Can Politics Ever Provide the Solutions We Need?

ShakespeareI am sorry I’ve had to be away from the blog for a few weeks. I have been writing tons of things — including the last draft of my book — and just not able to spend my Saturday mornings lately in this special reflective time. I hope we can pick up where we left off.

I’ve been thinking about politics lately. I’ve been wondering why we are so endlessly barraged on a daily basis with the voices and faces of our politicians and political commentators. When some national or international crisis occurs, our political figures are the first to appear on our screens. Somehow we assume they are in the know. They must be the ones with the best answers, the most insight, the most wisdom.

Somehow we believe this must be democracy in action. But what does the health of our democracy have to do with pushing forward politicians as our most able and only voices on issues that matter?

Should every kind of national debate always be framed by our politicians? Do they really have more insight and wisdom into the deeper issues of our identity as a people or our all-important interface with other cultures and nations around the world?

I am fond of Samuel Johnson’s sharp message for politicians in the 18th century: “How small of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or Kings either cause or cure.” I have come to agree with Johnson.

But in America today we have “a tendency toward the politicization of nearly everything,” says the eminent sociologist of religion and culture, James Davison Hunter, in his brilliant new book To Change The World.

Hunter contends that “politicization … has gone so far as to affect our language, imagination, and expectations. The language of politics … comes to frame progressively more of our understanding of our common life, our public purposes, and ourselves individually and collectively.” Then Hunter adds, “The realm of politics has become in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life.”

This is what I worry about most. When the imagination is infected in this way, I fear our lives will be reduced. We will be limited in what we imagine for the future. Our possibilities will be narrowed.

This cannot be a good thing, can it? Hunter says, “This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.”

Why is this happening? “My contention is,” says Hunter, “that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity.” He adds, “The politicization of everything is an indirect measure of the loss of common culture …”

“Vibrant cultures make space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, and artistic and literary expression, among other things,” says Hunter. As we seek to make the world a better place, we might ask ourselves where have all the philosophers and theologians gone? Why are these voices not prominent in our public square? Where have all the poets gone? How about historians and artists? We need the richness of language and thought and insight that come from these quarters to enter into our public space once again.

I am reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s great book Finally Comes the Poet. To just this kind of thinning of our public discourse, Brueggemann asks, “Is there another way to speak? Is there another voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced?” I believe we must educate for these alternative voices in our midst. Because, says Brueggemann, “Such speech … assaults imagination and pushes out the presumed world in which most of us are trapped. Reduced speech leads to reduced lives.”

“There are no political solutions to the problems most people care about,” Hunter concludes. We must “demythologize politics.” And as we do we need to create fresh, new, expanded ways of talking about things that matter. Politics alone just won’t get us there.

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Categories: Imagination, Leadership, Politics

3 replies

  1. Thank you for these comments! A fresh and needed re-perspective.

    I especially grow weary of how we’ve politicized our entertainment. We hear so many voices that speak in the name of politics (on both the right and left) but if we are honest about it, they are just entertainers pandering to a particular political crowd.

  2. Your comments, and recommendation of Mr. Hunter’s book, remind us once again of the frailty of human nature and the limited minds with which we live. We struggle with large concepts — and they are too large, so we chop them up into parcels that we think we can handle — and then we loose the significance of the whole of any issue around us. Was this not the message of Paul to the Corinthian church ( I Corinthians 13:12)? There will come a time when, and only then, we are face to face with God and will see (understand?) fully.
    Is not the answer in the work of the Holy Spirit? A few years ago there came a new confessional statement in which there were three parts — about Jesus, about the Father, and about the Holy Spirit. We are admonished by Scripture that the Holy Spirit will “remind us of what Jesus said and did”.
    Perhaps in our struggle with politics and its effect upon our culture, we need to remember that we are created “to see in a mirror, dimly” now. Perhaps we need to understand that our human frailty creates an open door to see God as complete, as having total grasp and understanding.
    When the Brief Statement of Faith was published, there was great delight that it had, finally, placed the Holy Spirit equally in this statement with the Father and the Son. It is sad to see today that the Holy Spirit continues to be so small a part of our understanding as to where there is help for our human frailty. God provides a way — and we continue to reap the disasters of our own limited understanding of the whole of a mighty Creation by someOne who really knows what our world is all about. Once again, now as an octogenarian, I am driven back to Scripture as the place where some of these politicalizations can be grasped and within which we can deal with our lives so greatly in need of faith, hope and love, especially love!

  3. The true nature of the word “politics” is to describe a social system of authority and power. However, people in the business of politics (and it is a business, make no mistake) seem to have made it their goal to be authoritative in all things, in all areas of our lives. And why shouldn’t they? We, ourselves, have handed over the reins of our lives to them. As our lives become more and more monitored, censored, managed, lawyered, and controlled, our politicians see themselves as the gatekeeper of this authority. No longer, it seems, are we allowed to think or act for ourselves.

    We are, however, complicit in this erosion of our personal freedoms. Every time we elect officials and then don’t press them on their activities in their positions, we abdicate control of our lives to them. By continually turning a blind eye to their behavior, thinking “someone else will call their office”, “someone else will vote them out of office”, “someone else will speak for me”, we become part of the problem. We are ultimately responsible for the disappearance of those things which Mr. Hunter yearns for – the theologians, the philosophers, other great thinkers of our time.

    Society of today has little time for such luxuries. As humankind developed more efficiencies, philosophers and theologians blossomed, our time previously spent hunting and gathering was now able to be spent with more esoteric pursuits. I feel that we have gone backwards in time, back to a place where earning a living is occupying the vast majority of our time and energy. So many of my busy friends of all socio-economic backgrounds (including myself) are finding it hard to squeeze even a modicum of self-discovery between demanding bosses, kids who are involved in every activity under the sun and making dinner. It is far easier to cede the governance of our lives, and in fact so many decisions, to politicians who promise us whatever the polls say they need to in order to be elected.

    Gone are the days when we sit around a fireplace after supper and discuss the meaning of the Trinity or even how to help the neighbor down the street who is suffering from gout. We are so busy “doing” that we have no time to share ideas, thoughts or be true Christians to one another. A friend of mine recently tried to start up a “parlor group” fashioned after the discussion and debate meetings of philosophers and thinkers. No one’s schedule could accommodate such an extravagant amount of time spent on oneself.

    In summary, if the philosophy, open-thinking, debate and discussion that Mr. Hunter longs for in the excerpts from his book are to be resurrected, our society must change in significant and difficult ways. We must stop the abdication of our most basic decision-making processes to people we know little of other than what we see in the media. Our collective silence is considered assent by those we ourselves have given the power. Our society no longer values thinkers, provokers of thought, because these voices might tip the balance on which our precarious and overly-complicated lives are hung. The are called “nut jobs” and “progressives” and by so labeling them, we are discrediting their ideas in favor of complete resignation of our lives to the Body Politic.

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