The paucity of secularism?

posted by James K.A. Smith

<p></p>Philosophy, for Nicholas Wolterstorff, is not a parlor game.  Over the course of a career, he has exhibited a passionate concern about justice driven by a thick self-understanding of his work as a Christian philosopher.  (One can get a snippet of this autobiography in his recent address to the American Academy of Religion, published as “How Social Justice Got Me and Why It Never Left”—though you’ll find that Wolterstorff’s Calvinist humility doesn’t let him dwell on his own story for very long.)  His work along these lines has always been diaconal: from his earlier work, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, to various interventions on behalf of Palestinians and against South African apartheid, Wolterstorff has seen theory in the service of practice.  In other words, his wrangling with justice is not about academic puzzle-solving.

Thus his latest book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, is something of a magnum opus on these matters.  There are layers and layers of themes and issues that could be discussed, but much of that will have to be saved for other (more scholarly) contexts; I offer some bloggish thoughts as catalysts for conversation.  These certainly don’t represent my “final word” on these matters—more like my first fumblings, highlighting just a few themes over several posts.

We should first appreciate Wolterstorff’s project as indicated by the structure of the book.  Let me sketch a bit of a map. Wolterstorff first seeks to dispatch with a narrative about rights that he deems particularly influential.  The chain of the argument seems to go something like this:

(1)   There is an influential narrative (articulated by MacIntyre, O’Donovan, and others), which construes “rights talk” as basically antithetical to Christian faith and which has, as a result, generated “hostility to justice and rights.”

(2)   This narrative is critical of rights talk on at least three counts:

(a)    Rights talk is a distinctly modern emergence that is incongruent with a biblical vision;

(b)   Rights talk is allied with possessive individualism;

(c)    Rights talk is tethered to assumptions of neutrality and thus inextricably linked to secularism.

This influential version of the story is Wolterstorff’s foil and target.  In response, Wolterstorff’s strategy is to:

(1)   Show that rights talk is not a modern emergence but can in fact be found implicit in antiquity and, more importantly, in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—and more specifically, that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures offer an implicit notion of inherent natural rights.  This is the focus of Part I.

(2)   Show that “justice” must be understood not only as “right order” (the theory of justice he attributes to MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and O’Donovan), but in terms of (not only “natural” but) inherent natural rights.  This is the project of Parts II and III of the book.

But I expect that The Immanent Frame’s readers will be most intrigued by the third aspect of the book’s project, which emerges at the end: Wolterstorff’s claim that “inherent” human rights require theistic grounding.

So let’s start from the end.  Now, it seems to me that what worries Wolterstorff about “right order” theories of justice (i.e., communitarian accounts) is that they leave justice at the whim of a particular story, a particular community, and thus leave the wronged without recourse, without a basis for appeal.  If rights are going to “work”—that is, if they are going to provide an extra-story and supra-community criterion for naming wrongs—then the worth of the human person needs to be grounded in some feature or property that is not conditioned by a particular story and which is a feature of all human beings. A conception of “right order” can’t work because it lacks “generality;” it will be story-relative.  Conversely, something like “rational capacities” (a la Kant) won’t work because not all human beings exhibit such. At this juncture, Wolterstorff sees the “image of God” coupled with a sense of God’s love for each human being as the only viable way forward, even though this seems to make him uncomfortable.

There’s much to be said about this move in his argument.  However, I would like to address this at a macro-level that comes up later.  Wolterstorff has pointed out the inadequacy of a “secular” grounding of worth/rights and hence pressed the necessity of grounding rights in the image of God and God’s love for creatures.  But this raises what he describes as an “unsettling question”: “Suppose the secularization thesis is true.” That is, suppose that modernization leads to secularization.  If it is the case that the “subculture” of rights actually owes its genesis to religious and specifically biblical sources, and if secularization erodes the plausibility of those sources, “What must we then expect to happen to that subculture” of rights?  He later answers his own question: “If this framework erodes, I think we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will also eventually erode and that we will slide back into our tribalisms.”

Wolterstorff closes by simply asserting, “I do not believe the thesis.”  But it’s not clear to me just what he thinks the “secularization thesis” refers to. And he’s certainly not alone in not believing the thesis.  But it’s not clear what he means to assert by saying he doesn’t believe the thesis.

Does he mean that he doesn’t think modernization entails secularization? Well, then he has nothing to worry about; “religion”—even theism—seems alive and well in the late modern world.

Or does he mean that he rejects secularism? That would make sense given his Reformed epistemology; indeed, he’s articulated this already in Audi & Wolterstorff, Religion in the Public Square and in his critiques of Rorty (in the Journal of Religious Ethics). But even a “secular” philosopher like Jeff Stout will agree with him about the unwarranted nature of secularism. That doesn’t mean that Stout believes humans are created in the image of God and loved by God equally and permanently. Indeed, I think one of the things that Wolterstorff finds “unsettling” about his conclusion is that it means that his friend Stout’s project is inadequate.

