Saturday, 12 July 2014

On Ideology

As one learn from a diligent study of the human sciences--or, barring that, a quick jaunt to Wikipedia--the term "ideology" was coined during French Revolution. It initially had a non-pejorative meaning, and referred merely to the study of ideas (an "idea-ology"). It didn't take long for this non-pejorative meaning to give way to something closer to our typically pejorative usage of the word, wherein to call something "ideological" is typically to belittle or dismiss said thing. I still remember quite vividly a moment in one of my earliest seminars as a graduate student, wherein I referred to something from the work of a feminist biblical scholar only to be informed by one of my classmates that feminist biblical studies was a form of "ideological criticism" and thus not worthy of our attention. Of course, in so doing, said classmate revealed much more about her own ideological blinders than she elucidated about feminist scholarship.

That leads to the question: what is "ideology"? Lonergan has a very simple answer: ideologies are programmatic accounts offered to justify the self-alienation that results from a recurrent failure to follow the four-fold imperative. Rather than undertake the difficult and diligent work of learning to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible, people invest their energy into justifying their very failure to undertake this work. The end result are worldviews that are inattentive, unintelligent, irrational, and irresponsible. National socialism stands as exemplar of all ideologies for no attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible person can doubt that it was anything but inattentive, unintelligent, irrational, and irresponsible. It also shows clearly that the end result of all ideologies, if they are nurtured and allowed to flourish, is totalitarianism. After all, inattentive, unintelligent, irrational, and irresponsible, they can be persuasive in contexts wherein attentive, intelligent, rational, and responsible inquiry is actively prohibited.

This explains quite well the recent high-profile dismissals of first-rate scholars from institutions that one has good reason to suspect are dominated by ideology. I will not name names, but we all know to whom and to what institutions I refer. The ideology in this case is a notion of "biblical inerrancy" that can be held by no attentive, intelligent, reasonable, or responsible individual and thus can only be maintained by strict policing of the questions that can and cannot be asked, the propositions that can and cannot be advanced, and ultimately the thoughts that can and cannot be thought. The problem is not that these institutions have too much respect for scripture but rather that they have nowhere near enough, for they are unwilling to let the scriptures be themselves. They are unwilling to consider seriously the actual data of the scriptures, instead dictating in advance what study of the data can and cannot reveal. In short, if indeed scripture is the word of God then such an ideology seeks to tell God how God can and cannot speak.

Lest this critique seem unbalanced however one cannot ignore the radical skepticism of self-proclaimed “free thinkers," who, precisely because of own ideological blinders they are anything but free. They simply invert the basic supposition adopted by the inerrantist. If the inerrantist loudly proclaims, before ever examining the actual data, that the biblical text is true in all regards, the radical skeptic loudly proclaims that it is false in all regards. Of course, since attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible inquiry will not permit such extreme positions each side must make strategic concessions. The inerrantist acknowledges that whilst every proposition in scripture is true in every conceivable sense it is not the case that every proposition is equally relevant to contemporary Christian thought and practice; conversely, the radical skeptic acknowledges that there will be “kernels” of truth within all the myth. With each strategic concession however both acknowledge that their initial starting point is in fact not as unassailable as their ideology would suggest.

Ultimately, both the inerrantist and the radical skeptical each operates from a metaphysics of scripture: the inerrantist according to the principle that because it is God’s truth scripture cannot contain any proposition that is anything other than true in every conceivable sense, the radical skeptic according to what constitutes the precise inverse, that because there is no God scripture cannot contain any proposition that is anything other than false in any conceivable sense. As such, there emerges from this discussion a basic rule of thumb: whenever you hear appeals to metaphysics used to limit interpretative and historical possibilities you can be fairly confident that ideology is near at hand.

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