May 1, 2008

Apophatic Conservatism

Fleming's curmudgeonly post moves from expressing irritation at the foibles of bloggers to the difficulty of fathoming a basis for a revived conservative coalition.
There is a lot of conservative chatter out in the blogosphere. Much of it can be reduced to Rodney King’s question: “Why can’t we all just get along.” Unfortunately, most of these would-be peace-makers, drunk on their own ungrammatical effusions, have made themselves appear as stupid as Rodney King–and just as troublesome and even harder to repress. They spend their time lambasting “Paleos,” Catholics, Southerners, and even all Christians, wihtout knowing the first thing about “paleoconservatism,” Christianity, or the South. Then they wonder why they cannot build a coalition. I had hoped, by beginning a serious dialogue on the early Church, Protestants and Catholics might begin to find some common ground. In fact, that is exactly what has happened. Can we develop the same common ground on more political topics? Why not? Where do we begin?
Perhaps, like Marxists schooled in their squabbles, conservatism seems more fragmented from the inside than the outside. Catholic traditionalists, nationalists, Southern revivalists, libertarians, and so on appear to have very different views. Whether they are "conservative" in the dictionary meaning of the world is often questionable.

This brings to mind a couple of adages. First, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." The second is the supposedly Arab saying, "I against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the infidel." In short, it is easier to define what we are against than to agree on the reasons.

There is an approach to theology in the Orthodox tradition called "apophatic":
Apophatic theology—also known as negative theology—is a theology that attempts to describe God by negation, to speak of God only in absolutely certain terms and to avoid what may not be said. In Orthodox Christianity, apophatic theology is based on the assumption that God's essence is unknowable or ineffable and on the recognition of the inadequacy of human language to describe God. The apophatic tradition in Orthodoxy is often balanced with cataphatic theology—or positive theology—and belief in the incarnation, through which God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
One can approach conservatism in a similar fashion--we don't agree on who we are, but we have a consensus on what we're against. For me, the essence of conservatism is a recognition of human fallenness, the danger of tinkering with the unarticulated and inarticulable habits of soul and society evolved over generations, and the probable wickedness and folly of all "progress," all utopias and systematic programs for change, especially when imposed by a powerful state.

In short, a conservative coalition might form around rejecting the idea of progress, schemas and programs for comprehensive change, the impulse to reform everything, and powerful and centralized government--which today also means opposing interventionism in the name of crusades for democracy. We define ourselves, that is, by what we are not.

It might be a start.

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