August 6, 2007

Idealist and Realist

It has been said that there are two groups of people in the world: those who divide people into two groups and those who don’t. I’ve been reflecting for a time on some of the issues facing The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and it seems to me that it is possible to group the responses to these issues under convenient — if inaccurate — headings.

Many who favor the development of a covenant for the Anglican Communion appear to me to be taking an idealist approach: they are describing a church structure that does not yet exist but which they feel sure should exist for the good of the Church. Many, who are concerned about the development of such a covenant, if not entirely opposed to it, seem to be taking a more realist approach: describing present church structures in an effort to determine where the difficulties have arisen. As my friend *Christopher describes it, it is a difference between prescription and description.

It occurred to me that while it is hard to define these categories in definitive ways, it might be possible to cast a broader net to communicate the kinds of differences in approach I am trying to describe.

[Added note: My effort here is not to create categories into which individuals might fit, but rather look at how idealism and realism are expressed in many and various ways in different contexts. An individual person might be very idealistic about her politics, but intensely pragmatic about childrearing. More importantly, I do not mean the following categories to reflect directly the categories "liberal" and "conservative." People on both sides of the ecclesiastical divide can be equally idealistic or realistic in various ways.]

Let me begin with a specific example and then provide an attempt at a “cloud of witnesses” in which I might hope to surround the area in which I think the categories might become clearer.

Measures Taken

Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Measures Taken, charts the course of a Communist cell working in prerevolutionary China. I composed music for a production of this play when I was in college, and what fascinated me about the play was its objectivity: both ardent socialists and fervent Republicans could point to it and say: yes, that’s what communism is all about. [In keeping with my comment above, note that the play is about Communism, and the tension between idealism and realism in that context. An idealist Christian is very different from an idealist Communist!]

The play describes the problems that arise when one of the cell members, the Young Comrade, can’t seem to grasp the point of the cell’s purpose: to promote the revolution. The Young Comrade instead spends his time trying to help individual people in their misery. For example, in one scene set on the banks of the canal, the cell is sent in to agitate the barge-pullers into forming a union to demand better wages and, more importantly, shoes that will help them keep their footing better in the muddy banks. The Young Comrade, taking pity on the workers, instead of agitating them, gathers up rocks from the hillside and runs about putting them under the feet of the barge-pullers to keep them from slipping and falling. This completely undercuts the cell’s efforts and they are forced to move on to their next effort.

It is interesting to reflect on this in light of the issues before us. In the following chart I’ve attempted to list some “off the top of my head” reactions. Others may think I have listed things exactly opposite to the way they should be. Some may find this a frivolous exercise; but I hope it might hold a mirror up both for myself and others in the present discussions to assist in seeing why it may be that we can come to such different conclusions when faced with the same situation. And so, in no particular order, here are some various distinctions between idealism and realism in a number of different areas of human endeavor.







ecclesiastical structure

hierarchical, oligarchic

communitarian, conciliar








literal revelation

contextual reception










historical method

retrojection of present onto past

explanation of present from past






situational or utilitarian




social model









prevailing fault

ignoring evidence

misinterpreting evidence

opt/pessimism test

“Glass is half empty”

“This is a glass containing half of its capacity.”

chief virtues

fortitude, hope

prudence, charity

notable vice



heretical tendency






mode of operation






k-harmonian category









metaphorical stance



theological school



the church

“founded on a rock”

“a pilgrim people”


big picture





creation story

genesis 1

genesis 2

christ event



new testament book



spanish painter

el greco





With a very large FWIW...

Tobias Haller BSG


The Postulant said...

Oh, not process, please. How about Augustinianism for the realist? I'm not thinking of the hardcore predestinarianism of his "sclerotic old age," but of his resistance to systematization, his Platonism, his insistence that perfection is not to be had in this life: not in the individual regenerate soul, and not in the Body of Christ.

I like it that I'm generally on the realist side as you've described it, but with a substantial idealist undertow. I'm a John-and-Hebrews kind of guy myself.

Tobias said...

