On the purpose of politics and the salvation of souls

The ultimate purpose of Christian revelation was not to improve the world but to explain the final destiny of each existing person. The purpose of human life is to decide whether a person will or will not accept the invitation to eternal life for which he was created.

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“Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal creator of all things, today became our Savior by being born of a mother. Of his own will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became man so that man might become God.” — St. Augustine, Sermon #13, de Tempore.1

“Islam is not a religion in the way Americans understand the term. It governs every action and seeps into every thought process. It is a religion, yes, but also a political system, a legal system, a social system—in short, a total way of life.” — Derya Little, From Islam to Christ, 2017.2

I.

Of the basic texts that identify Western civilization, we usually name the first to be that affirmation of Socrates in the Crito where he affirms that it is never right to do wrong. Every endeavor to undermine the civilization has to attack this principle. But a second, more modern, text can be named. The second text initially seems to clash with the Socratic principle. When sorted out, however, it implies the same thing.

In Dostoyevsky’s Brother Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor reviewed what he considered to be Christ’s principal failure in understanding the nature of men. Given a choice between the freedom that Christ brought and bread, the Inquisitor maintained that men would invariably choose bread. They would freely accept whatever goes along with such a choice: namely, the abject submission to those who promise to fulfill their “rights” and needs in exchange for their liberty.

The Christian distinction between the things of Caesar and the things of God argues that politics and religion, though both deal legitimately with an aspect of human reality, are different enterprises. They sometimes became confused and entangled, but the real intellectual and practical task was to give to each its due.

Indeed, the Christian religion was the first (and still the only) revelation that ever acknowledged as a theological datum some basic autonomy to the civil power. The latter power did not arise from revelation or religion. It originated in the very conditions of rational beings living together. Man was “by nature” a political animal, as Aristotle famously put it. To understand politics, we needed to see that it was a work of practical reason dealing with the being and well-being of mortal human beings while they were alive and present in this world.

Plato and Aristotle saw that something in the very constitution of what-it-is-to-be-man was open to a higher or transcendent order of things that could not be otherwise. Man had, as it were, two natural “goods”. One was the work of life that could be expected among men who were finite and imperfect. This civil life in history was manifested in many different national and civilizational contexts. What they all had in common was how each person would be identified by the record of his life in the city or civilization in which he lived his finite life. All men would die. Thus, each existing civil society was composed of a constantly changing population of those being born and those dying.

The theoretic or contemplative order—the order to which in its own way politics pointed as a limit of itself—seemed always present. It promised a higher order of being and truth to which the human being appeared to be open. The significance of Plato’s Republic was precisely that it posed a relation between these two orders. Plato recognized that, in the dynamic of actual regimes, many crimes went unpunished and many noble deeds went unrewarded. The notion of the immortality of the soul, wherein this disorder could be reconciled in a final judgment arose out of this political dilemma. If no way could be found to resolve the justice problem that occurred in every actual regime, then we had to conclude the world was made in injustice—an injustice that had it origin in the very constitution of reality.

II.

We have always had theories, either from philosophy or from revelation, that denied any supernatural or transcendent order. Religion and metaphysics were held to be illusions, projections of desires onto reality. It was said that man only had this life before him. The ancient Epicureans, whom Marx studied, thought it was so bad that the only rational course was to withdraw from politics altogether to live a quiet life unperturbed by the turmoil of politics. Religion, some claimed, was invented to keep the masses content with illusions.

Christianity addressed itself primarily to the final destiny to which man, in his creation, had been ordered. The ultimate purpose of Christian revelation was not to improve the world but to explain the final destiny of each existing person. The purpose of human life is to decide whether a person will or will not accept the invitation to eternal life for which he was created. This choice was to be made in whatever polity or civilization a person lived his life in, whether the best, the worst, or one in-between.

Thus, throughout its history, Christianity reminded man that the purpose of his life is the salvation of his soul. The public ministry of Christ begin with the simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). And in Christian terms, this salvation included the resurrection of the body, which was included in the eternal life to which each person was invited and ordered. The City of God is not composed of ghosts or abstractions.

But Christianity did not neglect the mortal life. Its admonitions to love the neighbor in a practical sense had the effect of remedying many misconceptions about one’s relation to others. The commandments and natural morality were also remedying additions to any civil order.

Beginning with strands in the Enlightenment, the transcendent and salvific goals of Christianity gradually became this-worldly oriented. The supernatural ends were transformed into economic and political goals aimed at making the world better. Men lost faith in their relation to the transcendent order and the salvation of their souls. The dead-end of this endeavor to transform the supernatural end into a perfect order in this world (a parody on Plato) became visible in the twentieth century.

The re-invigoration of Islam in the twenty-first century is but a revision of a religion that sought to control the whole world in every aspect for a religious purpose: submission to Allah. What we do not see is a corresponding return of Christianity to its roots, wherein salvation after death is seen to be the primary purpose in divine revelation.

III.

Rather, what we see is something quite different and perhaps quite logical. The efforts surrounding Vatican II endeavored to give both Caesar and God their respective dues. But the drift of contemporary culture is not in this direction. What we see is something quite new.

We do not see, as in Islam, a religion that quite openly subordinates everything to itself and its theology. Nor do we see a distinction or separation of church and state into legitimate fields of competency. Nor do we see the Benedict or Epicurean option of withdrawing from the public order as itself hopelessly corrupt.

What we appear to be witnessing instead is the use of Christian theology as itself the primary instrument to achieve political goals, an effort that becomes the essential purpose of Christianity. We do not speak much of salvation or eternal life but of the transformation ad preservation of the world itself. Morality is refashioned in this light.

