Guy, “Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel”

The author John Guy (whose prior work includes biographies of Thomas More and Mary Queen of Scots) recently published Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel (Random House 2012).  You can click on the link for the publisher’s description, but here’s a useful review of the book by Samuel Gregg, and a bit from the review’s conclusion:

In his public life after death, Becket has assumed an iconic status for those seeking to defend religious liberty per se. Becket himself (like Thomas More) would have found that a rather strange notion. Becket’s concern was with the church’s freedom from undue temporal interference, rather than a more general conception of religious toleration. That development had to await, among other things, the wars of religion and what none other than Benedict XVI has described as one of the American Revolution’s many positive results. In the Catholic Church’s case, it also required careful rereading of scriptural, patristic and scholastic sources in order to recover Christianity’s original affirmation of religious liberty in the sense of immunity from coercion and as a necessary precondition for freely embracing religious truth.

And yet as Islam’s present traumas should remind us, a religion’s capacity to make distinctions between the spiritual and temporal realms makes a difference to the more general growth of freedom. As Guy points out, Henry VIII’s looting and destruction of the sanctuary of St Thomas Becket in September 1538, his burning of Becket’s remains, and the king’s posthumous designation of Becket as a “rebel and traitor to his prince” had a clear political purpose. “Only a monarch not unlike the earlier Henry,” Guy writes, “set on building a regional church under tight royal control, ring-fenced by the coast, as an integral part of a centralized state controlled by himself, could have spoken that way” (348).

It was of course the voice of tyranny, for which libertas ecclesiae and the life of Thomas Becket never cease to serve as constant reproaches.

Daly, “Dignity Rights: Courts, Constitutions, and the Worth of the Human Person”

This October, the University of Pennsylvania Press will publish Dignity Rights: Courts, Constitutions, and the Worth of the Human Person by Erin Daly (Widener University School of Law). The publisher’s description follows.

“Human dignity has a long history. It has been recognized in various religions and has served as the basis for a variety of philosophical outlooks. The essential nature of the concept is sharply debated. Some see it as a paramount constitutional value and a central constitutional right. Others see it as a concept void of any content and having no constitutional use. Against the background of these sharp disputes, Erin Daly’s book comes as a breath of fresh air. It sets before the reader the broad comparative base; points out the key problems that arise; and outlines the principal lines of thought and their development. . . . It treats all of these matters comprehensively and clearly, making an important and original contribution.”—From the Forward by Aharon Barak

The right to dignity is now recognized in most of the world’s constitutions, and hardly a new constitution is adopted without it. Over the last sixty years, courts in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and North America have developed a robust jurisprudence of dignity on subjects as diverse as health care, imprisonment, privacy, education, culture, the environment, sexuality, and death. As the range and growing number of cases about dignity attest, it is invoked and recognized by courts far more frequently than other constitutional guarantees.

Dignity Rights is the first book to explore the constitutional law of dignity around the world. Erin Daly shows how dignity has come not only to define specific interests like the right to humane treatment or to earn a living wage, but also to protect the basic rights of a person to control his or her own life and to live in society with others. Daly argues that, through the right to dignity, courts are redefining what it means to be human in the modern world. As described by the courts, the scope of dignity rights marks the outer boundaries of state power, limiting state authority to meet the demands of human dignity. As a result, these cases force us to reexamine the relationship between the individual and the state and, in turn, contribute to a new and richer understanding of the role of the citizen in modern democracies.

Walzer, “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible”

In May 2012, Yale University Press published In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible by Michael Walzer (Institute For Advanced Study, Princeton). The publisher’s description follows.

In this eagerly awaited book, political theorist Michael Walzer reports his findings after decades of thinking about the politics of the Hebrew Bible. Attentive to nuance while engagingly straightforward, Walzer examines the laws, the histories, the prophecies, and the wisdom of the ancient biblical writers and discusses their views on such central political questions as justice, hierarchy, war, the authority of kings and priests, and the experience of exile.

