Posted by: Dan | July 16, 2005

From a Triumphant Church to a Triumphant Liberalism: Movements that Mistake Condescension for Love

Looking back on the form of Christianity that used to be the dominant religion of the Western nations — a form that was intimately linked to the governance of society and the exercising of state power — it is hard to miss the fact there there is an air of condescension to the acts of the church. The church is well aware that it is operating from a position of privilege to those who are much less privileged. Thus, in its acts of charity, of mercy, and of forgiveness, one can't help but notice a certain tone of superiority and smugness. Here expressions of love are inherently condescending.

However, such a church no longer exists except for in a few pocket communities (mostly located in the United States of America). Instead a form of liberalism has come to dominate. This isn't a reference to liberalism in the sense of the political liberal/conservative divide. Rather it is the form of philosophical liberalism that is espoused by both political liberals and conservatives alike.[1] Yet, as this liberalism has come to dominate social thought and action, condescension has become inherent to its practice of love. Those who abandon such exclusive narratives as the Christian story for the more tolerant and appealing stories of liberal democracies can afford to be “always open, irenic, and affirming.” After all, why shouldn't they be? They've won.[2] The claim that liberalism enables one to love everybody in a more genuine or open manner is simply the proof of the fact that liberals are in charge. That is to say, such claims to a more genuine form of loving others are often little more than the condescending words of charity given from those who know they've joined the winning team.[3]

Thus liberal democracies, as Rousseau notes, insist on the tolerance of a diversity of religions, for, within the metanarrative of such states, religion is reduced to the purely inward worship of God that does nothing to interfere with the duties of citizens to the state and tolerates other religions. This is why intolerant religions cannot be tolerated.[4] It is not because they necessarily dehumanise others or fail to love others. Rather it it because “intolerant” religions conflict with the story of liberalism and require citizens to serve a different authority than the state — an authority that, in fact, opposes the state. It is exactly by maintaining it's exclusivity and be refusing to capitulate to the narrative told by liberal nation-states that the church in the West will be able to demonstrate what it means to love all people everywhere.

__________________
[1]This liberalism is defined by the sovereignty of the individual in society, the assertion that there are universally experienced values inherent to all people everywhere, the assertion that truth is self-derived, and that there is some neutral philisophical ground whereby all conflicts can be resolved. Cf. Willimon et al., Good News in Exile.
[2]ibid.
[3]Please remember that I am using liberal in the philosophical (not political) sense here. I am not arguing in favour of some sort of cultural conservatism. Nor am I arguing for a return to a preliberal cognitive state that sees religion as stating binding propositional truths. I am much more drawn to Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic approach… but I digress.
[4]Cf. William T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination.

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Responses

  1. Hey Dan,

    Can you expand on this a bit:

    “It is exactly by maintaining its exclusivity and be refusing to capitulate to the narrative told by liberal nation-states that the church in the West will be able to demonstrate what it means to love all people everywhere.”

    Practically, how do you picture this exclusivity?


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