Friday, March 4, 2016

Evolution, Theological Anthropology and ... Political Theory?

In connection with an upcoming paper that I will hope to present at the 2016 ESSSAT conference, the following is a good portion of the outline for it. I'm still currently trying to write it up, but there is a lot to say in a short space. The perennial problem. In the paper, I want to make a connection to the political theorist Edmund Burke (1730-97), the classical liberal thinker known (paradoxically) as a father of Toryism. This is the part that is still a bit sketchy in my thinking but Burke's interpretation of society as a natural organic reality, it would seem logical to conceive of his political theory as a sort of natural extension of theological anthropology in a dialogue with nature. He differs from the 'pessimism' of Thomas Hobbes and the somewhat more abstract thought of John Locke. Both of these philosophers preceded Burke by many decades.

Interestingly, I have come across a portion of his 1782 speech on the nature of the representation of the Commons in parliament where he speaks about the importance of time and the rightness of constitutional government. Burke conceives of constitutional government as a kind of prescription which suggests to him that "The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species, it almost always acts right." (Selected Writings, 331) The context for these remarks is the Magna carta and the resulting English constitutionalism. The significance of these comments has to do with Burke's particularly biological way of framing the rightness in a polity that constitutions prescribe - once long periods of time have passed. The biological note is observed in his use of the term 'species'.

In any case, here is that outline: 

Against overly optimistic and negative anthropologies, this paper takes up a theme that is present in three distinct areas of literature: i) Paul’s Letter to Romans, ii) recent literature dealing with the character of addiction and iii) a political theory of human nature. I want to argue for a component of human uniqueness that is tied to what Kierkegaard and others regard as ‘anxiety’. This paper argues that human uniqueness is comprised in part upon an ability to engage in a complex yet necessary assessment of our own human desire in order to arrange human societies in a way that political order reflects human nature as it is found. 

Chapters 5 – 7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides a template for this portrait of human nature by alluding to the following: sin’s entry into the world (5:12), God’s love experienced in our hearts (5:5), the role of law in multiplying the incidence and revealing sin (5:19, 7:7), the experience of enslavement to sin (6:6), the correlation of enslavement with embodiment (6:12), the weakness of flesh (6:19) and the internal struggle between good and evil (7:19ff).

This Pauline template can be shown to have traction within an evolutionary framework in light of current research on the nature of addiction. Addictive personality profiles suggest the presence of a condition analogous to disease. Positive recoveries from such conditions are positively effected through social groups that instill a positive virtue ethics perspective in order to resist addictive behaviours (eg: Alcoholics Anonymous). The classic moral framework of habits, continence and temperance is the most relevant means to understand and overcome these forms of moral weakness. 
Historically, the science-theology dialogue has not incorporated reflections on any political theory that is implied by a human nature informed by various disciplines. But, the moral struggle claimed by Paul’s reflection on sin and anxiety as well as the experience with substance abuse demonstrates the need for a political theory that is sensitive to the limits of freedom, socialization of human nature and yet the impossibility of human perfectibility.

Edmund Burke (1729-97) is an Enlightenment liberal whose embrace of religion and the need for individual rule over the passions is a timely resource. He offers a political theory that recognizes the uniqueness of moral struggle, the danger of utopianism and the created yet frail character of human nature that can be offset by stable social conventions. The uniqueness of human nature lies not in any particular capacity but in the dialectical process in which prudence, virtue and social order can mitigate natural inherited weaknesses.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Justice Scalia: The Deftness of Law

Recently deceased U.S. Justice Scalia raised the hackles of political liberals unlike almost no other. This has intrigued me and prompted me to seek a little more beyond the unhelpful headlines about who the man was and what he represents. This short profile by David Cole in the New York Review of Books provides a decent, liberal account of the man. But this line caught my eye:

All the political machinations surrounding Scalia’s replacement would have troubled Scalia, who was a firm believer that the Constitution and its interpretation should not be subject to political pressures.
Well, it turns out, if I hear Scalia correctly from an interview with the omnipresent Charlie Rose, this was not Scalia's position. It seems that Scalia, while he did not like the spectacle of public hearings into whether Supreme Court nominees were suitable, nevertheless preferred such hearings in the situation where the Court sees itself as over-interpreting (my word) the Constitution. An excerpt from the interview is here. It's only 3 minutes. It's a fascinating glimpse into the philosophically profound and politically murky waters that are being stirred in the cauldron known as US politics.

