Review and Excerpts from

David T Koyzis Political Visions and Illusions: a Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies IVP  2003










When I first hit the hallowed halls of academia back in 1969 it was very confusing. In those days "Orientation Week" had developed a "Counter Orientation" handbook in which various courses and subjects were the focus of student comments. Often the criticisms were hard-hitting and no doubt they had some impact upon the numbers that eventually enrolled.

In the Christian Union in those days we would have books about "How to become a Christian", or commentaries of bible books, or volumes which were like how-to-do-it manuals - "Consistent Christianity" and "Christ the Controversialist". There wasn't anything like this 2003 book written by David Koyzis and published by Inter Varsity Press.

What Koyzis has written is effectively a guide for the serious student who wants to study political science. Clearly the author presents his own Christian commitment as the basis upon which this book has been written. But it should not only appeal to Christian students. It might be a good book to give to your staunch non-Christian friend who is studying politics with you. It is an examination of ideology, religion and idolatry in the context of political life.

Extensive chapters with adequate footnotes and bibliography deal with: Liberalism - the sovereignty of the individual; Conservatism - history as source of norms; Nationalism - the nation deified; Democracy - vox populi vox dei; Socialism - common ownership as salvific.

Koyzis does not leave it there. He then discusses the problems of transcending the ideologies that dominate politics and explains why a non-ideological alternative is possible for political life, in a comprehensive way, on the basis of a Christian affirmation of societal pluriformity. He then examines various Christian political traditions that have emerged in the political life and concludes with a discussion of what justice means for a differentiated and complex global society and the task of the State within that.

Further discussion and analysis will be placed here from time to time.

If you wish to make your own comment on this book, or upon my own discussion of it, send me an email at

Should you obtain the book and wish to correspond with David Koyzis I can provide you with his email address. Simply write and ask.

Another review is found at:$1097


Thinking about Politics

These days, whatever the venue, wherever we find ourselves, religion becomes a talking point. Often the discussion includes politics. Then there's a good chance that our thinking will become confused. We might start arguing or talking past each other. All of us, whatever our beliefs - Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist and agnostic - are prone to this confusion.

Christians in particular are often tongue-tied when it comes to explaining how their faith relates to their citizenship. Why accept one political party rather than another? How can we explain our vote at the last election? Was it just a matter of voting with our hip pocket or obeying our hunches about what's best for the country?

Well, Christians should know what Jesus said to His disciples. He said "apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5). He also said "I will be with you until the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). But does our life as citizens really depend upon Jesus? Is our citizenship given to us to show that Jesus has everything to do with our lives? Is Jesus, the Son of God, part of our reflections when the time comes to choose which candidate to vote for in the election? Was Jesus with us when we ticked our candidate and put the paper in the ballot box? If we feel His presence with us in the voting booth, it's not so easy to talk about this in a meaningful political way.

And it is true that when it comes to politics Christians have frequently sought to act without the restrictions of their Christian confession. We have somehow come to believe that this is an area of life that has nothing to do with Jesus. Still, God's Spirit works away and we find ourselves constantly worried, if not irritated, by Jesus' departing words to His disciples: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me!" If that's so, and His claim of total Kingship over all of life is to be taken seriously, then politics can't be apart from Him. "Apart from me you can't do anything" must means that politics is included in our Christian life.

In this series of reviews I'm looking at three books that discuss politics from a Christian point of view. These books explore the connection between confessing Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and the doing of politics. The first is a text book, an overview of the various visions and ideologies dominant in the western world today. This is the kind of book that a concerned grand-parent might give to a final-year high-school student who wants to study politics at university. But maybe you should read it yourself first. It explains the different political visions that dominate political life around the world, and it goes on to explain how these visions are transformed into ideologies. David Koyzis is a Canadian of Greek and Orthodox background. He teaches political science at a Christian University-level college in Ancaster, Ontario.

The book presents Koyzis' analysis of various ideologies - what is an ideology? Koyzis explains that politics is dominated by ideologies because human beings are inherently religious. When we put our finger on an important principle that needs to be respected by the Government our natural inclination is to make this insight into the be-all and end-all of political life. Another word for this is idolatry. But Koyzis says we have to understand the appeal of ideologies in terms of what they have got right and not simply dismiss them for what we pompously announce they have got wrong. The Egyptians were not wrong to emphasize the importance of the sun; their entire culture showed that they understood the sun was important for their life. We cannot understand the tragedy of the worship of Ra the sun god unless we accept the sun as God's gift for our life on earth.

