Useful debate takes place when sparring parties understand their opponent’s position, and can represent it in terms the opponent would agree with. Apart from this proper knowledge, disagreements cannot be profitably discussed, for the disagreements are not even properly understood. What follows this ignorance is usually a headache of talking past one another, flaming straw men, arguing against caricatures and stereotypes, dismissing positions out of hand – all in all, much sound and fury, signifying nothing.
In the ten years since I came to embrace conservatism, I have watched and participated in a number of sound-and-fury debates with other Christians, usually online. The debates have typically been around worship forms, music, ministry philosophies or techniques. In short, the debates have been around how Christianity is to be incarnated in modern culture.
I cannot claim that I represent ‘The Conservative Christian Position’ (how would one determine that, anyway?). I can claim that I am in sympathy with conservatives such as Richard Weaver, T.S. Eliot, Roger Scruton, and others. I can claim that I am a Christian, and I think conservatism and Christianity require one another to be consistent and healthy. I, and others like me, have tried to articulate what a conservative Christianity looks like in modern culture.
I have come to see the intensity of the debate is often because our interlocutors do not understand how deep the differences lie. They see the differences to be relatively superficial applications of ministry, and see the conservative’s vehement disagreement as incomprehensibly stubborn. If you see the differences as cosmetic, unwillingness to budge can be nothing other than pigheadedness. On the other hand, if some of my debate-opponents had known how far apart we really are, they may have questioned whether we share the same faith, or at least if we see with the same eyes. I suggest there are three areas of difference between a conservative Christian and his progressive/ pragmatic/ liberal counterpart. Each level leads to the next, where the disagreement is deeper.
On the first level, we disagree on what should be used or done in corporate worship, ministry, or Christian living, because we differ over what these things mean, or signify. We differ on what certain forms of music mean, what certain cultural phenomena such as dress, or poetry, or technology mean. Because we disagree on what they mean, we disagree on their appropriateness for worship, ministry and Christian living in general. You can read men such as Ken Myers, Leonard Bernstein, or Roger Scruton to read how I’d understand the meaning of these cultural phenomena. This leads to a second level of disagreement.
On the second deeper level, we disagree as to whether what these cultural artifacts mean corresponds with something in reality. Romans 14 could end the debate for us all, unless we had a difference on whether ‘appropriateness’ is a matter of morality or preference. Here our disagreement is deeper: it is epistemological. We differ on whether there is such a thing as moral knowledge, or knowledge of beauty, and whether such things can be true. Underneath the surface of what worship forms mean, is a deeper debate about whether beauty exists in reality, and whether our cultural forms are supposed to correspond to that or not. C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man or Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences consider the ideas of moral, aesthetic or personal knowledge.
This difference as to whether there exists true aesthetic knowledge or true moral knowledge reveals the third and most severe difference. On the deepest level, we disagree about the nature of reality itself. Ours is a metaphysical difference. In my experience, I find some of those debating me to be people who profess the Christian faith, but are modernists in their understanding of reality. That is, they see the world very similarly to a naturalist scientist: the world exists independently of human beings, following natural laws. A chasm exists between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ realities. Objective realities, to them, refer to the concrete material world. To these, my Christian [modernist] counterpart will add to his list of objective realities God’s existence, the supernatural or unseen world, and the objective propositions of God’s Word. Subjective realities, to him, refers to perceptions of beauty, judgements of value, and personal relationships. Matters of imagination, intuition, and aesthetic judgements belong to a private world of individual preference. They are nothing more than self-contained experiences inside a human’s consciousness, which do not affect the objective world of the natural, created order.
I don’t believe that such is the world, and neither did people like Eliot, Weaver, nor, in my opinion, did David, Isaiah or John. Certainly, I believe in the reality of the created order, and that the world exists apart from my perception. I agree that concrete facts about the world can be objectively measured. However, I do not believe that the ‘subjective’ world is nothing more than a brain firing neurons at itself when it perceives ‘the objective world’.
Rather, subjective knowledge is the only kind we have access to. In fact, I don’t believe it is possible for humans to ever possess pure ‘objective’ knowledge as long as they remain living, perceiving, subjects. Your pupil cannot see itself from itself. Owen Barfield, Michael Polanyi, and Weaver will be helpful to get your mind around this one.
Subjective perception is in fact the God-given faculty of judgement of a meaning-saturated creation, which can either conform to the reality God wishes me to see, or skew it. That is, the world, (including us human subjects) is made by a meaning-making, moral, Person. Consequently, all that is made is invested with meaning – what God meant to signify with it. All that is made is also invested with morality – the goodness and beauty God meant it to have. My debate-partner and I don’t just disagree about whether there is such a thing as moral knowledge, we disagree about whether the universe is moral. My counterpart might agree that the Ten Commandments are moral. I think sub-atomic particles are moral.
A meaningful, moral universe does not exist independently from moral persons, the way scientific naturalism asserts. It exists by the word of a Person – God – and it exists in the form we perceive it for persons – us. (We see colour, but individual atomic particles don’t have colour.) And it is rightly perceived and understood, not when we merely examine it under a microscope or dissect it, but when we receive it reverently as meaningful, moral, and personal. We are supposed to understand that we are part of the web of the created order, and only a reverent, personal, moral relationship with the personal Creator can enable our subjective perceptions of creation to correspond to what God meant by it.
To put it simply, we can understand what is ‘out’ there, or we can misunderstand what is ‘out’ there. Here science is helpless, except to give us facts, nor can our senses independently figure it out. A right relationship with God enables us to understand the meaning of what is ‘out there’, which is the same as the truth of what’s out there – what my counterpart would like to call objective. But this truth is more than physical properties, it is beauty, goodness, and meaningful analogy. I cannot know objective truth independently; I must embrace the fact that I am a subject, and can only perceive and understand what God reveals to me. I must pursue His judgement as to what is true, good and beautiful, to rightly construe what my senses perceive. That’s not a preference; that’s submission.
This is why, for me, the questions of beauty are not mere questions of decoration, excellence, or good decorum. Beauty is part of the fabric of the universe. Aesthetic knowledge is fundamental to knowing God Himself. The subjective knowledge of beauty as God sees it, the subjective, personal knowledge of God is, in fact, the only way to know Truth.
That’s where the difference really lies.