By William Thompson-Uberuaga
Samuel Huntington wrote of the three waves of democratization (in modernity): the movement toward democracy slowly in Europe from the nineteenth century up to the end of World War I (perhaps the need for people to fight in the war facilitated this?); next, the post-World War I movement to democracy by countries like India seeking independence and by European countries returning back to democracy from various forms of dictatorship; and finally, from the mid-1970s with the democratization of the Iberian Peninsula and especially from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Of course the U. S. democratic experiment predated these waves and perhaps aided their emergence, not to mention the earlier democratic experiments throughout history. Sixto Garcia had already written of some of these in the last issue of El Ignaciano on this issue’s theme.
David Stasavage has discussed these waves proposed by Huntington, and he has also explored many of the earlier democratic forms, suggesting broadly that these emerged “when rulers needed consent and cooperation from their people because they could not govern on their own,” and they were able to accomplish this in assemblies and councils. There was always the autocratic alternative, but when rulers actually needed and depended upon what only “the people” could give, an “early” form of democracy could emerge. (Cf Stasavage, The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today, 2020, chaps. 1 [esp. 6-7] and 11 [esp. 256-59]; reference is to Huntington’s The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, 1991.)
To what an extent these “early” democracies were in some way “disguised aristocracies” is a worthy question. John Adams, for example, in his Defence of the Constitutions, praised the liberty and industriousness of the Basques he encountered in Bizkaia, describing it as a republic, but he also thought of this republic as a “contracted aristocracy, under the appearance of a liberal democracy.” And so he cautioned: “Americans, beware!” Why this caution? Because only the few could be elected: the nobles, and these of non-Jewish and non-Moorish blood, and not “new converts,” and not those under the Inquisition’s punishment. (See “Basque Fact of the Week: John Adams’s Basque Adventure,” @ buber.net).
The struggle to become a people (demos)
Richard Current, in his increasingly relevant edited work of Lincoln’s writings, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln (1967, xxx-xxxi), writes of how Lincoln returned again and again to the theme of “the capacity of a people to govern themselves.” As early as 1838, in a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, he argued that the Founding Fathers sought a “practical demonstration of the truth of [this] proposition” (18). He returned to this theme in his special address to Congress of July 4, 1861, when he said that the war involved “the question whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy – a government of the people, by the same people – can, or cannot maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes” (180). And of course his culminating expression of this theme came in the Gettysburg Address of Nov. 19, 1863: “… for us to be dedicated to the great task … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (284).
And perhaps, if Eric Voegelin is correct, it is of some significance that this “phrase for the ages” with its three prepositions, “of, by, and for the people,” plausibly entered into the democratic political heritage of the West through the English Reformers, where we read in Wycliffe’s prologue to his 1384 translation of the Bible: “This Bible is for the Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” (“Democracy in the New Europe,” Published Essays 1953-1965, CW 11, 61). This would seem to indicate that the Jewish and Christian heritage of the reign of God, with its teaching about the “people of God” on its way to Exodus, culminating with Jesus’ prayer “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven,” carries a kind of democratic ballast and thrust, something not unknown to Tocqueville as well in his Democracy in America.
Lincoln does not systematically clarify what he means by his use of the term “people,” nor what and whether the prepositions used (of, for, by) denote anything distinctive. One might argue that the enslaved blacks were always a part “of the people,” but a contextual view would argue that the enslaved blacks are now implied to be more “the people” than they were before the war. Government of the people to be governed always included the enslaved blacks, but Lincoln seems to imply that the enslaved black portion of that people are now -- as free -- more of what it is to be citizens than they were before. A certain development in the notion of the “people” to be governed has occurred through Lincoln’s efforts. This would be similar to the widening of the notion of citizens entitled to vote beyond that of property owners, for example, but obviously a widening rather more daring, given the times.
Likewise, a certain development in “government by the people” has taken place. Insofar as at least black males were given the vote, the demos in whom the power of government is finally vested has widened as well. Females would have to wait yet longer, whether black or white, but the U. S. American experiment in democracy changed decisively here.
