Monday, February 17, 2020

The Political Idolatry of the Emerging New Epoch

These distinctive times of explosive technological expansion are ushering in a "new epoch" in human history in which humans have access to unprecedented levels of material power, and must grapple with the bewildering scope of possibilities and dangers entailed by that power. Among other things, the epoch of power poses dramatic challenges for politics — it gives humanity the "tools" to construct human (or inhuman) societies which immerse and involve their members on a larger scale than anything we have seen or imagined before.

For Christians who seek to follow the Gospel, this raises important issues regarding faith and the community within which we hold that faith. Living our faith in the context of a vital, concrete Christian community is first of all proper to our ecclesial vocation, but it also grounds our way of being in the world, and therefore has implications for our formation as mature and free persons engaging in the secular affairs of temporal human society. If faith is not incarnate in the actual lives of believers, in a communion of life through which Jesus is present to form, nourish, and hold accountable those who belong to it, the existential human need for "belonging" is left without an adequate object. History has shown (and current events continue to prove) that when Christian persons lack the experience of belonging communally to Christ (and therefore concretely to one another "in Christ" and radically to every human person), they inevitably gravitate toward some lesser commonality with a particular group and seek therein a definitive communal experience, a belonging that anchors and gives meaning to their personality, that provides an adequate measure (and limit) for their love.

Certainly there are levels of belonging and degrees of intimacy and affection that are natural to being human: the family (immediately and organically "given" as physical relation and basic, formative foundation of human communal experience), the neighborhood, the town, friendships and associations, clubs, etc., right up to the political community which concerns the temporal common good of a "people" and their homeland. All of these communal relationships are important and good, and in them we experience in different ways our flourishing as human persons and our responsibilities toward one another and the particular community as a whole. None of these communal belongings or experiences, however, fully correspond to who we are as persons or to the mysterious and entirely particular vocation of each of us to love and to be loved.

So far I have been addressing Christians. But any human person can grasp that his or her fundamental and definitive identity is rooted in and tends toward a transcendent love, a kind of belonging greater than any that can be found in this present material universe which may be vast and intricate but inevitably has limits. The person is made for a limit-less love, and will never be finally satisfied with anything less. The Infinite, however, is not something that existentially limited humans can construct for themselves. It is a Mystery they must search for and follow, a Mystery of Love that the human heart somehow senses wants to give itself.

Many people of good will sincerely seek to follow this way of love, often in a courageous and admirable manner. Others at least acknowledge that this is true, even if they don't measure up to it in their lives or are perplexed and hindered in various ways. Or they live within the heritage of one of the great religions of the world that seek transcendence, or are embarked on other particular journeys that their conscience has directed them to follow. All these people recognize that human society must have at its heart respect for the transcendence of the human person.

Perceiving this inviolable, mysteriously "given" and radically "guaranteed" basis for human dignity, they can make common cause with Christians in political action without fearing the intrusion of proselytism that would try to manipulate them, or that they are unwittingly furthering some secret Christian plan for the imposition of a "theocracy." Such tactics are unworthy of the freedom of the person, and the freedom of the Gospel. Christians are called to follow the teaching and example of Jesus, whose "kingdom is not of this world," and who always showed profound respect for human freedom even to the point of death.

Christians, of course, also deserve to have our freedom respected; we must be free to speak about our convictions and allow them to shape our political judgments regarding the good of the commonwealth. We are committed to the transcendence of the human person because we hold that human dignity is rooted in our belonging to God, who creates, redeems, and calls us to Himself; who took flesh in Jesus Christ and who remains with us in the unique communion of discipleship wherein He calls us to "love one another." This grace-given experience of belonging fills up our lives and also flows out to renew and perfect all forms of human relationships and community. It sustains our freedom. Without it, the Christian person is alone and isolated in living their faith, and becomes prey to illusions that lesser allegiances can take the place of communion with God.

