Monday, 14 September 2015

Principle, Ideology and Reality

This is a quote from a comment on a story on the BBC website, regarding the election of Mr. Corbyn as the new Labour Party leader, presumably from someone who views the appointment with a degree of disapprobation:

“Well, they got what they wanted, the Marxists, the Trots and all the other fantasy economics fans. Principle and ideology have finally trumped reality.”

I have stated before my intention that this not become a political blog, and I’m sticking to that principle.  I don’t wish to discuss Mr. Corbyn, or the merits or otherwise of his various beliefs and policies.  Instead, I want to examine what seems to me the startling assertion of the commenter that principle and ideology shouldn’t trump reality.

On the surface, there is a certain hard-nosed pragmatic sense to saying “You have to accept reality”, “That’s the way things are”, and “You have to take the world as you find it”.  Since I am rarely pragmatic or sensible, and since my nose is fairly soft, it’s a view that I reject utterly.  If we allow ourselves to accept that the world is this way, and that’s how it’s always going to be, then we are gradually drawn to the conclusion that this is how it is supposed to be, even how it ought to be.

Principles and ideologies, both religious and political, vary widely and often conflict bitterly, but at the heart of all of them is a sense that the world is not as it should be; that things need changing.  This can be formalised as a conception of sin, that we are not the creatures that we were created to be and that God wishes us to become, or it can be a looser idea that we ought to strive to be better than we are, and that the world ought to be better than it is, whatever we conceive ‘better’ to be.  Our differences in opinion as to what ‘better’ is can sometimes be vast and vicious.  We can look at others’ efforts and think that they will actually make the world worse if they succeed, but ultimately we must recognise that they think that they are trying to improve things.  We may not agree, we can even work to oppose them, but we must respect that they think they are trying to help.  They have recognised that the world is not as it should be, and are working to change it, just as we are, and that is extremely important.

A woman in a church I used to attend once said to me (I forget what I had said to spark the comment), “But there are always going to be poor people!”  It’s so easy to shrug and say, “Well, that’s just how things are.  There are always going to be homeless people.  There are always going to be wars.  There is always going to be injustice.  There is always going to be inequality and cruelty and starvation and hatred and bitterness and selfishness, misery, pain and unscrupulous individuals.”  If we pause and ask, “But why?” the response is the shrug and “That’s just how things are.”

How things are?  Yes.  Sadly and to our shame, that is indeed how things are.  But that is a long, long way from saying that this is the way things ought to be.  If we accept that the world is as it ought to be, then we can be led to assume that we are also as we ought to be, and perhaps this is what has happened.  Most people nowadays find the concept of sin as understood by most Christians to be not only laughably archaic but also slightly distasteful.  Nobody likes being told that they are doing wrong, that they are not as good as they should be, but pragmatic realism offers them an escape.  “This is how things are.  This is how I am.  Anything else in unrealistic, idealistic nonsense.”

This is not a plea for na├»ve idealism.  We have to be aware of how things are (without necessarily ‘accepting’ how they are) in order to function in the world, and in order to try and change it.  We should "be in the world, but not of the world", and to me that partly means being aware of the reality without accepting it as inevitable.  Counter to what the commenter thinks, I believe that reality should never trump principle and ideology.  I’m not even sure that the principles and ideologies should have to be ‘realistic’.  Aiming at impossible goals and failing can result in more than aiming at realistic goals and succeeding.  As CS Lewis put it, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

Our reality is not so good that I think that it can’t be improved, and I shall dream of a better world, filled with better people, and if people accuse me of being unrealistic, then I shall take it as a compliment.  I’ve used this quote from ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ in this blog before, but I think that it bears re-use here: “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.”

1 comment:

  1. I believe it was Heidegger who said that the self-evident is always the extremely problematic. Reality is not simply something one can accept, it looks different to different people. The claim that something is necessary for our prosperity can be countered by the claim that its intolerably damaging for some people. Both can be true, but which is self-evident reality depends on point of view.