Friday, July 20, 2012

Thomas Hobbes as Theologian: Part I

Recently I've reading Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan along with a number of other political philosophers.  Hobbes' treatment of the political is particularly interesting because it is intertwined with their discussions of the Bible.  To modern readers, the two subjects don't seem to have a lot in common.  In other words, why would you write a treatise that is simultaneously a critique of the authority and reliability of Scripture, and also about how you construct a social contract?  Reading some of the secondary literature, it never seems to occur to modern interpreters that the reason is that Hobbes is constructing in his political theory as an alternative theology to historic Christian orthodoxy.  The one person who seemed to get this was Carl Schmitt, who famously suggested that modern politics is simply a covert secularized theology.

The most interesting thing about Leviathan is how much time Hobbes spends talking about religion- that is, nearly half the book.  He also constructs an elaborate ontology and epistemology at the beginning of the book in order to put what he says in perspective.

At the heart of the Hobbes' theology is a veiled argument for the old Ancient Near Eastern idea of the Chaoschampf.  For those unfamiliar, the Chaoschampf was the standard narrative of origins in the ANE- though it also appears in Hesiod, who was influenced by similar sources in the Greek context.  The basic idea of the myth is that the origin of creation is chaos.  Such chaos is usually overcome by a god of order defeating a chaos monster and then organizing the universe.  One can see how different this is from Genesis 1-3, where the primal order is one of mutuality and grace (not force!) and where creation is not rooted in chaos, but in God's Word of grace.  Creation comes about not by the application of superior force, but by the gift of God's fiat.

Hobbes gives some credit to the idea of God, but generally states that God cannot be directly known.  Many interpreters have thought that he is secretly an atheist, though for various reasons I disagree.  That being said, Hobbes does make God almost completely irrelevant to his worldview.  Creation itself is mechanical.  This goes with a belief in atomism, which Hobbes took over from Epicureanism.  There are atoms, and atoms move in patterns that the autonomous laws of motion push them.  This results in the order of reality.  This again is the Epicurean idea that reality is constituted by atoms, motion, and the void.  Although Hobbes is slightly more convinced than Epicurus that the atoms move according to uniform laws of nature, he nevertheless believes that what is at the very heart of reality is chaos.  The atoms are necessarily fragmentary and chaotic.  They lack meaning or direction, unless pressed upon by a superior force, such as the laws of motion.

In the same manner, since human beings are nothing but living machines and as products of chaos, they are themselves chaotic.  There is no suggestion in Hobbes' vision of an original harmony descending into chaos.  Rather, Chaos is what is most primal and order only comes about by superior force.  So too, human beings in a mythical "state of nature" are naturally violent and competitive.  Again, it must again be stated that there is no suggestion here on Hobbes' part that there has been a Fall and that the primal order is one of grace and peace, with sin only entering later.  Rather humans are chaotic and violent, just as their bits and pieces are forged from are the chaotic stuff of the universe.

The solution to this problem of violence and chaos is the creation of the social contract.  Hobbes uses the term "covenant", which of course carries with a many biblical resonances.  Nevertheless, the covenant here is not with the biblical God, but between each atomistic individual in society with every other.  Humans agree with one another to create order out of chaos by contracting to obey the sovereign, that is, the state (whatever form that may take.  Hobbes says monarchy is best, but it doesn't necessarily have to be monarchy).  The sovereign is responsible for bringing order to the chaos of the social order.  The sovereign must be obeyed, since the alternative is the state of nature (the "war of all against all").  Almost any amount of oppression is better than the state of nature.

What I find interesting is how the sovereign for Hobbes here essentially plays the role of the god of order in the ANE creation myth.  He is the one who subdues chaos and brings about order through his use of violence and superior force.  Hobbes (though probably unaware of this similarity) states that the sovereign is a "mortal god."  It gets even better.  In the ANE, the king of the nation would often times participate in a yearly festival where he played the role of the deity of cosmic order subduing chaos.  In Babylon, for example, the king would play the role of Marduk.  Therefore, just as creation had been forged out of chaos by Marduk's victory over Tiamat, so the Babylonian social order and its empire were forge out of the application of superior force to its subdued peoples. 

