Burt, “In the Whirlwind”

Here is a book which might be described as comparative political theory, and will certainly interest those readers who are looking for a treatment of the law and justice of religious traditions: In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict (HUP 2012) by the distinguished constitutionalist Robert A. Burt (Yale).  The publisher’s description follows.

God deserves obedience simply because he’s God—or does he? Inspired by a passion for biblical as well as constitutional scholarship, in this bold exploration Yale Law Professor Robert A. Burt conceptualizes the political theory of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. God’s authority as expressed in these accounts is not a given. It is no less inherently problematic and in need of justification than the legitimacy of secular government.

In recounting the rich narratives of key biblical figures—from Adam and Eve to Noah, Cain, Abraham, Moses, Job, and Jesus—In the Whirlwind paints a surprising picture of the ambivalent, mutually dependent relationship between God and his peoples. Taking the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a unified whole, Burt traces God’s relationship with humanity as it evolves from complete harmony at the outset to continual struggle. In almost every case, God insists on unconditional obedience, while humanity withholds submission and holds God accountable for his promises.

Contemporary political theory aims for perfect justice. The Bible, Burt shows, does not make this assumption. Justice in the biblical account is an imperfect process grounded in human—and divine—limitation. Burt suggests that we consider the lessons of this tension as we try to negotiate the power struggles within secular governments, and also the conflicts roiling our public and private lives.

Protecting Believers, Not Beliefs

Some news out of the UN this week. For the first time since 1998, the General Assembly’s annual resolution against religious intolerance has dropped the call for banning “defamation of religions.” Muslim nations typically have supported the ban, but Western countries like the US have opposed it as a violation of freedom of speech. This year, Western and Muslim countries were able to agree to remove the reference to defamation in favor of a new approach that calls for ending discrimination against people on the basis of religion, an approach that Reuters describes as “protecting believers” rather than “beliefs.”  The deletion of the reference to defamation must be accounted a diplomatic victory for the US and other Western countries, but the new resolution also calls on nations to end “incitement to religious hatred.” I suppose some countries might interpret “incitement” to cover defamation as well, since defaming a religion could incite violence against its followers. So the defamation concept might still be lurking out there. The resolution is non-binding, in any case.

Controversy About Secularism Class at Georgetown

A fight is developing between First Things blogger Matthew Cantirino and Georgetown Professor Jacques Berlinerblau over a description of Berlinerblau’s new class on secularism. Last Friday, the Washington Post profiled Berlinerblau’s class, which the Post described as an engaging, fair, but perhaps tendentious freshman seminar that had as its central theme the need for separating religion and public life. The Post used the class as an example of the burgeoning field of Secular Studies  in American universities, a development some liken to the creation of Women’s Studies departments a couple of generations ago. Yesterday, Cantirino discussed the Post article, including  its suggestion that courses like Berlinerblau’s might be an occasion for “academic indoctrination” (Cantirino’s words). This morning, on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, Berlinerblau demanded an apology. I’ll let Cantirino respond for himself, but maybe Berlinerblau should demand an apology from the Post reporter, since the article Cantirino was discussing says that over the course of the semester Berlinerblau had “managed to change the minds of most of his students,” including at least one who came into the class suspicious of secularism. That’s not indicative of indoctrination, of course, but it does suggest that Berlinerblau was trying to convince students of a particular point of view, and that seems to be the sense in which Cantirino was using the phrase. Read the exchange for yourself.