Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part II

Tocqueville thinks that democracy tends toward a metaphysics of pantheism, and urges noble natures living in a democracy to resist that tendency fiercely. Pantheism is suited to democracy because it captures democracy’s ambivalences. Pantheism both deifies and trivializes the human person. It equates the individual ego with the universe, but also shrinks the ego to an infinitesimal point. It exalts individuality, but also merges it into the totality of things. Pantheism liberates by announcing that the realm of possibility is unlimited, but oppresses by subjecting all things to necessity. It denies original sin, thus opening endless vistas for human action, but it also denies human agency, thus making action impossible.

Perhaps that is why Tocqueville followed his chapter on pantheism with another short chapter entitled “How Equality Suggests to Americans the Idea of the Perfectibility of Man” (Democracy in America, Vol. II, Pt. I, ch. 8) (Bevan trans.). If man is at least latently divine, why should he not strive fully to realize that divinity — that is, to perfect himself? If original sin does not foredoom our pursuit of perfection to failure, then why not pursue perfection in earnest? Only aristocratic societies believe that the human situation is inherently tragic and that human history cannot finally be transcended. Democratic societies believe on the contrary that “man can improve throughout all time” and that human history reaches “the end of the long path human beings have to tread.” Democracy at 523.

Tocqueville recounts that he asked an American sailor “why his country’s vessels are constructed to last for so short a time.” The sailor answered unhesitatingly that “the art of navigation is making such rapid progress that the finest ship would soon outlive its usefulness if it extended its life for more than a few years.” From this casual remark, Tocqueville “glimpse[d] the general and systematic idea by which a great nation directs its every action.” Id.

As often in Tocqueville, the same cause is held to produce contrary effects. As we saw in the last posting, pantheism produces the beliefs that human individuals are mere ripples on the surface of an infinite ocean, that human action is without lasting consequences, and that the proper attitude to nature is to disturb its eternal order as little as possible. But pantheism also produces the belief that nature is endlessly malleable in our hands, that we should ceaselessly remake and exploit it to serve human ends, and that humanity itself can and should be refashioned to overcome the limits that nature appears to have set for it. In our world, technological rationality in the form of genetic engineering, the continuous effort to modify and improve crops, animals and human embryos, and the search for a cure, not merely for disease, but also for death, are as much a consequence of pantheism as the deep ecology movement is.

In his chapter on pantheism, Tocqueville tells us that he “later” describe how that metaphysical system has “a parallel in politics.” Democracy at 520. We shall soon consider that political parallel, which is democratic “despotism.” But first, let us consider a possible source of, or influence on, Tocqueville’s view of pantheism.

Henri Louis Charles Maret

Henri Louis Charles Maret was a Catholic priest (later bishop) and theologian, born in 1805 (also the year of Tocqueville’s birth). He became a Professor on the Theology faculty at the Sorbonne in 1841, and Dean of that faculty in 1853. He was associated with French liberal Catholics, most importantly the Abbé Hugues Félicité de Lammenais and the circle of like-minded Catholics involved Read more

Radical Puritanism and Religious Vitality

In a previous post, I argued that there was no necessary connection between a policy of stringent church-state separation and the strength or vitality of religious life within the state. There have been many societies that enjoyed a flourishing religious life well before anybody got it into his head to talk about separation. And there are several modern societies that practice strict separation and whose religious life is seemingly moribund. Any correlation between separation and religious vitality, I argued, is situational and incidental. The strength of religious life within a society depends, I said, on other factors.

But suppose someone were to say: ‘No, that’s not correct. Religious strength does depend on strict separation. In today’s day and age, a strong religious life means exactly that the state is completely separated from religion. A person is most free to affirm true religious commitment just inasmuch as the state and religion are totally separate. In the modern world, the strength of a nation’s religious life depends upon that individual freedom.”

In fact, I think something like this view grounds the frequently-heard claims about the religious vitality that must arise in a strictly separated state. In my previous post, I noticed the puritanical and evangelical conception of religion that the view presupposes. I’ve been reading around in this volume on the Establishment Clause edited by T. Jeremy Gunn and John Witte, Jr., and David Little’s essay, “Roger Williams and the Puritan Background of the Establishment Clause,” offers further confirmation. Professor Little writes that it was the issue of establishment that most sharply divided Roger Williams from other New England Puritans. Disestablishment was thus in some sense the problem of an intramural dispute among puritan factions–the most radical of which was represented by Williams. Little and many others have recognized the mixture of religious and pragmatic arguments for strict separation.

It is the religious arguments that interest me here. Little writes:

Along with references to experience and reason, Williams adds extensive appeals to Christian scripture, doctrine, and history. . . . The decisive transgression took place

when Constantine broke the bounds of this his own and God’s edict, and [drew] the sword of civil power in suppressing other consciences for the [sake of] establishing the Christian [church]. [T]hen began the great mystery of the churches’ sleep, [by which] the gardens of Christ’s churches turned into the wilderness of National Religion, and the world (under Constantine’s dominion) into the most unchristian Christendom….There never was any National Religion good in this world but one [namely, ancient Israel], and since the desolation of that nation, there shall never be any National Religion good again.

No Establishment of Religion, 111-12 (quoting Williams, The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody). Little goes on to dispute Mark DeWolfe Howe’s claim that Williams was interested solely in the corruption of religion; Little believes that Williams was concerned about mutual corruption of church and state. But in either case, a theological argument against establishment of this kind can readily be inflated to serve the ends of strict separationism. And so it has been in the generations that followed, as arguments from mutual corruption have become ever more salient in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause, and have been held to require more and more separation.

Back to the initial issue though–the connection between separationism and religious vitality. The objection to my initial post, it seems to me, is a good one, but with one important proviso. Religious vitality does increase as religion and the state become more separate, provided that one adopts the radical puritan theology that Williams espoused. If one does not adopt that theology, then one is left with prudential arguments for strict separationism as conducive of religious vitality. Those prudential arguments, I believe, are entirely circumstantial and accidental; it simply is not the case, as a pragmatic matter, that strict separationism inevitably results in a strong religious life.

A committed policy of strict separationism that is not qualified by the accidents of circumstance and historical contingency depends for its support on the sort of radical puritanism in matters of religious vitality so ably articulated by Roger Williams. Might the need to adopt such theological premises occasion its own Establishment Clause problems? Something for a future post.

Duncan, “Violence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and Its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia”

This October, Cornell University Press will publish Violence and Vengeance: Violenve and VengeanceReligious Conflict and Its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia by Christopher R. Duncan (Arizona State University).  The publisher’s description follows.

Between 1999 and 2000, sectarian fighting fanned across the eastern Indonesian province of North Maluku, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. What began as local conflicts between migrants and indigenous people over administrative boundaries spiraled into a religious war pitting Muslims against Christians and continues to influence communal relationships more than a decade after the fighting stopped. Christopher R. Duncan spent several years conducting fieldwork in North Maluku, and in Violence and Vengeance, he examines how the individuals actually taking part in the fighting understood and experienced the conflict.

Rather than dismiss religion as a facade for the political and economic motivations of the regional elite, Duncan explores how and why participants came to perceive the conflict as one of religious difference. He examines how these perceptions of religious violence altered the conflict, leading to large-scale massacres in houses of worship, forced conversions of entire communities, and other acts of violence that stressed religious identities. Duncan’s analysis extends beyond the period of violent conflict and explores how local understandings of the violence have complicated the return of forced migrants, efforts at conflict resolution and reconciliation.