Similarly, “government for the people” perhaps undergoes a kind of widening, inasmuch as at least liberty/freedom under the law has now in principle been extended (or soon will be) to all formerly enslaved blacks. Liberty itself is now “for” the blacks. This is one of the benefits of this democracy now.
The notion of what it is to be a “people” is developing here. Pope Francis, in his Fratelli tutti, helpfully clarifies that the “word ‘people,’ – [when used in political discourse] – has a deeper meaning that cannot be set forth in purely logical terms. To be part of a people is to be part of a shared identity arising from social and cultural bonds. And that is not something automatic, but rather a slow, difficult process … of advancing towards a common project” (pg. 58, @www.vatican.va). Lincoln has advanced the project of U. S. democracy by developing the demos/people of, by, and for whom it exists. Indeed, it is greatly the seeds from his martyrdom which have brought this about. We will return to some of Pope Francis’ thoughts on this a bit later.
Political philosopher Eric Voegelin says of Lincoln’s formula that its “unsurpassable fusion of democratic symbolism with theoretical content … is the secret of its effectiveness.” With this formula “the limit is reached where the membership of the society has become politically articulate down to the last individual and, correspondingly, the society becomes the representative of itself” (Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, CW 5, 119-20). A caveat, however, needs to be inserted here: the inclusion of females was still needed for this to be in fact the case “down to the last individual.” And in the practical order, given the painful history of the dark side of U.S. democracy in terms of the lingering effects of slavery, victimizing Native Americans, misogynism, sexual and gender victimization, etc., not to mention the corruption of its political leaders, the democratic experiment remains very much a fragile one. Recalling John Adams above: “Americans, beware!”
Fratelli Tutti on the demos and “populism”
Let us return to Pope Francis’ Fratelli tutti, which offers us some helpful distinctions between a proper political evaluation of the notion of a “people” and the loosely used term “populism” thrown about. Being categorized as “populist,” the Pope suggests, can become a verbal weapon used to characterize people and divide them from others. Perhaps even more dangerously, it gives the impression – here I am somewhat interpreting the Pope – that a people is a kind of social mob and blob. In this way it could “lead to the elimination of the very notion of democracy as ‘government by the people.’” In a subtle way it undermines how a society is capable of giving birth to a “people” which recognize themselves as sharing common bonds and purposes, who can “transcend their differences and … engage in a common endeavor” (pg 157).
The Pope does note that “popular leaders” do exist, and that they can either aid people in becoming and remaining “a people” in the helpful sense of interpreting and furthering the social bonds and goals of a democratic society [think of Lincoln here], or of dangerously manipulating and exploiting the people for their own selfish and short-term ends, thus furthering a degeneration of the people “into an unhealthy populism.” “The truly ‘popular’ thing – since it promotes the good of the people – is to provide everyone with the opportunity to nurture the seeds that God has planted in each of us: our talents, our initiative and our innate resources.” And of course the Pope, as is his great charism, emphasizes that this is “the finest help we can give to the poor,” which implies a heightened valuation of labor and work and employment responsibly and justly cared for (pgs 159-62).
All of this, surely in the spirit and after the example of the deacon Laurence of Rome, whose feast day on our Episcopal Calendar is just now as I write: “Ambrose relates a tradition that the [Roman] prefect demanded information … about the church’s treasures, since as archdeacon he had the primary responsibility for distributing alms to the poor and needy. Laurence asked for several days to gather all the wealth together, during which time he worked quickly to give everything away to those in need. When the prefect again demanded the church’s treasures, Laurence pointed to the sick and the poor and said, ‘These are the treasures of the church’” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2019, 348).
