Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year: Some Resolutions Pertaining to Blogging

Could some one tell me what exactly happened to the year 2010?  I feel like it just kinda disappeared.  And at the same time so much happened that it feels like it was an eternity.  A whirlwind conundrum is what I have concluded it is.  Time is an illusion.

So as the year winds down and a new one gears up, I have been thinking a bit about what to do with this blog.  When I started this in undergrad I assumed no one would ever read it.  Later, a few friends told me they occasionally looked at.  That was kinda cool.  Lately more and more people have told me they actually read what gets put up here.  Which is honoring and frightening at the same time.  But I still assumed I had fewer readers than fingers.  Just recently blogger added a new feature- a page view counter that shows the number of hits a site receives.  I was stunned to discover that this blog has nearly fourteen-hundred hits since last May (when blogger started counting)!  But spread out over eight months that amounts to be about six a day, which doesn't seem that significant.  Using my super-power abilities as the manager of this page, I was able to see how many of those hits are in the last month.  Its something close to 350, about a quarter of the total hits, bringing last months' average to about twelve hits a day.  Given that I have put up only five posts in the last month (most of them in the last week), I am assuming that these are not the same twelve people every day.  In other words, this blog's readership has been significantly growing recently.

From my perspective as a writer, that changes how I view this a little bit.  I'm not just spitting out my thoughts in stream of conscious blabber that no one ever looks at anymore.  Nor is it just a few close friends and peers who are studying the same material I am with the same intensity who can and will tell me I'm an idiot when I say something stupid or irresponsible.  Many of the people I have received direct comments about this blog from are not studying theology or philosophy for a living.  Which is most certainly not to say they are not capable of understanding what is written here.  But like every field, the farther you get into it the more jargon you become acquainted with that others outside the "guild" don't readily know.  I am fairly certain I am guilty of using a lot of that jargon here in a way that is probably not helpful to those who are not studying the same things I am studying.  Another frequent comment that I have received is that my posts are really long.  Which is definitely true…. And again, probably not helpful or encouraging to readers.

So one thing that I want to do with the new year is to make this blog a little more reader friendly.  Less jargon and shorter posts are the goals, which probably also means more frequent posts.  Feedback is always welcome to let me know how I'm doing with that. 

One other major goal I have for the new year is to get back into the performance of music.  I have decided that I miss that too much.  I have also been a bit disappointed in the local music scene in New Haven.  Birmingham had a fantastic scene of local artists like Wild Sweet Orange, Justin Cross, Matthew Mayfield, etc.   Primarily in New Haven what I have seen is lots of fantastic classical music, which is great.  But there really doesn't seem to be much for folk/rock/acoustic type music, which is what I really love.  So tentatively I want to try and get back into playing that kind of music and find a few venues in New Haven to play at.  So how does this relate to blogging?  I am toying with the idea of starting a Tumbler account to post song lyrics and recordings for feedback and publicity…  Any thoughts?

The New Perspective on Paul and Theology

A third post on the New Perspective on Paul in as many days… This will probably mark the end of this discussion for a while on this blog, but these thoughts were inspired by another section of the response to my initial post by my friend Nick.  This is not as much a rejoinder to his comments as just continued thinking inspired by his comments, so no quotation here.

The basic thought is this: does the debate about "Justification" that swirls around the NPP necessarily follow from what the NPP says or is it something resulting from other doctrinal debates that the NPP simply interacts with?  My theory is this: the difference between the Reformed "traditional" understanding of Justification and the "NPP" understanding of Justification, particularly as found in NT Wright, has more to do with Wright being of the Anglican tradition, and thus closer to Catholic theology to begin with, than it has to do with something that the NPP actually says.

In its most basic form it seems that the New Perspective is arguing for a reading of Paul's statements about the law in light of the Second Temple understanding of the law as a boundary marker setting apart the Jews as the people of God.  I have argued in the previous two posts that this idea is somewhat present in the Old Testament law itself- the people are to be different from the world around them.  However, it seems to have gained a new level of exclusivity in the Second Temple period, leading to a debate about whether gentile converts to Christianity had to submit to Jewish legal practices. 

