“The flesh desires against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh…” Galatians 5:17
“My kingdom is not of this world…” John 18:36
The Fleshliness of Contemporary Politics
Human systems of government fail because they mistake means for ends, or subsidiary ends for ultimate ones. The problem, for the Christian, is not simply that these philosophies are materialist, in the sense of having a concern for one’s material state of affairs (money, property, means etc.). Though, of course, these philosophies are materialist as well, and deeply so. Capitalism seeks to alter the material state of the individual and communism that of the collective via the proletariat. It is a problem when material change becomes the ultimate end. But their concern with matter is not the heart of their failure. For Christianity, after all, is also interested in the material and in man’s material means. Yet it does not seek to alter the material as a chief and ultimate end. If Christianity does alter a person’s material status, then this is always indirect. It is always sublimated to a higher end—that of the conversion of her soul, her character, her heart, her very self.
The problem is not simply that human systems of government and politics are too “material”, then, but that they are fleshly. That is, they leave man in a state that is unconverted and self-centred, apart from God. St Paul often uses flesh in the sense of “human nature” apart from God and left to its own devices. Our human systems are fleshly in the sense that they would make us materially wealthy or transformed (through whatever means), but leave our very selves languishing in a prison of despair, our souls shackled to the flesh which, left to its own devices, will only do us damage. These philosophies and systems of thought would leave us free to our own devices which is precisely the problem. Free to our own devices, we are free to destroy ourselves.
Christ comes to put the flesh to death, by his own death, and to convert the soul. If the material means of a person are changed, then this is a side-effect, an important side-effect, but a side-effect nonetheless.
True Materialism: Christ Against Flesh Not Matter
Some will perhaps think that I am being dualistic, pushing for a sharp contrast between “lofty spiritual things” and “despicable matter”. Nothing is further from the truth. We must dispense with the idea that Christianity is unconcerned with, or worse still, despises earthly existence (though, of course, the Church has often had other ideas). When Christ said that his “kingdom is not of this world” (a key text which is misinterpreted by dualists), he simply meant that his kingdom would not be achieved by the normal means of violence and force (the context of this verse, and its second part, makes this clear). We might shift the Johannine key into a Pauline one and so cast further light on Jesus’s meaning. Christ’s kingdom does not operate by the flesh, making its end-goal to be the alteration of a person’s material well-being and so sacrificing everything, including man’s soul, to achieve these ends.
Christ’s kingdom comes by his Spirit. It is the not the body but the flesh that the Spirit wages war against—the flesh being our inclinations to do as we would want apart from God.
Christianity, then, is not anti-matter but the only truly material philosophy there is, precisely because it orders matter to its right place, but also because it reclaims matter as the creation and good gift of a good God. To follow Christ is to see the world, to see matter and human life itself as re-enchanted as the good gift of God.
The Re-Conversion of the Heart of the West
The late modern west needs re-enchanting and re-converting. It has placed all its hope in material change while its character and soul remain unconverted, self-focussed and so self-destructive.
Those on the cultural right tend to ignore the need for character and conversion altogether, emphasising the need for facts and objective truth (“facts don’t care about your feelings”). Of course, the place of reason and argument is much needed and is a particular strength among cultural conservatives, though not their sole preserve of course. But we have seen that it is easy to win the argument and yet lose everyone in so doing. The left, to their credit, understand the need for conversion narratives. What is Extinction Rebellion, after all, but a call to be converted to a “higher truth”.* The nature of their “truth”, of course, is highly disputed and highly disputable. And the conversion they offer is not one of the heart and so still, fundamentally, leaves one living a fleshly (self-centred) existence.
We in the Church, have often sadly played along, offering material messages that leave the heart untouched. But Christ still explodes on to the scene of human life, as he did 2000 years ago. He does not come, ultimately, to alter the material state of man, even though this may well be a part of what is achieved (perhaps always as an indirect consequence, through the converted person learning to take responsibility or living generously). But Christ comes first and foremost to convert and re-convert the hearts of human people and communities. That is, to turn them from destroying themselves (by “the flesh”) and to animate them with his very life (by “his spirit”).
Of course, the way he achieves this is material, in the giving up of his own broken body and poured-out blood (bread and wine) for his beloved creation. And one consequence of this self-giving might be material change. But Christ’s chief end is the alteration of the very human person, the very self, in which he seeks to make his rightful home. And it is this focus on the heart and soul which makes Christianity so radical and so radically different, from the political systems of today.
*To be fair, we could include many culturally conservative positions in this category of conversion narrative as well (e.g. the Leave vote). The “affective turn”, pioneered by people like Jonathan Haidt but going all the way back to Augustine, reminds us in important ways that we often come to our positions on the basis of convictions of the heart (“affections”) which we then justify and rationalise after the fact. We often select facts based on their salience (how they fit with our affects and the worldview we have developed). Truth and reason matter, but we are also, or even primarily, affective creatures.
Image Credit: Bahram Bayat (Unsplash)