Saturday, December 03, 2011

KEEPER: "Authority, Social Contract Theory, and Christian Faith"

Authority, Social Contract Theory, and Christian Faith
by By Paul DeHart,

What is the Christian philosopher of politics to make of the pretensions of social contract theory—namely the requirement of consent for the legitimacy of any given regime and, in some versions of the theory, not merely the stipulation that consent is necessary for legitimate government authority (or for the establishment of society) but also sufficient? At one level the Christian political philosopher need not respond as a Christian but can respond, rather, simply as a political philosopher. Responding as a political philosopher, such a person might note the self-referential incoherency of voluntaristic accounts of obligation per se—which is to say, of any account of obligation whatsoever, whether moral, political, or legal. Responding simply as a philosopher, such a one might note also the impracticability of obtaining actual consent (whether express or tacit) in a way that clearly underwrites the authority of any given regime. As a result of that impracticability, no extant regime has obtained the clear consent of most of its citizens (nor has any society obtained the unanimous consent of all those it takes to have the full responsibilities of citizens). Responding again simply as a philosopher, such a person might note that many presentations of social contract theory seem to commit the genetic fallacy. And, finally, responding as a philosopher, the Christian political philosopher might note the incoherence of deriving any normative content from hypothetical social contracts (and hence from hypothetical consent), such as occurs in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Whatever we are to make of theories of covenant or consent, it is clear that the early modern theories of social contract—such as those proffered by Hobbes and Locke—leave much to be desired on purely philosophic grounds.

To return to my question, though, how should the Christian political philosopher respond as a Christian political philosopher? Just here I think it’s worth taking into account the work by outstanding Christian analytic philosophers working in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion—philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, to name two. On Plantinga’s epistemology, any person x can said to know something y just in that instance where y is a true belief that x holds precisely as a result of the proper functioning of his (or her) cognitive faculties. And x’s cognitive faculties are functioning properly if they are functioning in accordance with their design plan and in a proper environment. Such an account of knowledge is quite different from the strong foundationalist account I described, following Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and others, in any earlier post on the problems with Jeffersonian philosophy. Given what Plantinga and Wolterstorff call “Reformed Epistemology” (an epistemology that Plantinga builds on Aquinas, Calvin, and Reid), it is plausible that one knows the claims of faith of to be true even without any evidence (or without any evidence under the definition of evidence advanced by strong foundationalists). Such claims could be properly basic. It is possible that I hear such claims from a trustworthy source, that I believe them, and that they are true. In such a case, if my cognitive faculties were designed to produce true beliefs as a result of testimony from some trustworthy source, it is plausible that I have knowledge of such claims. Now, I see plenty of reason to reject the dominant alternative of the Enlightenment—its strong foundationalism—just because that account is self-referentially incoherent. And so far as I can tell, no one has offered a knock down argument (such as that which led to the demise of Enlightment evidentialism) against the account just described. But given all this, it is plausible that the Christian person knows (if Christianity is true) the particular claims of the Christian faith--and this whether or not the Christian person can demonstrate (i.e., show) by rational argumentation the truth of such claims. But if that’s the case, then why shouldn’t such claims be taken into account in the practice of political philosophy? Why shouldn't the Christian engaged in the practice of political philosophy make use of all that he or she knows to be true?

Given Christianity, one thing the Christian person knows by faith is that Jesus of Nazareth is LORD (kurios) and king. Moreover, the Christian person knows by faith that Christ has a kingdom—such a person is by faith a member of that kingdom. Such a person accepts by faith (and not irrationally) Christ’s claim, in Scripture, that all authority has been given to him as a result of his conquest of death through his death, burial, and resurrection. It is just because all authority has been given to Jesus of Nazareth that, according to the Scriptures, “The kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our of God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.” That is, Jesus of Nazareth, not Caeser, is the King of kings—the authority over authorities. His Kingdom is the Kingdom over the kingdoms. And the Christian is, by faith (and faith freely given), a member of this Kingdom of kingdoms. Thus, St. Paul writes to his fellow Christians that their citizenship (or polity) is in Heaven. And he says so in the present tense. The resurrection of the Christ, according to the Christian faith, establishes Jesus of Nazareth as the word’s rightful kurios, as its ultimate authority. And he has this position by virtue of who he is and what he has done and without the consent of those over whom he rules. According to Christian scripture, Jesus of Nazareth will judge the nations. It says nothing of their consent to his judgment. Christian Scripture says that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus of Nazareth is kurios. But, again, nothing here about consent.