Conceived in this manner, the theoretical basis for the modern secular state and secular society are actually the same as the ancient chaos myth.  Secularity is therefore not really "secular" (as the term is conventionally used) but thorough theological.  Actually, it's theological in a manner that is antithetical to the Christian understanding of God and creation.  

The Chaoschapf is ultimately a manifestation of the opinio legis.  It assumes that the realities of the present age are limitlessly recycled and reshaped by the pressure of superior force.  So too, the sinner may justify themselves with superior applications of the law.  The opinio legis does not recognize that God possesses infinite possibilities outside the law and therefore can, by an act of fiat bring about a new creation.  The law cannot create anything, it merely can apply larger and larger amounts of pressure to reshape reality.  It can subdue by death, but it cannot ultimately give life.  Creatio ex nillio goes hand-in-hand with the gospel, because it means that just as God unilaterally spoke creation into existence by his grace, so too in can again redemptively bring about a new creation through his omnipotent Word of the gospel and thereby fulfilling and transcend the limitations of the law..

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Law, Gospel, and the Liberal Tradition of Political Thought.

Some recent comments from a friend of mine on our current political situation in the west.  Makes a lot of sense I think:

The Anglo-american conception of liberty was a really good thing while
it lasted (in either country). Thing is, it doesn't just last under
its own momentum. Particular conditions and institutions are required
to sustain it, just as it didn't grow out of nothing. This means that
it requires quite a lot of work to maintain, work that not enough
people have been doing. Theologically, I could offer some reasons for
this--I have a theory that, while this conception of liberty does not
rest on any particular theological foundation in the sense of a noetic
or belief structure, it does rest on a kind of historical theological
foundation which lies hidden within other beliefs, but gets gradually
eroded. So it doesn't matter whether the politicians are atheists or
Mormons or whatever, but it does matter that certain theological
concepts are still embedded fairly deep in the tradition, that they
leave a trace. Particularly, I think some rudimentary distinction
between the law and the gospel is actually in play--that is, a sense,
however vague, that the law itself has a limit. Without that notion,
it's very hard to see why we wouldn't become ultimately perfectionist,
even messianic, about the law, and completely ruin any brake on
government power. Hence the tradition of "negative" liberty--it
knows, without quite being able to articulate it, that the law can
only provide so much.

What seems to have happened is this has eroded (or has been actively
eroded by certain intellectual efforts--particularly Marxism and other
Hegelian strands of mostly the left, but also even a triumphalistic
nationalism that was already in evidence among some of the founding
fathers) enough to where politics in this country really is mainly
messianic, where we expect a new government to generate all the law
(and so more or less perfect justice), to generate rights themselves,
and for this law to ensure all things. Obama gets a pass from so many
because he's still pretending this is doable, whereas Romney doesn't
seem to have that ambition, and so people can only interpret his
strange reticence as disinterest in helping them.

So no, nobody can "fix" it. People who claim to be able to already
have misunderstood the problem. The politicians are an expression of
what's happened among the people, not simply a cause.

Incidentally, this is why I appreciate David Brooks so much, even
though he's a muddled squish on the partisan, hand-to-hand politics
part of the problem. He gets that there's something much more
fundamental going on, and it has to do with anthropology. As a
secularized Jew, he doesn't quite get that at the root of it all is
the notion of the end of the law--the absolute horizon of all legal
thinking, the rupture of the ages that keeps our politics from
aspiring to eschatology--but he does know that the finitude and
sinfulness of the human being are at issue.

Who you vote for isn't really the issue, because people don't agree
anymore on what politics is for in the first place. Is it for
regulating human life and restraining evil, or for transcending human
life and generating the good?

So, of course many feel like their on the wrong side of history.
First, that's what the opposition wants you to think, because they've
claimed "history" as the ground on which they're building their
kingdom. Good luck with that. But second, in another way, you really
are on the wrong side of history, because you know very well that in
this age, nobody really wins.