Whig Calvinism?

posted by James K.A. Smith

<br />Tracey Rowland, following the lead of David L. Schindler, has described a recent trend in Catholic social thought as “Whig Thomism”—or what Schindler sometimes called “the John Courtney Murray project.”  At the heart of this neoconservative school (Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel, the Acton Institute) is a desire to articulate a fundamental compatibility between liberalism and Catholicism—to see libertarian, capitalist social organization as the “natural” way of organizing society, to which Catholicism is a “supernatural” supplement.

I would suggest that we can see a kind of Reformed version of this project—a sort of “Whig Calvinism”—in the recent work of John Witte, Jr. and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  In particular, while much more needs to be said about Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice—including some properly philosophical engagements we’ll save for elsewhere—I’ll close my contribution to this symposium with some broad brush strokes by suggesting that Wolterstorff’s project can be seen as a powerful, persuasive version of a Whig Calvinism, which, instead of ending up with a neoconservativism, ends up with a theistic liberalism.  And I am interested in the way and extent to which this represents a contemporary articulation and extension of the Kuyperian project.  More specifically, I’m interested in how Wolterstorff’s Kuyperian “sensibility” manifests itself in his basic whiggish evaluation of liberal democracy (akin to Kuyper’s rather rosy, nineteenth-century affirmations of “progress”).  To what extent does this represent an assimilation of Reformed Protestantism to the paradigms of liberalism?  Or—to take Witte’s point—to what extent is the Reformed tradition actually a cause in the emergence of liberalism?  Witte and Wolterstorff offer powerful, erudite narratives that argue for just such a causal continuity.  But I think there’s room for disagreement and for the articulation of an alternative story.  If the Reformation was something like an Augustinian renewal movement within the church catholic, one has to wonder, for instance, how a thick, Augustinian understanding of freedom could be reconciled with the thinned-out, libertarian freedom of modernity.

Wolterstorff is out to tell the causal version of this story: the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures teach inherent rights, the church affirmed inherent rights, the Reformation recovered and expanded inherent rights, and modern liberal democracy universalized inherent rights (and stands in danger of losing a ground for them if it persists in its secularizing ways).  But with just a smidgen of a hermeneutics of suspicion, this story could be told quite differently—namely, that a late modern Calvinist, who has bought into a liberal model of justice as inherent rights, is now (surprise, surprise!) finding just such a model of justice in a selective, tilted reading of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—and that insofar at the Reformation plays a role in giving rise to this paradigm, it’s to blame, not praise.  (I don’t claim to have sufficiently marshaled the resources to actually pull off such an alternative account.  I only want to sketch what it might look like.)

In fact, I think we can locate this tension and these alternatives right in Wolterstorff’s corpus.  A full evaluation of Justice will have to read it against Until Justice and Peace Embrace.  And I would suggest that there is some tension between Wolterstorff’s vision of justice in Until Justice and Peace Embrace and Justice.  Indeed, one might even argue that his earlier model is a kind of “right order” theory of justice, and that his migration (in Justice) to inherent rights represents a shift in his thought.

On this score, it seems to me that Wolterstorff leaves us to read between the lines.  The best I’ve been able to come up with is this: it seems that he is skittish about right order theories (and by implication, eudaimonism) because they work with communitarian assumptions—and it seems that he is worried that communitarian frameworks tend to run roughshod over what individuals demand/require.  In this respect, I think Wolterstorff is inattentive to the extent to which he has absorbed the atomistic individualism of modern liberalism (and then read something like it back into the Scriptures). This is just another way of saying that I think Wolterstorff—in good Kuyperian fashion—has unwittingly been assimilated to regnant paradigms in liberal political thought and is now “baptizing” them with a theological story.  In short, I think Wolterstorff’s most fundamental (and thus un-interrogated) assumptions demonstrate just how the Kuyperian vision can so easily slide toward cultural assimilation.  But these are just suspicions—concerns about a “vibe” in his project.

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3 Responses to “Whig Calvinism?”

  1. avatar Thaddeus Kozinski says:

    “This is just another way of saying that I think Wolterstorff—in good Kuyperian fashion—has unwittingly been assimilated to regnant paradigms in liberal political thought and is now “baptizing” them with a theological story.”

    How does anyone “wittingly” avoid being assimilated to regnant paradigms that are irreconcilable with the ones to which we consciously subscribe? I ask this in all earnestness.

    I think MacIntyre’s whole project is devoted to answering this question. Rowland has built upon his philosophical project of dialectical “cave escape” a formidable, non and even-anti liberal theological edifice. For Gil Bailie and the Girardians, as well as Simone Weil, the key is identifying with the victim and the socially marginalized to ensure one’s God-centeredness and thus immunity from the contagion of the otherwise infallibly infectious noble lies going around.

    Charles Taylor seems to suggest that the key is to recognize our own “spin” on the world and to constantly have the consciousness that we can’t really escape such spinning, and with that consciousness, nevertheless, to engage in dialectical encounters with other spins in order to get closer to the non-spun truth.

    Well, I think you may be right about the Whiggish spin in Wolterstorff, but how does one avoid spinning out of control, as it were? For a Catholic, the answer seems simple, full immersion in the non-spun Tradition of the Church and to build culture and society from such immersion. But the problem remains: how to know that one is actually thinking and acting in an authentically Christian manner, even with the assurance of infallible, dogmatic truth and liturgical access to the reality of the living God, and not with some unwitting assimilated liberal spin?

  2. avatar Jon Rowe says:

    If interested, I commented on your post and Wolterstorff thesis here.

    Through the blog medium, I’ve done a lot of the research that “marshal[s] the resources to actually pull off such an alternative account.” Not in this one post, though. It’s taken years. Calvin’s “Institutes,” for instance, contain little to support the idea of “natural rights.” And later Calvinists, who supposedly laid the ground for rights teachings, for instance, Samuel Rutherford, said things like the following (I do reproduce this quotation in my blog post) on Calvin helping to have Servetus executed simply for speaking his Unitarian conscience:

    “It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition.”

    – Samuel Rutherfurd, “A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience.” (1649).

  3. avatar Ruth Braunstein says:

    For a detailed response from Nicholas Wolterstorff, see The fine texture: a response to Smith.

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