This is a series of posts trying to deal honestly with what is true in our world; and who has significant interests in us keeping a naive belief that what we’ve always known is somehow more healthy than other competing options.
Why did I start with this illustration? Because it deeply impacts the persons we call the “church,” the movement and tradition we call “Christianity,” it shapes our understanding of what is the “truth” (whether we claim to be “Biblical people” or not), and it does this in many ways without our conscious awareness. As a Christian with deep respect for the Bible, I confess that I cannot claim to represent the fullness of truth because I have been so deeply shaped by social forces surrounding me that I am often a hopeless mess of selfish and/or naïve approaches to life that require constant attention, constant questioning, and constant conversion away from what is relatively untrue to what is relatively more true. And I do this in the hopes that my thoughts and actions travel closer to what is really true.
There is a significant obstacle to the pursuit of that truth in daily life for seekers, and that is that the deck is stacked against their pursuit of truth outside of approved cultural pathways. Our parents often called this peer pressure when we were teens. Our societies have much at stake in their citizens accepting and living by what is defined as normal, and significant amounts of money, energy, and time are invested to perpetuate that system. All of these obstacles make it exhausting at times for seekers of truth to sift through the cultural twistings and shadings to gain some degree of freedom. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society calls these influences “plausibility structures.” They are basically neutral in that we need some ordering of human life, but certain plausibility structures shape life in basically negative or basically positive directions. Philosopher Stanley Fish agrees, though he uses the term “ideology” to describe these structures. He suggests that the embedded ideologies of certain systems gain their legitimacy by being assumed as “natural”; and they reinforce their “natural” state by labeling competing visions as “ideologies.”
What is and is not ideological is itself a determination of ideology, of that agenda or vision in the happy position of getting to draw the lines. What this means is that any arrangement of the categories will be to the advantage of some ideologies (whose central truths will be accorded the status of common sense) and to the disadvantage of others (whose central truths will have been labeled ‘not safe for deployment in public life.’) In late-twentieth century America the preferred truths and values of liberalism (autonomy, individual freedom)…are in the first category- they ‘go without saying’ and no agenda is legitimate unless it defers to them- and the preferred truths and values of Christianity (obedience, respect for authority and tradition, faith, the community of worship) are in the second- it is fine to adhere to them so long as you leave them at home when you enter the marketplace.
To clarify a bit, the “liberalism” Fish is talking about is not what people talk about in our society today as the opposite of “conservative.” Fish is talking about the ideas of individual freedom that John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and other philosophers talked about (that became the foundation of America’s government, NOT the Christian Scriptures). Fish’s simple suggestion here is that America presently is governed by “liberalism,” which has certain central “truths” and that approach and its central “truths” often run head-on into the “truths” and “values” of Christianity (which are rooted in the concept of revelation and the Scriptures). It is literally a clash of institutions and perspectives on truth, and the institution that can explain, persuade, and market its perspective on truth the best inhabits the prominent role in shaping what is “normal” and “true” (at least for a time). It seems obvious to me that Fish is right about American liberalism being the governing plausibility structure, happily occupying the place of “getting to draw the lines.”
What makes the picture scary is that much of what American Christians believe is “normal” is more deeply shaped by the system of American liberalism than it is by the Scriptures. We literally have stood in the pot of liberalism long enough that we almost can’t recognize the temperature change at all. Those of us who feel uneasy with American liberalism defining for us what is “good” and “right” for the world in an unchallenged position then have a significant uphill battle to fight to find some degree of perspective outside of what we’re constantly fed in the hopes that we might gain some ears to listen to what we are suggesting.