Friday, February 28, 2020

The "Neo-Pagan Politics" of Today...and Tomorrow

Here I would like to pick up and continue the considerations regarding "political idolatry" from the theme of the February 17 post (click link: "The Political Idolatry of the Emerging New Epoch"). The social orders of the near future might well claim for themselves a "divine" status, as did ancient pagan Rome and other empires of the past. This would not require any mythological symbolism, or indeed anything easily recognized as "religious" or "superstitious."

Rather they may well be constituted entirely from secular motivational ideologies or systems of imagery. All will be confined, nevertheless, to the measure of this apparently physically accessible world — extended in unparalleled ways through space and time by a vast and pervasive technological power, but ultimately limited to overinflated monstrous new forms of immanence.

These tribal, ethnic, partisan, national, or utopian ideological "divinities" will not be worshipped in temples. Instead, they will be "soft idols" — empirically complex, constructed social bonds that engender their own compelling "aura" (some manner of fearful and attractive force).

They will also have their own peculiar "rituals" which will command different and more psychologically manipulative kinds of "sacrifices" from their adherents. The dignity of the human person will be much violated in the environment generated by this "neo-paganism." Parts of the world already endured crude (albeit openly, horribly brutal) forms of such regimes in the 20th century. What is yet to come, and even now is beginning to take shape, is something more subtle, perhaps more externally "comfortable," but also pernicious in ways difficult to uproot. Whatever its form, the contours of a neo-pagan political idolatry are frightening to consider.

The neo-pagan political order, in its full realization, declares itself the Ultimate Concern of human life. It defines success and failure; It measures what activities are worth pursuing; It determines what should be praised and what should be blamed; It establishes the categories of your social engagement and It INSISTS that you are explained by these categories; It stigmatizes any creative and constructive proposals that deviate from Its system; It establishes which people deserve attention and which people should be neglected and discarded; It measures "greatness" as whatever conforms to ITSELFIt insists that everything said here accurately describes Its political opponents but has nothing whatsoever to do with ITSELFIt has zero sense of humor and zero capacity to poke fun at ITSELF.

[O great New Epoch of untrammeled material power, here are your gods! Bow down to them!]

The invasive trajectory of neo-paganism (as I have distinguished it from the revival of ancient superstitions) already dominates current perspectives. It runs through the whole spectrum of today's politics. It is a disease that is very easy to catch. It is dangerous.

I think that sooner or later Christians and others who want to hold to love of God and real love of neighbor (with "neighbors" understood to be the actual human persons who need us individually or communally, whether on the street, in the womb, at the border, etc) are going to LOSE to one or another of the implacable emerging trends of neo-pagan politics.

I wish this were not the case. Indeed, I hope I'm wrong. Miracles, after all, are possible even in politics. Let's all pray for a miracle. "There are precedents" (as Thomas More says). And a miracle will humble us all.

However, if events follow the ordinary course of God's providence with all the space he has given to fallible human freedom and its consequences in the unfolding of history, Christians who have been relying on political scheming to "make things better" are going to have to face increasingly inescapable failure.

I am not making a declaration of pessimism. I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I am a person of hope. I believe in the victory that has already been won for all time and beyond all time, and I have hope that the reflection of its light may yet illuminate the problems of our time in a fruitful manner for temporal society. For now, I am trying to situate those problems within a larger context. Rather than elaborate on all the various symptoms, I think it might be useful to make a more general diagnosis.

Let me be clear: I am not saying, "we should all just give up on political activity." More on that below, but right now I want to make a distinction. I think that Christians who are so much embroiled in politics because they are expecting to effect some wonderful overall political fix from within the present system are headed for failure. I'm not "hating on them." This is just the way I see it unfolding. My hope and prayer is that they will accept failure rather than silencing their consciences, "adjusting" the criteria for their judgments in order to fit into the system, and eventually even becoming acolytes of the neo-pagan order (again, forgive the blunt image — but there are historical precedents for precisely this kind of tragic turn).

On the other hand, there are people whose political activism within the current system is vigorous but specific: they are trying to further this or that initiative, or obtain this or that improvement, or patch this or that hole, or blunt the impact of particular or more general disasters. There can still be success in the pursuit of these objectives, and this work will still be possible — I hope — for a long time. I admire these people. I don't often grasp their methods, nor do I have the energy that is given them to fight for these things. This is a difficult path. But I discourage no one from following their particular mission in good conscience and good faith. Go for it! But "keep God first," pray every day, and be careful. There are dangers for everyone who ventures into the halls of power.

