Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Rawls, Religion, And The NYRB

I was happy to discover in my latest print edition of the New York Review of Books a review article by Kwame Anthony Appiah on the recent publication of the senior thesis of the late philosopher John Rawls. Having read it, I came away disappointed, and a bit annoyed at some errors by the author of the review.

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Rawls' senior thesis was entitled "A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community". As an aside, with a title like that, the use of "brief" should be taken with a grain of salt. In any event, Rawls' thesis should be unsurprising to most Christian thinkers today. The heart of the Christian faith is relational, based primarily upon our relationship of dependence as creatures upon the loving-care of God. This forms the basis for a community of mutuality rooted in love that is reflective of divine love. It is only in this context that sin as such can be properly understood.

As Appiah makes clear, many of the themes of his youthful exploration of Christian theology found expression in his major mature works, particularly Political Liberalism and the third section of A Theory of Justice. Yet, as Rawls himself made clear in a late essay, "On My Religion", he lost the trappings of faith, in large part due to his experiences as a combat soldier in the Second World War and the revelations of the depravity of the Holocaust. For one who had committed himself to a view of the moral life and moral agency rooted in communal values of mutuality, the Holocaust, along with its more basic horror, must have been a serious blow.

Yet, I have to wonder about the relevance of this collection. Beyond reconstructing the intellectual journey of an influential thinker, Rawls' senior thesis is more in the realm of a curious found item. While he certainly continued to accept the communal nature of human reality (Justice seems to be a description of how such a community comes to define "the good", although in a different context and with a different set of presuppositions), he could just have easily arrived at that same foundation by reading Hegel (who lies at the heart of so much mid-20th century theological musings).

Another couple quibbles concern Appiah. Karl Barth was not German, but Swiss. In 1942, his major project, the Church Dogmatics was certainly well under way. To those who didn't read German, however, he was known in English in large part to the publication of a couple essay collections. These essays, moreover, were hardly reflective of his maturing thought. Moreover, the title "neo-orthodoxy" does not refer to the terms Appiah thinks. Rather, while always having Schleiermacher in mind, his major conversation partners were the 16th and 17th century Protestant scholastics, whose views appear in long excurses. He had encountered them in a volume of summaries he used to prepare himself for courses in the history of doctrine he taught in Germany prior to his expulsion by the Nazis.

Reinhold Niebuhr was not "neo-orthodox" in any sense of the term. A radical liberal, influenced at least as much by a rejection of the triumphalism of American liberal theology as any desire for scriptural integrity and a return to doctrinal fundamentals, Niebuhr was lumped far too unfairly with the continental movements occurring roughly simultaneously. After Paul Tillich emigrated to the US, he fell under Tillich's spell, yet Tillich while certainly a part of the same general theological conversation as Barth and Brunner, could only be called "orthodox" if the word is stretched beyond any serious meaning.

Finally, the disagreement between Barth and Brunner, while certainly abstruse to an outsider, was at heart how one could argue against the attempt of the Nazis to usurp theological authority (which they largely achieved). Brunner, following in a long line of Christian thought, understood divine grace as operating upon a capacity, broken in the Fall yet still operative, in human intellectual life to grant us an understanding of the reality of God via reason. Barth, accused of fideism for his stridency on this issue, called any such latent (even if sinful) rational approach to the Christian God, apart from the revelation in the incarnation, "natural theology". Nazi theologians appealed to the faculty of reason, grace-filled (in an odd way), to grant not only some innate ability to grasp the reality of God, but also what was for them the related necessity of seeing the German Volk as the pinnacle of human creation, and the German Reich as the embodiment of human community. While Brunner, to be sure, never intended any such thing, there were so-called "German Christians" who appealed to Brunner (and Friederich Gogarten and Paul Althaus and others who were sympathetic with the Nazi regime, at least for a while) in their arguments. Barth separated himself from Brunner in an essay entitled "Nein!". Never one to surrender a grudge easily, when Brunner was on his deathbed and asked for Barth to come so they could bury the hatchet, Barth refused (showing less grace than the Christ he professed, apparently).

Encountering Brunner at the time Rawls did in all likelihood means that Brunner's more nuanced approach to divine revelation and the potential for human agency were more influential than Barth's bleak views on both. Furthermore, encountering the horrors of war, the cupidity of a Lutheran chaplain blessing bullets, and the Holocaust with that generosity in mind may not have helped Rawls hold on to his Christian faith.

In any event, all this is to say that I am underwhelmed by the idea of reading a youthful foray in Christian theology, written 68 years ago by someone better known for far better works in a different field. Furthermore, it would be nice if those who wrote reviews would familiarize themselves with even such basic facts as the nationality of individuals who they name in passing.

Virtual Tin Cup

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