This new mood is not the 18th-century attempt to set up a Kingdom of God in this world as itself the meaning of man’s purpose. Benedict pointed out in Spe Salvi that we now look to science to achieve something like a deathless life in this world. Transhumanism, in a parody of the resurrection, even wants to preserve within time the individual, and not just the species.

No, Christianity is often something different now. It is not dependent on preserving for the human good some unchangeable revelation from an initial divine/human event in the time of Caesar Augustus. We need to do for our time what Christ did for His time; namely, look at the things that need to be done for man here and now. The center of concern is not salvation and eternal life. Theology is rather a guide in achieving political goals for men in time.

St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, and Saint Thomas put it nicely: God became man so that man could become God (see CCC 460). They meant, of course, that man could live the Trinitarian life for which he was initially created. The old refrain from St. Ignatius of Loyola that man was made to praise, reverence, and serve God and thereby save his soul remains the dividing line between what is and what is not Christian.

The purpose of revelation is not politics. But the purpose of politics is to provide an arena in time wherein each existing person decides what he shall be forever. In this sense, revelation can “heal” politics, but only if we remember that revelation is about eternal life and not directly about politics itself.

Endnotes:

1 Breviary, from Saturday before Epiphany.

2 Derya Little, From Islam to Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2017), 193.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 165 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

6 Comments

  1. Politics, like any other human social institution or endeavor, is utterly dependent upon good religion. Garbage in, garbage out. Not sure if the author said that in so many words, as I haven’t finished the article yet.

    • Jesus’ “Render into Caesar” did not mean what most people think. Caesar had not one thing that he did not steal.

      The Pharisees that asked the question knew this because they knew the taxes, the tribute, were not just, but they were spoils of war and conquest. Jesus made sure to clarify the point in Matthew 17. It’s a passage that exposes the inescapable injustice of taxation.

  2. By God’s design are we all called to Heaven. Getting there is yet another serious hurdle. It continues to amaze that our all-knowing God could create a human mosaic that the pieces don’t all fit together. The current failure rate is of mammoth proportions. God may have to rebuild Purgatory and Hell because of the unfathomable numbers.

    I continue to ask how could an all loving and all merciful God design a humanity model that was destined for failure?

    • The deeper question is, “Why did God make us for love?” The answer is, first, that He is Love and has created us out of the overflow of his love. Secondly, true love (as we know both instinctively and intellectually) involves the free gift of self. But you cannot have the free gift of self without the possibility of the free withholding of self, in a countless number of ways. The greatness of the gift of free will can be seen in how high the stakes really are. To speak of being “destined for failure” is an implicit rejection of both free will and the drama of authentic love; it is a form of fatalism, which is a serious temptation to be fought at every turn.

  3. COMPENDIUM OF THE SOCIAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH

    I enjoyed reading this article. Thank you, Fr. Schall.

    I especially enjoyed reading this:

    “What we appear to be witnessing instead is the use of Christian theology as itself the primary instrument to achieve political goals, an effort that becomes the essential purpose of Christianity. We do not speak much of salvation or eternal life but of the transformation ad preservation of the world itself. Morality is refashioned in this light.”

    To me, the truth of that is born out every time some leader in the political Conservative Movement talks about their mission to save “Western Civilization.”

    We heard President Trump say this in a speech in Poland. We’ve heard Steven Bannon talk about this. And Jordan Peterson talks about this constantly and in a way that is even more overtly theological than others. They are all on a mission to destroy “Collectivism” and save “Individual Liberty.”

    Listen to Jordan Peterson talk about this in an overtly religious and sweeping historical way, in his “My New Year’s Letter to the World” (Dec. 2016):

    “THE CENTRAL PROBLEM OF HUMAN BEINGS isn’t religion, as the New Atheists insist. IT’S TRIBALISM….One alternative to fragmentation is union under a banner – a collective ideal, cause, or purpose….
    The problem with uniting under a banner, as the postmodernists who push identity politics rightly point out, is that to value something means simultaneously to devalue other things….Thus, a society without a unifying principle, oscillates, unmoored, between nihilism and totalitarianism….
    HUMAN BEINGS HAVE BEEN WRESTLING WITH THIS PROBLEM SINCE THE BEGINNING OF CIVILIZATION, when our capacity to form large groups, for all its advantages, also started to pose a new threat: that of the hyper-domination of the state, collective or purpose….
    In the west, starting in the Middle East, thousands of years ago, A NEW IDEA BEGAN TO EMERGE (EVOLVE IS NOT TOO STRONG A WORD) in the collective imagination. You might, following Dawkins, consider it a meme, although this is far too weak a word. This idea, whose development CAN BE TRACED BACK THROUGH EGYPT TO MESOPOTAMIA, before disappearing into unwritten history, is that of the Divine Individual. This eons-old work of the imagination is a dramatic presentation of AN EMERGENT IDEA, which is the solution to how to organize social being without falling prey to nihilistic divisiveness or deceitful totalitarian certainty: The group must unite under the banner of the individual. THE INDIVIDUAL IS the source of THE NEW WISDOM that updates the antiquated, nihilistic or totalitarian detritus and glory of the past.
    For better for worse, THAT IDEA REACHES ITS APOGEE IN CHRISTIANITY….it a hallmark of Christian supposition that the REDEMPTION…COMES THROUGH…THE INDIVIDUAL. The central realization…is that…THE IDEAL OF THE DIVINE INDIVIDUAL IS THE ANSWER….”
    https://jordanbpeterson.com/philosophy/new-years-letter/

    I hope to God more Catholics will steer away from these people who, as Fr. Schall says, “use of Christian theology as itself the primary instrument to achieve political goals.”

    I hope to God more Catholics will seek wisdom and guidance from Pope Saint John Paul II’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html

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