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Skillen on Newbigin (and the Benedict Option)

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Internet chatter on the Benedict Option – conceived as creating new “monastic communities” plodding on as a counter-cultural force in a post-secular society – is rife these days. There is a palpable sense that given recent governmental moves in Western societies that severely restrict religious freedom in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular, the only option is to opt out of the public sphere and build new communities where Christian virtues may be freely practiced. Read here here, here and here. In this blog, it was discussed here.

But here’s why the Benedict Option may be missing the point about what it means to have effective Christian witness even under such challenging times:

Dr. James Skillen, writing in response to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s view that to develop a Christian society, “lay men and women” need to develop a “lay theology” for various fields of public life, says thus:

Then the apostle Paul writes to various churches and challenges them to live wholly in Christ, he frequently addresses believers in their capacities as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and citizens (or subjects) in the political realm. But in those capacities Paul does not address them as lay men and women, implying that their identity in those roles is as ecclesiastical nonprofessionals. A “husband” is not a church lay person needing a theology for being a husband; he is a member of the body of Christ who has, among many different Christian responsibilities, that of being a husband. In this capacity, it is not as a church lay person that he needs a theology for loving his wife, but rather that he needs to understand God’s will for his role in marriage.

Precisely here, it seems to me, we should think not of applying some ecclesiastical truths to non-ecclesiastical areas of life, but rather, of taking seriously the way the gospel restores and illumines the meaning of God’s good creation. John’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and the letter to the Hebrews, for example, all begin by stating that the incarnate Son of God is the one in whom, for whom, and through whom all things were created. The creation is revelatory of God and connected to the Son of God prior to the incarnation and the organizing of the church. The good news of the Jesus Christ is, among other things, that creation has been recovered and is being restored so that it will finally come to fulfillment in the City of God.

The body of Christ is a communion of reborn creatures – of the renewed image of God. Marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life. In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words clay persons should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

The development of a Christian society, I am suggesting, comes not from a theology for Church lay persons but from obedience of the whole body of Christ in all areas of creaturely life where its members bear responsibility as they learn to live completely unto Christ. Of course the whole creation holds together in Christ, so the meaning of marital love, of economic stewardship, of public Justice, of medical healing, and of so much more hangs together in one meaningful creation, which has been distorted by sin but Judged and redeemed in Christ. The redeeming work of Christ redirects hearts and lives in all areas of life. Along with sound Christian theology, then, there should emerge sound Christian philosophy, obedient Christian political practice, healing Christian medical practice, and so forth. The adjective “Christian” in each instance refers not to theology as something added to an otherwise indistinguishable mode of worldly life, but indicates the genuine redirection, recovery, renewal of life among those led by faith in Christ. The Christian “way of life” should, in other words, appear different from the secularist way of life, the Muslim way of life, and so forth.

What will often be necessary as Christians seek to fulfill their earthly responsibilities in all areas of life are Christian organizations of parents, of farmers, of laborers, of academics, of citizens, and so forth. The purpose of such organizing should not be so Christians can isolate themselves or try to create a perfect community on the edge of civilization, but rather to develop consistent Christian practices in each area of life as they live side by side with people whose ways of life are directed by faith in other gods. The body of Christ is the people of God, lifting up all of creation’s treasures in every realm of existence in praise to God, looking and pointing ahead to the Christian society that will finally be revealed in its fullness when the Lord returns[emphasis supplied].[1]

What Skillen is saying here is that Christians are called to witness to the world in the context of their many differentiated responsibilities: as husbands and wives, as professionals in various fields, as members of a church, as members of a Christian NGO, as citizens of a particular country, as members of a Christian labor union or a political party. Christians take part in and help shape a creational order that Christ has renewed and is renewing – an order that is revelatory of God’s will and purposes. Thus, in the context of the redemptive work of the Gospel, the body of Christ is a communion of re-born creatures – of the renewed image of God – for whom “marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life.”

He adds:

In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words ‘lay persons’ should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

Christians cannot live in isolation from the world if they are to give justice to their differentiated responsibilities that they exercise as part of the redemptive work of the Gospel – and such work requires faithful Christian practice and presence across their various endeavors and roles.