In and of itself I think this is as far as the New Perspective has to go.  Theological questions about the meaning of justification or the order of salvation are not themselves issues of Biblical Studies proper and the New Perspective, in its pure form, is part of the discipline of Biblical Studies.  However, inevitably Theology and Biblical Studies are linked and we do move from Paul to our theology and ask these questions.  One criticism that has often been levied against the NPP is that there is no unified NPP understanding of justification or other such theological issues.  However, because such questions necessarily involve a move beyond simply interpreting the text to a theological proposition in which other factors come into play, it may not be possible to have a consensus on such questions.  So the former Church of England Bishop NT Wright, who has a tendency toward a more Catholic theology anyway, takes a much more Catholic sounding reading of Justification from the NPP, arguing that inclusion in Christ leads to a "life lived" on which the basis of final judgment will be made.  In contrast, the very Reformed (though interestingly, now Methodist) James Dunn argues (as best I understand him) that the question of Justification is not an individual doctrine but pertains to the entire community found in Christ (and not exclusively the community found in the Jewish law).

Essentially, the point of this post is fairly simple.  I am arguing that the New Perspective itself does not dictate a particular theology.  The New Perspective is an attempt to read Paul in light of his Second Temple influences, which I have argued also gives a reading with much more continuity to the Old Testament than a "traditional"/dispensational reading of Paul.  Beyond that, as we develop a theology from Paul, there are a variety of other factors that come into play that will shape that theology.  I'm not sure that distinction has been appreciated enough in debates and discussions about the NPP.  Most "Reformed" critics of the New Perspective that I have read immediately attack the theological conclusion of Wright, for instance, without recognizing that his theological conclusion has as much to do with his Anglicanism as it does his understanding of Second Temple Judaism.  In doing so, I think they miss the mark and in effect are not actually dealing with the issues raised by the NPP.  This may be the greatest irony of the debate- a tradition founded on the principle of sola scriptura is more concerned with preserving a particular theology than dealing with issues related to the interpretation of the text.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Responding to an Interlocutor

I have greatly enjoyed this post and first wish to affirm you in your task of trying to correctly understand the reformers. The debate on the NPP touches on many different arenas of scholarship of which historical theology happens to be one of the most affected and rightly so. For when we see that certain themes of what the gospel is (such the gospel being the declaration of Jesus’ Messiahship) was already there in Luther and Calvin, then when we approach NPP proponents the issue of “see what’s wrong with them” dissolves. As a result what we are left with is: What does the Bible have to say on the matter? In other words, such clarity moves us closer to Scripture and reframes the debate. I would love to have more of your thoughts on the similarities of the reformed thinks and the NPP. Also you should read Dr. Bird’s discussion on the matter in his book The Saving Righteousness of God, 67-69.

A good friend of mine, who will possibly be starting his own blog soon (look forward to reading it, Nick), has responded to my thoughts on the NPP.  I have not read a lot of Michael Bird, but the bit that I have read has impressed me, he is a good and very active scholar.  So even though I haven't read The Saving Righteousness of God I'm including Nick's recommendation here for a good scholarly overview of some of these issues.  Nick and I have had many a debate about this topic which I have always enjoyed.  In the spirit of that friendly discourse and of academic dialogue, here are a couple segments of his lengthy (and witty/entertaining/Seinfeld informed) response and some rejoinders:

This brings me to the real issue of the matter and the pivotal objection conservative Evangelicals have against the NPP: How is a righteous God going to save or justify an ungodly and unrighteous person?

Again let’s interact with the OT picture here. However, let me first respond to another statement you have made concerning the OT and salvation:

"There is no hypothetical offer of Salvation in the Old Testament. Perfectly obeying the law does not result in salvation. From the perspective of the Old Testament, the law is given to those who already have Salvation! The rescued people of Israel, formed into a covenant as God's chosen people, are given the law to set them apart from the rest of the world, to maintain their status as God's people."

