Friday, October 22, 2010

Christian Influence in the Secular Realm

As I said in the earlier post, Augustine in effect invented the concept of the secular. The secular realm is the space in which Christ's Lordship is contested during this time between the first and second comings of our Lord. In the realm of the secular, it is possible for Christians of varying degrees of commitment and non-Christians to mingle and find some common ground, engage in some disputes but in the end find a way to live together in peace. This has happened in Christendom and is one of its proudest achievements.

Those who consider historic Christendom to be "exclusive," "violent," "patriarchal," and "racist" often do so because they dream of a socialist Utopia in which the legal-constitutional concept of government has been overthrown and the legacy of the West burned to the ground - as in the 20th century Soviet Union, for example. Their critique - which has been internalized by many in the contemporary West through the cultural Marxism commonly referred to as "political correctness" - is overblown, dishonest and impossible to accept.

Christendom has been a geographical area in which there has existed more freedom than has ever existed in any other society in history. Yet this achievement is scorned and demeaned. To criticize Christendom for not having enough freedom is to operate from a Utopian perspective that is not engaged with reality and therefore extremely dangerous.

The question I want to raise here is how Christians exercise influence in the realm of the secular. This is a pressing question for anyone who become convinced of the necessity of a Christian public witness and feels called to serve as a follower of Christ in the public square.

Oliver O'Donovan, in his The Desire of the Nations, discusses the legacy of Christendom and identifies the essence of this legacy as the legal-constitutional conception of government. (240) He writes:
"Certain key convictions about law became formalised in Christian Europe: all law derives from the will of God; all law is one; all secular rulers are subject to law. . . Christendom in effect refused the classical commonplace that the ruler was a 'living law', his personal authority indistinguishable from the authority of the law he gave. Even those Christians who defended most determinedly the supremacy of the sovereign over earthly courts understood well enough that the sovereign's decree had no legal substance if it ran counter to divine law, natural or revealed." (234) [my bolding]
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis contrasts the situation of the teacher and the pupil with and without the recognition of what he calls the Tao (which is just a fancy name for the natural law). If the existence of natural law is the presupposition of moral education (and public law we could say) then the teacher and the pupil (the ruler and the subject) are both alike under a law that is not of their own making. Each owes obedience to an objective standard that they did not invent and cannot change. So even though one is taught and the other teaches, they are closer to each other than either is to God or the natural law. If the teacher teaches a false doctrine it is not binding on the pupil and will in due course be discovered to the discrediting of the teacher. But if the teacher and pupil assume that there is no such thing as a natural law, then the act of teaching (and we could say the act of governing) becomes essentially tyrannical. It becomes the imposition of the will of the teacher on the pupil.

I believe that the reason why so many Evangelicals are attracted to pacifism today is an inarticulate feeling that to teach objective morality and enforce the natural law is tyrannical; that it is merely a Nietzschean imposition of will. Why do they feel this?

O'Donovan points to a sea-change in 17th century political philosophy in which:
"under the influence of contract-theory, an important shift of emphasis occurred in radical political thought: the ruler's primary responsibility ceased to be thought of as being to divine law, but rather to the people whose supposed act constituted him. This act of popular will came to be thought of as the source of all law and constitutional order." (241)
O'Donovan calls this change "a collapse of the idea of a universal Natural Law, and its replacement by a nationalist positivism." (241) This is a key moment in the rise of modern Secularism and our craven, unreflective acceptance of this turn away from God is the cause of our ambiguous waffling in the fight against socialism and our timid retreat into pacifism in the public square.

The arena of the secular is not a lawless, Nietzschean, war of wills. It is a realm in which Christians, Jews, Muslims and even agnostics can work together on the basis of a common recognition of an objective moral order. Those who reject the natural law or objective moral order are enemies of the common good and must be vigorously opposed. This is precisely what is not happening because of the timidity of Christians and their compromising half-acceptance of atheistic positivism.

The legal-constitutional political order based on a recognition of the unity and inseparability of the natural and Divine law, which is Christendom's legacy to mankind is under attack today as never before. But it is a precious, humanistic and fragile legacy and Christians must defend it in the realm of the secular.


Sze Zeng said...

Another interesting work: VanDrunen in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms traces and distinguishes the development of Augustine's two cities to Gelasius' two swords to Luther's two kingdoms shed light to the long process of how our current secular state came about.

Carrying from there, Philip Michelbach and Charles Arthur argued that Luther provides the intellectual milieu for John Locke's theological polity for the separation between church and state.


Craig Carter said...

Sze Zeng,
I have vanDrunen's work on my shelf and want to read it soon. Any thoughts on your evaluatio of this book?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Craig,

So far, I have been through the first two chapters and already grateful that he wrote the book.

Planning to read it through during next semester break. Currently, the semester is closing and we are rushing for deadlines.

I tried my hand on O' Donovan but failed to grasp what he says. Probably due to my unfamiliarity with his prose, I guess. All that I know about his argument is from others who commented on his work (for eg. Michael Kirwan's Political Theology: An Introduction)

I am interested to see how our political theory came about. And none of the introductory books explicitly talk about it (for eg. Jonathan Wolffe's and Adam Swift's). And my search led me to theology.