“Modern but Not Liberal” is one of three addresses given to a symposium on “After Liberalism,” put on in late February with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company. Shalom Carmy and Thomas Joseph White, O.P. , responded to this paper. The first address and responses appeared in the May issue; the last address and responses will appear in the August/September issue.


For the people I grew up with in the Valley of Virginia, in the Lutheran Church in America (a denomination that no longer exists), modern science and American democracy seemed obvious goods, as did social mobility and religious toleration. We were acutely conscious of our differences from both Roman Catholics and other Protestants, but we did not regard the fact of religious diversity as a cultural or political scandal. We were not particularly aware of biblical criticism, but we were not much threatened by what we knew of it; I was taught the documentary hypothesis of the origins of the Pentateuch in Sunday school.

But this practical modernity was not underwritten by any modernist or liberal ideology. We worshiped according to a liturgy modeled on the Lutheran church orders of the Reformation era and deliberately composed in the language of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

We confessed the ancient creeds straightforwardly, with no hermeneutical cleverness about the Virgin Birth and bodily resurrection. Nor did we worry that “He came down from heaven” betrayed a prescientific worldview.

We confessed weekly that we were “sinful and unclean.” We believed that supernatural events, events immediately caused by God, occurred regularly in our midst: Sins were forgiven by God through the absolution spoken by the pastor, and the risen Jesus Christ came among us to give us his true body and blood to eat and drink in, with, and under the Eucharistic elements. The postcommunion blessing ran: “May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ and his precious Blood strengthen and preserve you unto eternal life.”

This lived synthesis of cultural-political modernity and traditional Christianity was not particularly reflective. No one planned it, and no one had developed a theoretical model for it. It was not always admirable or coherent in practice, and it doubtless carried within itself seeds of instability that contributed to its demise.

At one moment, however, this nonliberal appreciation of modern values found striking expression in a public denominational statement. In a 1964 statement, Race Relations: A Statement of the Lutheran Church in America, the denomination managed to affirm the civil rights movement wholeheartedly without any reliance on ideological liberalism. The document condemns “injurious racial discrimination based on race” in rigorously theological terms, as “a violation of God’s created order, of the meaning of redemption in Christ, and of the nature of the church.” There is no recourse here to a religiously neutral public discourse”this condemnation of racial discrimination can be understood only by thinking seriously about creation, redemption, and the church.

This declaration’s condemnation is supported and expounded by way of reflection on a liturgical text, the “Prayer of the Church” from the denomination’s Service Book and Hymnal. First”the order is important”the prayer that God would “sanctify and unite” his people in all the world is set against racial discrimination within the church itself. The problem of discrimination is thus envisioned first not as a general “social issue” but as an ecclesiological problem, an impairment of the visible unity that God intends for the church.

Only after racial discrimination is defined as a church problem is it then viewed as a problem for “the nation and its structures of law and authority.” The relevant petition asks God to “preserve our Nation in righteousness and honor . . . . Grant health and favor to all who bear office in our land . . . and help them to acknowledge and obey thy holy will.” Note that the idea of rights inherent in persons makes no appearance anywhere in the document.

Finally, the statement describes racial discrimination as a spiritual problem, referring to these words of the Prayer of the Church: “Give to all persons the mind of Christ, and dispose our days in thy peace, O God. Take from us all hatred and prejudice, and whatever may hinder unity of spirit and concord.” The commentary points out the “realism” of this petition: “It recognizes that we are guilty of harboring hatreds and prejudices which we are inclined to hold dear. Therefore, nothing less than a mighty, holy, act that can ‘take away’ will do.” Racial hatred is part and parcel of the corruption of the heart, of that evil that has been judged and “taken away” in God’s “mighty, holy act” of redemption in Christ.

The statement goes on to endorse wholeheartedly the original goals of the civil rights movement”the great moral achievement of twentieth-century American liberalism”and celebrates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The statement was a small-scale but modestly successful example of a religious community affirming certain moral perceptions of modernity on its own terms, drawing on its own resources, without taking on board the liberal ideology on the basis of which modern values have most often been advocated and defended.

