The inherent political dimension of religious selfhood

I’ve commented before that religion cannot really be separated from politics as the expression and analysis of power dynamics. Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, desire it or not, both our human experience and our religious experience are affected by the power dynamics. This is because we are already inside of these dynamics. We might seek to minimize these dynamics by rejecting human company and playing exclusively with the gods and spirits, and therefore feel free from the complications of human-human relational configurations, but at this time, in this place, in these bodies we remain politicized. Need an example? A human entity living in the United States in 2016 is strongly embedded in government bureaucracy, medical literature, inheritance law, citizenship, and a staggering number of statues, regulations, and guidelines, never mind the historic context that supports you and propels your trajectory into the future. Even if you are off the grid, without a social security number, without human company, you are still subject to the power dynamics – to the politics – of being human in this time and place because of things like air pollution, water pollution, nuclear testing, and so forth.

Some people have the privilege of being quite laissez faire about the way that power dynamics – politics – affect them, even swearing that such things have no place in (their) religion. This is, of course, demonstrably untrue because these power dynamics do affect religious expression and participation, and even our beliefs and experiences. To use just one example, in the US laws regarding religious freedom shape our potential expressions; people with the power to enforce or ignore those laws also shape those expressions. Anyone who’s ever lived in a housing situation where they had to hide their religious paraphernalia are quite aware that regardless of what the law says, people with greater political clout – people with advantage in power dynamics – can easily curtail your religious expressions and subject you to extreme consequences if you don’t fall in line.

I hate to reiterate what so many, many, *many* others have said before me but the people who are most in a position to ignore the implications of their politicized nature – that is, to ignore the fact that their embodied human self is caught in an intricate, invisible, and even intractable mesh of dynamic power relations – are the people most likely to (knowingly or unknowingly) leverage that power (that political position) against others. They are most likely to do so because it is easy. Because it allows them to create the world as they believe it needs to be. Because it lets them leave their mark, do their will, and enact their beliefs in the most efficacious manner.

*Whether we like it or not* our human selves are politicized because we are not discrete, isolated entities. We consist inherently in a state of dynamic permeation. Our forms are reflected in the forms of other human beings; we know ourselves through others. Our emotions are reflected in our fellow sentient beings; we know ourselves through others. We partake of sustenance produced by others; we create ourselves through others. We are, therefore, creatures of inherent power dynamics. Part of our fundamental nature is political.

Saying that power relations and power dynamics – politics – aren’t supposed to be part of religion is ridiculous. Whatever else contributes to the creation and expression of religion, it is a distinctly human endeavor. Even if we seek to eliminate the ways that power dynamics – politics – divide groups and distinguish one person from another, the reality of these dynamics must be acknowledged. If we don’t, then we fail to mitigate the disadvantaged position of our fellow believers and the religious body – in its personal and collective manifestations – is weakened.

I am not scared of “politicizing” religion because religion is already politicized and because religious participants are already politicized. I am not scared of acknowledging this reality and of identifying the way it impacts my beliefs and practices via its impact on my human experience. I may not necessarily agree with the ideological conclusions reached by any given analysis of power dynamics – that is, I may not share your political stance – but I’m not capable of pretending that anyone’s religion is free from these things.


2 thoughts on “The inherent political dimension of religious selfhood

  1. draupadi says:

    This is something I struggle with. One of the reasons why I avoid getting closely involved with ashrams or temple communities is because there. is. always. politics. Even if the guru himself is the real deal, he’s ensnared in the wider political and power battle happening around him and his organization.

    It personally troubles me because these are the very communities that create the structures of devotion, the keys to unlock the mind, all the wisdom – even if much of it is in conflict with each other – that eventually lets a spiritual seeker strike out on their own and become a solitary mystic. I can sit here in my hermit cave and talk all day about how happy I am to be away from the politics, cliques and in-fighting of my religious community, but at the end of the day I have to acknowledge that I have the luxury of being solitary because they gave me that foundation of knowledge to start from.

    Anyway, thank you for this very interesting post, this is a topic I have been thinking about recently. 🙂


    • Silence says:

      It’s a challenging topic to think about, let alone write about. Pretending that the dynamics of power aren’t part of a person’s religious experience – if only in the broad sense – doesn’t make those dynamics irrelevant or unreal. For instance, the fact that I have access to a wealth of study materials has a political dimension: the material is in English, a language dispersed in large part because of colonial, power-related goals; the material is available relatively cheaply because of exploited labor; I can borrow books from the public library because various leaders established the public library system – which nonetheless stands on land that was acquired through enormous violence. Even if I choose to study and practice entirely by myself, I believe that part of knowing the fullness of the knowledge being made available to me is understanding how that knowledge got to me in the first place. What action I feel is impelled by that understanding is also important, but I know I’ve mistaken understanding the political implications of a situation with an assumed requirement to take action; sometimes a recommended action is not obvious, at least not right away.

      I’m also pretty wary about getting too involved with temple communities, and especially with groups where certain teachers hold a lot of sway. Even if things seem stable and healthy at present, I always wonder how a shift of power could change things; I don’t want to get involved with any group that becomes toxic later on – or that is already toxic in ways I simply can’t recognize. It’s very challenging. I know there’s a lot I could learn from various groups or teachers but there are always concerns.


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