Friends, I’m quite fortunate to receive the chance to present a paper at Oxford this coming week for the European Society of the Philosophy of Religion. I’m calling the paper The Christian Voice in American Civil Discourse: A Theological Guide Incommunicability, which is both long enough and pomo enough sounding to at least make me seem cool and smart. That said, Tripp suggested I post the paper both because it, in many ways, continues the theme of secularization, but also because you all might have some good critical feedback for me to consider. That said, it’s longer and a bit more complicated than a usual post, so…no angry comments about that, if you’re interested in reading it at all.
This paper, or at least the beginnings of it, stem from year and a half of wrestling with the now well know Radically Orthodox theologians, especially John Milbank. With a certain amount of sympathy to much of the project—which, in many ways, I would consider to be argumentation for the reinstitution of a sort of a, loosely put, post-modern neo-platonic social order—I have come down on the side of a definitive “no” to their overall goals. I have many theological reasons for this rejection—most notably, I don’t think the Radically Orthodox have a robust enough idea of sin. But perhaps the reason that has become most pertinent to my own decision was a pragmatic one, namely, that I came to see that the conditions for the possibility of my own and others’ religious freedom and, in general, the overall quality of my relatively free life as stemming from the basic structures of my own countries Constitutional and liberal democracy. This point is not to deny the destructive force such social orders can have, especially when its citizens become irresponsible and selfish. So, Churchill is right when he says “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Of course, I believe this same man is also right when he says that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
That said, as a Christian, I do believe that my own faith can play, perhaps must by means of its often times prophetic self-definition play, an important role in the social order, even if not under the auspices of direct legal social control. And though I will not here make any pretense of defining this social role, my general thoughts have led me to the type of paper that have written for today. In it, I am concerned with what I think is an interesting paradox: that though the Christian faith has room to express its values and concerns in a liberal democracy and to do so in whatever terms it sees fit, that to express such concerns in specifically theological terms would be unbeneficial to both it and the social order as a whole. To shed some light on this point, I will therefore give a brief interpretation of what liberality has come to mean in the U.S. social order in the first half of the paper, namely, that liberality stands solely for the freedom of expression of the citizenry without a priori excluding any expression; this freedom includes those of the Christian faith. However, because the believability of the Christian faith and any rationale stemming from it is only open to those who have traditionally been called “the elect,” I argue that Christians ought not attempt to influence the social order directly, offering a hint of what I believe to be a good alternative.
U.S. Constitutional Order
Accordingly, the first goal must be to define and outline the place of religious discourse, if any, in the U.S. Social order, which will take something of an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and its meaning. In the scholarship, both legal and non-, one will find little consensus on the intention, nature, and meaning of the U.S. Constitution. I do not propose to solve this particular problem by offering a comprehensive solution. I will simply offer what I think is a short but fitting philosophical interpretation of the document as I believe it has come to be culturally appropriated by U.S. Citizens. The emphasis, here, is on come to be appropriated as the Document has been severely reinterpreted based on our historical situations, a point with which I have no a priori problem.
In this regard, I posit that the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, much of the U.S. social order is now defined by its Bill of Rights. I cannot say and do not need to say that this orientation constitutes part of the original intention of the Document. Originally, the Bill of Rights seems to be an add-on (several “Amendments”) by the Anti-Federalists against the Federalists wishes; its purpose ensured that the small and growing nation-states that constituted the Federation would have a large degree of independence from the newly developing Federal power. However, for what I believe is very good reason, in1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights, which has become definitive in extending the Bill of Rights to the people as a whole; and when the Bill of Rights protects the people of the Federation as a while, it ensures that all individuals receive the protection defined in most of these Amendments against the tyrannies of certain states. I will also theorize, here, that this move solidified the Bill of Rights as focal point of the Constitution, defining the role of the Federal government as one that would protect individual liberties against both intrusions of states and itself, which is what the “people” of the U.S. has come to expect.
The Bill of Rights, then, is quite important. It protects the social order that the U.S. as a whole, for better or worse, has come to stand for: negative freedom. And in this order, negative freedom means, ideally, that neither the Federation nor the state can define a common good apart from the individual goods of the people. And the individual goods of the people can only be worked out according to their individual lives and the values they gain therein. I believe this principle signifies another important point.
