The scantily clad public square
by Ken Myers
I am heartened each time I read a remark from some pundit or other that our society suffers from a failure to take seriously “what it means to be human.” But not infrequently, my sense of encouragement is severely dampened when I see in the prose that follows an all-too slight account of the meaning of our humanity. For, when social or political life is discussed, the characteristics of the human that are typically named are those readily discernible by the social sciences without guidance from theology or philosophy.
Perhaps I’m alert to such constricted accounts of “what it means to be human” because my own thinking about culture, society, and politics suffered for a long time from the same imposing of boundaries. I used to assume that public life could be well ordered without reference to distinctively theological claims, without deliberate engagement with the One in whom all things hold together. The term that summarized my thinking about a place account of what it means to be human was “our mere humanity,” by which I meant human existence and experience without reference to (among other things) the Trinity, the Resurrection, Pentecost, or the Second Coming. “Human flourishing” (the currently popular term) was, I believed, fully imaginable and achievable within what Charles Taylor has called the “immanent frame.” Rejecting that claim was to put oneself at odds with the ordering principles of virtually every modern institution and practice. Those distinctive, theologically described claims were fine for private life, but not in public life. I was not an advocate for a naked public square, just a scantily clad one.
In case MARS HILL AUDIO listeners haven’t noticed, I’ve changed my mind about this and, for a number of years, the guests I’ve interviewed have often been explicitly critical of what I once believed. Take, for example, Reinhard Hütter, the author of Bound for Beatitude, a guest on Volume 149 of the Journal. For those who haven’t yet heard this interview, I summarized in an earlier post Hütter’s argument that “what it means to be human” is to be a creature made for fulfillment in union with the Triune Creator. As he writes, “Humanity is ordained to the gratuitous supernatural final end of union with God.”
That summary claim is from a chapter in his book called “The Preparation for Beatitude—Justice toward God: The Virtue of Religion.” Consider that final phrase “virtue of religion.” Listeners may remember my conversation with historian Peter Harrison (discussing The Territories of Science and Religion on Volume 131) who explained how the concept of “religion” has radically changed its assumed meaning. Where once it described an interior disposition, in the early modern West — concurrent with the rise of modern notions of science — it came to mean a body of propositions and the community united in affirming those beliefs. William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence (discussed on Volume 101) and elsewhere similarly argues that the conventional understanding of “religion” is a modern development, and not a neutral one: as he writes, “the [conventional] concept of religion . . . is a development of the modern liberal state; the religious-secular distinction accompanies the invention of private-public, religion-politics, and church-state dichotomies.” All of which, it should be noted, expands the power of the state over every aspect of life.
Back to Hütter’s discussion of the virtue of religion, which in Aquinas’s view is (in Hütter’s summary) “absolutely central for genuine human flourishing.” The moral virtue of religion is analogous to the cardinal virtue of justice. Where justice predisposes us to render to everyone what he or she is due, the virtue of religion inclines us toward acts of honor and reverence to God.
Early in his chapter discussing the virtue of religion, Hütter describes the modern assumption that human life can be lived quite happily without religion, in any sense of the word. Hütter insists that, in Aquinas’s view (and his own) this is a dangerous assumption: “Doing without religion constitutes a grave impediment in regard to attaining the ultimate end and places one, therefore, on a margin of human existence.”
He continues: “For the educated elites of the Western Hemisphere, doing without religion is the welcome effect of an ineluctable progress from ignorance and bigotry to enlightenment and tolerance. For them, doing without religion does not constitute at all one of the margins of human existence but, quite on the contrary, the precondition for the ultimate flourishing of the sovereign self.”
Hütter then goes on to discuss five different definitions of religion used in contemporary parlance. The first of these is political liberalism’s use of religion. “This use is so utterly influential because it is part of the conceptual matrix of a normative secularism that frames — primarily by way of the media — the public discussion in virtually all Western societies. The positive contrast of terms to this negative use of religion are ‘secular reason’ and its present instantiation, ‘secular discourse.’ ‘Religion’ stands for sets of beliefs that are presumably more or less arbitrary in nature, beliefs impossible to warrant and adjudicate rationally. Because of its inherently irrational nature — so secularist reasoning goes — ‘religion’ must establish its claims by way of more or less subtle forms of violence, ranging from psychological manipulation to open terror, torture, and religious war. In order to secure peace in the public square, a pure ‘secular’ reason and discourse must dominate the public sphere, while ‘religion’ in all shapes and forms is to be relegated to the private, or at best, social sphere.”
This paragraph continues with some important observations about how this understanding of “religion” guides the interpretation of “religious freedom” in liberal democracies. Hütter’s description deserves serious reflection, especially by those who believe that their “right to religious liberty” offers significant protection from tyrannical overreach by the State:
“While in virtually all Western societies there exists, of course, a constitutional right to religious freedom, the political and judicial powers of current Western liberal democracies interpret this religious freedom not as a constitutional human right antecedent to normative political categories of ‘public’ versus ‘private,’ but merely as a political right within them. Normatively framed in such a way, the right to religious freedom turns into a right of free exercise that pertains first and foremost to the private sphere and, under increasingly restrictive conditions, also to the social sphere. According to this by now quasi hegemonic secularist interpretation of the freedom of religion, the public sphere belongs exclusively to ‘secular’ reason and discourse. Religious belief and practice are constitutionally protected as long as they remain within the parameters of the private and social spheres.”
Later in the chapter, Hütter raises significant objections to the limits of this protection. Just as “it is according to the very nature of the virtue of justice to transcend and to encompass both the public and the private spheres,” so “the virtue of religion, rightly understood and practiced . . . resists submission to the superimposition of a political disciplinary distinction that compromises the essence of the virtue itself. . . . Being directed to the highest good, the summum bonum, reverence of and honor to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the first truth and sovereign good — in short, the triune Lord — this virtue is only practiced authentically according to its nature when it is practiced in the political public such that the political public itself is rightly ordered to the first principles of the creation and government of things.
“Now, to say the least, this is obviously not how contemporary democracies constitute themselves in the spirit of sovereign secularism. Banishing the practice of the virtue of religion from the political public is a constitutive element of their self-understanding. Of course, to force the virtue of religion into the purely private sphere is to force it to turn into its own counterfeit. . . .
“Not only does the virtue of religion suffer from the profoundly alienating imposition of its privatization, but also does the body politic suffer eventually. One of the foremost German legal philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenforde, argued famously — and persistently — that a truly just, and therefore free, democratic society lives from moral sources that transcend its scope, sources that secular liberalism per se cannot provide and replenish on its own terms, but on which a truly free and just society at the same time vitally depends. These sources are fundamentally connected with and accessed by way of the public practice of the virtue of religion. And this practice of religio, according to Böckenforde, will be ideally and preferably Christian because it is nothing but the Christian understanding of the human being that is presupposed in the tenets and the program of genuine liberalism: the human being as created in the image of God and, therefore, endowed with an indelible dignity and an intrinsic orientation toward transcendence, an orientation expressed first and foremost in humanity’s universal desire for knowledge and happiness and consequently in the public practice of the virtue of religion that gives honor and reference to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the triune creator and Lord who is the fount of every good. By privatizing the virtue of religion, late modern secularist democracies cut themselves off from the transpolitical moral and spiritual roots that fund the public ethos of their own citizens. This development leads to the transformation of the citizen into the essentially private consumer of goods, the sovereign self in the order of consumption, for whom the public ‘secular discourse’ is nothing else but the interminable negotiation of the competing interests of consumers, customers, and clients.”