To use some overworked jargon, the statement situates the problem within a narrative different from the liberal story of dawning enlightenment and social progress. Racial discrimination is wrong, but for different reasons. It divides the church; it sullies the righteousness and honor of the nation before God; it manifests a spiritual evil of hatred and prejudice from which Christ died to set us free. These are not liberalism’s reasons for opposing racial discrimination.

In this way the statement stands in what I shall unapologetically call the “classical” tradition of Christian theology. Classical theology begins with the struggle of the earliest Christians to read the Old Testament and the apostolic testimony to Jesus”later, the New Testament”as a single word from God whose parts were mutually interpretive: the Old Testament read as attesting Jesus, and the person and significance of Jesus being construed in Old Testament terms. The founding achievement of classical theology was the development of a communally shared way of reading the two-part Christian Bible as, in George Lindbeck’s words in The Church in a Postliberal Age, “a Christ-centered narrationally and typologically unified whole in conformity to a Trinitarian rule of faith.”

In developing this way of reading the Bible, however, the early Christians were at the same time developing an interpretation of the world. This was necessarily the case, given the content of the rule of faith. In the rule of faith, the God whose engagement with the world culminates in the living, dying, and rising of Jesus Christ is identified as the creator of the world, who is utterly free in relation to the world: It depends for its very existence on him, but he does not in any way depend on it. Thus the point of the existence of everything that is not God is its place within his purpose.

Furthermore, the center of the apostolic proclamation is the claim that the all-encompassing purpose of the creator has in these last days been concretely achieved. Thus, according to the Letter to the Ephesians, God has “made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

For classical theology, therefore, no phenomenon, whether of nature or of history, lay outside the interpretive range of the mystery of Christ and the scriptural witness to it. This is not to say that classical theology believed that we can presently comprehend the relation of every phenomenon to Christ; much painful ignorance must be endured in hope until the manifestation of Jesus Christ. But the combination of belief in the creator and assurance that his purpose had been definitively revealed and accomplished in Christ gave to classical theology a certain optimistic boldness as it faced the diverse cultures and changing circumstances of the world in which the church lives.

Alien cultures, threatening bodies of thought, and historical cataclysms only provide new opportunities to discover once again that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” as St. Paul writes in Colossians, are hidden in Christ. Cultural or intellectual authorities and climates of opinion need not intimidate those who have received the word of God. As Tertullian famously said, “Christ called himself Truth, not Custom.” The revelation of the mystery of Christ in the apostolic witness gave classical theology a place to stand from which it was possible to get critical purchase on even the most imposing and pervasive outlooks and assumptions. “It is necessary,” as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Lectures on Colossians, “to spit out whatever is not compatible with Christ.”

This meant that when Roman civilization collapsed or when the dangerously “secular” thought of Aristotle burst in on the medieval world, an Augustine or an Aquinas was able to respond without panic, confident that no contingencies however disturbing could overwhelm the interpretive potency of the scriptural narrative, that no insight however strange could baffle the assimilative potency of scriptural teaching. Of course, not everyone was an Augustine or an Aquinas; there were panicky and inadequate responses to both these paradigmatic events. Talent, character, and competence are as unevenly distributed among theologians as among any other vocational group.

Viewed from this perspective, however, there does seem to be something depressingly different about the response of Christian thinkers to the challenges of modern history and culture. The long polarization of the Christian theological response to modernity into postures of defiance and capitulation exemplifies neither the optimism nor the boldness just described.

To see more clearly how classical theology might address the problem of modern culture and liberal ideology, it may be worthwhile to consider further the issue of racial discrimination. What, after all, makes it wrong to discriminate against other human beings on the basis of race? The underlying issue is the question often posed today in terms of human dignity, which I take minimally to be the idea that there are ways in which it is always wrong to treat human beings, simply because they are human beings, and that their human status cannot be qualified in any way that justifies mistreating them. This issue is so much at the heart of the liberal political and moral tradition that it is very difficult even to begin a discussion of human dignity without being swept immediately into the discourse of individual autonomy and human rights.

