Why Religious Freedom is Bad

A provocative statement, no? Stanley Hauerwas is no stranger to provocative statements, and this is one he makes in After Christendon: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas. Not that Hauerwas claims to be a proponent of either formal establishment or of inquisition. Rather, he says that “religious freedom” in the American context gave the church no alternative but to become the chaplain to the state. Hauerwas’ concern is not with the state or with society, but rather with the church:

Because Christians have been so concerned with supporting social and legal institutions that sustain freedom of religion, we have failed to notice that we are no longer a people who make it interesting for a society to acknowledge our freedom. Put differently, in such a context, believer and nonbeliever alike soon being to think that what matters is not whether our convictions are true but whether they are functional. We thus fail to remember that the question is not whether the church has the freedom to preach the gospel in America, but whether the church in America preaches the gospel as truth. The question is not whether we have freedom of religion and a corresponding limited state in America, but whether we have a church that has a people capable of saying no to the state. No state, particularly the democratic state, is kept limited by constitutions, but rather states are limited by a people with the imagination and courage to challenge the inveterate temptation of the state to ask us to compromise our loyalty to God. (p. 70-71)

I agree with Hauerwas. Not because I wish to compel religious belief or church membership (indeed, I have written in the past at this blog that the nation-state is the inheritor of Christendom and the citizen is to the state what Christian was to the Constantinian church), but because the church in the Enlightenment, whether “liberal” (politically or theologically) or conservative (natch), has inherited all of the Enlightenment’s assumptions and presuppositions about what society is, the role of the Church and of the Christian in “society,” and the moral legitimacy of the state. A church that accepts the moral legitimacy of the state cannot effectively question the state’s actions because it eventually wants what is best for the state and for society, as opposed to wanting to be a faithful witness to the Gospel. It wishes to have influence and be effective rather than speak truth.

The Enlightenment church still seeks to be part of the Constantinian deal of “Christian” power.

Hauerwas also points our something else, something I think is actually significant in much of the rhetoric (especially conservative and neoconservative rhetoric) used in the “War on Terror” (sic):

In effect liberals [in the classic philosophical sense] … no longer believe in the justification of liberal democracies based on the philosophical strategies of the Enlightenment, but the still want liberal results [of open-minded, reasonable societies]. Any other alternative would entail, they fear, a return to the kind of conflicts occasioned by the assumption that religious convictions should have public and even political expression. The whole point, after all, of the philosophical and political developments since the Enlightenment is to create people incapable of killing other people in the name of God.

Ironically, since the Enlightenment’s triumphs, people no longer kill one another in the name of God but in the names of nation-states. Indeed I think it can be suggested that the political achievement of the Enlightenment has been to create people who believe it necessary to kill other in the interest of something called “the nation,” which is allegedly protecting and ensuring their freedom as individuals. […]

Indeed one would like to know how liberals … understand the status of nations. For Anthony Giddens argues in The Nation-State and Violence, that nation-state as we know it is a remarkably different entity from the absolutist state that preceded it. Whereas the absolutist state was primarily concerned with maintaining control over a territory for purposes of taxation, that nation-state, which exists in a complex of other such nation-states, is “a set of institutional forms of governance maintaining an administrative monopoly over a territory with demarcated boundaries (borders), its rule being sanctioned by law and direct control of the means of internal and external violence.”

I mention the “War on Terror” and the alleged horror that killing in the name of God supposedly brings to civilized Enlightenment people. But the same people — the same pundits and ordinary folks who condemn the alleged medieval qualities of revolutionary Islam — have few or no qualms about killing on behalf of states and governments. Which I find interesting.

On Living Joyfully

I love Stanley Hauerwas. This makes me something of an oddball in my politically/socially/theologically liberal confession (esepcailly at my seminary, where his views are not well-liked, particularly by ethicists and systematic theologians), but being an oddball and/or outcast (or simply being a malcontent) is something I am used to. When the spring semester ground to a halt, I walked out of the library with an armload of Hauerwas books, and I’ve just finished reading his primer on ethics (he’s not fond of ethics as an endeavor), The Peaceable Kingdom.