If we lack an adherence and participation in the “gathering of people” (ekklesia) that Jesus consecrated to continue His transforming presence in history, our Christianity becomes abstract and “distant.” God appears to be “absent” as we face the difficulties and fragility of life. We neglect (or approach only with an empty formalism) the many ways that Jesus “accompanies” us through the communion of believers and the ministry which He has established and through which He has promised (even with all the failures of its members) to “be with us always.” With all this “empty space” that has crept into their lives, isolated Christians are tempted to adhere to anything that appears to be a plausible substitute, or to elevate lesser relationships to an "ultimate status" in the hope of finding some defining reference point in them.

This temptation affects not only Christians. It affects every person, because everyone desires to “belong” to something that secures their identity. There are of course many ways human persons “belong” together (as I noted above). The temptation is to turn a temporary, merely-humanly-constituted community into the source of ultimate meaning and the unconditional context and exhaustive object of a person’s vocation. This aims in the direction of what the Bible calls "idolatry."

It has political implications.

Historically, we have seen the destructive nature of particular important-but-limited communities that take on an "absolute" definitive status for their members. The result resembles a kind of idolatry — a kind of "divinization" of an ideology or a system, or of a nation, race, ethnic group, or tribe. And we see now the rise of "new tribes" not connected by kinship, but defined by what (or whom) they exclude, and by the pseudo-identities they generate through the images of electronic media, simplistic slogans, superficial "rituals," and other classic propaganda techniques that are accessible to everyone in this new epoch.

This kind of idolatry is casting its shadow over our times. It exists in full realization in some places in the world, while in others it lurks as a tendency, as the possible future of present unhealthy aspirations, as an inchoate or partial reality, as a danger, and — undoubtedly — as a temptation. This is not the old "hard" religiously-specified pagan idolatry of worshiping statues or personified forces of nature. It is the much more subtle new "soft idolatry" that marginalizes and effectively replaces God — the One who alone fulfills the transcendent destiny of the human person — with a merely human social or political project.

This new idolatry is subtle because its gradual but ultimately totalizing absorption of the human person spreads covertly within society like an incubating disease. It builds itself up through diverse inflammatory manifestations of social problems that often seem to contradict each other. It grows within societies when there is widespread insecurity about personal identity, weak interpersonal and communal bonds, rival ideologies, various artificially aggravated fears, rumors and confusion, negligent ignorance, cultivated superficiality, lack of civil discourse, lack of principles, reliance on pseudo-"authorities" and magnetic or manipulative personalities, pressure for cultural conformity, revenge, group-think, nostalgia, utopian dreams, excessive hopes for prosperity, for progress, for total safety from danger, for many other things (the list could go on and on) ... and — of course — the increasing (and always justified as "necessary") application of good old fashioned brute force.

It all conspires to eclipse the transcendence of human destiny, suffocate the heart of the human person, and preoccupy people with a multitude of distractions. It infects the politics of our time, which in various ways pretends in a practical sense (or sometimes pretends — which is already too much) to rule over all our thinking about the meaning of things, to fill our minds with its claim to be the highest measure of life.

The politics of the new epoch is idolatrous insofar as it aspires (even without the awareness of all who participate in it) to "deflect" the human search for transcendence and invade its space, or to use power to suppress it and take its place. It is accompanied (and "enabled") by the reduction of the scope of human desire to the empirical categories of objects-to-be-possessed, and the prevalence of practical materialism as the social norm.

In terms of depth and danger, these emerging forms of political idolatry are venturing into "uncharted territory." Politics now has at its disposal the continuing expansion of material power for everything from making things to processing and distributing information to bridging distances and gaining unprecedented dominance over space and time to enhanced forms of multi-sensory engagement through media technology.

What are the monstrous political possibilities that might emerge in the future, perhaps even the near future? Will we have the awareness and attention necessary to recognize them and the courage to resist capitulating to them?

[ be continued]