So does he mean, as I suspect, that we need to shore up the “framework” that undergirds the notion of the image of God? And if so, just what could that mean? That we need to expand the number of people who begin from that story? Does he mean we need enough convincing theorists to accept the story? Does he think that the “framework” requires a critical mass of people who believe that humans are created in the image of God? Is there a sort of covert Christendom project at work here? I honestly don’t know.

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7 Responses to “The paucity of secularism?”

  1. In light of the concerns Prof. Smith raises in the final paragraph of this entry, it is interesting to consider Habermas’ reference to Genesis 1:27 in his essay “Faith and Knowledge.” At the end of this essay, I read Habermas to be saying that secularist perspectives have yet to adequately translate the biblical anthropology wrapped up in the notion of the imago dei. For Habermas, this biblical construal provides a basis for considering the equality of all persons dwelling together within “a morally sensitive universe.” It is also an anthropology that depends on making a distinction between Creator and (human) creature, a difference that secularists may have difficulty translating in secular terms. Yet without a secular translation of this anthropology, Habermas says, nothing will give modern persons pause before instrumentally tinkering with the genetic inheritance of future generations. Habermas summarizes the position as follows:

    “Now, one need not believe in theological premises in order to understand what follows from this [morally charged distinction between Creator and human creature], namely, that an entirely different kind of dependence, perceived as a causal one, becomes involved if the difference assumed as inherent in the concept of creation were to disappear, and the place of God be taken by a peer—if, that is, a human being would intervene, according to his own preferences and without being justified in assuming, at least counterfactually, a consent of the concerned other, in the random combination of the parents’ sets of chromosomes…. Would not the first human being to determine, at his own discretion, the natural essence of another human being at the same time destroy the equal freedoms that exist among persons of equal birth in order to ensure their difference?” (Habermas, “Faith and Knowledge”, in Mendieta, ed., The Frankfurt School on Religion, 336).

    One reason for Wolterstorff’s hesitation, I think, is that he does not want his claim for the necessity of theistic grounding to alienate potential secular interlocutors. But what if, instead of making this about theism vs. atheism, all concerned would try, with Wolterstorff and Habermas, to get at the kind of ‘difference’ Habermas mentions above? For is not the question, finally, (and it is one that Hannah Arendt also encourages us to ask): How do we need to understand the world and human beings so that we don’t permit ourselves to treat others (including non-human others) instrumentally or as superfluous?

    We need a plurality of voices to address this question, both religious and secular. Personally, I haven’t yet given up hope for the possibility that generous scholars like Stout and Wolterstorff will be able to explore together the terrain opened by such a question. As Habermas demonstrates, however, an absolute allergy to theistic insights on this question will not take us very far.

  2. avatar Tom Rees says:

    The whole basis for the argument makes sense only if you proceed from the assumption that a god of some kind exists and that it is possible to know what moral framework that god prefers.

    If either of those two assumptions is not fulfilled, then the logical conclusion is that whatever morals we have now are not absolute and never have been. Thus, the complaint that “If this framework erodes, I think we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will also eventually erode and that we will slide back into our tribalisms” is erroneous. Since we developed our moral subculture of rights perfectly well without any moral absolutes, a realisation that they do not exist will not plunge us into a spiral of moral decay.

    In fact, even an atheist could argue that there are moral absolutes of some kind—since we share a common understanding of morality as a result of our evolution. The golden rule ‘Do unto others’ is shared across cultures not because of any god, but because it is a successful evolutionary and societal strategy. That will remain the case in the future, just as much as it was in the past.

    All this discussion about moral absolutes and the implications of their possible (probable?) non-existence is a distraction from real, meaningful questions in sociology!

  3. It’s funny: Habermas’ recent comments were often in my mind when I was reading the closing chapter of Wolterstorff’s book. But Habermas’ project has puzzled me: it feels like it wants to live off borrowed (theological) capital (“having the form of godliness but denying the power thereof!”—in old King James English!). Can we just unhook the notions of the imago Dei and Creator/creature from the plausibility structures and practices in which they make sense? It seems to me that such a borrowing is merely notional; something significant and essential would be lost in any such translation.

    In fact, hearing what Wolterstorff would make of Habermas’ proposal would be very informative and would likely clarify what Wolterstorff means about the necessity of a theistic grounding of inherent rights. He’s certainly not wanting to claim that one must be a theist to honor or be concerned about rights. Rather, the project seems rather Kantian: that the position of secularist concerned with justice as rights is sort of rationally unstable or unwarranted. But do all who are concerned with justice as rights have to have a warranted account of such? Or is it enough that someone can provide such an account?

  4. Tom Rees: In fact, even an atheist could argue that there are moral absolutes of some kind—since we share a common understanding of morality as a result of our evolution.