Just as the Bill of Rights has developed into the focal point of the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment has also become the ordering point of the Bill of Rights. This famous Amendment thus reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” And what the Amendment symbolizes is a near absolute right of U.S. Citizens to engage in what Rorty calls their “projects of self-creation,” which means their individual “working out” of what they find valuable.
Perhaps more importantly, however, this Amendment symbolizes and protects both the manner and source of civil discourse in the States. The manner of civil discourse in the U.S. is defined by its freedom from most lawful and governmental constraints, the exceptions being something like Mills’ “harm principle” and, perhaps, certain attempts to overturn the U.S. Constitution itself. This manner of social discourse therefore allows that the people themselves openly become the source of social discourse, all of whom contribute their individually and communally developed voices, which themselves are developed based on the values that the people have a near absolute right to work out for themselves.
I think these points are extremely important when it comes to understanding the role of religious discourse in the States. For one, what comes to be unique about this social order and its civil discourse is that almost no one is, legally, either included or excluded from engaging in discourse. (Naturally, fact is often different than principle). And whether one is factually included in this discourse rests not on whether one ought to be included in some legal sense, but in whether one can make one’s voice convincingly heard so that it is factually included—which, for better or worse, usually takes both money and education. This principle of non-exclusion (not necessarily inclusion) includes religious voices.
For the sake of this paper, then, I will define religion in a functional sense, understanding it not necessarily in terms of, say, various world religions, though these might be included. But, I try to define it more sociologically. As such, I believe it useful for social and Constitutional matters to define “religion” as a way of life oriented toward and defined by some interpretation (implicit or explicit) of some sort of ultimacy. I think that such a definition can only work at a legal level, but it is what I use for now.
With a very basic interpretation of both the meaning of the term “religious” as I am using it and the meaning and this principle of non-exclusion defined by the U.S. Constitution, it is possible to define the role of public religions in the U.S. Social order. There follows two important principles for engaging in public religion in the U.S. social order. Negatively, religious organization have no right to call into question or attempt to alter the conditions which make their free participation in civil discourse possible in the first place, namely, the pragmatic contract established in and through the Constitution. There is no room for theocratic law—Christian, Islamic or any other. There is simply the pragmatic law of negative freedom ascribed to by the citizens—to mutually and gladly leave one another alone despite disagreements over ultimate ends. And in this realm, when religious organization try to make legal changes such that the U.S. is, say, officially recognized as a “Christian Country” or to impose religiously inspired laws on those outside of any particular groups’ religious belief, critics are both right and duty-bound to protest. Religion itself has no legal standing at a Federal level, and it no longer has a legal standing at a state level.
Positively, however, religious institutions and organization most certainly do have every right to engage in the civil discourse of the United States and attempt to shape the flow of public discourse, policy, and non-legally binding sets of values. The First Amendment’s sole purpose is to protect individual liberties from both Federal and state governments alike. The government, then, is in the business solely of regulating civil dialogue without setting down any legal obligations concerning what topics, ideas, reasons are proper to that dialogue—the only exception being, perhaps, that the Constitution itself cannot be overturned (though such overturning can be discussed) and that dialogue that causes direct harm is disallowed. Religious persons and organizations are as much welcome to the discussion as are their detractors.
I have so far tried to bring some definition to the legal possibilities of public religion in the States: that public religiosity is welcome in the same manner that any public voice is welcome, but that the resulting shapes and movements of the public for or against any such voices are legally non-binding. Religious persons and organizations can include themselves in the Federation’s social discourse and can include themselves as they see fit. However, I now want to approach what, for me, is the more important question: how to actually influence the social order as such?
For the second part of my paper, I must admit that I’ve gotten myself into somewhat of a bind. What I will attempt to argue for is the non-translatability of Christian rationale into social orders that extend beyond the bounds of believers. Such is the social order in the U.S., at least in principle and probably in fact. The basic idea is simple: the condition for the possibility of belief in Christian ideas is not something beyond the faith, but contained within it. That is, there is no natural, rational way to make the truths of faith believable; therefore, there is no way to use, say, a direct line of Christian rationale to convince others in a civil discourse to agree.
