Life in the Spirit and the Possibility of Peace

In my previous blog post on “Personal Religion and Political Populism”, I mentioned in passing the influence of Tillich’s distinctions between “autonomy”, “heteronomy”, and “theonomy” as I described the tensions dynamics of freedom and power, limitation and meaning, in both politics and religion. 

By “autonomy”, I mean the exercise of ego or the power of self-determination that demands complete freedom from judgment on one hand, but on the other hand leads to the loss of critical objectivity and individual accountability, and ultimately existential anxieties about meaninglessness and purposelessness, estrangement and displacement. Moral relativism and political chaos go hand in hand. 

By “heteronomy”, I mean the control of external forces that systematizes beliefs and guarantees accountability on the one hand, but on the other hands leads to loss of personal creativity and social innovation, and ultimately existential anxieties about fate and death, guilt and shame. Inquisition and totalitarianism go hand in hand. 

The two dynamics of freedom/power and limitation/meaning are in constant tension. In a sense, history is shaped by the ebb and flow of these dynamics, each counteracting the other. One might imagine that this tension will only be resolved in heaven (so to speak) when human temptations for pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth are finally overcome. But is it possible to at least approximate this resolution within history? 

Such a resolution would require a fusion of spirituality and culture. Finite cultural forms might become portals for infinite spirit; infinite spirit might become approachable and understandable through cultural forms; but infinite spirit would simultaneously employ and shatter all cultural forms so that no cultural form could presume to be absolute. That vision is what Tillich described as “theonomy”. 

Personally, I prefer not to use the term “theonomy”, because today it is too easily confused with “theocracy” which (if you read my previous blog) is a result of the combination of Personal Religion and Political Populism). “Theocracy” is a top-down term indicating the imposition of religious and moral limitations on all public sectors and private life. “Theonomy” is a bottom-up term indicating the emergence of mystery and meaning in any public sector and private life that is revealed through any structure, emotion, or idea. “Theocracy” is all about limiting freedom by absolutizing particular structures, emotions, or ideas (a form of idolatry); “theonomy” is all about empowering creativity by subsuming any and all structures, emotions or ideas to a Higher Power (the “God above all gods”). 

Therefore, I prefer to use Tillich’s alternative, more accessible, term: Life in the Spirit. The abstract reference to “cultural forms” is more concrete if one thinks of these as diverse lifestyles; and the abstraction of “Higher Power” is more concrete if one thinks of this as “Spiritual Presence”. (Yet even this is unsatisfactory, because today the term “presence” suggests only passivity, but for Tillich it indicates both passivity (or the depth of Being) and activity (or the power of Being). Only in this dual sense can “Spiritual Presence”. It is this latter sense that is implied by early Christian authors like Augustine and the original desert fathers and mothers. Tillich himself devoted the third volume of his Systematic Theology to an exposition hope both as personal fulfillment and social stability of Life in the Spirit. 

There is much to explore and explain about this possibility of hope, but here I focus on what I think are the two major shifts in Christian theology and American democracy that must occur if such a hope is to be a sustainable possibility. 

The first shift requires a re-balancing of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a shift away from Christology toward Pneumatology. Oddly enough, this is a shift that is already taking place among many Pentecostals, charismatic Catholics, more mystical Anglicans and Orthodox, and some more image- and -sound-, rather than word-oriented Protestants. These are strange bedfellows indeed! But they are all wakening to the importance of weighing our experience of God and our understanding of Christ with reference to a more dynamic and mysterious sense of the Spirit. 

This shift actually restores a balance that was true in ancient Christianity and articulated through the Gospel of John more clearly than through the other synoptic Gospels, the epistles attributed to Peter and James (and some non-canonical writings like the Shepherd of Hermas that weren’t included in the Canon but nevertheless influential in Eastern Christianity. The significance of Pneumatology was more important, for example, to Origin (eastern Christianity) than Clement (western Christianity). 

Both Theology (“Father”) and Christology (“Son”) remain important – and vital. The fullness of the Trinity alone comes close to explain the mystery of God. It’s a question of what is most significant for 21st century global diversity. American Christology has drifted far from its historical grounding. What many call “Christocentric” faith has become what ancients would defend as “Pagan” practice. An distorted image of Christ is elevated to become a private possession, a talisman to guarantee health and success, a guardian angel to sit at your shoulder, a “best friend” (among many friends) with whom to commute to work or from whom you seek advice.  

