Saturday, December 18, 2010

...But is it Christian?

Soon after writing my last blog post, I was reminded by a couple of other blog posts (here and here) that there are many Christians out there wondering what the proper political orientation is from a biblical perspective, and that Hayek's liberalism isn't exactly drawn straight out of scripture (Hayek himself was agnostic). Where does that leave me? Am I being true to my faith, and trying to build a consistent Christian worldview? Or am I simply picking and choosing what I want to believe?

I feel that the only way to deal with this question is to break down some common assumptions with which Christians are often burdened. The first is that there is such a thing as a Christian worldview. I simply know of no comprehensive view of the world that has ever been shared by the majority of Christians. This fact is symptomatic of a deeper truth: we do not arrive at our understanding of the world through a predefined system of learning. We learn about the world largely by accident, through our interactions with whatever lies in our limited sphere of existence. The hope of constructing a thoroughly Christian worldview presupposes the ability to evaluate everything from a God's-eye perspective, which we do not have. It will not do to appeal to those sources, such as the Bible or the pope, which we hold to be authoritative, since there is still the problem of interpretation. As tempting as it is to dismiss all interpretations we don't agree with as heretical, experience shows that this kind of dismissal rests on a great deal of presumption.

A second related assumption is even more basic: we are tempted to assume that we can at least agree on first principles when it comes to something like politics. This is false. It is by no means obvious, even in principle, how to treat politics in relation to faith. Should we be concerned with politics only insofar as it allows us to be devout in this brief existence, until we finally leave this world behind and go to heaven? Or is our task in politics to enact God's will on earth? Perhaps our task to find some middle ground, in which we do our best to enact God's will but trust that most of the time we will probably have to be patient, waiting for God to act on his own. Or maybe we just shouldn't be involved in politics at all! This is by no means a settled question, and if we cannot even settle on a starting point for political discussion we can hardly expect to agree on most of our conclusions.

For this reason any hope that there can be such a thing as a "Christian" political party is vain. Just "do what the Bible says" or any other such naive approach will not work. And if a Christian political party worked anything like a typical Christian church, it would probably split within a few years, anyway.

Even though I reject these common assumptions, I still think there are good reasons to seek after a political philosophy I believe to be consistent with my faith. I do think faith is to be all-encompassing. God's sphere of influence is everything, and even if we can't evaluate everything from a God's-eye view, we can at least be conscious that our Father does see all things. We may not arrive at a comprehensive worldview, but we can inch our way toward a greater understanding of the world that has been given to us. If as little children we must enter the kingdom of heaven, we ought to start here on earth to fumble around as little children do, trusting that our Father will teach us how to thrive. If we know at least that the second greatest commandment is "Love your neighbor as yourself," politics should be one of our greater concerns as Christians. Politics, after all, is fundamentally about that critical question: "And who is my neighbor?"

A very brief summary of my political philosophy would be that individuals should be free to act within a well-defined private sphere, which is protected by a government, whose responsibilities are established in advance by general abstract rules. There are two main assumptions that support this philosophy, each of which I believe to be manifestly Christian. The first is that every human being has inherent dignity, in spite of his own sin and corruption. Indeed, it is the imperfection of human beings that makes it all the more necessary to protect an individual's private sphere of existence, since otherwise the individual it at the mercy of other equally flawed human beings. I don't suspect that many Christians would find this especially objectionable.

The second assumption, however, gets more to the heart of the many political disagreements between Christians. My assumption is that while we may know in a general sense what God's commands are, we do not and cannot know what God would have us do in a given situation. This is likely to raise objections from other Christians. Doesn't prayer allow us to know God's will for us? Doesn't meditation on scripture and attention to the traditions of our elders in the faith give us sound guidance? Here I confess I have to appeal to something else which is not uniquely Christian: experience. As much as I would love to defend Christian belief in prayer and other sources of knowledge of God's will, it would appear from common experience that these are far from infallible. Have we not all heard of people doing the most insane things because they heard God's voice? And I for one have had the experience of believing I knew God's will for a particular decision of mine, and only in retrospect understanding that I was completely wrong.

The idea that we can trust some especially spiritual person to know God's will in a particular situation is highly flawed. Although there appear to be examples where this is condoned in the Bible, there are other places which warn against it. We may think of the passage in 1 Samuel in which God equates the Israelites' request for a human king with their rejection of him as their divine king. This should be a solemn warning for us: when we reject what we don't understand in favor of what we do understand, we place ourselves on the path to misery. Jesus himself resisted being set up as king (John 6:15). The apostles often held elections before agreeing on what God's will might be (Acts 1:26, etc.) indicating that precautions were necessary, since God's will could not be completely clear even to the most righteous of saints.

