Philosophers have pondered reality since the beginning of recorded history, and mystics and spiritualists have sought to experience reality outside our distorted perception. Human existence is itself a constant struggle to see ourselves and others as we are, beyond what science can tell us. The subsequent vision of reality affects how someone interacts with society, including his or her political choices.
When I was in high school and college, I was drawn to writers like Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, and Aldous Huxley because they believed there was a reality and way of living that transcended the sterile conformity of American society. They all turned to psychedelic drugs as a way to grasp the truth of human existence. In Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, he offers a somewhat mystical and philosophical meditation on human existence that he wrote after his experience with the hallucinogenic mescaline. Huxley finds inspiration for his mystical journey to grasp reality from the poet William Blake, who writes, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Religion has been by far the dominant means for revealing the nature of reality and the purpose of human existence. But the twentieth century witnessed the rise of several competitors that served as forms of religion—communism and fascism being the most serious competitors. The West also saw softer forms of quasi-religions in the form of self-help psychologies that have a religious veneer. The current obsession with identity politics is an outgrowth of a culture that is searching for an overarching explanation of reality, which is why their most zealous adherents behave like rigid religious fundamentalists.
Politics and Vision
Politics begins not with activity but a vision of reality and its meaning. Who is the human person? What is the ultimate reality? Passing laws, running cities and nations, holding elections, and so on require a broader framework that makes these everyday political activities meaningful. A vision lies at the bottom of all our activities, whether or not we are aware of it. For Americans, that vision is partially encapsulated by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which offer not only a structure but a broader meaning about what our republic is all about.
Politics requires this deeper vision. Plato’s Republic is the best example of how a transcendent vision connects with politics. At the very heart of Plato’s epic dialogue is the allegory of the cave that gives an account of reality. We all live in a cave, so the allegory goes, seeing the shadows of reality and mistaking them for the real things. Not until someone leaves the cave, beholds the sun, and sees reality does he or she begin to grasp the truth. Plato’s challenge is how this transcendent vision of the good can be brought to bear upon the city so that it may be just.
Similarly, Christians have drawn upon the Bible. The scriptures present a powerful and compelling vision of the cosmos and our place within it. We learn that God created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and that he uniquely created humans, men and women, in his image. Immediately we see the rebellion of the human race against God and the introduction of sin into the world with its infection of all aspects of creation. God promised to redeem humanity from its captivity to sin, death, and the devil.
The vision we find in the Bible is not something humans can conjure up from empirical observations of reality, mystical visions, or philosophical investigations. It has to be revealed. It is given to us to be received and digested. In the words of scripture, we must be given eyes to see and ears to hear, which makes this vision even trickier. We cannot merely read the words of the Bible and construct the vision; it has to be, as it were, illuminated from within us in order to fully grasp it.
Though the Bible does not give us a clear schematic of how we are to order our political life, it does something more profound: it gives us a frame for all reality, history, and humanity. Politics finds its place, in a limited sense, within the bigger picture of God’s redemptive work. We don’t learn about political forms and methods but receive something more important: a true orientation about who God is, who we are, and where we are going.
Reinhold Niebuhr argued the biblical portrait of man, best exemplified by the realism of Augustine of Hippo, presented us with the most compelling and accurate description of the human person. Why? For Niebuhr, rational accounts of the human person were unable to account for tensions that defined human community. To the rationalist, ancient or modern, peace and justice would be achieved “when reason had brought all subrational forces under its dominion.” In contrast, Augustine provided a different account of human social and political life in his vision of the two cities.
Augustine’s “two cities” (the city of God and earthly city) is still the most powerful and illuminating account of the Christian vision of society and politics. In his magisterial City of God, Augustine lays forth a vision of two cities traversing history from the very beginning of time to the very end. The city of God is defined by those angels and persons who love God, and the earthly city by those rebellious angels and persons who love themselves more than God. Our problem is that in this age, prior to our full redemption, we cannot distinguish the two because the human heart is hidden from sight.
Politics arises because human persons and society are shot through with sin. Those motivated by love of self must be restrained from the destruction they wreak upon their neighbors. Even those redeemed by God still cry out to him for mercy because of the sin within and around them. They sense their weakness deep in their souls. Alexander Solzhenitsyn captures this Augustinian insight in his famous formulation: “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Augustine’s two cities formed the basis for further developments that saw human life as divided between two orders or authorities. Pope Gelasius famously enunciated the “two swords” theory that there was a division between priestly authority and royal power. Most Christian political thought is indebted to Augustine’s basic vision, though they differ, sometimes significantly, in details and application. For instance, Augustine and Luther paint different pictures of the two cities or kingdoms, though they share a strong family resemblance.
Visions are hard to state exactly, though. The best visions are general, like a beautiful landscape that one beholds at a distance. It captivates and orients but does not necessarily reveal every little detail. Biblical realism—the name I give to this perspective—takes that Bible’s portrait of reality as the normative picture from which we must start in our thinking about politics and foreign policy.