The Pope cannot fairly be accused of utopianism here, any more than Thomas Aquinas can be accused of it when Aquinas suggests, in one of his interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer, that the prayer for the Kingdom’s coming on earth as in heaven is a prayer for a time when “all will be free” and “all will be kings,” and “all will reign, since the will of all shall be done, and God shall be the crown of all (Isa 28:5).” For the Pope, like Aquinas, is articulating the eschatological thrust of the promises of the Kingdom and both know that until the final eschaton we remain in the eschatological “between times.” (See Thompson-Uberuaga, Your Kin-dom Come: The Lord’s Prayer in a Global Age, 2018, 89, for the relevant texts and further interpretation).
Democracy, then, circulates around the reality of a people as understood here. Many forms of democracy exist, of course; Plato and Aristotle suggested that some kind of mixed form of government (executive, aristocratic, and democratic) had much to commend it over all, and I suppose that when these elements are finally subject to the “people’s” choice, such can be called a democratic republic, as here in the United States. A few other democratic kinds are, for example, those in which all citizens actively exercise the rule (note that “citizens” does not mean all people within the democracy’s territory necessarily), or those in which the citizens delegate their rule to representatives, or constitutional monarchies (as in England or Spain), in which the monarch’s rule is finally subject to the citizens through their representatives. But irrespective of the particular form a democracy takes, it is the people understood in the sense above that gives rise to it. When does a “people” cease to be truly a “people” in any effective sense? That is naturally a grave question which the thoughts here raise? Does a people cease to be a people when it is tyrannically subjugated? Or does the people remain, in varying states of resistance, seeking ways to emerge again into a healthily functioning democracy?
Few studies exist which attempt to articulate the processes of “people formation,” so to speak. Obviously there are ethnic, linguistic, historical, geographical, and socio-economic factors involved, of very complex features indeed, in which now this or these factors and now those are ascendant. And always, too, there are public servants in some kind of relationship with the “people” in formation. When we add this awareness of the role of public servants, clearly the complexification deepens. Think now of the hard to pin down multiple features needed for statespersons.
(Analogously, there is a kind of sketch of “people formation” in the famous chapter two of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, “On the People of God.” God has been in the process of forming a people through the paschal mystery on the way to Exodus and Easter, and it is this people which in some way also is connected with all peoples on the way to their own Exoduses. “God does not make [us] holy and save [us] merely as individuals…” but brings us “together as one people …” God “purifies, strengthens, elevates and ennobles” the “ability, riches and customs in which the genius of each people expresses itself” (pgs 9, 13 @www.vatican.va). The pedagogy of people formation attested by Scripture is a rich source for our theme in this little study. It is also of some import that Lumen Gentium places this chapter two before its chapter three on the various hierarchical structures and orders within the church, indicating something of a kind of greater “democratic” (analogously!) sensitivity to the emerging awareness of what it means to be a people, in whose service the hierarchy exists.)
The writings of the political philosopher Eric Voegelin are helpful to us in this regard, offering us a kind of guide for further reflection, and simply illuminating some of the key features which likely are involved in people formation as understood here. In one place he writes of “social fields” and “societies” which arise from those social fields, and perhaps we might think of such “social fields” and “societies” as a kind of Voegelinian equivalent (along a continuum) to what we have been calling a “people.”
To begin with Voegelin cautions us that we should not hypostatize the social, as if “society is a subject endowed with a consciousness that could interpret itself through symbols.” Sometimes we speak that way, but in reality those could be considered “abbreviated expressions of the process by which concrete persons create a social field, i.e., a field in which their experiences of order are understood by other concrete individuals who accept them as their own and allow them to inform their motives and habits.” These social fields become “societies” (= a demos/people in a very strong and proper sense) when “their size and relative stability in time allow us to identify them.” We need to think and imagine all of this rather concretely and historically: they are “processes rather than objects given once and for all, they manifest not only the process characteristics of their founding and preservation but also those of resistance and mutation, of tradition and differentiating development, of ossification and revolt, and so on, up to and including their final disintegration and disappearance.” Perhaps the reader will sense some or all of these features within the democracies of Europe and the Americas, and to some extent in Asia and Africa.