In a sense, the Bible knows only one form of government, namely monarchy--but only in a sense. Jesus Christ himself is not like any other monarch. It may be instructive simply to meditate on the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead, only to ascend into heaven. We believe that Christ is alive; what has he been doing for the past 2000 years? This is not the question of a skeptic, but an honest question meant to provoke questions about how it is that God actually rules in the world. Has God himself appeared to force his will on individual circumstances (this I take to be the definition of miracle)? Perhaps; there is some evidence of this. But it is certainly not a universal rule that he performs miracles. In general, we see only God's rule through abstract principles. We see his creation operate according to natural laws, which can be studied and well understood. As for how he expects us to behave, he has given us only abstract principles, as well, and not instructions for how to behave in particular circumstances.

What are the implications of this? If we cannot know God's will in particular circumstances, it follows that any form of human government must be restrained by abstract principles. Its discretionary powers must be extremely limited, as tempting as it may be to "treat each situation by its own merits." Giving government the unlimited ability to make decisions about what the outcome of societal activity should be inevitably leads to arbitrary power being exerted over individuals. This can only be justified by putting the governing authorities as high above individuals as God is above the governing authorities. The essential point is that law ought to restrain even government, and not just the individuals over whom government is set in authority. If this appears to restrain government from enacting "social justice," it is only because we are so arrogant as to claim we know what God would have us do in a given instance.

Government should not be allowed to wield its coercive powers in order to achieve its own particular ends, but only in service of higher principles, the results of which it is not possible to know in advance. It is not that laws can never change. The problem is when law becomes mere formality, and government changes it whenever the outcome of a particular law doesn't seem to suit the present circumstance. In general, law should be designed to be long-term and should apply to all people equally in every circumstance. Laws should be widely understood, so that the government's behavior in any given circumstance is predictable. It is only under these circumstances that individuals can be truly free. Otherwise their freedom to act is up to the discretion of the particular individuals in government, who are no less corrupted by sin than the rest of us.

It is certainly plausible that the dominance of the secular state in our society is connected to the rejection of God's sovereignty over all things. However, arbitrary power can also be wielded with supposedly divine sanction. The essential point here is how much knowledge government claims to have. Governing authorities rapidly approach totalitarian control by claiming to have all the knowledge sufficient to treat the present circumstances. Whether they claim to have this knowledge through human reason or they claim to have divine guidance, the result is the same: the individual becomes a mere servant of the state. This is the danger that Christians on the Left and on the Right often do not seem to realize. If we could avoid attributing to ourselves knowledge which we simply don't have, we would mostly avoid this danger.

I have laid out a very general defense of my view, but I do want to make one comment by way of application. It seems that one of the issues Christians get hung up about in our day is this vague idea of "caring for the poor." It is astonishing how much we lack clarity on this issue. Despite our apparently strong feelings about this issue, we have failed to define either of the words "caring" and "poor" in any precise way. This lack of clarity tends to feed the ability of politicians to do whatever they please. In the name of caring for the poor, you can enact quite a number of foolish policies concerning health care, education, or social security.

My own belief is that the government can and ought to provide everyone with some base level of support in case catastrophe should arise. It is extremely tempting, however, to use this power of government to achieve some sort of distributive justice. But this would require the government to have all the information about the present set of circumstances, which it doesn't. It is often repeated by conservatives that individual acts of charity are better than government welfare programs, but it is often not stated why: the individual is far more likely to be aware of concrete circumstances and specific ways in which her contribution can be most effective. The issue is not whether anyone is more or less deserving of special attention and care. The issue is how we can gain this information, and government can never have the necessary information to help every individual in need. (Conservatives often point out how necessary it is that government not coerce people into giving charitably. I am not so concerned with this as I am with government failing to treat people equally.)

(I don't think it is especially important how much this "base level" of support is exactly. There will always be disagreements about how much is "necessary." However, if we adhere to a strict policy of only offering the same amount of support to all people under the same conditions, the political forces inherent in a democracy should naturally work out a reasonable amount. The problem arises when government tends to favor one group of people over another, making a particular group of people dependent on those in power. This corrupts democracy as well as justice.)

I also feel it is necessary to point out that many of the things that make people poorer in this country are due to defective government policies--inflation, overspending, and poor taxation policies, to name a few. To a certain extent, then, I can understand the desire to have government pay these people back. What's disturbing to me is that we are misled into thinking of this as the government saving the poor from the evil forces of the market. It is as if the government broke someone's legs and then told that person, "Those evil bandits broke your legs! Now we will have to take care of you." And then they have the gall to quote Jesus while doing this.

Christians will continue to disagree for very good reasons about what our political philosophy should be. But I am very sincere in my belief that Christians ought to hold to the principles of individual freedom from coercion and minimal arbitrariness in government. This is not a direct revelation from God, nor did I deduce this belief from scripture. It is the simply the product of my reading, thinking, and, believe it or not, praying. I offer it up simply as my own belief, and I hope that others will consider it or at least be challenged by it.


  1. Dear Jameson,

    It is disappointing that you have linked to our blog as an example of one that would be advocating a certain political philosophy. The post in question was an example of how the law cuts both ways and people use it to defend their particular ideologies, no matter what side of the aisle they sit on.

