Tuesday, November 20, 2018

God in Public

[The essays in this compilation] have to do with society and culture as a whole rather than simply the challenge to individuals.

I have been grappling with how to understand and articulate the conclusion I seem to be reaching: liberty – even as the most devout libertarian sees it – is not achievable or survivable absent the foundations on which it was built in the west and absent the cultural foundations that Christianity offered.

I know the title of this post as well as the title of Wright’s book is blasphemous to many libertarians and others who hold to the view that one of the greatest outcomes of the Enlightenment is the separation of church and state.  I only consider – this isn’t the same thing as the separation of church and society.  Yet here we are.

I have only read the two-page preface and the first five pages of the first essay and find that there is enough for a post.  Let’s see.

To place some context for Wright’s work and also my interest, Wright offers that there is a crisis in Western democracies.  Yet, Western democracies reflect, in many ways, the fulfilment of the Enlightenment.  Sure, we can debate the meaning of liberty, equality, fraternity, property, the pursuit of happiness; we can point to Enlightenment thinkers that support a more libertarian version of these terms.

But we can also point to Enlightenment thinkers that provide a philosophical foundation for the version that found itself in the French Revolution and in Karl Marx.  These Enlightenment concepts are empty vessels; without an underlying foundation, these vessels can be filled by anyone with a “reasonable” idea. 

Wright offers three images that “bring into focus the question of ‘God in Public.’”  First is Tony Blair looking for answers in the Qur’an in the aftermath of September 11; one can also imagine a leader in Iraq or Afghanistan reading the Bible for the same reason.

Second, the UK government’s decision a few years ago to do away with funding for second degrees if the degree was not at a higher level than the first.  This has especially impacted the pursuit of theology degrees for those considering a path to ordained ministry.

Third, in 2009 the British weekly, New Statesman, ran a special edition: ‘God: What Do We Believe?  There was only one overtly Christian contributor, and she was allowed all of three sentences.  But there was one piece, from Sholto Byrnes.  Wright summarizes Byrnes’ thoughts:

…our moralities of scientific certainty, human rights, and ecology, just as strident and self-righteous as any puritan preacher, constituted a secular form of an earlier vision of God and his purposes, and that without that vision they were actually baseless.

How does Wright see this playing out today?

There is a deep uncertainty about who we are and what we’re here for, and I suggest that this malaise is directly linked to the banishment of God from the public square two hundred years ago.

Banishing God from the public square: one of the Enlightenment’s crowning achievements.  Does “uncertain” man seem like a good candidate through whom freedom can be advanced and sustained?  We see where free minds and (relatively) free markets have led – take a look around.  These are certainly characteristics of a free society, but these are not a foundation on which liberty can be built.

Wright offers other reasons why the question of God in public must be addressed: Gnosticism and empire.  Regarding Gnosticism, Wright offers The Da Vinci Code.  Why was this novel so popular?  One conspiracy inside the other, with the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the heart of the biggest conspiracy ever known in the west.

When combined with empire…

…when people sense that the world is run by very rich and very powerful people, and there’s nothing they can do about it, they tend to shrug their shoulders and suppose they’d better turn inwards, away from the public sphere.

And this is precisely what the rich and powerful people want the rest of us to do.  There is nothing to see here; move along.  For this reason, we accept enslavement, bullying, and war as the manifestations of freedom, justice, and peace.


Tomorrow’s world will be dominated by these confusions. And if the Christian gospel can bring not only clarity but a fresh sense of direction we should all be grateful.

Is it possible that the Christian gospels could be an antidote to the confusion of today’s world; as Wright offers in the title of his book, speaking truth to power?  If one has liberty in mind, it might be worth finding some antidote to our current condition.

Because chanting NAP, NAP, NAP isn’t going to cut it.


  1. The reaction to Tom Woods's recent podcast with Gene Epstein on the subject of Israel ceding territory to the Palestinians is interesting: lots of people think they can coherently understand history, politics, and economics while knowing little or nothing about religion. They apply their modern dismissal of religion as a relevant force to past events and libertarianism. They also fail to recognize how profound the shift toward government as the sole organizing entity in society has been.

    1. When the modern state first began to emerge in the 12th century it was little more than organized crime / gangsterism. A specialized sub-gang took charge of collecting the loot aka taxing the peasants. This specialist gang became what we now know as the judiciary. To this day judiciaries are marked by garish costumes, pompous architecture, and saturated with the vocabulary of a foreign language. By contrast the Catholic church cared for the people, nurtured the spirit, and cultivated the moral order.
      Politics was limited to armed occupation and control of geographic territory. By the 16th century the state began to expropriate the churches role of societal cultivation. There began a fundamental transformation from the control of territory to the management of populations. One could say that socialism / communism represents the endpoint of this transformation. The great wonder and mystery it was possible to experience in the medieval Catholic realm has given way drab tediousness of socialism and one need do no more than compare Gothic with Brutalism.
      In a great Gothic pile like Westminster or Chartres youve got the peeling bells raining down their magic over the whole of the town, the mysterious clouds of incense , the fantastic soaring arches, the magicly filtered light of stained glass, the groined vaults, the evocative chant, the fabulous sculpture incised everywhere, the icons - in short all art forms are perfectly realized in the church each working in service to the other and to the whole. Contrast this with the ghastly socialist architecture of a building like Boston City Hall, an oppressive monstrosity which evokes only dread.

    2. Hi Jeff,

      "lots of people think they can coherently understand history, politics, and economics while knowing little or nothing about religion."

      Agreed. But what you describe is interesting, since it also applies to Ludwig von Mises, who as a typical Wiener Kreis positivist, had a thing or two to say about religion (well, mainly Christianity). Not very educated in the religion department, or so it seems, the great LvM.


  2. Listening to the Giffords lectures, I could see something like this issue coming up. He discussion was about Natural Theology but he basically said that without understanding Jesus and the cross you couldn't really understand God through nature. You could know things about Him but there was still brokeness in the world which doesn't communicate who God is but who humans are after the Fall.

    In his later lectures, Wright hones in on the idea of broken signposts. Those things that reveal God's character but incompletely and without understanding the gospel are confusing and would lead a person to misunderstanding God's character. One of those broken signposts is society, politics, government. Those things that signify human interaction. Mises discovered the positive aspects and describes them in Human Action, the division of labor and the system of social cooperation leading to material prosperity. That is a really good thing built into humanity by a good God. But when you see that some people don't cooperate but exploit, do you see the imperfection of a good but broken system. Or do you throw out the system itself and the God who created it.

    I think I can anticipate that part of what Wright will be discussing is how to mend the signposts through describing how each of them was broken in the Fall and mended at the Cross and Resurrection. After all, the Bible ends with Jesus as King on Earth with all the signposts mended.

    I am eager to hear how Wright says we can work to mend them today through the gospel.

  3. "Tomorrow’s world will be dominated by these confusions. And if the Christian gospel can bring not only clarity but a fresh sense of direction we should all be grateful."

    From a personal perspective it has done both for me, but I assume Wright is talking about societies. How does one go about infusing a society with knowledge and understanding of Cristian gospel?

    It can't be through the church which is largely powerless or in bed with the state, which is essentially a reflection of the morals of its patrons rather than the reverse.

    "…when people sense that the world is run by very rich and very powerful people, and there’s nothing they can do about it, they tend to shrug their shoulders and suppose they’d better turn inwards, away from the public sphere."

    This is where I am today, though not quite shrugging my shoulders. I accept my influence on society diminishes rapidly beyond the boundaries of my immediate family.

    1. If God is God, it will be done - either through some subset of churches... maybe through Jordan Peterson?