Gray Logic, Gray Wisdom
David Mills, Touchstone Associate Editor, recently sent me news of (yet another) publication whose editors believe they represent a “third way” in which the sterile battles of right and left are transcended by charity and good sense. “What it actually proposed,” he says, “was a sloppy sentimental socialism in domestic politics and a sloppy sentimental anti-westernism in international affairs.” Appended was a review of a new book that offers guidelines for the mission of the Church that transcend the division between liberal and conservative ideology by trying “prayer and humility structures” rather than “action and power structures.”
Well, by all means, let us pray and be humble. But if I were a fox, you may be sure I would preach prayer and humility to the gander while he was contemplating the defense of his flock along action and power structure lines. And to be sure, let us avoid ideology when this means wrong ideas, but let us also be aware that one way to dispose of truth is to mingle it with error, and then dispose of the mass as “ideology.” Mills’s use of “sloppy” to define this kind of thinking is quite correct, and I would add that sloppy thinking may also be intricate and rhetorically convincing, like a useless Rube Goldberg device or a piece of trash publicly displayed as art. People should not be taken in by such things.
One does find third ways in various places, but imagining they exist here obscures that what Christians are speaking of when they talk of liberalism and conservatism is belief in dogma. A theological liberal is styled a liberal because he disbelieves or is agnostic about beliefs which a conservative believes and conserves. There is no third way, for example, in thinking about the resurrection of Christ. In the final analysis it either happened or it didn’t, one either believes in it or doesn’t, and lives in its power or not. Not knowing whether Christ arose is not, in Christian view, a third way because that must devolve into either belief or disbelief, the believer or unbeliever himself devolving (whether through purgatory or not) into heaven or hell. If there is a third place, it is in this life, whose chief business is to choose one of two. One should not write books or magazines that tempt people to think otherwise.
When one is speaking of liberalism and conservatism in this way, an attitude is not in view but a condition of the soul. “Conservative” in this case means a human being who has been confronted with revelation, believes, and perseveres in his belief. (Belief is not, of course, final knowledge, but accession of the Gospel of Christ in faith and hope.) This is a sign of divine election and the soul’s salvation. A liberal is one who has been confronted with the same and who on principle denies or suspends belief. If he suspends belief so that he may be convinced more fully of the truth, maintaining the desire to believe, then he is not a liberal in the sense the word is being used here, but still in the state of evangelization, from which he will emerge a believer—and hence a “conservative”—or not.
Now, this being said, liberalism and conservatism can in another sense be regarded as dispositions, reflecting qualities of the mind rather than states of the soul. Confusion results if one mixes this definition with the above. A liberal in this sense is a person who is more oriented toward change than fixity, a conservative the reverse. The balanced thinker will recognize that each of these dispositions has its place and value and that no individual or society can retain its health if either is slighted, eliminated, or brought to bear in the wrong place or time. What is necessary here is not, strictly speaking, a third way, a balance between liberal and conservative dispositions, but a mind that holds both and knows, in accordance with a higher principle, when either is to be exercised. This higher principle might be mistaken for a third, medial, way between the other two, but it is actually Wisdom, above them, deciding in particular times and places which is to be employed. If one wishes to speak of the counsel of Wisdom as a third way, that is not unreasonable, for it presents itself between the others. But one will misunderstand its nature if it is regarded a compound that results when two dispositions are mixed.
People who are tired of the battles of religious liberalism and conservatism, who emphasize the faults on both sides, and think that if only both would exercise a little charity and forbearance they could agree enough to coexist peacefully, are not thinking clearly. They have forgotten, sometimes deliberately and for unworthy motives (money and status are on the liberal side), the infinitely high stakes of the dispute, involving as it does the dogmatic form of the gospel of salvation. They have also despaired of the Wisdom which gives us the ability to discern which of our dispositions is to be employed, and at what time, and to what degree. They have withdrawn from the alternations of black and white, of silence and sound, of the chosen and not-chosen, that make up the central field of human existence, to a frozen distance where they can only see gray and hear humming. Their own wisdom is consequently a gray wisdom that has neither the capacity nor the desire to decide between one thing or another, when human life, temporal and eternal, is built upon the constant necessity of doing precisely that.
—S. M. Hutchens
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Gray Logic, Gray Wisdom” first appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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