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Beyond Ideology

“How alien this experience of total control is to our everyday existence in the chaotic, inexplicable universe. For just this reason, we fashion ideologies to live out our fantasies of control.”

What is ideology? How might we describe such a diverse thing? Let us begin with a rather simple definition: ideology is untruth. Or, perhaps more accurately, ideology is an active combatant against truth, a continual threat to truth. It is the chief sin of the intellectual life.

Ideologies are lifeless, sterile things. As soon as a truth takes the form of an ideology, it becomes petrified into fossilized, objective form. This has no life. Ideology corresponds to idolatry with God and objectification with humans. It cannot handle the expansiveness and mystery of life or of human beings, and so it cloisters itself in a flat, neatly controlled, easily comprehensible system that is both a degradation of truth and a straightforward lie. An ideology is a finite human creation that takes itself to be the final word on reality. Its task is to mark perimeters. It is inherently constraining. It comes pre-packaged with its good guys and bad guys, its right ideas and wrong ideas, and all of this determined solely in relation to the orthodoxy of “the system.” Its chief point of reference is this static world of “the system” rather than living truth. Ideologies build a safe wall to protect us from the fullness of reality. They can be mastered and controlled by finite beings and therein lies their comfort. How alien this experience of total control is to our everyday existence in the chaotic, inexplicable universe. For just this reason, we fashion ideologies to live out our fantasies of control.

And so, we have the paradox that the faithful one is often actually the rebel. Luther: the most faithful Catholic of them all; Christ: the most faithful Jew of them all. While others followed these traditions in static letter, the visionaries, those who received truth as individuals, as persons, followed them in living spirit. They refused to let ideology (the spiritless degradation of truth) suffocate truth in all its primal potency.

Fundamentalism is simply the fulfillment of ideology. Fundamentalism has rightly been called a sickness, but it is merely the most extreme stage of that more primary sickness of ideology. It is the foe of truth. Indeed, all real politics, religion, and intellectual endeavor must wage perpetual war against the spirit of ideology. At its best, it can serve as a helpful sign or tool, but it can too easily become confused with the fullness of reality. Such ideology is fit for mass-men, mere parts within a collective (as in fascism or communism), but it is incompatible with personhood, with individuals. The inestimable dignity and infinite potential of each person surpasses its claustrophobic constraints. We need only realize this truth to transcend its grip. 

But ideology does not merely detest the free individual. It is likewise antithetical to the universal. Now of course, this is a rather ironic critique. After all, the great pride of many ideologies is their claim to supreme universality, their claim to be utterly all-encompassing. But let us seriously question this specific vision of the universal, for with finite creatures like us, the path to universality does not come through a system that accounts for all, but an inward attitude that is open to all. The truly universal spirit is not reflected in a schema but in a disposition. It is not an impersonal ideology but a personal orientation.

For us humans, truth is in the becoming. There could be more of the infinite/universal in one person’s incomplete collection of strivings, musings, and imperfect reflections than an ideologue’s neat and tidy formulations of universal truth—political, philosophical, religious, or otherwise. Let us delight in the paradox of the matter: the minute any ideology claims a complete, universal “system,” you can know for certain that it is antagonistic to the universal. Even if the ambitions are noble, such static ideologies are tragically misguided. They represent a pre-mature formulation of an all-encompassing synthesis. This ultimately precludes one from knowing the mature all-encompassing synthesis, which we humans can perhaps only know now as a kind of negative, apophatic yearning.

In this manner, ideology is the enemy of eros. Per Plato, eros is the passionate movement towards a yet-unknown completion and wholeness. Ideology betrays the infinite incompletion that lies within the human soul. This incompletion rightly directs us outside of ourselves in humble desire, but the smug self-satisfaction of an all-encompassing system squelches this holy impulse from the start. Gone is the innocent joy of the world’s continual unveiling. Ideology is “bourgeois” in the spiritual sense. It is safe, comfortable, and devoid of eros. It has forgotten the way of bottomless desire, the endless openness that is humans’ only path toward full life and truth.