The kinds of social fields which persons do create, we should note, can and need to be approached by the social sciences of late modernity as various expressions of personal psychic and social formation as well as deformation. Here is the place to think of personal and social pathologies, many of which were noted by the classic philosophers and by Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Max Weber, and others. (See, for example, the by now classic study by Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation: A Theological Reading of Sociology, 2d ed., 2006). The great social critiques of the prophets have their place here as well in a kind of canonical way, and in continuity with them the critiques of political, racial, sexual, feminist, and analogously varied forms of liberation theology.
Voegelin also cautions that “The social fields of concrete consciousness are not identical to organized societies, even though the ideologists of power like to assume that social organization exhausts all political reality.” Societies which are more repressive might want to shrink social fields to their own repressive sphere of control (their social organization), but human freedom has the capacity to withstand that. The churches, for example, or various movements within the social field, may well wish to resist such repression, should it emerge. (See Voegelin, Anamnesis, 400-401, CW 6, and my Jesus and the Gospel Movement: Not Afraid to Be Partners, 2006, 151-56, for more elaboration)
In his earlier The New Science of Politics, Voegelin had distinguished between elemental (institutional), existential, and transcendental forms of representation, and a brief look at these gives more color to social fields and societies (the demos). Roughly the elemental dimensions encompass the more institutional features of a polity, such as voting procedures, positive laws and regulations, constitutions, people invested with special legal powers, representatives, etc. People in the United States have often placed great stress upon its laws and constitution, but of late many are coming to see that these things require people and their spiritual formation for their appropriate use. This does not mean that they are unimportant, any more than the actual text of the Bible is unimportant, as if all simply depends upon its interpreters.
The existential dimension, I believe, for it is a bit obscure by its very nature, seems to refer to the cognitive/ethical/emotional/affective resonance which a purportedly representative element arouses among the people. Perhaps “popularity” in this basic cognitive/emotional/affective sense is an appropriate way to think of this. Something can be constitutional or legal in an institutional sense, but lack existential acceptance, sometimes on a wide scale. Something of this is happening in the United States with the existential non-acceptance of the legal transfer of power by many of the followers of Trump as over against the greater resonant existential acceptance of the Biden administration. If a sufficient number of people do not resonate with the elemental features of a democracy, such would signal that resistance, ossification and revolt of which Voegelin wrote above. Parenthetically, it would seem that at least for a time both Mussolini and Hitler along with some other Communist Leaders aroused wide existential resonance, sufficient to overturn the established legal and constitutional order on the “elemental/institutional” level.
Attention to this existential dimension is central, and always has been. But its importance has been nearly infinitesimally heightened in our digital age and in the light of communications technology. The communications media create many “subsocieties” wielding great power within the larger social field. In a way, the digital “universe” is a new kind of global empire whose global influence is only slowly being recognized, confronted, and resisted when it turns totalistic, cramping genuinely human and social freedom.
The transcendental level refers to the dimension of truth expressed in a particular social order. That is, to whether and how it expresses, at least adequately if only partially, the genuinely well being of society. The institutional and existential dimensions may be expressive in various ways of this transcendental truth, or they may be various expressions of its deformation and corruption. We might think of Plato’s fears about a sophistic rhetoric which knows how to exploit and manipulate as important here and as helping us to stay on the alert. His Gorgias especially comes to mind.
Other and earlier social forms of institutions may well have their own dimensions of transcendental substance/truth, but those have now become a less adequate and differentiated form of social existence. For example, non-constitutional monarchies as over against constitutional monarchies. (On all of this, see Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, 109-49, CW 5, and Thompson-Uberuaga, Jesus and the Gospel Movement, above). One of the blessings of Voegelin’s analysis is its attention to truth and the struggle for it and over it. When this decays, what is left is institutional power, usually in the form of laws. But as truth decays, then the meaning and justification of the laws decay as well, leaving only brute force as the arbiter of control.