Because there are many biblical writers with differing views, pluralism is a central feature of biblical politics. Yet pluralism, Walzer observes, is never explicitly defended in the Bible; indeed, it couldn’t be defended since God’s word had to be as singular as God himself. Yet different political regimes are described in the biblical texts, and there are conflicting political arguments—and also a recurrent anti-political argument: if you have faith in God, you have no need for strong institutions, prudent leaders, or reformist policies. At the same time, however, in the books of law and prophecy, the people of Israel are called upon to overcome oppression and “let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.”

Censoring the Internet in India

I wrote in February about India’s crackdown on religiously offensive speech on the internet. In response to lawsuits in Indian courts, Facebook and Google have removed images that allegedly cause offense to Hindus, Muslims, and other religious communities. In The Atlantic this week, Max Fisher writes that the censorship issue is again getting attention, with the US State Department calling on India to respect the “full freedom of the internet.” Fisher wonders, though, whether India doesn’t have reason to clamp down. A long-standing dispute between Hindus and Muslims in Assam has recently reignited, fueled by rumors on the internet that each side was planning to massacre the other. Eighty people have already been killed, and 300,000 displaced. Religious hate speech on  the internet hasn’t caused this crisis, of course, but it has contributed to it. What is the Indian government to do? Fisher writes:

Walter Russel Mead, writing on the ongoing crisis, called India’s long-running communal tensions “the powder keg in the basement.” With the already-dangerous risk of ethnic combustion heightened by a population with easy access to rumors and an apparent predisposition to believing them, maybe that powder keg justifies Indian censorship. Or maybe it doesn’t; free speech is its own public good and public right, and, in any case, censoring discussion of such sensitive national issues could make it more difficult for India to actually confront them. This is just one of the many difficult questions that Indian leaders will grapple with as hundreds of thousands of their citizens flee their homes, chased out by “a swirl of unfounded rumors.” I don’t envy them.

Luhmann, “A Systems Theory of Religion”

This October, Stanford University Press will publish A Systems Theory of Religion by Niklas Luhmann (translated by David A. Brenner and Adrian Hermann). The publisher’s description follows.

A Systems Theory of Religion, still unfinished at Niklas Luhmann’s death in 1998, was first published in German two years later thanks to the editorial work of André Kieserling. One of Luhmann’s most important projects, it exemplifies his later work while redefining the subject matter of the sociology of religion. Religion, for Luhmann, is one of the many functionally differentiated social systems that make up modern society. All such subsystems consist entirely of communications and all are “autopoietic,” which is to say, self-organizing and self-generating. Here, Luhmann explains how religion provides a code for coping with the complexity, opacity, and uncontrollability of our world. Religion functions to make definite the indefinite, to reconcile the immanent and the transcendent.

Synthesizing approaches as disparate as the philosophy of language, historical linguistics, deconstruction, and formal systems theory/cybernetics, A Systems Theory of Religion takes on important topics that range from religion’s meaning and evolution to secularization, turning decades of sociological assumptions on their head. It provides us with a fresh vocabulary and a fresh philosophical and sociological approach to one of society’s most fundamental phenomena.

The Pussy Riot Trial and the Church-State Crisis in Russia

I assumed everything had been said about the Pussy Riot trial that ended in Moscow last week, but Rod Dreher has just posted a couple of thoughtful emails about the case from a Russian Orthodox Christian who has asked to remain anonymous. The emails are fairly long, and some of what the author says will interest only people who closely follow Orthodox Church theology and politics. Much of what he  says  is of broader interest, though. He explains that Orthodox believers in Russia feel besieged from without and within the Church: both from juvenile antics like the Pussy Riot protest and from corruption within the Russian Orthodox Church itself. The current Patriarch and his allies in the hierarchy, the author says, are reverting to an old-style Russian melding of church and state, endorsing Putin in return for money, status, and freedom from accountability. Here’s a sample:

[A]s Orthodox Christians in Russia, we are beset by both – attacks from the “outside” insulting our Church, as well as from irrational and irresponsible actions of our own clergy and even – the patriarchate’s officials. Unlike our brothers and sisters in [other Orthodox churches], we, in Russia, have no ability to ask or receive accountability from our hierarchs and primates. And this, truly has a devastating effect on the state of the Church and its reputation in Russia. Should not such problems be openly addressed outside the internet? Should not we speak of our own sins in the wake of new attacks on our Church?

If you’re interested, read the emails in their entirety.