Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Political theology

As noted by many, the legacy of John Rawls has grown into a full-blown academic industry, employing thousands of aspiring philosophers and sparking florid debates on everything from global justice to the intersection of religion, theology and democracy.

Last year, Eric Gregory published a paper in the Journal of Religious Ethics (35:179-206) which I for some time have been thinking about mentioning here on Rawls & Me. The paper examines Rawls’s senior thesis, written in 1942 at Princeton, just before he set off to the war in the Pacific. It says a great deal about Rawls’s extraordinary academic standing that this thesis, spanning a massive 169 pages, is about to be published with Harvard University Press and that buffs like myself have already pre-ordered it with Amazon.

Browsing my own master thesis the other day, I felt a tickling sensation of embarrassment. One may indeed ask if Rawls himself would have liked to have hosts of scholars digging through his undergraduate work? As Gregory puts it:

“even the best undergraduate writing can be marked by sweeping generalizations, potted histories, citations of canonical figures taken out of context, assertions that masquerade as arguments, and breathless musings of adolescent enthusiasm”

That being said, the passages quoted by Gregory (I have still to read the full thesis) all point towards a more personal, existential stream which is virtually absent in his later writings. According to the standard biography, the events of the Second World War led Rawls to denounce his earlier religious faith. And though other biographical fragments make the cut less clear it is indisputable that the Rawls we meet in A Theory of Justice is rather remote from the one attending divinity seminars at Princeton.

I must confess that parts of the article by Gregory bit rather deep. Lacking a working everyday language of faith, much of my own theological reasoning has been on a philosophical level, taking me dangerously close to what Rawls describes as the basic form of sin, the act of turning “a personal relation into a natural relation”, in this case to think of God as an object. The opposite risk is of course that we surrender to interminable agnosticism by completely evacuating our moral-philosophical language of its transcendental categories. Fearing that it takes someone of a higher intellect to steer clear of these fallacies, one is tempted to give up on the task of political theology all together. The problem is, that if we do that, we deprive ourselves of our true motives as we have to resort to the tedious task of constantly inventing public reasons for our actions, all distorting our original intentions.



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