[1] Is there a place for Christian politics in America? notes from a lecture given by Dr. Skillen to a philosophy class at the University of the Orange Free State in South Africa (2012). The lecture is a response to the work of Bishop Leslie Newbigin, a path-breaking missiologist. I am grateful to Dr. D.F.M Strauss, at whose initiative the lecture was made, for making available the notes to me.

Written by Romel

January 12, 2016 at 3:43 am

Four philosophers on the notion of the public: Locke, Arendt, Maritain, Dooyeweerd

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goodIn the complexities of the postmodern era, governments founded on the idea of legally-guaranteed rights must deal with societal tensions between the claims raised over these rights by the individual and by the group (or the community) in the public realm. The usual strategy is an appeal to a balancing act, but almost always, a resolution that is satisfactory, in terms of the avowed aim to consider both sides of the tension is not achieved, precisely because the issue is cast in an either-or divide.

Too, often un-stated assumptions about the nature of society direct or influence public policy. Issues of welfare for instance, are to a large extent shaped by how policy makers approach the relations between individuals and various institutions and communities in society. Conservatives bewail the erosion of public norms and the corresponding decline in the vitality of public life; yet for the most part, the alternatives they proffer also leaves much to be desired, inasmuch as these somehow gloss over individual freedoms in the name of loyalty, allegiance or patriotism, or state power above all else. It is therefore important which theory of society does justice to the reality of the diversity of societal communities, institutions and relations. It goes a long way to properly addressing societal issues and concerns.

Locke and Arendt: individualism

In varying ways, Locke and Arendt are representatives of philosophies that treat of society as constituted by autonomous individuals. Of course, in much of the literature, Lockean thought is considered as the root of contemporary liberal democratic philosophy. As the key inspiration of laissez-faire economics, Lockean conceptions of the public as a social contract of autonomous individuals presents a very thin conception of public commitments as no more than a common-wealth intended for property preservation.

Ultimately, it is a selfish conception of civic-mindedness that will simply fail to “awaken…public spiritedness,” to borrow from Dooyeweerd. It does not account for the other non-state institutions and communities (read: civil society) and what they can contribute to the promotion and preservation of the vitality of public life. It is however, a conception of politics as very friendly to business and will therefore sit well with capitalist interests. In the United States, the economic depression caused by the 1929 stock crash showed that such a business-friendly, hands-off policy in the long run will not augur well for any viable notion of the public interest. Contemporary economics however is dominated by this trajectory of thinking, one that has little regard for small communities and poor countries and is consumed by nothing more than a concern for greater efficiency in the quest for greater profits.

We are not unmindful of the alternative proposals for reading Arendt that ascribes to her system a stress on meaningful interaction of members of the body politic on the basis of a certain commonality. However, even on this basis, she fails to fully give integrity to the given-ness of the pluriformity of organizations and social relations in society.

And like Locke, Arendt simply does not account for the fact that citizenship involves more than seeking public approbation; it also involves the deepest commitments that in one way or another invoke a longing for transcendence, for a certain moral vision of society. While Locke pays full attention to the formal mechanisms of government as constitutive of the body politic (albeit a representative one), Arendt simply elides the issue, or contemptuously treats of government as nothing more than mere administration. The private is also given short shrift in her system. At least in Locke, work, family and other natural relationships are given due regard as realms of the private, and not necessarily lower in value or worth.

There is no social contract in Arendt but a cosmopolitanism of free and equal individuals who seek to better or outdo one another by their action and speech in their common quest for earthly immortality, or excellence. As earlier noted, she offers very little comfort to those who would want a deeper, moral account of living together, of learning to care for one another, and to help one another.

Her differing conceptions of labor, work and initiative (although the latter is theologically-informed, by way of Augustine), runs counter to the reformational spirit that imbued sanctity in ordinary life (an idea that the philosopher Charles Taylor considers as having much to commend itself to the attention of many). But Arendt certainly anticipated the erosion of the public in contemporary society in quite another way; she will certainly not be happy that in today’s age of the YouTube, Facebook  and Skype, excellence has been reduced to nothing more than who has made the downloadable video that catches the attention of as many consumers – the postmodern version of Arendt’s “public” – or perhaps, who has come up with the zaniest internet-based business venture that the big companies will snatch up with billion-dollar offers.

