Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Inflating Balloon Of Liberty

I recently read Justice Brennan's dissent in a case about presumptive paternity within marriage in spite of blood tests proving otherwise, Michael H. v. Gerald D, 491 U.S. 110 (1989). It stoked my curiosity of whether liberalization in democratic states and churches is a one-way street:

"...the plurality ignores the kind of society in which our Constitution exists. We are not an assimilative, homogeneous society, but a facilitative, pluralistic one, in which we must be willing to abide someone else's unfamiliar or even repellent practice because the same tolerant impulse protects our own idiosyncrasies..."

This case is set up in my Constitutional Law class in the sequence of discussions over contraceptive rights, abortion rights, marriage rights (for prisoners, the indigent, etc.), and homosexual sodomy rights. Brennan's angst that his judgment of another's lifestyle is indistinguishable from another's judgment of his is patent. In all these cases, the unspoken rule seems to be this: if no one individual is fit (i.e., has moral authority) to pass judgment over another, a "liberty" is granted. This, I believe, is the direction we have been in, and will continue to be in until the end.

Can anyone think of an example where a democratic populous has enjoyed an individual "liberty" and then forsaken it for the good of the whole? Certainly slave owners had the individual "liberty" to possess other human beings as chattel, but that was a loggerhead conflict set in motion from before our nationhood, ultimately resolved only after the spilling of tremendous blood (and not by the democratic process). It is hard for me to imagine that this populous, now that it has enjoyed easy divorce for so long, could willingly revert to the more disciplined and principled approach of days gone by. Likewise, it is hard to imagine a wholesale sacrifice (i.e., giving up) of the personal "liberty" enjoyed in getting to abort an unwanted fetus-child (though I can imagine a scenario where certain artificial limitations are put in place to quell a guilty conscience, as was done by the Partial-Birth Abortion Act).

We hunger to do as we please, and to have our actions legitimized by the populous.

Same with denominationalism. Once a group of like-minded Christians decide they are going to enjoy a liberty of conscience over a particular matter, why would they sacrifice this individual liberty to the will of the whole? It is hard for me to imagine the PCA, for example, deciding that, since strict Sabbath observance is the plain meaning of our confession, and since Sabbatarianism has a fine pedigree within the Reformed faith, the exception granted to elders on this teaching should be withdrawn. This will not happen. Likewise, denominations that have embraced the ordination of women as normative will not revoke that hard-fought personal "liberty".

It is this singular direction in which liberty marches that has caused so much schism within Protestantism. One cannot reign in democratic liberty, so one's only option is to start a new democracy. Liberty, individual liberty, is like an inflating balloon with a one-way valve. It will never give it's air back to the democratic collective, and it will eventually burst.

13 comments:

Principium unitatis said...

Well said. Political individualism and ecclesial individualism are not unrelated. If Christ said to us [individualists], "Go call your husband and come here", we would have to reply, "I have no husband". And His reply to the Samaritan woman could easily be His reply to us. It is hard not to see Luther's influence here. I will be subject to no council or pope, for they have [according to my own judgment] erred. I will follow them only insofar as what they say seems right [in my own eyes]. My conscience is bound to [my own interpretation of] the Word of God. And the Word of God is whatever books [I determine] belong to the canon. Individualism has become so much a part of the air we breathe that contemporary evangelicals reading St. Ignatius of Antioch immediately conclude that the Church must already have fallen into serious apostasy by 107 AD. (I have witnessed this reaction myself.) So now we are overrun by ecclesial consumerism, and it is so common and natural that we don't even see it as wrong. This balloon must inevitably burst. It must burst because, as Plato points out in book VIII of the Republic, individualism necessarily decays into anarchy. As Jesus said, "A house divided cannot stand". The only way to escape from that collapse is to seek out our rightful shepherds and submit to them. (Hebrews 13:17) See my recent quotation from St. Ignatius on unity. The city of man will turn to a tyrant ( seeming to be a savior) to avoid the bitter fruit of the eventual chaos and anarchy resulting from its individualism, but the city of God must turn to our true and rightful shepherds. Individualism is extrinsically aimed at extinction; it cannot endure, whether in the city of man or in the city of God.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...

Bryan,

I have two main thoughts that I've stewed on since reading your response.