But many are no doubt drawn to ideologies filled with “erotic” yearnings. I think especially of radical political ideologies, where the individual is caught up in the just longing for the Kingdom of God. However (and here is a critical point), as soon as we feign to translate the infinite end of our yearnings into an all-too-human formula or program, we have committed a kind of idolatry, and this “false god” will accordingly make us act in falseness. In relation to God, idolatry is the right desire to worship directed towards a false/finite imitation. Political idolatry is analogous, for it naively seeks exhaustively to place an infinite desire into finite implementation. The most extreme consequence of this is the scourge of ideological violence—and oh, is there ever such a thing as ideological violence. The bloody 20th century is the great witness to what can happen when ideology (or “idolatry,” whichever name you please) is given total political expression. Forcing the world into the distorted image of ideology looks like violence. 

You will sometimes hear critics of religion suggest that the mass ideological violence of, say, the 20th century was actually just a different form of religious violence. I think the formula should be reversed. Religious violence is really just a form of ideological violence. Insofar as faith becomes a mere ideology (a closed and static “system”), let me join the ranks of men like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in their profound skepticism towards religion. I completely agree.

Religion is then potentially quite dangerous, for it becomes a supposedly all-encompassing system that knows no external “check” outside of its own internal logic. And there is perhaps nothing more perilous than a false absolute that strains to impose itself onto reality. It opens the way for an utterly irrational implementation of “ideological truth” that is not tempered by reason or “common sense.” Wholly lacking is the intangible quality of humanity, of vital and living openness. Ideological fervor can make good people do awful things because ideology requires a renunciation of human freedom and selfhood. Mass violence is obviously an extreme example of this, but it is even true to a lesser extent in ideology’s more modest representations (consider our current political climate). Ideology is an inherent attack on personhood, for it stifles the all-important spirit of openness to truth.

Even in a non-political context, ideology distorts human morality. Let me begin by suggesting that the ideological form of morality is “the ethical.” Here I use “the ethical” to mean the petrification of moral life into abstract, universal norms, and law. This absolute, “generalist” morality is a degradation of real morality because it cannot handle the free and the personal, and so it flees to the safety of ideological stasis (ethical law). For instance, this understanding explains why loving one’s neighbor and “turn the other cheek” are always, forever true, and yet the pacifist ideologization of those truths is fundamentally misguided. It translates a truth of living spirit into dead letter. It impersonalizes love by making it into law and robs it of all individual character.

In this sense, ethics may actually prevent us from wholly following the Good, for all truly moral acts are inherently personal, never mechanical. They are individual and defy total universalization as law (however useful such principles may be, or however true in spirit). This is a truth that thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Berdyaev have intuited. It is a dangerous truth insofar as it precludes static conformity to ethical “legal” norms, but it is the liberation of morality insofar as it returns ethics to their inherently individual character. In other words, I cannot be fully moral by simply obeying rules, either ones of outward action, or even inward thought. Instead, I can only be moral by living in truth. And by the way, this is one interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount: the new law is no law; Christ fulfills the law by destroying the law—fulfills morality by liberating it from the safe, impersonal, and static. All that could possibly remain after this purging from the safety of absolute ethical norms is that which is truly beyond “the general,” that which is alone living, immediate, and personal. In short: love. All that remains of morality is love released from law (the moral form of ideology). 

But since I have made reference to religion, let us now consider it in light of this reflection. There is often a kind of disappointing deceit that takes place within historical forms of religion. I can only write of what I know, and it is in my experience with Catholicism that I have sensed the trap of religious ideology most strongly. Growing into Catholicism is like remembering some beautiful, long-forgotten song, memory, or dream that has only now risen back to the level of full consciousness. The faith calls out to your very soul and bids you to respond. But sadly, then comes the catch. The more one delves into this world, the less enticing it becomes. What one moment seemed like an endless horizon now reveals itself to be a closed house with thick walls and few windows. As soon as you begin making the move to enter in, you look behind and see the doors shut. You are trapped. What promised to liberate you now only constrains. What has happened? The Church that originally presented itself as an invitation to life and truth has become recruitment into an ideology, and there was the death of it. 

The faithful Catholic ideologue must give absolute fealty to the “Catholic system.” This fosters a kind of schizophrenic double bind, placing two mutually contradictory claims upon us. The faith at once calls us towards an absolute “Yes” to spiritual life, truth, and freedom, while simultaneously demanding total subservience to an all-too-human system and institution that endlessly fails these realties (think only of the official Church’s “authoritatively required beliefs,” its historical fervor for crusading and condemning heretics, as well as its perpetual practice of championing outward injustice and inward corruption).

