“No Man Can Serve Two Masters”: Church and Academy in Tension

So, the Church needs theology.  We’re all agreed on that, hopefully.  And as I argued in the last post, that means not merely listening to its own inchoate voice, but seeking to let that voice be clarified by careful interrogation from theology as a discipline.  We’d go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we relied on nothing but experts, but we’d also go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we tried to get by without experts.  (Needless to say, “experts” here should not be taken to signify “those who have all the answers,” but merely “those who have learned (or at any rate begun to learn) how to frame the questions.”) 

Having defended the role of theology as a discipline, I will now offer a few thoughts on the deep problems currently afflicting the relationship between this discipline and the Church it is called to serve. 

First, I think that pausing to meditate on this word “discipline” can help us think more clearly about what we’re talking about.  Of course, the term carries academic connotations—we speak of an “academic discipline” of sociology, or applied chemistry, or English literature, or whatever.  And so one might think that when I speak of “theology as a discipline” I’m referring to “theology as an academic department,” theology as part of the university, perhaps with seminaries thought of as sort of hangers-on that can also basically claim to be part of the academy.  But of course, “discipline,” fundamentally, means “training to act in accordance with rules” or “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training” (to borrow from dictionary.com).  To say that we need theology as a “discipline” is to say that we need theology as a disciplined regimen of reflection, a trained skill of thinking.  That, of course, does not require institutional embodiment, and certainly not in the “academy” (whatever exactly that is), or the university.  


As a discipline, the task of theology represents a distinct (though not necessarily separate) calling from that of pastoral ministry and preaching.  We might be prone to wonder whether (as someone commented on the previous post) our problem started when we began to think that one could be a theologian without being a pastor, and perhaps that was the fault of the university.  After all, all the great early Church Fathers were churchmen—bishops, usually—occupied day in and day out with teaching, preaching, correcting, baptizing, and administration.  (Of course, even this generalization is too broad—think of Jerome.)  But the origin of the theologian-as-such did not come as the product of the universities, since the universities took over the task of theology by and large from the monasteries, which were the institutional context within which the discipline of theology was by and large nourished from the 6th century through the 13th.  Of course, the monastery was not necessarily detached from “church life”—from preaching and pastoral ministry.  There was a great deal of overlap and cross-pollination.  And certainly, the monasteries were a thoroughly liturgical context.  Nonetheless, it was possible to devote one’s life to study of the Scriptures and reflection upon God, without devoting one’s life to active Christian ministry. 

Of course, there are doubtless problems that can arise from this disjunction, but we would be foolish to deny that there are also benefits.  Clearly, when we think about the most important qualities in a good pastor or even a good preacher, rigor of theological reflection is probably not the highest.  Love, compassion, confidence, ability to communicate, perhaps authority—these are all essential qualities, and these are qualities that many a would-be-theologian does not have.  If we required, then, that all our theologians also be, or at the very least, first be, pastors, then we would be inflicting an awful lot of atrocious pastors on the Church.  But of course, many Christians who lack a superabundance of these relational gifts may possess intellectual gifts, or skill in written communication, as well as a passion to uncover the the depths of God’s truth and put it to the service of the Church.   They may be eminently qualified, in short, for the discipline of theology, and we would be unfairly depriving the Church if we insisted that none of these could engage in that discipline unless they were ordained ministers.  And of course, even for those gifted in both, there is the question of time; both tasks are enormously demanding, and there are few who can carry out both with consistent success.  Thus, we should speak of two distinct vocations (though of course it is quite possible that both may coincide in one person): the vocation of the theologian and the vocation of the minister. 

However, these are not simply two parallel occupations; there is a teleological relation.  The theologian is oriented to the service of the minister in a way that the minister is not to the theologian, because the task of theology is fundamentally to serve and build up the Church.  If philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, then theology is the handmaiden of ministry.  Of course, the minister is to serve every member of his flock and support them in all their lawful calllings, so to this extent he is to serve the theologian as well—but contingently.  The essence of the theologian’s task is to build up the Church, and therefore to help equip the minister (though of course also laypeople) in his task.  And this is where the question of institutional arrangement becomes pressing.  


