February 12, 2020

My Former Life as a Radical

Assuming that intentions translate directly into results, radicals tend to be unscrupulous optimists in that they operate on the premise that well-intentioned radical change, however destructive, can only lead to improvement.

That quote caught my eye from a Quillette article by a former political radical, who outlined the mindset that is required to belong to the growing number of fringe groups that agitate, increasingly violently, for political change.

The title My Former Life as a Radical is a good piece of clickbait. In fact that’s why I used it myself for this blogpost and landed you, like the curious trout you are, gasping for oxygen on the shores of my blog.

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As I went through the article I could have replaced the word “political” with the word “ecclesiastical”.

I could have replaced the need to change society from the burnt ground upwards to the need to change the church from the burnt ground upwards.  Hey, there’s even a book from the conservative evangelical stable called Radical (and a counter to it called Ordinary, for which I am grateful).

Simply put, the views expressed in this article can easily be translated into what we’ve seen recently, where disasters in church movements burn with zeal and burn people in the process.

Article writer, Gerfried Ambrosch, was a radical of the Marxist kind, and you think “Surely the church and Marxism are polar opposites!”.

But a wise friend, who eschews radical ways – though who has the complete DNA kit of a radical coursing through his body yet declines to use it – , constantly says to me, “Marxism is a Protestant heresy“.

I think he’s right.  And Charles Taylor of A Secular Age would likely agree. Only a worldview in which things, rather than circular and repeatable, are historical and changeable, could through up an ideological bastard child such as Marxism.

There’s a constant restlessness for reform from the roots. The root of the word “radical” is from the Latin “radix” meaning “roots”, which is why radishes are fairly radical. Radicalism, therefore, cannot sit still, cannot rest until something, whatever that something is, has stripped everything back to the foundations in order to rebuild from scratch.

Tom Holland’s book Dominion paints a clear picture of such radicalism in action throughout the church ages, to the point where I’m putting the book down and asking, “They put all their energies, and racked up a body count trying to do what exactly?”

And as Ambrosch reveals, nothing less than the complete razing to the ground is good enough for the radical:

Philosopher Roger Scruton outlines the fallacies underlying this mindset, such as “the best case fallacy,” which “imagines the best outcome and assumes that it need consider no other,” and “the utopian fallacy,” which insists that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Hold that last comment.  “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  Roll it around your tongue.  Feel its weight.  Translate it into a situation you know.  See how dangerous it is.  And see how both Marx and an ever fracturing Protestantism in a post-Christian West can cling to this reality.

I know it can, because that zealotry tempted me for some time in church.  But here’s the danger:

radicals tend to be unscrupulous optimists in that they operate on the premise that well-intentioned radical change, however destructive, can only lead to improvement. 

In other words a body count is totally worth it if it achieves the utopian political or ecclesiological ideal. After all if the perfect is the enemy of the good, then the good needs to be personified and named.  And eliminated.  In Marxism that’s by violence.  And in church that’s by, er, violence.

There’s no such thing as a scrupulous optimist.  They’re called realists.

Christians need to stop worrying about the damage being done to their tribe by external utopian ideals from post-Christians radicals. Or at least while they’re dealing with that on one hand, they need to start putting the heat on those who are damaging them from within by their ecclesiological ideals.  Jerusalem may well topple from within, just as it did before.

Now this is not an argument for the status quo.  Quite the opposite in fact.  It’s an argument for conversations with people you disagree with that can lead to lasting change.  The status quo is often a cover for a tyrant who is a radical in their own little patch.

The great irony is that just as many tyrants love upheaval, there are others who love the  status quo. This external – and implacably enforced calm – allows them to operate under the cover of darkness.  The tyrant shoos or shoots those who challenge their pristine dreams with stupid little ideas such as reality, with little fear that they will be called out for it.

Our aim should be to make the good the enemy of the perfect.

This came home to me the other day as my wife and I were sitting around dinner, and she observed that in our earlier church days (our more radical ones?) everyone was around in our house all of the time.

“Now it feels like a haven away from people,” she said, before adding that she loves having people around, just not all of the time.  Which is normal people.  Normal and good.  After all, what’s the lasting impression you want of your house?  That it’s perfect?  Or that it’s good, a good place to be.

Here’s another line that struck me from the article, and one which I will leave you with.

Radical ideologues have sought to undermine the family for centuries.

And we like to think that’s just the political radicals, those nasty Marxist post-Christian sexual ethics types. Indeed Mary Eberstadt’s great works, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularisation, and Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics show this link most clearly.  And I fully appreciate her work.

But once again,  you really want to tear a family apart and call it godly? Do you want to sweep away a good family in order to create a perfect one? If so then promote and promulgate a radical church ideology, then sit back and watch the tears flow.



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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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