19 August 2019

Visions & Illusions: another go at it

When I first began teaching undergraduate political science some three decades ago, I was expected to teach a course in modern political ideologies for introductory-level students. As this was before the dawn of the internet, I had to page by hand through several orange volumes of books in print to find possible texts for the course. Then I had to write to the publishers to request copies of their books for consideration. Even after this time-consuming process, I still failed to find something I thought was needed for such a course.

Because I was teaching at a Christian university in Canada, I wanted a book that would bring a Christian perspective to the subject matter. Being unable to find this, I resigned myself to ordering whatever was least expensive for the students and then proceeding to do something rather different in my lectures. Some years later I began shaping these lectures into a book-length manuscript which eventually became Political Visions and Illusions, published in 2003 by InterVarsity Press near Chicago.

I was gratified when Christianity Today chose the book as its Editor’s Bookshelf selection in July 2003. The following year the book won an award from the Word Guild in the category of nonfiction/culture against stiff competition. It went through twelve printings before I decided to propose a second edition. Preparing this occupied much of my time until it finally appeared in May of this year.

What is different about it? The first edition’s major thesis was that political ideologies are manifestations of that ancient phenomenon of idolatry. Because idols are jealous gods, they often come into conflict, and that is precisely what has happened for more than two centuries with our political ideologies. Socialists are at loggerheads with liberals, liberals with conservatives and nationalists. Liberals make too much of the individual and expect the entire society to revolve around individual liberty and freedom of choice. Conservatives esteem tradition too highly and cannot easily discern norms enabling them to judge which traditions are and are not worth conserving. Socialists tend to exalt economic equality over other legitimate considerations. Yet the ideologies have usually got something right, such as individual freedom, erring in so far as they treat it as a divinity.

In the years after the first edition’s publication, I began to think that using idolatry as an analytical category was not enough. After reading Lesslie Newbigin and following conversations with friends and colleagues, it occurred to me that a narrative approach was needed to account more fully for what the ideologies were doing. In the new edition, I analyze the redemptive story underpinning each ideology. For example, the Marxian narrative begins with primitive communism, proceeding to the initial division of labour, then on to class struggle, the revolution, and finally the eschatological classless society. This parrots the biblical redemptive story of creation, fall into sin, redemption and consummation.

As possible alternatives to these visions, I focus on two powerful Christian traditions that have recognized the true diversity of God’s creation, including human cultural formations, and refused to bow the knee to our political idols. These include the tradition of Catholic social teaching associated with Pope Leo XIII and his spiritual heirs, and the neocalvinist tradition of Abraham Kuyper and his followers. Why these and not others? Because if God is sovereign over his creation, then that sovereignty is communicated either directly or indirectly in mediated fashion. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity is based on the latter, while the Reformed principle of sphere sovereignty is predicated on the former. Any other Christian tradition would have to work within one of these two basic paradigms, even if they do not acknowledge it.

There are a few other changes to the first edition. Above all, liberalism, the dominant ideology in the English-speaking western world, has become more evidently dysfunctional. The freedom of choice championed in late liberalism has ostensibly empowered individuals to select their own identities and to alter basic social institutions, even if this conflicts with ordinary people’s intuitions of reality and indeed with reality itself. The result has been the proliferation of new social conflicts that the coercive arm of government is called upon to settle. Thus the pursuit of individual autonomy has led, not to an increase in liberty, which depends on robust social constraints, but to an increasingly oppressive régime in which individual self-seeking, backed by the state, is made to trump social mores now deemed oppressive. These developments necessitated a reworking of chapter 2 and, to some extent, the other chapters as well.

A series of discussion questions for each chapter is now found at the end of the second edition, which will support its use in the classroom.

Finally, because the first edition had been used profitably in theological schools, I decided to append a “Concluding Ecclesiological Postscript.” Drawing on Abraham Kuyper’s distinction between the church as organism and the church as institution, I recognized that in the first edition I had addressed the church primarily as the body of Christ, which encompasses everything Christians do in all spheres of life. The new postscript addresses the role of the institutional church. Should the gathered church speak out on political issues? If so, when and under what circumstances? If not, why not? My conclusions are provisional and intended to guide what I hope will be in depth conversations on this important subject.

I pray that God will use this second edition to advance his purposes by impressing on his followers the importance of maintaining a kingdom witness in the political realm and of relinquishing the idols that may obstruct that witness.

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