The arrival of the second edition of David Koyzis’ Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies is incredibly timely. So much of the divisiveness of our current political debates can be traced to differences over first principles, and Koyzis’ neo-Calvinist approach to political theory is helpful in digging to the fundamental issues that lay beneath the surface of our political rhetoric. To loosely quote John Maynard Keynes, so-called practical men who believe themselves exempt from intellectual influences are usually the slaves to some defunct economist or political philosopher. In this respect, Koyzis’ work is indispensable in preventing the church from becoming unwitting captives to defunct thinkers whom the average reader may only have faint knowledge of.
Political Visions and Illusions begins with a discussion of the nature of ideologies. According to Koyzis, the word ideology carries a variety of connotations. For some, ideology is a neutral category that simply refers to a paradigm that provides a set of norms for viewing political life. For others, ideology is a pejorative term—an instrument of oppression that indoctrinates an oppressed group with a “false consciousness” that hides the true nature of their enslavement (as in Marxism). Koyzis, in contrast, believes that ideologies are best understood as being religious in character. Because man is homo adorans, religion cannot help but permeate all dimensions of life, including politics. Unfortunately, the human mind, being an idol factory, frequently elevates an object in the created order to a status above the Creator. According to Koyzis, political ideologies are no different. They too idolatrously take some facet of the creation (for example, the individual or the community), elevate it to a status of ultimacy, and construct a pseudo-redemptive narrative around this new absolute.
Koyzis dedicates a separate chapter to the religious and ultimately idolatrous character of the five main political ideologies in the West—liberalism, conservativism, democratism, nationalism, and socialism. For example, according to Koyzis, conservatism rightly celebrates the value of the past and received wisdom. But in idolizing tradition, conservatism makes history the ultimate source of norms, leaving it susceptible to the charge of historicism. Nationalism also appreciates something that is good—the nation—but in absolutizing a particular community, nationalism turns the nation into a jealous god whose loyalty and allegiance demands primacy over all other communal relations. Democratism rightly values popular participation in politics. But in exalting popular sovereignty, democratism makes the “voice of the people the voice of God”—vox populi vox Dei. Finally, socialism recognizes the fact that all societies share some things in common, but in crafting a narrative of human redemption through communal ownership, socialism falls prey to a utopian secularized eschatology.
Readers will be particularly interested in Koyzis’ discussion of liberalism, especially in light of recent debates (à la Patrick Deneen’s work). Liberalism, according to Koyzis, is best understood as an ideology that celebrates “the sovereignty of the individual.” Koyzis is appreciative of the many goods that liberalism has brought—for example, its emphasis on the right of the individual to practice religion according to the dictates of conscience. Nevertheless, as an ideology, liberalism locates the source of ultimate political sovereignty not in God, but in the autonomous self. The various versions of liberalism—ranging from the libertarian night watchmen state, to the regulatory state, to our current stage of liberalism, “the choice enhancement state”—may appear different, especially with respect to the size of government. But in reality, all these versions of liberalism are premised on giving primacy to the individual—they only differ on how to achieve that goal. As an ideology, liberalism has had deleterious consequences, for there are many institutions—family and church—that are not reducible to the contractual will of the individual.
In the final third of the book, Koyzis seeks to transcend the ideologies by offering a Christian response. Against attempts to separate faith from politics, Koyzis follows in the footsteps of the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, who once wrote that there is not one square inch over the entire creation that Christ does not declare, “Mine!” For Kuyper, Christ’s sovereignty extends to every sphere of life, and his redemption is cosmic in scope—bringing salvation not just to individuals, but to the entire cosmos. Since politics is part of the cosmos that Christ rules over and is redeeming from sin, Christians are called to live out their salvation in this sphere of life as well. Citing Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institute (the church gathered) and the church as organism (the church scattered), Koyzis pushes back against introverted ecclesiologies that focus solely on the church as an alternative polis (à la Stanley Hauerwas), neglecting their broader missional calling to culture.
In addition, writes Koyzis, a Christian response to transcending the ideologies will be pluralistic. It will recognize the genuine good in the different parts of creation, but will not absolutize any one part (as do the monistic political ideologies described previously). Building upon the work of Richard Mouw and Sandy Griffioen, Koyzis makes a distinction between directional pluralism, contextual pluralism, and structural pluralism. Directional pluralism describes the fact that we live in a society with diverse beliefs about ultimate reality. Contextual pluralism refers to the variety of cultures that we are surrounded by. The pluralism that Koyzis calls for is a structural pluralism, otherwise known as societal pluriformity. Citing Oliver O’Donovan’s dictum that “unity is proper to the creator, complexity to the created world,” Koyzis notes that God is one but that his works in the world are manifold.
Koyzis expands upon structural pluralism using Kuyper’s concept of spheres sovereignty. According to Kuyper, there are different domains of life that God has ordained with their own norms, goals, and principles of organization. We speak for example of the world of art, the world of science, or the world of economics. These different spheres of life have their own sovereignty, over which another sphere, especially the state, cannot intrude (although the state can intervene in certain limited circumstances). Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere sovereignty was directed at countering the monistic tendencies of an omnicompetent state that imperialistically sought to absorb all of civil life into its domain. Readers familiar with mediating institutions, Edmund Burke’s “little platoons,” and the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity will find many parallels with sphere sovereignty. At the same time, there are unique features to sphere sovereignty, and Koyzis dedicates an entire chapter comparing the two historic Christian approaches to societal pluriformity—neo-Calvinism and Catholic social teaching.
I remember coming across the first edition of Political Visions and Illusions almost two decades ago. Rereading Koyzis’ book not only reminded me of how helpful his work was in clarifying issues of faith and politics, but it also provided me the joy of discovering fresh insights from a book that, like all great books, continues to teach new lessons with each reading. Unfortunately, except within the small confines of the Reformed world, Koyzis’ neo-Calvinist approach to political philosophy is not widely known. Hopefully, with the latest edition of Political Visions and Illusions, Koyzis’ work will no longer be hidden underneath a bushel, but instead, its brilliance will reach a wider audience.