Conservative.

It’s such a loaded term these days. Every blog. Every sermon. Every prayer. Every comment. Every word is run through the conservative-liberal detecto-meter.

We get tired of hearing how polarized and irate today’s America is. Red-blue. Republican-Democrat. Right-Left. Conservative-Liberal. It’s tiring always to be on guard, to watch your every comment. Can I say that here? Did I tip my hand there?

In its simplest form, to be conservative is merely a desire to conserve. Something of value is being maintained, preserved. Putting brussel sprouts in the freezer is a conservative act. A wedding gown, old photos, your teeth, the wood siding on your house that needs paint–all things you may wish to conserve. Whether we realize it or not, we are conserving and preserving and maintaining all the time. Every amateur historian, storyteller, or antique collector is in some ways inherently conservative. Events, stories, objects should be conserved.

Personally, I am conservative about baseball lore and old uniforms, air-cooled Volkswagens, monarch butterflies and milkweed, the Heidelberg Catechism, even the Canons of Dort, and lots of other things. I am concerned that they are devalued and disappearing. I want to see them conserved.

God is Conservative? Who Knew!

To apply a term like conservative to God seems ludicrous, maybe blasphemous, at least incredibly self-absorbed. Trying to fit the ineffable, everlasting God into our little terms and tempests of the day. But allow me to try–in a way.

We often hear theologians say that God is continuously preserving and maintaining the universe. Creation is not a once-and-done event. Unlike god-the-watchmaker, who winds up creation and then walks away, allowing it to run on its own, God is always creating and preserving. That seems “conservative” to me.

I think about how often the word “remember” appears in the Bible. The ancient Israelites are always being told to remember God’s saving deeds, to recite them and sing them and to teach them to their children. Remember that they were once slaves in Egypt. Remember God’s Law. Remember the Sabbath day. Remember the Lord your God is God alone.

The “remembering” done around the Lord’s Table is mysterious and multi-faceted. But it certainly includes the simple remembering of Jesus’s death and resurrection. On Ash Wednesday, Christians hear, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

All of this is conservative. Conserving something of great importance. Recognizing the tendency for things to dissipate and decay, to be lost and forgotten. New pharaohs arise who do not remember Joseph.

In these ways, and probably others, Christians are called to be conservative, to remember, to maintain things of significance. Perhaps Jesus describing his followers as the “salt of the earth” even suggests a preservative role in the world. The inclination to conserve often seems to be a godly one.

God is not. . .

Apophatic theology–via negativa, what God is not–is an acidic cleanser that burns away the sticky residue of making God in our image, just another person with a very big voice. Limited human terms are negated. God is not finite, but infinite. God is not comprehensible, but incomprehensible. And so God is most definitely not conservative.

God is a God of new things–new wine, new songs, new covenants, new hearts, new hope, new creation. God seems to have little nostalgia to go back or hold the line. Instead God is creatively going forward. Not trying to put all the pieces correctly back in the box. Not telling us to return to the Garden. Do a new thing.

Not everything should be conserved. We call that hoarding! We are prone to try to conserve our possessions and power and privilege. When we sort the shelves in our deceased grandparent’s basement, we judge that much of the stuff there is not worth preserving.

Clutching, grasping, fearing–these are the temptations of the conservative. Conserving tends to become enshrining, fossilizing, attempting to immortalize the mortal.

God’s retort to our desire to conserve might be “Let it go!” Maybe better yet, “Trust me. I’ll be with you.”

Our conservative tendencies often signal that fear is outweighing hope. We get defensive. We hang on. We hoard. We try to collect manna for tomorrow, today. We don’t believe that God’s future will be as great as God’s past, that what God will do can be as great as what God has done. There is a distrust of God in a lot of our conservatism. We must conserve, protect, and maintain, because God, it appears, is not doing it adequately. We do not like the future that God has in store, apparently.

An important caveat, God’s future and “progress” are not synonymous. Nor are the coming of God’s Kingdom and the expansion of “civilization.” Conservatives often are a helpful, if painful, jab in the ribs here. Conservatives’ jaundiced view of progress and underlying fear of the future can keep us from hastily jumping on the progress bandwagon, as though it were identical to the way of Jesus. Still, that’s not to say that progress or civilization never overlap with God’s path to the future either!

Admittedly this discussion has been flying about 40,000 feet above the fray. Does any of this help as we wade through the 24 hour news cycle, or simply, as we try to be good disciples? I want to hope so.

Sometimes stepping back to a more theoretical level allows us to look at our deeper motives and our knee-jerk habits. What does our conservatism tell us about ourselves, our best impulses, and those impulses that aren’t so good? To those who think they are not conservative, maybe you are more than you know. To conservatives, what are the deeper roots of your conservatism?

And, of course, we still have to wonder, “Is God liberal?”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

8 Comments

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    And please do a part three: “Is God radical?”

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay, Steve. I love how you explore the rich semantic realm of the verb “to conserve.” The Polaroid matrix, a worldview of labels and demarcations for good/evil opposites, is the fruit we’ve been eating since Eden. When the Truth is a person breaking bread before us, our eyes open to a new way of existing which can’t be contained within any territory marked out by the polarization of opposing categories.

    I will be using this essay as I think and write this week about distinctions between a faith rooted in nostalgia and a faith rooted in prophetic imagination. Both use our past history and memory as a resource for energizing hope for the future, but with a profoundly different approach.

  • Jim says:

    Thanks Steve! Well stated. The 40K view is entirely appropriate as we wade.
    We all too often get caught up in the fray of the moment and lose the fact that God is and always has been in control. Pride and fear seem to color way to much of leadership and our reactions, regardless of what side of the isle we sit. The humble servant has been lost. And the devil is enjoying the chaos of the moment.
    There are two phrases that popped into my mind as soon as I finished reading.
    As heard on the radio lately – “God is writing his story, quit trying to take away the pen!” And from Shorter Catechism. “What is the chief… To know Him and enjoy him forever.”

  • stan seagren says:

    Thank you so much, Steve!
    Our church is celebrating our 150th anniversary. We are also in the Growing Young cohort.
    So I came up with, (I believe through a nudge from Holy Spirit):
    “150 years Old and Growing Young.” Your essay says it so clearly!
    I look forward to sharing it.

  • Tom says:

    The most concise description of conservativism (as it should be practiced anyway) is the principle of Chesterton’s Fence: don’t tear down a fence if you don’t know why it was erected in the first place.

    We’ve torn down a lot of fences in the last 60 or 70 years, with the wrecking ball currently poised to take out many more. Some of those fences deserved to come down, while destruction of others has had (predictably) disastrous consequences. We would do well to take some care before letting the ball swing.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    In a sermon on Zaccheus, my friend Terry De Young put me onto the phrase by Frederick Buechner, “the unflagging lunacy of God.” I keep thinking about it as I weigh all the “the same yesterday, today and forever” aspects of God that seem to be so comforting in an often chaotic and unpredictable world. But in the whole conservative/radical conversation about who God is (or isn’t), I find myself wondering if the best antidote for the all-too-human tendency to want to preserve and enshrine God is to accept that the most reliable attribute of God is God’s “unflagging lunacy.”

  • James Schaap says:

    Good, good stuff, Steve. Thanks.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    “Every blog. Every sermon. Every prayer. Every comment. Every word is run through the conservative-liberal detecto-meter.”

    Steve, I do not envy you for the world you must live in that would lead you to make such a statement. I’m happy to report that many of us don’t live like that, so reserve some hope that you too can escape to a less oppressive place.

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