Just here an important objection might emerge. Aren't human beings creatures with free will? Doesn't St. Thomas rightly note that such creatures are governed by God in accordance with their special nature and so in light of this very important feature of human nature? And precisely at this point I must register my enthusiastic endorsement of not only the spirit behind the question but also of the proposition that animates the objection. For I believe, contra Hobbes or Mackie (or some other determinist), that humans not only have free will but also that this free will is only rightly understood as free will of the incompatiblist sort. I believe human persons have what philosophers call libertarian free agency (not in the political sense of "libertarian") or contra-causal freedom. Moreover, I believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is about right relationship with God and that right relationship among free creatures can only be established freely and without compulsion. Even more, on Christian belief, God became man in order to restore human persons to right relation with Him (the right relation of man to God being part of what Augustine of Hippo means by pax in his De civitate dei).

Even so, when the Christian person by faith enters the Kingdom of God, part and parcel of what that person freely does is to acknowledge the LORDSHIP of the Messiah of God as the universe's rightful kurios. Indeed, part of what the Christian freely does is to submit to that Lordship--which is, of course, nothing but the Lordship of infinite love and the authority of infinite Goodness. But this means that in his or her freedom the Christian person freely recognizes and submits to something that, according to the Christian gospel, already obtains--namely the LORDSHIP, and hence, the authority--of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, I think there is an important modal distinction between the way in which Jesus of Nazareth (and likewise, the God of Israel) exercises that LORDSHIP and the ontological ground of that LORDSHIP. When it comes to entering or living as part of the Kingdom of the Heavens, then that LORDSHIP (because of who the God of Israel is and because his human creatures bear his image) is exercised in accordance with our free will. But, as the exercise of LORDSHIP is distinct from the possession of it, the way in which YHWH exercises LORDSHIP over creation and the way in which the Messiah of YHWH exercises authority in His Kingdom, is distinct (modally so) from the possession of that LORDSHIP and so distinct from the ontological ground of it. Christ exercises his governance in accordance with our free will (at least to some extent) but not on account of it.

To reiterate the initial point, Christian Scripture clearly teaches that the ground of the LORDSHIP of Israel's Messiah is his death, burial, and resurrection from the dead. As a result of these things, part of the Christian gospel (as N. T. Wright says) is the announcement of His ascension to the right hand of the Father. This Christian proposition is a Hebraic way of saying that He has been exalted to the place of rulership--the place of authority over the entire cosmos and over all other authorities and powers. And, if Christian belief is also true belief, then the Christian knows these things by faith.

Now, to return to social contract theory and the principle of consent . . . Given the foregoing, we can note two things. First, the Christian political philosopher as political philosopher knows (or can know) that conventional social contract theory, which stipulates that consent is both necessary and sufficient for the establishment of authority among human persons, is self-referentially incoherent. The Christian political philosopher as Christian knows that in the paradigm instance of authority—the authority of God and of his Messiah—consent is not even necessary. At the base of things, consent is neither necessary nor sufficient for authority per se. Therefore, when the Christian person enters arguments about the nature of political authority among merely human persons, he or she must reject arguments that, without qualification, establish consent as sufficient or even necessary for authority per se over human persons.

The Christian person may of course subscribe to the proposition that consent is required in particular circumstances--which is to say that consent is conditionally, though not absolutely, necessary. For instance, there are occasions upon which we are not dealing with the outright exercise of authority but only with the stewardship of human affairs in particular times and places--times and places in which people equally valued and loved by God find themselves in need of human governance but also find that God has neither established a human intermediary between God and a certain people (such as with Moses and Israel) nor appointed a judge (such as Samson) nor anointed a King over his people (such as with Samuel's anointing first of Saul and then of David). In such a situation, it would seem that Locke is right. The only way that authority (for the governance of temporal matters) can obtain among people who are equal, when the divinity has not ordained some particular ruler, is through their consent. But such stipulations as are given here and as, in fact, are given by Locke himself entail necessarily that consent is not an absolutely necessary condition for the governance of even temporal matters. That is, to reiterate, consent is neither necessary nor sufficient for authority as such. Nor is it absolutely necessary (nor, for that matter, sufficient) for authority relations among human persons. Even in the world as we have it, on Christian revelation, consent only applies to people in certain circumstances. It is a matter of contingency. Consent is not an unimportant contingency. For I would stipulate that consent is a necessary condition for government legitimacy for most people at most times and in most places--for instance, people situated such as we are. Still, consent is never more than conditionally necessary.