1) Luther judged, where Justice Brennan's worldview is afraid to judge. I mean, the odd thing is that Brennan doesn't want to make a moral judgment about someone else lest they should condemn his own moral views. It's a strict adherence to Jesus' teaching, 'Judge not, lest ye too be judged'. But the condemnable part is that Brennan is a *judge*. Congressmen (whose laws he strikes down) have to make judgments because it's a) the will of the people, and b) necessary for a functioning society. People in authority have to judge - Jesus couldn't have been speaking of them in his mandate. Brennan's view is more of a pure individualism. Luther was prepared to assert his judgment over other's. Do you think Luther foresaw individualism as a fruit of his practice?

2) If it is true that democracy leads to individualism, and Plato is right that individualism leads to anarchy, what is our hope?

I suppose it is not necessarily true that democracy leads to individualism, but looking around the world and history as little as I'm able, it seems to be at least generally true. It strikes me that for democracy to not lead to individualism, something needs to restrain the human nature from having ears, hands and every other part itching after what it wants (to hear, touch or experience). But what can restrain democracy but a) some higher power than the will of masses (i.e., non-democracy), or b) internal moral/religious convictions? I think the later restrained this country from the fruit of individualism for some time, but is there hope in this internal restraint for the future?

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Principium unitatis said...

Thos,

It seems to me that Brennan's position is the more consistent form of the individualism implicit in Luther's actions. Of course Luther did not foresee what his own individualism would do. But if Luther could rebel against the established authority and follow his own interpretation, then anyone following Luther's example could rebel against Luther's established authority and follow their own interpretation. Rebellion is in this way a precedent for rebellion. Luther does not seem to have recognized the implications of abolishing the sacrament of Holy Orders. This is why the early Protestant leaders had to appeal to the authority and power of the state to prevent ecclesial anarchy. Liberalism is just the consistent form of individualism. Liberalism recognizes and consigns itself to the absence of authority. It is thus a de facto relativism.

I think you are right about democracy needing something else in order to be sustainable in the long term. Democracy + individualism = eventual anarchy. So, that is why I think democracy depends (for its long term existence) on the only possible antidote to individualism (and liberalism): sacramental magisterial authority. :-)

The Church is the salt of the earth, the city on the hill, the light shining in the darkness. It holds back the self-destructive disposition of the city of man.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Adam Roe said...

I'm inclined to think in two directions on this one. First, the reasoning behind the exercise of liberty would seem to have an effect on the willingness of the populous to fight (or not fight) for homogeny. I think the example you use of slavery is quite good, for it reminds us that there can theoretically come a point where the majority of the populous recognizes the vacuous nature of the minority's desire for liberty. When liberty becomes a self serving means to a barbarous end, I think democracies will sometimes self correct. That said, I don't think they self correct until a large segment of the populous has confronted the depth of their shared depravity. The correction must, in other words, come as an extension of shame and outrage. Liberty seems to almost always win otherwise.

The second thought comes as an extension of the first. With abortion, euthanasia, etc...it seems that liberty's effect is of a detrimental nature, for it obscures truth; a truth that has the sanctity of life as its ultimate foundation. Focus on liberty as the foundation for such debates forces all value statements to slide to meaninglessness, for when liberty is valued more than life, the discourse must automatically become obscured in half truths and meaningless pseudo-philosophies. The lives in question are made a function of liberty's whims instead of valuable in their own right.

I think the issue, therefore, is whether liberty is exercised as a means for obscuring or sharpening truth. The difficulty is in determining what constitutes obfuscation as opposed to a sharpened understanding. Perhaps on matters of life, we should also consider that shifting the focus from liberty to value must be the aim of those who value life for its own sake. If the focus remains on liberty, then the other person's "repellent practice" serves well within the confines of our shared national identity. If, however, it can be demonstrably shown that liberty in such situations confuses meaningful discourse, it could possibly serve to trump the preference for liberty speech.

As for Luther, I think it's helpful for Protestants to recognize that he was indeed partially responsible for greater schism, but my reasons for this belief differ from that of my Roman Catholic friends. Because Luther originally was serving within the confines of the church (and desired to stay there), it would be hard to argue that he initially sought to exercise a contemporary, libertarian freedom. The schismatic Luther was born after excommunication, and his writings (particularly The Babylonian Captivity of the Church) took on an acerbic quality that confused his intention. Others within the Reformation focused less on the doctrine within that writing and more on his treatment of the pope as "the whore of Babylon." I therefore think Luther's rage became the catalyst of the more radical elements of the Reformation, even as he was dismayed by such blatant exercises in personal and doctrinal liberties.