What is even trickier is the fact that, to even claim that my argumentation is the least bit believable, I must make a move akin to Barth, Jungel, and other such theologians; lest I be caught in a retortion argument, I must claim my own argument itself to be an attempt to unfold revelation within revelation, a point that ipso facto must only believable within the strictures of revelation, which itself is a statement that is only believable within the strictures of revelation, and so on ad infinitum. In some very real sense, my claims are non-grounded, at least at a publicly exoteric manner, though neither would I claim them to be private in the strict sense of the term.
Accordingly, my strategy, here, will not to be to convince anyone in the sense of “move them toward belief” of my position unless they are, of course, a part of the Christian Faith; but I hope to make my thoughts interesting, nonetheless. So, I want to make a very important distinction between, say, the intelligibility of certain arguments and the believability of those arguments. What I mean is quite simple: arguments can be intelligible, interesting, even conditionally believable without being actually believable to the one who understands that argument. Such, for instance, is the point the Athenians indirectly understood when they accused Socrates of “making the weaker argument the stronger” and when Callicles admits to Socrates that he “admits but does not agree that the Tyrant is worse off than the slave.” The believability of certain propositions and ideas are different than either their intelligibility or even truth; I hope to make an intelligible, perhaps even an interesting case for why, at an analytic level of the content of Christian belief itself, the believability of the Christian faith cannot be transferred to a non-Christian social order.
That said, the notion of believability is also my point of departure for this argument. And the way I am attempting to use the term believability is much in the same way that William James, for instance, uses the term “live hypothesis.” James defines this notion as “a hypothesis which appeals as a real possibility to whom it is proposed (James, The Will to Believe, 3).” Accordingly, the liveness or deadness of the hypothesis are not “intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker;” and the “reality” of this possibility are defined by the thinkers’ “willingness or unwillingness to act.” Believability signifies something like the ability or willingness to assent to a proposition or set of propositions that seemingly or possibly describes or captures the truth (which could be taken in either the Heideggerian or more tradition correspondent notion) of a situation. More definitely, I want to use believability in the sense of trust; that when we come to believe a proposition, we trust that it is adequately descriptive. The question is what makes certain intellectual elucidations believable at all?
It is common, at this point, to assert that cultural practice and the linguistic horizons stemming from it defines the basic categories through which persons think and express themselves. So, Richard Dreyfus, states in the Preface to Carol White’s Time and Death, that
Sociologists point out that mothers in different cultures handle their babies differently and so inculcate them into different styles of coping with themselves, people, and things…. [Without claiming this account to be correct or complete], Let us suppose, as we are told by the sociologists, that American mothers tend to put babies in their cribs on their stomachs, which encourages the babies to move around effectively, while Japanese mothers tend to put babies on their backs so they will lie still, lulled by the mothers’ songs….The babies, of course, imitate the style of nurturing to which they are exposed…[and so] starting with style, various practices will make sense ad become dominant, and others will either become subordinate or will be ignored altogether.
The style then determines how the baby encounters himself or herself, other people or things. So, for example, no bare rattle is ever encountered. For the American baby, a rattle is an object to make expressive noise…. A Japanese baby may treat a rattle-thing this way more or less by accident, but generally we might suppose that a rattle-thing is encountered as soothing….
Once, [therefore] we see that a style governs how anything can show up as anything, we can see that the style of a culture does not govern only babies. The adults in each culture are shaped by the it as they respond to things in the way they show up for them (Richard Dreyfus in Preface to Time and Death by Carol White, xi).
Intrinsic to this notion of cultural development, style defines more than simply the intellectual possibilities that we can intellectual “see,” however. I also grounds the believability of accounts concerning culturally defined objects, making such propositions possible as live hypothesis in the first place. So, sticking with the example Dreyfus tries to develop, the proposition “that a rattle is a toy usable for self-expression,” may find itself only believable in a culture where self-expression is valued as such. Accordingly, in terms of the style learned by each of the above babies, they learned not only possible thought categories, but came to trust such categories, which themselves ground the development of further possible categories and entities.
The Christian Faith
At any rate, there is much to be said on these specific issue. However, I want now to take up the specifically Christian notion of believability, which is here caught in a difficult spot. At least some Christians claim that the believability of its rationale—that God Incarnates in Jesus of Nazereth, dying, resurrecting, and making new a sinful humanity—is not simply a matter of human tradition, but revelation in the sense that it brings something absolutely new to the human being, something that was not there before. Of course, empirically speaking, there is a Christian tradition that has grown out of certain western strands of thought, has interacted and been influenced by some of its greatest thinkers, and is bound in expression to the best thought-structures of its day. My point is not to deny this point. I hope only to say that the continuing condition for the possibility of this historical tradition is not the tradition qua tradition itself, but the event in which the tradition is grounded and trying explore.