In today’s world, the theologian occupies an odd position; he has a conflict of interest.  Whereas the carpenter’s task is to serve the architect, and so he relies on the architect for his paycheck, and the architect’s task is to serve the person who wants a new office building, and so he relies on this person for his paycheck, the theologian rarely makes his living off of the Church that he is called to serve.  He works in service of the Church, but he depends on “the academy” for his paycheck.  Whenever such a disjunction happens, it usually spells trouble (consider the current crisis of the healthcare industry, in which the doctor’s task is to serve the patient, but he relies on the insurance companies (or in most countries, the government) for his pay check).  We might think that this is only really a problem if people are being greedy, but this is not the case.  The theologian is rarely trying to get rich; he is just trying to make a living.  But to make a living, he has to please his employer, and his employer, therefore, will in large part set the agenda for what he does.  He may earnestly wish to serve the Church, and yet he has limited time and resources, so he can hardly let the Church set the agenda for his work if the academy is also doing so.  

Of course, “the academy” is a vague bogeyman if there ever was one, but perhaps we all have enough of an idea of what I mean for the following contrast to make some sense.  A theologian in service of the Church will be attentive to the needs of the church of which he finds himself a part, or the churches with which he finds himself connected.  He will ask what their urgent questions are, what serious confusions hamper their grasp of the Gospel and their witness to the world, what errors threaten their faith.  And then he will set himself the task of teaching and writing to answer these questions, clarify these matters of confusion, refute these errors.  He will teach and write in such a way, not necessarily so as to be understood by each and every churchgoer (indeed, how could that be possible), but at least in such a way that his contributions may be mediated to the church as a whole by its leaders and its most thoughtful and engaged members.  He will, moreover, seek to spend enough time immersed in its life and its discussions that he may not only clearly know the questions of its members, but also learn from their own insights and experiences.  How will the theologian engaged in this task fare in the academy?  He may succeed well—many have—but the minefield through which he has to navigate is not one through which the route to success is clear.   

As his paymaster, the academy will expect the theologian to demonstrate his ability to fruitfully engage with the vexing questions that preoccupy the academic discipline, his ability to contribute some new knowledge to their discussion.  The academy will not necessarily think much of his interest in the petty and naive questions that trouble ordinary churchgoers, it will not necessarily think much of his determination to draw on and preserve ancient wisdom, his reticence to say anything novel, or his engagement with un-respectable and unsophisticated interlocutors.  It will expect him to engage with academic secondary literature instead, and the more he is engaging with sources that the ordinary congregant would never so much have heard of, the better.  It will expect him to bring out some new and innovative opinion, rather than simply saying “to the law and to the testimony!”  It will expect him to invest his time in engaging and debating the most prestigious, sophisticated, and up-to-date scholars, not some podunk seminarian.  Attempts to ward off errors facing the church, if these errors lack academic respectability, will be seen as a waste of time.  He will be expected to spend his time attending conferences, reading articles, and writing articles, not chatting with pastors and parishioners, or attending Bible studies.  

The young theologian will find himself particularly lost in this minefield.  An established theologian, one who has secured his living and his reputation, has earned for himself a certain leisure devote himself to issues that are of concern to the Church, not merely the academy; perhaps even more importantly, he will be more able to see the whole big picture, and so to see how questions raised within ordinary congregations relate to questions that matter at the highest levels of academic reflection as well; he will find issues on which he can engage on both levels at once.  For the young theologian, however, who has not yet climbed high enough to see the whole lay of the land, this kind of perspective is difficult.  He must, it often seems, choose which set of questions he will address, and which audience he will address, and he only has the time and resources to address one; after all, he’d rather get through grad school sooner rather than later.  Financially threadbare and without an established reputation, he cannot risk investing time or resources in projects that will not help him climb the academic ladder.  He must consent, only temporarily he hopes, to set aside his larger dreams of serving the Church, and simply do his time in the discipline, closeting himself away in academic journals and academic conferences.  He looks for points of intersection, to be sure, but they are often hard to find, and his imagination is perhaps stultified by the narrow walls of the specialized sub-discipline within which he must work.