What I'm saying is that the whole political system is becoming "neo-pagan" (even if some who hold power still invoke Christianity or find it convenient to use faith in their strategy). In the midst of the upheaval of this emerging new (and tumultuous) epoch, politics across the board is once again becoming an uninhibited thrust toward a total grip on human society, and an ultimate defining measure of human personhood and its dignity.

Whether they realize it or not, whether or not they have "good intentions," the political forces of today aim to fill the pervasive gap in a society that has forgotten God and lost sight of the transcendence of the human person. There are so many ways to exercise power over people who are so impoverished in their hearts and souls. People are tossed about in a raging storm of "new things" they can't control, that increasingly shape their imaginations, that torment them with confusion about their own identity. "What does it mean to be human?" The question is drowned out by a desperate cacaphony of reductive identity claims, neo-tribal "ritual chants," conflicting demands for recognition, and endless rounds of misinterpretation and distraction.

The space left empty in the human spirit by the lack of this question is easily occupied by political forces. They have (potentially) access to dimensions of power beyond anything we can yet imagine: not only the "hard power" that relies on physical coercion, but also (and especially) the "soft power" of a multitude of subtle and diverse forms propaganda and new ways to distribute "social reward" for those who cooperate (and to marginalize those who don't).

In this new epoch, many will wield these demiurgic weapons without even realizing it. They will see themselves as giving order and meaning to the chaos of the ever-expanding "extensions" of technology and "information-overload" that have swept up the lives of multitudes of people into tangles of irresolvable complexity. Our power-politicians will come to us as our "saviors," with solutions (impressive ones, even), but also with the expectation of gratitude and unambiguous fidelity. And just as there were many pagan gods who made war against one another in the ancient myths, so there will continue to be many political power-systems that will fight and demand loyalty in different ways.

How can a Christian find a place for activism in an increasingly imposing neo-pagan political order?

This is an important question. The time may come when faithful Christians (and anyone who sincerely loves the human person as the image of God) will no longer be able to even pretend that proximate political "victories" are possible without compromising our consciences.

This would be very hard. But it wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen. I think circumstances are leading in this direction. Nevertheless ultimately we may all be better on account of it, because it will require us to acquire a fresh perspective.

We will feel the need to remember who we are and who we belong to and who is the foundation of our freedom and our community. This alone is of inestimable value. But it will also engender practical wisdom on many more mundane levels. We will be compelled to find more space for creative endurance in our political activity, including non-violent protest and prophetic witness (with all the risks these actions entail). Perhaps we will find that we can accomplish more for the good of people in our local environment or in other limited connections insofar as these can be wisely and carefully sustained. We may even begin to discover the value of a new kind of politics that has as its motivating ideal a commonwealth of greater human depth, with renewed forms of that openness to transcendence which is intrinsic and essential to every human person.

This new kind of politics does justice to our humble aspirations to build up the common good and for some of us to be entrusted with political office. But it is a politics that learns to "play the long game," that does not define itself by the desperate need to WIN the next election.

We can make a beginning in this new political mentality now. It's likely to be a very small beginning, without much coherence, but just taking that first step will have real political significance. We will be letting go of political fantasies, and entering the realism that embraces all the factors of participation in common life here and now, with an adequate perspective on its possibilities and limits.

This means coming to terms with the fact that a single election or legislative proposal has at most relative importance in relation to our long term goals for the renewal of the foundations of politics. But in this way our reason will be freed to grapple with the particular problems that come within the purview of our freedom, allowing us to propose specific actions shaped by a political vision that is not subservient to the "success" of one or another of the presently dominant neo-pagan ideologies or tribal cults. We will look for concrete action that enables us to take responsibility for our society step by step.

Much of this will seem inglorious in our own eyes (though some humble, apparently insignificant works may be celebrated for their heroism by future generations). In any case, we will be free from craving for glory and recognition, because we know the real basis of our dignity as persons and the value of our work.

It is crucially important to begin, however poor and divested of power such gestures might appear to be.

We may not even agree about how to take this first step, but we all need to GET OFF the various factional roads that currently dominate political and social life — roads that lead inexorably to "worshipping Caesar" (trusting Caesar, forgetting God, forgetting to be human).

This task is urgent. It will be less traumatic and wrenching, I believe, if we do it NOW, before it becomes an evident and inescapable duty for all of us.