence of governments making explicit decisions to favor cars) we knew as far back as the 1930s that the carbon emissions would have unintended consequences. Maybe the other negative consequences of cars we didn't learn about till later, but adopting the car so quickly was a bad idea.

So it seems to me that it's not safe by any means to assume that just because something's a change and just because it seems harmless or even helpful, doesn't mean it won't bring about the end of the world. Changes need to be carefully considered before they're introduced. If you want to make yourself a test case, by all means; but if do say, and someone asks you about it, please be confident enough to say "I'm trying this out, I don't know if it's safe yet, but I think it's worth doing because (blah)".


Thanks.

MrGeurs
MrGeurs

@theBoSanders Bonhoeffer discusses in Letters and Papers from Prison the concept of using God as a placeholder for events that are either unexplained or for which the person does not want to find an answer.  Peter Rollins discusses the idea of refusing to know what we know (Insurrection).  This passive-aggressive stance actually seems like the people making their remarks are completely aware that your views in some way resonate with a piece of them that is not fully committed to their own view, they just do not wish to acknowledge it. 

tom c
tom c

I'd recommend you take a look at Richard Popkin's The History of Scepticism and Terence Penelhum's God and Skepticism (both are excellent books in the history of philosophy, btw). They each discuss the use of Pyrrhonism by Christian polemicists at the time of and following the Reformation. The argument form you describe reminds me of these forms of Christian Pyrrhonism.

Jez at unhappyhippy
Jez at unhappyhippy

"who is to say that your fancy new way will be any better than what we have now?  We might as well not tinker with anything since there is no guarantee it will fix the problem – and might possibly create different or bigger problems.”

If the pre-existent Eternal God had that attitude, no Creation, & we don't exist.

So it must be wrong?

thesilentrising
thesilentrising

@theBoSanders Had a great comment for the post but livefyre lost it in the sign in process. It was about fear and large amygdalas...

willhouk
willhouk

I agree with your takes on those three statements. They make me shudder when I read them. But I have been pondering conservatism lately.

I am reading "Falling Upward" by Richard Rohr. He is talking about the "two halves of life" where in the first half we build our identity, and in the second half we move past the egocentric self to live a life of giving and connecting. It's not an age thing it's a maturity thing.

But in it he talks about what he thinks is the major flaw is post-modernism. He thinks that since all boundaries have been broken and authority has been questioned and criticized to the point that it is ineffectual or non-existent that we have lost something. He is making the case that it's good for us to have boundaries and it's good for us to have limits, and when people don't have that all kinds of things go astray. We lose community, we lose discipline, we lose commitment, we lose work ethic. 


I've been struggling with it because I usually embrace questioning of authority. But I can totally see where he's coming from. Sometimes as a parent I feel like this weird mix of a super conservative and a way out there hippie progressive. We grow our own food, raise chickens, breast fed our son, natural child birth, he goes to a Montessori school (all hippie). But we also don't let him watch too much TV, we go to church every Sunday, do Sunday School, eat as a family, pray together, early bed time, read him books and bible stories, live in a small town, practice having a "Sabbath Day" as much as we can (all more conservative). So I feel like I'm in this weird tension between the two worlds. I definitely do not identify as conservative at all, and it makes me uncomfortable to think of myself as such.

So I guess I'm saying I think Rohr has hit on an interesting paradox. Maybe living in that tension is a good place to be. It seems healthy to me.

padraicglenn
padraicglenn

This is a great example of why I prefer the term "Progressive Christianity" over other labels. For me a conservative Christian is one who passes on the teachings of a given tradition without considering how such beliefs came to be; they are maintaining the status quo. In our linguistic system we would juxtapose the word "conservative" with the word "liberal". However, i am not sure "liberal" fully embodies what many non-conservative Christians are trying to accomplish. Personally, when I question a given theological system, my aim is to take Pelikan's call seriously to "correct and fulfill the faith" even if such musings prove old and stale 30 years from now...that means we have succeeded.

wayneschroeder
wayneschroeder

@willhouk 

I think that Richard Rohr is one of the most insightful, liberated spiritual leaders regarding Centering Prayer, and freedom and openness to worship that I have ever known. It greatly distresses me that his intellectual freedom to make sense out of post-modernism does not exhibit that similar openness and comprehension that he expresses spiritually.  While Rohr appears to be spiritually fearless, he ironically seems to be intellectually inexperienced and therefore fearful. Rather than being open to the relaxing of boundaries, the openness to limits and thereby increasing community, discipline (as disciples, lovers) commitment and work ethic, he appears to succumb to fear. I am afraid that the "paradox" you are identifying is rather a failure to include the same passion as he has spiritually (freedom and grace) to the intellectual and social aspects of life (fear and judgment).  Rather than tension between the false opposites of grace and guilt , why not choose the peace of grace?

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

@willhoukGreat comment Will (I love that Rohr book btw). Rohr's right, in my opinion, postmodernism has shown us that values are relative, but that doesn't mean we don't put stakes in the ground. The question then is, 'what do we value?' 


I like the integral diagnosis that postmodernism can act like a cork in the bottle of physco-social development, and in order to move past it we have to acknowledge that not everything that came before was bad, but we also have to acknowledge that there are some major pathologies tightly woven together with the healthy stuff. @BoSanders's one quote is interesting because with each stage of evolutionary development there will inevitably come new problems, more complex than the ones before. So his conservative friend is actually right. Increased complexity makes greater enjoyment possible, but it also opens the door to greater suffering. We can certainly attempt to live a life avoiding discord (avoid relationships, avoid loving, avoid learning), but our existence will no doubt be a trivial one.

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

@padraicglenn@BoSanders 

@padraicglennYou make a great point about folks not considering how beliefs came to be. It's really ironic that those who are most critical of the tradition that has been handed down tend to actually be--in my experience--more knowledgeable about said tradition and, in reality, are actually being more faithful to that tradition. The problem, of course, is when folks (on both sides of the spectrum) who fail to see that the pathological is always tightly interwoven with the unimpaired...

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@padraicglenn What an interesting take!  I will look forward to seeing how others respond to this angle.  thank you   -Bo