Mysticism and Politics

“Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” said Charles Péguy. From a Christian perspective, this not only makes sense, but it is a good thing. The vertical axis of the Cross represents “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND,” while the horizontal arm represents its corollary, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF” (see Matthew 22:37-39). Just as you can’t have a proper cross without both its vertical and horizontal lines, so you cannot live the gospel fully without paying attention to issues related to mysticism (loving God) and to politics (loving neighbor as yourself).

But what happens when you mix politics and mysticism? Like just about anything, there is a dark side and a light side to this equation. The dark side, of course, is represented by such “mystical” political movements as Nazism and Fascism, where devotion to a single leader (or to the state) trumps all other concerns, and makes possible even such atrocities as the holocaust. Of course, such totalitarian regimes are built on an ersatz mysticism, but merely dismissing it as false is not a sufficient response to such evil. We need to recognize that mysticism wedded to the wrong sort of values is a dangerous thing indeed, and everyone has an obligation to oppose such systematic forms of abuse and domination.

But mysticism anchored in the “right” sort of values — in other words, values such as love, honesty, integrity, compassion, justice, care for the poorest and weakest members of society, vigilance against racism, sexism, homophobia and other institutionalized forms of oppression, concern for ecological well-being — leads to an entirely different kind of politics. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Christ, and so a mystical politics is a politics of peace and conflict resolution. Contemplation is itself a political act, for it is an act dedicated to peacemaking — making peace within each contemplative’s own inner turmoil. But “if you want peace, work for justice,” or so the old slogan goes, and just as on an individual level contemplation requires a commitment to holiness, so on a social (political) level, contemplatives foster peace through a recognition that only values oriented toward fostering or sustaining relationships based on “social holiness” (justice) can, ultimately, resolve conflict, establish peace, and create the space for a truly contemplative culture to flourish.

I’ll stop here. I’m aware that differing political philosophies diverge quickly over this question of just how to foster peace and justice. It’s not my purpose to take sides in ongoing partisan debate. Rather, when trying to weigh the tone and the value of the words our politicians offer us, I always look at this question: how does a particular proposal serve the common good — not just my own interests, but the interests of all? Does a particular policy or platform support my quest, both personally or socially, to love my neighbors as myself — and in so doing, to strengthen my love for God? When I can answer “yes,” then I have found a political position worth upholding.

The 2016 Presidential Candidate Prayer Challenge: Are You In?
Rocking Justice & Spirituality: Like the Two Movements of the Breath
Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Phil Soucheray

    If nothing else, this posting points to the question of just how many people of faith are engaged in a spiritual life or only think they are.

    For my part, I perceive a good deal of apparent dis-integration between what seems to be discipleship claimed and discipleship expressed through politics. Perhaps that perception is due to the nature of the rhetoric used in the political conversation. In public, that dialogue tends to be so restricted to platitudes that it rarely seems to lead to a real examination of the values that drive the positions, all of which seems to lead to cynicism, disenchantment and disengagement by many.

  • Paul Rack

    In what you say, Carl, you do in fact take a side.

    I am coming to mistrust philosophies that talk about the “good of all.” Jesus didn’t speak this way. He only considered what was good for the least.

  • Carl McColman

    I’m not sure I buy that, Paul. Jesus hung out with privileged folks too: Nicodemus and Zacchaeus leap to mind. I think trying to project onto Jesus that he cared only for the least is to risk turning him into a class warfare communist.

  • Yewtree

    Depends how you define God. But if you define God the way you have defined Her elsewhere on this blog (as love, compassion, cloud of unknowing etc), then the aims you list can be achieved.

    But I would have to say that the hierarchical and bureaucratic structure and the dogmatic nature of the Catholic Church (and other similar churches) was and is incompatible with the social justice aims and values you have listed here.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    mystical politics is a politics of peace and conflict resolution

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…. (Okay. Let’s just call it eternal gratitude, instead.)