Yes, Postulant, I considered Augustine as a candidate for the realist end. What is your beef (it that's what your comment indicates) with process? I came to be known in seminary as "the process guy" and remain convinced it offers a very helpful metaphysic opposed to the essentialism that I think underlies so many of our problems. It still seems to me to be the only method that takes certain realities (such as the nature of time and eternity) seriously. Which is not to say I don't have complaints about specific process theologians. I suppose part of what I like about it as a school is that it is not yet complete, and there remain a number of issues to be addressed. (I also find that many of its critics don't quite entirely "get" it and so miss important distinctions and argue at cross purpose. And of course, there's that awful jargon...)

I too find myself not easily fitting in to either category, though with a general tendency towards realism -- and careful observation and description. Though I also have my hopes and ideals which inform and chape my daily work -- which is, by the way, very much a process theological way of looking at things!

Marshall said...

Oh, my head hurts!

Tobias, since pride is the first sin (I'm a fan of Hilton's Scala Perfectionis), and evident enough on both sides, I might have attributed it as such, and focused on second sins. Sloth seems fine for realists; and for idealists - in this case, anger, I think. As for the other categories: too much to grasp in one reading.

Tobias said...

Thanks, Marshall. I suppose idealists fall most into pride when they imagine they've achieved their goals, and realists when they feel smug about noticing they haven't.

I was thinking of pride less as "father of all sins" than as the specific kind of perfectionism one sees in idealist approaches. In one sense, pride is the "ideal" sin, so I'm sure idealists would want to own that one! ;-) But I do take your point about anger, tho once can certainly point to that on both sides as well. By sloth also I mean more in the classic sense of accidie -- not simply laziness but a feeling of being overwhelmed and despondent.

As for the rest, these popped to mind more or less in the order you see them, and I think of this more as a conversation starter than a summa; to use my earlier image, more a summary than an exhaustive list.

*Christopher said...

I would go with the Postulant on Augustine in precisely the descriptions of the Doctor of Grace he sets out--watch those pieces from his "sclerotic old age" and his use of, some would say, "invention of" Pelagianism. Augustine's Platonism allows for such a careful eschatology as well as variety in the real that I still find him apropos. It seems better to offer a "classic" alongside a "classic" in the theology category. I can see some going, oh please, no wonder those "realists" are so screwed up.

My concern with process (outside of some very nuanced EO theologians who already make a further distinction between essence and energy per Palamas) is that most of the theologians I've read who use this tend to mix God and Creation by suggesting God is dependant upon, needs Creation, or changes. In other words inject the process into God in ways that seem inappropriate to a classic Chalcedonian Christology--mixes up the natures. Moltmann who has much going for him does this as well, and I tend to find the criticisms of say Kathryn Tanner or David Hart in this regard to be worth considering. And the jargon doesn't always engage classic Christian terminology in a way that builds a bridge.

On the whole, I fall on the realist side, which isn't a surprise, though tempermentally I'm an idealist, and John is my favorite Gospel.

Tobias said...


I agree there is a real tightrope to walk in process-relational theology to keep it within the bounds of orthodoxy, but I do think it possible. Perhaps one reason I favor it is that I see it as more consistent not only with the nature of reality, but also the biblical witness, which does seem to allow for more of a relationship between God and creation than the most extreme "impassibilists" allow.

I would say that God does not so much "need" the creation than that as it is in God's nature to be Creator, the creation is "natural." The creation is not "equal" to God, but is totally dependent upon God. But God is also in relationship to and with it; hence the freedom of the children of God is not an illusion, but a reality. I think that to reason otherwise is to have a form of the docetic error in terms of human freedom ("people only appear to be free") and I find that troubling. Indeed, it seems to undercut the importance of the Incarnation in joining the two natures in one person without confusion -- which I think process thought does rather well through the primordial/consequent polarity.

However, this was not meant to be a discussion of process theology! I'd have done better to stick to my initial suggestion of Augustine -- as there are now two additional votes in his favor! So I shall amend as suggested.

We'll take up process theology at another time -- preferably in person and over a large quantity of alcohol.

Tim said...

Love the caricature table!

Concerning sloth: there's a certain something about the realist/liberal side where you wind up thinking so much you consider the appropriate action to be null. That's what the word reminds me of, as much as anything. (Yeah, BTDT!)

