Obviousness and ideology

People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth. – Martin Luther

In a slightly rambling post at the BHT, I mused on why those who hold to young-earth creationism are happy to reject geocentrism, despite the fact that (as Joel Hunter points out in a highly-entertaining series of comments on Internet Monk) there are “67 passages in the Bible that clearly describe the Earth as fixed or motionless and the entire heavens as revolving around the earth”.

Now today, of course, we “recognise” those 67 passages as being “obviously” figurative, and descriptive of how things look from our frame of reference here on Earth rather than teaching scientific truths about how the universe works. But (as the quotation from Luther above shows) this was far less “obviously” the case in the 16th century, when Copernicus’ theory was first proposed.

As I observed in my BHT post, the only reason it occurs to us to read those “geocentric” passages differently from Luther and Calvin is that geocentrism is now so “obviously” wrong. In the debate about young-earth creationism, the problem is that for some people (myself included) YEC is as “obviously” wrong as geocentrism, whereas for others that is not the case, and it is the “literal”, 6 x 24 reading of Genesis 1 that is “obviously” the true meaning of the text.

So this leads us to the real subject of this post: not the pros and cons of YEC (that’s been done to death; let’s just agree to differ), but the question of “obviousness”. Why are some things seen as “obvious” to us, which to others (in different times, different places or with different backgrounds or worldviews) seem not only “non-obvious” but “obviously” wrong?

Last year, I read (and posted on: 1 | 2) Matthew Johnson’s book Archaeological Theory, which included an illuminating discussion on “ideology” as understood by “neo-Marxists” (see pp.94f.). This understanding of ideology sees it as going beyond its “vulgar” manifestations (“flag-waving, advertising, appeals to patriotism, motherhood and apple pie”) to work in a more subtle manner. As Johnson writes, ideology:

  1. naturalizes: that is, it makes the existing social order with all its inequalities appear timeless, God-given, or without any conceivable alternatives;
  2. makes interests that are sectional (for example to the upper classes) appear universal (of benefit to everyone)
  3. masks what is “really going on”, for example by denying that social or economic inequalities exist.

Hence the “New Left” (following the likes of Antonio Gramsci) saw part of their aim as being not merely to change economic structures, but the underlying ideological factors that “masked” capitalism’s true nature and made it seem “natural” (even “God-given”) and “universal”. As Michael Newman puts it in his book Socialism: A Very Short Introduction:

[Gramsci] stressed the need for socialists to be able to create a counter-hegemonic project – a new “common sense”, based on alternative ideas and cultural constructs.

(See this 2005 post for further discussion of this idea and how it relates to us as Christians – though please note I wouldn’t put everything I said in that post in quite the same way today. Incidentally, it’s interesting to note the influence this view has had, in some surprising places. The “culture war” of the “Christian Right” in the USA looks very much like a “counter-hegemonic” project aimed at creating a new “common-sense”. )

Where does all this lead us? Simply to this: we should be very suspicious of what seems to us to be “obvious” or “common sense”, especially when “common sense” happens to suit the interests of those with power and influence in society. After all, what seems “obvious” today may seem as ludicrous to our children as geocentrism seems to us.

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8 Responses to Obviousness and ideology

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    I mistrust the word “obvious” as well. It often just means “true to the uncritical eye.” I like to distinguish the word “clear” from the word “obvious.” I am looking for something that is clearly true, whether or not it is something I see the first time I look.

  2. Phil Walker says:

    This sounds to me like the post-modern slogan, “Challenge everything!” (Actually, it really does sound very post-modern. That point about the impossibility of what some on the UK right might term a ‘One Nation’ politics is telling.) The first place to lodge a response is to challenge the slogan. Is everything always up for grabs?

    The other is to ask how one avoids permanent revolution? If Gramsci’s project worked, then wouldn’t we just end up with a new common sense which needed deconstructing and replacing with a new-new common sense ad inifinitum, not to mention nauseam?

  3. John H says:

    Phil: I think we could stop once the “will to power” of human sinfulness had stopped corrupting every enterprise to which we set ourselves; once we could be sure that human wisdom was not a mask for the self-interest of sinners, especially sinners in a position of power.

    So neither ad infinitum, nor ad nauseam: just ad parousiam*

    (* With apologies to any Greek/Latin scholars currently experiencing a serious bout of nauseam themselves at the sight of that coinage…)

  4. fws says:

    When I hear obvious or arguments from natural law, my mind goes to the story of the blind man healed by Jesus and the question , asked rather calously in front of that blindman, as to whether or not his blindness was the result of his sin or that of his parents ( it was OBVIOUSLY the result of someones sin or maybe the fall?).
    The answer Jesus gives is illuminating.

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