You’re right on the mark concerning the point that salvation was not received through one's obedience to the law (a type of hypothetical view which I firmly reject and would agree with Wright here, and it is quite lovely of you to reject such a view as well), but rather that one could never perfectly obey it. I think you must read how the narratives of the OT are showing you this theology. The point of the Law and Deuteromistic theology was not what one could achieve or who a person was, but rather that one was incapable of doing so. Yes the law along with other ritualistic and ethical markers did set the Jewish people apart, but this was not its main force and purpose. I will say that there is some elements of Deuteromistic history and theology (Deut. 28) that would say do this and be blessed, do this and be clobbered ( kind of a merit theology). However, following Paul's encouragement that we should read the OT in its entire flow we get a much different picture. How does Deuteronomy end? With Moses not getting into the land. How revolting are the last few chapters of Judges? Then we come to the kings. Saul had a lot of promise but how well did he and the nation end up? Yes, David was a man after God’s own heart; however, he comments adultery and murder and thus I wonder what kind of man he would have been like if he wasn’t a man after God’s own heart…right? Then a few centuries later the Davidic dynasty has ended with a puppet king on the throne and the majority of the people in exile. Therefore, what we see from the force and focus of the OT narrative history of Israel is not a history and theology which gives one the impression that if you’re only good enough and faithful then you’ll receive God’s blessings, and sometimes we make it and sometimes we don’t, but rather much closer and accurate to the way Paul reads it: The Law multiplies transgressions and teaches us how much of a dirty rotten bunch of sinners we are, and therefore highlighting how much we are in need of grace.

In other words, the Law shows us who we are in light of who God is, and therefore our only hope of gaining blessing and avoiding cursing is not by our own merit but by the gracious and atoning work of Christ. I feel that if we are to correctly understand what the OT is saying about our inability to please God on our own, then what Christ has done for us on the cross has enabled us to do so. In other words, if there is judgment associated with sinful humanity apart from grace, then there must be some appeasement associated with Christ’s death and resurrection. We must in some way be seen in Christ (See Rom 4-6).

I feel like this is slipping back into the dispensational reading.  If the point of the law is to show us that we can't keep the law, then it seems very difficult to say that keeping the law would not result in salvation, in other words, that a hypothetical offer does exist in the law.  I don't feel like this is a reading of the OT on its own terms, it’s a reading through the lens of a particular reading of Paul (and thus you end up back in Romans in your interpretation of the Torah).

To address two themes of the Torah that are touched on here that might shed some light (or not) on this: 

First, the blessing and cursing language.  We need to keep the logic of the covenant in mind, here.  The covenant starts off with a statement recalling (from the past) God's saving work for the people (their liberation from Egypt).  Then they are given the law which they are to obey as God's Covenant People.  Then they are told that if they obey this law they will be blessed and if not they will be cursed.  The idea is that the obedience of the law pertains to the maintenance of the Covenant, not its creation.  Now with this logic in the background, we can move toward Paul.  Paul, when he speaks about human sinfulness, is generally quoting from the prophets or the Psalms and is thus reflecting the historical "working out" of the covenant that was made in the Torah.  In reality, the people did not keep the covenant, and thus they end up in exile.  And so the prophets and Psalmists make statements like "every one of them is sinful" describing their unfaithfulness and their deserving of the punishment brought on them.  Paul picks up that language to describe the human condition.  But notice, especially in Romans, the logic of Paul's own thought.  He begins by critiquing Gentile idolatry.  Then he critiques the Jews for their own idolatry (coming straight out of the prophets, but applying it to the Hellenism of his own day) and concludes that neither Jew not Gentile is in covenant with God and thus Christ must establish a new Covenant for all humanity.