Once he has completed this regimen of training, although he may at last now have more leisure to return to the concerns that originally motivated his study of theology, he may find that the passion has been smothered, that he has become so habituated into this way of life that he has by now forgotten how to do theology in service to the Church.  He no longer can speak the language of ordinary Christians; even ministers seem hopelessly naive and provincial.  Engagement no longer seems even possible, much less profitable, and so his paymaster—the academy—wins in the end, and he devotes his life to its service.


This is a bleak tale, to be sure, and I do not pretend to say that this is a universal experience, or that the chasm between church and academy is yet so unbridgeable as this implies.  So much great work is still being done on the intersection between the two, and new ways of bridging them are being thought up all the time by Christian scholars and churchmen.  But we would be foolish not to recognize that we are in a predicament, if not perhaps quite yet a crisis, and some serious thinking by those on both sides of this divide is called for.

In a third post, I hope to at last move around to some possible solutions to this predicament.

“Listening to the Marginalized”? The Role of Theology in the Church Today

On Saturday, New College hosted a conference entitled, provocatively, “Does the Church Need Theology?  Addressing the Gap Between Professor, Pulpit, and Pew,” which I had the privilege of helping organize.  The conference was a great success—well-attended by a wide range of constituencies, with enthusiastic dialogue from all, and a hunger at the end for further discussion in future conferences.  Best of all, most everyone present seemed to agree with the premise that we need more theology, not less, in our churches—which is a premise one can hardly count on in these postmodern times.  

In the opening talk, Paul Nimmo advanced the claim that theology, as “talk about God,” is something that everyone who is a Christian does unavoidably, even if inarticulately, and is thus not merely the proper province of the learned.  The subsequent speakers amplified this emphasis and it was presupposed in much of the group discussion, which focused on how we might render clearer and more articulate the latent, largely unvoiced theology in the congregations.

As a Protestant, I of course cannot but hail this emphasis, for the priesthood of all believers might be just as well stated as the preacher-hood of all believers, or even the professor-hood of all believers.  Reflection upon revelation is not the exclusive preserve of an enlightened or authorized elite, but arises spontaneously by the illumination of the Spirit in every heart that feeds in faith upon the Word of God.  Nonetheless, it is perhaps needful in these democratic days to disentangle this wonderful Protestant doctrine from some of its more bastard descendants.  For Paul Nimmo was equally insistent in his claim that there remained a discipline of focused and regulated reflection to which some Christians were called as a vocation, a theological vocation that had as its task the guidance and, when necessary, the correction, of the whole Church.  Of course, this discipline remains itself always open to correction by the whole Church and by the Word, bound to be forever listening to the voice of Christ and the voices of His members.  Needless to say, this latter claim failed to generate as much enthusiasm, though it was more underemphasized than openly repudiated. 

As someone training for this theological vocation, I cannot but be conscious of the awkwardness of speaking up in its defence.  Perhaps due humility would dictate that I should simply take to heart the admonitions of yesterday, and leave others to offer an apologetic for the theologian, if one needs to be given.  I shall not take this humblest of courses, but I am at least sufficiently cognizant of my bias that I offer these thoughts more in the manner of musings than of an apologetic.  