Here’s what I'm trying to get at. When you read a political theorist like Hobbes or like Filmer you find, the gaping canyon between them notwithstanding, a surprising agreement. They both think the power of human sovereigns mirrors the sovereignty of God. That is, they think divine authority and human authority are both species of the same thing—authority—which are considerably alike in nature. Thus, one should take Hobbes seriously when he refers to the Leviathan as the mortal God. The source of the power to bind for Hobbes’ immortal and mortal God is much the same—irresistible power. But what the Christian knows by faith seems clearly to entail something quite the contrary—namely that divine and human authority aren’t much alike at all (perhaps not even analogically similar). For only God exercises authority in the proper sense; mere humans never do. Though, just here, it must be noted that most Christians would not attribute to the immortal God the sort of "power" that Hobbes ascribes to Him. For the Christian also knows, by faith, that God is good--not tame, to be sure, but certainly and unequivocally good. For the Christian person, the authority (or power of God) just is the authority (or power) of goodness--and substantive goodness (both in the metaphysical and moral sense), though infinite, goodness at that. Hobbes, of course, will have none of this. But why think his conception of power or authority as such is right or even that it matters much at all? But to return to my point--mere humans never, on the Christian account, exercise authority as such. Rather, given Christianity, the most that a human "ruler" ever exercises is something given in trust. Such "rulers" or "authorities" within human polities, whether they be one, the few, or the many, only ever exercise a stewardship over human affairs. As the Apostle says in Romans 13, the "authorities" are God's--which is to say that rulership over things human ultimately belongs only to Him. Moreover, that the "authorities" are God's is something, given Christianity, that the Christian person knows by faith.

I say that the Christian knows all this by faith. What I mean is that if the articles of Christian faith are true and if the Christian person believes them to be true as a result of properly functioning cognitive faculties, then the Christian does in fact know such things by faith and in the rational sense of know. Of course the Christian person will not have Cartesian or Lockean certainty about the tenets of the faith. But, as a number of philosophers point out, no one can have such certainty about much of anything and maybe about nothing at all. But why think one need Enlightenment certainty in order to have knowledge? The self-referential incoherency of the standard Enlightenment account opens the door to knowledge of the tenets of faith where the knowledge in question is not beliefs held with Cartesian or Lockean or Clifforidan certainty. Indeed, the self-referential incoherency of those accounts opens the door to knowledge of the articles of Christian faith even in the case where the efficient cause of the beliefs in question is the transmission of testimony through reliable sources (and even in that cases where the sources are reliable but we remain unable to establish, to a certainty, there reliability). So, from the Christian standpoint, if the tenets of the faith rule out the social contract account of authority as such, then so much the worse for conventional social contract theory. If, as a result, the ontological ground of human authority is not to be found in consent, then we must look elsewhere. If the Declaration of Independence nevertheless suggests that all governments acquire their just powers only from the consent of the governed, then we will have to reply that this is to claim too much for consent. The government of God--or of the Messiah of God--requires the consent of none. Nor does God require the consent of men when He ordains and establishes, in trust, human "authorities" among them. Consent is at most conditionally necessary for authority among human persons--such as those instances in which God has not anointed a King or chosen some judge and yet in which His creatures, made for society and equal among themselves, nevertheless require some form of governance (instances which, to be sure, we think obtain for most persons at most times and places). But, given rulership of Jesus of Nazareth at the Right Hand of God, given that He is King of kings whether or not He is recognized as such, there is no absolute necessity in consent. Consent is not one of those bedrock principles of reality--of even political reality--that goes all the way down.

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