The million dollar question is whether the pre-excommunication Luther sharpened or obfuscated. Just as there are issues that have the potential to bring Americans to a point in which they submit their individual liberties for the cause of the greater good, I suspect many Christians will do likewise. Like democracy loving Americans, though, they must be convinced that Luther and the other reformers served to muddy the theological waters. Was their focus on grace, faith, and Scripture something that ultimately made the faith less or more clear? Unless a compelling case can be made that liberty was exercised for its own sake or, that the liberty was misguided and served to ultimately confuse the faith, then I suspect liberty will be valued more than unity.

Blessings in Christ,
Adam

Jim said...

Prohibition is an example of a population choosing to give up a liberty for the good of the whole.

I think people will give up a liberty for the greater good if they think it will actually help to achieve that good. Think about the hassle it is to get on an airplane these days, or how blaise we are for the most part upon learning that the government listens in on our phone conversations in order to prevent terrorist attacks.

I think that people support easy divorce laws because, for the main, they think that the benefit of allowing people to end unhappy marriages is greater than the cost it imposes on children and other people.

I think all we have to do is to do the hard work of making a persuasive argument and changing people's minds. I'm more tempted to think that the failure to have the public policies we prefer is a result of our failure to persuade than it is a result of not having the right institutions, or of some mechanistic notion that policies rachet one way but not the other.

Jim said...

Bryan,

I guess I don't see why your argument cannot be advanced against Peter and John in Acts 4.19-20 and Acts 5.29. Jesus had commanded them only a little time earlier to obey and submit to the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23.1-2).

I have a hard time thinking that Jesus' statement in Mt 23.1-2 only meant "submit to the scribes and pharisees for a few more weeks, then you can ignore them with impunity after you receive the Spirit."

Rather, many, if not most, of the scribe's commands could be followed without sin, or without hindering the gospel. But when a human authority (whether ecclesiastical or not) requires obedience that would prevent the preaching of the gospel, the disciples are duty bound to follow God rather than man.

Let me take a step back, and say that I want fully to receive Heb 13.17 and Mt 23.1-2, as well as Acts 4.19-20 and 5.29. So I reject any system that prefers one set over the other set.

It seems to me that submission only comes into play when you think that the authority over you is wrong, but you obey nonetheless. That's "rubber-meets-the-road" submission. So I have no doctrine of submission unless I am compelled to obey in a robust set of circumstances despite what my own judgment tells me, or what my conscience tells me.

In our society, this kind of submission is perhaps best known in the military -- where an inferior officer may hold an opposite opinion to his superior, yet fully and faithfully seek to implement his superior's command depsite the fact that he think's it's wrong.

Nonetheless, while zealous within almost all domains of command, the domain of authority is still not unlimited. Inferior officers are duty bound to disobey illegal orders. To be sure, they have nothing to rely on in making that determination than their own individual understanding of what the laws of war require. Nonetheless, the law of war is superior to command of the inferior officer's superior, and the inferior seeks only to obey the ultimate authority -- the law of war -- in disobeying the mediate authority.

In doing so the inferior officer assumes full responsibility for his actions, recognizing that he may lose everything, including his life, if the order that he disobeys is in fact a legal order, and he has mistakenly judged it as illegal.

Yet despite the fact that mediate authority is bounded in the military, the system is a robust culture of submission and deference to mediate authority.

A similar relationship exists between judges and legislatures. Judges affirm laws all the time that they would not have supported as legislators. Judges can believe that a law is unwise or imprudent, but they still affirm its constitutionality. They defer to the legislature's judgment in these cases unless the law is clearly, beyond doubt unconstitutional, and they do so despite the fact that they believe it is a bad law. As with military obedience, the vast majority of laws are sustained in this regime. Only a few are overturned.

So it seems in ecclesiastical circumstances. I affirm that I must obey my leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over my soul.

So I am conscience bound to submit to my superior, even when I disagree with them. My duty clearly includes these cases:

[1] In matters adiaphora. In this situation I am never justified in rejecting the view of my ecclesiastical superior. I am conscience bound to submit in all circumstances.

[2] In matters of "first importance" (1 Co 15.3), such as the Gospel (ibid.), I am conscience bound to give my superior every benefit of the doubt. So even if I believe that my superior is wrong, even if I have confidence that my superior is wrong, but I am uncertain about it, then I still defer to him, knowing that he bears responsibility before God for error in these matters, if error there be (Jas 3.1).

Only in the case that my superior commands an action clearly and beyond doubt inconsistent with the command of Christ, an action that would consistute sin on my part, do I affirm "I must obey God rather than man."

In doing so, I recognize that, if I am wrong regarding God's command, then I have sinned against God and against my superior, having engaged in the sin of rebellion, at the risk of my own soul (1 Sam 15.23).