There’s so much in this book that is worth discussion, but I’ll stick with his bit on joy from the last chapter, in which Hauerewas speaks of joy and tragedy and the Christian life:

Through repentance we thus learn to accept that our lives personally and socially were not meant to be tragic but joyful. And our joy is not that for which we hope, but is a present disposition that pervades our whole life. It is the presupposition of all the virtues. It is the discovery that we are not by nature liars and violent, but rightfully we are those who desire to know the truth and to live peace with ourselves, our neighbors and most of all God. Joy thus becomes the disposition born of a hope based on our sense that it cannot be our task to transform the violence of this world into God’s peace, for in fact that has been done through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Our joy is the simple willingness to live with the assurance of God’s reemption.

Joy is not the same as happiness, Hauerwas says:

The joy that characterizes the Christian life is not so much the fulfillment of any desire, but the discovery that we are capable of being people who not only desire peace but are peaceable. Joy thus comes to us as a gift that ironically provides us with the confidence in ourselves which makes possible our living of God’s peace as a present reality.

That is why we cannot try to be joyful even though we can try to be happy. Joy always comes to us in a form we hardly expected. … Joy is thus finally a result of our being dispossessed of the illusion of security and power that is the breeding ground of our violence. Violence is not something that we “get over” through one decision to be non-violent. THose long committed to the way of non-violence testify to the continuing presence of violence in their lives, not the least of which is the temptation of the non-violent to use their “weakness” to manipulate others to achieve their own ends — ends that others would pursue in a more aggressive manner. Self-deception is no less a problem of the nonviolent than the violent.

Rather nonviolence requires life-long training in being disposessed of all that I think secures my significance and safety. And the irony is that the more we lose, the greater the possibility we have for living life joyfully. For joy is the disposition that comes from our readiness always to be surprised; or put even more strongly, joy is the disposition that comes from our realization that we can trust in surprises for the sustaining of our lives. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of learning to live joyfully is that we learn to see the simple and most common aspects of our existence, such as our friends, our spouses, our children, as sheer gifts to which we have no right but who are nonetheless present to us.

The church is the community formed by, through and around Christ, and thus for Hauerwas, ethics is not about making “right” choices but about living faithfully and being formed by this Church which speaks and lives the truth — a truth that has been given only to the Church and which is not reasonable (it cannot be distilled by reason).

Tillich and the Church

More reflections on Paul Tillich’s theology. This on his understanding of what it means to be church.

* * * *

There’s a lot to these 80 or so pages, too much actually, so I will focus largely on two matters Tillich brings up – the hidden, or spiritual, church and the social function of the church.

Tillich writes: “The churches, in paradoxical unity with their Spiritual essence, are sociological realities, showing all the ambiguities of the social self-creation of life,” (p.212) thus expressing what he believes is a clear truth about churches, religious communities and confessional groups, that they are products of time and place and subject to the same problems and “ambiguities” that all human groups, systems and institutions are. However, churches also “participate, on the one hand, in the ambiguities of life in general and of the religious life in particular, and on the other hand, in the unambiguous life of the Spiritual Community,” (p.165) a life grounded in the New Being of Jesus Christ. This means that churches must carefully (and usually not very successfully) negotiate being finite institutions populated by finite people who also express, articulate and embody the infinite. It is my experience that often times this articulation is unconscious or unintentional, the result of our acting in and through faith rather than reason and purpose. God’s work is done by human beings whether they want to or not, or intend to or not, or even believe they are doing God’s work.