Statespersons and the People
When is a “people” sufficiently capable of forming and maintaining a democracy as understood above in the senses suggested by Lincoln, Pope Francis, Eric Voegelin, and other great theorists of democracy? A Christian and analogous understandings of the human person and of such persons in community working together in freedom to support social fields and social organizations gives us hope that some kinds of democratic forms of governance will always emerge. That is, there would seem to be something “built into” the nature of human persons in hoped for community leaning in the democratic direction. This is definitely not a kind of “end of history” surmise, as if democracies are inevitable and will always prevail. Far from it. Probably because of the demands such democracies impose all along the institutional, existential, and transcendental levels, the fragility of it all is increased rather than decreased. But again, the realm of human freedom, which on a Christian view is permeated by holy grace, offers us hope and leans the human experiment toward various forms of democratic governance, it would seem. Simultaneously, the misuse of that human freedom, its varied derailments into forms of personal and social narcissism, chastens that “hope for democracy” and keeps us on the alert. Vigilant. Hopeful, but not foolishly optimistic. Here it is hard to do better than Jesus: “… be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).
Voegelin spoke of “concrete persons [who] create a social field, i.e., a field in which their experiences of order are understood by other concrete individuals who accept them as their own and allow them to inform their motives and habits.” He is touching upon the role of public servants, or representatives, and their relationship to the “people” in the larger sense. Representatives lead by helping to form a “people” in a loose sense into a “people” in the strong sense of those sharing a bond of communion that will be a blessing for as many as possible. This is representative public service. If you will, such statespersons re-present: they “present” a demos-friendly example to the demos, enabling the demos to see the democratic possibilities and yearnings in themselves (the “re” in “re-present”).
I remember once, through the kindness of one of my friends from Montana, being invited to a private meeting with the then U. S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, himself a Democrat, at the U. S. Capitol. My friend’s father was, at the time, I believe, the president of the Montana Lawyer’s Association, and no doubt that was the source of our invitation! We were both young, newly ordained deacons of St. Sulpice, studying German at Johns Hopkins University. It was a time when our young generation was a bit forward, and so I perhaps brashly, in a way, asked him about his view of being a senator in Congress. Was his work one of simply echoing what the people (his constituency) wants to hear? He was careful, and seemed very attuned to his role of listening to his people and representing that in Congress, but then, without any prodding from me, he noted that there are times when one must find a way to propose to the people what they may not particularly think is in their best interests. His job, then, is to make the case – that is what I took from his gracious response to this brash young deacon. Such is an officeholder’s public service, and given his long tenure as Majority Leader, he was a very good officeholder.
I have noticed that at times writers speak of the “elites” as over against the “people.” “Elites” has become one of those incendiary categories, and has been used by more conservatively authoritarian and Fascist publicists and thinkers. Undoubtedly there are those who consider themselves an “elite” of one kind or another: the wealthy elite vs the less wealthy, the learned elite vs the unlearned, the traditional aristocrats vs the commoners, the shrewdly political vs those to be led, etc., and within each of these we will find subsets of the “elite”!!
As an alternative to speaking of political elites, one might speak about leaders and the leadership they exhibit. Mike Mansfield’s title was “Majority Leader” (of the U. S. Senate)! In principle, provided we think of such leadership as a form of diakonia, that would be fine. On the other hand, “Leader” and its equivalents is a frequently used term among Fascists, Communists, and various autocratic groups. Perhaps this occurs somewhat in relationship to the manipulative use of the term “populism”: the “people” (in the populist sense) are alleged to have their own “leaders” who supposedly emerge from the people’s ranks, and not from the “corrupt” state functionaries.
Any term can be infected, of course. Think of how we can load into the word “God” many infected qualities. Generally, however, I have employed expressions such as representative, public servant, statesperson, and officeholder, as a perhaps helpful way forward.
Perhaps we might dwell upon the qualities of democratic public service, and seek to foster those and “elect” those who embody them to positions of prominence. If we take as one example of a guide the institutional, the existential, and the transcendental dimensions of people formation, we could argue that good demos public service incarnates one, two, or all of these features in various combinations. It is perhaps not accidental that so many lawyers are attracted to running for offices, for the competencies of lawyers in particular would likely look to the institutional features of democracy, particularly its legal and constitutional features. Lincoln, we recall, was a lawyer.
