Dedicated to John M. Frame, who for four decades has successfully resisted the lure of movements
What is a movement? As I am defining it here, a movement is an informal association of individuals united by adherence to a particular ideology (a highly structured, generally comprehensive view of reality) dominated by one or more influential personalities. The Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, Marxism, National Socialism, and Neo-Conservatism are all movements. Almost all movements, even those radically secular, manifest religious characteristics. Each has its own apostles who communicate revelation, its sacred texts that preserve that revelation, its community that creates and fosters a sense of belonging, its ethical system that stipulates acceptable behavior, and its threat of ex-communication that enforces an orthodoxy.
While movements are multitudinous, it is a mistake to equate them with ordinary religious institutions or non-religious organizations. Businesses and political parties and magazines and churches are not movements, though they may generate movements. What distinguishes movements is a comprehensive view of reality (the intellectual dimension) wedded to a plan for implementing that view of reality (activist dimension), enforced by dominant individuals (the ontological dimension). Only if the intellectual, activist and ontological components ignite fire in the heart of the individual, however, can they truly be said to generate a movement.
The Longing for Belonging
There is something very comforting about belonging to a movement. The “belonging” itself is a comfort. Loneliness is an undesirable emotional state, and in the company of others, we gain comfort and joy. Of course, a movement does not merely banish loneliness — it actively creates a sense of belonging. We are part of something bigger and more important than ourselves. The movement itself becomes an abstraction, almost a fictional corporation or individual in our own mind. We become wedded to A (The!) Great Cause, which seems to validate our commonly petty, insignificant lives (Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer addresses this phenomenon quite insightfully). A movement is appealing also in that it liberates us from the burden of hard thinking. The bigger-than-life personalities that dominate a movement confidently issue doctrines and instructions, and these are quickly adopted and followed by the party, school, or denomination. Intellectuals dispatch interpretation; denominations or prominent pastors issue instruction; politicians release manifestos—in this way, ordinary individuals are guided in life’s choices without recourse to the laborious process of their own investigation and original thinking.
A movement, in addition, is appealing in that it furnishes identity. Most humans dislike ambiguity. They prefer that life’s meaning — and even they themselves — be clearly defined. Movements tend to define themselves—and everybody around them—rather definitively. In its most basic sense, those in the movement are considered part of the “in” crowd, and those outside the movement are considered, well, unenlightened outsiders. In some movements, identification extends even to clothing — uniforms. If a movement attains political power, it can even mark the identification of its opponents’ uniforms (example: the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied territories).
There is, I imagine, a case to be made for movements, and even for the inevitability of movements. But I have come to believe that movements are generally bad things, and I myself wish to avoid them (without starting an anti-movement movement!).
The Joy of Outsider Status
There is something liberating about not being part of a movement. You are free to think on your own, and critically judge the major pronouncements issued from the moguls of movements. You are not worried about disbarment or excommunication from a movement, simply because you are not a member of one. You are free to make alliances with particular individuals within a movement, without buying a membership card to the movement itself.
The price to pay for this liberty, of course, is that you are deemed an outsider and not afforded the protection of the movement’s “old boys’ network.” The movement troops are suspicious of you, and perhaps a little envious, and may likely consider you subversive. Individuals who have broken the seductive shackles of movements are inclined to say and do things that will break others’ shackles, too. Movement members convinced that separation from the movement is separation from God or life or reality find manumission from movements a dangerous thing indeed.
Those of us standing consciously outside movements appreciate the benefits that some movements afford. However, not being impressed with ideologies, and being less impressed with personalities that dominate movements, we delight to go our own way as Christians following the Word of God and our God-created conscience rather than the movement mavens. Being part of a movement may be comforting, but some of us are more interested in liberty than comfort.
We enjoy the thin but clear air on the mountaintop bereft of movements.
One thought on “Man Without a Movement”
I’ve been discovering the power of movements lately in the context of “the classical education movement.” It’s doing some good, to be sure, but the “movement mentality” also has an intellectually and sociologically crippling effect. Classical education is a good thing. The classical education movement, not so much.