Thursday 2 June 2016

In politics, policy and life - establishing the intention of others is (almost) everything

So much discussion is rendered futile by the primacy of intent - and that this fact is not recognised, or else rendered an insoluble mystery and ruled-out. This applies also in Christian life.

Discussion nearly always focuses on explicit, observable things like policy statements, laws, and people's actions. Yet these are only understandable in terms of the intentions behind them - the same behaviour can have opposite interpretations depending on the framework of intentions (or motivations) that it is embedded-in.

For example, when I was reading the Letters of Fr Seraphim Rose a few years ago - there were parts when he was at the same time resisting theological 'liberals' and 'ultra-correct' conservatives. The liberals were those who were changing, diluting, and dropping items of faith on the basis that the heart was what mattered. This was what I expected to see. But he was also resisting the 'ultra-correct', who were highly specific and rigid concerning permissible rituals, practises etc - and neglected the intentions and emotions behind them. And indeed I have seen Seraphim Rose criticised both for being a rigid traditionalist and liberalising radical.

At the end of the liberalising path, Christianity dies by being absorbed into mainstream secularism; at the end of the ultra-correct path, Christianity dies by being absorbed by legalistic bureaucracy. Either way, Christianity dies when the intention is other than Christian.

In the end, it was clear that even in Eastern Orthodoxy, which superficially seems a straightforward adherence to 'tradition', there are serious and insoluble difficulties about judging on the basis of actions and ignoring intentions.

In the blog 'reactosphere' - especially among the likes of Roman Catholics and Calvinists - the same debate is repeatedly played-out. And the real debate is - it seems to me - about the underlying intent: this is what needs to be discussed and decided.

For example, if the real, genuine, operative intent of a Christian liberaliser is to change the rules in order to promote his own career, or so as to permit engagement his favourite sexual activity - then whatever policy he promotes will not be what it seems, but merely a stalking-horse for the next stage in his self-gratification.

(This can be seen in the Church of England; where women who personally regard the priesthood as a job which they want to do, and then they want to be promoted to Bishop, will argue - sometimes using 'Christian' reasons - why this is necessary and beneficial; or priests who personally want to have sex outside of the context of a traditional marriage (i.e. between an adult man and women) will make theological arguments about the Christian duty of 'inclusion' to allow or encourage this.)

On the conservative and traditional side, can be seen a rigid legalism of attitude; for example Protestant pastors who reflexively and unrestrainedly (that is, without regard either for the Christian virtue of honesty or the Christian vice of bearing false witness) vilified the Harry Potter series because they contained magic. (This example may seem trivial, but I regard it as perhaps the single most significant lost opposrtunity for Christian evangelism of Western young people over the past couple of decades.) Or the ignorant, aggressive and (I infer) hate-fuelled way that serious, conservative Christians of different denominations talk about each other.

Again it is the intention which is controlling the situation; and conservative Christians are often driven by a desire to gain status by excoriating other people for their failure strictly to follow the rules, practises, and other observable and measurable outcomes. They are like the performance managers of corporations whose entire focus is on errors and complaints, and who use this to gain personal control (and personal gratification) by keeping the spotlight relentlessly on the failures of other people.

My point is that Seraphim Rose was 100 percent correct that neither rule-following nor rule-breaking are of the essence. The essence lies in what is behind this - in intentions, motivations and the like. In the heart.

Now, of course, intentions are not visible - people do not have transparent heads in which we can read their true intentions. And people lie and decieve - including lying to themselves and deceiving themselves - a pre-requisite for effective manipulation of others.

And to make matters worse there are radicals and reactionaries and misguided Christians who are always harping-on about not judging other people - by which they mean that because we cannot be sure of what is going on in the intentions of another, we are forbidden to make an inference on the topic - and must therefore either always assume the best intentions, or the worst.

This is dangerous, deadly nonsense! - even if it is sincerely and compassionately motivated - for the simple reason that intentions are the most important factor - and so they cannot be ignored.

So we should be upfront in talking about and thinking about the intentions of others. For example, in public life, in leadership, in politics and the like... we should be talking less about what people say and their policies, and more about what kind of a person they are. Furthermore, we cannot read-off what kind of person they are from what they have done - because until we know their intentions we cannot interpret what they have done.

So we must be wary about asking for 'evidence' of the intentions of others, and we must be wary of having an assumption of either good or bad intentions - because in practice such assumptions cannot often be overturned by 'evidence'. We need to aim at intuiting intentions - which is how the most socially-adept people behave in real life.

But how do we know the intentions of others? The answer is by paying careful attention to them, over period of time - in personal contact, in a number of situations, and with time to think about it and take notice of our hearts - the discernment of the heart as a Seraphim Rose called it - more than listening exclusively to our heads/ intellect or to our gut feelings/ immediate urges (both of which are easily fooled).

With public figures this process is more difficult and may be impossible. So be it - it is one reason why our mass society functions so badly. Nonetheless we must make such decisions and be open about the fact. (And, of course, our decisions must be open to revision - when our genuine intuitions change.) 

The single most important thing we can know about someone is his intentions (or, as GK Chesterton put it - his 'philosophy'; by which I would understand his metaphysical assumptions and his motivations in life).

This knowledge cannot be had for the asking, nor given by the telling -  the knowledge is not explicit nor quantifiable; in the end it comes from no specific technique or technology but from loving attention to communications (including those that are too subtle to recognise and beyond the sense to detect) and to our own most profound responses.

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