24 February 2016

Electus interview

I was recently interviewed by Thiago Oliveira and Thomas Magnum de Almeida for the Electus blog in Brazil. The interview was published today in Portuguese. Here is the English version below:

ELECTUS: It seems that we have reached an “age of extremes.” Around the world conservatives and progressive are more and more tending to radicalism in their speeches. Social networks seem to feed this extremism. What do you think about this? Do you believe this age has arrived?

KOYZIS: It is true that a lot of political rhetoric sounds extreme, as exemplified in the current presidential election campaign taking place in the United States. And, yes, social media such as facebook encourage this sort of thing. On the other hand, if we take the longer view, the 1920s and '30s were considerably worse, with communism, fascism and national socialism (Nazism) in power over huge numbers of people in the Eurasian continent. Thank God, we have no Stalins, Hitlers or Mussolinis in the 21st century. Today the most powerful ideological visions are much more subtle, making their presence felt through the media, education and even the churches, which use their influence to persuade people to accept their accounts of reality, including political life.

ELECTUS: Brazil is still in its infancy with respect to conservative and liberal ideas, because for a long time, especially after the end of the military dictatorship, Marxist thinking has ruled our political life. By and large, and also among protestant Christians, Brazilians are getting to know such conservative authors as Roger Scruton, Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke. What is your assessment of a possible rapprochement between Christian political thought and conservatism—especially the British variety?

KOYZIS: There are definitely possibilities for some form of rapprochement, but Christians would do well to exercise caution. Many conservatives, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russell Kirk and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, were indeed serious Christians who, as far as we can tell, genuinely believed in the truth of the faith. But other conservatives embrace Christianity, not necessarily because it is true, but because it has a certain utilitarian value in upholding public morals. Conservatism at its best offers wise counsel in the face of transformational ideologies that would upend society on the pretext of starting over along more ostensibly rational lines. Writing in 1790, Burke foresaw with startling clarity the future of the French Revolution and its likely outcome at the hands of a tyrannical ruler. He understood that, despite superficial appearances that the French were finally replacing absolute monarchy with constitutional government, there was a destructive spirit at large that would bring the revolution to a bad end. He was right, of course, and this is why we still read Burke’s writings today.

On the other hand, flesh and blood conservatives are all over the map when it comes to specific political principles. Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), conservative tutor to the last two Russian tsars, defended monarchical absolutism, while North American conservatives could scarcely be expected to agree. Canadian conservatives defend constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government, while American conservatives defend the separation of powers instituted by their founders in the 1780s. Where they are likely to agree is in affirming that government cannot do everything. But that is insufficient to set forth a vision of just governance in a complex society. So, no, Christians cannot be content to be conservatives even as we might view them as allies on specific issues.

ELECTUS: Political ideas are the fruit of worldviews. Within our academic institutions students are being indoctrinated into political ideologies which are the fruit of a particular worldview. What advice would you give to Christian young people who have studied at the universities, especially the humanities, and have been bombarded by idolatrous ideologies?

KOYZIS: First of all, I would tell them to keep their eyes on Jesus Christ and the centrality of the cross and resurrection. It is easy to get sidetracked in the midst of the diverse responsibilities of a busy life. This does not mean we should forsake such responsibilities and devote ourselves exclusively to a life of prayer. It does mean that we live out our diverse callings (for example, as husbands, wives, citizens, employees, students, teachers and so forth) recognizing that our ultimate loyalty is to the God who has created, redeemed and empowered us to live according to his word.

What implications does this have for political ideologies? The followers of such ideological visions are in effect wearing blinders that enable them to see only a very few things and only from a certain vantage point. Liberals can see only individual freedom and tend to downplay the significance of other legitimate factors. Conservatives properly see the important place of tradition but have difficulty formulating criteria by which to assess the value of these traditions. Nationalists understand the importance of solidarity within particular groups of people sharing common characteristics and goals, but they tend to make an idol of the nation.

Students exposed to these ideologies need to be aware that the worldviews in which they are rooted give them a distorted picture of the real world, which is far more complex than they are led to believe. A Marxist would have them believing that simply removing economic barriers will unlock the innate virtues in human beings and lead to a flourishing classless society, ignoring, not only the reality of sin which cannot be eradicated short of the second coming of Christ, but the multiple motivating factors that condition life in a real society. Economics isn’t everything.

By contrast, a biblical worldview has the decided advantage of recognizing that our world belongs to God and finds its ultimate meaning in him. If we are Christians, we do not have to look for a principle of unity within creation, where it can never be found. Rather, we recognize the genuine diversity of God’s creation whose unity comes from him alone.

ELECTUS: The Catholic Theology of Liberation (TL) is known to combine Christianity with Marxist ideas. But there is also an evangelical version that resembles this approach. It normally uses the term integral mission, which was coined in Lausanne, but does not condemn Marxism, as did the Pattaya Report (1980). Such authors as Francis Schaeffer have labelled Marxism a Christian heresy because of its soteriological orientation. Do you share this view? And what are the dangers of synthesizing theology with political ideology?

KOYZIS: Yes, definitely. Marxism is indeed a Christian heresy, but it is not alone in this. All of the ideological visions that have influenced the modern world are in effect Christian heresies. Each posits a false redemptive narrative that begins with a central problem capable of being resolved only by an earthly redeemer of some sort. For Marxists, the proletariat (that is, the industrial working class) is the messiah who ushers in the classless society, a secularized form of the kingdom of God. For nationalists, redemption comes with the liberation of the nation from foreign rule. For liberals the maximization of individual freedom brings in the kingdom. Indeed at the present time it may be argued that the established religion in much of the world today is the religion of human rights, such rights being ascribed to the expansive self and its desires, often at the expense of other legitimate considerations, including the good of the larger communities of which we are part.

As for the dangers of “synthesizing theology with political ideology,” I would express it differently. The danger is of having divided loyalties. “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). If we claim to serve God, we must serve him wholly and not keep anything back. We must allow him to transform our desires and aspirations so that they conform to his will for our lives. If we settle for anything less, we in effect settle for another gospel.

ELECTUS: Reformed theology contemplates every field of human activity, as we see taught in the principle of sphere sovereignty (Abraham Kuyper). How important is a good theological foundation for articulating and living out a solid Christian worldview? Which authors would you recommend for readers wishing to deepen their understanding of politics?

KOYZIS: We must begin with the recognition, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), that we are not our own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. Our world belongs to God and not to us. We cannot do whatever we wish with God’s world, and that has profound implications for the way we do politics. If we fail to recognize this reality, we are likely to fall prey to any number of illusory promises that no government anywhere is in a position to fulfil.

But it’s not merely a matter of correct theology, which could be taken to imply that we are saved by correct theorizing. As Christians we are shaped by the liturgical practices of the church, to which we are called as members of the body of Christ. We must read the scriptures and, as Lesslie Newbigin puts it, find our own place within the biblical redemptive narrative. We need to follow our ancient forebears in the faith and pray through the Psalter on a regular basis. (Reading Psalm 88 every month should be sufficient to immunize people against the enticements of a false prosperity gospel!) The gospel must live in our hearts and not only in our heads.

Which authors would I recommend? More of Abraham Kuyper’s writings are being translated from Dutch into English every year, and I hope they will one day be translated into Portuguese as well. I am gratified by the tremendous reception that my Visões e Ilusões Politicas has received in Brazil. For those who know English, I would recommend anything written by James W. Skillen, Paul Marshall, Jonathan Chaplin, and the online publications of the Center for Public Justice and Cardus here in Canada. And, of course, I would be happy to offer my own writings to anyone interested.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com