And in this scheme of things, it certainly does not matter whether these consumers are one’s equals or inferiors. Publicity, or technological-savvy that brings in the money, takes over public recognition. Alas, technology has collapsed the private and the public in a totally radical way – first radio, then television, and finally the internet – so that what used to be considered as matters intimate enough as to be confined to the bedroom, are now broadcast for all who can download videos.

For Arendt, goodness as a Christian concept is opposed to the public realm, because it seeks to be hidden, not to be announced. This is simply a gross misunderstanding of the Christian theology of good works, if not a result of wooden hermeneutics (in which case hers is no different from most fundamentalist hermeneutics); The reformational critique of creation, fall and redemption advances an altogether different conception of working for the good of society; it is one in which Christians are called to work not for a total transformation of society but for a radical one (in the words of Geertsema’s piece on Christian higher education as service to the King).

Two ways of conceiving the “third way”

Maritain and Dooyeweerd treat of social theory from a normative standpoint. Indeed, there are interesting parallels in their systems, as both treat of the plurality that exist in society, and distinguishes between and among the different groups, communities, institutions and relations that obtain there. Both also recognize that public life, or issues of the common good and the public interest involve something deeper and thicker than the social contract, that in fact, these matters spring from a “covenantal ethics” – of the common life as given by God to be cultivated responsibly in its sheer diversity.

Both assert that the state is for man, not man for the state; both assert that no community or relation exhausts what the individual is. Both agree that the state must have a monopoly of violence if it must effectively discharge of its task and purpose. Maritain’s notion of the common good as the ultimate end of the state finds a parallel in Dooyeweerd’s notion of public justice as the state’s leading function (with some distinct nuances, of course). For this reason both are highly suspicious of high notions of state sovereignty.

Yet there are also significant differences that spring from the fundamental philosophical or pre-theoretical commitments that inform their respective political theories.

Dooyeweerd, as a representative of the Althusian tradition, will strongly critique Maritain’s natural law-based “nature and grace” distinctions between the temporal and the eternal as ultimately, unbiblical. Such a dual sense of the telos of institutions lends itself to a hierarchy that appears in Dooyeweerd as a horizontal relation between and among different relations and institutions.

This is one of the discontents of the Catholic view of subsidiarity of the different communities and relations in society: there is a real danger of imposing a directive from the top, despite disavowals that the state may be at the topmost of the pyramid but it is delimited by the notion of the distinct competencies of each relation or institution (which is parallel to the reformational notion of “sphere sovereignty”). Maritain would have been more consistent had he conceived of his system as a horizontal one, in which all components stand on the same level in relation to one another, as Dooyeweerd had conceived his. In any case, it would not have been possible, considering the metaphysical assumptions that underlie his thought; i.e., the nature-and-grace groundmotif, in Dooyeweerdian terms.

Dooyeweerd’s notion of the public is also more nuanced and more developed as compared to Maritain’s more general conception of it. The reformational philosopher is in this sense more modern than Maritain; the former specifically treats of the state as the result of the destruction of undifferentiated institutions that restrict human freedom. The state is the result of the process of unfolding, of opening up of society into differentiated spheres (without necessarily denigrating the sphere of the natural).

For Dooyeweerd, it is also quite possible for one state to intersect more than one nation and yet draw these nations into a single public-legal community. In Maritain, the body politic cannot exist without a nation singularly conceived. It can thus be seen that Dooyeweerdian thought has certain advantages over Thomistic thought as embodied in Maritain’s political philosophy.

From the public to the public domain?

As a last note, it is sometimes asked why Dooyeweerd restricts the notion of the public to the notion of the legal; Spijker for instance, attempts to broaden Dooyeweerd’s original notion of the public, noting that it is very limited when conceived of strictly in terms of legal integration. He cites for instance, Stafleu’s argument about a larger public domain forming a set of intersubjective networks. For Stafleu, there are different kinds of networks of public relations, in which individuals and associations partake, such as public opinion and churches and political parties (which make propaganda in public), markets and financial networks (which have an economic public character where the government raises taxes). He also adds that the state agencies themselves – the cities and provinces as well as their respective local governments – form a public political network as are the courts, which form a network of public justice (sustained by the state).

