Fiction as Theology Part 3: Communicating Your Message

51E0ZN6GHKL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_Glenn Cook isn’t much of a fan of organized religion. Did you know that? I honestly can’t say that for certain. I don’t know him personally. However, that is the very, very strong feeling that I get from his novels. He seems to have it in for priests, religious fanatics, etc. Similarly, Steven Erikson dislikes (though perhaps despises is too strong a word) the idea of salvation by grace or by the sacrifice of another. Man must redeem himself because man is the only one who can redeem himself. Again, I can’t say this from personal knowledge, but the theme that man must redeem himself is certainly very strong in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Similarly, Lars Walker believes that even truly evil men can be redeemed (Year of the Warrior) while C. S. Lewis believes that good guys can make mistakes and be redeemed, but truly even people cannot be redeemed but must be destroyed (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; Voyage of the Dawntreader; The Last Battle; etc).  You might be surprised how much of your conscious and unconscious beliefs come through in your fiction. It’s possible to simply allow your ideas to be spread, unfiltered, through the stories that you write, and to some degree this probably happens with all of us. However, it’s also possible to be intentional about the messages that come through in the stories you tell. In his Poetics Aristotle argued that everything we write should have two goals: 1) to entertain, and 2) to educate. A work of non-fiction that isn’t entertaining is unlikely to do much to inspire the reader and stick in his mind, but a work of fiction that is trite and superficial has little, if anything, in the way of actual value–in fact it may even inspire vice (…Charlaine Harris, I’m looking at you…).

Victor_Hugo_by_Étienne_Carjat_1876_-_fullOf course, anyone can misread what you write. In fact, I just had a student who submitted a paper confidently explaining that Augustine believed that man was completely free of God and that he had no need of a deity for goodness, morality, happiness, or fulfillment. If you’ve every read Augustine you will recognize that this is literally the exact opposite of what he argued (I’m pretty sure that my student read all of half a chapter from Confessions). However, the fact that some people will probably misunderstand what you write through their own ignorance and carelessness is no excuse for you not to consider the messages that you are presenting. In fact, the best of fiction (whether modern fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc) has always had something meaningful to say about the world. This is true of the Greek poets, of Plato, of Lucretius, of Thomas More, Jules Verne,  Victor Hugo, Miguel Cervantes, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Gustave Flaubert, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Steven Erikson. This is not to say that there are not good authors who aren’t trying to say something specific or solve some problem. For instance, I enjoy Kim Harrison’s books, but I don’t find much in the way of educational value in them. However, I also wouldn’t put Kim Harrison in the same league as any of the above authors and I don’t know anyone who would. So, just as we can use our own writing to figure out what we believe, we can and should use our writing to point others towards truth and goodness. Now, as any philosopher or psychologist will tell you, what Person A believes are true and good may not be the same as what Person B believes are true and good, and thus we wind up with a variety of opinion, presented in a variety of ways, both in fiction and in non-fiction.*

quote-art-for-art-s-sake-is-an-empty-phrase-art-for-the-sake-of-the-true-art-for-the-sake-of-the-good-george-sand-310004However, this doesn’t mean the the message should overwhelm the story. This is one of the mistakes that Heinlein has been accused of (though I think it is only true in some of his novels), and in my opinion it is one of the problems that tends to plague the Christian fiction genre. Remember that what you write should be educational and entertaining. If your message comes at the expense of meaningful and individual characters who as in consistently believable ways (like those Christian novels where everyone miraculously changes their minds and get saved at the end), or long philosophical diatribes overwhelm the flow of your story and action (Heinlein and Hugo both do this in places), then you wind up sacrificing entertainment for education and you wind up with a boring door-stop of a book. Similarly, if you cut out your philosophy for the sake of keeping the story ‘action-packed’ and ‘titillating’ then you wind up sacrificing education for the sake of entertainment and you wind up with a trite, meaningless, and mindless work. So, the key here is to balance entertainment and education in your novels. That is, to develop a world, characters, and a story that can convey the viewpoints, beliefs, and ideas that you wish to spread in a way that effectively engages the mind of the reader while simultaneously making him/her think deeply about the fundamental nature of truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.**

