Tuesday 1 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.)


cynthia r. nielsen said...

I love what you say about Calvin's vision here, Ben. I see the very same thing what some scholars call St. Paul's vision of an "alternative community", which is kind of proleptic glimpse of what genuine community will be like after God has (re)made all things new. Thanks for posting this part of your paper. (I wish this alternative community would manifest itself more in our age; it's often the "pagans" that have to show us the way --even though we may disagree with their "grounding" and want to see their conclusions derive from Christian teachings).

With all good wishes,

Michael said...

"It is in the community of believers that the righteousness of God – God’s way of putting things right – is displayed to the world."

I am a soul of scant philosophical ability and I have little idea of what this might mean and none at all of how it would work in practice in our largely post-Christian society, which has minimal or no interest in the working of churches. At one extreme, it seems, there lies the possibility of the moral coercion of Calvin's Geneva or the half-corrupt barely-Christian political schemings of the U.S. Moral Majority and the like. On the other extreme there are Christian "leaven" groups witnessing heroically away with soup wagons and emergency shelters, etc., (sometimes being increasingly sucked into and cynically used by the social welfare bureaucracy and, aarrggh! the corporate church), their witness having about as much social impact as the Amish.

What lies between these extremes? On one side, the Hillsong churches selling aspirational Christianity to those prepped for the prosperity gospel by our chronic overdose of advertising. Well, this proclaims the virtues of a certain social order alright, but dubiously a just or Christian one. Then there are the "theological" churches, with distinguished traditions of moral reflection on social justice issues, but like Japanese emperors speaking a special language that cannot be understood outside the court. No one is listening any more.

Then there are the church pugilists, throwing (usually the same) intransigent punches in the faces of the "forces of darkness". Their great achievement has been to insult and demean people of good will who do not agree with them rather than to create a constructive dialogue. In this way they have managed largely to remove Christian churches with long and invaluable memories of social and moral analysis and political reconciliation processes from meriting a public share in contemporary political debates.

The vast majority of ordinary people now gain their small knowledge of church activities from the mass media. We all know religion reporting is direly superficial and often merely a stupid recycling of tired old cliches and master narratives; failing that it's just a bit more ooh-aah sex news. Churches help to maintain their media profile by conducting their impossible-to-explain-to-the-uninitiated theological disputes in contexts (the 30-second soundbite) which guarantee the greatest possible misunderstanding.

So, in practice, if "inherently violent rights discourse" is off the table, how will an increasingly depopulated, disempowered, marginalised, manipulated but still-passionate church be able to say anything effective on behalf of those who cry out for justice?

Daniel Imburgia said...

@Mike, great post, compelling and thoughtful...one thing though, the comment about the Amish, perhaps, should be thought thru a little more. obliged.

Anonymous said...

Mike's comment is striking to me for one reason in particular. It takes the supposedly 'theological' point of the church being the new world on the way and discusses it in empirical (dare i say reductionistic? this needn't be a swear word) terms that, in my opinion, make such phrasings open to the charge that they are wishful thinking. I do not say hopeful b/c such language tends to cut the nerve for acting in hope rather than talking about what might be. (Please no one point me to the Zizek article about stop acting and say something.) Would it not be more hopeful to take admittedly difficult terms such as rights and as Kim mentioned yesterday deconstruct them toward the ends of realizing God's peace now?

cynthia r. nielsen said...

An excellent, thoughtful comment, Mike.

Unknown said...

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.”

Pish-posh. This smacks more of Augustinian thought than Calvinian, relying on it does in an overly dichotomous view of the two kingdoms (secular=bad / sacred=good). The church itself, adopting the predisposition David suggests, hath wrought enough chaos and disorder. No thanks.

Aric Clark said...

Calvin went way beyond saying we should "accept" whatever government is in place because they are all equally fallen. He said that Civil Magistrates are appointed by God, invested with his authority, and it is the duty of Christians to submit absolutely. It is a license for tyranny. His writing on government is horrible.

To be fair, I don't think it is the fault of his theology. I think it is a fault of Calvin. He wanted too desperately to be accepted by the tyrants of his day. A more logical direction from his theology of sin and grace would be Christian Anarchism, similar to Ellul.

Lucy said...

It is sometimes noted that the Reformer's emphasis on Sola Scriptura and their concomitant rejection of Catholic hierarchy left the Protestant church's without any source for a specifically Christian form of community. As a result, they turned to the wider given social structures outside of the church to fill up the lack that had been created by abandoning Catholic hierarchy. That is, once the break with Rome occured, the communal "home" for the people of God was no longer the church as such but the larger society in which the church happened to find itself. This move turned out to be detrimental to the extent that the given soceity in which the church found itself was allowed to determine the nature of how the church understood itself as a community, which happened quite often. So in 21st century North America, Protestant church think of their communities in terms of cosumerist individualism, etc..

Now it seems that the remedy for this kind of "communal passivity" can be found within the Reformed tradition, specifically in its central affirmation about the church, that it is the creature of the Word. The church is, as you said about Calvin, is the sight where, through the preaching of the Gospel, the righteousness of God is enacted and the telos of creation is made visible.

However, I don't think Calvin quite escapes the criticism that he makes the communal nature of the church dependent on the larger societal setting in which the church finds itself. This is seen above all, I think, in the lack of any account in Calvin's theology of the church "moving out" into society proclaiming the gospel. The church is not "on the move" in Calvin's theology because the church is tied to the society it finds itself in, dependent upon it for its identity as a community.

All this to say, I think you are right that what society needs is the procalamation and enactment of the Gospel. But the church needs to move out into society for that to happen.

Michael said...

@Daniel: My comment about the Amish (of whom I have no experience) and soup wagons (of which I have some) was intended to be about forms of Christian witness in the world which might be socially and politically effective in transforming our unjust economic and power structures. I had the impression this was not an Amish aim. Soup wagons are merely band-aiding, which is a good thing, but not a cure for our disease.

However, Daniel, I apologise sincerely for any offence.

roger flyer said...

daniel is not amish, but a bohemian in exile

Anonymous said...

I just started writing again about social justice issues in the Church, engaging areas as they come that I think speak to the need for us, and I think you might find this interesting:


Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.