The Politics of Transcendence: the "Miracle of Law"
Have you ever wondered where law comes from? Law truly is a miracle.
There is much talk these days about the Christian renewal of society, of a politics of transcendence, or the cultivation of virtue among the people. But what is meant by this? What should be meant by this? In our western context this notion of a Christian society can mean wildly different things to different people. I am not even thinking really about the hysterical “handmaid’s tale” scenarios which come from the left, but rather, what do well meaning and well intentioned people acting in good faith understand in regards to virtue and faith playing an important role in shaping the public life of our society? How should we be thinking about this?
This question was raised for me recently in listening to theinterview of John Burtka IV, the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the author of a recent piece in American Mind titled “American Statesman”, raising the issue of “A Politics of Transcendence.” I read the piece and listened to the interview somewhat expectantly — as my readers know, this is a topic close to my heart — but came away from it disappointed. It did raise a number of questions for me and got my wheels turning. What is meant by a “politics of transcendence?” What should be meant by this? This is an issue when it comes to the public expressions of civil religion. How should our public polity be shaped by faith, specifically the Christian faith?
It is not as easy a question to answer as one might think. Much of how you frame this answer publicly and politically will flow out of how you understand our relationship with God privately. How do we interact with God? How do we receive divine guidance? How do we apply this to our lives both personally and politically? There are some deep, divisive theological questions at play here as well. If we as Christians desire a more robust presence in the common public life of the nation as Christians, we would be well served to be thinking about these issues even if we don’t necessarily have all of the answers to these questions.
Burtka is a self-professed Christian who seems unafraid to be identified as a Christian doing politics in the public realm. But when he talked about a “transcendent” politics, the picture he painted was one of a statesmen who “transcends” the ordinary daily muck of politics to pursue loftier goals which could unite the people across political lines, giving them a vision which, again, “transcends” the concerns of the parties. This is not a bad thing to want. But it is a very different thing from what I was expecting when tuning in to hear about a “transcendent” vision for politics. My expectation was that we would try to address the question of how God — the God we as Christians worship and profess to be the living God, the God of gods, the Saviour of the world — should shape the public, civic, common life of a people. It occurred to me that we need to address this notion of “the transcendent,” because how we answer this question greatly shapes how we understand what public politics should be in a post-western, post-liberal, political landscape.
Without giving too lengthy an intellectual history lesson, we do need to sketch out for ourselves some of the changes that have occurred in this notion of “the transcendent” over time in the west. As our history moved out of the pagan era and into the Christian, there was a shift away from a cyclical view of the move of time. In this earlier, pre-Christian understanding, “the gods” were generally much more immediate and their presence was intertwined with a symbolic understanding of the world. This is the world of archetypes and the Forms. There is a real structure in the world around us saturated with meaning. This meaning reveals itself through signs and omens. It shows itself through encounters with the supernatural. And this meaning is unfolded for us in stories and songs, which themselves open up this deeper symbolic world. The world could be read in part because the stories and symbols would repeat themselves. You became who you were by living into the stories and submitting yourselves to the signs, omens and spirits. Today, we look at this relationship with the world as superstitious. Up until the emergence of modernity, this was quite normal, even for Christians.
Overlaid on top of this was the Christian understanding of time. It is often said that the Bible gave us a linear view of time and history. This is both true and not true. Properly conceived, the Christian way of thinking about “history” is that of a static superstructure within which the events of the world unfold. There is a beginning, the creation and the fall into sin. Then God sends his Son as Saviour. Finally, the Saviour will return and bring about the end of God’s plan for his creation, ushering in the emergence of a new heaven and a new earth. The decisive thing to understand in this is that human beings are not the primary actors. That role belongs to God. God brings us along in his story and we are involved in it, but we are not the primary figure. Christ is at the centre of history. Knowledge of God’s action and plan in Christ gives us consolation in a sinful world. It is not up to us to save the world from its problems. They are endured. The problem of sin belongs to God. We must have faith that he will return and make all things right again. In the mean time we do the best we can and we focus on our hope of the return of Christ.
During the Renaissance, a shift occurred. I have heard it argued, the source now a distant memory unfortunately, that the unfulfilled millenarian expectations that Christ would come again in the year 1000, created a kind mass psychic break, one that might have been instrumental in giving birth to many of the changes which came about because of the rise of Western culture beginning in this period. We many never fully know. But what we do know is that during the Renaissance a new idea emerged, that of “humanism,” which asserted man as the primary actor in human events. God was there, but increasingly it was seen that God’s plans would happen because human beings took it upon themselves to make them happen. Thus, our actions as human beings would hasten the arrival of Christ, or better still, would establish heaven here on earth. This transformation took hundreds of years to take shape, but humanism gives birth eventually to modern ideological utopianism.
With this transformation comes two major shifts important to us for our purposes here in this piece. The first change was the gradual break from the world of the Forms and from metaphysics which began more or less with William of Ockham and was more or less completed with Kant. This was the shift from “realism” to “nominalism.” On the one side of the divide, the world around us is filled with meaning and structure in which we participated. The world was rich with archetypes, symbols, stories, morality and more. The world gave you meaning. The world gave you your place in society, your role in the hierarchy of being, and you found fulfillment in fitting yourself into the role you were given.
With nominalism, that relationship was severed. The problem with relating to the world of Forms, symbols, archetypes, stories and even the embedded wisdom of God in creation is that it was all very squishy and intuitive. You felt things. You saw things. You trusted it, but it wasn’t easily rationalized. What the philosophy of nominalism ended up arguing is that this connection you feel with the world around you and all the symbols and meaning that you see there may or may not be real, but there is no way to prove it rationally, or, as we would say today, scientifically. It cannot be observed. It cannot be measured. It cannot even be argued rationally from propositions, in terms of abstract theory. You just assert that this is what is there a priori. What this means functionally is that it is not the world which gives us meaning, it is we who give the world meaning. This gives rise to the materialist understanding of the world as mere dead matter. If it has no inherent meaning, how can it be anything else? Also, it spells the end of any idea of natural law. The language of natural law held on for a long time, but in a nominalist world, there can be no such thing as a “self-evident” truth.