Saturday, December 17, 2011

Politics and Transcendence

Today's New Tork Times has an interesting article about the escalating tensions between Occupy Wall Street and its neighbor Trinity Church ( Except for what was in the article, I know nothing about the relationship between the Occupy protesters and its elite Episcopal neighbor. Hence I make no specific judgment on Trinity Church's involvement as such. If the article is to be believed, however, it seems clear that Trinity Church has been somewhat supportive - if not of the Occupy movement as such, then certainly of the protesters themselves. And it is certainly a well known fact that some clergy at least - from various churches - seem more or less to have jumped (or tried to jump) onto the Occupy bandwagon.
So, whatever the actual specifics of Trinity Church's involvement, one does see here an example of a perennial 9but particularly contemporary) problematic whereby religious people latch onto passing political movements and trends, superficially investing those movements with some sort of transcendent moral significance. Elites of all sorts have historically jumped aboard new political movements and trends for any number of motives - everything from hoping to control the movement to reflexively feeling soem need to be "on the right side of history" (which as I have often remarked may be among the least legitimate reasons to do anything!). Religious institutions, by their very nature, embody tradition and are oriented to the transcendent. So one would expect them to be among the least likely to be constantly shifting course in order to be thought to be "on the right side of history." Ironically, however, that behavior has been all too prevalent - especially (but not exclusively) in recent decades. What's going on?
In the interests of full disclosure, let me begin by recalling that I was trained as a political theorist - and for a few years way back when actually taught the subject in a university. So I do consider politics to be important - worth caring about, worth caring even a lot about. But I don't believe politics to be of transcendent importance. Politics concerns how we use power is society to attain various objectives, all of which is very important for human well-being. Everyone should care about this - among many things people need to care about or want to care about. And, of course, how we conduct ourselves in society - like all our actions - has a moral dimension. What I do here and now contributes to my becoming the kind of person I will be for all eternity. So how I behave socially, economically, politically, etc., has significance for salvation. But politics per se is not about salvation, and the two must never be confused.
Biblical faith forms one within a certain framework, which may exclude certain political possibilities. From a faith perspective, it is clear that, for example, Marxism - as a philosophy - is based on a false understanding of human nature. The same might be said of Libertarianism. Biblical faith may not require one to embrace Aristotelian assumptions about the inherent link between political participation and human well being, but it does require believers to seek the welfare of the society in which they find themselves, for upon its welfare depends their own (cf. Jeremiah 29:4-7).
Even so, since politics is primarily about contingent questions which admit of a plurality of plausible resolutions, even fundamentally flawed philosophies may legitimately inform such contingent political judgments. Marxism may be false, but there may be elements in class-analysis or its understanding of ideological mystification that may usefully be incorporated in particular political judgments. Likewise, while Libertarianism as a philosophy falsely denies the inherently social and political character of human beings and undermines their ability to pursue the common good, there may still be something to be said for individual freedom as a very high value, which is worth incorporating into any program for a good society.
What religious people need to be permanently wary of, however, is the all-too-facile identification of the transient with the transcendent. Even were we able to know for certain the direction of history, it would not follow that that direction would be the right one in terms of our ultimate destiny.
Believers - like all their fellow-citizens - are found "all over the place" on the political spectrum. What we must not do is either to identify one such particular place with the Kingdom of God (or the Misson of the Church,) or (what is the other side of the same coin) to permit political ideology and interests to get in the way of one's citizenship in the Kingdom of God (and the Mission of the Church).

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