    Evolutionists can’t be sure of anything. Because of Darwin’s “horrid doubt” that “the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals” i.e., by a purposeless process like the natural selection of random mutations “are of any value or at all trustworthy” (Darwin, 1898, p.i:285), which “convictions of man’s mind” would include Darwinism itself (not to mention any theory of evolution that was fully materialistic and naturalistic and denied design, and indeed Materialism and Naturalism themselves).

    Tom Rees: The golden rule ‘Do unto others’ is shared across cultures not because of any god, but because it is a successful evolutionary and societal strategy. That will remain the case in the future, just as much as it was in the past.

    What does secular history have to say for human rights apart from Christianity?

  5. avatar Thaddeus Kozinski says:

    Plato instituted the “noble lie” of the metals in Book III of the Republic in order to ensure that the rulers cared more about the common good than their own self-interests, indeed, to ensure that they identified their self-interests with the common good itself. The Enlightenment, pace Plato, tried to make exercising one’s enlightened self-interest the only requirement for a just society.

    It seems that Habermas is saying that the Enlightenment project has failed, and was destined to fail in virtue of not understanding its hidden theological genealogy and source of energy, and that we need something like the Noble Lie of Christianity to sustain the kind of society we now desire (whatever the precise ontological and historical foundation this society has, and whatever the reason for our quite Christ-like, yet secularized, desires), one that has a robust sense of the common good and one in which persons (well, whomever we define as fully human, not unborn babies or Palestinians in Gaza) must be considered ends, not means.

    Well, for those who don’t want to base their society on a lie or a myth, there must be another option than the Noble Lie.

    What we are talking about, putting it most simply, is the need for a society where people actually love each other enough not to treat them as means to their own selfish ends. This is what “rights” means, ultimately. According to Christianity, the ability genuinely to love another requires grace, the forgiveness of sins, and repentance, as well as a truthful reason to love one another. The reason is because God does. I don’t see how a Noble Lie could ever replace this reason effectively, either privately or publicly, and I don’t see why it ever should. What are the political ramifications of the Incarnation? Political liberalism is certainly one of these ramifications, for Rawls’ pious devotion to tolerance, freedom, personal rights, etc., couldn’t exist without the Incarnation, but it is a very distorted and insufficient one all on it’s own, as Habermas tells us.

    In other words, I don’t see, and I don’t think Wolterstorff can see, how a just society is possible where Trinitarian Love doesn’t provide the cultural and political form of the society, and the basis of its political mandate of personal rights. Now, we pluralist Americans, of course, do not all subscribe to a belief in the existence of Trinitarian Love. But in the absence of a communal belief in the only persuasive reason to love one another, because God does, I don’t see how anything other than a communally held Noble Lie can “work.” I don’t think that is what we postmodern, anti-meta-narrative mythbusters really desire—or is it?

    If Goodness is fully revealed in the historical Incarnation of the God-man, and if the Church is the continuation and institutional embodiment of this Incarnation in time and space, and if justice is basically a term that means political goodness, then I do not see how a society that doesn’t recognize publicly the ontological status of this Church as the main locus of our access to this Goodness—particularly in the Eucharist (see William T. Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination)—can ever be truly just, or else just just enough to measure up to our “secular,” yet quite morally severe and theologically inspirited, standards of “rights.”

  6. I am fascinated with this topic. I hope you keep up the dialogue. For me, it doesn’t matter whether there is a religious basis for the uniqueness of the human being, as we all have an understanding (whether we agree or not) about how the Golden Rule applies to oneself. The Golden Rule is known within many traditions, but is also Kant’s categorical imperative. I think all rational beings understand justice; it is just defined differently, within individual contexts…

    Moral maturity would be when one arrives at treating another with the same regard that one desires for self. That will look different depending on one’s personal moral level and moral temperament.

  7. avatar Kevin James Bywater says:

    If I recall, “the golden rule” is not expressed identically in all cultures, despite the common refrain that it is. There are at least two notable versions (there are more) that result in rather profound distinctions. The negative iteration reads: Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. The positive iteration reads: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. An interesting discussion revolves around whether one can rhetorically spin all scenarios such that the results under either iteration are synonymous.

    Another discussion revolves around whether, given an atheistic worldview, one would necessarily be bound to a universalizing of “the golden rule” sentiment. Why should one universalize it in application to all human beings, let alone to all non-human beings? It is terribly difficult to locate, let alone retain, a compelling rationale for such universalizing, especially if one’s dominant narrative is atheistic and evolutionary.

    What I’ve encountered are suggestions that humans now have evolved consciousness such that we now may subvert or alter evolutionary forces and drives that otherwise would hinder our retention and promulgation of “the golden rule.” There are many questions answering back to this. One asks whether evolutionism even permits such an option. Can the theory subvert the theory? Another asks—given that evolution is seen as much more than merely biological—whether it is even meaningful to speak of “human beings” in the context of such discussions. The latter inquiry suggests that perhaps such de-texturizing and de-diversifying of humanity is itself a noble lie—one that, apparently, nature (including “human beings”) continues to resist.

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