Where Is the Wise?
Conservatism, Maturity & the Demonic
by Hans Boersma
Winston Churchill is often quoted as having said, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” As an admirer both of Churchill and of the comment in question, I regret to inform our readers that we have no record of Churchill uttering this statement.
Please indulge me and allow me nonetheless to refer to the statement above as the “Churchill quote.” Let’s subject it to some reflection, for I think it contains profound wisdom. (And yes, I self-identify as over 35, conservative, and having a brain.)
The Churchill quote appears to suggest that young people’s idealism attracts them to liberal or progressivist agendas, while more in-depth reflection among older people makes them conservative. Though this observation is by no means universally valid, I think it often holds true, in Western society at least, in the areas of religion, politics, and economics.
Adulthood, according to the Churchill quote, has to do with the brain. To be sure, this is a somewhat coarse or crude way of putting things, for I suspect that it is not just the brain (rational, discursive thought) but especially the intellect (wisdom) that is in view here. It is wisdom that renders one conservative.
This last statement is so obvious as to be tautologous. H. Richard Niebuhr, in his classic 1951 Christ and Culture, notes five characteristics of any given culture: (1) it is social; (2) it is the result of human achievement; (3) it is a world of values that aims at certain ends or purposes; (4) it tries to realize these values in concrete temporal and material ways; and (5) it is diverse or pluralist in its endeavors.
I am interested in the fourth characteristic. Niebuhr suggests that our efforts to give shape to our values by way of buildings, laws, songs, and innumerable other accomplishments mean that we want to preserve these values. We try to conserve them in the particular forms that we have given to them. “Culture,” writes Niebuhr, “is a social tradition which must be conserved by painful struggle not so much against nonhuman natural forces as against revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason.” A culture that fails to conserve its basic accomplishments fails to conserve its values and thus dissolves.
Niebuhr is not being prescriptive; he is not trying to convince us that we should be conservative and try to preserve our accomplishments. Rather, he is simply descriptive. Anyone with a bit of a brain will be conservative for the simple reason that he loves the culture whose accomplishments he celebrates with thankfulness. For Niebuhr (and I think he is spot-on) wisdom renders one a conservative. To be a progressive is to be childish, immature, not fully grown—and, crucially, lacking in gratitude.
A Spiritual Category
We tend to think of maturation as something biological—it just happens, like it or not. I would suggest, however, that adulthood is as much a spiritual as it is a biological category. St. Irenaeus famously talked about Adam and Eve as immature children, which is why he didn’t attribute much blame to them for eating the apple. They were like naughty kids raiding their mother’s kitchen cupboard. Sadly, the unfortunate incident did condemn them and their posterity to immaturity. Maturity or perfection—the Greek teleiotēs carries both meanings—had to wait till the coming of Christ. He, the true man, realized maturity or perfection, the very purpose of Adamic existence.
Irenaeus, I suspect, took his theological cue regarding the Adamic journey to maturity from St. Paul, who identifies the human aim as attaining
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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