 

*This is not to say that there is no moral reality. I will and have argued stringently that the idea of a world lacking moral reality is not only terrifying, but also meaningless. If there is no moral reality than all of the concepts upon which we base society (i.e. truth, goodness, beauty, justice, etc) are entirely meaningless and there is absolutely no reason to prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany. However, it is very obvious that the vast majority of people from the vast majority of widely divergent cultures do prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany (though they may not be fond of either), and this should tell us that perhaps there actually is a reason to do so. Moral relativism, in all of its varieties, while popular on the street and with a few discrete groups of philosophers today has never been particularly popular among the majority of philosophers from a wide variety of different traditions throughout history. …In fact, did you know that relativism, in some form, has been presented in virtually every philosophical tradition (i.e. Chinese, Indian, Continental European, British, Greek, American, etc) and in virtually all of them it has been soundly rejected (I will argue that we are in the midst of seeing this happen in the American tradition). Looking at the history of relativism is actually kind of like watching a very long game a wack-a-mole.

**I refer here to three of the four fundamentals of classical metaphysics: the true–or the form of truth (i.e. reality), the beautiful–or the form of beauty (i.e. the truly pleasing), the good–or the form of goodness (i.e. the truly desirable). The fourth is the one–or the form of unity (i.e. the truly simple or that which has no parts).

“Make ‘Em Laugh!”: Basic Tips for Funny Creative Nonfiction

For my past couple of posts, I talked a little bit about creative nonfiction. I gave a brief example and then tried to give a working definition and explain how creative nonfiction relates to writing fiction. My basic definition of the genre is this: stories that are true (more or less) but which, just like fictional stories, are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite kinds of creative nonfiction: the funny kind. Because who doesn’t like to laugh at a good, funny story? If you have any interest at all in writing humorous stories—short fiction, satire, stage or screen plays, or even a comic relief character within a more serious plot—then it may help you to get some good practice by looking into funny creative nonfiction. And even though we don’t always use the exact term “creative nonfiction,” I think this genre has already pervaded our culture more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

Some of us already watch funny creative non-fiction without even knowing it. What’s one type of entertainment that revolves

Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy
Celebrity Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy

entirely around people telling funny stories in creative ways? Stand-up comedy, of course. Depending on the particular comedian and their typical subject matter, stand-up comedy is little more than telling true stories or talking about real topics, but with a certain method of delivery and timing that will make people laugh. Recently, I’ve been doing some freelance writing for a little extra cash, and several of the jobs I’ve taken have been descriptions of various stand-up comedians based on their clips on Vimeo. I have to find different wordings to describe what they’re doing, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times I just say that the comedian “tells the story of” something or “describes his experiences with” a particular event . They’re basically just telling true life stories in funny ways. That’s all it is.

If you need some funny inspiration from stand-up comedy, then there are probably a lot of names I could recommend, and you may very well have a few favorites of your own too. But, based on some of the jobs I’ve taken recently, I’d suggest you look up some of the following: Daren Streblow, David Dean, Jeff Allen, Bob Stromberg, and Taylor Mason.

Also, in my last post, I mentioned David Sedaris as one of the big names in contemporary creative non-fiction. If you get a chance, you should look up a video of him reading some of his works to an audience, because his essays are (often) funny, and so reading them live becomes a lot like a stand-up comedy routine. When I took my class on creative non-fiction, our professor showed us a clip of Sedaris reciting one called “Six to Eight Black Men.” My prof also remarked on how great it is that someone in the field of creative writing can gain fame and a living just by reading his works to an audience. You should check it out.

Do you know where else a lot of us read and do funny creative nonfiction? Social media. Think about it. Let’s say you had aSocial Media Explained funny or awkward moment in your day and you want to share it with your friends. But, instead of just reporting what happened verbatim, you decide to give it a little sarcastic or witty twist. That counts as creative nonfiction, even if it’s just a few sentences for a quick status update . You’re telling a story, or a snippet of your life, in a creative and funny way.

