Putting Politics in Its Place: Vocation and Dominion

I’ve been talking about politics lately. I know that it appeared like I was talking about not talking about politics, but to do that is to still talk about politics, and so, yeah, anyway, here we are, politics. I got a fair amount of responses to my post Political Talk as Totalitarian Distraction, some of them rational and some of them not, and so that gives me a good opportunity to say more. It would be a mistake to assume that I was talking about a kind of theology per se in that post. I singled out “political talk” as the thing under critique, and I highlighted the immoderate consumption and use of “TV news, talk radio, and online media.” I cannot see how this applies to a specific school of theology directly, but I suppose that if someone wishes to volunteer their feeling that the shoe fits, then I won’t be able argue too much against them. Perhaps some theologies do actively promote such immoderate consumption as a key commitment. Still, we shouldn’t confuse experiential memory and reflex with faithful interpretation of text. What I was addressing was not a theology at all, but rather a pathology– giving the discussion of politics, usually a fairly medium-to-low level discussion at that, a totalizing control over your life and, especially, allowing it to dominate your church and family. That was my actual target, and that is what any responsible reading of my words will substantiate.  

Also, my concluding three points were not presented as an alternative political theology but instead as a pre-political theology, or as a way to “put politics in its place,” as I said in the immediate context. If you understand justification by faith, the biblical doctrine of dominion, and the role of vocation in your life, then you will be free to engage in politics appropriately. But if those things are out of order, as they so often are, then you will be unable to resist a totalitarian political theology. It will fill the void of those more basic things, and you will find yourself enslaved. 

But what of politics itself or political theology? Can we say specifically “Christian” things about it? Yes. But before we get there we need to define our terms. “Politics” can mean different things, both formally and informally. We often hear politics disparaged as something inauthentic, coldly pragmatic, and even deceptive. But that’s not its technical meaning. Speaking without metaphor or colloquialism, politics can describe either 1) the relationship and ordering of people in groups, however large or small, 2) the actual running of a city, or 3) statecraft, the relationship and ordering of cities considered as members of a larger polity, whether state, nation, or empire. These three ought to be consistent with one another, of course, but they still take on specific concerns depending on the precise question at hand, and where these three modes of politics exist and overlap, they must relate to one another in an appropriate way. 

At this point it should be noted that many people who believe they are interested in, engaged in studying, or are otherwise “talking about” politics skip the first form nearly entirely. They jump right to the business of running a city or a state and leave out the foundational consideration of human relations as such. In a way this is understandable. If you look up the history of “politics” as a noun, you will find that it comes from Aristotle, and he used it precisely to speak of the polis or city. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Aristotle’s Politics was a sequel to his Ethics, the more basic book of human affairs, and he believed that the one led to the other. Indeed, to skip over the first order or politics, human relations and ordering in general, is itself to forget about an enormous amount of civic production and to give the impression that such is not integral to political activity. This is, in effect, a part of the larger totalitarian threat I have mentioned before, giving all of the “real” and “important” work to a select number of vocations. Those dominated by political anxiety have typically fooled themselves into thinking that professional political vocations are the ones that matter and domestic, ecclesiastical, or communal affairs are menial and ineffective, a pernicious modernistic assumption if ever there were one. 

The flip side of this same coin, however, is also problematic. It takes the form of religious abdication, whether in the name of asceticism, monasticism, separatism, anabaptism, quietism, or even sacerdotalism. Yes, those isms are buzz words which need unpacking, and no, I’m not going to do that here (Such is the luxury and tyranny of the blog…). But I will say a few things. Without having our first principles in order, we will invariably be tricked into either statist tyranny or anarchist tyranny, both of which share the same assumptions but run with them in opposite directions. Thus we have to go back over the groundwork.

I should also say that I’ve never been much impressed by the “exile” theology common to modern Amillennialism. While appearing to be a bit cooler in its disposition towards politics, it too attaches a sort of special stigma to it, assuming that it is still something outside of ordinary Christian life. As such it continues the bifurcation problem, though it at least attempts moderation. For a helpful reflection on this theme, I would recommend my friend Andrew Fulford’s essay. My main emphasis now, as it will be in the future, is that politics is a good but earthly thing and that it is but one part of a larger complex, human life in God’s creation. 

We need to be clear about this. Politics is not equal to dominion. Politics is a subset of dominion, something downstream from the basic activities of being fruitful and multiplying. When one goes about the business of “taking dominion,” they shouldn’t miss the obvious: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” The order is have children, inhabit the earth, work the earth, and rule over the land and the animals. The business of people ruling over other people occurs as the various groups of people taking dominion inevitably have to interact with one another. Human politics is the referee in the larger game of dominion-taking. It is a means to an end and not an end in itself. 

Additionally, city-running and statecraft are specific vocations. They are not the only vocations, nor are they necessarily the most important or most valuable vocations. They are certainly not for everyone, as not everyone is called to them. This means that while “politics” in the general sense (human ordering) is a subset of the doctrine of dominion, the more specific senses of politics are subsets of the doctrine of vocation. To understand them properly, you must first understand vocation properly. That was part of my point in the conclusion of my earlier post. To try to make everyone believe that the specifically political vocation is their vocation or that all vocations always turn into the specifically political vocations will result in that kind of anxiety against which we must always be on guard. Some are called to the magistracy, but not all are and not even the majority are.

To make everyone a magistrate is equivalent to having no magistrate at all, and when you think about that dilemma you can see how anarchy simply makes every man an absolute sovereign. A world of emperors, and thus, potentially, a world of tyrants (according to both its ancient meaning and its modern one), is not a solution. The desire for anarchy is that same desire for control, and so too the thought that all people ought to be consumed with politics comes from a prideful disposition. The solution is not simply one variety of politics over and against another, but instead to properly understand politics as a whole. It is, as I have said, to put politics in its place. Magistracy is a subset of vocation and dominion, and as such, it is posterior to those doctrines.

In future installments here I will continue to explore a Christian philosophy of politics, and I will use the traditional “three hierarchies” or “three jurisdictions” as my guide. These three jurisdictions have been understood as family, state, and church, and these three jurisdictions participate equally yet uniquely in a unified and harmonious society. For more background on these, I can direct you here and here. The important point to keep in mind is that all three are essentially good and only accidentally bad, and we always experience all three as a mixture of good and bad because we live in a fallen world. No hierarchy is “better” or “higher” than the other, no hierarchy is immune to abuse or evil, and thus, no hierarchy ought to be “central” in this world. Indeed the balance of the hierarchies is essential to a free and just society. To this matter we will turn out attention in the discussions to come. 

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