On the political meaning of Christianity
By Glenn Tinder
We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But, such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality, construing it as a relationship to God without implications to the surround world. The God of Christian faith (I shall focus on Christianity although the God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament) created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world – that we can practice a spirituality that is not political – is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.
And if spirituality is properly political, the converse also is true, however distant it may be from prevailing assumptions: politics is properly spiritual. The spirituality of politics was affirmed by Plato at the very beginnings of Western political philosophy and was a commonplace of medieval political thought. Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well-organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and it is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.
It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of undoubted virtues of pluralism – respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two – have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieve in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons – values we ordinarily regard as secular – without giving them transcendental backing? […] Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is a testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.
Many will disagree with my argument, and I cannot pretend there are no respectable reasons for doing so. Some may disagree, however, because of misunderstandings. A few words at the outset may help to prevent this. First, although I dwell on Christianity I do not mean thus to slight Judaism or its contribution to Western values. It is arguable that every major value affirmed in Christianity originated with the ancient Hebrews. […] Christianity diverged from Judaism in answering one question: Who was Jesus? For Christians, he was the anticipated Messiah, whereas for traditional Jews (Paul and the first Christians were of course also Jews), he was not.
The most adamant opposition to my argument is likely to come from protagonists of secular reason – a cause represented preeminently by the Enlightenment. Locke and Jefferson, it will be asserted, not Jesus and Paul, created our moral universe. […] My underlying argument is that Enlightenment rationalism is not nearly so constructive as if often supposed.