Why Conservatism is Hard to Swallow (But Still True)

Those of us who have embraced what we understand to be some of the tenets of conservative Christianity remember well our initial objections and discomfort with its analysis of modern Christianity, and its suggested course of action. Loving others as ourselves would mean reminding ourselves of the painfully slow way in which we came to these convictions. I suggest there are several difficulties that the average Christian experiences in coming to conservative convictions. (Not that these are not blameworthy, or matters to repent of, but I call them difficulties to highlight their obstructiveness.)

First,  many Christians are bigoted towards individual autonomy. To a person raised in a democratic country, saturated with pop culture and existing with a general dislike of anything requiring cultivation (because it is inaccessible to him, and he has been taught to believe he has the right to and can immediately reach all things he really needs), some of the ideas of conservatism seem unpalatable. For such a person, the concept of one’s affections being partly dependent on moral imagination, which is in turn dependent on how you have been cultivated – by your family, your church and your culture at large- this idea seems impossible to him. It conflicts with his view of God as democratic. He has no category in his mind for children bearing the consequences of previous generations’ abandonments of piety. His notions of democracy simply rule out God limiting our understanding of Him based on our, and our father’s, stewardship of knowledge, history and worship. His view of God has Him giving everyone of all times an exactly equal chance, with exactly equal opportunities, and what has gone before or will come after is irrelevant. No loss is suffered by the present generation for the failures of the past ones. All we need is nominalistic doctrine.

Second, we have come to expect pragmatic and cure-all solutions and fixes. Conservative Christianity asserts that the problem of a bankrupt ambient culture and the church’s disconnection from historical Christian culture is not something that can be fixed with a few programs.

Most will admit that Western Christianity is in a bad way. However, most everyone defines the problem differently. Every outwardly successful ministry touts its particular emphasis as the solution for the universal Body of Christ, and defines Christianity’s problem as being a weakness when it comes to their strength (e.g. expository preaching, better church order, a focus on doctrine, doctrinal deconstructionism, people-centred ministry, thorough-going Calvinism, church marketing techniques etc.). Yet, for all that, the problems of obsession and fragmentation persist.

While all will admit to some flaws, most will defend some kind of status quo. Specifically, the status quo in their denomination, movement, or church. For it is just like 21st century Christianity to say the problem with Christianity is that more people aren’t in my movement. Thus, when conservatism’s critique asserts that peculiarities of various movements are not the solution, this offends those who are certain their take on Christianity is key to it all. Moreover, how could all those sincere people be wrong? Numbers and sincerity – the two interchangeable proofs of orthodoxy. The notion that we are in need of another Reformation seems wildly exaggerated to most.

Connected with this matter of the absence of quick-fix solutions is the apparent pessimism of the critique. Since the unreflective spirit of our age will equate pessimism with hopelessness, many believe these conclusions are a form of unbelief. Pessimism, as if we needed to explain it, is not hopelessness. There is always hope, since our God is Sovereign, and has already proclaimed and claimed His victory. Pessimism is the realistic outlook on a ruined culture, greatly incapacitated (through its own choices) when it comes to true piety. God will triumph. Our pessimism is as to whether or not we will worship while mortal as some of our fathers did. The rugged optimism of the American mindset balks at the idea that forces beyond your control, before your birth, have shaped a religious environment which you can do very little to improve, at least beyond your narrow sphere of influence.

Third, some see conservatism as an attack on Sola Scriptura. Our epistemology has led us to believe in the myth of the ‘ brute fact’, and our theologians have bought into it as well. We are certain that Christianity has brute facts contained in discursive doctrine, which, once discovered and taught will lead to salvation and sanctification if believed. To hear that ordinate affections are necessary to know and judge rightly seems to some to suggest we are questioning the authority of Scripture itself. In fact, careful readers will realise it is the very authority of Scripture which is being fought for here.

A final reason why conservatism’s ideas are difficult to take is that the very things we discuss as desirable are in a sense required to read and understand these concepts in the first place. Some form of cultivation is required to read on the essential nature of cultivation to faith.  Some measure of ordinate affection leads to a desire for ordinate affections. It seems that, “To him that hath, more shall be given, To him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.” 

For all that, the fact that we now hold these convictions is proof that the argument is worth making, and worth repeating.

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7 Responses to “Why Conservatism is Hard to Swallow (But Still True)”

  1. Richard Says:

    David,

    In this essay, you refer to “the tenets of conservative Christianity” and “conservatism’s ideas.” Can you articulate these? How would you define conservative Christianity for the uninitiated?

  2. David Says:

    Richard,

    Conservative Christianity would simply be the Christianity that seeks to conserve authentic, biblical Christianity, and thereby pass on the most fully Christian life we are capable of. For what this would entail, I’d suggest beginning at this post https://conservativechristianity.wordpress.com/2008/11/17/conserving-what/ and reading onwards.

  3. Simon Thomas Says:

    I agree, the conservative point of view is hard to accept I took a long time to make peace with the Doctine of Limited Atonement, but now it all makes pefect sense.

  4. David Says:

    Simon,

    While many conservatives are Calvinists, conservatism is not Calvinism per se. Tozer was much closer to the conservative position than many modern Reformed Baptists, and he was an Arminian.

  5. Simon Thomas Says:

    Yes I know about Tozer. I used to read lots of his stuff. But wans’t he more on the Holiness Movemnt side? I found him difficutl because he set a standard for piety that seems impossible to attain in the flesh. The same problem I struggled with in old style Methodism where I have my roots.

  6. David Says:

    Tozer was influenced by the Holiness movement, though he didn’t take things as far as some Keswick teachers did. He didn’t believe in entire sanctification, at any rate.

  7. Web Pulse – July 19, 2010 | Religious Affections Ministries Says:

    […] – Why Conservatism is Hard to Swallow (But Still True) « Towards Conservative Christianity- I couldn’t agree […]

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