For an evenly balanced, somewhat critical and well written account of Scalia the law-maker, see this article here from Thomas Berg, which treats the always intriguing relationship between morality and law. The article ends thus:
Justice Scalia usually agreed that his approach still involved some judgment but answered, persuasively, that it constrained judges more than did the use of open-ended moral principles. Nevertheless, greater recognition of the role of judgment might have made Scalia a little less polemical, and a little more charitable, when he disagreed strongly with his colleagues’ opinions.
In end, however, Justice Scalia was a prophet, like many of the great dissenters in the Court’s history (he will rank with Oliver Wendell Holmes among the greatest). And prophecy involves ringing tones and stark terms; it is hard to combine those with qualifiers that charitably give the other side every benefit of the doubt. Justice Scalia lost many battles on the Court, and some of his positions will become even less popular over time. But many of his words will ring with prophetic power for generations to come.
March 2 Update: This article by New Testament scholar Anthony Giambrone is a really really fine piece that has got me thinking of this book, among other things!

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Form of Human Dignity

The Newman Rambler, a McGill Newman Centre based publication, has issued a new edition, and I have a piece there on human dignity in its philosophical and theological context. It appears in an issue dedicated to the question of euthanasia and the lead-off article is a must-read from Margaret Somerville. Also recommended are the other essays that tackle the issue of euthanasia from a variety of vantage points. Mine only tangentially deals with euthanasia.

Primarily, I am dealing with the linguistics over the usage of the term human dignity, with attention to some the genealogy of dignity in recent popular science and academic philosophy/theology. As many have noted, the 'dying with dignity' movement assumes that the word dignity is equivalent to the personal autonomy that it prizes (and prizes alone). As I try to show briefly, this is a one-sided understanding of dignity because, among other things, it does not take seriously the notion of the form of the human person. Click through to the full text.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mid-winter delight

If you can spare 10 minutes of your day and you need an uplifting reminder that the gift of reason can be a delightful thing to behold, then go no further than Edward Feser's review of another new atheist screed, the latest book on science and religion by Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. Edward Feser is a philosopher and a logician. He also has a really deft way of taking no prisoners. Coyne should now go and hide somewhere.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Qualified Thumbs Up for 'Je ne suis pas Charlie'

This article in London's Independent is a very good summary of what is wrong with the ongoing fixation with the tawdry, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Apart from what reads to my eyes like a subtle endorsement of censorship of the magazine, this article is a major contribution to the argument that 'Je ne suis pas Charlie' is the better response to that magazine's 'journalistic' output. And, as the author, Nabila Ramdani underlines, nothing in her critique or any other critique of the magazine takes away from the rightful disgust and sympathy for the families of the victims in the attacks which took place over a year ago.

One other qualification to my endorsement however. Near the end, Ramdani writes:
Secularism and liberalism are not meant to subjugate religion. On the contrary, if they are applied properly they create a respectful society in which all expressions of faith can flourish, along with those who are atheists or agnostics.
 But this is not completely right. Liberalism and secularism cannot be applied in a positive way, just as much as they should not be applied in a negative way. A liberal society does not apply liberalism, it allows for liberalism to flourish out of an essential passivity. Or, at least, the sense of passivity that comes from separating powers: separation of the government from the judiciary from the police and security forces. A passivity that allows an ordered liberty to flourish in which speech is not monitored or censored and where the judiciary does not usurp the powers that rightly belong to parliaments and legislative assemblies. And vice versa. Etc. etc.

She appears to have bought into a part of the problem with secularism that she means to decry. A friendly amendment to this article would say this: religion will flouish so long as it is freely chosen in a liberal society. As Locke might have said it, the only kind of religion worth having is religion that is chosen by and for oneself and one's children. Likewise, a liberalism that is worth having is a liberalism that could not conceivably be foisted upon anyone to begin with. Her main point is that secularism is being applied by governments in an illiberal way, and on that score, she is absolutely right.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Barth v. Harnack. Almost a Century later...