On the one hand, then, it is certainly possible and philosophically legitimate to argue that the believer believes because he has been inculcated into the tradition. Believers are believers because their history and cultural background have made the Gospel believable. On the other hand, the content of the Gospel denies this explanation as adequate because contained in the content of this traditional expression is the notion of salvation and revelation.
The first of these categories, salvation, means that we are made into something new, something that was not here before; man who was sinful is given new life, in grace, in Jesus the Christ. At least historically, and I’m inclined to think logically, too, to say that something genuinely and authentically novel is not brought in is to fall into certain Peligian strands, at least somewhat dismissive of the need for the Gospel event. However, this concept of novelty may be the topic, I’m beginning to think, of another paper, one that clarifies the nature of novelty and the novel content of the Christian faith. That said, the second of these categories as I use it—revelation—is the epistemic correlate of the first, namely, that we come to know that we are made anew so that we may make this newnewess our ownmost. Either way, if this content presupposes newness of being and the newness of its revelation, we can move with the logic outlined by Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus in his Philosophical Fragments.
New creation, if it is actually new creation, must move beyond the Socratic, which is defined purely and solely by anamnesis. That is, Socrates considers himself merely a midwife for ideas already contained within human possibility as humans currently stand. Accordingly, in order for the teaching to be actually new, it cannot be merely a historical tradition accessible on its own. There must be a teacher who brings to what is old—history—the “teaching” about the newness of creation and who is therefore himself new. While, therefore, the teaching of this teacher is achieved in history and becomes historical in its appropriation, the teaching itself is irreducible to the history that occasions its teaching.
What this point of newness also signifies is that there exists no old standard for measuring the truth of this teaching and whether it is believable. There is nothing in human tradition that could possibly testify to the believability of what is new without the new teaching itself becoming old. Therefore, if the old standards of believability were applicable to the new teaching, then the new teaching would be a product of anamnesis and, therefore, nothing really new. The new teaching, then, is its own justification, its own standard bringing with it its own conditions of believability given in the teaching itself.
As such, the new teaching only makes itself believable by enacting itself, plucking the old from the old and bringing it into the new. Therefore, the active “bringing into new creation” by the teacher grounds the believability of this new teaching as new; nothing else can do so. Without this “having been brought,” the believer must seem at best, hopelessly arrogant and, at worst, absurd. Or, at least this point must seem true from the old standard, which must claim that the teaching stems, as all other teachings, from human tradition.
It follows that only those who have received this new teaching have the ability to believe this teaching as new. But whom the teacher chooses to teach is not a matter of our discretion but the teachers.’ Accordingly, only those whom the teacher elects to teach, both in terms of the content of the teaching and the standard that makes the new teaching believable at all, have the ability to hear the message as believable at all.
I have suggested, therefore, that the believability of the Christian faith, for the Christian, is not subject to the same modes and rules of believability that we’ve come to define for other propositions. These propositions are based in human culture and practice alone and not in the teaching of the teacher, who makes by his teaching his teaching believable. This point further suggests that, a priori, ethics, social-standards, and … developed within the context of this new teaching are non-transferable in their believability, a point that directly affects the means by which the church can try to affect the liberal democratic social order.
If the church and its members takes seriously the notion of a liberal democratic social order, it cannot work with the pretense that it can influence the civil discourse in that order by means of either a directly Christian notion of social responsibility—for instance, that Jesus says or stands for X and, therefore, so should everyone else (to make a crude example). In fact, it may be the case that there is no direct point of interaction between the old and the new, and that the social order as it stands, contained as it is within the old, must be dealt with in its own terms. I have not definitive suggestion as to how, positively, to begin dealing with such social orders, but I do think that, for instance, Rudi Hayward has something to say on this topic. I don’t know much about the project as of yet, but the project is taking up the question of what it could mean to produce art as a Christian without producing Christian art; and, as the project seems well aware, such thinking can be applied beyond art itself to any number of social spheres, including the civil and the development of its social discourse.