Radical or Conservative: What Do These Terms Mean? | Is Newness Possible

by , under Philosophy, Theology

Rather than put this in the comments of the previous post, I wanted to focus in on a key point around the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’ that came out of that discussion.

I’m not going to pretend that I have an answer, but I’ve been wondering if there is any mileage in thinking about it in terms of the possibility of newness.

Perhaps a radical is someone who does believe that newness, genuine newness, is possible. Whereas a conservative is perhaps someone who believes that new expressions are possible, but these are only reformulations of old things – and thus the old is preserved, even if it is reformed.

It’s also clear that these terms are relative. To those on either side of the spectrum to the person in question, they are either radical (not conservative enough) or conservative (not radical enough.) This is both a pastoral and a political issue, as some have committed themselves to working to change the centre, while others have committed to pushing the edge. Both may actually have the same goal in mind.

Richard Passmore has written a very interesting post on the idea of newness, which is very well worth a close read and draws on the theory of ‘transitology’… want to post a more full response to this shortly, as it links to some of the work I did in The Complex Christ / Signs of Emergence.


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  1. Simon3W

    Have you ever read ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’? I recommend it. In the early chapters, Hitchens explains (by way of Zola) why he opted for the word ‘contrarian’ rather than ‘radical’ or ‘progressive’ or ‘dissident’. To be radical, or conservative, is to be on a wing, or a side. To be a contrarian is to be able to critique all sides, including — first — one’s own.

    So, for example, in the Spanish Civil War there were Soviet-backed radicals and Nazi-backed conservatives. The left in the UK, the radicals, brooked very little criticism of the Russian support for the Republicans, because the enemy to them — fascism — was obvious. But Orwell, being a contrarian, recognised (to much gnashing of teeth at home) the dangers of both. It’s why Homage to Catalonia is such an essential book.

    So, for me, a conservative wants things to stay the same. A radical, or a progressive, wants things to change. A contrarian has to work out when change might be worse while also resisting the injustices of the status quo.

  2. Richard Passmore

    I cant remember the post, but a while back we had a brief chat on if change is best facilitated through revolution or evolution, which I kind of remember landing around the fact that it was the newness that what was important, and I think i like this direction as it could be more grounded.

  3. KB

    Not read it, but sounds like I should. I like the term. In one sense what I’m trying to do is critique my ‘own’ side here – something that I think people within the movement have shied away from for fear of being seen too harsh or aggressive. I think we’re strong enough to be able to talk robustly now.

  4. KB

    ‘Dirt-monger’ or ‘Trickster’ I also like…. and don’t get me started on ‘pirate’! In all seriousness, it’s proving a very interesting piece of work, especially related to this idea of change and regeneration.

  5. Jeremy Putnam

    There is something to say regarding how inter-christian labels such as these are in themselves de-radicalising the church, in that they are simply only established through their relative position to the other; instead of their position being relative to their context. I.e a position that is radical should be so because of its voice within its surrounding context – radicalism therefore should be the perpetual state Christian dialogue is in – in the face of a conformed society. Likewise conservatism can in itself be radical within its context of de-constructive liberalism.

  6. Simon3W

    I should also say that he argues for ‘contrarian’ because being radical (or conservative) is all about *what* you think. Being a contrarian, he says, is about *how* you think. It’s an interesting thought to pursue when trying to reconcile making all things new with not changing a jot or tittle of the law.

    As per the ‘year of opposition thread’ though, this is again pretty culturally blokeish. What I’m not sure about is whether that’s something it’s okay to indulge — perhaps only so if we critiqued the idea as we went. The way many blokes have come to be made has made them want to express their Christianity differently to women, who are a vast majority in churches. If those churches didn’t have a (continuing) history of sexism, we’d be allowed to be open about that. I can’t decide if it’s right to ignore it.

    I once wrote a mea culpa leader in the mag about not having enough female contribution. I got two or three letters from women congratulating me on wanting to do something about it. I got loads more (again from women) telling me that it was no surprise to them, since women as they have come to be made are just less likely to want to engage that way.

    Sorry, gone off topic somewhat.

  7. Simon3W

    PS Jeremy I’m too thick to know what you mean by de-constructive liberalism, but there’s no question that what we think of as conservative can be radical. Look at environmentalism.

  8. Simon Cross

    I’m probably being too literal, but surely radical means to go back to the root – which implies a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a general recognition that we’ve cocked things up. And conservative means to be protective of the current situation, implying a basic satisfaction with how things have shaped up, and a desire to protect that.