There are also the communitarians who emphasize the necessity of a common ethos in the public sphere and defend the idea that in a community some fundamental values and convictions should be shared and that the government should play an active role in promoting morality and solidarity in society.

The public as a convergence of spaces of public interest

In my view, it cannot be otherwise. It springs from the state’s qualifying or leading function, which is to protect, support, nurture and uphold public justice. Chaplin speaks in the singular when he refers to the public as a space where individuals, communities, organizations and institutions enter apart from their own spheres. Such a space, he says, embody rights that require public legal protection whose task it is for the state to provide. In my view, properly speaking, the public is constituted not by one space, but by many spaces, at various meeting points of interlacements or enkaptic bindings between the state on one side, and the various social relations on the other. Sometimes, they all converge at one point, but at other times, they exist as multiple points of contact with the state that all embody in varying ways the public interest.

The diversity of associational spheres itself calls for this characterization of the public as consisting of various spaces where the public interest converges. It is in this sense that what Griffioen and Mouw says of the public domain as “all that pertains to the common good, from public services rendered by the government to many activities associated with universities, corporations, churches, charitable foundations, and the like” may be understood. In Griffioen’s words (also quoted by Chaplin), the public is “the free citizenry of a state conceived in their independence from any other community.” Indeed, the public consists of differentiated spaces. And so the public that Dooyeweerd speaks of is not as limited as it may seem, contrary to the observation by Spijker.

Hence the direction or task of the state, on account of these variegated spaces of the “public interest,” will necessarily take different forms in the act of positivation, but always, always, it means the state exercising a legal power defined or guided by the norm of public justice.

It is also here where Griffieon and Mouw’s characterization of the private-public continuum can be properly understood: sometimes, state intervention requires the full and formal procedures of the law (for example, the matter of fair trade on the international level, where citizens would require the formal legal intervention of the state on their behalf); at other times however, on account of the more nuanced context of the public space concerned, it may only need to provide the organizing legal framework and allow the other spheres of society to take over the helm, or at least become its full independent partners (as for example, exemplified in faith-based initiatives to address social welfare concerns).

As Chaplin has argued, the public realm embodies legitimate juridical interest. This view, as a “third way”, avoids the tug-of-war between individualism and universalism in positing that such claims of juridical interest cannot be reduced to a commonality of interests attaching to private persons and structures, nor should it be interpreted as by right preeminent over them.

Of course, the state can learn a thing or two from the communitarians in this respect: what are the practices that best promote citizenship, in other words, the vitality of public norms, of the public interest? What are the practices that develop a new habitus – to borrow from Bourdieu – where the diversity of institutions, communities and relations in society find their proper place and are properly recognized as having their distinct contributions to public life and public norms? These are some of the key questions that policy makers ought to seriously consider when they address the problem of bridging the gap between the state and the various communities and relations that make up society in their common task of making public life work for the public interest.

Written by Romel

October 16, 2014 at 10:44 am

Jonathan Chaplin and H. Dooyeweerd’s Theory of the State

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Those familiar with the political philosopher  Dr. Jonathan Chaplin’s writings on the theme of the State will note that the key concerns found in his first two major works as a scholar dealing with an important component of the corpus of the late Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s body of thought are for the most part echoed in his most recent book – specifically in the chapters that dealt with the various issues implicated in Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state. In fact, these, all taken together, consist of at least a third of the book’s main body of 317 pages.

Indeed, the two main questions raised by Chaplin on Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state are either restated or further clarified in Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society – without doubt, in the words of a noted American scholar of law and religion, “the go-to book on Dooyeweerd for many years to come.”

It is in this book where he foists what is yet his most radical  if not compelling  challenge to the Dooyeweerdian State – his thesis that while the State decidedly has a leading function,  it has no founding function.

