(Please read my previous post first, if you haven’t.)

Try to follow me here: Christianity, I was arguing, necessarily implies an ambivalence towards any moral-political culture. On the one hand, it reinforces much conventional moral content by declaring it to be the object of a divine command: Thou shalt not steal, commit adultery, etc. At the same time, Christianity wrenches that moral content out of a practical, immanent world, a functional economy of need and hierarchy, and in fact declares that world to be fallen, prideful, devoid of spiritual meaning. The tendency is evident already in Augustine: since our true home is the Heavenly City, the City of Man (the political world) has no higher purpose but to enable compromise regarding the necessities of mortality. Radical Augustinians from Calvinists and Jansenists (including Pascal) through Kierkegaard and Catholic postmodernists such as Jean-Luc Marion emancipate this gesture of radical transcendence from the Platonic moorings still at work in Augustine.

Of course I am aware that there are other Christian theological traditions than the radical Augustinian, most notably the Thomist, but I confess my doubts as to whether natural law can withstand the depreciation of the political. (But that’s another, longer discussion.) It is no accident that the radicals of transcendence tend to prevail, since their message of the transience or relativity of merely political (social-moral-cultural-economic) order is only a half-truth, but it’s a compelling half, easy to grasp and apt to “inspire.” The easiest thing to grasp about the City of God is that it is not the City of Man – that is to say, that all existing moral-political authority is all-too-human, and that every individual represents some promise, some meaning, some destiny far beyond anything that can be represented in the economy of an actual political-cultural world.

The men who took the woman in adultery were corrupt. I gather they were not following the Torah in various ways; most notably they had failed to accuse the male offender. Christ wrote something on the ground (some evocation of Torah?) that convicted their conscience and thus undermined their authority. But here is the hard question I am trying to ask: if all the authoritative Jews (or Rolmans, or Christians, or upright ruling persons generally) were thus convicted and demoralized (as well they might be), then where would we be?
Liberals, to be sure, do not like to be reminded that Christ commands the woman to “go and sin no more.” So the category of sin appears intact. But, again, here is what I am asking: can the category of sin effectively subsist without that of crime, without, that is, an authoritative moral culture (that is, a functional political community) that thinks enough of its own righteousness and judgment (that is, that sustains enough healthy hypocrisy) to . . . cast a stone now and then? Can virtue be completely severed from honor, and vice from shame?

Christianity offers conventional political-cultural morality divine sanction (in certain of its essentials), but at the same time it undermines the worldly meaning of that moral economy. At the limit, we are asked to hold that adultery is an awful sin in the eyes of God, and at the same time that our most deeply felt and socially anchored judgments of right/wrong stand convicted from the standpoint of a transcendence we cannot grasp.

Let us switch to a more contemporary example. Say an unmarried teen-aged girl in our Christian congregation is pregnant. She has been taught a thousand times by her parents and her Church leaders the virtue of chastity. But she is pregnant. Now, should we exclude her from the activities of the other teen-aged girls in the congregation? No, we should, while hating the sin, show love for the sinner, right? What’s most important is to rescue “the one” (as opposed to the 99), to show love and forgiveness, and certainly not to exclude the girl from the group and thus practically guarantee that her soul will be lost.

But then, what is the practical lesson to be learned by the other girls in the small Christian group? They may still assent in principle to the doctrine that unchastity is a grave sin – but it hardly seems so portentous now, does it? The sin without the crime, the vice without the shame, becomes pretty abstract. It is obvious that there are perfectly good and normal, well-accepted, regular people who “sin.” So sin is just what people do, no?

Compare the harsh response that was routine in Christian societies not long ago: see the Marcel Pagnol film, recently remade with/by the incomparable Daniel Auteuil, La Fille du Puisatier (The Well-Digger’s Daughter). An unmarried pregnant daughter is a shame beyond bearing, and there is no resort but to banish the daughter.

The Puisatier’s response is unimaginably cruel for us. For me to respond in that way to one of my own daughters is for me literally unthinkable. But how cruel is our kindness, or compassion? Can we reach out to “the one” without demoralizing the 99? Can we extend compassionate forgiveness without relativizing the social morality that actually has teeth, that informs our habits and sensibilities, that structures our political-cultural world?

(Apply this same analysis to the problem of homosexuality, if you dare.)

My thesis: Politics (an authoritative and hierarchical moral-cultural world) is the Rule, Christianity the Exception. The Exception (grace) presupposes and depends upon The Rule (nature). Virtue rises above mere honor, and reaches out with compassion to the dishonored. The Exception interrupts, softens, convicts the Rule.

But the Exception must not, cannot, completely relativize, eliminate The Rule.

For us late-liberal-democrats, the Exception is the New Rule. Grace has been naturalized. Tolerance is on the verge of becoming the only politically authorized and socially-culturally instantiated morality. This is not an authentic consequence of Christianity, but it is still a consequence of a deep impulse abetted by Christianity, that of relativizing all worldly moral authority.
What then is to be done? To sustain the very meaning of virtue and sin, must Christians change sides and take up the cause of worldly honor and shame? And of the always necessarily (at least to some degree) unjust hierarchy implicit in any world of honor and shame? Must Christians be more clear-sightedly political than the men and women of the world? Who will throw the first stone?

blog comments powered by Disqus