Thinking About the Tension Between Politics and Spirituality

Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.
Otto von Bismarck
German Prussian politician (1815 – 1898)

Most discussions about the intersection between politics and spirituality focus primarily on one thing: whether or not the two should have any institutional relationship with one another. The liberal tradition takes the position that they should not. The conservative tradition views religion as a key component of society and thus sees any attempt to divorce politics from a spiritual viewpoint as tantamount to a species of nihilism. In the United States, we have a situation where the liberal perspective won in terms of the law, but a large portion of the population, if not the majority, tends toward varying shades of conservatism.

(The terminology “liberal” and “conservative” should be understood in their historical sense, relative to the Enlightenment, rather than as the somewhat misleading ideological labels of contemporary Spectacular politics.)

Present day “discourse” on the subject tends to revolve around attempting to either defend the liberal tradition as nearly every document of the Enlightenment period clearly indicates was the intention of those theorists, and trying to re-write history in defense of theocracy. Such “debate” never leaves the realm of civics behind to look at the underlying tensions between a spiritual view of the world and the demands of real politik. It is as if the only relevant discussion is over what sort of laws we should have, rather than the implications of a particular spiritual perspective when it encounters that milieu.

It is important to remember that the liberal antipathy toward religion in general was the result of a long series of historical conditions. Voltaire lived within sniffing distance of the Inquisition’s fires. The ideological architects of the United States were only a generation or two away from the age in which the divine right of kings was taken seriously, and remembered how it had been abused. Added to this was the memory of the first European settlers in America, who came to escape religious persecution and managed to set up their own version of it. The First Amendment was not written for idle purposes, nor would the reason for it have been at all unclear to the citizens who demanded it. The intent was to protect both the State from the Church and the Church from the State.

Recognizing this, human beings are still human beings, and our thoughts, feelings, and desires are not as compartmentalized as the Enlightenment theorists might have imagined. Religion in that era was, mostly, viewed as a kind of comforting form of social cohesion at best. Taking it seriously would have put you outside the circle of what was considered “intelligent company” at that time.

This, in general terms, is what is meant by the phrase “liberal secular humanism” when used as a political referent. It is a vague term that sounds specific. More often than not, the intent of its usage is pejorative rather than descriptive. But what it amounts to is a view that sees this world and the humans in it as the primary arena of concern. It makes perfect sense to most “normal” people, because it has not only been a sort of default social perspective amongst educated Westerners for the past couple of centuries, but because it also happens to deal with the concrete implications of particular actions as we experience them in the here and now. As far as that goes, and I want to make it clear that I think it goes quite a long way, it is probably one of the better world views that the human race has put together over its incredibly checkered intellectual history.

Having said that, the “here and now” is a very slippery place, transient and still apt to be misinterpreted if the facts of experience aren’t put together properly. The feeling often arises that something more than empirical data are needed. There must be a higher level of meaning, even if the world wasn’t created by a large man with a beard belching out Hebrew letters.

In our time, the search for that higher order of reality has tended to take a more eclectic and individualized approach. This reflects an age in which people exist as effectively autonomous entities and have access to the entire surviving spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual heritage of the human race. When you can find information on literally almost any existing or defunct set of ideas, curiosity alone is going to encourage one to at least dip their toe in some exotic seas, if for just a moment. Unless, of course, the individual has some limiting set of notions concerning what is “proper” in the area of religious expression.

And therein lies part of the rub. All of this eclectic spirituality can look, to more traditional eyes, like nihilism. For most of our civilization’s history, “God” meant a totally transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, being who created the world and gave us the laws by which we should live. “Theocracy” would have been a nonsense term up until the end of the 17th Century, in the same way “sexism” would have. Before then, the king was the regent of God (as defined above), and women were chattel. Period. What little existed in the way of challenging this was shunted into obscurity and in extreme cases punished with death.

Hence, in our time, we have two extremes. On the one hand a traditional view of religion as an adherence to a set of doctrines taken, in some fashion, to be the work of the sole creator of the universe. On the other, a rather more nebulous, individualized kind of experience of what becomes referred to vaguely as “the Source” or “the Sacred.”

Both of these extremes have drawbacks. Traditional Christian theology has the notable impairment of being demonstrably false if taken literally. Science has been rather handily demonstrating this for the past couple of centuries. Christian theologians have been adapting to this, with differing degrees of success, for some time now. Most attempts involve abstracting upwards to something, well, more nebulous and less anthropomorphic.

The demerits of the eclectic approach have been thoroughly cataloged as well. One of the more salient criticisms vis a vis the current topic as that it focuses on the individual to the extent that “who the person is” becomes more important than what the person does. It is a sentimental approach, in which the good intentions of a person somehow make up for any inconsistent behaviors. Like New Age “Buddhists” who build bombs for a living, in direct contradiction with everything Buddha taught about Right Livelihood.