I responded  to his critique of Dooyeweerd yesterday during a panel at the opening of the  2nd Kuyper Seminar at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, to which he graciously listened. In part, I said in my paper on The State in International Law: Reformational Insights:

Chaplin argues that if coercion is written into the structural principle, how can it be consistent with its supposed basis in a good creation? Dooyeweerd, he notes, holds that such coercive power has been incorporated into the world order on account of sin; the state thus is an institution of “common” or “preserving grace” established with a soteriological aim of preserving temporal society in its differentiated condition.

Chaplin suggests that there is an incoherence between Dooyeweerd’s notion that pre-fall, the state’s sword function has been incorporated into creational norms from the very beginning and the latter’s contention that the state was instituted post-fall, on account of sin.

Chaplin thinks coercion cannot be consistently built into structural principles since structural principles are conceived as grounded in the original order of creation that was yet unmarred by sin.

This inconsistency could only arise from Dooyeweerd’s misreading of the state’s positive form (the territorial monopoly of coercive power) into its invariant or in his own words, “enduring” structural principle.

So Chaplin asks,  given that the state needs power of many kinds in order to advance public justice, is historical power so evidently more important than the state’s other functions such as the maintenance of territory and the collection of taxes?

He understands that for Dooyeweerd coercive power is indispensable to giving the state its unique identity, to distinguishing it from other institutions in society. But this, according to him, seems a questionable approach, as that it can still be argued that while the state does have a leading function, it does not necessarily imply that this function is “uniquely related to the possession of historical power.”

Still, for Chaplin it is not quite the case that we need to have an historical function to give the state its unique identity. It’s enough that we know it’s purpose is to ensure public justice. After all, while it can be said that the founding function is related to the leading function, but it is also related to other functions of the state; while it is true that coercive power seems to have been a feature of all known states, so has economic or other forms of power. Thus, Chaplin says that Dooyeweerd’s argument that coercive power is unique and so foundational does not compel and the attempt to single out one function as having a privileged link to the leading function seems artificial.  

Thus, he concludes that the state has no founding function.

Following this reformulation, there is a need therefore to transfer the coercive element into the variable side of human positivation. The better account, Chaplin says, is that the state’s coercive power is an historical development developed or positivized in response to sin, but is not part of its typical structure or its inner structural principle.

In this way then, he says, we can look at the state and the UN, or all bodies organized as public legal communities, as having the same typical structure, but with variegated positive forms.

From there it now becomes easy for Chaplin to suggest that based on Dooyeweerd’s notion of the “internal opening process” of societal structures,  the UN can perhaps be identified as an “international ‘state’ at the very early stage;” it is analogous to emerging nation-states prior to their development as an authority over a defined territory enforced by coercion, or an “ ‘immature’ international state” that needs further positivation so as to help realize the “pressing normative historical mission facing humankind in the sphere of public justice.”

This is an advantageous approach, he says, because it is more sensitive to the dynamics of the evolution of structures whose task is to establish public justice and avoids the danger of regarding the nation-state as sacrosanct, historically finalized structure

 The normative peculiarity of the state

…..the apparent contradiction between a good creation and the state’s monopoly of the sword written into its structural principle is Chaplin’s strongest argument for revising Dooyeweerd’s original conception.

Why should the state’s founding function based on a monopoly of coercion be inconsistent with an originally good creation? My argument is that it is good because God has put in place every possible support for human flourishing, whether in their obedience or disobedience. This is a necessary implication of the gift of free will to humanity – the capacity to choose between good and evil.

It also resonates with the idea, at least of human ways of living, of having been endowed with the capacity for good or for evil – the classic Kuyperian sense of the anti-thesis, where each human community or inter-relationship may either be directed towards God or towards some aspect of creation that it has turned into an idol.

Such a capacity cannot but clearly imply a divine anticipation of negative and positive consequences.  In Scripture, when God gave the first humans a choice between the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God also laid down what the consequences were of opting for one or the other (Gen. 2:8; 3:1-4) .

This also implies that God, at the very least, knew what the consequences were of human choosing between life and death. Certainly, God’s sovereignty is severely limited by a view that He only conceived of the state after humanity sinned, as an ex post facto imposition.  It can well be argued that God’s sovereignty has seen it best to institute creational ordinances that would address any possible negative consequences of human choosing.

