What is Ideology?

In his book Theocratie of Ideology: Het Dilemma van de Huidige Christenheid (Theocracy or Ideology: The Dilemma of Modern-Day Christianity), published in 1977, W. Aalders provides the best analysis of the modern apostasy of the church. It gives us the best diagnosis of this condition and indicates the only possible way out. Aalders does this by examining and unfolding the thought of the 19th century Dutch jurist, historian, and statesman Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer.

In this treatment, Aalders provides the most comprehensive and pointed definition and description of ideology that is available to us.

The following excerpt is from pp. 39–44:

What Groen van Prinsterer referred to in his time as the Revolution reveals itself in the present as ideology: scientism, fascism, anarchism and Marxism. Ideology is the ripe fruit of the theory of perfectibility and of progress thinking.

After all, an ideology is a scientifically elaborated dream of the future, intended to intervene in a planned, methodical and violent way in the existing, historical reality. That is why every ideology is anti-historical and radical. It is not satisfied with pruning and felling, but demands uprooting.

As in Groen’s time with the revolution, in our time there is gross ignorance and dangerous naiveté with regard to ideology. An ideology is a spiritual reality in the sense that the apostle Paul speaks about it in Ephesians 6:12. It is not a science, but a fiction that is dressed in a scientific garment and presented as a political and social program of action. It is not true, but must be made true. It does not approach reality from factuality, but from its dream of the future. It puts into words the meaning of life and the purpose of history. It therefore pretends to be a religion and inspires like a faith. It is therefore also totalitarian, all-encompassing, all-directing. State and Church, society and school, art and science, work and entertainment, family and marriage, printing press and publicity – everything is subjected to ideology and cut off from its historical and traditional roots. It captures all thoughts and life expressions and immediately mobilizes everything in its plan for the future. This is true not only with liberalism and the bourgeoisie, with nationalism and fascism. It is no less true of anarchistic socialism, communism, Maoism and the liberation ideology of the Third World.

In the hundred years since Groen’s passing, Europe has been the laboratory and battleground of such powers of thought, invading Europe’s “empty” home like evil spirits (Matt. 12: 43-45). They have wreaked havoc by claiming everything for themselves, submitting everything to themselves, sparing nothing and no one, trampling down ancient rights. And all this under the double halo with which they came forward. The halo of scientificity and the halo of religiosity. Because of that double halo they were almost invulnerable, irrefutable, invincible. As an impenetrable fog, they neutralized common sense, free speech, objective judgment. Everyone was stupified. Free speech was gagged. Conscience was disabled. Ideologies are by definition totalitarian.

It is these ideologies that are the ripe fruits of the revolutionary principle of the 19th century. As “evil powers in the air” and as “rulers of the world” (Ephesians 6:12) they rule over nations, races, continents. That is why every person who is not ideologically blind, deaf, dumb and befogged, will now have to agree with Groen van Prinsterer in the lonely battle he fought against Thorbecke and the liberals, against Opzoomer and the moderns, against Van der Brugghen and the ethical irenicists. With the understanding that now it is better to replace the confusion-creating word “anti-revolutionary” with the word “anti-ideological” (pp. 39–40).

But in doing so we must bear in mind that with the rise of the power of ideologies, ‘confession’ has also entered a new period of previously unknown questions and difficulties. Did Groen van Prinsterer, with his emphasis on the meaning of the Gospel, have any awareness of these new questions and difficulties?

We have seen that in opposition to the principle of modernity, Groen placed the Cross at the center of world history. On that Cross, the ideological powers have been unmasked and put on public display, because the historical reality of the Cross has rendered the theory of perfectibility and the idea of progress impossible. The Cross preaches reconciliation and redemption rather than progress and liberation. Only the Cross breaks the ideological cataract.

That is why the Christian’s vocation in our ideological-gagged age is to contrast the Gospel of the Cross as God’s wisdom with the wisdom of men. Even now Groen’s slogan “It is written! It has happened!” remains the solid ground by which to “withstand every whirlwind of philosophical unbelief.”

However, the peculiar difficulty of such Gospel confession in the ideological age is the inflation of the word. The ideological manipulations of the word have almost completely caused the value, the expressiveness, the authority, the quality of the word to be lost. The word is no longer heard because it no longer speaks by itself; instead, it has become an instrument of the subjective intentions of the one who uses it. In ideology the word becomes empty, mindless, and denatured into a means of power. The word no longer “convinces” but overwhelms and terrorizes. And all of this while confession is based on the word and depends on the word!

Was Groen aware of the difficulty with which the degeneration of language saddled confession in an ideological age? To some extent this question must be answered in the affirmative, because (thanks to Plato!) he was acquainted with this devaluation of the word as a phenomenon which already occurred in Greek culture at the time of its decline. The fact that Groen compared the emergence of sophistry in Athens with the oppressive confusion of speech in modern Europe shows that he recognized its danger to the Gospel. Its manipulations with the word and language were for Groen a foreshadowing of the ideological violation of language (Unbelief and Revolution, p. 32).

In his Phaedrus, Plato portrays the sophist as the man who through his talent for speaking and reasoning knows how to make non-being accepted as being, being as non-being; who knows how to show with false arguments that the true is false, the false is true; that right is wrong, and wrong is right. He can do this because he detaches words from their relation to revelation (mythos) and to the Absolute and Principled, and arbitrarily substitutes a subjective opinion for them.

What once took place in miniature in Athenian sophistry, is now repeated on a massively increased scale in the ideologies. What can Gospel confession do against such a massive violation of language? In a time of monetary depreciation and counterfeit coins, shouldn’t one withhold his gold? Do witnessing and confessing still make sense?

Perhaps Groen came closest to answering these questions when he wrote: “Confession is a declaration of truth where the defense is objectionable, where confession is accompanied by suffering”; and: “Recognize now also the genuineness of confession in the features of modified martyrdom…. Thou knowest the condition of universal peace; observe them and it will go well with you! Depart from them, and soon you will find, if only through contempt and scorn, that in the estimation of the trendsetters you are a loveless and unbearable man” (Het Nederlandsche Zendelinggenootschap [The Dutch Missionary Society]), pp. 140–142).”

In a time of the ideological violation of words, when the truth of language is no longer heard, confession can only gain strength through the truthfulness of the confessor, that is, through his personal commitment, even if it means martyrdom. For Groen van Prinsterer, Isaac da Costa was a shining example of this: “Da Costa was a witness to the Gospel truth just as it opposes everything that denies or misrepresents it. Therefore a confessor and a warrior. Confessor and sufferer; martyr of his conviction because of the fact that soul-suffering, which, not because the person, but because the principle in the person is assaulted, brings about martyrdom” (Nederlandsche Gedachten, 8 July 1873).

Anyone who is not willing to make that sacrifice of a personal commitment is incapable of Gospel confession in the modern world.