15 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

John Locke
As we noted in Part 1, liberalism attempts to guarantee pluralism by empowering the individual, often at the expense of the very communities that go into shaping her. But in so doing, liberalism denies these communities any authority not reducible to the wills of the component individuals.

If, for example, we were to agree with John Locke’s definition of the church, we would find ourselves in territory foreign to the mainstream of the historic faith. According to Locke, “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphasis mine). While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially protestants in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke’s definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the church as the covenant community of those who belong to Jesus Christ, who is its Saviour and head.

Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the corpus Christi which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the gospel to the world and especially to the church’s members.

Throughout the last two millennia, ecclesiastical councils have been convened on occasion to decide authoritatively on difficult doctrinal issues threatening to divide the church. These have yielded creeds and confessions considered binding on the faithful, such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, deemed authoritative for the major Christian traditions in both east and west. The (Pseudo-)Athanasian Creed is most direct in its claims: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” It is, in short, the church, and not individual Christians, that defines the content of the faith.

It would be difficult to imagine an account of the faith and the church more inconsistent with the voluntaristic ecclesiology of Locke, who asserted that “everyone is orthodox to himself.” By contrast, from the earliest centuries the church as an institution has claimed the authority to determine what is and is not orthodox. Those Christians professing to be orthodox are in effect acknowledging that the terms for their membership in the church are not theirs to set as individuals. Beginning already with the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15, the church as a body asserted its authority, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to resolve potentially divisive issues in binding fashion. To dissent from such decisions was regarded as schismatic and thus sinful.

In past centuries political authorities assumed that ecclesiastical schism was a danger to public order and thus sought to uphold the church’s authority in such matters to protect the unity of the realm. Although some observers like to describe this as a Constantinian settlement, it might better be labelled Theodosian, because it was the Emperor Theodosius who officially established Christianity as the favoured religion of the Roman Empire near the end of the fourth century.

It need hardly be emphasized that, two millennia into the Christian era, most of us live in polities characterized by a diversity of sincerely- and not-so-sincerely-held faiths. We in the west have become concerned, not with the presence of multiple faiths in our own societies, but with the lack of toleration of such multiplicity elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, where ancient Christian communities are increasingly besieged by the forces of radical Islam.

Nevertheless, the presence of faith communities adhering to a variety of ultimate beliefs is not without potentially troublesome political implications. This is something that our pre-modern forebears may have understood better than we do. Is law given by God or by the gods? And if by God, the God of Muhammad or the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ? Few Christians would wish to live under Sharia law, but increasing numbers of devout Muslims believe they are called to establish Sharia as the law of the land, whether in Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria or Great Britain. In the face of such evidently divisive efforts, how are we to go about living with each other? How can we come up with political principles enabling us to strike a modus vivendi with citizens of other faiths?

For several centuries now professed liberals have come up with what they believe to be the answer to this vexing question, and they think it sufficient to command the loyalties of all citizens irrespective of the “thick” comprehensive doctrines or worldviews to which they otherwise adhere. This liberal solution has profound implications for both directional diversity and societal pluriformity, and it amounts to this: every community and claimed communal obligation must be reduced to its component parts, namely, the wills of the individual members. To the extent that communal obligations exist, they can be justified only in so far as they conform to the voluntary principle. Communities, with all of their supposed differences, must be recast as mere voluntary associations.

We have seen how Locke did this with the gathered church institution, but he more famously did this with political community and even with marriage. In Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, a social contract among individuals comes to be deemed the source of all political obligation, as graphically illustrated in the famous frontispiece to the first edition of Hobbes Leviathan. Any authority that the state might claim over the individual can be legitimated only with reference to this originating contract.

In the later liberalism of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, we see a certain level of abstraction added to the social contract, which is reworked such that individuals now use their common reason, ostensibly disconnected from their thicker worldview commitments, to articulate principles of right agreeable to all. Sounds good in theory, but, because it is based on a faulty understanding of human nature and ignores the role ultimate beliefs inevitably play in life, it is unworkable in practice.

Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms

09 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 1: Liberalism and Two Kinds of Diversity

Although it can be misleading to seek the meaning of commonly-used words and expressions in their etymological origins, in the case of liberalism, the linguistic connection with liberty is all too obvious. The promise of liberty is an attractive one that holds out the possibility of living our lives as we see fit, free from constraints imposed from without. We simply prefer to have our own way and not to have to defer to the wills of others.

Yet even the most extensive account of liberty must recognize that it needs to be subject to appropriate limits if we are not to descend into a chaotic state of continual conflict, which English philosopher Thomas Hobbes memorably labelled a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all against all.

Here I propose to compare two approaches to liberty, viz., those of liberalism and of the principled pluralism associated with the heirs of the great Dutch statesman and polymath, Abraham Kuyper. Although each claims to advance liberty, I will argue that the Kuyperian alternative is superior to the liberal because it is based on a more accurate appraisal of human nature, society and the place of community within it.

Arising in the context of an early modern repudiation of ancient, and seemingly outmoded, customs and mores, liberalism proposed to anchor human community in rational principles oriented around the self-interest of sovereign individuals. From Locke to Rawls the liberal project has sought to liberate public life from the particularities of the “thick” accounts of reality rooted in the ancient religious traditions. Why? Because these had apparently proven hopelessly divisive in previous centuries, engendering nearly continual warfare from Luther’s initial efforts at reforming the church 500 years ago to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Better, it was assumed, to anchor political order, not in a highly disputable claim of divine revelation, but in principles capable of being affirmed by all. Such principles would have to be rooted in a rationality whose only underlying assumption would be that individuals pursue their own interests as they themselves understand them.

Liberalism is thus more than just about liberty. Even in its mildest form it assumes that community is rooted in the collective wills of its individual members, thereby privileging the voluntary principle, that is, the belief that human flourishing depends on the free assent of sovereign individuals to their multiple obligations. The liberal project represents an effort to address the central dilemma of human life famously summed up by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the following maxim: “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.”

Our very survival as a species in the face of hostile forces of nature depends on our ability and willingness to co-operate with each other for common purposes. If we do not do so, we are doomed at best to poverty and at worst to death. Nevertheless, in so far as we are interdependent, our individual wills are necessarily constrained by the rules we draw up to facilitate this co-operation. This is the paradox that Rousseau tried to address in his own proposals for political order. Although Rousseau, in his Social Contract, took these ideas in a superficially liberal direction, his recipe has definite totalitarian implications, thereby threatening to crush the very diversity that makes politics necessary and indeed possible.

According to the late British political scientist Sir Bernard Crick, politics is all about the peaceful conciliation of diversity within a particular unit of rule. What is meant by this diversity? Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen identify three basic types: (1) directional or spiritual diversity, viz., the plurality of ultimate beliefs that bind particular communities but are potentially divisive of the larger body politic; (2) contextual diversity, viz., the diversity of customs and mores that come from people living together in local communities that are relatively isolated from each other; and (3) associational diversity, which might better be described as societal pluriformity, viz., the plethora of communal formations characterizing a mature differentiated society. While liberalism represents a longstanding effort to address all three kinds of diversity, for our purposes we shall examine its relationship to numbers one and three, viz., directional diversity and societal pluriformity. Although these two kinds of diversity are logically distinct, any effort to address one inevitably affects the other as well.

An obvious way in which these two types of diversity intersect can be seen in the often vexing church-state issue. If one is an unbeliever, one is unlikely to accord the gathered church a distinct status apart from the state except as a voluntary association of like-minded believers. In denying the authority of the gathered church institution, the political order formed out of this belief will nearly inevitably subordinate it to the political authority of the state, along with a variety of other voluntary associations, such as the Boy Scouts, the local garden club and little league baseball. This, of course, has profound implications for the protection of religious freedom, which is thought to belong only to individuals, and not to the institutions that have shaped them. A liberal worldview privileging individual rights, a particular manifestation of directional diversity, has effectively denied societal pluriformity, or Mouw and Griffioen’s associational diversity.

Crick believes that ordinary politics requires the tolerance of multiple truth claims. While he is undoubtedly empirically correct in his observation, we must be wary of attaching a normative character to this reality because it may effectively mask the extent to which a particular conception of church-state relations is itself rooted in a religiously-based worldview. And, if so, we will need to be prepared to admit that not all pluralisms are created equal.

Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

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