Tillich deals briefly with the notion of the hidden church and the distinction – if there is one – between that church which is seen institutionally and corporeally and the very real body of Christ incarnate in the world. We take for granted that this hidden church is present in the visible church, that it is “the Spiritual essence of the visible church; like everything Spiritual, it is hidden, but it determines the nature of the visible church.” (p.163) Tillich warns us that this spiritual church is neither a spiritual ideal nor a community of ethereal spiritual beings, but he also says this spiritual community is not bounded by the visible church (such as “the Roman church”). However, he doesn’t really say what the spiritual community is, and he doesn’t seem to want consider how the body of Christ might transcend the visible church. My experience of this is the hidden church is woven through the world, made up of millions of “Christians” who do not even know that they are, in fact, Christians, full members of the body of Christ. Some of the best Christians I have ever met, in terms of their acting in love for God and neighbor, were Muslims. This experience of the love of Christ in those who do not confess Christ has allowed me to experience this “hidden church.”

He also deals briefly with the unity of the church, something that some Christians strangely see as a scandal given our apparent lack of unity. “Unity is the second predicate of the churches which express the paradox of their nature. The churches are united because of the unity of their foundation, the New Being which is effective in them. But the churches unity cannot be derived from their actual unity, nor can the predicate of unity be denied because of their present disunity.” (p.168) A statement I could have written myself, and an understanding that our unity as Christians and as the Church (to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is a divine reality, not a human ideal. However, while I would go on to use such a sentiment to discredit grand-high ecumenism – the kind of ecumenical nonsense perpetrated by pampered and idiotic churchmen and women within the distant, comfortable and well-manicured confines of, say, Geneva, Switzerland – Tillich appears to use this line of thinking to actually justify such foolishness, even as he acknowledges that “new divisions would appear” if a “United Churches of the World” were formed. If that is the case, and Christ is our real unity, why bother with conferences and studies and position papers anyway, aside from ensuring that some people access to lake-front homes in Switzerland they otherwise could never have? (Tillich is, of course, a product of his time, and no reputable intellectual in the West during the period of the 1950s and 1960s would have disowned grand high internationalism of any kind, whether at the United Nations in New York or the WCC in Geneva. Which is too bad, since grand high internationalism of all kinds desperately needed, in fact still needs, to be repudiated and disowned and, if possible, blown up, burnt down and its charred remains melted into giant glass bricks and dumped in the deepest, darkest ocean trench.)

As for the function of the church, Tillich outlines what he calls the aesthetic, cognitive, communal and personal functions of the church. The aesthetic and cognitive do not interest me that much (and he says he dealt with the cognitive function – theology – in the first part of the book). However, I find the communal and the personal of great interest. Ever the reducer, Tillich boils the communal function to four “ambiguities” — inclusiveness, equality, leadership and legal form – the operate in the tension between holiness (personal and collective) and justice (personal and collective). Tillich understands that hierarchy and the defense of institution lead to injustice, and that will always be present in the Church because it is always present in human society.

Where I think Tillich fails to properly understand the problem of human power, however, is in his restriction of church voices to two – prophetic and priestly (though he has a third “function” in their, royal) – and his assertion that in Protestantism’s rejection of asceticism “has paved the way for the telos of humanity.” (p.210)

To deal with the first, Tillich labels as priestly the “silent penetration of a society by the Spiritual Presence” and prophetic “the open attack on this society in the name of the Spiritual Presence.” (p.213) However, there is a third function he doesn’t name – the church function of chaplain, that institution which blesses society as God-sent or God-given. While Tillich wants to see the church as something opposed to (and yet within) the society it is a part of, he fails to properly appreciate just how subsidiary churches have become to nation-states. (Indeed, “society” is that human community bounded and defined by the nation-state, and thus, like a good Lutheran Protestant, he takes the nation-state not merely as a given, an accident of history but as a God-given good, one intended by God.) While he accepts that churches have surrendered far too much to nation-states, he also believes that the prophetic voice exists outside the church and in the 19th and 20th centuries has had a positive effect on church concepts of justice and humanity. Oh really? The desire to order and impose uniformity and coerce conformity are “prophetic?” The desire to treat human beings as problems to be managed and improved (with all that implies) is “prophetic?” Mass politics is “prophetic?” Dehumanizing science is “prophetic?” Industrial war and mass murder are “prophetic?” Jacobins and Bolsheviks and Social Democrats with their managerial plans and ideals of moral and material progress and human perfectibility, their love of state, war and empire, have been a prophetic voice? Is he serious?

