To be a conservative is, in some ways, an uphill battle in American culture.
That is not to say that every conservative position is unpopular or conservatives have not or cannot achieve societal goals. What I mean is that the very framing of “conservative” is a barrier to overcome in a cultural context that values progress and growth. When society wants constant “advancement,” the person whose philosophy is to hold back the reins won’t often win a popularity contest.
While they may not have a structural advantage, a liberal making the case for progress has a narrative advantage. There is an inherent desire to “do something.” When we notice significant problems, we want immediate attempts to solve the issue.
In one sense, this is a good, God-given desire. We want to correct problems and alleviate injustice. Often there may be some obvious solution which should be implemented as soon as possible. On other occasions, however, rushing in to “fix it” may only worsen the problem or create a new unforeseen issue that could’ve been avoided if we took more time.
This is not something new. G.K. Chesterton wrote about the tendency of reformers in the early 20th century.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.G.K. Chesterton, The Thing
His point was that if you didn’t recognize the reason a previous generation left something in place, you didn’t have enough knowledge to make a decision on whether to get rid of it or not. Only if you understand why those who have come before us established the fence, can you judge if it is still serving its purpose or should be replaced by something else or removed entirely.1Clearly, there have been fences that needed to be taken down and there will be those in the future that deserve the same fate. A previous generation that quite literally put fences around ethnic groups were wrong because their theological justifications were wrong. It’s not that they believed the Bible too much, but that they understood it too little. As we go deeper into what God says about humanity and the image of God, we cannot come away with that and support the mistreatment of someone due to their skin color.The desire to correct injustices is a good, God-given desire. We must be careful, however, that in a rush to "fix it" we don't worsen the problem or create a new unforeseen issue that could've been avoided if we took more time. Click To Tweet
For his part, Chesterton used the illustration to speak about the foolishness of dismantling the family and the home as the building block of society. But obviously, this paradox applies far beyond that one issue. It may be even more applicable when we think about theology.
Many well-meaning (to be charitable) Christians have believed the only way for the church to survive is to change and adapt with the times. By that they don’t mean, “We should use guitars during our worship service,” but rather “We should do away with a belief in the virgin birth of Jesus” or “There’s no reason to accept Paul’s teaching on sexuality.”
These theologically liberal Christians often speak of these changes as “deconstruction.” They’re more right than they realize. These individuals and groups, like the reformers in Chesterton’s illustration, are tearing down a fence without giving a thought to why previous generations, including the Apostles and Church Fathers, built it and continued to maintain it for centuries.
C.S. Lewis often challenged liberals in the church and their desire to cast off what they considered the theological baggage of historic Christian doctrine. In a 1945 address to Anglican priests and youth leaders, Lewis explained why those who want theological advancements should not try to do so by walking away from the hard teachings of the faith. In fact, they’ll never make progress that way.
A “liberal” Christianity which considers itself free to alter the Faith whenever the Faith looks perplexing or repellent must be completely stagnant. Progress is made only into a resisting material.C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock
Lewis argues we can only advance and make theological progress when we push into those doctrines which are most resistant to us. The aspects of Christianity which challenge the current cultural climate the most are the ones that force us to go deeper into our faith. Following only the doctrinal issues that come naturally to us can only result in our being stationary and stagnant.A "liberal" Christianity which considers itself free to alter the Faith whenever the Faith looks perplexing or repellent must be completely stagnant. Progress is made only into a resisting material. — @CSLewis Click To Tweet
Some liberal versions of Christianity seek to discard centuries of theological, moral or ethical beliefs because they confront modern perspectives. In Lewis’ day liberals wanted to reject the supernatural claims of Scripture. Today, most want to maintain the supernatural claims but reject the ethical claims or moral instructions.
This can cut against any church or individual, not only liberal ones. As I’ve mentioned before, God’s truth challenges and corrects every culture (and subculture) in every time. Modern conservative Christians and churches may have no issues asserting biblical teaching on personal piety, but may want to downplay God’s instructions about societal injustice.
This speaks to a temptation we all face with Scripture. More than anything else, we want to conserve our perspective and we (rightly) worry progressing too far will challenge those deeply held beliefs.One of the greatest temptations for modern Christians is reading the Bible, not with an expectation that we will be convicted of our own sins, but with the hope of finding something we can use to confront someone else. Click To Tweet
Too often we don’t view the Bible as the place where God speaks to us and shapes our heart to be more like His. Instead, we treat it as merely a depository of gotcha quotes with which we can disarm our ideological opponents. One of the greatest temptations for modern Christians is reading the Bible, not with an expectation that we will be convicted of our own sins, but with the hope of finding something we can use to confront someone else. That’s not the way to grow spiritually.
As each of us read Scripture, we will come to teachings we’d rather soften or ignore completely.2If you don’t have those moments, I don’t think you are reading the Bible honestly. When we choose to press harder into those difficult teachings, we make theological progress. Instead of sanding down biblical teaching that challenges us, we sand down those parts of ourselves that don’t reflect Christ. That is the mark of truly progressive Christianity.