Incremental Dialectical Process as Progress

In examining incrementalism as an instrument of change, we need to understand how opposing forces influence one another in the transformation process, producing new social thought patterns, practices, and systems.  The pattern that is useful in helping us to visualize this process is known as dialectics.  In its simplest expression, the dialectic process is one where two opposing ideas conflict, interact, and converge to result in a new understanding which in turn yields new practices.  Conflict is necessary to change, and conflict in the area of ideas tends to produce new ideas simply because none of us, though we may believe deeply in the positions we hold, has full understanding of anything.

It may sound to some like I am opening the door for the denial of absolutes or truth – that I am saying we do not know truth and that we only ride the ever fluctuating public consciousness from one relativistic position to another at best, or the surrender to the manipulation of others at worst.  Undoubtedly some, who do not believe in what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth,” do speak of dialectics in relativistic terms.  It would seem fair to say that it is within a relativistic context that you will ordinarily see the term.  Still, I believe it provides us who hold to the idea of absolute truth with a valid framework for understanding the way change occurs – to the bad or to the good.

Dialectics can be seen as a relativistic process or as the process by which we continue to be conformed incrementally to an ever deeper understanding of truth. If we hold to the truth of scripture we must also embrace the idea that “we see… dimly.”  We are as children, on our way to more mature understanding.  We do not yet know fully.  That remains the prospect of our future. (1 Corinthians 13:11, 12).  A healthy dose of humility about our grasp of truth is as important to our growth as individuals and society as is the need to uphold and defend what we do believe and know.

The fact that we should always be growing toward a greater grasp of truth derives from the fact that  we have not yet attained complete understanding and therefore, while we hold forth the truth that we do see as faithfully as we can, we do so in a spirit of humility, knowing from Paul that, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:2). The same apostle admonishes us to hold fast to the truth and to be humble about how well we grasp it, with an awareness that there is much that we do not yet understand  (2 Timothy 1:13).  And, while there are things that “we know” (ex. Romans 8:28), there is much that we don’t yet know, or that we do not yet know as we shall know it (Ephesians 3:19).

The dialectic process is not a substitute for divine revelation or a supplanting of it by bare reason, but even reason occurs within reality, and reality is its own form of revelation because if forces us to conform to what is.  So, even raw rationality can unveil a measure of truth without a Bible or other direct revelation.

Simply stated, the dialectic process is that of the presentation of a thesis, the counter of an antithesis, and the resulting synthesis, a new understanding.  One might argue that it is possible that the thesis or antithesis may prevail as offered, and that therefore the synthesis is not, in all cases, a necessary progression.  That is true theoretically, but in practice and experience it is seldom if ever the case.  “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17).

In my personal experience I doubt I have ever entered into a debate without my position being refined, and sometimes it has been overthrown altogether.  I am still learning from discussions or arguments that I had decades ago.  Ok, or maybe I’m just slow, right?

I will never forget the day that I preached a very convoluted sermon trying to marry the idea of soul sleep with the idea of conscientiousness in the presence of Christ upon death.  Upon the conclusion of the teaching, one scripture from a friend shot down my entire premise and humiliated me because, at best, I had utterly wasted the valuable time of those present on that beautiful Sunday morning.  That was the day I ceased preaching novelties, a profitable synthesis indeed.

The Bible believing Christian or Jew begins his understanding of the world around him from revelation, and his judgments are always anchored in revelation, but the process by which he comes to more profound grasp of truth is in going from one degree of understanding to another.  As Isaiah said, “To whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast? For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” (Isaiah 28:9, 10).

Notice the tedious and monotonous process by which the prophet says we learn. Again we have the repetitive incremental pattern of Moses who admonished the Israelites to take their promised land “little by little.”  Here the monotony of the incremental approach is stressed even more.  It is by precept upon precept upon precept, line upon line upon line, and here a little, there a little.  If this is the normative process for the growth of thought within one mind, how much more challenging is the transformation of a cultural consensus that will allow a new and better idea, or an old and better idea for that matter, to take hold and maintain in the transformed or transforming community?

If we look back to the 1980s in the U.S., we see the emergence of a fresh groundswell of conservatism rising out of the pro-life movement into a broader constitutionalist movement , carried by the energy of a re-engaged faith community, especially the evangelical Christians, within the world of politics.  The movement swept the country, ushered in a new wave of hope, national pride, and patriotism that had practically passed from the scene in the wake of the failure of the Vietnam War (forfeited rather than lost), and the disgraceful behavior and resignation of President Richard Nixon.  The “moral majority” took to the streets, to the precinct meetings, to the voting booth, and to the halls of power to reclaim America.

From this we saw a new measure of stability take hold and a resurgence of righteousness, civic pride, and a revival of personal responsibility, but in the late 80s and early 90s there was loss of those moorings and eventually the stronghold was lost and now we have returned to the economic and social theories that brought us the Carter “malaise”.  Why did the surge fail to hold?

To my mind the new ground was lost very early though it took a couple of decades to fully manifest.  It was lost in the basic structure of the “take over”.  The effort was made to impose a new model for society from the top down.  We thought it would be enough to put likeminded people into office and to pass laws that reflected our values and we failed to win the hearts and minds of the people to the foundational principles.   That will never produce sustainable change.  Transformation that can sustain must be birthed in the hearts and minds of the society in general.  Any top down transformation is simply too fragile to endure.

We must be ever diligent setting forth the principles that we propose for the culture in the most persuasive and attractive ways possible.  It was the simple and brief radio addresses of Ronald Reagan, before he ever announced his candidacy for President, which gave me hope in the late 70s.  He won my mind and eventually the hearts and minds of a nation so that Republicans and Democrats alike now point back to him as an example.

Preceding our Revolution, the Colonies had experienced a period of decline morally from their Puritan and pilgrim founding.  Then there came an awakening that transformed the minds and hearts of large numbers of people who were brought to new and deeper faith.  The moral climate of the culture changed.  Ben Franklin observed in his autobiography, “”It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless and indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

Beyond that, these transformed minds and lives left an imprint on the entire culture to the extent that some say it was the awakening that laid the foundation for the fundamental transformation that would later bring us freedom.  That degree of rapid change in the minds of the people is not always available but the opportunity to bring influence to bear in terms of incremental sustainable change is.  It is always our present responsibility to be setting forth a sound pattern for the culture in whatever small ways are open to us.

It is this vigilant effort that can lay groundwork for an awakening, a mental and spiritual revolution that can enable massive change in the appropriate time.  Without the groundwork that incrementalism can provide however, revolution or awakening of whatever sort will be short lived and fail to provide a sustainable improvement of the culture.

(Next time – the need for a comprehensive vision and dedication to the long haul)

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