Wednesday 19 March 2014

Liberalism in spite of Christianity

The idea that 'Western' ethical values and beliefs draw from and continue to depend upon a shared Christian heritage is widely held, and has even been seriously advanced by such notable non-religious philosophers as Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas. Certainly Christian moral theology has left us some valuable ideas and intuitions (and some bad ones) but the Christian origins thesis neglects an essential part of the history: liberalism's birth in the Enlightenment required overcoming the core moral, epistemological and political axioms of Christianity.

If Christianity seems relatively friendly to liberal values nowadays, particularly in juxtaposition with Islam, that is the result not of a deep underlying affinity but of Christianity's intellectual defeat by Enlightenment philosophers followed by its political taming by pragmatic statesmen [previously]. In light of this we should be sceptical of Western chauvinism about liberalism, for example in the Muslim world, for the history of liberalism shows not that only Christian cultures can adopt liberal values, but that even Christian cultures can.

The history of the struggle between philosophy and Christianity

This essay is particularly inspired by Winfried Schröder's 2014 Erasmus Lecture at Erasmus University entitled, Philosophy - Christianity - Occidental Identity (Update: the full text can be found here). The lecture set out to test the thesis that the contemporary Western identity associated with liberal values such as human rights, democracy, equality, and so forth depends on an entanglement of philosophical rationality and Christian theology. (What follows is not a literal account of Schröder's lecture, but one filtered through my understanding and adapted for a general audience.)

To start with, Schröder noted that it is difficult to pin down what the Christian origins thesis actually claims: which aspects of Christianity's capacious moral theology are supposed to be so important for contemporary liberalism? After all, with so much to choose from, one is bound to find some bits and pieces of Christian stuff, like 'dignity', that can be repurposed for liberal concerns. That is a test the Christian origins thesis cannot fail. Then again, the rich ecosystem of Christian moral theology contains many ideas and principles that aren't particularly original to Christianity, including the results of its systematic plagiarism (and ritual denunciation) of Judaism. For example, the famous Golden Rule is found in nearly every ethical and religious tradition and was widely known in the Greco-Roman world. Surely Christianity shouldn't get credit for other people's work, or what was already common sense.

Testing the Christian origins thesis would seem to require first determining the intellectual core of Christianity. That is very difficult to do from the present, given the variety of divergent accounts of what Christianity means espoused by present day Christian theologians and philosophers of religion; and especially given the dominance of revisionist 'liberal' accounts whose anachronism rather short-circuits the exercise. As a historian of philosophy - unlike most proponents of the Christian origins thesis - Schröder took a different approach. He looked at the written debates between the early Christian theologians and anti-Christian Roman philosophers (Celsus, Porphyry and the Emperor Julian). The fragments of the pagan philosophers' books that survived the censorship that came with Christian hegemony serve to identify the aspects of the new religion of Christianity that Roman intellectuals found most novel and problematic. At the same time the strenuous defenses of those very points by contemporary Christian theologians show that the philosophers were not attacking straw men: these were indeed important to how Christianity originally understood itself. 

The three axioms identified by Schröder as the core of what made Christianity original and radical are:

1. Morality: 'Grace' rather than behaviour determines whether you are a good person or not.

2. Epistemology: Belief in God is an act of will for which you are morally accountable, i.e. 'Faith' or self-chosen obedience.

3. Political: Intolerance by the state of those who choose not to believe in God, i.e. heretics, apostates, and schismatics.

The pagan philosophers criticised Christian morality for undermining moral autonomy by replacing deeds with mere words. Instead of individuals striving to earn moral righteousness by their behaviour, moral righteousness was now available only as a gift from God and only to those who spoke the right words. The philosophers also criticised the idea that belief in God is an act of free will (the technical term for this is strong doxastic voluntarism) as eminently absurd: how can anyone choose what they believe? Furthermore, the emphasis on free will with regard to belief was a clear attack on intellectual autonomy, since it replaced the importance of one's own understanding and judgement of the evidence and arguments with a moral obligation to submit to the 'correct' conclusions. And of course these cosmopolitan Romans criticised the result of the combination of these axioms: intolerance of non-believers.