I might add that I have never been faced with the need to disobey an ecclesiastical superior under this circumstance. I have often held different opinions than my superiors, and have often thought that some matters implicated the Gospel itself, but never in situations that fall outside of [1] or [2] above. So I always, willingly and zealously, submitted, despite what my own judgment and conscience told me, and despite the fact that I hold that there are God-given limits to which human ecclesiastical authority my properly command.

Principium unitatis said...

Jim,

The chair of Moses was superseded by the chair of Peter, because the new covenant is greater than the covenant with Moses. Therefore Peter and John were not rebelling against a higher authority in Acts 4:19-20 and 5:29. The scribes and pharisees retained authority under the old covenant. That is why Paul could say what he said in Acts 23:5 about Ananias. But as Apostles in the new covenant, Peter and John had *higher* authority than the scribes and pharisees. So they were not rebelling at all. Therefore what they did was not equivalent to what Luther did.

You seem to be trying to determine the nature of ecclesial authority by looking to military and political domains. But ecclesial authority is the authoritative source concerning the nature of ecclesial authority.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jim said...

Bryan,

On "a" correspondence between deference to military authority and deference to spiritual authority:

"Jesus said to him, 'I will go and heal him.'

"The centurion replied, 'Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, "Go," and he goes; and that one, "Come," and he comes. I say to my servant, "Do this," and he does it.'

"When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, 'I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.'"

Mt 8.7-10.

You misunderstand the purpose of the examples, and my argument, if you think that I provided them to have them "determine" ecclesiastical authority.

Rather, they illustrate that a robust deference to human authority can exist that is consistent with limitations on that authority, because there are correspondences between types of authority.

A Christian is required to set aside his own judgment and is conscience bound not to follow his own conscience in a robust set of circumstances. These conditions nevertheless are fully consistent with there being limits to human authority in submission to God's ultimate authority.

So it is untrue that Protestants must submit only to what their own conscience or judgment tells them. And it is untrue that robust ecclesial submission exists only if there is not circumstance in which the ecclesiastical authority must be disobeyed in obedience to God.

Finally, in Acts 23.5, Paul admits he sinned in how he behaved toward the high priest.

But you are correct with respect to Acts 4 & 5: The scribes purported to represent God. But they commanded contrary to God, so the disciples had to disobey in obedience to God.

I suppose we won't agree on this, but I seek no disrespect to the Spirit or to Petrine authority when I point out the obvious: doctrinal and institutional drift is liable to occur over the centuries. I think it humility, rather than arrogance, to suggest that God can use his Word to call his bride back to the straighter path.

Principium unitatis said...

Jim,

Rather, they illustrate that a robust deference to human authority can exist that is consistent with limitations on that authority, because there are correspondences between types of authority.

I don't think I claimed the contrary.

So it is untrue that Protestants must submit only to what their own conscience or judgment tells them.

I don't think anyone claimed that Protestants *must* do such a thing. If Protestants go about choosing ecclesial authorities on the basis of agreement with themselves, then they are (whether they realize it or not) submitting to their own judgment, only by choosing someone to speak their own positions to them.

And it is untrue that robust ecclesial submission exists only if there is not circumstance in which the ecclesiastical authority must be disobeyed in obedience to God.

Agreed.

I suppose we won't agree on this, but I seek no disrespect to the Spirit or to Petrine authority when I point out the obvious: doctrinal and institutional drift is liable to occur over the centuries.

From the Catholic point of view, your very claim is itself the result of "doctrinal drift", for it has lost sight of the doctrine of the indefectibility of the Church.

I think it humility, rather than arrogance, to suggest that God can use his Word to call his bride back to the straighter path.

Of course. Catholics do not disagree that the Word of God can call His Bride to straighter paths. But whose interpretation of Scripture is authoritative? That is, whose determination of "straight" is authoritative? Protestants tend not to consider that question.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jim said...

Bryan,

Perhaps I've mistaken your argument, then. I'm assuming that your comments here are consistent with your earlier comments on this blog, as well as with the comments on your on blog, where I've been taking you to argue that unless one unquestionably receives the teachings of an inerrant magisterium (found in the Catholic church), then one necessary falls into the "individualism" that you sketch in your comment above. I.e., it's all "according to my judgment" and "in my own eyes" and "my own interpretation."

Perhaps I've misunderstood, and you've always granted that Protestants can hold a coherent doctrine of church authority that does not entail individualism.

If so, very good, and I stand corrected.