Second, the idea of "earning" or "deserving" salvation.  There are repeated statements in Deuteronomy that what has been done/is being done for the people is not because they in any way deserve it because they are just a stiff-necked, obstinate people.  Seemingly, that plays right into the "traditional" reading of Paul's reading of the OT.  But it’s a proof text if we stop there because every single one of these statements continues on with "but God made a promise to your ancestors and he is fulfilling it through you."  Which clouds up the traditional reading of Paul's reading a good bit: did the ancestors deserve this?  A straightforward reading of the OT seems to suggest that they did… So were they righteous on their own account?  Well…  Genesis kinda makes it sound that way.  So if we want to uphold the traditional reading of Paul's reading, we start having to do some tricky exegesis of Genesis.  Or, my suggestion, is that we re-read Paul in light of what we read in Genesis and the rest of the Torah, this covenant model I've been outlining, and then I think we have good deal less conflict in our interpretations (but we might have to adjust our Reformed theology a little bit).

I would like to end my comments with a question for you to responsd to or write about in the future: How does God save the ungodly? This of course brings us to the issues related to the NPP and their view on what justification means (is it as you stated that you are in the covenantal people group?) and also their view of imputation. I would greatly enjoy to hear your responses to what I’ve said above, and your answers to the questions that I have asked you. Thank you for all the hard work that went into such a post.

I'm not sure how specific of an answer you are looking for or how specific of one I can give.  But in general terms, my understanding is based on a kind of narrative reading of scripture.  Humanity, meant to image God, to represent God, has in general rejected God's commands and brought a curse upon itself.  I say in general because we have stories like that of Enoch and Noah and Abraham which seem go against the pattern.  Recognizing that a Calvinist can interpret those stories in a way that fits into their schema, I think that goes against the grain of the narrative, so at least for now that tendency needs to be put to the side.

So in general, humanity has rejected God.  God sets out to redeem humanity.  My understanding is that this redemption does not just involve an imputing of grace so that we sinful people are pardoned and able to enter the heavenly court, though I think covering grace probably is part of the picture.  Full redemption, however, is something that I think involves a restoring of us to be people who are in a covenant relationship with God.  In other words, it involves a substantive change or transformation in our own character, in our present lives.  That seems to be the pattern of redemption in the OT- Its not just that Noah is saved from the flood, its that creation is restarted with Noah, a righteous man; the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai doesn't just establish that they worship God, it sets them apart as a people who are different from other people in noticeable ways; the prophets aren't just looking for forgiveness, they want the nation to come back from exile and a just, God-honoring kingdom to be established.  So redemption is a process that affects more than just our status on a divine judicial ledger, its also a process of internal transformation of who we are and how we relate to our world.  I think, which you will probably be in disagreement with, that this transformation has to take a synergistic form, that it is the result of both God working in us and of us cooperating with and reaching out to God.  Ultimately, this leads to my understanding of a very tight bond between faith and obedience, making the two terms almost synonymous (but not quite).

I'm intentionally avoiding using the term "justification."  That term I think relates to a legal metaphor for this process of which other metaphors also exist in the New Testament.  Each of these metaphors is helpful, but I want to resist the urge to exalt one over all the others (though if pressed, I do rather like the Christus Victor motif).  I'm also resisting the idea of an "order of salvation" which is so loved in the Reformed Tradition.  I think that system develops from a canon within the canon reading of Paul, which you might gather that I would be very resistant to.  I think Paul is helpful, but only if we understand him in light of the stuff that comes before him, not the other way around.  Starting from Paul and creating a somewhat artificial system that we then squeeze the rest of the Bible into is, in my view, very bad exegesis.  So for both of those reasons I'm not sure I'm really answering the question on the terms you want an answer, but that's what I got.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Old Testament and the New Perspective on Paul

I ducked out of New Haven just in time!  Left last Thursday for Tennessee to visit the family.  Today the Northeast has been slammed with a blizzard, apparently they are getting a foot to a foot and half of snow in costal Connecticut.  Which will probably still be on the ground when I make it back up there Friday.  But still… I am rather glad to be where I am right now…  We got snow in the south as well, but when we get snow its like a light dusting that lasts for three hours and still manages to shut down entire states… I'm not looking forward to walking to class or to work in a foot of snow come January or February!

