Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"What? 'Liberal Individualism'? Aw c'mon!" And the Anglican Right without it

I've used the phrase "liberal individualism" like a cudgel in previous posts, claiming that members of the Anglican right are slipping unwittingly into its grip--and now I'm paying dearly, it seems, on other sites especially, for taking the term to be common currency and not laying out what I meant. And so, in outline, here it is.

Permit me to start from the tradition of political liberalism, which so far as I can tell, has two sides today, a left-wing exemplified by Rawls and Dworkin, associated (unfairly) with the welfare state, and a right-wing exemplified by Hayek and Friedman, associated (at its fringes) with libertarianism and also laissez-faire capitalism. They are familiar debate partners, if you will, on our political landscape, a landscape they dominate now with the demise of socialism as a live option and the spread of globalization.

Both sides err, in my opinion, in their foundations. Both, so far as I can tell, are committed to individualism about the mental--roughly the idea that meaning is just what is "in the head"--and methodological individualism, roughly the idea that we may proceed without loss to theorize as if there were only individuals and their properties. One can see these assumptions operating especially in rational choice theory, e.g. in economics, and also less clearly in social contract theory. My point: liberalism of both sides, left and right, is well established in academic disciplines with these assumptions (among others). But liberalism in this sense is also present as a theoretical background in policy making--think of cost-benefit analysis in public or corporate planning.

Note that liberalism has venerable roots in the early days of modernity (aka the roots and flower of the european Enlightenment): Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, even (I would claim) Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant, among others. Its intellectual credentials are impeccable.

I have referred to "Enlightenment rationality"; the wider cultural constellation of liberalism is what I mean--liberalism developed not just as theory, but lived in the academy, in government, in the economy, in public debate: our common ethos. For instance, when we conceive of ourselves as simply self-made individuals, morally autonomous roughly in Kant's sense, with inviolable rights due to us as citizens, operating in the economy as sovereign consumers--we live within the culture of what I called "Enlightenment rationality", and we live as if we accept what I called "liberal individualism" and its assumptions.

I believe that the assumptions of liberal individualism (individualism about the mental and methodological individualism) are false. Moreover, its assumptions are unbiblical, opposed to properly Christian ethics. The Church competes with liberal individualism and Enlightenment rationality; opposition is unavoidable as long as the Church is faithful. It should not, I believe, take the assumptions of liberal individualism on board as its own. Thus, when I see any branch of the Church, like the Anglican right, taking on the assumptions of liberal individualism, I object--as should you, gentle lector.

Of course, I am not the first to object to the Church taking on Enlightenment rationality or liberal individualism (e.g. Pope Benedict XVI does as well--see above); others have articulated a case stronger than mine. Narrative theology and canonical criticism are in part responses to Enlightenment rationality et al that have gained ground (so far as I can tell) in the Anglican right and left. Prima facie, a scholar on the Anglican right, following Lindbeck or Frei, could say "I am already insulated from your critique" and move on. That is the scholar I wish to address--there is my target: you think you are insulated but you are not.

It seems to me that narrative theology and canonical criticism are united in working within Church tradition to settle truth claims; they deny neutral, external points of reference from which criticism of that tradition may be launched; they deny a univocal sense of "reason" or "rationality" and deny the sovereignty or autonomy of the individual. I am not alone in seeing those movements in this way--I do not claim any special originality for that. Furthermore, a large philosophical body of literature backs up parts of their claims (think of the late work of Wittgenstein, middle period Putnam, Tyler Burge, MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and even many writing under the label "continental theory")--they seem (at least) to be on solid ground.

However, narrative theology on the Anglican right, taking up Church tradition, also, I contend, takes on tradition from the worldly culture surrounding the Church: the two (Church tradition and worldly culture) interpenetrate and historically are in continual tension. There is no historical point of pure Church tradition within which canonical interpretation or Church narrative may operate--and this is what we should expect, given the depth of sin in ourselves and the surrounding culture.

For instance, in particular, it may well be that many on the Anglican right are tempted to read the Bible as if liberal individualism were true, as if there were plain facts of meaning to be discovered once and for all about biblical texts, as if the reader could have such a fact of meaning consciously present to him or her. This, in my opinion, is not only false, it is also part of the very Enlightenment culture narrative theology was designed to throw off, what I called (from Adorno and Horkheimer) part of the practice of disenchantment. Again, under liberal assumptions adopted as part of the Church's "tradition", one may believe all sin can be reduced to the sins of individuals; one may presume the moral status of an act is closed under individual motives, say. Such thoughts might lead one to focus on individual righteousness to the expense of social justice. Such a focus is mistaken; narrative theology seems to me insufficient as a barrier to block such "cross-pollination."

Anyhow, is liberal individualism essential to the Anglican right? I have not argued that it is; for all I know, liberal individualism is merely accidental to it. An Anglican right without liberal assumptions seems perfectly possible--but what practical difference would such a creature make? Two things jump out (I'll sketch them here): (1) its general strategy of arguing from biblical text would change; we might see a search for external reference points in doing theology--i.e. metaphysics or natural theology in the tradition of Aquinas for instance, as one sees today in the analytic style of E. Stump and S. Davis (neither of them leftists, so far as I can tell, BTW), pace Barth. And (2), the right would do work consistent with ECUSA's emphasis on social justice. For instance, resistance to gay marriage would proceed from natural theology, taking up a consideration of human nature as articulated in Chalcedon as a starting point for (perhaps) a natural law or virtue ethics case. Indeed, several Roman Catholic theologians have already done work in that direction (e.g. Finnis, though he seems to me overly-anxious to drop the metaphysics behind the natural law tradition). Resistance to gay marriage could be argued from the common good as, say, a necessary part of the just society, rather than as a merely individual sin.

The fallible impression I have from my exposure to SEAD and ACI, the AAC and ACN, and varied blogs on the Anglican right is that with a few exceptions, theology isn't being done on our pressing questions the way I hope to see in (1) and (2) above--at least such theology is not moving action along on our issues.


At 3:54 PM, Blogger Caelius said...

Hmm. I want to make sure I have you right.


(The only post).


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