Shifting focus to Pneumatology helps return faith in Christ to the original Trinitarian experience of God as rescuer from evil, mediator between finite and infinite, deliverer from fate and death, and unconditional lover. Perhaps more importantly for social relationships, God can be better perceived and understood as fluidly moving in, through and beyond, all human preconceptions, ethnic biases, and nationalistic xenophobia for forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope.  

Unfortunately, this cannot be achieved in western Christianity without significant stress. The Trinitarian formula finally approved by the early church fathers was understood as “one ousia in three hypostases”. While both terms can be interpreted as “substance” the distinction may seem to many Christians as pedantic, but it is in fact crucial and has enormous implications for American Christianity.  

The orthodox interpretation is that God is one essence (subsisting by itself and not dependent on anything else in existence), but that God is manifest to existence in three manifestations. God is one, but present to human being in distinct and interdependent ways to effect salvation. The problem is that every human interpretation of God makes God’s essence dependent on reason, which cannot grasp or control the totality of the infinite mystery of God. God may convenient explain the revelation of God in three ways, but what is convenient should not be complete

The western, and particularly American Christian, interpretation of the Trinity was distorted because the Latin church chose to translate “hypostasis” as “person”. American individualism and the emergence of psychological categories then distorted this to mean three distinct “personalities”. Among liberals, this has led to fruitless debates over gender (masculine or feminine attributes of God). Among evangelicals, this has led to associating salvation simply with a personal relationship to Jesus. Thus, shifting focus from Christology to Pneumatology is a radical change in American culture.  

The second shift requires a different understanding of the point of democracy. Populism is only a caricature of democracy that is motivated by fear, defined negatively as anti-elitist, and practiced demagogically with threat and manipulation toward perceived minorities. It has no clear objective, no desire or ability to adapt contextually, no sustainable vision of justice, and no means ensure credible leadership succession. If there is a point to populism, it is nationalism. Nationalism is a quasi-religion encouraged by personalized religion. It is a mythology of privilege, methodology of judgment and teleology dominance that chronically undermines peace. 

The point of democracy needs to shift from nationalism to commonweal. It should be motivated by openness, defined by acceptance, and practiced systematically by leaders who model respect and are accountable to public agencies. Its clear objective is not national prestige or survival, but public welfare on a global scale.  

This shift actually restores the vision of the original “democrats”. In France the goals of democracy include egalite, fraternite, and liberte; in America the goals include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Authentic democracy separate politics and religion. It is respectful of all faiths but blocks any faith from taking control of a national agenda. Indeed, the vision of the original “democrats” was global in its scope (even though the realities of the times could not make it global in application). It would ensure the equality and liberty, peaceful co-existence, life and the freedom to seek personal fulfillment among all races, ethnicities, households, genders, ages, incomes, and religious practitioners or non-practitioners.  

The nation state remains important. Its oversight prevents multi-national corporations from taking advantage of people and damaging natural resources; militaries or militants from bullying the defenseless and innocent; educational institutions from indoctrinating youth; non-profit organizations from abusing public funds; and scientific research and health organizations from treating humans as objects. In the name of nationalism, populists undermine the whole purpose of the nation/state. In the name of commonweal, authentic “democrats” empower the nation/state to resist nationalism. Shifting focus from nationalism to commonweal helps stabilize the social order and promote peace.  

Unfortunately, this cannot be achieved without significant stress. The grand vision of commonweal expressed by the authors of the American Constitution was quickly diluted by power politics, controversy over slavery, and the presumed “manifest destiny” to assimilate other cultures into the “American dream” by force (aboriginal Indians, colonial expansion, etc.) The controversy over gun control, for example, is difficult to resolve because it is rooted in the contrast between the vision of commonweal and the assumption of nationalism.  

Yet I think there is hope. In my book Sideline Church, I discussed the possibility of shared religion instead of personal religion. This would not be a return to “vertical” institutionalism (structures and dogmas), but the emergence of “horizontal” dialogue (conversation and mutual accountability) rooted in lifestyle group anxieties and shared quests for meaning. Similarly, the democratic vision might be restored if the “residential” theology of the cultural middle (owning and defending sacred space) could transform itself into “communal” theology (lifestyle diversity experienced as sacred relationships).

Thomas BandyComment