Posted on May 27, 2010
Quarterly Essay is one of my pleasures. A long essay is the most elegant form of the English language and my most treasured authors are virtuosi in the form, authors such as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton and Wendell Berry. Add to that list Waleed Aly, who has penned the latest Essay with the title What’s Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia. I’ve read about half of it and am loving it.
His main point, I think, sheds light on a key tension within my own movement, which in the fashion of Wendell Berry, I will call the Movement for biblically-based Christ-centred Spirit-empowered evangelism + justice-making + church-planting + community-growing + disciple-forming + godly child-rearing + creation-caring + music-making + other good stuff which we haven’t thought of yet, which tends to exist on the fringes of inherited church structures.
Why does it shed light? Aly points out that conservatism has an ‘organic’ approach to change. He doesn’t mean home-grown food. He means that change is tied to what has gone before, it ‘grows’ out of the past, as a plant grows from its roots:
…human society is organic. It is something that has evolved slowly and naturally, incorporating the wisdom of generations and gradually leaving behind those things that have proven themselves to be folly
Conservatism has no place for complete breaks with the past in order to forge a new and bright future, and when you put it like that, you can see why it has its roots in the French Revolution, which tried to erase the past in order to blaze a new and more excellent future, mostly by killing its opponents.
What has this got to do with the above-mentioned movement? There is a tension in this movement, and therefore within myself, between wanting change to happen slowly, in continuity with the past and at the same time calling for massive reconstruction of the whole of our culture according to the radical vision of Jesus Christ. I want to move with the slowest person in the community, but I want the war to stop now. I want to value the past, the traditions, the hand that has fed me, but woe betide the church structure that stands in the the way of the prophetic voice of Jesus through the ages. Waleed Aly would call these two approaches to change ‘conservatism’ and ‘revolutionary’.
Both of these approaches to change are needed in our movement. There are times when decisive, sudden and un-usual (that dash is intentional) change is needed, and times when slow, organic change is needed. I would also say that these approaches to change depend on each other. Revolutionary change will struggle to last, if happen at all, if the slow and incremental and organic changes have not been taking place. And organic approaches to faith will simply wither and choke on their own reverence for the present and past without the tectonic slide of revolutionary change.
(The image to the right is called “The Foreign Tree”. According to the site I got it from: These painted engravings ridicule the unrest wrought by French revolutionaries by contrasting French subversion with British stability. The “British Liberty Tree” (depicted in the preceding image) is assigned to the mock Latin genus of “Stabilissimus,” while the more sickly looking “Foreign Tree” in this image is put in the genus “Subitarius.” Notice in the background of the latter, a guillotine, symbol of all that is wrong with France.)