This ideological Catholicism is also naturally averse to the universal (i.e. the “catholic”). And that will hardly do, for we are seeking Truth, not sectarian truth. We are wanting to join ourselves to the universal community of the human family, not a petty faction. The Catholic spirit exists in tension with the Catholic ideology, as well as its “official Church”—the “official” simply being the institutional form of ideology and idolatry. Herein lies the great tragedy of Catholicism, of every noble historical movement, spiritual or otherwise: all that is good and true becomes betrayed by the ideology that seeks to serve it. 

No truth of any value can be preserved by anything other than a continuous, active movement of the soul. Passively, inactively receiving a tradition, it has instantaneously died and no longer exists. Capture it, contain it, hoard it, and it perishes. “The Dao that can be named is not the true Dao.” Religion is merely an illustrative example of ideology’s necessary shortcomings. In every case, it denies the living openness that is the chief prerequisite for all knowledge of truth—including those truths the ideology originally sought to serve. And so, we have the paradox that the faithful one is often actually the rebel. Luther: the most faithful Catholic of them all; Christ: the most faithful Jew of them all. While others followed these traditions in static letter, the visionaries, those who received truth as individuals, as persons, followed them in living spirit. They refused to let ideology (the spiritless degradation of truth) suffocate truth in all its primal potency. This move is always revolutionary (in the best possible sense). These men radically released truth by liberating it from the stifling bounds of ideology. 

Let us multiply this principle to every domain of human life. It will even lead us to another bold conclusion. The individual who resists total-identity with the social collective: the most faithful social member of them all. The ideologues’ notion of unity is an essential misunderstanding of true unity. They wrongly assume that the individual and the social whole are in fundamental opposition, so that the path to unity lies in the increase of collectivity and the decrease of individuality: the increase of ideological sameness and the decrease of individual freedom (ideological non-conformity). Of course, not all ideologues explicitly understand things in this manner, but that is what they presume insofar as their hope for unity lies in converting others via ideological proselytization—everyone becoming a part of “the good team.” 

I suspect there is more unity between those who seek truth with sincere openness (however divergent their beliefs) than with those who renounce this living pursuit and yet share static ideological conformity. The unity we are seeking exists only among the living—the personal, the free, those who have transcended the grip of ideological sterility. This vision is actually akin to the beautiful Slavic/East Orthodox ideal of sobornost, sometimes translated as “spiritual togetherness.” It holds that the truest unity lies in freedom, not compulsion—in individuals, not in “mass-men.” Sobornost is not a union based on a common ideology, but a common spirit. The former is always degrading to personhood and freedom, while the latter is the radical affirmation of both. Sobornost is the promise that the real union of men and women comes through the living freedom of persons, not the static, systematic conformity of ideologues.

But how could we make this reflection seem less arbitrary? Why should ideology be so inherently bad? What universal principle might we relate it to, and then suggest that it fails? Perhaps the best answer is something that has already been alluded to indirectly. The problem of ideology is the problem of the dead letter. There is a fundamental tension between the dead letter and the living word. Or, in my preferred phrasing, there is a perpetual conflict of dead letter with living spirit. Needless to say, our allegiance should lie wholly with the latter. The battle between these two Ways (and really, they are ways of being as much as anything) is the archetypal struggle we must wage. Ideology can only be avoided by affirming the Way of living spirit. 

We must be forever vigilant. The petrification of once vital truths into ideology is a continual threat. Even the ideas of this essay (which I undoubtedly hold to be true) can become degraded into static, ideological untruth. If I could compress my argument into just one plea, it would be that we must retain a perpetual, infinite openness. This disposition is the sole triumph over ideology. Let us merely seek to embody that spirit.

Brandon Tucker is a graduate student in history at Fordham University.

One thought on “Beyond Ideology

  1. The definition of ideology this article gives is inadequate. When you start with an inadequate understanding or idea of what a word or thing means and your body of thought flows from that inadequate definition it would stand to reason you get an inadequate body of thought. Hence this article is inadequate.

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