This speaks to the inescapable political responsibility Tillich sees churches as having, of wielding Christ’s “royal” power, a power I am hard-pressed to see the Church having. Mere critique of the wealthy, or of the government, is not “prophetic” if it continues to be bundled with a defense of the state, the nation, the society and all they allegedly stand for. Indeed, to believe in the political responsibility of the church is to grab for the church a portion of the violence that is an absolutely necessary component of political life and political action. Whether the church claims absolute social privilege or merely asserts an identity as one more interest group in a liberal democratic state, the church is claiming for itself the right to compel or impose its notion of “humanity” and “justice” on those who do not share its vision. It is to claim for the church the unjust and inhumane power of the state, power Jesus himself rejected, as part of our alleged Gospel calling. Jesus utterly and completely rejected state power, even as part of what Tillich wants to call his “royal power.” Thus, we as the church have no stake in the power of the state, its survival or success. That Liberal Protestantism is far too wedded to the nation-state – and the murderous international order born of murderous nation-states – is its great sin.

Which leads me to my final point. Tillich speaks of the “telos of humanity” but, at least within the confines of this chapter, he does not say what it is. He does say that human beings, no matter how close they get to that purpose, are still “infinitely removed” from it. This is supposed to replace the attitude of control between (in his example) educator and student by letting them both know that they are both in the same predicament – neither is subject or object. This is, I suspect, Tillich’s understanding of the I/Thou relationship described by Martin Buber, the relationship Tillich says he wants to preserve with the state in his book Theology of Culture. But the fact is there can be no I/Thou relationship with power, for everything power confronts is or becomes an object, an object to be manipulated, managed, disposed of or destroyed, because (tautologically, I know) power is the ability to reduce things (in this case, human beings) to objects or management problems. The problem with the very notion of a “telos of mankind” is who gets to say what this telos is? And who gets to do something about it? Many human beings throughout history, but especially in the last 250 years – Jacobins, Social Democrats, Bolsheviks, National-Socialists, Neoconservatives – have become convinced they know exactly what that the ultimate end of human life and purpose of existence are. British conservative moral philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote of the “teleological state,” the state that assumes it can both discern and then impose purpose upon the society – and the individuals who live within that society – and influenced a generation of conservatives (but not as many as one would like, given the conservative attachment to the state and the neoconservative faith in the state to remake human beings and conditions of human existence) that the state is not and should not be the source and engine of meaning in human life.

Again, does Tillich have a vision of the church which makes it more than an interest group or a “social club?” He seems to, but then he discards it completely by insisting on a political function which makes the church partner to violence and murder. He fails to understand that to be church is to reject the power of the world, that the Kingdom of God is not a kingdom based on force, coercion or compulsion, but on love, kindness, compassion and mercy. Such a kingdom cannot rule the world or even have a say in how the world is ruled if we are to remain true to it, to remain in it, to live it and make it evident in the world.

Tillich and the “Ends” of Human History

Things got away from me — AGAIN — this semester, and I was simply unable (and unwilling) to keep posting things here. Whether that matters to anyone or not I do not know. The academic semester is over at LSTC and I now have time to muse on things here.

At any rate, I am going to post several more theology papers. This is in reaction to a portion of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology (Volume III) on the meaning and ends of human history. I don’t understand the attraction to Tillich, but maybe that’s just me.

* * * * *

I am puzzled by Paul Tillich’s views on history. No, that’s not entirely accurate nor it is completely fair. I don’t understand and cannot make sense of Paul Tillich’s attempts to make sense and give meaning to human history.

