Saturday, July 24, 2010

Kraynak: Christianity vs. Modernity III

There has been a great deal of dialogue on this blog about the differences between the French and American Revolutions, and more generally between European and American styles of liberal democracy.  Also, much has been recently stated about Leo Strauss and the whole classical vs. modern debate as well and how the discussions about liberal democracy fit into this frame.  I hope that this third, and final, excerpt from Robert P. Hunt's essay Robert Kraynak: Christianity vs. Modernity adds to this discussion.

Here it is:

"The second of Kraynak’s major theses--that any endorsement in principle of human rights and democracy might constitute a surrender by Christianity to modernity--is the more controversial of the two, especially for those of us who reject the liberal model of man and society but who believe that a principled (and non-liberal) Christian defense of human rights and constitutional democracy is consistent with traditional Christian natural law teaching. I wish to focus the remainder of my comments on this latter thesis, and question whether Kraynak’s effort to link Christian personalism--and, most especially, the Catholic personalism of the Second Vatican Council and figures such as Maritain and Murray--and liberal democracy is entirely successful. I will argue that Kraynak’s argument is grounded in a reading of intellectual history that, contrary to his own stated purpose, fails to do full justice to the distinctiveness of the Christian tradition and its developing understanding of the limited, yet invariably moral, nature of the state.
Kraynak’s argument seems for the most part to be an extension to the whole of contemporary Christianity of themes addressed by the late Ernest Fortin, who focused on what he perceived to be the weaknesses of contemporary Roman Catholic social thought. Fortin wondered whether any Catholic defense of human rights and religious freedom as anything other than a prudential concession to the political facts on the ground might not place contemporary Catholic social thought in conflict with its historic commitments to "virtue, character formation, and the common good." For Fortin, this might produce within the Catholic tradition "a latent bifocalism that puts it at odds with itself and thereby weakens it to a considerable extent."2 Those who would wish to preserve these historic commitments to a hierarchically ordered view of nature ground their arguments in a philosophical anthropology that takes most of its political bearings from the insights of ancient political philosophy. By contrast, Catholic personalism and rights talk is liberal and modernist in orientation--the two terms being somewhat interchangeable. To endorse human rights and democracy as a matter of principle is to endorse the modern project.
Kraynak argues that there are "three great periods of Christian theology, each associated with a dominant philosopher": (1) the Platonic or NeoPlatonic Christianity of the early Church fathers; (2) the Aristotelian Christianity of medieval Scholastic theology; and (3) the Kantian Christianity of modernity (Kraynak, 153 ff.) The reader is left to infer that pre-modern (i.e.Platonic and Aristotelian) Christianity was teleological, hierocratic, prudentialist, and not favorably disposed to rights talk or democracy. (Kraynak dismisses all too quickly the efforts of scholars such as Brian Tierney to establish that "natural rights" talk originated among medieval constitutionalists.) By contrast, modern Kantian Christianity is deontological (it adopts a morality and politics of categorical imperatives), egalitarian, rights-oriented, and pro-democratic. At a number of points, Kraynak seems to assume that all rights talk is liberal and modernist (neo-Kantian) and that liberal democracy and constitutional democracy are synonymous. At others, particularly in his analysis of contemporary Catholic social thought, he retreats slightly from this assumption, at least as regards the efforts of Catholics to avoid the pitfalls of philosophical liberalism.
In support of the former assumption, Kraynak argues, for example, that "today, the term 'person' refers to a human being with a duty to forge his or her own identity or moral personality by an assertion of the will" (Kraynak, 154), that "the deep premise of rights is the natural freedom and natural equality of the autonomous self"(Kraynak,172). Even though modern Christian theologians believe that rights can be detached from these voluntaristic premises, the subversive nature of "the deep premises" gradually take over because "rights are essentially ungrateful claims against authority, either for protections and immunities against authority or for entitlements against authority" (Kraynak, 172). Thus, the fundamental premises of contemporary republican self-government are, at root, individualistic and voluntaristic: "those who see republican self-government as the decisive test of human dignity oppose any authority that stands above the will of the people" (Kraynak, 24). And "many modern Christians" have bought into the Kantian, modernist assertion "that the consent of the people and human rights are the sole legitimizing principles of political authority" (Kraynak,181)." (Bold text is mine)

The point contained in the first bold faced text is giant obstacle to arguments that claim there is no biblical source of rights and that "rights talk" is an Enlightenment interpolation to authentic Christian thought.  This line of reasoning results in statements similar to those found in the second bold faced text that fail to realize that consent of the governed and human rights were ideas that had been around in Christianity long before Kant was even born.  Brian Tierney's arguments that seek to prove this point remain untouched while the culture war obsession with lesser lights like David Barton and Peter Lillback rages on.  I guess it is easier to pick the low hanging fruit?

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