Liberalism arose affirming human rights but liberalism's commitment to the sovereign individual is idolatry. Conservatives emphasize historical continuity but conservatism often idolizes the past, or at least a set of favored traditions that are said to be the basis for our current life. That is to make an idol of tradition. Nationalists understand the value of national or ethnic solidarity, but we don't have to look too far to see evidence of nations being turned into idols. Democrats advocate the right of equal representation in the nation's parliaments but when they assert Parliament's absolute supremacy with the confession that "the voice of the people is the voice of God" then we know that the citizenry has been turned into a god. Socialists draw our attention to the task of Government in nation-building, but when the Party Plan rides rough-shod over valid social responsibilities a new managerial elite has been made itself into an idol.

Koyzis is not saying that ideology always equates with idolatry. He is rather trying to understand the socio-political process by which valid insights that guide our human task of bringing justice to all areas of our life become part of the political problem. Christians are not immune from political idolatries. Koyzis is not wanting his book to become the basis for a new style of Christian political smugness. In the task of serving our neighbour by bringing justice to public life there simply is no ground for smugness.

Another point that Koyzis would have us think about is this: political ideologies are every bit as religious as churches, mosques, temples and sacred gatherings. Ideologies may deify something good in God's creation - whether that be a human insight, a social relationship, a tradition or custom or something else. But ideologies are bent by their idolatry, and thus are motivated to bend all of social life to conform with their ideological curve. Ideologies do not view evil in the sinful heart of human beings, but instead in something "outside" ourselves, something in the structure of creation which when righted will supposedly pull everything back to how it should be. Implicitly ideologies blame something in the order of creation for what has gone wrong. Ideologies often give politics a pre-eminent place in righting the wrongs and bringing in a new world order. Ideologies are so committed to their "end" that the means will just have to be justified. Ideologies often idolize politics itself.

Koyzis points the way to a Christian political alternative. He is careful not to formulate a "one suit fits all" Christian ideology (which idolize a form of Christian ethics), but instead affirms what he calls "societal pluriformity". God has made us with many social responsibilities which cannot be reduced to each other. All of our responsibilities need to be taken into consideration as we develop our social lives and the political responsibility of any citizen is but one calling among many. It is in this way that Koyzis calls upon Christians and others seeking public justice to adopt the right kind of political humility in their political responsibilities.

Christians know God's grace and forgiveness and therefore should know the deceits of idolatry. Here, he says, is the root of true political compassion for all of our fellow citizens and neighbours. We love others because Christ first loved us and, says Koyzis, this must bring us to concede the good in their efforts, even though we may have to weep that genuine insights by liberals, conservatives, nationalists, democrats and socialists stand under judgment when they are idolised.

I find there is not as much analysis as there could be of the libertarian view which has dominated since Reagan and Thatcher - the ideology which views government, at best as a necessary evil and at worst an intolerable burden. Mrs Thatcher's libertarian idolatry involved seeking to destroy the idol of "society" to allow the "individual" to flourish. The question of how pragmatism makes its impact upon political life is implicit in much of what he says but I tend to think it needs greater emphasis if we are to understand the idolatry behind the seemingly erratic flip-flop of politicians whose major motivation seems to be to stay in office.

The book cannot do everything we might want of it. It doesn't provide an analysis of "radical Islamism" although Koyzis points out that this world-challenging ideology, along with ethnic nationalism, emerged as a force when communism imploded leaving an ideological void. But by providing us with a systematic analysis of conventional political ideologies of the west, ideologies which are also alive and well in Fiji today, Koyzis has done us a service. He points the way to a careful, historically sensitive and spiritually sensitized analysis of 21st century  ideologies including Islamism. There is much in this book to help erstwhile students of the human condition to reconsider our political traditions and take steps to develop a comprehensive vision of public justice for the 21st century. Koyzis believes that forming coherent and comprehensive policies to promote public justice is nothing less than a Christian calling.




BCW Thursday, July 28, 2005