In the United States it is nearly an assumption that if a person is a Christian then he or she must be a conservative. According to the Pew Research center, a sizeable 92% of surveyed American conservatives are either “absolutely certain” or “fairly certain” that God exists, and at least 70% would rate religion as very important to their lives. Over 80% of American conservatives attend religious services no less than once a month.
Such a strong correlation between conservatism and Christianity should not stop us from asking fundamental questions, however. We may even go to the heart of the matter and attempt to identify the perspective at the center of our faith -- Jesus Christ.
Would Jesus, for example, join with the 76% of white evangelicals who closely identify with the Republican Party? Would he celebrate the 80% of evangelical voters who cast their ballot for Donald Trump in the most recent presidential election? Would he have anything to say about politics or conservative philosophy at all?
The likely response of many Christians may be that Jesus had nothing to say on the matter. Often quoted is the passage from Matthew 22 in which Jesus offered the principle “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Many Christians even take this to be the whole of Jesus’ message and teaching regarding government and politics. If the political and spiritual worlds are separate, then aren’t we as Christians on our own to answer questions concerning politics?
Jesus, we must admit, had far more pressing and urgent matters to attend to beyond American politics. Besides this he of course lived in a very different time when “right wing” and “left wing” did not mean what they do today. Moreover, the culture that Jesus lived in was not subjected to the modern challenges of 24/7 media coverage, information overload, and constant political spin.
Nevertheless, we have a rich and expansive dialogue from Jesus throughout the Biblical gospels (including but not limited to Matthew 22). Within this we may, surprisingly, find Jesus at times addressing issues and even philosophical beliefs often associated with conservatism. Take, for example, the following passage from the 7th chapter of the book of Mark:
“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’
He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’
And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or more is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’” – Mark 7:1-13
In this passage we find Jesus making a clear distinction between the “commands of God” and “human traditions.” He attacks the Pharisees for ignoring the intent and purposes of God’s commands as they blindly follow cultural customs and norms. The traditions that Jesus mentions, though originally stemming from divine wisdom, had become polluted and were serving the opposite of their intended purposes. The result is that Jesus identified the traditions as obstacles to sincere faith. The people following them remained far from God.
What does this mean for Christians now, thousands of years removed from the Pharisaic culture that Jesus indicted? To answer this question we must first recognize that in making the arguments in Mark 7, Jesus was not necessarily attacking conservatism. He was, however, indicting pure traditionalism, blind rule following, and nostalgia.
This is good news for true conservatives. Conservatism, as I have argued throughout this blog, is not the same as defending the past. When practiced correctly, it requires a prudent sorting out of the bad and the good from our inheritance. Edmund Burke shows us this principle at work as he methodically made arguments to defend the noble aspects of the status quo while purposefully discarding others that were harmful.
Making the distinction between “good tradition” and “bad tradition” is they key point, and it requires the type of wisdom and sound judgment that Jesus offers us. He recognized that the hearts of the rule followers were far from God and that they were destroying their own community and family life by blindly following corrupted rules.
To avoid a similar fate, we must be careful to avoid following tradition for its own sake. We must especially watch out for tradition that takes us away from God. In such cases we should reexamine its original intents and purposes to determine its moral value. Are we doing something without understanding the why behind it? Are we enforcing rules that don’t serve higher purposes? Are we voting a certain way just because we always have or our parents have?
Jesus, of course, never used the words America, conservatism, or Republican. He had nuanced views on important social and political topics ranging from poverty, to family life, to what it means to love others. And he was always careful to consider his audience and challenge them on their own terms.
But properly understood, Jesus’ teaching can actually embolden our conservatism. He offers us a value set – the commands of God – to use in examining our politics, principles, philosophy, and tradition. And, as Jesus himself said, the sum of God's commands is epitomized in the act of love.
We may therefore look to God’s commands as embodied in the life, teachings, and love of Jesus to infuse our perspective with wisdom. Having such wisdom allows us to apply it to all issues of life, including our politics. Doing so rescues conservatism from simple nostalgia or protecting the entire status quo for its own sake.
And that is the type of conservatism our world needs.
To those unfamiliar with the train of thought known as postmodernism, I often describe it as the philosophical equivalent of a raging wildfire. It is a destructive flame, I explain, that threatens to burn the whole forest down. And perhaps us along with it.
Postmodernism begins with a critique of reason, the notion that we can each think independently and objectively. The question – can we trust our thought? – is basic and simple, yet undeniably far-reaching in terms of its implication. Postmodernism questions the notion of objective thinking and, in doing so, calls our whole process of rationalization out for a fight.
Postmodernism levies its critique primarily by invoking a particular level of self-awareness – namely the recognition that each and every thought that enters our brain must rely on the subjective process of our senses. Postmodernism begs the question as to whether or not we can truly (or objectively) trust those senses and any information that passes through them.
This critique represents a direct and dire assault on the fundamentals of modern philosophy. The French philosopher René Descartes, for example, built his work largely upon the phrase “I think therefore I am.” Descartes proposed this quote as the “first principle of philosophy” and explained it further by claiming “we cannot doubt our existence while we doubt.”
Well, postmodernism does precisely that. Namely, postmodernism brings to the mind a series of doubts concerning its own objective existence. Postmodernism asks the question as to whether our minds – and everything that passes through to them -- can stand the test of the scientific method that we use to justify everything else.
