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.


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    1. I wonder if some subconscious understanding of this (that law is limited) is why Jefferson thought we should have a Revolution every 20 years. It seems the only way to truly limit government is to reboot it every now and again. Thereby, reminding everyone of limit of the law. Too bad most people in politics no longer desire limited government on either side of the aisle.

  2. Original Sin is both the reason we need government and the reason we need to limit it.