Association After Christ

The freedom of association–the freedom to form groups with common bonds of practice, belief, and affiliation, and to exclude those from the group who do not share these bonds–is thought to be one of the key justifications for some of our cherished civil rights. Far from being an exclusively liberal idea, the importance of associations may be traced at least to Paul, who speaks at length about the nature and obligations of Christian communities.

Here is a new book that explores some of these matters: Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City (Yale University Press), by John S. Kloppenborg.

“As an urban movement, the early groups of Christ followers came into contact with the many small groups in Greek and Roman antiquity. Organized around the workplace, a deity, a diasporic identity, or a neighborhood, these associations gathered in small face-to-face meetings and provided the principal context for cultic and social interactions for their members. Unlike most other groups, however, about which we have data on their rules of membership, financial management, and organizational hierarchy, we have very little information about early Christ groups.

Drawing on data about associative practices throughout the ancient world, this innovative study offers new insight into the structure and mission of the early Christ groups. John S. Kloppenborg situates the Christ associations within the broader historical context of the ancient Mediterranean and reveals that they were probably smaller than previously believed and did not have a uniform system of governance, and that the attraction of Christ groups was based more on practice than theological belief.”

On Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a physician and statesman of the early Republic, is perhaps best known for his long and warm correspondence with John Adams. Here’s a fragment from a letter to Adams from 1807, concerning the Bible: “By renouncing the Bible, philosophers swing from their moorings upon all moral Subjects. Our Saviour in speaking of it calls it “Truth,” in the Abstract. It is the only correct map of the human heart that ever has been published. It contains a faithful representation of all its follies, Vices & Crimes. All Systems of Religion, morals, and Government not founded upon it, must perish, and how consoling the thot!—it will not only survive the wreck of those Systems, but the World itself. “The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.””

Here is a new biography of this less well-known but important figure of the founding period: Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (Penguin RandomHouse), by Stephen Fried.

“By the time he was thirty, Dr. Benjamin Rush had signed the Declaration of Independence, edited Common Sense, toured Europe as Benjamin Franklin’s protégé, and become John Adams’s confidant, and was soon to be appointed Washington’s surgeon general. And as with the greatest Revolutionary minds, Rush was only just beginning his role in 1776 in the American experiment. As the new republic coalesced, he became a visionary writer and reformer; a medical pioneer whose insights and reforms revolutionized the treatment of mental illness; an opponent of slavery and prejudice by race, religion, or gender; an adviser to, and often the physician of, America’s first leaders; and “the American Hippocrates.” Rush reveals his singular life and towering legacy, installing him in the pantheon of our wisest and boldest Founding Fathers.”

Marx as a Jewish Thinker

Here’s an interesting looking account of Karl Marx’s life and thought that emphasizes something not often discussed: the Jewish roots of and connections to his thought. The book is Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution (Yale University Press), by Shlomo Avineri.

“Karl Marx (1818–1883)—philosopher, historian, sociologist, economist, current affairs journalist, and editor—was one of the most influential and revolutionary thinkers of modern history, but he is rarely thought of as a Jewish thinker, and his Jewish background is either overlooked or misrepresented. Here, distinguished scholar Shlomo Avineri argues that Marx’s Jewish origins did leave a significant impression on his work. Marx was born in Trier, then part of Prussia, and his family had enjoyed equal rights and emancipation under earlier French control of the area. But then its annexation to Prussia deprived the Jewish population of its equal rights. These developments led to the reluctant conversion of Marx’s father, and similar tribulations radicalized many young intellectuals of that time who came from a Jewish background.

Avineri puts Marx’s Jewish background in its proper and balanced perspective, and traces Marx’s intellectual development in light of the historical, intellectual, and political contexts in which he lived.”

Christian Democracy

The Italian political model of Christian Democracy has an illustrious past, beginning with its founder, Alcide de Gasperi, but it seemingly died an ignoble death in the mid-90s amid scandal and corruption. Nevertheless, as a political ideal, I’ve often thought one could do a whole lot worse, and sometimes that one couldn’t do too much better.

Here is a very interesting new book about this fascinating political movement and party: What is Christian Democracy? Politics, Religion and Ideology (Cambridge University Press), by Carlo Invernizzi Accetti. This one falls into the “must-have” category for me.

“Christian Democratic actors and thinkers have been at the forefront of many of the twentieth century’s key political battles – from the construction of the international human rights regime, through the process of European integration and the creation of postwar welfare regimes, to Latin American development policies during the Cold War. Yet their core ideas remain largely unknown, especially in the English-speaking world. Combining conceptual and historical approaches, Carlo Invernizzi Accetti traces the development of this ideology in the thought and writings of some of its key intellectual and political exponents, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. In so doing he sheds light on a number of important contemporary issues, from the question of the appropriate place of religion in presumptively ‘secular’ liberal-democratic regimes, to the normative resources available for building a political response to the recent rise of far-right populism.”

Legal Spirits Episode 012: Is Satanism a Religion?

