Kenneth Craycraft is a Mason attorney, adjunct lecturer in theology and a member of the Enquirer Board of Contributors.
“Maybe this is as good as it gets.” If our lives are defined and determined by nothing higher than politics, then this line from the Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt movie of the same name is probably true. No matter how good it might (seem to) get, if politics is the highest we can strive, then political victory is as good as it gets. But if it is true – if our aspirations are limited to who prevails in the next election, or what issue wins the next ballot initiative – our lives are pretty thin.
While some may be reluctant to admit it, ultimate commitments and loyalties in America today are quite often limited to political victories and losses. As the reactions to the last presidential election have shown us, for some people, politics is everything. Because that is the case – because nothing transcends and supersedes political questions as ultimate questions – politics becomes blood sport, rather than a civil conversation about how we should govern ourselves.
If politics purports to supply ultimate answers to human questions, then political success is not about self-governance, but rather about winners and losers in the possession and distribution of power. And, of course, there is no room for compromise: There are good guys and bad guys, and only one side can win in a zero sum game. And this way of thinking cannot help but engender intolerance, division, and conflict from both sides of the proverbial political aisle. Disagreement equals irrationality or hatred.
Over the following 12 months, I will be using this space to explore the proposition that, while everything is political, politics isn’t everything. Rather, politics and political life are transcended and relativized by something higher and nobler. I believe that this “something higher” is the deposit of Christian faith, as communicated through a long history of historical, philosophical, and theological development, which provides, among many other things, a sense of something that transcends politics.
As I understand and try to practice this faith, humility, not dogmatism, is the effect of this sense of transcendence. While it is true, of course, that every religion has a set of doctrines that define – and thus delimit – itself, true religious faith also engenders a deep sense of humility, awe, and wonder. To remove these aspects of religious faith is to reduce religion to ideology. Religious dogmatists remove mystery, awe, and wonder from faith no less than political secularists. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism: religious or political, right or left. And fundamentalism leaves no room for the humility that must be at the heart of faith in a transcendent God. God is God, and we are not.
And, of course, this humility must always be mindful that the faith might be false, and that the truths I embrace might be an illusion. Faith is a journey, not an end; it’s conversation, not an assertion. To be sure, this journey of faith has an ultimate destination – it is an ascent to the Beatific Vision. But it is precisely this affirmation that reminds us that we are not there yet. And it provides a way of seeing, and making judgments about, the world. Even so, now, we know only in part; then, we will know in full. Or not. While faith might be defined as the perfection of knowledge, it takes a good deal of burnishing and polishing before that height is achieved. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” is the prayer that I pray every day.
But if life is reduced to politics – if that’s as good as it gets – we can never open ourselves to a sense of transcendence, regardless of how it is understood. A life defined by politics as its highest end is a truncated life. While I might be wrong, I have transcendent hope that this is not as good as it gets.
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