December 2023
Ideologies vs. People

There's a big difference between critiquing ideologies and critiquing people. Knowing the difference allows room for the Spirit to work in people's hearts and minds.

As a conflict avoider, I never dreamed of writing about cultural issues or movements in the public square. Being the English nerd that I am, I would've been much happier to curl up in a chair with some poetry, a heavy blanket, and a peaceful resolution to live a hermetic life. But God has a rich history of having his people do the very things they dread doing. If we all could control what our lives looked life, things would be far more boring, and we'd be far less likely to grow and change. So, I've submitted to the task of reading and writing about cultural engagement and life in the public square as a Christian, whether in a general sense, or in an area more specific, such as the First Amendment.

What's become clear, however, is that many Christians who write about issues in the public or cultural sphere lack a certain sensitivity and grace (which is ironic, considering who Jesus Christ is). And one helpful distinction to make amidst discussions and disagreements is between attacking ideologies and attacking people. It's one thing to critique the philosophical and theoretical roots of a movement; it's quite another to suggest all people related to such a movement either (1) have consciously imbibed the philosophical underpinnings we critique or (2) have lesser value in God's eyes because of it. Let me set this up by offering an explanation as to why so much public discourse these days is about identity, since so many Christians in the public square have been addressing the LGBTQ+ movement. 

Why All This Talk about Identity?

Scads of blog posts, articles, and books have been and are being published about Christian identity in the context of secular culture. From tomes such as Charles Taylor's A Secular Age to more Reformed work by writers such as Carl Trueman. A fuller list would be exhausting. Why is so much being written?

It's not just that identity is a perennial interest. It's also that we're in a special place in history where a certain understanding of the self has taken center stage. For a brief discussion, listen to Glen Scrivener and A.J. Wilson chat with Carl Trueman on their "Post Christianity?" podcast.

Anthropology comes from theology, and ethics from anthropology.

But I believe there's a deeper reason, a theological one, and it was noted several times by the authors mentioned above. Let me say it in short form first and then explain it. Anthropology comes from theology, and ethics from anthropology.

The differences Christians have from those in the secular sphere are not superficial. They are grounded on much deeper things. At the bottom of what we might call our "assumption pyramid" is our understanding of God, which we label "theology proper." Who is God and what is he like? Everyone has an answer to that question, even if the answer is, "God doesn't exist, so stop talking to me." But here's the key: based on that answer is a person's understanding of who people are: anthropology. This is where you'll see a constant stream of discussions about "identity" and what it means to be a "self." And then a person's ethics are based on that person's anthropology. It's all connected: theology, anthropology, ethics. In fact, these things have been connected since Creation.

What happens in Genesis 1 and 2? One way we could summarize it is to say that God reveals three essential things: who he is (the all-knowing and all-powerful speaking Creator), who we are (image bearers), and what we're supposed to do (trust God by taking him at his word). That's theology, anthropology, and ethics.

Why does this matter? In short, it helps us treat people a bit more like onions: layers upon layers. A person's ethical position on something such as same-sex marriage isn't "just there." It sits on top of assumptions about who people are. And a person's view of who people are isn't "just there." It sits on top of assumptions about who God is. In our discussions with those who differ from us, we need to go deeper than the issue at hand. We need to look under the rock of ethics and see what little living assumptions are moving around underneath. And then we we need to dig under those assumptions to see what lies at the foundation. Conversations are digging opportunities.  


What does any of this have to do with ideologies and people? We can use the LGBTQ+ movement as an example, since it's so prevalent. Beneath the sexual ethics of those who promote this movement is a certain anthropology, an understanding of who people are and what they're meant to become. As Taylor, Trueman, and many others have argued, that anthropology is built on threads of secular philosophy and popular ideologies. This is where you see names dropped: Rousseau, Marx, Freud, Reich, Nietzsche, Romanticism, expressivism. Woven together, mixed and matched, these ideologies are trying to answer the questions, "What is a person? Who are you?" That's anthropology.

However, I would say many, even most, people who are part of the LGBTQ+ movement haven't read Rousseau, or Freud, or even the Romantic poets. They have imbibed the values of the movement for various reasons, many of which appear to have little to do with the "ideological roots" of the movement itself. They might have existential or personal reasons, but they likely won't have ideological ones. Popular movements build power based on feeling and intuition, not the analytical prowess of its members.

Popular movements build power based on feeling and intuition, not the analytical prowess of its members.   

So, does that mean we shouldn't spend time critiquing the ideologies and philosophies that lie behind movements such as LGBTQ+? Certainly not! And here's why: ideas influence people and carry them to new places. We often think of ideas or values as static things we can hold in our hands. They exert no influence over us. We hold them; they don't hold us. But that's false. Why? Because ethics (what we do) is based on anthropology (who we think we are). Ideas about selfhood and identity lead to words and actions driven by those ideas. Christians should be vigilant in noting where ideas are taking people in the secular world, and what lies in store for them in Jesus Christ. 

Where does that leave people in the midst of these high-intensity debates about identity and gender? Well, some writers have a tendency to identify people with their ideas. "You are what you think" isn't just an aphorism; it's an assumption that leads to a certain sort of social interaction (usually an ugly one). There's a big difference, in other words, between saying, "The philosophy and values of this movement are evil" and "You are evil." The latter leads to a much more bitter argument.

This doesn't mean we aren't responsible for our thoughts, or that we can't be held accountable for them. Far from it! But it does mean that humans are all creatures in process. And if we decide to reject that process and identify people with a static thing (the ideology or value system of a movement), we give up on the hope that they could change. And, tacitly, we also give up on the hope that we could change, too.

What Next?

I guess all I'm saying is we should be wary of identifying people with ideologies. People are deeper, more complex, more mysterious, and (frankly) more contradictory than any ideology ever could be. They are also in process, and being heard might be the very thing that opens them up to the possibility of change.

At the same time, we shouldn't stop critiquing movements in secular culture, as if to say (in grace and love), "Please, don't go that way! Look at where it's taking you!" We need balance. We can't afford to go speechless when it comes to unbiblical ways of living, but neither can we flatten people so much that we equate them with a philosophy or value system. Thank God, people are more than that.

At their deepest, human beings are looking for two things: to be fully known and fully loved. That's what it means to be an insider. In C.S. Lewis's words, that's what it means to "get in." They will only ever find those things with the Christian God, a biblical anthropology, and a matching set of ethics. Until they do, our twofold task is to (1) critique the ideologies of the world to show where they're taking people and (2) affirm our biblical anthropology by not identifying people with ideas. We need to give them (and ourselves) room to grow.

May we keep finding new conversations for digging, and offer the grace of Christ that was given to us in the process.

Learn more about how to engage with secular culture in Insider Outsider

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