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Reason, Revelation, and the Civic Order: Political Philosophy and the Claims of Faith

Reason, Revelation, and the Civic Order: Political Philosophy and the Claims of Faith. Paul R. Dehart and Carson Holloway. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014.


There is an uptightness to contemporary public and political discourse. Reason, Revelation, and the Civic Order is collection of essays that goes some way toward helping us to breathe a little more easily, if only because each of the contributors in their own way handle the existential and political unhealthiness of severing faith from reason. This is a wonderful book in various ways and it deserves to be widely read. Let me praise the book on three scores.

Firstly, there is a perennial urgency to a book like this. As the title makes obvious, the reader is presented with a subject matter that is ancient, perhaps venerable, exploring “the contribution that revelation, or faith in revelation, can make to the practice of political theory or political philosophy.” Editors, DeHart and Holloway, have compiled eleven essays which present a current, clear-headed, sympathetic, and assertive—though never zealous—defense of a philosophic-religious tradition in political thinking that has assumed over the millennia that not everything is political, that the political has boundaries, and that the claims of both reason (properly understood as noetic) and pneumatic revelation are compelling existential sources of meaning. The aim of the book then “is to remedy what we take to be an unjustifiable neglect of the claims of revelation by mainstream secular political theory.”

Secondly, the editors have prudentially structured the book in three parts that each treats a richness of topics while constituting the book as a coherent thematic whole. That is, each topic complements the others. The first part emphasizes the reasonableness of faith with essays that explore the very possibility of a harmonious interaction between political thinking and revelation, or the meanings symbolized by both. The second part considers the concrete importance of “faith’s implications for the constitutional basis of political society, especially of the modern liberal society in which we live.” The third part of this book has essays that turn toward contemporary scholarship in political and legal theory.

The third reason why this book deserves to be read is the aforementioned richness of topics covered in the essays themselves. I do no more than provide an outline here.

Part I: Believing in Order to Understand: Revelation’s Contributions to Philosophy

Carson Holloway sets out to demonstrate that belief in revelation is not unreasonable and he does this by taking on Heinrich Meier’s argument that Leo Strauss’s intention was not merely to emphasize that the opposition between philosophy and revelation is insuperable. According to Meier, this exoteric stance merely masks Strauss’s esoteric teaching that “philosophy must and can refute the very possibility of revelation.” If revelation can be useful, then its usefulness is ultimately a political usefulness that generates a series of political goods. Meier’s point is to show that revelation is no more than a political invention and what Holloway does very well is to show that this account of Meier really does not penetrate beyond the surface of things. He writes, for example, about the moral impact that the revelation of God as a Trinity of persons has on us: “The morality of revelation is more demanding than it needs to be in order to fulfill its original political purpose. … The kind of purity demanded by this revelation is far beyond what is required by a functional society.” In the end, revelation resists philosophical refutation and endures as reasonable in the sense that it lays a plausible claim on us from generation to generation.

Paul R. DeHart’s essay is an interesting foray into both the epistemological theory of foundationalism and the political theories whose claims are thought to derive from strong foundations. He writes that “Standard approaches to the practice of political philosophy debar … the invocation of theological propositions or narratives or what might be called religious reasons.” After all, the assumption is that where religion is inherently irrational, political theory and practice “proceeds on the basis of rationality or public reasonableness.” He endeavors to demonstrate, using the analysis of Plantinga and Wolterstorff, that an adequate basicality eludes the criteria that strong foundationalism sets out for itself. Political thought that rests upon a foundational epistemology and that proceeds to banish religious reasons is itself tottering without adequate anchorage. The outcome is that “there are no knock-down arguments showing that theism in general or Christianity in particular are incoherent or simply false” and that there is no valid foundation for outlawing religious beliefs. In the end, religious beliefs are as rational—or perhaps coherent—as nonreligious beliefs.

Another track into the reasonableness of faith is provided by Robert C. Koons whose focus is on love. He begins with the dilemma presented by Eros that seeks eudaemonia for the self through virtue and the selflessness of Christian Agape. The issue at stake is whether there is a fundamental incompatibilism between the two that would, pragmatically speaking, prevent any “common ground or via media between believers … and non-believers.” How could the Christian love of others be reasonable to anyone but Christians? Koons’s argument is that Aquinas’s metaphysics has provided the key to reconciliation between the two loves and their happinesses. Opening up a series of tensions in Aquinas’s own attempt to synthesize them, Koons proposes that, in order to resolve the tensions and to show how love of the other is reasonable, there is a crucial distinction to be made: “on ontological grounds, we must posit a single ultimate end for each human being (his own perfection), but on ethical grounds, we must posit a plurality of ultimate ends, including the glory of God and the good of one’s friends and neighbors.”