The scientific method, as any high school science student knows, requires an objective observer to work. This observer must consider a question impartially, then formulate a hypothesis, and finally proceed through various steps to test that hypothesis and analyze the results in hopes of reaching a conclusion.
Postmodernism asks a simple but bold question: can the hypothesis “my mind is a reliable filter of reality” be scientifically proven? Can this statement be anything other than an assumption, a matter of faith to which we each must submit? And if the mind is indeed an assumption or an act of faith, isn’t everything that it perceives fundamentally subject to the same critique?
Such a problem immediately presents one with the limits of science itself. Who is the objective observer to take on such a hypothesis? Certainly not someone within the experiment -- ourselves, our friend, our family member, a fellow philosopher, or even our deepest love (all of whom we perceive through the very senses and mind we are trying to test). And even in the case of spiritual experiences, aren’t those perceived as well? If the entire experience of reality depends upon our mind, and we cannot prove this is valid, how do we know that the mind is accurately viewing reality (if there is one) at all?
Cue The Matrix Movies, Inception, and any other solipsistic film you’ve ever seen. “What is real?” Morpheus asked Neo in The Matrix as he transformed his perception. A panicked Neo, if you recall, had to come to grasp with the “truth” that everything his past senses had told him was a lie. And it was only by accustoming himself to a new reality – through his true senses – that Neo could cope with such a challenge.
With all due respect to Morpheus, perhaps no philosopher understood the gravity of postmodernism’s critique better than Friedrich Nietzsche. In his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche proclaimed through his main character (Zarathustra) a mission of restoring all things through a deliverance “from their bondage under Purpose (p. 166).” Zarathustra did not hold back in his postmodern war against rationality, claiming that “In everything one thing is impossible: rationality (p. 166).” Nietzsche went on to have Zarathustra combat pious Christianity and summon readers to abandon notions of equality, truth, and meaning in search for his new ethic -- what he called a will to power.
‘Face the void like a man!’ was this will to power, Nietzsche’s call through his Zarathustra character. ‘Give up on any pre-modern or modern notions of virtue, justice, or equality and embrace meaninglessness!’ Much like Morpheus challenging Neo, Zarathustra summoned the reader to cast aside one form of reality for another. Yet what I have always found particularly interesting about Nietzsche’s postmodern diagnosis (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and many of his other works) is that it sounds eerily similar to someone else’s.
Namely, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sounds quite like the main character found in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
Within the Old Testament scripture Ecclesiastes, the reader encounters a man known as “the Teacher” who considers various pleasures and philosophies of the world. The Teacher finds that regardless of behavior or belief, “all share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not (Ch. 9 ,v. 2). “ With each destined to die, and death the greater silencer of our minds, the Teacher describes reality in words that could have just as easily been spoken by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless (Ch. 12, v. 8)!’”
Yet there is a stark difference that follows. After reaching this same point in his prescription as Zarathustra, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reaches a different conclusion. Instead of a will to power, Solomon’s Teacher proclaims the following words as the “conclusion of the matter”: “’Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ch. 12, v. 13-14).’”
How can this be? Two philosophers reaching the same point of facing a meaningless or unjustified reality, and yet they each immediately diverge to opposite paths? For Nietzsche the answer is for humans to face the void with pride and become conquering ‘overmen,’ but for Solomon it is to find oneself in submission to God and hold fast to faith in divine judgment.
How then can the Christian person look upon the void of postmodernism, as Solomon’s Teacher does, and not fall into chaotic despair or a senseless will to power? Perhaps it is the very notion of the thing we call faith.
As Saint Augustine once claimed, “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of which is to see what you believe.” Similarly, the author of the Biblical book of Hebrews defined faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Ch. 11 v.1).” While the scientific method requires testing and analysis to reach a conclusion, faith instead accepts the conclusion first and is rewarded with evidence afterwards. Christian faith, therefore, is not fundamentally tied to personal senses for its justification.
This isn’t to say that faith is entirely opposed to science. Christian faith presumes, and has presumed since the first book of the Bible, an external pre-existent observer who has been there to validate existence. In God we find the author of existence who alone can ordain it and proclaim it as “good.” Precisely what our scientific method would call for to reach a conclusion about existence.
Additionally, Christian faith does not wholly disparage our senses; it instead puts them in their proper place. Our mind and senses function, as Augustine wrote, as rewards of our faith. Time after time we see God validating faith through his power and majesty. In the Old Testament this took the form of massive displays of God’s power, the New Testament features miracles performed by Christ and his disciples, and today we are led to see it in the body and work of the church. The ultimate validation of faith, according to the Bible, comes in the form of Christ who proves the love and redemption God promises us.
Peter, a close follower of Jesus, spoke of faith as a shield protecting us “by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” He claimed such faith is proven genuine by suffering and perseverance, and that it is “of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire (1 Peter Ch1. V. 7).
If we are to take Peter’s words seriously, then he is offering us a promise that Christian faith – regardless of what our senses may initially tell us -- can stand the test of fire. In fact it is through suffering and persevering through the fire that our faith becomes clearer.
And so, I tell my friends, the postmodern wildfire may indeed burn the whole forest down. I find nothing in modernism that stands in rebuke -- no way in which our intellect, rationality, mind, or senses may justify themselves according to scientific principle alone. Modernists may fight the heat, and postmodern “overmen” may welcome it, but as Christians we should not fear it. For amidst the ashes I see standing tall and firm a symbol: that old and familiar wooden cross.
Bright it may be, but burning it is not.