I read this great short piece from Giles Fraser in the Guardian (of all places, some would say) about Karl Barth and the theological imperative of not letting Christian faith or the church be subject to the whims of cultural and political connivance. The conflict between Barth and his doktorvater, Adolf von Harnack, is well known among academic theologians, but not sufficiently appreciated beyond the theological ivory tower. Fraser's article is a wonderful service in rectifying this gap in cultural knowledge. The takeaway in Fraser's piece is this paragraph near the end:

"The problem, for Barth, was that the religion of “good people” had become just another sphere of human activity – like playing golf or going to a concert. And, as a consequence, its theology had come to be imprisoned by the dominant cultural imagery. Locked away in private prayer, Christianity abandoned its critical engagement with the fullness of reality, and so had no grounds for objection when the state shaped a pliant and deferential cultural Christianity for the purposes of statecraft. Germany had sacralised the culture-state complex, and by so doing, had come to worship something other than God: the military-industrial complex. Something Barth called Woden, the Nordic God of war."
Image result for Barth
What Fraser shows, I think, is that a certain form of Kantian reasoning (Christianity as a form of practical morality) is well suited for the purposes of taming faith, neutering it. Fraser's example of David Cameron, an insincere politician of a rather high order, is therefore spot on: the use of religion for political agendas neither of the church's making nor in its interests - something Cameron appears guilty of doing - has to be resisted. The problem is rather more acute among Christians of a quietist bent: those in the pews who are keen to see church/culture chasms bridged on any terms. The convenience of having a truce between faith and the world of political conflict means pursuing the goal of a "relevant" faith. It is in this context that stories about tensions within evangelicalism and among Catholics over what Pope Francis means to say - should be properly understood.

This piece by Fraser pertains to a course on religion and politics that I will teach this semester, and some of the most interesting recent reading I've been doing is relevant to World War One (and its significance for how to understand the rise of Nazism in a supposedly Christian nation, Germany). I recommend Michael Burleigh's book Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, From the French Revolution to the Great War. Nota bene: the use of the word 'clash'. In other words, there is plenty to suggest from over a century of evidence, according to Burleigh, that the Christian churches did not aid and abet political agendas that were antithetical to their raisons d'etre. That is: pace Barth, the Christian churches, theologians and many political actors saw in Christian faith the necessary grounds for resisting imperialism, the vagaries of capitalism, racism and a host of other malign forces at work in Europe at the time. Burleigh goes one step further on a number of occasions and without exonerating the churches of blame for various failures of courage or conscience, he details their relatively benign posture in comparison with other forces at work in rendering Europe prone to conflict.

Take the question of violence, for instance (a topic that has become especially contested over the past few years with most scholars lining up on against the idea that religion is inherently violent). In addition to a careful and thoroughly convincing analysis of the zealous, anti-religious motives for the violence of the French Revolution (chapters 2 and 3), this quotation from p. 440 is eyebrow raising in the context of World War One:

For it is important to emphasise that the clergy were no more, and often significantly less, bellicose than the artistic avant-garde, academics, journalists, scientists and the wider intelligentsia. Whether one thinks of the Socialist Barbusse, the German conservative writer Ernst Junger or the British Marxist biologist Haldane, there were many secular-minded people who positively revelled in the prospect of apocalyptic carnage. Many of these groups subscribed to materialistic creeds, such as Social Darwinism, that were no less questionable than that of a Christianity made serviceable for battle.
So, Barth was right in his denunciation of Harnack's 'liberal' theology, we know. But despite Harnack's role in speech writing for Kaiser Wilhelm (at one point, inserting a reference to Germans as "the chosen race" in a speech delivered by the Kaiser), by 1914, he and his class of clergy theologians held a power that was largely nominal. Barth called them out. Harnack's reputation sank after the war was lost to the allies and the stage was set in Germany for the later emergence of the Confessional Church, resistance to Nazism from Niemoller and Bonhoeffer among many others, the ecumenical movement's endorsement of a public theology, the later rise of liberation theology and the demise of 'altar and throne' conservatism. A more Augustinian view of church and state has been under construction since the 1970's. Accommodation: the modus operandi of so many liberal Catholics since Vatican II looks more Harnackian by the year. More on that later.