Hence the state is not a divine afterthought; to say that it was instituted as a response to the fall is only to stress the historical nature of its establishment. This is the better way of understanding or re-reading Dooyeweerd’s suggestion that the state has been incorporated into the world-order after the fall.

A new, post-fall, structural principle did not appear and slide without friction into the original order, as Chaplin suggests. Rather, as a principle set in place to response to a contingency, it was activated when the condition for which it was devised arose.  

His proposal seemingly paints divine sovereignty into a rather awkward picture where having been caught unprepared, God finds himself instituting after the fact of human sin the state with a monopoly of sword power to curtail human capacity for abuse. In this way, Chaplin can argue that Dooyeweerd seems to have suggested a situation where new creational ordinance slide seamlessly into the created order after the fact of the fall, despite his own contention that no new such ordinances can arise in history. 

A sensible alternative to Chaplin’s view is that from before human history, from before creation itself, God had already set in place ordinances that would govern the unfolding of the state in whatever context there maybe, giving allowance for the consequences of human freedom.

The founding function of the state in the form that it has now is consistent with a good creation in the sense that even at the point of creation, a good Creator, knowing all the possible consequences of the gift of free will to humanity, has in his sovereign will, set in place creational ordinances adequate to address such consequences.

In a world without sin – a Christian account of the state can perhaps say that all that the state needs is public trust to sustain itself, as Chaplin himself has suggested in another context.

This is just another way of saying that public trust may well be  the structural principle God has designed for a state unveiled in a pre-fall context. The other side of the coin is that the same divine providence has, at the point of creation, established an ordinance – a structural principle – that would apply in the event of human disobedience. Hence we have two sides of the same coin of creation that, in the beginning, was in fact “very good.”

The simultaneous realization of norms as a task of the state

To recall, Chaplin finds to be questionable Dooyeweerd’s view connecting the leading function specifically to the possession of historical power as the state’s founding function. Indeed he wonders why – given that the state needs power of many kinds in order to advance public justice – historical power is so evidently more important than the state’s other functions such as the maintenance of territory and the collection of taxes.

The question, I believe, can be properly answered by a careful analysis of the Dooyeweerd’s theory of modal aspects, in which in the process of disclosure, anticipatory and retrocipatory aspects interact, where the lower aspects serve as substratum to the higher aspects, and where the higher aspects reach back to deepen the workings of the lower aspects.

In the counter-examples given by Chaplin, from the point of view of disclosure, the maintenance of the territory and the collection of taxes are not even possible without the priority of the state being able to establish itself with the exclusive display of sovereign powers within its territory.

The fundamental and definitive nature of the founding function of the state will require the historical opening up of the substratum supporting it  (retrocipatory aspects) as well as the disclosure of the complex of its superstructure — the anticipatory aspects — that contribute to the disclosure and deepening of the meaning of the state’s task as an institution.

Bob Goudzwaard has underscored this as the task of the state to ensure the “simultaneous realization of norms.” Yet it must be stressed that the simultaneous realization of norms is not possible without the undergirding of the state’s historical power.

The reverse of a positive simultaneous realization of norms is a situation where a state experiences a simultaneous breakdown in key functions as seen in several contemporary examples of the so-called “failed states.”; all too often, this does not happen all at once but is a gradual process that eventually leads to a severe stress to the state in many fronts; It takes a complex of factors –and not just the loss of public trust – for the state to fall apart.

The state’s founding function is at the heart of the state-formation project; it is what grants the state its “normative peculiarity” –to borrow a phrase from political philosopher Matthias Risse – or what distinguishes states from other institutions in society.

Risse argues that this normative peculiarity is characterized by an “immediacy” in the state’s coercive function not otherwise displayed by other institutions in the international legal order.  There are two dimensions in which such immediacy is expressed: in law enforcement and in politics, according to Rise.  The first pertains to the fact that “living in a state means living in an environment where enforcement agencies pervasively have such access, and where it is up to internal political processes to regulate what specific shape such access takes and what constraints it is subject to.”

The second deals with the fact that “ it is the state that provides the environment in which individuals’ basic rights are, or fail to be, realized.”