I’ll give you a few examples of my own from my recent Facebook usage:

  • “Last night I had a dream that I still had papers to grade. This whole Master’s degree thing is gonna take a little while to recover from.”
  • “Don’t you hate it when your alarm goes off in the morning and you just know you forgot to do something really important? For example, my alarm just went off this morning, and I realized that I forgot to go to sleep last night.”
  • “Friends, I need some professional advice. If I responded to an online pet-sitting ad, and the owner described her house as a bachelorette pad with lots of books and sci-fi stuff, then at what point is it acceptable to ask her to marry me?”

Of course, the sort of creative non-fiction that’s done on social media also translates easily into blog-writing, which I touched on in my last post. A lot of bloggers (myself included) like to try to spin unique, awkward life situations into funny,  relatable written stories. The main difference is that, if I just have one quick moment to share, then it usually turns into a Facebook status, but if I have a fuller story then I can make it into a blog post.

However, this sort of writing can still present a problem. As the writing professor I used to work for has sometimes said, “You’re not always as funny as you think you are.” For example, I’ve written blog posts about bad things happening to me, or disappointments in the area of romance, and I’ve thought to myself, “This is funny, because I’m looking back on it and laughing now.” As they say, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I’ve had some readers interpret those posts as still being sad, serious, or sympathetic rather than funny. In order to be funny, I need to not just describe events objectively as they happened, but make sure I emphasize the sarcastic/facetious tone, focus on portraying myself as a comical character, etc. It may take practice, but it can be done, especially with helpful inspiration from some of the other funny sources I’ve listed above.

If you’re interested in writing funny, lighthearted, or tongue-in-cheek fiction of any sort, then try out some funny creative non-fiction first. Chances are, if you have a Facebook or Twitter, that you’ve already done some without realizing it. But find some funny, awkward, or noteworthy moments in your life, and figure out how to tell those stories in the best and funniest way you can.

Fantasy and Reality

You’ve got to love expensive books :). I’ve been thinking about getting a set of the 10 volume collection of the writings of the Ante-Nicene fathers… for a hardcopy set its a minimum of a $121. That’s not actually be, considering that there’s 10 hardcover volumes involved. Still, it’s a lot more money than I’ve got at the moment. There are some cheap kindle versions, but a 10 volume reference set needs to be fairly well-organized and easy to navigate to be useful and the Kindle versions… are not. I’ll be honest, I have no agenda today. Alayna is visiting for a day or two, and I had an 8 hour Ph.D. seminar today, so I really have no brain-power left. However, I do want to say a few words about the imagination the context of an actual reality. On this blog we tend to emphasize speculative fiction (fantasy and science fiction generally), mostly because that’s what we as the authors love to read and what we love to write. However, it is easy to let ourselves slip away into the fantasy. This is especially true in the post-modern world where the cultures that many of us live in have essentially rejected any fundamental truth or meaning. Part of the reason that speculative fiction is attractive is that it lets us escape the real world for a little while and live in our imaginations.

There’s nothing wrong with this as far as it goes. We all have escapes, and we all need escapes. They let us cope with a reality that is often stressful, painful, frustrating, and generally difficult. However, we also have to keep a tight hold on our imaginations. If reality actually exists, and lets assume for a moment that it does, then we are left with a couple of options: 1) that reality is totally material, devoid of any meaning or metaphysical truth, and thus the only realistic response is some form of nihilism, or 2) that reality is more than material, and thus there is something else beyond the physical world that gives meaning and metaphysical truth to reality. If we assume the first, then we can ignore everything that I’m saying here. The world is pointless, we are perfectly right to escape it, and we should all just party until we die. Why bother working… why bother surviving in a meaningless world if it isn’t any fun?

However, if there is something more, then we have to seek for truth. This quest (and yes I use terminology common to the literature intentionally) is a very real one that does call upon us to use our imaginations, but it also calls upon us to use those imaginations within the restrictions of reality. We can’t simply imagine the world we want. Instead, it is incumbent upon us to use our imaginations to better understand the world that is!