Herein lies a problem. The traditional viewpoint leads, logically, to a very rigid set of ethical expectations. Once one has committed to one of the many interpretations of the Bible, they are more or less obligated to behave in a way consonant with that perspective. The degree to which this can be adjusted for the real world depends on how much latitude the chosen theological school imparts upon a believer.

In contrast, the view that a person’s “essential being” or some such is what matters, means that any behavior which is not actually criminal is acceptable. In most cases, I for one don’t really have any issues with that. Apart from diluting long established traditions in a way that totally abrogates the main thrust of their teachings (see above example), there is very little I consider improper per se.

It becomes a real problem, though, when this openness is extended to viewpoints that are so aggressively rigid that they tend to not only restrict the masochists who hold to them, but intend to make said masochism the standard by which we all live. This defeats the purpose entirely. It is akin to allowing the guy with the troubling habit of shooting the guests attend your party in the interests of not making anyone feel left out.

This, again, is the result of history. The human organism appears to operate by a system of associations. Rules in religion and spirituality, because of the primary historical trauma of the stake and the thumbscrew, of dour Puritans and fanatic homophobes, tend to be associated with “revealed” religions of grave severity. So we have an aversion to them, especially if we went through less overt versions of the Inquisition in our own childhoods. There are very good, rational motivations for this as well, lest anyone think I am calling this aversion “merely psychological” (as if having a crack in the foundation of your psyche was a trivial concern).

And there is the another aspect of this. From most spiritual perspectives, of any stripe, politics is a fairly low level sort of game. It is by nature divisive, and often ugly and depressing. It is understandable that we would want to create a space where political views don’t really matter. And, up to a point, I think this is a good thing. We are, after all, still searching for a higher order of meaning, and finding it reasonably qualifies as a birthright.

But, at some point, we are going to have to face the fact that the ideas in a person’s head, if they actually have any commitment regarding them, will translate into manifest behavior or manifest psychosis. You cannot act in a way that contradicts your deepest convictions without eventually experiencing some degree of dissociation.

So we are left with a problem not easily solved. Even openness must have a boundary somewhere. There are ideas which, if acted on, will lead to the egregious, objective suffering of a significant number of human beings. It is not enough in these cases to say “well, that doesn’t work for me, but whatever gets you through the night, man.” To allow such perspectives equal time, to treat them as being just as valid as any other, is tantamount to blessing their logical conclusion.

It is in such cases that compassion would dictate saying no. It may even entail exclusion and ostracizing.

Bringing this back to the idea we started with, focusing on a question of law in terms of the relationship between spirituality and politics misses the point entirely. Institutional separation between Church and State is an absolute necessity for a free society. This is supported by the long, dark history of brutality that attended their union. But, on a personal level, if we do not bring an awareness of the implications of our spirituality to politics, then I question the point of having a spiritual belief at all. It degrades spiritual practice into a kind of comforting mental masturbation.

This is not what I want out of my practice, and I suspect it is not what most others on the more “open” side of the spectrum want. If we are to have an effect on the world at large, rather than simply make ourselves feel good, we have no choice but to commit to a course of action that suits our values. What that course of action may be is, or course, up to the individual.

Within reasonable limits.

  1. Every politician in the world needs to read this document.
    Then every esotericist.
    Then they/we all need to be locked in solitary confinement and forced to ponder it for awhile.

    Thanks for posting.

  2. Sarcasshole said:

    There was an interesting chapter of a book I read some time ago (the title of which escapes me) that focused on the intersection of musical theory and the political theory of Plato. From what I recall it explained that under tuning theory some pure chords need to be shifted to be in harmony with the overall tuning. Plato extrapolated this to a theory of social justice: that the justice to/for any individual, no matter the wrong, needs to be balanced and brought into harmony with what is also just with the greater society.  

    While I feel there’s tremendous wisdom in this approach, there is the problem that I find it hard to reconcile it’s methodology in reaching it’s conclusion. In other words, while I know little or nothing about musical theory (thus potentially lacking in proper deference of it) I find it hard to advocate the limiting and/or structuring of society around what works for music. Though remotely understandable the idea that in ancient Greece philosophers would so elevate the rules governing the harmony of music to be a manifestation of the true harmony of the kosmos; and that for civilization to be equally harmonious we should follow Its lead (as above, so below?). I can’t escape feeling this mindset to be an synecdochistic absurdity; absurd as also modeling (in the sense of governing than in that of theory creation) social justice on either fluid dynamics, combustion engine mechanics, or pastry baking.

    Though with that all said, I do feel this is an idea (ideal) in need of revisiting and reexamining.        

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