While here in TN for Christmas I have been thinking a bit about a topic I haven't really touched in a while- the New Perspective on Paul.  I was very intrigued by this school of thought in undergrad, but honestly after initially studying it and deciding it seemed to make more sense of Paul than most other interpretations I'd read, I didn't really do much with it.  I am far more interested in studying the Old Testament than Paul, and so after an initial fling I kinda moved on from studying this issue critically and did other things.  But lately I've been thinking about it more again.  I had a conversation with a good friend the other day in which I tried, probably not very clearly, to explain the NPP.  Then I just recently read a bunch of blog posts by some New Testament scholars who were at the ETS conference in which Wright and Schreiner went head to head on this issue.  Apparently (I wish I had been there, I need to go find a recording or a transcript of this) Wright made some comment that they took as a concession to Schreiner on the issue of Justification.  I love (in the most drippingly sarcastic way possible) how so many Evangelical theologians just assume that they have all of theology figured out; many of the posts took the form of smugly congratulating Wright on his seeing the light and correcting prior statements… Then today I heard a sermon that I think perfectly encapsulated some of the difficulties of the "popular"  Reformed position that motivate a lot of my reasons for being interested in the NPP.

So here is a basic argument for why I think the NPP is a preferable interpretation of Paul.  Two disclaimers before we go any farther.  First, I am dealing primarily with what I understand as the "popular" interpretation of Paul in Reformed, Evangelical circles where the NPP is being met with the most hostility.  Many scholars in the Reformed tradition would not face some of the issues I am raising, but I am not nearly ambitious enough right now to take them on in all the nuances of their ivory towers.  So we are keeping this post on the popular level.  Second, I am not making a traditional presentation of the NPP, which centers on interpreting Paul in a first century context in light of what we know of Second Temple Judaism.  Fascinating as all of that is, I don't know enough about it to deal with it in any sort of rigorous way.  But I have spent a good amount of time studying the Old Testament, and so what I am arguing for is a reading of Paul from the perspective of the Old Testament.

The typical "popular" interpretation of Paul in Evangelical circles reflects a particular way of systematizing the Reformers.  Reformers like Luther and Calvin were responding to particular abuses in Catholic theology such as the selling of indulgences and the excessive homage to relics which were really in many ways political ploys by the Medieval Church.  Convince the people that they can only reach heaven by doing certain works that are only available through the Church and you suddenly have quite a bit of political power over the populace.  In contrast, Luther and Calvin want to emphasize the role of Faith over Works- jumping through the hoops laid out by the Catholic Church was not the road to Salvation, the road to Salvation was found in Christ alone, and was accessed through your faith in Christ, not any particular action or ceremony performed by the clergy or yourself.  Now its important to note that none of the major Reformers took this to mean that we should do away with all the ceremonies of the Church.  Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all still baptized infants. They all offered Mass to their congregations.  They just wanted to do so in a way that emphasized that the action of being baptized or of receiving communion did not itself grant you salvation.  Your faith was what led you to God, the actions you took as part of that faith were just acts if not accompanied by such faith.

I can't speak much for the development of Lutheran thought since the Reformation, but I have spent a good amount of time studying the development of the Reformed tradition that followed from Calvin.  In that tradition a particular emphasis on systematizing doctrine has been present for a long time that has led to a number of splits- for instance, the divide between Calvinists and Arminians and Wesleyans.  Particularly in Evangelical Circles there has developed a theology known as Dispensationalism.  Dispensationalism in many ways pits the New Testament against the Old Testament.  It takes a rhetorical move of Martin Luther and turns it into a systematic understanding of the relationship between the two parts of the Bible.  In this understanding, the Old Testament really does offer the possibility of Salvation to anyone who can keep the whole law.  However, as Paul kindly informs us, this is not possible because we are all sinners.  Therefore, we are in need of a savior who has kept the whole law perfectly and therefore nullified it.  Now our salvation is not dependent on the keeping of the law, it is dependent on our faith in Christ who has kept it for us.  This plays nicely into the substitutionary model of the atonement and an imputed model of grace, both of which are very important to Calvinist doctrines of salvation.  So in Evangelical Reformed theology, even among those that explicitly deny being dispensational, we can see a heavy influence of dispensational thinking on the understanding of how the Old Testament and New interact and relate to one another.  Thus, the ideas of faith and works are radically opposed to one another. 