So, why should we believe that there is meaning, truth, or reality in the world? Well, I suppose the layman’s answer is that the world is just too damn depressing if there isn’t. Despite the postmodern claim that we create our own meaning… that sounds like a lot of work just to delude myself into believing that there’s a point to getting up tomorrow. I have to ask… what’s the point?

I think a better answer is found in the classical arguments for God. The universe might seem arbitrary in some ways (i.e. why does one man lose a job and the other man not lose a job), but in most ways and especially on the grand scale it is far from arbitrary. This is true in physical reality (i.e. the way planets move, weather patterns work, etc), and in the way life’s events play out (i.e. I know looking back at my life I can see signs of a design beyond my own making, and I know that many others would say the same). While events often seem arbitrary in the immediate instant, in hindsight they often seem to be anything but arbitrary. Further, while science has ways of pushing back the question of origins, initially the universe had to come from somewhere. The universe is, for everything that we can tell, neither eternal nor static. On top of this, an infinite regression into the past is implausible at best, fundamentally impossible at worst. This means that we need to posit something that exists outside of time itself as the first cause that Aquinas put forth. This must be outside of time because that is the only way to avoid an infinite regression. The combination of a being outside of time and the sense of design throughout the universe also posits a being of intellect. Further while the problem of evil is often raised, and it is a problem with which we should, and perhaps even must wrestle, we rarely consider the opposite problem of good. If we posit an eternal, intelligent, and obviously powerful being that is wicked, or at best amoral and passionless, then we must ask the question: why is there so much good, truth, and beauty in the world? While the problem of evil can be answered in multiple ways, the problem of good isn’t quite as easy (at least I haven’t seen a truly strong response to it). This leads us to add ‘good’ to our list of traits. So, if there is an eternal, intelligent, powerful, and good entity that created an ordered and beautiful universe, and pursues plans within that universe (remember that our lives seem designed, not just the cosmos), this then seems a good reason to infer that meaning then resides with this being. So, this only gets us so far, and honestly it’s only intended too. I’m writing this because I do believe that meaning is important, and that we should pursue meaning and truth with our writing, even our speculative writing. I’m reading a book right now that effectively, and quite depressingly, does the opposite. If you want more on this same argument I suggest looking up Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis or something along the lines of Contending with Christianity’s Critics by William Lane Craig. Or just go back to the source and read the first several questions of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or his Summa Contra Gentiles.

On Gender Relations Post 2: Dating Part 1 (Alayna)

Alright everyone! As you know, my lovely lady (and she is lovely) and I are writing a series of Sunday posts on gender issues. The goal here is both to understand and appreciate one another better, and to address some issues that we see as being important and problematic in society. So, this week Alayna put together a post on some common issues in dating from and for a woman’s perspective. Next week I’ll be writing a post on the same topic aimed at men. Enjoy:

If you have ever looked at your relationship (or not-quite-yet-relationship) and thought that you were having problems with your man, know that you are not alone. Your man is most likely also having problems with you. This becomes infinitely more complicated if the attraction is one-sided (which while unfortunate, happens all too often). If you’ve ever pined away for a guy who didn’t ask you out, avoided a guy because you were scared he would ask you out and you wouldn’t know how to handle it, or acted towards guys in ways you’re not proud of, then you can join me and probably every other woman in America. Unfortunately there is no paved road to marital bliss, but certain truths (or the exposure of certain lies) can help make the feeling of being dragged over the rocks slightly easier.

