The posts on Josephus and the concept of the “politeia” will resume: this is just an interlude.
I am not fond of labels when it comes to people, but I accept their use in technical contexts for the sake of convenience and efficiency. Chalcedon’s excellent recent piece on culture wars (kulturkampf) has reminded me of my own recent struggles with labels in the context of my own religious and political beliefs. When I was at school we had to study Sir Robert Peel, arguably one of the nineteenth century’s greatest prime ministers, and the re-birth of the Tory party. In today’s gauche parlance we would say that the party was “re-branded“. Around the time of the Tamworth Manifesto it acquired the name “Conservative”. What does that name imply? Guarding the past – but not living in it. You will still find many in Britain today who will happily label themselves as “conservative with a small C”. Such sentiments will frustrate a certain kind of zeal, but it is a mistake to believe that such conservatism cannot also be defended by the fire of zealots. Zeal is in and of itself neither good nor bad: the connection of zeal with a cause and the nature of that cause determines the quality of the value judgement. Zeal for necessary reform is a good thing (where reform is itself understood as good); zeal in the service of evil is misdirected.
Within the Church zeal is found igniting various causes and factions. The struggle to overturn, redefine, or extend doctrine in the face of a call to “preserve what must be preserved” creates frustration. Deception is everywhere: within the human heart, and in the voices of powers far more ancient than Adam’s race. In our desire to “stay relevant”, to keep the Gospel in the public sphere, we seek language that will neither obfuscate nor betray the message of Christ. We seek to “contextualize” it. How does conservatism fit into this picture? Carefully. Preserving the deposit of faith that Christ has entrusted to His followers means being wise. Christ exhorted the Apostles to “be wise as serpents, but harmless as doves”. The authors of Scripture warned the faithful not to be deceived. In our spiritual war we are called to “stand firm” and to be loyal to Yahweh our God.
Chalcedon alluded to Christ’s teaching on new wine. Christ’s teaching could not be contained by the Law. The time had come to transcend (not transgress) the Law. He calls us to exhibit a righteousness greater than that brought by Moses. As St. Paul teaches in Romans, the Law brought death – its letter kills – but Christ brought life. The reactionaries of Christ’s day by their own refusal to accept Him cast themselves out of the Kingdom of Heaven. But Christ also taught that He had come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. Here our concept of “conservatism” as understood above takes its significance. The early Christians did not reject God’s previous message: they used it as the doorway to enter into Christ.
So should our conservatism be today. Christ said that His Spirit would lead us into all truth. If the Spirit is to lead us, then we must go: we cannot stand still. As we understand the universe better (natural revelation) and as God leads us into greater things “in the spirit” (supernatural revelation), we must continue to apply ourselves to the study of His Word. His principles do not change, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”. But sometimes our understanding needs to shift. Galileo’s discoveries about the universe did not change the Gospel message, and he himself did not think that they would. They changed how we viewed the Bible, to be sure, but that change did not mean that God became somehow less awesome, less holy in our sight. As Chalcedon often says, “We have nothing to fear from the truth.” Our knowledge of the truth is growing, but our Saviour remains the same, standing faithfully beside us.