Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Once more on Calvin, justice and the church

Cynthia has written an excellent and elegant critique of the excerpt from my Calvin paper – she focuses on problems with Hobbes’s political philosophy, and on the continuing usefulness of rights-discourse. I won’t try to defend Hobbes here, since my paper didn’t really have any special investment in Hobbesian philosophy (I’m admittedly quite sympathetic to Hobbes’s understanding of rights and sovereignty; but in this paper, I was just using him in passing, to illustrate the inherent violence of rights-discourse – and the real reason I mentioned him was so that I could say it was a paper about “Calvin and Hobbes”!).

But as for the larger questions about justice: it might help to clarify things if I post another excerpt from my paper. I’m also posting this in response to Kim’s very apposite comment: “Nevertheless, that refugee, yes, really needs a just society that understands itself as obligated to do what's right for her’. However, that sounds to me like the church — at least the church Jesus calls us to be. But Leviathan? Not as we know it, Spock.” Roughly speaking, I agree with this – in fact, I tried to make this the strongest claim of my paper. Here’s the last two paragraphs from the paper:

At this point, I think Calvin can offer us an insight that should remain central to Christian considerations of political order: as I have emphasised throughout this paper, Calvin’s vision of a justly ordered society is from start to finish not a “secular”, but a theological vision. His political philosophy cannot be divorced for a moment from theological considerations of sin, grace, justice, virtue, and divine sovereignty. For Calvin, all human beings and all societies are profoundly damaged and corrupted by the power of sin. A society cannot raise itself by its bootstraps; a people ruled by vice cannot become virtuous through their own efforts or through the formal improvements of legal procedures and political structures. (This is why Calvin thinks that any existing political structure – monarchy, aristocracy, democracy – should simply be accepted; no structure as such is more inherently just than any other.)

What is needed, Calvin thinks, is the transformation of human life through the Word of God which is proclaimed and enacted in the Christian community. It is in the community of believers that the righteousness of God – God’s way of putting things right – is displayed to the world. It is in this community that the virtues necessary for a just social order are cultivated and defended. It is here, therefore, that the world catches a glimpse of true justice, order, virtue, and peace. It is in the Christian community that the true purpose and telos of the whole social order is disclosed. The church, therefore, becomes (as David Little puts it) “a necessary condition for upholding proper law and order in society. Without it, chaos and disorder are the likely result.” It is by looking at the church that the world learns how to be the world. The common good of the whole people depends on the fragile yet indispensable witness of this community of virtue, justice, and peace.

(Pictured is my own 1569 edition of Calvin's Institutio.)

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