But Lincoln was exceptional, for he also exhibited strong existential qualities: eloquence of expression combined with keen learning and insight and a humble, folklike humor. And in his case, all of these chastened by much suffering, personal, familial, and social. Successful lawyers often exhibit these existential features too, but certainly persuasive publicists do. And each of these, for a healthy democracy, need to be united with a deeply committed form of prophetic spirituality, guided by a kind of mystic openness to growth and justice: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right …,” as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural of 1865 (Current, 316). The transcendental dimension, in other words. Blessed is the representative in which all three of these are found, as in Lincoln. But blessed is a democracy in which an adequate distribution of these qualities is found among its public servants.
All of which, if we are not to descend into a hopeless utopianism, leads to some further considerations about “mediating persons and institutions” in healthy democracies.
Teachers and the People
“Teachers” embraces an increasingly complexly differentiated category, and in imagination at least we probably need to have this very thick stew in mind as we offer some few observations here. Who are the teachers which a democracy needs, and without which its prospects become very meager indeed? Likely we will think of our school, college, and university teachers. But we should also think of all the sources of potential learning which can aid the demos in achieving the critical knowledge and skills needed to foster a truly beneficial common good, namely the Press, Journals, Communications Media, Libraries, various learned societies, etc. Think now, for example, of libraries and the assault on them, a kind of “book burning” happening in some states, and what this may mean for the health of those states. Each of these potential sources of learning can be exploited by anti-democratic forces, as history teaches us. The digital communications media are perhaps the new “Wild West” flooding all of us with enormous challenges here.
Perhaps the reader knows of the writings of Ken Wilber? I mention him here, not because I am particularly a Wilberian (I am a respectful reader of his work!), but because his rather polymathic mind and work offers us some suggestive leads for our meditation. He is one of those who studies personal and social development on a very wide scale. Perhaps the reader is aware of Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Robert Kegan, Abraham Maslow, James Fowler, Carol Gilligan and others, all of whom study and chart how persons and societies develop through various stages. Wilber builds on these thinkers in his various writings, sometimes summarizing them as moving from “primal archaic to tribal magic to traditional mythic and eventually to modern rational to postmodern pluralistic to just-emerging integral.” These do not happen automatically; one must continue to develop, and this requires personal effort and commitment. (See, conveniently, his Trump and a Post-Truth World, 2017, 17; more fully, The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions, 2017.)
Here is a citation which seems pertinent to our concerns here: “… research by Robert Kegan, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shows that 3 out of 5 – or 60 percent – of Americans remain at ethnocentric or lower stages. If you think this ethnocentric stage – with its tendencies toward racism, sexism/patriarchy, misogyny, mega-tribal dominance, oppression, and fundamentalist religion – sounds a bit like hardcore far-Right Republicans, and that it starts to push into recognized Trump territory, you’d be right” (Trump and a Post-Truth World, 18).
If this be correct, how was it possible for the United States to launch its democratic project in the first place? Yet it did. Has the United States degenerated rather than progressed in terms of development? Or perhaps does this indicate that the American experiment was not as exceptional as it thought, or rather partially exceptional at best, or? It certainly seems amazing, at any rate, that it was launched at all, and perhaps that tells us a great deal about the quality of the public servanthood that was available at the time, and at least of a slowly emerging development in education? Questions multiply!! Is this perhaps why Lincoln said, in his Address to the New Jersey State Senate (Feb. 21, 1861): “… I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle” (available @ Abraham Lincoln Online).
Here is perhaps the only kind of exceptionalism for any nation worthy of credence: God’s “almost chosen people.” Packed into that adverb “almost” is the crack through which the better seeds of inclusion, mutuality, and humble openness under the Almighty might take root and grow. This offers all of us teachers a rather fine criterion of just how well we are doing too.
