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The end of ideology?

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Ideology is the conviction that history may be changed by ideas. Particularly, it has come to mean that ideas can lead us into an improvement of the estate of man. We begin to see this movement with Francis Bacon (1561-1626) long known as the father of natural science. Indeed the whole discipline of the history of ideas is predicated on ideas being the driving force behind history.

The story of the European Enlightenment is the story of a range of ideas proposed by philosophers and scientists that promised a new future for humanity.

The upshot is that history has been understood as a history of progress towards a better future, a future not bound by superstition and ignorance but on empirical science and reason.


It may seem that our age is characterised by an ideological vacuum in response to the catastrophic exercise of ideology and theory in Nazism and Communism and that public affairs are now governed by pragmatism. It is tempting to think that ours is the age of the manager and our ideals are as simple as the quest for efficiency in all things i.e. that we rely entirely on the empirical, on experience, on evidence. There is some truth in this.

Economists demand evidence that such and such a tinkering with the economy will produce the change envisioned. However, as the latest neo-con attack on the welfare system in Australia by the Abbot government has demonstrated, rational economic management may be the mask that ideology wears, in this case "big government bad, small government good."

Christol Yannaros, in his book "Postmodern Metaphysics" explains the fracture between the medieval and the modern world as a change between an emphasis on ontology to one on function/causation. Thus while thinkers, mostly Christian theologians, of the medieval period were concerned with aspects of Being, particularly the Being that comes from God, the modern age was concerned with how God governed the orbits of the planets. Human Being, human flourishing based on our progress towards manifesting the likeness of Christ was replaced with a different kind of progress, that of understanding causal processes and eventually harnessing those processes to our own ends.

The qualities of the present age, its focus on efficiency, production, consumption and management are the end result of this process. Instead of understanding ourselves as being created in the image of God (ontological) we are now workers and consumers in an economy. Individuals are increasingly understood functionally. No one now asks why we have an economy, what is government for, what constitutes true humanity?

We can now see that the ideology that drove the slaughters of the age of revolution and which made the twentieth century the bloodiest yet were demonic even though they marched under the banner of the good: freedom, equality fraternity, love of the fatherland and the brotherhood of man. It is a property of ideology to think that the world and us in it can be rationally defined. By contrast, the ontological approach regards each individual and the creation to be the business of the divine that we cannot reduce to function.

Theologically speaking, ideology is a prime example of our eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Remember, that the serpent promised that Eve would be "like God" knowing good and evil. Was not the ideology of the French revolution, of fascism and of communism born out of the certainty that good and evil were known?


The prescriptions of ideology were more important than the thousands who died by guillotine or the millions of starvation or in the death camps. It is no wonder we are done with ideology of all shades. But if ideas fail us where do we turn? Is pragmatic management really free from ideology and can we trust it not to destroy what is essentially human?

There has been talk of "values" as if it is recognized that we have lost all but means and ends; but it is hardly convincing. It is well known that values education does not go to the seat of things, behavior comes from Being and is not imposed from outside even with the best intentions. Values will not modify an essentially vicious and venal character.

It has occurred to me that the gospel of John should be called the ontological gospel. There is little teaching in John, there are no parables, and there is no sermon on the mount. Instead, there are long discourses about the relations between Jesus and his disciples and what will happen when he leaves them. There are the famous "I am" statements that mimic the voice of God to Moses in the burning bush. These statements tell us that He is the good shepherd, the bread of heaven, the light of the world, the gate, the resurrection and the life, the way, and the truth and the life.

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This article draws on Matthew Rose's book Ethics with Barth: God, Metaphysics and Morals (Ashgate).

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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