While international organizations may be interested as well in both questions – in the proper enforcement of rules and in the protection and the promotion of the basic rights of citizens and other entities within a state’s territory– at the most basic level, it is the state that provides both the environment and the structures that make these twin concerns possible:

Legal and political immediacy, then, characterize what is peculiar about the state’s coerciveness. Citizenship is membership in an association for which these two features are distinctive, and those two aspects of the immediacy of the relationship between the states and its citizens provide reasons for associative duties restricted to people who share a citizenship.

Questions of ontology aside, the immediacy of the state’s legal and political structures to citizens within its territory  also undercuts  the practicability of Chaplin’s  argument – a necessary implication of his assertion that the state has no founding function – that we may treat the UN as an  immature “international ‘state’ at the very early stage” that needs further positivization so as to help realize the “pressing normative historical mission facing humankind in the sphere of public justice.”

Quite the contrary, the state is a necessary, though not necessarily sufficient, normatively peculiar institution performing such an historical mission.  Stated another way, the task of public justice still rests primarily on the shoulders of the state.

Indeed, as Skillen has noted a long time ago, human rights “are tied in with the very meaning of justice and injustice in states and thus cannot be protected or enhanced in abstraction from actual state and interstate structures.”  In other words, if the very character of the sovereign state is part of the problem, every effort to advance human rights without changing the function and identity of states will lead to failure.


Later over dinner at De Latie, we had a most pleasant conversation, discussing in detail our respective interpretations of the problem of the state.  He said my position echoes in some ways Dr. Jim Skillen‘s response to his theory; having listened to my talk on the connection or the lack of it between the state’s coercive powers and creation, he said he could see it’s plausibility and is in fact convinced by it, adding that it may constitute a “third interpretation” because according to him, Dooyeweerd actually said that the state is a post-fall institution established by God through a special ordinance. On the other hand, my view holds that the state’s sword power was a potentiality in the creation ordinance established by God to respond to human contingency.

He also said he might have used the rather infelicitous phrase “immature state” to describe the UN but maintained his critique of Dooyeweerd’s formulation of the state as if it were a final and fixed structural principle. He still doesn’t see why its historical founding function should be a defining element of the state.  I said that Dooyeweerd’s “transcendental empirical” method actually will show that what international law calls “effectiveness” is a well-established historical fact as far as the formation of states is concerned.

We also talked about Dooyeweerd’s reading of Aquinas and according to him, through Robert Sweetman’s work, he became convinced that Dooyeweerd has gotten Aquinas wrong in some ways.  According to him, it appears that Dooyeweerd, while he read Aquinas, was influenced a great deal by commentaries from the 19th century that carried the dualist line identified with  the Spanish Suarez school. Today, he said, there has been a recovery of Aquinas as a more integral thinker, and cited the works of Jean Porter as an important  influence in the rethinking of Thomism as a movement of thought. “Jim Skilen, however, does not agree with me,” he said with a wink, motioning to the direction of Dr. Skillen, who was seated at the next table with an American  friend of mine, Courtney Kane, who is doing her master’s on Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, also at the Vrije Universiteit.

His attitude, according to him, is to work with Thomists on common grounds. “The opposition to the Christian tradition is very strong,” he said. “I’d rather that I get as much help as I can from people who, while I may disagree with them on other points, share the same  moral convictions as I have.” He noted that in the context of where he is right now– the UK– most evangelicals hardly care about intellectual dialogue with other Christian traditions while among Catholics, the intellectuals read Catholic social teaching from standard social democratic lens. “I often have to tell them that they need to look faithfully and closely at the deep resources found in their own tradition.”

GMA Arrested: Problem, Promise, Prognosis

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I spoke tonight at a forum organized by theology students at the Asian Theological Seminary (ATS) on the current political situation in the Philippines. In particular, I discussed the topic, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo Arrested: Problem, Promise and Prognosis.

I built the talk around the thesis that what we are witnessing is an opportunity for the country’s political system to decisively defeat the forces of traditional  and patronage politics and set in place a public legal community founded on the norms of public justice.

Click here for  link to the outline of my presentation.



Written by Romel

November 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm

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