Prophets in the Public Square – Part II

More from an unpublished talk I presented at the 19th Annual Journal of Law and Religion Symposium at Hamline Law School in 2009.

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In Part I, I talked about the importance of “authenticity” and the risk of succumbing to “cheap prooftexting” when Jews bring their religious values to bear in public debate.  While the general notion of “authenticity” is obviously also relevant to Christian interventions in public debate, it might seem at first glance that Christians need not worry about the more specific challenges facing Jews — especially the need to distinguish between religious law and religious exhortation and also between intra-group and universal norms.  After all, most Christians, unlike Jews, do not treat law, with its rigor and limitations, as central to religious life. Nor do Christians, at first glance, seem to be caught up as Jews are in a tense polarity between particularism and universalism.

But I want to sketch an argument that, to the contrary, there is a lot of resonance between the two cases.

Consider, to begin with, that these two facts of Christian theology – the deemphasis on law as a religious category and the turn away from particularism – are closely tied. As I have written elsewhere, one reason Christians historically did not feel bound by Jewish religious law is because they saw themselves as juridical gentiles, so to speak, to whom the law, as the constitution of a particular community, did not apply. But one cost of that has been a thinness of specifically religious resources with which to confront political and economic questions, a thinness that even the natural law tradition could only partially overcome. Thus, it is not surprising that those Christian communities – such as the Puritans – who were most interested in establishing a thick Biblically-centered political life found themselves returning to some of the materials of Jewish law, and also drawn to an inward-looking, particularistic, vision of their polity as the city on the hill.

Even putting this specific challenge of law and universalism to one side, however, it bears pointing out that what are probably the most vibrant and interesting and compelling theological movements in contemporary Christianity, including the radical orthodoxy of John Milbank, the post-liberalism of the Yale school, the post-conservatism of the new evangelicals, and the work of Stanley Hauerwas, the great Duke theologian. Each of these trends emphasizes two related themes relevant to the discussion here: First, Christian moral, political, and economic thought must be worked through in the context of the lived life of the Church itself and the community of Christians united by the person of Jesus; indeed, Hauerwas urges Christians to think of themselves as a colony of resident aliens in the larger polity. And second, Christian ethics is entirely intertwined with the rest of Christian conviction, including the trinity, Christology, sin, and redemption. This suggests another dimension of particularism – not the particularism of a particular community, but the particularism of a specific, thick, religious vision. You can see here the resemblance to my thoughts about authenticity.

In this connection, consider the reactions to Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical on economic life – Caritas in Veritate.  When the encyclical was published, George Weigel (in)famously argued that it was “clotted and muddled,” a cut and paste job combining genuine Catholic teaching with leftist clichés about global governance. He was, that is to say, accusing it of being inauthentic. Meanwhile, defenders of the encyclical emphasized precisely the integration of all its pieces, and the relation of its economic analysis to specifically Catholic spiritual convictions. In fact, the encyclical  might best be understood as the third piece in a succession of this Pope’s messages – the first (Deus Caritas Est) a theological mediation on love, the second (Spe Salvi)  an account of the Church as a global community of love, and then the third (Caritas in Veritate) an effort to suggest a larger political community modeled on the that global, loving, Church. Thus, the Pope’s authenticity as both a theologian and a world leader is grounded in the particularity of thick religious bedrock, even as it reaches out to a universal audience.

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