Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

Is It Possible to Be a Mystic and Serve the Public Good

Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

Is It Possible to Be a Mystic and Serve the Public Good

Article excerpt


This article examines the positivist and technicist foundations of public administration within the context of Christian Mysticism. Using Christian Mysticism as an ideal construct of the spiritual life, the purpose of this article is to determine whether the foundation of our field and its practice may stand in the way of spiritual development as well as the public good. A comparative methodology is used to contrast the lives of Saint Catherine of Sienna, who influenced the Popes of her 14th century time, and Father Joseph, who served as advisor to Richelieu, Prime Minister of France during the reign of king Louis the 13th. It is concluded that Saint Catherine served the public good while sustaining a positive spiritual life, while Father Joseph had a negative influence on the public policy of his time. Possible explanations for the differences found in these two persons are explored, and it is concluded that while it may be possible to pursue and feel the presence of God in one's life and to do works in the public realm, that the foundation of public administration may in fact stand in the way of such a pursuit.

The Transcendent Element

Public administration is set firmly within the modem era with its emphasis upon technological progress, a scientific-analytic mind set, and a capitalist economic system designed for the pursuit of material gain. Within this framework, public administration history is one long sojourn into rationality constructs (Adams, 1992, 1998; Wamsley, 1990, 1996). From the very onset, the major values have served a technicist-scientific framework (Waldo, 1948). These values revolve around a near obsession with order, certainty, and control, whether the frame of reference has been how best to structure an organization, administer programs, develop public policy, or make policy decisions.

Adopting a positivist model of reality, academicians and practitioners alike treat all public policy problems as though government can definitively solve those problems, if only the analysts and decision-makers correctly use the scientific method. Accordingly, public servants are encouraged as professionals to continue developing their technician-like expertise and to remain value neutral. I argue that public administration's legacy, so steeped within modernity and the technicist-rationalist framework, has created several interrelated problems. First, rationality constructs replace the process of determining the public interest. The constructs themselves become the public interest as the policy experts displace the citizenry and the need for dialogue in a democratic order (Byrne, 1987; Noble, 1987; Tolchin, 1987). Second, any subjective problem which the analyst cannot reduce to a quantitative model is inevitably overlooked or its meaning distorted (Tribe, 1973). Moral philosophers suggest that such distortion creates callous and unethical public policy (Hampshire, 1978). The problem, however, does not end with democracy and public policy. It is reasonable to suggest that use of the positivist model diminishes the spiritual life and moral capacity of the public servant as well. Dominated by the discourse of economics and by a utilitarian moral philosophy, our rationalist roots may well separate the public servant from her or himself and any wider transcendent purpose. As the noted theologian Abraham Heschel (Merkle, 1985) observes, the essence of being human requires that we care and respond to transcendental meaning. In fact, such is our human vocation, a vocation that raises us to higher levels of dignity and existence.

This article is exploratory in nature. I argue that we must begin to chart a new path for public administration, one that not only enhances the quality of public policy, but which affirms human dignity and the spiritual life. I think that we may be assisted in extricating ourselves from the positivist model by examining a discipline, which deals overtly with the transcendent. …

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