Some present at the discussion seemed to be operating on the basis of an unvoiced syllogism: “theology” is something that every Christian does and is called to do, thus the “theologian” does nothing unique, and therefore, we need not bother to listen to theologians, but should instead focus merely on empowering the theologian within each one of us.  Perhaps no one quite said it that way, but many remarks inclined in this direction, and only a deaf man could be unaware that the spirit of this syllogism suffuses much of the contemporary church, both liberal and conservative.  But the “syllogism,” if indeed syllogism it is meant to be, is one hardly worthy of the name.  We might with equal plausibility assert that since each one of us, every day, is called upon to make judgments about human behavior, determining motives, discerning patterns, and predicting future behaviours, that each of us is a psychologist, a sociologist, and an anthropologist, and therefore we have no need of the disciplines of psychology, sociology, or anthropology.  Of course, perhaps I have chosen my analogy poorly, since more than a few of us (myself included) are likely to feel at times that a world without psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists might be a nice world indeed.  

So let’s try the analogy of science.  All of us inevitably “do science.”  We all interact with the physical world around us, analyze what we see, observe patterns, form generalizations.  When I notice that certain shifts in wind and certain cloud formations are likely to presage a thunderstorm, I am doing primitive meteorology.  When I determine that olive oil and vinegar will tend to separate, and need additional ingredients, well-mixed, to form a stable dressing, I am doing primitive chemistry.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Of course, no one would deduce by this ubiquity of scientific engagement with the world that the vocation of dedicated scientists was pointless.  Indeed, we can extend this analogy further.  People puzzle over how the highly specialized reflections of trained theologians could become in any way useful for the everyday life of the ordinary Christian.  But the specialized reflections of trained scientists are if anything still more abstruse and bewildering.  Yet they are regularly brought to bear on the lives of ordinary people—usually not directly from the Chemistry department at MIT to the kitchen, but mediated through various strata—the researcher, the textbook-writer, the cookbook-writer.  The same mediation can bring knowledge from professor to pulpit to pew. Now, the analogy is far from perfect.  I think we ought to insist that everyone should be a theologian in a more actively engaged and self-conscious sense than everyone should be a scientist, and that, since theology is nourished by faith, not just reason, the gap between layman and specialist ought to be much narrower in theology than in science.  Indeed, we must also insist that, because of this primacy of faith, which the poor widow may have in far greater abundance than the tenured professor, theology as a discipline has an urgent duty to listen to, and be corrected by, the voices of ordinary people in a way that the discipline of chemistry certainly does not have.  Yet the analogy should be enough to prove that the “professor-hood of all believers” does not obviate the value of professors. 


Unsurprisingly, though, there was a more radical version of this call for “theology from below” articulated at the conference, an insistence not only that we should be getting our theology by listening to one another, but by listening to what N.T. Wright wryly refers to as “that blessed postmodern category, the ‘marginalized.'”  We were strongly exhorted by Kathy Galloway to “do theology by listening to those on the margins.”  One contributor to the group discussion even expressed an objection to one of the questions they were supposed to reflect on: “What difference would more theological reflection make for practical Christian ministry, such as serving the homeless or counselling broken families?”  She said, “Why ‘serving the homeless’ instead of ‘being with the homeless’?  Why ‘counselling broken families’ instead of ‘listening to broken families'”  Of course, these are very fair concerns.  

Perhaps we do need a kind of ‘affirmative action’ in theology, giving particular weight to the perspectives of the marginalized, precisely because they have been marginalized.  Theology has had, and continues to have, more than its fair share of imperialism, as, within each tradition, a privileged elite of established perspectives force themselves upon everyone else as “the answers.”  Merely ministering sympathetically to the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, can be a way of preserving the us/them distinction, maintaining our superiority as we condescend to give them aid, thus putting them in our debt.  So “serving the homeless” that doesn’t include a commitment to simultaneously “being with the homeless” is at best of limited value, and at worst could perpetuate the ugly patterns of inequality.  Likewise, “counselling broken families” that does not seek first to attentively, patiently, and earnestly listen to them, that seeks to merely give them answers instead of giving them a voice, can be a form of arrogance more than of love.   