We can immediately pose a question: where do works fit into this schema? 

The Reformers would, as far as I understand them, all want to say that out of our faith grows a desire to do good works of worship and service to God.  This was a natural result of faith they would say, and its absence pointed to an absence of faith.  Under the influence of dispensational thought in Evangelical circles this becomes a bit more murky.  The Old Testament law and prophets have generally been almost completely disregarded in a way that to me seems dangerously close to the ancient heresy of Marcion.  Sure, Jesus restates the law in the commandments to love God and neighbor.  But far too often in Evangelical circles there has been a tendency to interpret "love" of God and neighbor in a way that rings of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism- the best way to love someone is to convert them so as to save their soul, their body being completely disregarded, and turn them to worshipping God through going to Church, the ultimate expression of love toward God (never mind Jesus' own statements about God desiring service more than ritual).  This very shallow understanding of what love means, this utter disregard for the Old Testament, has been the source of a lot of my frustration growing up in and studying in Evangelical circles (though thankfully I don't think anyone on faculty at the Evangelical college I graduated from would have argued for either of these things).  It also, I think, creates some serious difficulties for the popular understanding of Paul.  If Paul is really pitting faith against works, then where do works fit in at all?  Once we read on from Romans 3 to Romans 6, where Paul says we should not continue in sin, we should not continue to break the law, what do we do?  The tendency has been towards a tedious legalism with the repeated, conflicting emphasis: Christians don't do these certain things.  Likewise, we are sinners who in fact do these things and need grace because we can't not do them on our own.  I remember reading something by John Piper about movies in which he explained why he doesn't watch a good many moves.  His claim was that it was because he was weak and sinful and didn't want to expose himself to temptation.  Yet that same weak sinfulness is why he is dependent on God and not himself for salvation.  This is not a formal contradiction of doctrine.  But practically, I think this results in a feeling of being caught hanging over a precipice with your feet on one ledge and your hands on another and not being sure which ledge to jump for.

In dealing with these issues I think the New Perspective offers a far better understanding of Paul that also reads from the direction of the Old Testament toward the New.  The starting point, which, interestingly, has been clearly argued for by Walt Kaiser, a very respected, Evangelical scholar of the Old Testament who as far as I know would not claim to be a proponent of the NPP, is that there is no hypothetical offer of Salvation in the Old Testament.  Perfectly obeying the law does not result in salvation.  From the perspective of the Old Testament, the law is given to those who already have Salvation!  The rescued people of Israel, formed into a covenant as God's chosen people, are given the law to set them apart from the rest of the world, to maintain their status as God's people.  In contrast with the "popular" Reformed reading, having been influenced by Dispensational theology, which reads the Old Testament as in opposition to the New, the New Perspective maintains this reading of the Old Testament on its own terms and argues that Paul's issue is not with the idea that you earn your Salvation via doing the law but with the idea that the only people who have Salvation are the ones set apart by the law- the Jews.  Instead, through Jesus Christ the path to Justification has been opened to all who participate in Christ by faithfully serving Him through the New Covenant that he has formed.  Following the logic of the Old Testament, the people of God are still a people that are marked as different, but the mark is not participation in the particular rituals of the Old Testament- Sabbath keeping, Circumcision, Kosher food laws, etc- but the faithful continuation of the mission of Christ through the life of the Church. 

