Saturday, August 11, 2012

Thomas Hobbes as Theologian: Part II, Materialism and the Social Authority of Religion

The prolegomena of Leviathan begins by a lengthy materialist account of metaphysic, epistemology, and human nature.  Much like his confidant Gassendi, Hobbes holds that everything in reality is made up of atoms which follow strict laws of motion.  Humans, therefore are nothing by material machines.  Nature is mechanistic and works on the basis of immutable laws.  Moreover, contrary to Aristotle's view that the intellectual act of comprehension means the active intellect's identification of the inner formal reality of a thing, Hobbes insists that material from an object effective "pushes" against the sense and therefore causes the act of comprehension (this is why he is a strict empiricist!).  As one might expect, this leads inexorably to a re-narration of the Bible and its miracles on the basis of materialism.  In effect, Hobbes claims that miracles don't happen, and that when people are said to have been inspired by God's Spirit, it merely means that they were smart guys and had some good ideas that all reasonable human beings could have arrived at.

But, again, what's the point?  Isn't this supposed to be a book about government?  Why are we talking about theology, and or metaphysic still?  The answer is fairly simple.  As I noted in my earlier post, the emergence of the theory of the modern nation-state as an autonomous entity with no religious background is actually theological in and of itself.  The point of promoting a materialist metaphysic is that it creates a situation where all causes are causes that can be controlled by the state.  In other words, since material objects are tangible, they can be moved by asserting a certain level of force.  The state can do this.  If God intervenes in creation, and therefore gives authority to certain individual to do certain things, then there are social forces that cannot be controlled by the state.  The state in this case lacks absolute authority.

This puts what we call "Liberal" and "Conservative" Christianity in a new light.  Liberals are not those who have woken up and realized that modernity has give us a knockout argument (secularists don't even believe this anymore).  Rather one is a Liberal vs. Conservative (or better "Orthodox"!) to the extent that one accepts the modernist settlement- i.e., a private realm of value vs. a public realm of fact and material cause.  Liberals, irrespective of the evidence, have little desire for the Bible to be literally true.  In fact, without any Biblical archaeology they were basically making the same arguments back in the 17th and 18th centuries that they are now.  Rather, the question is about the social authority of religion.  If I believe that the patriarchs, prophets and apostles all existed, and did miracles in real historical time, then I am saying that there are real metaphysical causes that are non-material and therefore which the state and secularity cannot control.  Religion therefore has a social authority which cannot be subordinated to the state and secular societies values.  Religious Liberals want to say that religion is about subjective values or inner experiences- the external realm is fully governed by the state, social values, and material causes.  Consequently, in the public, external realm, these values when understood correctly cannot interfere with the absolute authority of the state or personal self-interest.  This can be observed in our present situation.  In America, the more historically true you consider the Bible to be, the more likely you are to think that its teaching should at least in part become public policy.

On a side  note, this put the whole Seminex debate into new perspective.  What's gospel-reductionism all about?  If one eliminates both the binding character of the law and the actual historical reality of Scripture from the realm of theological authority (i.e., talk about real stuff that happened in the real world or (with regard to the law) real stuff you should do, in the real world) what do you get?  Well, everything is reduced to the gospel, which without real history to anchor it, turns into an existential and interior experience of forgiveness.  Is it therefore any surprise that these same folks 30 or 40 years later are the ones who drove the ELCA to mimic secular values in its national assembly and bureaucracy?  Not really.

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