Nonetheless, as much value there is in these emphases, I think we need to be careful.  For “being with the homeless” without serving them, and “listening to broken families” without counselling them is not love either.  Most people who are suffering, broken, or marginalized want help; they would rather be brought out of their pit instead of just having us jump into it with them for the sake of solidarity.  I was particularly struck by this thought when Kathy Galloway asserted that “Jesus spent his time listening to the marginalised—to tax-collectors and prostitutes—and so should we.”  Well, hang on a minute.   It is undoubtedly true that Jesus gave particular focus in his ministry to the marginalised, as liberation theologians and many others have helpfully brought to our attention.  But I can’t recall many scenes in the gospels in which Jesus sits down with a group of tax-collectors and prostitutes and says, “Now tell me what you think about the kingdom of God”; “Please, share with me your experience of God.”  Of course, he may well have done so.  Indeed, I doubt not that in the close relationships he formed with many of his disciples, Jesus took a great deal of time to listen to them and find out what they thought.  But the gospels tell us little of this.  What they seem to think most important is not that Jesus saw fit to listen to the marginalized, but that he preached to the marginalized.  Jesus brought the kingdom of God to them; he did not invite them to recognize that they already had the secret to it within themselves, if only they would give voice to it.   

To those who are lost, searching for answers, disempowered, the most loving thing that we can do for them is what Jesus did, to go them and show them the way, tell them the truth, give them new life—that is, preach Jesus to them.  The point I am making here is not really about prioritizing spiritual needs over physical needs.  By all means, we need to show Christ’s love by caring for people’s physical needs.  But when it comes to caring for spiritual needs, we shouldn’t convince ourselves that it is arrogant to claim we have anything to offer them, so we should simply profess ourselves empty-handed and insist that they do the talking.  We do need to give a voice to the voiceless, but they will only have a true and authentic voice when they have Christ, and we cannot bring Christ to them without theology. 


A final musing I would like to share here is my suspicion that, if we ask who the most marginalized voices in our society today are, we might well answer “those of the past.”  The question was raised in small group discussion—”Can we sustain a commitment to orthodoxy while developing our theology in engagement with the marginalised?” or something to that effect.  A “theology from below,” it seemed, was in tension with the claim of theology to encapsulate age-old received truths, so much so that one person saw the slogan “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” as scandalous.  And yet, in all this fervour for democratic theology, we should not forget what I think G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—the voices of all those who have gone before us.  These, our forebears in the faith, are now the voiceless, and they are, in our fast-paced and forgetful society, at risk of being the most marginalized of all.  Any theology that claims to take its cue from those on the margins must be willing to take its cue from the Church of ages past.  Otherwise, we risk setting up an imperialism of the present, condemned to be always transcending itself, and trampling on whatever it has received from the past.  To do theology merely by listening to one another is to condemn ourselves to hearing a monotonous voice indeed, for with all our diversity, we today share far more assumptions (so many of them, no doubt, silly and groundless) than we realize, and we must appear from the perspective of history provincial indeed.  

So, by all means let’s have the priesthood, and the preacherhood, and the professor-hood of all believers, but let’s make sure it’s really that of all believers—of a rabbi from Tarsus, a beggar from Assisi, a crazy monk in Wittenberg.  Understood this way, the doctrine that seems to blame for wild individualism can be one of the greatest safeguards against it.  Understood this way, we can insist that theology as a discipline does have some answers to offer, without being arrogant—because theology recognizes that it has received these answers as a gift, and its calling is to share this gift, enriching it in each generation with new gifts gained in conversation with all the saints.  


In a subsequent (much shorter) post, I will explore what seem to me are perhaps one or two of the more serious problems plaguing the current relationship between theology and the church and what might be one or two of the most promising solutions.    