Note on this last that even the 'Christian ethic of love' which so impresses Habermas and some others does not have the affinity with liberalism it might seem. The Church Father Augustine, among others, argued explicitly that using the power of the state to terrorise heretics and apostates into making the right decision was an act of love, not evil, to save them from everlasting damnation:
When, however, wholesome instruction is added to means of inspiring salutary fear, so that not only the light of truth may dispel the darkness of error, but the force of fear may at the same time break the bonds of evil custom, we are made glad, as I have said, by the salvation of many, who with us bless God, and render thanks to Him, because by the fulfilment of His covenant, in which He promised that the kings of the earth should serve Christ, He has thus cured the diseased and restored health to the weak....Whatever therefore the true and rightful Mother does, even when something severe and bitter is felt by her children at her hands, she is not rendering evil for evil, but is applying the benefit of discipline to counteract the evil of sin, not with the hatred which seeks to harm, but with the love which seeks to heal.(Letter 93, c. 408 CE)
The original pagan philosophers lost the political battle against the Christians and their books were destroyed (though not completely successfully). But the early modern philosophers of the Enlightenment also zeroed in on those same core features of Christianity, as John Locke for example did in his Letter Concerning Toleration, which employed the failure of Christian epistemology (free will about belief) to justify political toleration of at least some mistaken beliefs about God. And on that occasion the philosophers were eventually successful in overcoming Christian orthodoxy, thanks in large part to the reformation which fractured and distracted the Church's political power. Indeed their legacy has succeeded to such an extent in reforming Christianity along liberal lines that the assembly of all three axioms is now associated with fringe 'fundamentalist' groups. It was the philosophers who founded liberalism, and they succeeded rather in spite of Christian doctrine than because of it.

An end to Western Chauvinism?

I enjoyed Schröder's lecture for its original and plausible approach to the Christian origins thesis, which certainly seemed in need of critical scrutiny by a real historian of ideas. But I also think it has some interesting implications for the status of Christianity and religion generally. Let me pick up just one of these, the idea that Western civilisation is irretrievably linked to its Christian heritage, and that other civilisations are likewise linked to their own religious histories.

The modern instantiation of this idea in Samuel Huntington's clash of civilisations thesis echoes earlier uses. It was an important component of the civilisational supremacy thesis that was needed to justify and explain the global hegemony of Western Europe from 1500, and especially after 1800. European intellectuals understandably wanted to avoid the conclusion that their countries' imperial successes simply followed from their good luck in possessing more advanced technology, especially guns and ships, and the organisational power of modern states. So they tried to answer the question 'why us?' in terms of the objective moral superiority of European Christianity. What was most significant about this was that it sought to explain their power by reference to who they were, rather than what they had in terms of ideas and resources. For the latter implied that their imperial success was merely contingent, a matter of luck that could just as easily have occurred in another part of the world. Their sense of moral superiority also allowed them to apply different moral rules in their dealings with non-Western peoples than they felt obliged to follow with each other, which was very convenient for the dirty bloody work of empire.

Fast forward to the present. Nowadays Western countries justify their outsized power and influence over the world by reference to a different kind of moral superiority: their mastery of liberal modernity - human rights, democracy, and so forth - rather than their Christianity. But these liberal ideals are still portrayed as inseparable from the European identity and its history. This gives the misleading impression to other peoples that they can only adopt those liberal values if they erase their own cultural identity and become clones of the West. Of course that is completely implausible (though some modernising statesmen have been vigorous in attempting it, such as Nehru and Atatürk).

But if the West's embrace of liberal ideals is indeed the result of intellectually and politically overcoming Christianity then the challenge of modernity changes. Liberalism can be seen as a matter of moral and political ideas that are eminently transferable between 'civilisations'; ideas which can win legitimacy by persuasion rather than political fiat, and which can become a part of any cultural identity.

Yes it is true that liberal democracy is a complex civilisational achievement requiring the coordinated assemblage of a lot of components besides free elections, including general respect for intellectual and moral autonomy, an active civil society including a free press, the rule of law, and the principle that legitimate government requires the consent of the people. (That is why revolutions don't tend to be successful in establishing it.) But the idea that liberal democracy is forever inaccessible because its requirements appear incompatible with one's official cultural identity is false. As anyone in the West should know very well, civilisations are not fixed and are not homogeneous. The clash of civilisations hypothesis obscures the intellectual pluralism within any culture, its porosity to ideas originating from outside, and its dynamic internal debates about the way forward.

Consider the Muslim world and the disappointments of the Arab Spring and fundamentalist global terrorism which have led numerous commentators to declare that Islamic cultures, unlike Christian ones, are simply incompatible with liberal modernity. Indeed, as a religion Islam is routinely criticised  in the same terms as early Christianity (not so surprising given its similar orientation as a monotheistic conversion religion and its theological overlaps). Islam is claimed to undermine the moral and intellectual autonomy of its adherents and lead naturally to the political intolerance of non-believers, a bundle of axioms that preclude liberalism. Yet even if that is as true of the core doctrine of Islam as it is of Christianity, that says nothing about Muslims' ability to take up liberal ideas. The West is obsessed with the fundamentalist form of Islam associated with those axioms, despite the fact that it is held by only a small fraction of the world's Muslims, a group that has resorted to violence precisely because it is losing the internal intellectual and political debates to liberal ideas. The lesson of history is not that adopting liberal values requires having the gift of Christian moral theology, but that if even Christian Europe could come to embrace liberalism as part of its identity, anyone can.

Winfried Schröder has kindly given me permission to share the full text of his Erasmus Lecture.