It isn’t for lack of trying. I am intrigued by the philosophy of history, and really appreciated the first 20 pages or so of this reading. Tillich’s understanding of history is not quite a post-modernist one – the story an individual or group (in Tillich’s case, a community of some kind) tell about themselves so that they know who and what they are – but it’s more than a modernist understanding as well. “Historical consciousness expresses itself in a tradition, i.e., in a set of memories which are delivered from one generation to the other. … The significance which an occurrence has for the tradition conscious group determines whether it will be considered as a historical even.” (p. 300) What counts as history is as much in the editing, in what is left out, as it is what is included. And how the narrative is woven matters too. History is, as he says, dependent on historical consciousness.

And I truly appreciate his explanation of history bearing groups, particularly his inclusion of eros in the calculus of state power. Like Etienne de la Boiete, Tillich believes that state power functions largely because those ruled by a particular state give at least passive consent, if not active support and love, to the state that rules them. “This support is based on an experience of belonging, a form of communal eros which does not exclude struggles for power within the supporting group but which unites it against other groups.” (p.309) These things make state power, whether modern nation-states or earlier, non-nation-state forms of governance, possible, as no state can rule all of its subjects through violence all of the time. (Those that try don’t last long.) Without central organization of some kind, and Tillich grants it is political (and he is probably correct), a community of human beings cannot be a “history bearing group.” However, I will argue with Tillich’s assertion that “[t]he element of compulsion in every historical power structure is not its foundation but an unavoidable condition of its existence,” since there is plenty of work by libertarian (both left and right) historians and political thinkers that the nation-state is, in fact, a product of “domestic” conquest, the subjugation of once foreign folks and their conversion into “citizens.” Indeed, if one accepts that the lawful monopoly of violence in a particular geographical space is the major definition of the post-Westphalia nation-state (and I believe it is), then condition of existence cannot be detached from foundation. Tillich’s statement is philosophically meaningless. Or it is possibly wishful thinking.

[He has engaged in wishful thinking on state power before, in his book Theology of Culture, in which he rather stupidly wants to preserve the possibility of an “I-Thou” relationship (citing Martin Buber) with state power.]

But it is when Tillich speaks of the meaning of history — “History, in terms of the self-integration of life, drives toward a centeredness of all history-bearing groups and their individual members in an unambiguous harmony of power and justice.” (p.332) The brain hurts to think such thoughts, and this is an assertion both unsupported and unsubstantiated. What in the way of proof – scriptural, mathematical, historical – does he even provide for such a silly assertion, besides the aim of empire to assemble all things while at the same time sowing the seeds of its own destruction? We are all, then, to be mashed into one, and I would think that Tillich was prefiguring Francis Fukiyama’s “end of history” thesis of the early 1990s were it not for the fact that Tillich was earlier in this reading no fan of Nietzsche’s last man standing and a few lines later on page 332 writes:

“But history, like life in general, stands under the negatives of existence and therefore under the ambiguities of life. The drive toward universal and total centeredness, newness and fulfillment is a question and remains a question as long as there is history.”

Whew, I’m glad we got that straight. Cleared that right up, yep, he sure did. It’s moving together, really it is, but these things are parallel lines that just appear to converge in the distance. They really never do. Until, in fact, they do. At which point they stop being parallel lines. Yes, the brain does hurt to think such thoughts. I need a drink. I need some fresh air.

Okay, I’m back now. I tried to appreciate Tillich’s discussion of progress, focused as it was not on the “things are getting better all the time” by noting that each new moment or event in history is new and unique and thus is “progress” from the previous moment. The only problem with the word progress is it is loaded with a moral meaning that is almost impossible to shed, implying as it does that something subsequent is better than something previous. Tillich does struggle with this, and I think he answers it regarding political and social systems when he writes: “The situation with regard to justice is no different. This, of course, is a bold statement in a culture which considers as not only the adequate expression of its own idea of justice but the ideal of justice to which all previous forms are but insufficient approaches.” (p.335-336) While giving the mid-20th century two cheers for democracy (the divine right of the 19th and 20th and at least the first damn decade of the 21st centuries), Tillich goes on to say that every “system” includes some element of justice (and this, to my understanding, is the real import of Luther’s “two kingdoms” theology). But by preserving the notion of “progress,” no matter how much he tries to qualify it (and Tillich does note one can only speak of “better and better” in terms of technology), Tillich is leaving open room for moral progress and all the evil that entails. And that is a problem.