  9. Peter King

    Is newness possible ? It depends what you mean by “newness”. Paradigm theory would suggest that when a particular way of looking at the world / describing God ceases to “work” then a new language and new metaphors and images come into play. The question for Christian faith is whether there are any privileged words / concepts which remain the same throughout any changes. This is usually seen as the distinction between theological liberalism and conservativism – with the former much more willing to let go of what it sees as unhelpful words and concepts.

    So perhaps another way of formulating the question is to ask what in the tradition one is prepared (compelled ?) to let go of for the sake of a more faithful living out of the Christian life.

  10. Peter c

    Simon’s post is most lucid. Surely in one sense radicalism and conservativism blur depending on what one is perceived to be returning to and dissatisfied with. Church as we know it? Jesus as we know him?

    Also, was Jesus conservative? Radical? He was certainly contrarian in the way he considered the law. But could be considered either conservative – I came to fulfil the law – or radical – the law cannot bring salvation…

    I think every pastor ought to be contrarian. And no one should ever be content with the status quo. How about radical conservativism – believing that the now of ones church is worthy of protection but that its essence (the true body of Christ) is in the process of being distilled.

  11. Simon Cross

    I’m not sure about every pastor being a contrarian. Maybe sometimes that is true, but often a pastor needs to stand ready to help people where they are now, and often this becomes a conservative position. However, the problem comes when pastors are the leaders, because that is really not their role. The leader really does need to be a contrarian or some kind of radical, pushing towards the distillation point. Pastors serve to help people deal with that process of change, not necessarily to make it happen. The great leaders of our time have not been pastors, nor have they been conservative with a small c.

  12. Peter

    Simon – quite right (and thanks for engaging with my post). I use the term pastor v loosely because often it is the pastor of a church who provides the leadership, direction, vision and impetus to distill. As you say, in reality that’s a very different role from the act of pastoring.

  13. Peter

    (and often pastors are leaders in disguise who delegate the pastoring to more pastoral individuals)

  14. Doug Gay

    If Jesus Christ is making all things new, then maybe this is a lot to do with Christology, to think back to the original Jesus Arms conversation you were referencing. What if genuine newness is only possible, personally and cosmically – in Christ?

    You didn’t respond to the question someone else put about Radical Orthodoxy – at the beginning of RO A New Tradition they think around ways to read ‘radical’ in terms of ‘roots’ etc. I have a lot of time for the big philosophical/theological calls RO thinkers have made and they are clearly also engaging the Zizek/Badiou/Lacan stuff you (KB) + Pete are energised by. Do they get to call themselves radicals even though they still want to go to church and say the Apostle’s Creed?

    Talking more about Christology might be one fruitful angle (among others) – not least because it’s very hard to say anything new about it – and so people inevitably end up standing close to someone else in the historical picture – we give ourselves away (in more ways than one) around these questions…

  15. MartinP

    Seems to me that Jesus was a ‘radical’ (if understood meaning going back to the root). He regularly referred to the poetry and stories of the tradition as well as in prayer(i.e the root) but critiqued through words and in example where the tradition became an obstacle to justice, freedom and compassion. I think he also extended the reaches of the heart of the Jewish tradition by exploring the implications of the stories at the heart of the tradition.

  16. KB

    I think Pete’s answered this quite well in his post just now: http://peterrollins.net/?p=3068

    Quote:

    Thus both the radical and the conservative are interested in the past, but in different ways. One thinks that the past must continue to be brought into the present while the other thinks the past is a womb from which an utterly new event can arise (which was one of the founding claims made by Radical Theology as a movement).

    I’m no expert in Radical Orthodoxy, though I’ve heard and read a bit of Milbank. However, from that limited exposure, I think it fits the above well: they are ‘radical’ in that they have high energy and passion, but conservative in that they want the past to continue to be brought into the present, rather than seeing it as a womb. But I’d like to know/discuss more to be honest. I liked The Monstrosity of Christ, and thought Zizek did a very good job there – certainly I was more convinced by him in live debate than Milbank.

  17. Larry Kamphausen

    I am about to read Pete’s answer.
    But I want to reiterate what was said above by Doug Gay, that conversation about newness among Christians certainly has to deal with that God promised to “make all things new”. And promises in the prophets to do a new thing: That new thing was Jesus Christ, ie God come in human flesh.
    For me newness is possible, but it also simply is. The new thing isn’t the latest thing, the avant-guard or vanguard thing, rather it is what God does in Jesus Christ, it is the age to come that came is and is still coming, that apparently overlaps with the old aon. Thus to me the question isn’t really about conseving or being radical but is what is old or new conforming itself to what God does in Jesus Christ.

  18. Lori

    Kester et al. – thank you for creating the space for this specific conversation. Talk of radicalism and newness has refreshed my hope.
    If ever I wanted to be at Greenbelt (and that’s every summer), 2012 will be the year!