A Horseshoe Theory of Religion

Theological beliefs are very often understood as resting on a liberal-conservative axis. Over here [gestures] are the head-bangers who take everything literally as a strict rule for how we ought to behave, and believe in a personal God, eternal heaven and hell, miracles, and even Adam, Eve and a young Earth. Over there [waves] are the beard-strokers who embrace metaphor, reject supernatural claims, and regard the Bible as just an account of humanity’s attempts to understand the world we live in.

That more or less works, but there are other characteristics of theology that are relevant, one of the most visible being the divide between high and low church. Broadly, this is a distinction between an emphasis on process and ritual on one hand, and a rejection of ostentatious outward forms in favour of inward attitudes on the other. There are lots of different ways of modelling it, and the Church of England’s recent troubles made me wonder if I was looking at it the wrong way.

A Horseshoe Political Model

I’m quite interested in a political model known as Horseshoe Theory, which states that the extremes of the political spectrum (i.e. the far right and the far left) have much more in common than they’d like to admit. I think it could be argued that a very similar theory could be applied to the theological spectrum.

If we model theology in the Church of England as a spectrum based on churchmanship, we have the high church Anglo-Catholics on one wing and the Evangelicals on the other, with the average “middle of the road” parish church somewhere in between. Liberals and conservatives could be viewed as subdivisions within each of those groups, much as Margaret Thatcher battled “wets” within her own party.

Most interestingly, although Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals derive their views from entirely different starting points, like opposite political extremes, they also seem to have quite a lot in common. As we saw in the vote on allowing women to become bishops, the two extremes united in opposing the measure.

This isn’t all that unusual – the extremists on either side tend to be inflexible and unwilling to adjust their beliefs or practices in line with cultural norms, positively relishing the fact that they’re standing out from the crowd. Despite their differences, the result is that both groups are rigidly unyielding in their defence of the status quo.

In other words, they have a lot more in common than they’d like to admit.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

2 responses to “A Horseshoe Theory of Religion”

  1. unklee says :

    I have thought a bit about this. Obviously any scheme is a simplification, but helpful in some ways. You have suggested two spectrums (I guess spectra really?) – theology and (for want of a better word) styles of worship. I can think of a few others – politics and social involvement. In each case, there are the hardliners (they tend to be fundamentalist, “low church”, right wing politically and evangelical not social justice oriented) and the warm and fuzzies (who tend to be opposite). I think your horseshoe may apply to all.

    The interesting thing for me is how much the tendencies correlate – why should this be? I think there are reasons, but I find it interesting. And I am interested to observe that I would be middle of the road theologically, low church to the point of no church, left in politics and middle of the road on the evangelism-social justice axis – so I don’t fit my own stereotype. Dunno what that means, but there you are!

    Thanks for the thoughts.

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