The LCA statement may nonetheless suggest a nonliberal line of approach. Racial discrimination is wrong, it suggests, because it disrupts the fellowship of the church. God’s action to “sanctify and unite” the church “requires Christians to seek out and receive one another as brothers and sisters without regard to nation, race, or culture.” Racial prejudice teaches us to see those of different races as persons with whom we cannot be united, and the resulting discrimination obstructs the seeking out and receiving of one another to which God would bring us.

One might move from this starting point toward an account of human dignity founded on God’s desire “that all human beings be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” mentioned in 1 Timothy. The resulting account might well focus on the psalmist’s eschatological “glory and honor” with which God intends to crown human creatures, a glory and honor already won by Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf, as Hebrews describes. But it would also have to attend to how God fashioned human beings in the beginning so that they might be able to exercise “dominion over the works” of God’s hands. That is to say, it would require a theological anthropology that views human dignity in the light of both nature and grace, both “God’s created order” and God’s eschatological intention for his creatures.

The achievement of John Paul II was to develop just such a theological account of human dignity through a series of encyclicals and other documents that even non-Catholics must count among the past century’s foremost bodies of theological work. The pope’s strategy was not simply to work out a nonliberal theological anthropology but in doing so to “save modernity from itself,” acknowledging the moral insight embodied in the liberal “rights” tradition while reestablishing that tradition on a different foundation.

John Paul II’s thinking always began with Christ and the mystery of salvation; indeed, the following lines from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, might be considered a motto of his papacy: “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light . . . . For by his incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every man.” It is in the context of affirming what he called the “dignity of divine adoption” in Christ that the pope speaks also of the natural, created dignity of the human being, which he always describes in terms of the capacity to seek and grasp the true and the good. This is the created foundation for the eschatological dignity of divine adoption; God has fashioned human beings as creatures to whom it is possible to give the gift of communion with himself. This created dignity can be known at least in part by human reason, without divine revelation.

John Paul II attempted to resituate the moral legacy of modernity, expressed in the language of human rights, on this theological basis. Thus he can speak in Centesimus Annus of “the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate”no individual, group, class, nation or State.” Refounding the liberal discourse of human rights on a nonliberal theological account of human dignity made it possible for John Paul II to make, as a Christian pastor, human rights a central theme precisely of his articulation of the gospel”the good news about Jesus Christ.

The achievement is impressive, even astounding”but not without problems and challenges. There are Catholic thinkers respectful of the papal office who worry that John Paul II took on board too much of modern liberalism along with the discourse of rights. Certainly a traditional Lutheran, or any old-fashioned Augustinian, could sympathize with the concern that when human rights are “theologized” in this way, the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man is blurred, and the necessity for prudential dealing with the stubbornly imperfect and muddled reality of human history is underplayed. One might also worry that the liberal conception of rights has its own built-in anthropology that inevitably subverts a theological understanding of human persons. How easy is it to separate modern “rights” from an individualistic voluntarism that undermines the very idea of a “created order” that we cannot flout without disaster?

Questions like these are not unfamiliar to attentive readers of First Things . Instead of pursuing them here, I want to take a step back and consider how classical theology might approach the project of a nonliberal appreciation of aspects of modernity.

To begin with a further doctrinal point: The God who created the world also governs the world by his providence. Even the fall into sin was not a withdrawal from God’s governance, only from his fellowship. Where God is rejected or unknown, he nonetheless reigns, in wrath, to be sure, but also in patience and mercy. According to Christ, he “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Among the gifts that God continues to bestow on fallen humanity, classical theology has typically acknowledged, are gifts of knowledge and insight, natural affection and good customs, even though these are surrounded, assaulted, subverted, and sometimes extinguished in actual human societies by error and wickedness.