The biggest lie society tells us when it comes to relationships, is that the first priority is doing whatever makes us happy. The priority instead should be on ensuring that our behavior and attitudes are pleasing to God. This doesn’t mean that we need to get stuck in relationships we don’t want to be in, but it will ensure that we treat men (and really, people in general) with respect and human decency (two traits that America in general is losing sight of). This means that sometimes the solution that is easiest and least awkward for us might not be the best one to choose. Yes blocking someone on Facebook, giving fake phone numbers, or telling convenient white lies can be easy ways out, but these are cowardly and people generally can find better methods. This is an area that I have failed pretty miserably at in the past, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. Getting the focus off of us and onto God and other people is key. This isn’t to say that it’s necessarily wrong to block someone on Facebook, but to do so simply because it’s easier for us definitely is. The responsibility here is to respect others and treat them well.

Another lie is the lie that everyone deserves to be given a chance. A lack of attraction or general disinterest in the person are completely legitimate reasons to reject an invitation for a date (side note: this is Tobias and while I generally agree with everything in this post, I think this is a particularly important point). This isn’t to say that people should make decisions solely on first impressions, and some people truly do need time to bloom, but ignoring issues like those are likely to only cause future and more serious problems in the relationship. One of the main pressures my female friends and I felt when it came to college dating was the idea that a date should only be refused if there are strong and tangible reasons for it (normally only legitimate if the guy had a serious character flaw). I heard guys discuss women in very unkind terms for refusing dates. This led to some of the issues discussed previously (Facebook blocking, fake phone numbers etc.) since we felt there was no good way to say no, but we also didn’t want to say yes. Once, a guy and I were talking with the goal of maybe slowly moving into a relationship. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have feelings for this guy, and that he was falling for me very quickly. Realizing that I didn’t have a concrete reason for not wanting to date him, and that I simply wasn’t attracted to him, I blocked him on Facebook so he could figure out my lack of interest without my needing to initiate and participate in an awkward conversation. I’m not proud of it, but I do know what it’s like to feel stuck and the bad choices that can come from it. This isn’t to excuse poor choices, but feeling trapped in a non-existent relationship (or in an actual relationship) is never a good thing.

One of the harder truths when it comes to dating is that it isn’t easy and it isn’t non-awkward. Sometimes the right guy (or who we think is the right guy) isn’t going to start pursuing right away. Other times, the wrong guy will. Sometimes it’s an unfortunate mix of the two. However, the right thing must always be done, no matter how hard it is in the moment (and it will be hard…no sugarcoating this one). Honesty is good. If you’re not interested in a guy, say it. It’s not embarrassing, and it’s not wrong. If you can think of something good about the guy, mention it. It will help him feel like he’s not a total failure (Tobias will be addressing this male misconception next week). If nothing else, you can always thank him for being brave enough to approach you and state his interest.

Conclusion

Being a woman in relationships is hard. There’s often a degree of uncertainty and the feeling that a lot of the responsibility for the relationship unfairly rests on you. However, to recap, there are things we can do to improve the way we interact with men and to make us better women as a result.

1: Be honest.

2: Don’t fake or force interest. You don’t owe anybody a date. If you like the man’s character and think that you could grow to care for him, than by all means give it a try. But if there’s just no chance at all, accept that and own it.

3: Be nice. Realize that it can be hard for a guy to state interest and the rejection is going to hurt a little. You can say things that will lessen the sting like thanking him for his interest, or pointing our positive aspects of his character.

4: Don’t accept responsibility for his actions or reactions. If he gets upset, that’s on him. It’s our job to be polite and honest. We are responsible for our actions and our actions alone. As long as we are doing what is right, we don’t need to feel responsible for any immaturity on his part.

Sunday Picture Post

Welcome everyone to the first day of the week… or the last day of the week. It really depends on your perspective. However, one thing that we can say for certain: Sunday is not the middle of the week. I am constantly trying to convince my students that there is a middle point between believing ‘What I was raised with is the absolute truth and everyone else is wrong’ and ‘There is no absolute truth, nothing is true, everything is perception’. Honestly, in modern America I think this is probably a losing battle. However, some battles are worth fighting, even if you know you’re going to lose. The battle of Thermopylae is a good example of this. Anyway, as you know, we all take Sundays off here at the Art of Writing. However, I went and found you a fun little picture. Anyone ever dreamed of living on a turtle’s back?

