Some philosophical and religious traditions postulate that there are methods that one can follow to achieve personal enlightenment or nirvana or some such. The idea is that if one develops sufficient personal discipline, one can achieve divinity. It’s a nice theory, but to me the concept seems self-evidently wrong. Yet even if it were correct, one limitation of this view is that it does not address the collective problem of human suffering. For this reason, many people have taken a systemic approach to addressing the “human problem.”
Note: To promote a common understanding of terms, allow me to offer a definition for system and politics. I use the term system, not in the sense of “a group of things that work together to perform a function,” but rather in the sense of “an intentionally designed set of behavioral constraints imposed on a group of people through coercive means.” I’ll go with the United States Marine Corps’ definition of politics which is “the process by which power is distributed in any society.”1
On the societal level, people from the earliest days of recorded history have concluded that humans can engineer an exquisitely designed social structure that will shape society in a manner that allows them to triumph over the human condition. Such a society, in theory, can eliminate poverty, inequality, crime, even unhappiness. This theory has been promoted by many armchair theorists, revolutionaries, ideologues, and despots. It’s also been embraced by the masses who, feeling powerless to address the inequity (dare I say “unfairness”?) of life, cling to the hope offered by those who with deep conviction, promise safety, order, and equality.
There’s a theme in Christianity that neither humanity collectively nor humans individually can redeem themselves. There is an acknowledged inadequacy—some inherent limitation—that keeps humans from transcending the human condition. This is the perpetual wedge that is driven between Christianity and Humanism. Humanism is, in many cases, a reaction against the inefficacy of religion; but it is also the perennial view—sometimes earnest, sometimes arrogant, that man holds the power to break the bonds of humanity.
It is probable that humans are the only species capable of destroying their own kind to the extent that the survival of the entire species is threatened. It’s for this reason that people tend to adopt the humanistic approach which lies at the heart of our political systems. This is our bid to keep humanity from consuming itself in a holocaust of violence.
It seems inevitable that every individual humanist must eventually realize that, no matter how personally moral they are, their philosophy is insufficient to bring the masses into cooperative alignment. So together, we create political systems that are designed to fix the human condition. This is not a new approach. In fact, it goes as far back as the beginning of human history when Cain built the first city. When humanity was nearly destroyed twice, once by human violence and once by a cataclysmic flood, the dominant civilization that emerged determined to create the perfect society. A system. A culture led by the most notorious warrior of the day. An edifice. A cathedral. A vision. A moonshot. An engineered monolith that would, through human ingenuity, bring about utopia and bridge the gap between heaven and earth. The Tower of Babel.
Moses, or whichever historian wrote the pentateuch, attributed the resulting societal collapse to divine intervention. And perhaps that is indeed what happened. But based on what we can observe from thousands of years of recorded human history, I believe that it is just as likely that the system imploded due to its own oppressive strictures. Maybe the system became so oppressive in its pursuit of human perfection that it created far more suffering than it prevented. Perhaps like all systems do, the system reached critical mass and could no longer contain the organic nature—the life—of humanity. Perhaps human nature, with its seemingly limitless potential to embrace both the divine and the demonic eventually tore apart the artificial system—the spiritual entity—that was far more real than the physical tower made of brick and mortar.
Rather than acknowledging that human nature has remained fundamentally unaltered throughout its history, each succeeding generation has endeavored to re-create its own more perfect version of the Tower of Babel using various religious and political systems. Each has failed or is in the process of failing.
Adherents of each system view “the others”—those who do not subscribe to the system’s tenets, as The Problem. If everyone simply got on board with the program, embraced our philosophy and complied with our directions, then the world’s problems would be over. So the systems compete to accrue power, and those belonging to the emergent, dominant system begin to coerce whomever they can in order to make the system function as designed. The nonconformists become convenient scapegoats and are oppressed or eliminated. Over time, The Enlightened find that they must accrue more power and enforce their rules ever more ruthlessly in order to achieve the desired order and stability. Of course, this comes at the the significant cost of deteriorating relationships, the loss of human freedom, and self-induced suffering. The System seems to take on a life of its own and becomes, in essence, a spiritual entity—no less real for its lack of self-awareness.
To make the discussion more tangible, we can see The System within our own governmental and social structures which, for all the good intentions behind (most of) them, have become inefficient, bureaucratic institutions that over time, produce as many problems as they solve.
We not only see archaic systems in their death throes, but we also see nascent systems forming, promoted by rabid mobs who, hell-bent on the destruction of All That Is, are intent on forming their own version of The System—with themselves as the ruling class, of course. No doubt, many of the devotees of the “new” system are well intentioned. But just as surely, many of the adherents are simply seeking to exploit the failures of the current system as a pretext for seizing power. Somehow, it never occurs to the ones carrying the pitchforks and torches that their mindless violence and moralistic platitudes couldn’t possibly fail to achieve a perfectly just and equitable society. They seem ignorant of the fact that, hard work, critical thought, honest self-evaluation, and sacrifice are required to build a society in which humanity can thrive. But I digress.
While Christianity™ has morphed into a collection of religious systems that Christ would almost certainly spew out of his mouth, the fundamental Christian view that humanity cannot redeem itself is worth careful consideration. It requires humility to take an honest look inward, to acknowledge our limitations, and to admit that redemption resides outside of humanity. The view that divinity is external—an additive which is required in order to bring humanity into a reconciled, harmonious state—seems to be the necessary alternative to a series of failed systems.
I used to share the desire to (figuratively speaking) burn the system to the ground. Now, I see some inevitability in the systemic nature of the social contract—some cultural element that is necessary for a species that has achieved (or been granted) self-consciousness to create order within chaos and to thrive. Yet I would submit that it is only when we stop venerating human systems and begin living in the Higher Kingdom that we begin to find the solution to the human condition. The solution resides within the Divine—that which lies external to humanity and cannot be created, manufactured, or engineered.
It seems impossible for the Divine to be anything less than something which is above us. It can reside within us, but it is distinctly not inherently and exclusively human. It is a relationship, not a system.
As long as we reject that relationship in favor of our own arrogant, coercive methodologies, we will continue to trade one system for another, devolving into violence when the circumstances suit us, and oppressing others (or capitulating to oppressors) for the sake of either order or personal advancement. Or we can pursue Relationship—with the Divine and with each other—and live as citizens of a kingdom where, as Buddy Greene puts it, “only love is the law.” That is how humanity triumphs over its animal instincts and becomes the family that God has always desired.
1Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-2 – Strategy, 4 April 2018, p. 1-5.