And I'm so glad that of all the words I can understand I'm down the "realist" side. Oops. That wasn't smugness, was it? ;)

Derek the Ænglican said...


mood: optative
goal: maturity
pedagogy: participatory (i.e., liturgical...)
gospel: Matthew
ecclesia: militans
theological school: benedictine
creation story: John 1

One of the continuing problems I have with the *rhetoric* of the current unpleasantness is the binary either/or. In the current debates I'm told I'm a moderate and have used that title of myself in so far as this is the spectrum. But I refuse to restrict myself to the spectrum...

*Christopher said...

Derek's describe better than either category some of the central "practice" concerns that I've belabored over. My realist approach as I noted comes out of a liturgical sensibility. And he got the Creation Story correct in my estimation--which I've belabored before as well--John 1. Thanks Derek.

Which means I'm going to offer a list of my own, as I'm not a situationalist, nor a deontologist, but a virtue ethics person.

Not knowing Greek, I had to look up the optative ;) Might I inquire how this works?

The Postulant said...

Goodness, I go away for a while and all my comments get made, and better than I would have made them.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I'm with Marshall. I have a headache.

I'm pretty much realist, with the exceptions of John (I know, that puts me in trouble with lots of realists), El Greco, fresco, and, designer engineering.

I know that I wouldn't make a good comrade, because, like The Young Comrade, I'd relate to the people over the ideology.

Tobias, this is like one of the online quizzes. Once we choose, you're going to have to give us categories, or ratings, or something to tell us what we come out to be.

Derek the Ænglican said...

In some sense the optative is the case of the hopeful or the wish. It ties directly in to eschatology as far as I'm concerned. We have a vision, and--in the Holy Scriptures--a world which we are invited to inhabit. It expresses hope both for what is and what can be but with full realization of our personal and institutional complicity in betraying that very hope...

Rev Sam said...

Wittgenstein once wrote: "One man is a convinced realist, another a convinced idealist and teaches his children accordingly. In such an important matter as the existence or non-existence of the external world they don't want to teach their children anything wrong."

He was being a little playful, I think...

janinsanfran said...

Goodness -- what made me a Christian instead of a Communist was precisely that I thought we had to put the rocks under the workers' feet. Seriously.

Don't identify much with the other dichotomies. All of the above. :-)

Tobias said...


Actually I meant this to be not like one of those online quizzes with a final result that says, "You are Genghis Khan" or something like that. I think of it more like those questions on the CDO profile form -- something clergy and search committees know about -- and which I admit drive me a little crazy because at times I find I can't really decide which side I'm on in response to a particular question! So I suppose if one treated this as a diagnostic tool for oneself rather than as I intended (as a way to understand the nature of idealism and realism) you'd have a chart with some wandering back and forth on either side. I imagine just about everyone is idealistic about some things and realistic about others.

I agree entirely -- on that matter I'd be out there with the flat stones. I think St Francis and Jesus would be too -- I think Jesus was a realist on dealing with the human condition. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican sums it up, as well as his teaching on giving those who ask bread rather than a stone.

eileen said...

I are not even smart enough to even begin to tawk here wit youse...

That being, erm, said...I'm more of a realist, I suppose. I'm gooey.

I resist structure.

Ah, the tangled world views we weave.

Tom Ricketts said...

Sorry to join this thread late, but I can't let the assignment of Goedel to the 'Realist' column go unchallenged. Goedel's famed incompleteness theorems leave open a variety of views about mathematics itself. Goedel himself was the leading 20th century exponent of platonism. In this context he belongs in the Idealist column. For the Realist (=Pragmatist) column, I suggest Rudolf Carnap or W. V. Quine, both of whom, in their different ways, emphasize the importance of the application of mathematics in science in understanding what mathematics is. If you want to keep things more in the Anglican orbit, put Frank Ramsey in the Idealist column and Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Realist column.

Tobias said...

Thanks, Tom, for the further info on Goedel. I realize that in much of his work he certainly belongs in the idealist category. In this case I was thinking of the contrast between his incompleteness theorem as over against Russell and Whitehead's effort to provide a watertight (i.e., "ideal") mathematics. To a large extent Goedel would join Whitehead as heavily influenced by platonism.

This just goes to show how fluid individuals are, and the danger of putting people into hard and fast categories!

Thanks again.