14 September 2017

Labels, part two: conservative

This bus-stop display near City Hall commemorates Ivan Tevosyan, whose career began in Elektrostal. The city is
just starting to celebrate its 80th year -- the actual 80th birthday party happens next September.

John Alexander's book, Your Money or Your Life: A New Look at Jesus' View of Wealth and Power (Harper & Row, 1986) begins with my favorite book dedication ever:
To my father, Fred Alexander

His sermons on discipleship (Luke 14:25-33), preached when I was a kid, are the basis of this book. He is an unusual fundamentalist; for he believes that inerrancy extends to the teachings of Jesus.
A few weeks ago, I mounted a defense of the word "evangelical." (Or maybe I was just being defensive.) Now I'm wondering about the usefulness of the word "conservative." Has the word been sabotaged for many of us by association with the mean-spiritedness and class warfare of the far right?

The word "evangelical" has huge theological content for me, but the word "conservative" does not add anything to that theological content. Conservatism is a philosophy of stewardship and governance, not a theology, and the two shouldn't be confused.

Here I'm not dealing with the special Quaker usage of the word "conservative" – associated with the divisions in Quaker history. The conservative/orthodox division separated those who preferred classic Quaker worship and devotional practices (the conservatives) from those who organized Sunday schools, participated in interchurch organizations, and eventually added sermons and music to the meeting for worship (now in the Friends United Meeting and evangelical associations among Friends).

What do I mean by conservatism? We conserve what we value, and I value my faith community and its heritage. Therefore, I respect conservatism's three important and interrelated emphases, and try to apply them to my understanding of church:
  • knowing and respecting tradition, being reluctant to set it aside lightly;
  • teaching personal and community responsibility and self-reliance;
  • resolutely guarding against the temptation to arrange others' lives for them.
Nothing in classic conservatism seems to me to require me to accept only narrow and relatively recent traditions of biblical interpretation. Nothing says we should raise guilt and shame over grace in our attitudes to each other. NOTHING requires us to grade and sort people by any social categories whatever!

Recently I was enthusiastically describing a Friends church as "conservative and evangelical," using the words as I understand them. I should have known better, because I got jumped immediately. "Johan, stop using that word. They're not conservative!" was the objection from a third person in our group. "They're progressive!"

* Concerning the actual word "inerrancy," I have great doubts about its coherence and usefulness. But that's another discussion I've touched on before and probably will again ... just not now. This relatively new doctrine of inerrancy is not required by conservatism; and aggressively insisting on it, and organizing gossip campaigns and enemy lists around it, often leads to bickering, fragmentation, and disenchantment with the church.

Well, I think they're actually both! And that's what I love about that church. They're a little like John Alexander's father -- they believe inerrancy* extends to the teachings of Jesus, and that makes all the difference. There's something I love about a church that can be seen as holding up values that the world now sees as polar opposites -- conservative and progressive; it's like a rare high-wire act.

The key in any high-wire act is balance. So, in church life, where is that balance? In his spiritual autobiography, A Song of Ascents, E. Stanley Jones puts it in his own impish way as he describes the development of Christian ashrams:
Outside the Ashram, the lines were drawn -- tightly drawn; you were for or against the struggle for [India's] independence. Inside the Ashram the spirit was different; we discussed everything, openly and frankly in a fellowship. One of the first lessons we learned was that the human mind breaks up between conservative and radical. Never once through those years did the discussion break up between the Westerners and Easterners. It was always between radical and conservative -- the radical Indian and the radical Westerner on one side and the conservative Indian and the conservative Westerner on the other. That is a good division: if we were all conservative, we would dry up; and if we were all radical, we would bust up! But between the pull back of the conservatives and the pull ahead of the radical we make progress in a middle direction. Jesus said: "The scribe who is a disciple to the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings forth from his treasures things new and old." "New" -- radical; "old" -- conservative -- both are needed. The conservative conserves the values of the past, and the radical wants to apply them to wider and wider areas of life. But note the "new" was first in the order. The Christian faith leans toward the radical because it belongs to the great change -- the Kingdom of God on earth.
So the perennial challenge from the radicals or progressives is not necessarily that the conservatives' ideals or theology are wrong; it is that they are not applied thoroughly enough. The progressives should keep challenging the conservatives' resistance to change, helping the community to discern when that resistance stops being prudent and becomes subverted by clan or class interests. The conservatives may guard resources for the sake of stability and accountability, and rightly so; the progressives constantly want to widen the boundaries of that care, and to increase transparency and access. Both groups might be equally alive spiritually, but both groups can also forget to keep God at the center, relying on political maneuvers instead of corporate prayer, and eventually falling into functional atheism.

Without conservatives, we may lose the capacity to see and challenge proposals for social rearrangement that suit passing ideologies or persuasive would-be messiahs. Without progressives, we fall in love with our own myths and lose our urgent concern for the world beyond. What church would want to cut off this messy but vital debate? (I'm looking at you, dear Northwest Yearly Meeting.)

Related posts:

We are just hours away from the dramatic conclusion of Cassini's voyage.

Violent opposition to Uchitel's new film: Is this a case of Christian terrorism? And Russia's culture minister is fed up.

Sergey Damberg: Serebrennikov and the attack of the Russian state-security chimera.

Russia Without BS sums it up.

Russia is God's last hope on earth.

Friends United Meeting seeks a new general secretary to begin next spring.

Wess Daniels prepares for the Friends Committee on National Legislation annual meeting.

Buddy Guy's walkabout at the North Sea Jazz Festival, Rotterdam:

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