    Personally, I don’t find anything at all political about this and tend to cringe when people associate “social” with “political”. “Socio-political” is a linguistic hybrid I absolutely abhor. I am, of course, also absolutely alone in the conviction that there is no way to bring about peace and social justice politically (as in, by writing law after law after law, much less enforcing law after law after law). Either they are there or they are not, and all the socio-political wrangling does nothing to change the fact other than, perhaps, to upset peace and social justice when and where it exists. I’ve more or less made peace with my absolute aloneness in this conviction and say all that to say this.

    Helen Keller once said, “I do not want the peace that surpasses understanding. I want the understanding that brings peace.” Personally, I believe we can “have it both ways” and will when every human being on this planet realizes it lies “within and among” and nowhere else.

    “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”

    So saieth all the great Mystic sages. Vigilance requires nothing more than ever-present mindfulness. After all this time, one would think we’d get it.

  • Joe

    This posting seemed to me to propose a very important question, and then go a bit adrift from it (and all the more so in the comments).

    The question was not mainly about the mixing of religion and politics, but specifically about mysticism and politics. This is important because in the world of modernity, religion is reduced to another ideology that must compete for adherents alongside other ideologies such as scientism and nationalism. This, I think, is one reason I (and many others, I suppose) have such a problem committing to religious traditions: To a first approximation, there are none anymore, just ideological paranoias that have parasitized their rituals and symbolic systems. The “mixing” of religion and politics amounts to the same parasitism in reverse, i.e., the assimilation of nationalist rituals and symbols to religious systems as a means of leveraging membership and church revenue.

    There is really only one way to break through that, and it is the practice of a mysticism that liberates us from captivity to ideology. It is very hard to imagine how authentic, disciplined, grounded apophatic practice in particular can succeed while any adherence to ideology persists. In actual fact, the practice ought to be just about the only tool of liberation remaining to us.

    It would not be altogether wrong-headed to attribute this insight to Socrates. We easily recall that the “Socratic dialogue” has something to do with clarification of thought through the practice of dialectics, but we just as easily forget the precondition Socrates imposes in each of the Platonic dialogues. This is what some have called the elenchus, which is to say, the deadlock, the gumming-up of the wheels of the interlocutor’s thought. We enter dialogue, Socrates seems to propose, mainly in defense of some pet ideology, and this needs to be stopped dead in its tracks before real inquiry can begin. Symbolically, the elenchus is a stilling of the mind by leaving the tail-chasing of ideology with no more tail to chase. If that’s not an appeal to the liberating power of commitment to mystical self-examination, I don’t know what is.

  • Carl McColman

    Well, said, Joe (even though you busted me on my own “drift”!) :-)

  • InfiniteWarrior

    we enter dialogue…mainly in defense of some pet ideology, and this needs to be stopped dead in its tracks

    Joe, you may be interested to know that this state of affairs has garnered a tremendous amount of attention (and ink) of late. The notion that Narcissism is the human condition — a notion I personally maintain is true — has yet to filter through the many and varied institutionalized obstacles (read: propaganda outlets) erected in its path. Unless I miss my guess, this is thanks to the fact that “the pursuit of rational self-interest” as a moral justification for maintaining the status quo has been unanimously assimilated not only by streams of American culture but globalized cultures (mainly corporate) as well. So deeply has it been ingrained in the global psyche that I often wonder whether it can be shaken loose. Thankfully, however, that’s not up to me to decide.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    As to Brewer’s question, “how could an impoverished model of human-as-self-focused-calculating-machine have ever come into being?” I don’t believe the depth of its roots extend only as far as the ’40s and ’50s, but go much deeper still. I thought this overview did a pretty good job of tracing its Western roots as far as it went, but strongly suspect an estimate of 5000 years (or far longer) is even more accurate.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    Anamchara readers may be interested in “The 2020 Challenge,” a report “developed as part of a ‘Campaign 2020 Project’ that was hosted by Union Theological Seminary.”

    Apologies to all for the multiple replies. A few stray thoughts occurred in between.