Monday, November 21, 2016

Against politics

My blog has taken a turn toward philosophical and religious speculation in the past several months. I have no talked about the election. I have not even discussed political issues. Although I do engage in political discussions on facebook (and no, I don't always find it a complete waste of time) I have very consciously avoided politics on this blog.

I will admit that some of it is fatigue. When we talk about politics, passions can get the better of us. It's not good to think about it all the time, simply because it will suck us dry.

On the other hand, I've never been one to avoid controversial topics out of the desire not to offend. The idea that we should all just "get along" presumes that the way we all live is basically OK and there's nothing wrong. But many political issues are important just because they point out what's wrong with the way we live, and more particularly with the way we treat others who are on the "outside." Sure, maybe we can get along, but what about people who are influenced by our foreign policy and immigration laws? What about the children we abort? What about the unarmed civilians who get shot by police? What about people who lose their livelihood because of government regulation of the economy? I've never been able to ignore these issues of basic justice, nor do I understand how anyone else can.

Indeed, if the increasing polarization of our society bothers me, it's not because I wish we could all agree to get along and empathize with one another. Don't get me wrong, empathy and getting along are great, and if we get better at them, we've certainly accomplished something. But to me the real danger is not just that polarization makes us mean but that it makes us stupid. We become so angry at "the other side" that we justify everything that "our side" does. It makes us incapable of applying principles consistently. The most obvious is when one party criticizes the other party's president for enacting virtually the same foreign policy (secret kill list and all), for encroaching on our civil liberties in many of the same ways, and so on. I could also get more specific on particular issues, but there's no time for that here.

So anger makes us blind, damaging our relationships and distorting our thinking. But where does this anger come from in the first place?

I think it comes from a belief, sometimes conscious and other times subconscious, that the most important thing we do is politics. If we don't elect the right candidate, we will doom our society by leaving it in the hands of evil or incompetence (or both). But if we can just enact the right policies, we can cure society's ills and have justice. It is tempting to think this is the highest of all human endeavors. Every election becomes the most important in our lifetime. The news can find nothing more important than the decisions of government.

I claim this belief is false. We have only to imagine a world in which government is just, and good policies are implemented. What, then? Have we finished all the important work? Is there nothing left but to sit back and relax and enjoy an easy life? Would that not be utterly devoid of meaning? Would it not be...boring?

Christians have long wondered (and debated) what the kingdom of heaven will really be like. Will we just play harps all day and sing praise to God? Will it be one endless party? There are many people who say they would not want immortality, because they would be utterly bored. If the limited visions presented are literally correct, I suppose they are right. We need to refine our imaginations a little bit.

I don't see how the mind can live forever without continually growing and, indeed, working. The end of evil would not mean the eternal victory of laziness. On the contrary. Work is at the heart of who we are, who we are intended to be. The mind is satisfied when it creates and discovers. The reason we are so miserable in this modern age is that we have so many things to distract us that we fail to satisfy our deepest need to discover things eternal and spiritual. We have reduced everything to a problem to be solved, and presumably once that problem is solved we have no purpose left.

This is vanity and a chasing after wind. Impatience makes us miserable. If we want a cure for all this anger and grief caused by politics, the only answer is thinking beyond the next four years, beyond even the next century. I am not drained by politics only because it provokes anger, but also because it disconnects me from the mysterious, the beautiful, and the transcendent. I forget about music and poetry and nature. I forget about those haunting questions about free will and salvation and the nature of mind.

Supposing we managed to enact all the right policies and save society from its ills, what would it then have? Would there be any meaning in such a perfect existence? Does satisfying every physical need of human beings give them what their souls desire?

It is fashionable these days for Christians to critique the older tendency to reject temporal concerns in favor of eternal, spiritual ones. But we have slipped into the opposite tendency. I think we need to rediscover the virtue of relativizing the needs of the present. It is only by rediscovering the eternal significance of our lives that we can address our temporal needs without losing our minds. Life is not one big problem to be solved. It is a gift, one which we can learn to appreciate more and more for all eternity.

So I think I need to detach myself from politics, at least until I am able to come back to it with a right perspective. Engaging in politics should be an act of love on the part of one who has the proper goal in mind. Jesus entered into our world and did not despise the temporal, but he came down from heaven. We ourselves also need to enter into the heavenly realms, so that we can labor on earth with the energy of heaven.

But I have said this the wrong way. It is not so that we can labor on earth that we strive for the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the goal; all the rest will be added to us because "your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." Let us strive first for the kingdom.

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