Vegetables are Food

So, I posted this entire quote 2 1/2 years ago.  However, I re-read the chapter containing it, from O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order, the other day and was just as mesmerized this time as I was the first time, so I thought it good enough to warrant sharing again:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved. (52)

“Even Your Own Deed Also”: Law and Corporate Moral Agency

How can we be free even in the midst of obedience to laws with which we do not agree?  In a recent post, I expored the conundrum of law and liberty in the Reformation, and how we might be free even in submission to law when we recognize that obeying the law is a means of loving the neighbor.  Hooker, in seeking to persuade Puritan consciences that the laws of the English church were edifying, rational, and had in their favor the approval of centuries of church practice, and of the wisest among the Church of his own day, seems to be smoothing the way for such a free and voluntary law-obedience:

“Surely if we have unto those laws that dutifull regard which their dignitie doth require: it will not greatly need, that we should be exhorted to live in obedience unto them . . . . The safest and unto God the most acceptable way of framing our lives therefore is, with all humilitie lowlines and singlens of hart to studie, which way our willing obedience both unto God and man may be yeelded even to the utmost of that which is due” (III.9.3). 

Nonetheless, what about when we don’t think the laws in question are edifying and rational?  What about when we, and others, heartily disagree with the decisions taken by those in authority?  Given the breadth and depth of the Puritan protest, it seems a bit audacious for Hooker to declare, “To them which aske why we thus hange our judgmentes on the Churches sleeve, I answer with Salomon, because two are better then one. . . . The bare consent of the whole Church should it selfe in these thinges stop theire mouthes who livinge under it dare presume to barke against it.”  After all, the “consent of the whole church” was precisely what was lacking, and had been for decades, as Puritans in the churches, among the gentry, and even in Parliament continued to oppose the judgments enshrined in law.  Indeed, not just some few, but “thousands, yea and even of those amongst which divers are in publique chuarge and authoritie,” as Hooker would quote Cartwright in his Preface.

To this Hooker responds, in a crucially revealing sentence, “As though when publique consent of the whole hath established any thing, every mans judgement being thereunto compared, were not private, howsoever his calling be to some kind of public charge.”  The distinction drawn here is one key to Hooker’s political thought, as well as that of many of his contemporaries, between singulis and universis, citizens considered individually and considered as “the whole.”  Neither the number nor the status of dissenting voices counts against the “consent of the whole” inasmuch as this has been enshrined in law.  

More, then, than merely an appeal to corporate rationality, to the wisdom found in tradition, underlies Hooker’s argument for submission.  Indeed, immediately after his remark in I.10 that laws must be made by wise men, he cautions, “Howbeit laws do not take their constraining force from the qualitie of such as devise them, but from that power which doth geve them the strength of lawes” (I.10.8).  This power is sovereignty, the moral agency exercised by a collective through its authorized representatives, as he discusses at length in Book VIII.  To be sure, laws thus made can be overturned, but only by the same exercise of corporate agency that created them, not by the dissent of individual members, no matter how numerous.  “Lawes that have bene approved may be (no man doubteth) again repealed, and to that end also disputed against, by the athors therof themselves.  But this is when the whole doth deliberate whtat lawes each part shal observe, and not when a part refuseth the lawes which the whole hath orderly agreed upon.”  For Hooker, to speak of our “consent” to these laws is no mere metaphor, but an expression of the fact that we really do act not merely through our private wills, but through others: 

 As in parliaments, councels, and the like assemblies, although we be not personallie our selves present, notwithstanding our assent is by reason of others agents there in our behalfe.  And what we do by others, no reason but that it should stand as our deed, no lesse effectually to binde us then if our selves had done it in person.” 

As members of a body politic, our agency simply is constituted by our participation in this public action, and it is meaningless to pretend that we can exempt ourselves:

“[It is] unmeet that laws which being once solemnly established, are to exact obedience of all men, and to constraine therunto, should so far stoup as to hold themselves in suspense from taking any effect upon you, till some disputer can perswade you to be obedient.  A lawe is the deed of the whole body politike, whereof if ye judge your selves to be any part, then is the law even your deed also.” 