(As an aside, what does Tillich mean when he says “[t]he individual receives his life as a person from the history-bearing group to which he belongs”? (p.346) Statements like this make me suspicious – what is he preparing to justify? In the sense that historical personhood requires contact with other human beings, as Tillich asserts earlier in this part of the book, yes, I agree. But this sounds enough like the community willing the individual into being (and thus has an enforceable monopoly claim on the individual’s life, liberty, property and loyalty), and my anarchist/libertarian soul cannot stand such a notion. Indeed, such a claim is made by statists all the time. In fact, I believe quite a different proposition – that individual human beings will the collective into being, that the history-bearing community is created by individual human beings, and thus can be, or at least it ought to be possible, to be “uncreated” by those individuals.)

Finally, I do not understand what Tillich means by “Kingdom of God.” I’m not sure Tillich did either. On the one hand, he dismisses utopianism (a good thing, too; utopians, including anarchists and libertarians, should be locked in strong cages and poked with sharp sticks) by noting that it attempts to arrive at the end of history within history, for ignoring the ambiguities of life and for giving the “quality of ultimacy to something preliminary.” (p.355) And yet, he wants to hold out for the ultimate utopian fantasy, “the transformation of the historical group and the universe.” (I can buy that God has done this through Christ, but that means it is already done, and was done from the beginning, without a single human finger lifted or single ridiculous human idea concocted.) He tries to make this work by drawing from “religious socialists” (a statement that simply makes me breathless with confidence) and notes four very weasely points he leaves undefined: the Kingdom of God is political (he does not say how), it is social (he does not say how), it is personal (natch) and it is universal (ditto). If this is dialectic tension, then it ends up utterly unresolved, and leaves his scheme open to tremendous abuse by liberals and liberationists of various flavours (because I still see no discernible difference) who want to privilege certain kinds of human action, particularly violent and murderous state action, aimed at achieving an alleged “common” or “social” good. Whatever divine reality Tillich may be expressing in this view of history, God is lost in his language, and he leaves his scheme far too open for hijacking by those whose human ideals outweigh their understanding of the divine.

To say that history culminates in unity and justice is to then allow those who allegedly want unity and justice to say they embody the meaning of history. Tillich’s ideas become an “equivalent” idea, one that does not need God if human action suffices toward the ends. Because God is nowhere to be found in his theory of history, even as he tries to hold the forces of Progressivism at bay, there is far too much room for alternate understandings to move in and cuckhold Tillich’s ideas. (In fact, I suspect the religious socialists Tillich borrowed this stuff from had a much better idea of what it all meant than Tillich in his muddle did.)

Yes, I am a great deal more sympathetic with those two versions of history Tillich doesn’t like: the tragic and the transcendent. I am utterly uninterested in transforming the group or changing the universe. As Stanley Hauerwas said, it is not the job of the church to make the world a better place. I’m not entirely sure history will be “fulfilled” in any sense, and certainly not any way that Tillich alludes to in this mess. Besides, the idea that history has meaning and a point is far too open for abuse to be a useful human idea. (As an idea, it needs to be locked in a heavy vault and buried on the dark side of the moon.) Aside from Christ, I’m not entirely sure that historical existence has a meaning; it certainly does not have one that can be objectively arrived at, either through observation or reason. I’m not sure the justice of the Kingdom of God and the justice of power structures can be reconciled in any meaningful way. (Again, outside of Christ, who has already done the reconciling.) Certainly humans have proven – proven repeatedly, proven time and time again – that we are utterly incapable and completely incompetent of doing any of these things. Which is why the continued hope that these things can be done, that we can do them, is so dangerous and so potentially lethal. And that is why I don’t truly understand anything Tillich is saying here. He is holding out hope, and I had hoped that he knew better.