Satan, Paradise Lost (illustrated by Gustave Dore)

In this podcast, we discuss several recent law and religion controversies concerning the “Satanic Temple.” We discuss what the Satanic Temple is and what its adherents say they believe, whether the Temple should count as a religion or a religious institution for legal purposes, and how the Temple has cleverly put pressure–legally and otherwise–on the principles of sincerity, neutrality, and equality that are said to animate the constitutional doctrine of religious freedom. Listen in!

At the Hertog Foundation today

I’m delighted to be a guest today at the Hertog Foundation in Washington, DC, where I’m speaking at a class for college students and graduates taught by Adam White on “The Constitution, the Courts, and Conservatism.” Professor Randy Barnett, Judge Neomi Rao, and Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute are among the other speakers. I’ll be speaking about some of my work on traditionalism in constitutional interpretation.

Essays on Catholic Social Thought

Here is a wonderful looking new book of essays, spanning the period from Thomas Aquinas to the present, but focusing on the modern era beginning from the papacy of Leo XIII and ending with Pope Francis, on Catholic Social Thought. If I were still teaching this course, I’d certainly draw from these fine looking pieces. The book is Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays (Cambridge University Press), edited by Gerard V. Bradley and E. Christian Brugger.

“Catholic social teaching (CST) refers to the corpus of authoritative ecclesiastical teaching, usually in the form of papal encyclicals, on social matters, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and running through Pope Francis. CST is not a social science and its texts are not pragmatic primers for social activists. It is a normative exercise of Church teaching, a kind of comprehensive applied – although far from systematic – social moral theology. This volume is a scholarly engagement with this 130-year-old documentary tradition. Its twenty-three essays aim to provide a constructive, historically sophisticated, critical exegesis of all the major (and some of the minor) documents of CST. The volume’s appeal is not limited to Catholics, or even just to those who embrace, or who are seriously interested in, Christianity. Its appeal is to any scholar interested in the history or content of modern CST.”

Really Early Church Law

Many studies of the law of the Catholic Church, or canon law, do not focus on the truly early period, the so-called jus antiquum. But here is a wonderful new book that does: Papal Jurisprudence c. 400: Sources of the Canon Law Tradition (Cambridge University Press), by David L. d’Avray.

“In the late fourth century, in the absence of formal church councils, bishops from all over the Western Empire wrote to the Pope asking for advice on issues including celibacy, marriage law, penance and heresy, with papal responses to these questions often being incorporated into private collections of canon law. Most papal documents were therefore responses to questions from bishops, and not initiated from Rome. Bringing together these key texts, this volume of accessible translations and critical transcriptions of papal letters is arranged thematically to offer a new understanding of attitudes towards these fundamental issues within canon law. Papal Jurisprudence, c.400 reveals what bishops were asking, and why the replies mattered. It is offered as a companion to the forthcoming volume Papal Jurisprudence: Social Origins and Medieval Reception of Canon Law, 385–1234.”

Sam Harris Takes a Different Line

Sam Harris is best known as one of the hardest of the hard-core “new atheists” or “militant atheists.” He was so committed–so militant–that he advocated violence toward people whose religious views he considered very dangerous in achieving the sought-for objective of “ending” religion.

But in this new book, his views seem to have mellowed somewhat: Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue (Harvard University Press), by Harris and Maajid Nawaz.

“In this short book, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz invite you to join an urgently needed conversation: Is Islam a religion of peace or war? Is it amenable to reform? Why do so many Muslims seem drawn to extremism? What do words like Islamismjihadism, and fundamentalism mean in today’s world?

Remarkable for the breadth and depth of its analysis, this dialogue between a famous atheist and a former radical is all the more startling for its decorum. Harris and Nawaz have produced something genuinely new: they engage one of the most polarizing issues of our time—fearlessly and fully—and actually make progress.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance has been published with the explicit goal of inspiring a wider public discussion by way of example. In a world riven by misunderstanding and violence, Harris and Nawaz demonstrate how two people with very different views can find common ground.”

Science and Scientism

There are many philosophers who have written critically about the relatively common modern tendency to derive moral principles from science–to move from science to a reductively naturalistic morality of scientism. From Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot to Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, omitting many others before, in between, and after.

Here is a relatively new book that appears to advance a critique of scientism broadly in this line but updated to address new challenges and targets: Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (Yale University Press), by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky.

“In this illuminating book, James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky trace the origins and development of the centuries-long, passionate, but ultimately failed quest to discover a scientific foundation for morality. The “new moral science” led by such figures as E. O. Wilson, Patricia Churchland, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, and Joshua Greene is only the newest manifestation of that quest. Though claims for its accomplishments are often wildly exaggerated, this new iteration has been no more successful than its predecessors. But rather than giving up in the face of this failure, the new moral science has taken a surprising turn. Whereas earlier efforts sought to demonstrate what is right and wrong, the new moral scientists have concluded, ironically, that right and wrong don’t actually exist. Their (perhaps unwitting) moral nihilism turns the science of morality into a social engineering project. If there is nothing moral for science to discover, the science of morality becomes, at best, a feeble program to achieve arbitrary societal goals. Concise and rigorously argued, Science and the Good is a definitive critique of a would-be science that has gained extraordinary influence in public discourse today and an exposé of that project’s darker turn.”

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