Therefore the unredeemed world is not comprehensively or systematically evil. The New Testament emphasizes that despite the good gifts of God, the world is lost; it walks in darkness and the shadow of death, and only God can deliver it through Jesus Christ. Even so, however, as St. Irenaeus pointed out in Against Heresies , when the devil claimed that he could give Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them, if Jesus would only bow down and worship him, he was lying. Human society is not the devil’s possession to give or to withhold. Any such claim is contradicted later in the gospel when Jesus cries out: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father.

This means that for classical Christianity, the theological understanding of human history and culture is difficult. The comprehensive negative judgment that the world is on a path to destruction is the first and last word to be said about the world apart from grace, but not the only word. History as it plays out under God’s providence is a mass of particulars linked together in space and through time by manifold contingent bonds. God rules over the whole, but in the unfathomable subtlety of his governance many conflicting influences are allowed to bear on the way things go. Good and evil, light and darkness, insight and foolishness are mingled together in a thoroughly untidy stew. Theological assessment of history requires not grandiose Hegelian dramaturgy but the patience of discernment, which deals attentively with particulars and contingencies.

Thus a theological engagement with modernity ought to resist big-picture or single-factor explanations of its object. Modernity considered in the context of divine providence will not be seen as a unitary phenomenon produced by one cause, be it capitalism, the printing press, or even Scotist metaphysics. It will be seen as an irreducibly complex and even confused phenomenon, whose characteristic institutions, practices, and ideas have functioned differently at different places and times and have frequently been inconsistent with one another. The recognition of complexity and contingency called for by a providential understanding of history opens up a field for discernment, so that theological reflection can pay attention to details, avoid reducing history to theory, and learn to make distinctions between good and evil that respond to the subtlety and unpredictability of God’s governance, even if such reflection can never do them justice.

The further question of the availability of authentic moral and political insight amid this welter of human history has traditionally been discussed under the heading of the “natural law.” Nearly all major streams of Christian thought, including the Protestant Reformation, have affirmed the reality of natural law, in the first place because the Bible affirms it. The theological affirmation of natural law is not primarily the endorsement of a philosophical account; it is an interpretation of the moral and political history of the human race in the context of the scriptural narrative construed according to the rule of faith.

To be sure, theologians need to think philosophically about natural law, because Scripture does not give us much clue as to how it all works, and theologians need some wider framework of understanding if they are to work out the implications of what Scripture does say. But a theological account of natural law, even if it has in view the same phenomenon of which the philosophers speak, considers that phenomenon from a different perspective. The theologian has to think not only in terms of what is possible in principle for human beings as such but also in terms of the concrete human being in the actual order of Providence, the human being who is fallen, corrupted, yet still blessed by the Creator, the human being to whom the church holds out the invitation to new life in Christ and the hope of eternal life.

In Christian theology, the scriptural locus classicus for the claim that there is within us some sort of natural law is Romans 2:14“15. The question at issue is how Jew and Gentile can be subject to a final judgment according to a common standard, even though the Gentiles do not have the explicit teaching of the Mosaic Law. The Apostle writes: “For when Gentiles, who do not have Torah, do the things of the Torah, then they, not having Torah, are Torah to themselves. They demonstrate that the work of the Torah is written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.”

When St. Paul says that the Gentiles “not having Torah, are Torah to themselves” and when he speaks of the work demanded by the Torah rather than the Torah itself being written on the Gentile heart, this may suggest that he is not thinking in terms of a code, a set of core rules somehow located in every head or able to be derived from general observations of human existence. He seems more congenial to a view like that of Jacques Maritain, for whom the judgments in which the mind grasps the natural law “do not proceed from any conceptual, discursive, rational exercise of reason; they proceed from that connaturality or congeniality through which what is consonant with the essential inclinations of human nature is grasped by the intellect as good; what is dissonant, as bad.”