Part II: Faith and the Foundations of Political Order

J. Budziszewski’s paper has an enigmatic title, “The Strange Second Life of Confessional States.” His is a startling and deeply thought-provoking consideration of the contemporary liberal state. Beginning with a description of religion in general as a “system of life and thought based on commitments taken to be supreme and unconditional,” Budziszewski makes the case that there are “gods” in each religion that command such commitments—whether it is Christianity’s Creator-God, Theravada Buddhism’s journey toward an end of suffering, or indeed, Utilitarianism’s pursuit of aggregate pleasure. He insists that Utilitarianism—and more broadly, Liberalism (understood as an umbrella term for various secular creeds)—is a religion; it simply does not call itself one. From here, Budziszewski renders plenty of insightful discussions, including a taxonomy of “confessional regimes” based on whether or not they declare or coerce their convictional basis. Where the original American republic could be described as having a convictional (Classically Theist) basis that was declared but not coerced, the contemporary liberal state does not declare its convictions but is coercive: “… the state increasingly attempts to coerce the consciences of those who follow non-Liberal systems of life and belief, even while pretending to be neutral.” Budziszewski endorses a declaratory, non-coercive confessional state (all states being confessional to some degree) whose religious confession, like Christianity, promotes a freedom of conscience and therefore a genuine tolerance.

Peter Augustine Lawler’s essay makes the personal existence of individuals its focus. He uses the concept of a “personal logos” effectively to range over the nature of personhood from ancient to contemporary times. From classical impersonal divinity to the sublimely personal God of Christianity, notions of what metaphysical status attaching to individual persons have changed; and indeed have changed so radically that, even without an adequate foundational theory, “the person is the ‘bottom line,’ and there’s no need to explain why.” The inviolable status of personal existence is, as Lawler shows, a deeply Christian insight that “Lockean modernity” rests upon. The problem is that Lockean modernity is insufficient to nourish the Christian insight. For example, “Locke denies that human individuals are, most fundamentally, loving or relational beings.” With a Deist rejection of Trinitarian inter-relationality, man’s necessary relational and interpersonal nature is also jettisoned. The result is that modernity, to the extent that it is Lockean, promotes an individualism that sees persons as already whole without relationality. As a result, Lawler emphasizes the necessity of churches and the roles they play in society as “counterweights” to the imperious claims of the state, but also as supporting a common morality that overcomes self-interest and builds genuine relations among persons and communities.

Ralph Hancock seems to urge every Christian to join him in asking a fundamental question through his presentation of the thought of Pierre Manent: what has modernity got to do with Christianity? With a deft and subtle treatment of Manent’s attempt to understand modernity on its own terms and by providing a sometimes dramatic account of Manent’s engagement with the writings of Strauss, Hancock is highlighting the profoundly interconnected relation between modernity and Christianity. “Manent nowhere denies, in fact he affirms, that modernity is unthinkable without Christianity. … What is at stake, first and foremost, is not our history but our self-understanding and, therefore, our souls.” Hancock maintains that Christians ought not to shrink from modernity, or to hearken back to some historical golden era, but to recognize that “the truth of our human condition lies … somehow in the shadow of the light of the modern, universalizing democracy. Christianity is in a way the truth of democracy.” He credits Manent for providing a wealth of new insights into modernity and its ancient antecedents, but Hancock’s harnessing and articulation of all of this is genuinely insightful too.

In the third series of Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham mutters, “there always seems to be something of the Johnny Foreigner about Catholics.”  James R. Stoner’s essay can be read as a perfect riposte to such a sentiment. Stoner asks, “Can a good Catholic today be a loyal friend to the Constitution? Can a loyal constitutionalist welcome or accept faithful Catholics as fellow citizens?” His answer is a careful yes that proceeds from “four moments” in the constitutional development of America that relate to the Catholic question. The first moment was the influence of the Carrolls of Maryland on the question of freedom of conscience at the founding of the Republic. Here Stoner points out Bishop Carroll’s endorsement of George Washington’s idea that all religions that “taught good citizenship were equally welcome.” The second moment was Fr. John Ryan’s Living Wage where the economic application of Catholic social justice at the turn of the century influenced Progressive economist, Richard T. Ely, who himself taught Woodrow Wilson. Fr. John Courtney Murray represents the third moment which emphasized religious liberty and its grounding in the dignity of persons after the Second World War. Stoner closes with the present day as the fourth moment. Contemporary Catholicism is conspicuous in its public assertiveness of an old truth on the immeasurable worth of every human life from conception to natural death. In this fourth moment, Stoner also points to the threat posed to freedom of conscience and religious liberty by the traction gained by the Rawlsian notion of “public reason” that wins political and legal arguments by shutting down debate on particular issues before it gets started.

Part III: Faith and Contemporary Political Thought

Is it ever justified to tell a lie? This old ethical question is one that Micah Watson dusts off to elucidate a major theoretical, and eventually practical, clash in contemporary political communities. One the one hand, there is a distinctively evangelical outlook held by about “sixty to one hundred million Americans.” Watson writes that there arise questions about “how should an evangelical approach politics” because, allowing for rationality as a guide in value-judgments, evangelicals take scripture as their ultimate and supreme guide. On the other hand, there are the New Natural Law (NNL hereafter) thinkers who are concerned to show how moral claims are rational in the sense that reason alone is a sufficiently authoritative guide to decision and action, moral or political. Among the questions that arise are: Can an evangelical ever embrace such an approach as that of NNL? and politically speaking, is scripture sufficient for a distinctively evangelical approach to politics? While Watson thinks that scripture is insufficient for “addressing each and every political issue,” NNL cannot be adopted by evangelicals because it “cannot be reconciled with evangelical beliefs about scripture.” He proceeds to outline in some detail what NNL is and follows this with the nature of evangelism’s problem with it. The “seemingly” central irreconcilability is given concrete dimensions with Watson’s discussion of the prohibition on lying. In the end, Watson provides a brief discussion of three ways that scripture might play a role in an “evangelical political tradition” that engages philosophy where scripture is silent or ambiguous.

