Theology Not Ideology

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Ideology makes smart people stupid. No, it doesn’t decrease the IQ or the cleverness with which the ideologue defends a position and attacks others who dissent, but it makes people think and act as though they were stupid. Here’s what I mean.

To be an ideologue is not just to hold beliefs strongly but to hold to a belief system that dictates the way reality must be, no matter what. Facts must be made to conform to the ideologue’s beliefs, even when they don’t. So, the ideologue must dismiss facts or else distort them to maintain beliefs which are held as absolute.

In his book I’m just beginning to read, The Cross in Our Context, the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, introduces us to the theology he develops first in the manner called via negativa, by saying what it is not. One of the things his theology of the cross is not and must not become is an ideology. Hall writes:

By ideology I mean a theoretical statement or system of interpretation that functions for its adherents as a full and sufficient credo, a source of personal authority, and an intellectually and psychologically comforting insulation from the frightening and chaotic mish-mash of daily existence. For the ideologue, whether religious or political, it is not necessary to expose oneself constantly to the ongoingness of life; one knows in advance what one is going to find in the world. (25).

“One knows in advance” what one will find in life and in other people. What a convenient blindness. One does not need to investigate with an open mind but only to find what one can use to “prove” the predetermined conclusion. All else may be discarded.

In an endnote on his description of ideology, Hall cites Dorothee Soelle in her book Political Theology: “By ideology I understand a system of propositional truths independent of the situation, a superstructure no longer relevant to praxis, to the situation, to the real questions of life.” (Hall, 234).

The way of the ideologue suppresses reality and oppresses people. It misleads with fixed authority and often defends itself cruelly. It’s unquestionable “truth” crushes realities. The emperor struts in his fine clothes until some child blurts out the truth that his highness is naked. In America, we have just lived through a time when evidence was cooked to support the foregone conclusion, when science was allowed (or doctored) to say only what supported the reigning truth, and when dissenters were regarded, not as people with other viewpoints and experiences, but as unpatriotic enemies supporting terrorists.

The line between theology and ideology is thin and frequently crossed. People of faith, therefore, need to be on guard against authoritarian judgments that deny the realities of people’s lives in this world. When the word “should” provides visions of what would be in a world of justice and compassion, it is a wonderful word because it generates hope and fosters change away from life’s present injustices and cruelties. But when the word “should” is employed to dismiss concern for people’s suffering, oppression, or exclusion, then it becomes a terrifying word out of place in theology.

This contrast of theology with ideology has countless ramifications some of which I plan to explore in succeeding posts. The overall message is a warning that not only theologians but all people of faith need to take great care that our faith-thinking does not become ideological. The world does not need any more religious or political tyrannies. God, we Christians like to say, meets us where we are in life, not where we should be (because we are not there for the meeting). So, if we have any truth to share, we need to keep that truth open life’s realities and people’s actual experiences and real conditions of existence. Otherwise our faith will operate only in the cruel dreamworld of the ideologue. Further, we need to remember what we hold as our gospel: that God’s truth is faithful love willing to give itself to suffering and shame to be redemptive. So, keeping our beliefs open to people’s sufferings and real-life conditions is not just a matter of information gathering; it must be a matter of entering into and to some degree respectfully sharing those conditions of life.

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