False Dilemma

Michael Metzger

A group of young evangelicals is trying to reframe our polarized political debate. Good for them. Unfortunately, the frame they’re using is a fallacy. It’s a false dilemma.

A friend of mine recently wrote that this past election does not portend a promising political future for our country. I agree. So I appreciate how a group of young evangelicals is trying to reframe the debate. It’s called the And Campaign. And as in Christians should be conservative and progressive (watch the promo). Sounds like a good idea but it’s actually a false dilemma.

A false dilemma is a fallacy of limiting the options to two (ex: conservative and progressive) when in fact there are more, or the two options are in fact not good options. This is the case in conservative and progressive, for progressivism is based on a false frame or picture.

The false picture is a linear approach to history. Progressivism is premised on the notion that history is linear, going forward in a straight line. We don’t look back at dusty old traditions and return to them. Elsewhere C. S. Lewis called this chronological snobbery.

It’s snobbish because return is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. History is depicted as cyclical, not linear. God calls his people to return back to what they ought to be. The Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss understood this. In 1952, he wrote “the contemporary crisis in Western civilization” is simple: the Judeo-Christian spherical frame could not be assimilated with progressivism’s linear thinking.[1] In the progressive frame, return is “barbarism, stupidity.” It’s backward.

It’s astonishing that few Christians recognize this. In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis reminds readers that God is a sphere. The heavens and the earth are spheres. History is spherical, cyclical. That’s why Lewis poked fun at progressivism in his book, The Case for Christianity.

“We all want progress. But if you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

But there’s a second reason why progressivism is a false frame. It’s premised on the notion that we have a changeable nature. The Judeo-Christian faith says No. The essential structure of human nature is unchangeable. We’re made in God’s image. The direction however can be changed, but it mainly requires God and self-governance to return to what we ought to be. Progressivism holds that government is mainly responsible for improving human nature.

I find the And Campaign is yet another example of why Christians are generally not taken seriously in the wider world. Jonathan Haidt is. Haidt defines himself as a liberal atheist. In his book, The Righteous Mind, as well as his TED Talk, he frames the debate as conservative and liberal. He correctly notes that liberals score higher on “openness to experience” and change. Conservatives are higher on sticking with what’s tried and true – boundaries and traditions.[1]

In the Judeo-Christian, both are necessary for human flourishing. Look at circumcision in the early church (Acts 11). Most of the new believers were Jewish. They felt circumcision was required. It took an openness to change to open their eyes to the fact that it no longer was.

But liberalism doesn’t mean openness to anything. Conservatives score higher on thinking institutionally, recognizing institutions are reality defining, boundary forming. Some things never change, like Jesus being fully God, fully man. Period.

The And Campaign is one more instance of Christians being well-intended but overlooking the power of cultures. Regardless of how the election shakes out, progressives will control the commanding heights of nearly every American elite institution: Congress, the administrative state, Hollywood, the arts, universities, nonprofits, Silicon Valley and nearly all of the media. Young evangelicals often seem blithely unaware of this, evident in the fact that they frame the solution to our polarized political debate as conservative and progressive.

It’s not. It’s conservative and liberal. Christians should be both.

 

[1] Leo Strauss, “Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization” Modern Judaism, Vol. 1, No. 1, Oxford University Press, May, 1981, 17-45.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2003), 172.

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8 thoughts on “False Dilemma”

  1. Mike,

    I had to read this a few times to understand and synthesize what you are saying. I still don’t understand Lewis’s assertion that God is a sphere. What exactly does that mean and what are its implications?

    “Returning back to what we ought to be” is clearly the message of much of Scripture. When we grasp that we were made in God’s image, and don’t attempt to return the favor, we are beginning to grasp God’s kingdom.

    I agree that we cannot limit our options to conservativism and progressivism. That truly is a false dilemma. It is exactly the kind of dilemma the apostles, and all those surrounding Christ’s ministry on earth struggled to understand. That is because their imaginations did not embrace the reality of the spiritual world. Even after witnessing numerous miracles, the powerful images of the political and militaristic Roman rule molded their imaginations to think that their savior would also be a political conqueror. It took the resurrection of the living Christ to break through their stunted imaginations.

    I think Christianity’s growth throughout the world was actually aided by the fact that those who truly lived as citizens of God’s kingdom were a minority. The church functioned as outposts as they lived out the quirkiness of this kingdom with its upside down values as represented in the Beatitudes. Their recognition of the presence of God in their every day lives was aided by the Holy Spirit. Somehow, this quirkiness was found unmistakably attractive to an increasing number of individuals that identified themselves as Christ followers. Never, however, did they represent themselves as the moral majority nor did they represent their political citizenship in this world as God ordained.