This makes the cultural and political appeal to natural law more difficult, especially since our concrete access to the “essential inclinations of human nature” is deeply obscured by the bad ideas and distorted passions that are the outcome of sin. The work of the Torah may be written in the heart, but the heart is also, according to Jeremiah, “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

As Martin Luther wrote, commenting on Psalm 101, the practical problem of the natural law is that “everyone likes to think that the natural law is encased in his own head.” This is true even though the natural law is “the source from which all written law has come and issued.” Natural law is thus what fallen human societies have to work with, but they do not typically work with it very well. “So things in the world in general remain mere patchwork and beggary.” Because we dare not simply consult what we find encased in our own heads, “one must patch and darn and help oneself with laws, sayings, and examples of the heroes as they are recorded in books. Yet we never do it as well as it is written there; we crawl after it and cling to it as to a bench or to a cane.”

Note how Luther’s reflection on the effect of sin on our perception of the natural law leads him to a kind of common lawyer’s approach to the natural law. We have access to the natural law not chiefly through theory but through imperfect moral traditions, the accumulated residue of centuries of human struggle to discern the good in concrete situations. This is not to deny that moral and political theory can illuminate our condition, but a good theory will bring to our attention how dependent we are on what can’t be captured in theory.

On a theologically informed account of natural law in the context of creation and providence, then, the connection between moral insight and moral theory is somewhat loose. God makes the sun shine on both the clear-minded and the muddled, and sometimes the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of the Kingdom. Good moral theory does not guarantee concrete moral insight, and bad theory does not make moral insight impossible. Ideas have consequences, but so do the ingrained moral rhythms of familiar practices, the pressure of practical exigencies and emergencies, and the resilience of character in those whose ideas might seem subversive of character.

It should not be surprising, therefore, if the liberal human-rights tradition has embedded within it genuine moral insights that are not simply deductions from liberal theory. Under particular historical circumstances, bad theory may have the practical function of legitimating genuine insight; despite its falsity, it may also enable the consolidation and development of insight”up to a point. A project like John Paul II’s, an effort to rescue modernity’s genuine insights from the intellectual and moral collapse of liberalism, is not therefore intrinsically implausible, whatever the degree to which his particular endeavor succeeded.

To go further, however, it may be necessary to pay more attention to the details of modern history than a pope could do in a series of teaching documents. In the perspective I have sketched, the differences between different versions of liberalism might be important, not because there is somewhere a “good” liberalism that will solve our problems but because the different versions may display different degrees of “connaturality” with what is most fundamentally human. Madison’s account of religious liberty, in the Memorial and Remonstrance , in terms of a divine claim on each person that is prior to the claims of civil society, is quite different from Kant’s account, in What Is Enlightenment? , which makes aggressive demands on autonomous human reason. A theologian does not have to endorse Madison’s thought as a whole in order to judge that he starts with a perception of something real, while Kant’s approach will end by subverting the rationality it celebrates.

Finally, we need also to look more closely at the ways in which insight is generated, not only at the theoretical justification of insight. In the moral conflict over American slavery, works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Frederick Douglass’ Memoir may have provoked insight into the evil of slavery more efficiently than did Lockean theory, presenting slavery in such a way that its repugnant irrationality became tangible to many readers. How was that repugnance communicated? To what in their readers did such writers appeal? How might that repugnance be interpreted in other than liberal terms? Just the few words quoted from Maritain above seem deeply suggestive.

Indeed, in the account of natural law suggested here, the most profound practical task facing those who seek both to preserve and to build decent societies “after liberalism” may be that of fashioning a theologically and philosophically informed rhetoric that can help contemporary men and women discern what is “consonant with the essential inclinations of human nature” and what is not.

David S. Yeago is the Michael C. Peeler Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. This paper and the responses by Shalom Carmy and Thomas Joseph White were given at a First Things symposium titled “After Liberalism” and were prepared and published with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company.