What is an ideology ?

Ideologies are at the heart of our deepest debates: political and religious. But we rarely face them head on; we dance around them and often pretend they don’t exist. Many of us don’t know what they are or that we have one.

Whether we realize it or not, everyone has an ideology; they are not necessarily bad things. According to Merriam-Webster, here are the applicable definitions of this word.

ideology, noun

  1. a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
  2. a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
  3. the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program

We all have a systematic body of concepts (number 1) and a manner of thinking (number 2). When I say “ideology” for the rest of this post I am referring to number 3.

The dangers of this type of ideology are

  • collectivist thinking
  • traditionalist thinking
  • grab-bag of unthinking

Collectivist thinking

Here I am defining collectivism as “emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity.” This type of thinking is at the core of racism, bigotry, and stereotypes in general. Since certain attributes are generally true of a group, we assume that all attributes are true of all members of that group.

For example: Many black youth wear hoodies. Some black youth are violent. Therefore, a black youth wearing a hoodie is probably violent. This type of thinking conveniently ignores other facts such as: Many youth in general wear hoodies. Marc Zuckerberg wears a hoodie.

Traditionalist thinking

I define traditionalist thinking as “we’ve thought this way for a long time; how could so many past generations have been wrong?”

I see this argument a lot in the gay rights debate — How could the church have been wrong for 2000+ years? This nicely insulates us from having to think too deeply about the issue. However, this begs the question: How long is it okay to be wrong? 1000 years? 500? If we are wrong, it shouldn’t matter how long we were wrong.

Grab-bag of unthinking

Our ideologies tend to be a grab-bag of beliefs, assumptions, and assertions that often go unexamined.

A tool that has helped me in sorting through the grab-bag that an ideology represents is to separate out its elements into:

  • Principles
  • Practices
  • Tools

Principles are core beliefs, laws, doctrines or assumptions. They underlie everything and should change very seldom. For example, Yeshua said: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” These are clearly principles.

Practices are the way we interpret and apply those principles. These will change periodically, but should always be consistent with the principles. Change may occur because of new information that we learn, cultural shifts, and so on. Paul’s letters in the New Testament contain a lot of discussion of practices, which is why we try to categorize them into descriptive and prescriptive — that is, how things were done then vs. how we should do them now.

Tools are even more subject to change; we use them or discard them based strictly on their usefulness. I would put Bible translations in this category. (At the risk of antagonizing the “KJV only” crowd, I would posit that their error is in turning a tool (the KJV translation) into a principle.)

What are our ideologies?

In my next post I will try to separate out the ideologies that America is struggling with, especially the Christian Church in America.