    I resonated with you when I got to your eighth paragraph which began your second false frame of progressivism; the notion that we have a changeable nature. You correctly assert that the Judeo-Christian faith says that human nature is unchangeable because we’re made in God’s image. I find it interesting that the Scriptures never point to an instant where God steps on the toes of our personal autonomy. I believe he created us to expand the love he already enjoyed within the Trinity. To control and coerce us to love Him would not fit anyone’s definition of love. Progressivism’s behavior seems to maintain, as you say, “that government is mainly responsible for improving human nature.” That seems to any citizen of the Kingdom of God to be a fallacy that certainly does not ring true. Of course, in the same breath, we must also admit to the shortcomings of conservatism’s ability to change its human behavior of selfishness. But the conservative movement seems less inclined to be paternalistic in its attempts to control human nature.

    I don’t think the Kingdom will be furthered by controlling the press, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or any other institution now yielding much influence in our world. I think we are wasting a lot of effort and money to do so. In fact, I think there is a constantly growing distrust with these institutions. They too, are often founded on unspoken values of greed and the need for supreme power. Much of our world’s issues are the by-product of self-serving sin.

    God has ordained one institution to address the impact of sin in our world…His bride, the church. A church filled with actively engaged citizens of the Kingdom of God that sees their mission as more than the recruitment of people into heaven. A church that is composed of people who are experiencing God’s presence moment by moment and discipling one another to be more Christ-like. A church that functions as an outpost of sorts fully recognizing that this world is not our ultimate destiny. A church quick to bring Christ-like solutions to hunger, poverty, disease, etc.. A church that is ready and willing to showcase the quirky nature of the upside down values of its kingdom mindset. That is the institution I believe is worth our investment of our time, talents, and treasures.

    I am suspicious of any political movement’s ability to address these and other issues via government run policy and programs. It is the church that can be equipped to bring a noteworthy grassroots approach to many of these issues. Unfortunately, many of today’s churches have become confusing, unwieldy, institutions themselves led by fallen leaders who have demonstrated their own vulnerability to Satan because they have deluded themselves by forgetting the reality of the spiritual world. They have narrowed their mission to winning souls to the Lord and done little to nurture these souls into becoming active citizens of the Kingdom they have joined.

    The Kingdom seems propose values that break through the limiting boundaries of conservatism and progressivism.

    Tim

    Tim

  2. Michael Metzger

    Tim:

    First, kudos on some excellent thoughts. Wouldn’t be surprised if readers get more out of your comments than mine!

    As for spheres, I encourage you to read “The Master and His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. He writes how the ancients felt that a sphere best depicts divinity and eternity, as a sphere (circle) is without beginning or end. The ancients also felt that the entirety of the natural world depicts this, and the entirety of the natural world features spheres but no straight lines (straight lines do not occur in the natural world).

    C. S. Lewis picks up on this in “The Discarded Image.” With the Enlightenment, the western world discarded the sphere for straight lines. When Lewis writes “God is a sphere,” he is simply repeating centuries of saints saying God is a sphere. The heavens is a series of spheres. As Lewis notes, this depicts love, an endless circle of mutual giving and receiving (what a wedding band depicts). Hence, as Lewis writes, a sphere puts love at the center of the gospel, for God is love, and the gospel as God’s invitation to humanity to join (enjoy) the circle of love, and expand it. A sphere, or circle, depicts this circle eternally expanding into eternity.

    Straight-line thinking, adopted by American Christianity, reflects little of this. God is “up there” (vertical), “the culture” is out there (horizontal), history is bunk, “vision casting” for the future is paramount.

    None of this reflects the gospel.

    I hope this helps answer your appropriate “So what? question.

  3. “God calls his people to return back to what they ought to be.” I don’t think it’s semantics when I say this but there never was a time when God’s people were what they ought to be – so God never calls them to go back to being what they were before. To repent is to go back to Who God Is. For the sake of illustration let’s just say that “God is Good.” If God calls out to repent it’s to know Him as Good, instead of knowing Him as good enough, or pretty good, etc. Things were good – but we fell in the fall. Only God remains Good. To repent is to turn from false gods of pretty goodness to God Who Is Good. I fear that you’re inferring that people can go back to being good and non-idolatrous. We can’t. We’re fallen. But the God we return to should be The God Who Is Good.

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