Friendships, mystics, and the churches and religious communities
It is well known that totalitarian and Fascist states distrust friendships. For a relative independence of thought might therein be nurtured, and personal virtues and other talents be explored, developed, and intensified, including those not particularly “valued” by the state or social organization in power. And friendships can occur between the most unlikely people and classes, as can spousal love and companionship. A certain inclusivity breaks through the social concrete, in other words. And it is such friendships which can nurture the mutuality and inclusive respect necessary in a healthy democracy, and which can fortify our teachers and representatives, and sustain them in their times of need and anxiety.
Likewise the mystics, many of whom are martyred by their societies, which Henri Bergson considered those who keep societies open, sustain us by their openness to the transcendent Ground of Truth, and introduce into the bloodstream of democracy the witness to the Holy True, the Holy Good, and the Holy Beautiful. (Cf Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 1977). Such openness to the Divine Ground is the presupposition of all growth, of all openness, and so of all inclusion. Without such mysticism, flowing through the veins of a democracy and always widening it, democracies shrink and turn into their pathological “false doubles.” Truth becomes falsehood masking as truth; Goodness becomes narcissism masking as generosity; and Beauty becomes ugliness masking as beautiful.
Incidentally, if I understand Wilber correctly, this may be a place where I demur from him. But perhaps not. He is quite attentive to the traditional states of spiritual/mystical development, often spoken of in the Semitic religions as some form of the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive states, and in the “Far” Eastern as Gross, Subtle, and Causal states. I believe he is quite right that people, as and if they develop, may pass through these states at varied stages, and remain somewhat “frozen” in those stages. Thus one might have someone, he suggests, “frozen” at a rather ethnocentric and misogynist stage who is experiencing simultaneously the purgative-illuminative-unitive states as well. Perhaps we may think we have met them: someone who seems so holy, and undoubtedly is in many ways, and yet is so closed on so many other levels. Somehow growth has ceased in some areas. Does this not occur in our own U. S. history? People of amazingly high spiritual attainment, and yet racist, or homophobic, etc.?
Here I tend to think – this is my caveat to Wilber here -- that the mystic openness to the Transcendent Ground does not always transform an “unlearned” person into a “learned” or “well developed” one, but under grace will likely bring the humble openness needed to learn from others, and if not, to maintain a humble silence, or at least a sense of repentance for failure in this regard. Such might at least be one form of “learned ignorance.”
Wilber rather pithily writes that we need to Show Up (in all our dimensions), Grow Up (through all levels of development), Wake Up (to all spiritual states of the religions), and Clean Up (all the dimensions of our shadows and their possibly diseased forms, personal and social). (See Trump and a Post-Truth World, 143; more fully in The Religion of Tomorrow, index @ each phrase). This is helpful for our discussion here: for a healthy democracy we need to Show Up (on all levels, institutional, existential, and transcendental to be a demos), Grow Up (on as many levels of development as possible, on to a more inclusive/universalist level), Wake Up (to our transcendence into Mystery/ the Magis spoken of by our father Ignatius of Loyola), and Clean Up (our potential and actual pathologies/sins).
Is this not a good way to think of the mission of the churches and religions – which birth and nourish the mystics’ openness to the Divine Ground -- to the practices and understanding of democracy? The churches and religions themselves are perhaps the most significant if often very imperfect (remember Pope’s Francis’ description of the Church as a “field hospital”) “alternative organized societies” or perhaps better, “alternative communities,” within the larger social field of a democracy. They are, following chapter two of Lumen Gentium, the “people of God” on the way to Exodus and Resurrection. In a Fascist or nearly Fascist and totalitarian-leaning global atmosphere, theirs is the mission of preserving and witnessing to that genuine realm of human freedom and responsibility in openness to God and God’s creation which gives us hope that we will indeed have “malice toward none and charity for all.” Within the constraints of history under grace.
William Thompson-Uberuaga is an emeritus professor of theology at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh. A former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, he has authored numerous books and articles. He is also an Episcopal Priest of the Diocese of Idaho, who serves now as one of the semi-retired and active clergy of the Diocese of Maryland, where he lives now with his wife Patricia, herself a theologian with the Ph.D. from Duquesne.