I'd always taken what I "thought" was your claim as analogous to this: "Unless soldiers obey unquestioningly to everything their immediate superiors command them to do, then all those soldiers are doing is following their own individual judgments, and anarchy will reign."

Since, obviously, soldiers never have a duty unquestioningly to obey whatever their superiors command them, and yet the military is not reduced to individualistic anarchy, then your claim seemed to present a false dichotomy limited to absolute obedience and absolute individualism.

Thos said...

The military analogy seems as helpful as one should hope analogies to be. Perhaps it's more helpful to me since I'm in the military.

But one must remember that there is an essential distinction to be made between the Catholic claim, and the nature of our military scheme of discipline. We do not claim that, upon commissioning and officer, he is given the grace of infallibility when issuing official orders. If we were able to make that claim, I have no doubt that the foot soldier would be allowed and obligated to disobey an order he determines to be a violation of the law of war.

So there it is, it seems: remove the charism of infallibility, and Catholic obedience is necessarily subject to individual determination of the Church's doctrines being in conformity to the Law of God.

And at that, the military obligation to comply only with lawful commands gives extreme deference to the chain of command. Perhaps you would both agree that the vast majority of American Protestants would, in the military analogy, look like Privates picking new Battalions and Companies based on the mission their old or new unit was about to engage in, and switching platoon and squad leaders on a whim. I think Jim to say that, be that as it may, there are some Protestants (e.g., some Lutherans) who stay faithful to the Battalion Commander under whom they've been submitted, and will only disobey his commands when he is in clear violation of the Law of War.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Jim said...

Right. A couple of points.

First, I wouldn't at all argue that lots of Protestants embrace this view of submission. But I do believe it represents the way the magisterial reformers treated ecclesiastical authority. To the extent that Bryan suggests in his first comment on this post that "Luther's influence" is that people follow their "own judgment" and their "own interpretation" is incorrect if my characterization of the way the magisterial reformers treated "authority" is correct.

Perhaps Bryan's understanding of "individualism" accurately captures the postulates of the radical reformers, but their ecclesiastical theology was not Luther's (or Calvin's, as far as I know).

I would also be careful about arguing from wide-spread Protestant practice (which I grant) to Protestant theology. After all, one hears much these days about "cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose, yet I do not deduce from that that official Catholic theology regarding the magisterium has changed. So, too, that we have cafeteria Protestants no more implicates the affirmations of official Lutheran or Reformed theology.

Finally, I took Bryan's argument to be an argument for why one must believe in a magesterium. So that's the conclusion of his argument, as I understand it -- if you reject individualism, then you must accept an infallible magesterium as a logical necessity.

So you then can't go and say, "Well, these other examples of authority do not claim to be infallible, so the examples do not speak to my argument," when it's infallibile authority that you're trying to establish. The argument for a magesterium becomes circular if that objection is allowed.

I'll sign off with this thought that just occurred to me: could someone use something similar to Bryan's argument to establish the necessity of affirming the "Divine right of kings." Something like, "Unless you accept the infallibility of government action, then we're all thrown onto our individual consciences and anarchy results."

I'll have to take a look at the proponents of the theory, and see whether they advanced a "reductio" argument similar to Bryan's.

As usual, thanks for the interaction. I'll avoid commenting on this post again, to avoid becoming (more) tedious.

Principium unitatis said...

Jim,

...where I've been taking you to argue that unless one unquestionably receives the teachings of an inerrant magisterium (found in the Catholic church), then one necessary falls into the "individualism" that you sketch in your comment above. I.e., it's all "according to my judgment" and "in my own eyes" and "my own interpretation."

Then you have been misunderstanding my position, which has nothing to do with *how* [i.e. "unquestioningly"] one receives teachings, but rather with the locus of ecclesial authority. My argument is available here.

Perhaps I've misunderstood, and you've always granted that Protestants can hold a coherent doctrine of church authority that does not entail individualism.

I never claimed that their position can't be coherent. But I have argued that it cannot avoid individualism.

I'd always taken what I "thought" was your claim as analogous to this: "Unless soldiers obey unquestioningly to everything their immediate superiors command them to do, then all those soldiers are doing is following their own individual judgments, and anarchy will reign."

Nope. That's not what I've been saying.

Since, obviously, soldiers never have a duty unquestioningly to obey whatever their superiors command them, and yet the military is not reduced to individualistic anarchy, then your claim seemed to present a false dichotomy limited to absolute obedience and absolute individualism.

I completely agree. Fortunately (for me) I didn't present such a false dilemma. :-)

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan