Politics, economics, theology, and a little nonsense. Yesterday a friend asked me if they weren’t all the same thing, and in a sense they are. They are so deeply interrelated that it would be hard to pull them apart. Moreover, he said, they are the at the root of all the hyper polarizing talk these days. Why don’t you write about something else? A good question. Maybe I should write about calming, spiritual things and avoid all this controversy. On the other hand there are enough others who do it, and do it well. I’ll leave it up to them. I’ll stick with my subjects for the time being because I think they are important. Also, it’s where I have spent most of my professional life.
Let’s take politics for instance. We live in community. There isn’t any other way to live, and the process of deciding how we are going to live in community is politics. That’s it. Simple as that. However polarizing and uncomfortable politics may become, we can’t avoid it as the only way there is to make decisions about how to live together. From the smallest most remote Amazon tribe, to the most populous autocratically ruled nation, politics is how we make decisions about the way to live together. Our American form of it is messy, inefficient, and unpredictable, but it does a better job than most in seeking participation from every citizen. Contrary to popular opinion around my town, American politics is not intended to impose the will of the majority of the people on the nation. It seeks to understand the complicated interplay of the many wills of the people, and through multiple systems of representative democracy hammer out workable policies that are good for the whole even as they benefit some interests more than others. For the process to work as well as it can, eligible voters need to be conversant on the issues and candidates, and legislators need to be able to intelligently negotiate in good faith. That’s always problematic, all the more so these days, which means that our systems of representative democracy do not work as well as possible, but they muddle through one way or the other
Even those who try to opt out, can’t. We live about five driving hours from the parts of northern Idaho that have become favored of off the grid residents, survivalists who eschew society, distrust government, and are certain that when the apocalyptic war comes, they will continue to live as they do now while the rest of us perish. Their properties are stockpiled with equipment produced by others working in community. They have little objection to driving their community made pickups on community financed and maintained roads to get to and from their land, which they own according to community laws. They are protected in their lifestyle by rights and privileges extended to them through community constitutions. The point is that even the most independent minded of us has no choice but to live in community and benefit from community, and that means politics.
The decisions made about how it all works are what politics is made of. What drives political decision making is the question of what is good for the community, and that requires some inquiry of what good means. What is good, what is not good, what’s is the difference, how do various goods and not goods get balanced against each other? How does one balance decisions that may be good for some but harmful to others? Is it even possible to make a decision that is good for everyone and harmful to none? Philosophy grapples with questions such as these, and so does Christian theology. Our theology converses respectfully with all that philosophy can offer, but in the end it seeks to know how the revelation of God’s will, as we understand it through the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, may be leading us into and through today’s political issues. Lest that sound presumptuous, we can’t avoid it because God has had a lot to say about politics. Taken together, Hebrew and Christian scripture is an extended treatise on the economy of the polis with God making suggestions in some places and commandments in others. Moreover, what God has to say is always in the direction of having life in abundance, as persons and in community. We cannot dismiss that without dismissing the entirety of what we assert to be the holy scriptures through which God has revealed God’s self to us, and through which God has opened doors to hear and see anew what we had not seen or heard before. Theology cannot be separated from politics because theology has little to offer other than guidance about how to live in community. Even our own disagreements about what God has revealed and how it should be translated into human behavior is a form of politics.
So what about economics? Modern economics is the study of how goods and services are exchanged within the community, and between communities. Someone called it the dismal science, Carlyle I guess. If it’s a science at all, it’s a social science rather than a hard science, no matter how much it depends on complicated mathematics. Its math never seems to hold much water for long anyway, and it’s laws are fungible in the extreme. At its heart it is a form of political science. Communities make decisions about how goods and services are to be exchanged. It’s supposed to make the rules governing the exchange of goods and services knowable and rational. In the aggregate, they do a decent job of it most of the time. But depending on circumstances, individuals within communities make buying and selling decisions inside or outside the rules, rationally or irrationally, in chaotic ways. Gobs of money are bet, won, and lost on how well patterns of buying and selling behaviors can be predicted when lumped together, even if individual behavior may or may not be predictable. It’s called market research. Dismal indeed. Into the mess, theology inserts questions of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. Christian theology boldly asserts that God has had something to say about economics, and that economic political decision making in and between communities needs to be informed by what God has said if justice and life in abundance are to be had.
So I write mostly about politics, economics, and theology. Ridiculous isn’t it? What right do I have to write on subjects in which I am not a certified scholar? Sheer nonsense, that’s what it is, and so now and then I throw some in just for the fun of it.