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.