This statement, though it comes at the beginning of the Lawes, could be considered the capstone of Hooker’s argument.  Here we have the logic of God’s own action—a law to himself, completely free although bound to observe his eternal law, because this law is the most perfect expression of himself, and of rationality—mirrored in the logic of the human agent: we remain free even in being bound by law, because this law is our own rational action.  This is Hooker’s final argument—if all else fails, if the Puritan conscience refuses to see the edifying value of the laws, refuses to see their basis in the law of reason, refuses to defer to the judgment and wisdom of antiquity, persists in stubborn conviction that these laws are badly-made, his obedience is still, Hooker maintains, congruent with Christian liberty because he is simply obeying himself.  


Of course, we will have some concerns about this line of argument.  To what extremity could this go?  Perhaps the particular laws that Hooker defends really were fairly reasonable, but could the same logic be applied to underwrite meek acquiescence to true tyranny and injustice?  Hooker does not wish to leave things quite this stark.  Certainly, this trump card is not one that he wants to play lightly: “Neither wish wee that men should do any thing which in their hearts they are perswaded they ought not to do,” he says in 6.3 of the Preface, and again, in 6.6, “Not that I judge it a thing allowable for men to observe those lawes which in their hearts they are stedfastly perswaded to be against the law of God.”  But he does not think that the present case is one in which this “Here I stand, I can do no other” can be legitimately invoked: “your perswasion in this case ye are all bound for the time to suspend, and in otherwise doing, ye offend against God by troubling his Church without any just or necessary cause.  Be it that there are some reasons inducing you to think hardly of our lawes.  Are those reasons demonstrative, are they necessary, or but probabilities only?”

A demonstrative argument, Hooker grants, “dischargeth . . the conscience, and setteth it at full libertie.”  But where is this demonstrative argument?  “But if the skilfullest amongst you can shewe that all the bookes ye have hitherto written be able to afford any one argument of this nature, let the instance be given” (Pref. 6.6).  In the absence of an utterly compelling reason to disobey the laws, the Puritans must be willing to suspend the judgments of their conscience for charity’s sake, for, whatever their concerns about the harm to be done by bad laws, they must surely recognize the greater harm that will be done by contentiousness and disobedience: “of peace and quietnes there is not any way possible, unlesse the probable voice of every intier societie or bodie politique overrule all private of like nature in the same bodie.”  

Hooker’s first route of reconciling law and liberty has been to show that the particular laws in question are such as to advance the common good, so that to support them and obey them is in fact to love the neighbor.  Failing this, however, he will advise the Puritans that disobedience, founded merely on probable private opinion, cannot but harm the commonwealth, so that neighbor-love requires suspension of judgment, since there will be “no end of contention without submission of both parts unto some definitive sentence.”

Killing for the Telephone Company

In a highly thought-provoking section of his new book, Migrations of the Holy, essentially reprinted from his essay “Killing for the Telephone Company,” Cavanaugh summarizes the arguments of Alasdair Macintyre:

Alasdair Maclntyre refers to this dual aspect of the nation-state in the following memorable quote: ‘The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one  to lay down one’s life on its behalf…. [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.’

MacIntyre thinks that the nation-state can and does promote certain goods of order, but he also contends that it is incapable of promoting the common good. Integral to the political common good is a distribution of goods that reflects a common mind arrived at by rational deliberation. Rationality, in turn, is contingent on our recognizing our fundamental dependence on one another. According to MacIntyre, the nation-state is an arena of bargaining among different group interests. In the absence of any generally agreed-upon rational standard to adjudicate among such interests, decisions on the distribution of goods are made on the basis of power, which is most often directly related to access to capital. The sheer size of the nation-state precludes genuine rational deliberation; deliberation is carried on by a political elite of lawyers, lobbyists, and other professionals.

 For the same reason, the unitive community that the idea of the nation offers is an illusion. The nation-state is not a genuine community, a functioning rational collectivity whose bonds make possible the ‘virtues of acknowledged dependence’ necessary for the common good. MacIntyre says: ‘The shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both.'”