Is There a “Christian Ideology?”
Recently I read an editorial that referred to a Christian university’s “Christian ideology.” This editorial was written by a very intelligent journalist. (Like all editorials it was unsigned, but I happen to know who wrote it.) To me, anyway, “Christian ideology” is an oxymoron. If something is true Christianity it cannot be ideological; if something is a true ideology it cannot be authentically Christian.
So, before someone jumps in to protest, let me acknowledge that, like most words, “ideology” has become extremely flexible in recent years. In common parlance, what the Germans call Umgangsprache, what Americans call “colloquial language,” “ideology” can mean almost any set of beliefs. Even some dictionaries have picked up that colloquial meaning. However, I believe that long after a word has become almost useless due to common misuse, its “aroma” can and often does linger. The “aroma” of “ideology” is still, as throughout much of the 20th century, decidedly negative.
To me, and to most people educated in intellectual history, “ideology” is most properly used for a system of beliefs about the proper ordering of society attached to a political movement or party that wishes to enforce it in order to solve humanity’s perceived problems. In other words, an ideology is by its very nature totalizing. If a belief system is not totalizing, it is not really an ideology.
In other words, “ideology” and “mastery over” cannot be separated; adherents of an ideology always hope to gain mastery over a society, if not humanity, by making their ideology the governing system of that social order.
One contemporary philosopher in particular has built a career and reputation by attempting to demonstrate that most ideologies are hidden from public view but can be uncovered through a hermeneutic of suspicion. His name is Slavoj Žižek (b. 1949)—who hails from Slovenia but is well known throughout Europe and North America as a postmodern deconstructionist. Whether he is a Christian or even believes in God is much debated, but beyond debate (I think) is his belief that Jesus was a kind of ultimate deconstructor of ideologies—an iconoclast with regard to all totalizing systems that oppress people (and all totalizing systems do that in one way or another).
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I happen to agree with the Slovenian philosopher about one thing (at least): true Christianity, Christianity centered around and built on the message and character of Jesus, cannot be an ideology in the classical sense of the word. “Christian ideology” is an oxymoron (unless one merely means by “ideology” any system of belief which then sort of makes it a useless term).
True, authentic, Jesus-centered Christian is anti-ideological belief system. Of course, many so-called “Christians” throughout history have attempted to make their “Christianity” into an ideology. They still do it. In my opinion, however, that attempt, however successful or unsuccessful, reveals the inauthenticity of their “Christianity.”
Yes, of course…true, authentic Christianity includes belief in something called the “kingdom of God” which sounds to many people, including many Christians, like an ideology. It isn’t; it is a Christ-centered vision of a social order without mastery-over. It is not, as with all ideologies, a humanly contrived socio-political solution to all human problems to be imposed politically. Its “heartbeat” is, as Pope Francis says, mercy. If true, authentic Christianity is an “ideology,” it is an anti-ideological ideology. All true ideology is idolatry from a Christian perspective and that is exactly why true, authentic Christianity must exclude and resist all ideologies.
When examining ideologies, Christians should ask two questions. First, does this ideology function as a religion, calling for what Tillich called “ultimate concern?” Most true ideologies do. How does this ideology regard the weak and powerless of the world? Most true ideologies pretend to have a socio-political solution to their plights, but at the same time, most true ideologies really care little for them or want to turn them into masters over others.
Jürgen Moltmann is a contemporary Christian theologian who has spent his career separating true, authentic Christianity and its vision of the kingdom of God from ideology. He was clearly inspired by the classical ideologies of the 20th century—especially Marxism and Fascism—to re-envision Christianity away from ideologies including capitalism and, I would add, “Americanism” insofar as that includes so-called “American exceptionalism.”
A Christian university, or any Christian organization, insofar as it is truly, authentically Christian, will eschew ideology and promote instead Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God as a social order in which the “last shall be first.” For a great elucidation of that vision read Donald Kraybill’s The Upside-Down Kingdom (Herald Press). Then ask yourself: Is the kingdom of God an ideology in any traditional, classical sense? I think not.
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