    This is (and has been) the consistent message of our blog as it relates to politics--influenced, hopefully, by an appropriation of the (much maligned and misunderstood) "doctrine of the two kindgdoms"--we have endeavored to show that baptizing a political philosophy is simply another way of avoiding the even-more radical message of the Cross.

    You've said: For this reason any hope that there can be such a thing as a "Christian" political party is vain. Just "do what the Bible says" or any other such naive approach will not work. And if a Christian political party worked anything like a typical Christian church, it would probably split within a few years, anyway.

    If I didn't know better, I'd think you were one of our writers! What you've asserted is completely consistent with the political stance we have taken on our blog. Politics is an important part of life, and the church should never lose its corrective and prophetic voice w/in that sphere, but we can never confuse the two.

    Keep up the good work; I'd vote for you!

    Many Advent blessings,

  2. Dear JDK,

    I apologize if there is any misunderstanding of my first paragraph. I simply meant that your post reminded me of a fact that I have to grapple with. It's not that I assumed you were advocating a particular political philosophy.

    Thanks for your comments. Many blessings to you, as well.


  3. I think your second paragraph there has some issues. Through the powers of the intellect, we do have a quasi-God's eye view on the world; this is Reason and judgment. Authority of most kinds is amenable by Reason, otherwise you could never even validly call anybody a heretic. These judgments do rest on presumptions, such as the law of non-contradiction, and insofar as that is the case, our learning is pre-defined.

    There may not be a political philosophy that all Christians should adhere to, but Catholicism, as the majority, contains a Christian philosophy adhered to, implicitly or explicitly.

  4. Dear Josh,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I feel compelled to respond.

    "Through the powers of the intellect, we do have a quasi-God's eye view on the world; this is Reason and judgment." I don't agree with this. My own opinion is that reason is constructed out of cultural tradition. I'm not saying that "truth is relative" or any such thing, but I am saying that reason does not give us anything like a God's-eye view on things. It would take a lot to explain this, but perhaps you'll read some of my other posts with the tag "epistemology."

    "These judgments do rest on presumptions, such as the law of non-contradiction, and insofar as that is the case, our learning is pre-defined." I believe this to be factually incorrect. The law of non-contradiction is abstracted from a habit of thinking that has been passed down to us, but it is not a necessary precondition for thought. There do exist other logical systems out there without this principle. It is also worth mentioning that probably all of us hold some views which are contradictory. I recommend considering Father Florensky's thoughts on the principle of non-contradiction.

    "There may not be a political philosophy that all Christians should adhere to, but Catholicism, as the majority, contains a Christian philosophy adhered to, implicitly or explicitly." This statement strikes me as confused and/or presumptuous. As a matter of fact, Catholicism, while being certainly the largest denomination, is by no means the majority of Christianity. It is also highly doubtful whether most Christians or even most Catholics follow the Catholic political philosophy, explicitly or implicitly.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.


  5. I'll leave my second paragraph by the wayside, but the comments to the first one are perplexing.

    I'll leave comment re: Reason until I've read further on your blog.

    That an abstract first principle of logic and metaphysics is "egotistical" is a bit strange, to say the least. If it is, I could counter that it certainly isn't the human ego coming out in our recognizing axioms, but God's 'I'. Frankly, Fr. Florensky's treatment isn't abstract enough...bit too mystic.

    The principle of non-contradiction is a pre-condition of Being itself. Try to doubt its truth and you find you must presuppose its truth to even start. I find this absolute starting point as comforting as Florensky finds it grieving, as it enables any reasoning at all. I'm highly skeptical of a system of logic that doesn't rest in some way on asserting what is to the exclusion of what is not, which is the essence of the principle itself. Seems like it would take some devious illusion of mathematical profundity....

  6. That a principle is comforting is no reason to seat it on a throne over all human intellect. One can have a healthy appreciation for the principle of non-contradiction without treating it as a starting point for human thought. There are two ways in which I think this is an error. The first way is empirical. In point of fact, thought begins in a human mind long before that mind has the ability to extract principles of logic from those habits of thought which develop over time. The second way is philosophical and even theological. To say the principle of non-contradiction as precondition of being is make God himself subject to a principle that is beyond him.

    When you say, "Try to doubt its truth and you find you must presuppose its truth to even start," you demonstrate that your method is Cartesian through and through, and I am simply saying I reject Descartes' method. I don't think doubt is the appropriate place to start. Skepticism is a very handy tool--indeed, I consider myself a skeptic about most human knowledge. But it is not a tool which enables us to begin the pursuit of knowledge. For that you must have something more primal than doubt--namely, relationship.

  7. I should say, instead, that God is the principle, taking from Exodus 3:13; Yahweh. Thus the principle isn't beyond Him, but is Him.

    I don't advocate Descartes' methods either, I was merely saying that the principle is a condition of all thought; it is not a proposition that is true or false but an axiom of Being itself.

    I'm fairly certain that we would agree in large part on this issue, but we seem to be talking past each other on some things. I'm faithful we could arrive at an understanding, however, and I enjoy your work on here. Keep it rolling!


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