By Ric Hudgens
In this apocalyptic age where if the politics don’t kill you the ecology will, I am pondering a distinction made three decades ago by the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin. Wolin distinguished between a politics of intending and tending. Comparing these two modes of thinking Wolin saw one as prone to control and power and the other as a means of attention and care.*
The politics of intention requires power, as we strain toward a future that is not yet guaranteed.
Intention inevitably leads us astray. In order to control the future we constrain the present and often eliminate the past. We restrain, constrain, deliberately silence and arrest, detain, and imprison.
Tending is a different mode of being. Control is a myth. We are part of a much larger system, that we neither limit nor direct. We pay attention, learn, cooperate, humble ourselves, surrender, trust.
The politics of tending is what we do when we care for the sick or steward a garden. We control neither inputs nor results. Perhaps the only thing that can be controlled are our own contributions to a larger system with its own independent purposes.
We have often seen references of Jesus to “the kingdom” as implying a future that we must impose. Yet it could be that warnings against such imposition are also present (“the violent take it by force” Matt. 11:12). What if we are to understand basileia in very unkingdom (Mark van Steenwyk) ways? We are not seeking control as much as presence, collusion (with Spirit and with good), and single-minded, focused care (Matthew 6:33).
Attempted control has brought us to the brink of an approaching ecological apocalypse Control, power, force seem so necessary in order to right the ship. And yet like a ship on the ocean perhaps there are forces beyond our control.
This is not a passive view, but an alternative activism.
I find relevance in this as we panic over crises temporary and abiding. In light of the eventual, almost certain, already unfolding collapse of complex societies the temptation to seek control, apply force, and accumulate power is almost overwhelming. Doesn’t everyone doubt the potential of democratic polities to respond to emergencies of such a planetary scope? Right and left are united in their attempts to take the wheel. Radicals are just as predisposed though smaller in number. Aren’t we all frustrated that some benevolent group doesn’t seize control and make the future come out right?
Should we simply let go and let God? I’ve been disturbed by this simplistic nostrum. Powerful in recovery psychology it is deadly in society. Even within the valuable Twelve Step program this attitude is surrounded with activism and care. Not control, but tending.
What is the difference between tending and controlling?
Control has been an operative metaphor for centuries. When Adam and Eve are instructed to “subdue the [earth] and dominate it” (Gem 1:28 King James Version) we should have suspected something amiss. A garden can’t be controlled or it ceases to be a garden. We cannot limit inputs or guarantee results. We are not gods. And even God is not god. In creating the human the God of Genesis introduced randomness and chance into the system.
But it was already there! Neither a divine watchmaker designing everything for human benefit, nor a puppet master holding all the strings, but a caretaker who attends, nurtures, guides, but doesn’t control and certainly doesn’t guarantee the inputs of others.
A spirituality related to such a being, such a universe, such a world, looks different from traditional spirituality. Anxiety is legitimate. Passivity is evil. Active tending is demanded. Peace comes not from assurance but from trust. And trust doesn’t require assurance only constancy. The early church could trust the sameness of God and recognize the potential for destruction. They could foresee doom yet appeal for repentance. The future was open to peril and promise.
I am done comforting the grieving (either collectively or individually) with the assurance that God is in control. God is not “in control”. No one is in control. No one else is going to clean up our mess. This is where we begin.
* See Sheldon Wolin, The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State (1990)