Francis Beckwith’s chapter discusses the reduction of religious belief to the realm of irrationality so prevalent in political and legal circles in the last half-century. The first amendment separation of church and state has been progressively construed as the justification for excluding religious arguments “from the public square.” Beckwith demonstrates the falsity of the “common thread in these opinions … that religious beliefs … are epistemologically akin to self-regarding private and personal matters of taste and thus not proper subjects of rational assessment.” On the contrary, he argues that this “Secular Rationalism” is itself not only epistemologically suspect, but begs substantive questions and confuses religion as such with particular religions and their attendant particular beliefs. In fact, Secular Rationalism renders itself irrational, or at least fallacious, in public-policy issues such as abortion. Beckwith gives an example: pro-life, while “tethered to the philosophical anthropology of particular theological traditions, may be defended by rational arguments independent of the veracity of any of the traditions from which it hails.” Secular Rationalism’s response is typically to dismiss pro-life as a “religious tenet,” thus demonstrating that its approach is no better than attacking a strawman.

Richard Rorty is the touchstone of many progressivist and anti-religious arguments, so Luigi Bradizza’s discussion is timely one. He takes Rorty’s own self-designation as a “liberal ironist” and explains that ironic liberalism is merely a preference that rests upon contingency: there is no “objective defense” for anyone’s moral or political views. Philosophy and religion are redundant in Rorty’s world. The task of the state, oddly, is definitive. It is to “secure to each an environment that protects him or her from cruelty,” so that each may have the maximum freedom to engage in projects of “personal transformation and perfection.” The later Rorty, Bradizza points out, permitted some religious expression to the extent that “cultural politics” would allow it to inspire “support for public liberal projects such as the welfare state and greater egalitarianism.” However, where Christian thought is incompatible with cultural politics—for example, on the issue of homosexual marriage—it ought to be publicly denounced as “hate speech” and its proponents silenced by “democratic consensus and social pressure.” Bradizza goes on to discuss this Rortyan utopia in terms of personal perfection guided not by reason or nature or God, but by desires (though not breaching Mill’s Harm Principle), which finds its highest expression in the endlessly creative “strong poet.” However, as Bradizza points out, Rorty admits that few of us can be geniuses like this; economic redistribution appears to be the extent of our utopia where our limitations and weaknesses are compensated for. There is even the suggestion that the strong poets are no more than “the outcome of natural causal forces.” With philosophy and religion effectively silenced, Rorty’s utopia is an existential void characterized by arbitrariness, dependence and endless desire.

R.J. Snell, in offering a diagnosis and therapy of a public and political pathology, engages in a very Voegelinian task in his chapter, “Converting Secularism.” Snell presents a very reasoned, and properly reasonable, argument about the fallacious character of public debate; what he calls—after Lonergan—“truncated conversation.” In fact, drawing upon Lonergan, Charles Taylor and Steven D. Smith, Snell sets about demonstrating that reasonableness in public and political debate are anything but. By shutting down questions of ultimate significance, by levying the charge that matters of transcendent meaning are merely subjective, by allowing only a badly corroded secularism to speak about practicalities, socio-political discourse has become “shabby.” Shabbiness is only compounded, he points out, by the tendency to “smuggle” verboten value judgments into the pure air of the supposedly “value-neutral” public square. Snell argues for an intellectual conversion and gives his readers a brief but lucidly compelling synopsis of Lonergan’s thought on the matter. He concludes with some “parting thoughts” on what is involved in the conversion of secularism with its ban on religion’s tendency to present the transcendent dimension of meaning. Snell states “…. Religious questions do what they do best, they allow the human to be human, they allow the world to be the world, they allow reason to be reasonable—again, and at last.”

In reading this book, one might recall Eric Voegelin’s thoughts about scientism. For example, in “Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man” (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 26), he writes: “The sciences become positive in ‘a natural order.’… The positivization begins with astronomy, then follow physics, chemistry, and physiology, so that at present only philosophy, morals, and politics have not reached the final stage where they will be ‘based on observations’ [of phenomena rather than substance]. This development, however, is imminent.” (p. 238) Perhaps the reader of this well-grounded, resilient and thought-provoking book will find him- or herself well-anchored in the face of a scientistic political discourse that attempts to truncate ever more of public life by denying substance.

James Greenaway

James Greenaway is the Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Charles H. Miller M.D. Chair in Human Dignity at St. Mary's University in Texas. He is author of The Differentiation of Authority: The Medieval Turn toward Existence (Catholic University, 2012) and Belonging, Communion, and Being (Notre Dame, forthcoming).

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