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

honestyHappy Saturday everyone! I’m here to bring you another philosophical story challenge. For this week’s challenge I want to discuss the topic of honesty. Knowing the truth and speaking the truth are two very different things and I think I would not be alone in regarding our ability to choose how much of the truth we reveal. I think as a species we value our freedom very highly, and with it, our ability to lie. Because of this high value that I think we tend to place on the ability to lie I think it would be particularly interesting to write a story dealing a person or people who do not have the ability to lie. What would their societies look like? What would their families look like? Would they even be able to function like we do? These are some interesting things to think about, and no doubt you will in your story. I would recommend just focusing on one of these aspects or even writing a story about a single character who cannot lie who is within a society like ours that can. These are just some ideas to play around with, but whatever you choose to do, please remember to keep your stories under 1000 words if you want to post them on here. Have fun!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

ImageHey everyone, it’s Saturday again which means it’s time for another of our philosophical story challenges. This week I want to discuss the concepts of harsh truths and beautiful lies. Our lives are full of harsh truths and beautiful lies; in fact the media bombards us with them all the time. What I want us to write about this week is which of these tends to be more preferable among people, even if they know which one it is. Do you think a beautiful lie that is known to be a lie is preferable to a harsh truth that is known to be a truth? Why or why not? These are some things to think about in writing your stories. It might also be important to consider what makes a harsh truth harsh and what makes a beautiful lie beautiful. If we can understand what makes each one appealing to certain people it might help us in developing our short stores. As always, keep the stories between 100-1000 words if you want to post them on here, but feel free to write longer ones if you want to discuss the concepts and ideas in more detail for yourself. Good luck!

Finding the Truth in Lies

ImageI believe that one of the most important elements in any story is the portrayal of the truth. I’ve written before on the importance of stories being believable, but beyond that I believe that a good story must always be true. Now some of you may be reading this and thinking, “Neal, no fantasy stories are true… that’s why they are called fantasy stories,” and technically you would be right. Technically. But there is so much more to it than just that; a story can be true even if its facts are made up. Stories give us glimpses of life outside of ourselves, and life outside of ourselves and our perspective is a reality which we’d do well not to ignore. It is because fantasy stories (and really any story to a certain extent) teach us real lessons and share real truths about life that I feel I can honestly tell you that every fantasy story is true to some extent. In the words of Patrick Rothfuss, “all stories are true, but some actually happened.”

ImageIt is important to remember, when discussing truth, the importance of falsehood in fantasy writing as well. My favorite authors tend to reveal the truth slowly, through intentional lies. They manipulate the truth in such a way that they are always telling it to you, but that you never fully see it until they want you to. Granted, sometimes an author will want you to see the full truth early on in the story in order that you may better understand something about it, and this can often be just as effective as what my preferred authors do. The truth is that every story is different and every author has a slightly different way of doing things, but they are all intentionally portraying the information in a certain way, the way they want you to understand the story.  In my own writing, limited as it may be, I always try to have one clear idea that motivates any story, and though I may never explicitly state that idea, I try to weave it into nearly every major plot development, or least portray something that will lead to that idea in each plot development. But this is just me, I would encourage you to try different thing. When you write because you like writing it no longer matters if is a “successful” piece.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

ImageHey guys, it’s Saturday again so I’m here to bring you another philosophical story challenge. This week I want to challenge you about the concept of reality–think of Plato’s allegory of the cave–how do we know what we see is what is really there and not just a shadow on the wall of some truer reality? Might there be some higher reality that we aren’t aware of? What would happen if someone found this reality and tried to explain it to others? These are things to think about to help with your writing. The idea of a higher reality has played a key role in the development of society for thousands of years so here is a chance to write a story about your personal take on it or even just a fun story involving a higher or deeper reality, but please don’t re-write the Matrix! You know the rules by now, but for those who don’t the goal is to write a short story (100-1000 words) that deals with/answers the themes and questions presented in the challenge. Have fun!

