Archives For July 14, 2015

IMG_3628At a recent family event, the person I was talking with deliberately identified themselves as a “progressive”.

It seemed odd to me that this person felt the need to qualify their ideological position. Based on his choice of words and a few popular socio-political slogans dropped in between them, his position was clear enough.

It’s how things are. Although there was polite disagreement, I didn’t fall in line with the controlling socio-political narrative. Consequently, I was treated as dim-witted and ignorant.

I even attempted to shift topics, mentioning that my father had passed away in March, but that was only met with silence and indifference.

I wasn’t hurt or at all that surprised. In other non-face to face conversations a lack of respect and sense of superiority has always tainted his participation in our conversations. In this instance, however, he came across as arrogant. Even if he was making a strong effort to conceal contempt for my questions and tentative conclusions, it was clear that my educated theological position was considered unscientific and therefore, illegitimate; of no value.

I was curious about why he was comfortable with dismissing my theologically trained position, and yet confident about his own knowledge of theology; mostly sentimental fragments of information, drawn from his youthful association with a church .

I walked away with the strong impression that he was uninterested in my position. He appeared hypocritical and prejudiced against anything a thinking Christian might have to say or offer.

This is nothing new. It’s a bit like what G.K Chesterton experienced at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Experiences which lead him to write observations like this:

 ‘In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;— these are the things about which we are actually fighting most.’ (Heretics, 1901, pp.15-17)[i]

Chesterton falls into three categories. Insightfully relevant: elements readers cannot help but agree with. Intensely relevant: the wordy elements that unsettle even the most devoted of his fans. Irritatingly relevant: elements that make a whole lot of sense, but would be cast aside because they speak too loudly against certain predominant socio-political agendas.

Reading Chesterton is a lot like reading Jean Bethke Elshtain, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, or the anti-Nazi theologians Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Their works are better savoured, than rapidly devoured.

They’re part of a movement and a counter-movement. Each unsettling us as we are directed in heart, thought and attitude towards something not of this world – pointing us to the God who, in the world through covenant and Jesus Christ, speaks to humanity from outside humanity. Humanity can never speak this Word to itself or by itself. It can only speak God’s Word in reference to where, when, how, who and what, God has first chosen to speak it. God’s Word; His grace and law comes to us – encounters us. It’s possible to say that genuine progress is framed and protected by law, but brought to life by grace.

Like conservatives, progressives don’t own the concepts of progress, tolerance, emancipation, compassion, enlightenment, grace or even charity. No creature, without the Creator, can truly claim them, or truly offer them, without eventually perverting progress, turning it into a lordless and tyrannical task-master instead of a servant.

As Chesterton said,

 ‘Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we […] It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what progress is, are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress.’ (ibid)

In sum, you don’t have to be a progressive, to be for progress.


Notes:

[i] Chesterton. G.K. 1901, Heretics Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Ed. (pp, 15-17).