It is important to keep in mind the logic of the Old Testament covenant when considering the Pauline concept of salvation and the law.  Paul is certainly not saying that we earn our salvation by doing the law or by doing any good works.  Paul is addressing those who are recipients of salvation, who through their baptism are already included in the community of Christ.  His argument is that these people do not now need to take on the stipulations of the Jewish law.  They are already part of God's community.  Instead, they need to embody the covenant Jesus had established, to obey in the same way that Israel was instructed to obey at Sinai.  They were already out of Egypt, they were already circumcised members of the covenant community.  Then they received the law which they were instructed to obey, not to merit their position but to mark their position as set apart from those outside the community.  Paul envisions a similar logic for the Church, but centered on the person of Christ and not on the Old Testament covenant.

I think this NPP reading makes better sense of the continuity between the Old Testament and the New.  I also think it makes better sense of the role works play in the life of a Christian.  It is not that they are required to become a Christian.  But they are required to be a faithful Christian fulfilling the calling of Christ.  In that sense I don't think what the NPP is doing is any different from what the Reformers wanted to argue for, but it states it more clearly by distancing itself from a view of the law too influenced by dispensational developments in Reformed theology.  Rather than seeing faith and works in opposition to one another, the NPP wants to see them as in cooperation with one another in the same way as the they were in the logic of the Old Testament:  Faith in God for what God has already done leads to obedience of the commands God gives to us.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!!

"The people walking in darkness
   have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
   a light has dawned."
                                   - Isaiah 9:2 (NIV)
10 “Hear the word of the LORD, you nations;
   proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
   and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
11 For the LORD will deliver Jacob
   and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
   they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD—
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,
   the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well-watered garden,
   and they will sorrow no more.
13 Then young women will dance and be glad,
   young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
   I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

                                  - Jeremiah 31:10-13 (NIV)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dabbling in Political Philosophy...

Just finished my first semester at Yale Divinity School!  As exhausting as it was, I am apparently a glutton for punishment on three counts:  first, I am signed up for five more semesters.  Second, next semester I am planning to take an incredible looking class called History and Methods of Old Testament Interpretation which will involve reading Hebrew, which I do nominally, meaning over the break I need to do some serious brushing up on said nominal skills…  Third, the other project I have for myself this break is reading through an anthology of Continental Philosophy, a subject that has interested me for a long time but that I have not taken the time to really intently study before now.  That last point is tangentially related to this post…  In reading a short little essay by Friedrich Holderlin I came upon a passage that I think helps work through some musings I have had lately on political philosophy.

So right up front I need to say here that I am not a political philosopher. Which is not to say that I am totally ignorant of political philosophy, I have read a decent amount of Locke and Mill and Rousseau and a smattering of other documents.  I have spent a lot of time studying the related field of economic philosophy and a decent amount of time looking at actual government structures around the world.  But all that gives me is a limited knowledge of the classical political liberalism which got the US started and a somewhat cynical view of how that has played out since then.  So I am admitting now that I am almost completely ignorant of developments in political philosophy proper since the framing of the Constitution.  So take these comments for what they are worth, which may not be much at all.

However, in my limited knowledge, I am deeply suspicious of the social contract theory behind classical political liberalism.  The idea of the nation as a collection of individuals who voluntarily form themselves into a political entity seems to me inescapably destined toward political instability. The voluntary creation of a social contract assumes the existence of common interests between the members who form this contract.  The persistence of that contract seems dependent on the continued existence of those interests, a situation that cannot be guaranteed when the contract is formed.  Thus, inherent in the idea of this contract is the logic of the Declaration of Independence- that when this condition- the promotion of shared interests- is no longer met the contract can be dissolved and a new one formed.  This idea seems incredibly problematic- first, what government will willingly be dissolved to form other governments?  This can only happen through some sort of revolution, and revolutions are usually bloody, horrifying affairs.  Second, there is a persistent question at least in my reading of any social contract theory: what constitutes an interest that warrants separation?  For the American colonies it was decidedly economic.  For many states it has been ethnic or religious.  For some it has just been the principle of self-determination, a conspicuously Western, Liberal principle.  At any rate, that decision likewise seems to be one that is bound to change with time, and then what?  Another revolution?  We are quickly here creating a world where more and more revolutions produce more and more small states that can barely stand on their own.  To me it seems that social contract theory pushes us farther and farther and farther in the direction of anarchy.