Conservatism vs. Liberalism

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863

Yet another post from Canaan Suitt:

“What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” – Abraham Lincoln

Conservatism is obstructive to the pursuit of truth and harmful to the wellbeing of society when the old ways of thinking and doing things are erroneous. Conversely, Liberalism, which we may say is in essence trying the new and untried against the old and tried, is dangerous when it is merely a desire to push against tradition for its own sake, without the guidance of reason. Both may be dangerous, and for the same reason: namely, both may eschew truth for something else–tradition for the one, “liberation” for the other.

It doesn’t seem to me that the ideas we call liberal would be called liberal if they had come first. Conversely, it doesn’t seem to me that those ideas that come along and challenge the established ideas can be called conservative. Of course, established and new ideas could be called liberal and conservative, respectively, if, like Humpty Dumpty, we could call things what we please. But using the established meaning of the words, it seems to me that conservative is conservative because it comes first in time and development and liberal is liberal because it comes subsequently. Now, probably both conservatives and liberals would take umbrage at this reduction of their respective ideologies to a matter of chronology. Conservatives may counter by saying that their ideas and values are in accordance with absolute truth, regardless of what newfangled ideas may come. Liberals may give an argument not unlike the conservatives’ in that it gives their position legitimacy by according their views with the truth (in throwing off the falsehoods of tradition).

This image was found here. I like the image... not sure I like the site. However, credit where credit is due.
This image was found here. I like the image… not sure I like the site. However, credit where credit is due.

As I began by saying, so now I reiterate that the relationship between conservatism or liberalism and truth is precarious. To clarify, I am talking about conservatism and liberalism in a political context. Now if conservatism were defined and used to mean–what I don’t think it really means–accordance with absolute truth, then I would unwaveringly call myself a conservative. For, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.” Liberalism, because conservatism and liberalism are opposites, would mean the open mind that Lewis condemns–would be forsaking the foundation that gives meaning to anything. But traditionalism–adherence to the old and tried–is not synonymous with adherence to truth, period. Conservatism means going along with the old and tried politically, which may be good and may not. In the context of Lincoln’s speech quoted above, it is very good, because by it he means adhering to the Constitution and being devoted to the perpetuity of union. Liberalism, politically, as doing the new and untried, may be good and it may be destructive. A liberal mindset or idea may in fact greatly improve upon the conservative way of doing things. I think of the great contribution of those “liberals” Erasmus and Luther, or those liberal measures called the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. On the other hand, rebellion against the old and tried merely because it is old and tried is no good reason to be a liberal. The standard against which both conservatism and liberalism have to be tried is truth itself.

This photo was found at Keyboard Militia.
This photo was found at Keyboard Militia.

I myself think Plato’s approach (see The Republic I) is the best one – to be guided by reason and the ever-pressing desire to understand and act upon the truth. I am not very concerned with labels–it seems to me that most labels are applied in hindsight by posterity or in the present by the opponents of a certain way of thinking–I am concerned with knowing the truth (“as God gives us to see the right,” as Lincoln said elsewhere and applying it to society. If this means that at times I seem conservative to those who may observe me, well, that’s fine. And so it is if I may be liberal.

This sort of person, who is not concerned for labels or movements or systematized political stances, the person whom I’ll call “The Sojourner,” will unsettle conservatives and liberals alike. On some issues, conservatives will applaud the Sojourner; on others, liberals will approve him. Both will be disturbed on many other points. Both sides will see him as an anomaly–an unstable conglomeration of diametrically opposed ideologies. Neither will welcome him entirely. “He’s delusional, you know. That chameleonic fellow thinks he can support our pro-life stuff while supporting the legalization of homosexual marriage!” Or, in a meeting room on the other side of the Capitol, “What’s he trying to do–get a bigger constituency? Everyone knows you can’t support these damn imperialistic programs and align yourself with our green initiatives! It’s just a load of BS.” For his part, the Sojourner knows the world is more complex than his friends seek to make it. In his thoughtful quest for the right, he is mostly alone (except in the company of books and rarely met like-minded people), but he knows solitariness is necessarily a part of the quest.