 More or less this is what seemed to happen in American history under the Articles of Confederation.  The resulting instability was nearly paralyzing for the young nation, and so a new Constitution was formed that actually gave the state some teeth.  In doing so, it began a necessary shift away from the idea of a social contract.  That move was complete the second that President Lincoln declared the Southern States in rebellion and in need of being put down.  The logic of the Declaration of Independence had, at that point, been effectively discarded.

Now, I am inclined to say that Lincoln was right to discard this logic.  If the voluntary union can be dissolved whenever members feel as though their interests are not being met then the Union was a hoax that would soon be uncovered, and my counter-factual suggestion is that there would be no United States today.  Some might argue that would be for the better.  I am inclined to think that at least for those living in the present day United States it is far, far better to have a strong, effective central government in place than whatever alternative might exist.    But the question that exists for those in the Modern, Liberal West is how a state can function, or even come into existence, without this idea of a social contract?

My suggestion is based on the Greek word from which we get the term "monarchy."  In Greek, this is a combination of "mono"- meaning "one"- and "arche"- meaning "source."  In theological terms, this was used in earlier Trinitarian debates to refer to the Monarchy of the Father- the Father as the "one source" of the Godhead, the idea being there is not in the Trinity some "fourth thing" called "divine essence" which the three persons participate in, but the divine essence has its source in the person of the Father and the other two persons are generated from this source.  I think this idea can carry over into political philosophy- a state is not brought into existence by a social contract that might meet the needs of its members at the time of its conception but be worthless ten years later (a situation France seems to regularly grapple with…).  A state exists because of a sense of shared identity between people- it stems from a common or single source of identity which unites them.  That identity is then attached to some institution or document which "defines" the nation and its continued existence.  In Britain, this takes the literal form of a monarchy.  In America, I would content, this has taken the form of the Constitution.  It is around the Constitution that the people of America form their identity and it is to the Constitution that all the various sides appeal whenever a major dispute arises in American political discourse. 

Now, the liberal, Western criticism of this model of national identity as I have sketched it is that there is no need for the highly valued freedoms of a Western Democracy.  We can share in a common identity without having freedom of religion or of the press or even the right to vote.  For most of history this was likely the case, in fact.  Yet we inherently want to say that these freedoms are good.  In my own writings I have struggled with a bit of tension on this point.  In an earlier post I have said that true freedom is not freedom to choose whatever we want to do but responsibility for the kind of person that we are and the kind of society we create, a freedom that cannot be denied by any political or economic system.  Yet, I say in that same post that many of the freedoms of choice we enjoy in the West are good things.  How do I make sense of this?  Here is where Holderlin comes in.  Holderlin is exploring the idea of consciousness, and as he draws to his conclusion, he makes a very interesting statement: 
"how is self-consciousness possible? In opposing myself to myself, separating myself from myself, yet in recognizing myself as the same in the opposed regardless of this separation."
We recognize ourselves by separating ourselves from ourselves, as it were, to critically examine ourselves.  To move beyond what Holderlin says, though he may not have any disagreement with the direction we are going, we could say that this self-examination, this separation from ourselves to examine ourselves, is how we approach moral improvement.  And it is in that idea that I think we find a role for the freedoms we are concerned with in the West.  Freedom of speech or of the press or the freedom to vote in a free election is not so much an outgrowth of a social contract as it is of the people who identify themselves as a nation separating themselves from that identity to critically evaluate it and by so doing push it toward moral improvement.  A nation who lacks these freedoms is not lacking a basis for its state-hood so much as it is denying itself a mechanism for self-improvement.

Blog has moved, searching new blog...