The essence of Christianity is to love one another, to have compassion, not to judge, but to forgive, to accept – no? Applied to politics, the implication seems obvious: unlimited tolerance, equality of lifestyles, etc: in a word, extreme liberalism.
What’s wrong with this picture? Everything, conservatives will say, and they will have a point, but let’s try to sort this out more carefully, like good postmoderns.
Consider the famous story in the Gospel of John of the woman taken in adultery. Jesus evades the trap the woman’s accusers are trying to set for him by writing something on the ground (??) that pricks the conscience of the accusers. He invites any of the accusers who is without sin to cast the first stone. Then, when there are no takers, he tells the woman that he does not condemn her, and then instructs her to “go, and sin no more.
I do not propose an exegesis of this passage (though you, reader, are welcome to try), but merely to address its liberal reception in political-philosophical terms.
The heart of the problem, it seems to me, is this: political-legal order necessarily includes a moral-cultural dimension, and Christianity necessarily stands ambivalently in relation to this natural (and changeable, relative) moral-political authority.
Every society imposes (mostly implicitly, through honor and shame, and corresponding “dogmatic beliefs” – Tocqueville, eventually linked with material incentives and punishments) an authoritative morality. The upholding and enforcement of this morality (for it must be upheld, and thus, in various ways, enforced or incentivized) necessarily involves the pretension that some are “without sin,” that is, morally competent to judge others.
Christianity stands ambivalently towards this socially-politically enforced morality. One the one hand, Christian morality will always overlap with a society’s morality, and will reinforce that morality as commanded by God. Robbery and adultery are crimes, and they are sins, too. On the other hand, Christianity will tend to relativize any particular moral-political-cultural authority as a whole. Christianity elevates the individual as a child of God above the authority of the community and points up the transcendent preciousness of the individual in contrast with the transience of the political community.
The trouble is, this Christian transcendence always risks undermining its own meaning: it tends to dissolve its conventional (moral-cultural-political) basis, and thus leaves moral commandments floating in meaningless space, and thus, not only without social sanction, but, at the limit, without coherence or even meaning. The notion of “sin” depends upon the prior notion of “crime.” Evil depends upon bad.
But the transcendent notions of sin/evil also tend to undermine the immanent notions of crime/bad. All political morality is relative and questionable from the standpoint of transcendence. It can be understood as functional relative to a worldly economy that regulates our mortal necessities. Christianity is in the business of drawing us beyond such worldly economies. Sexual norms and definitions of “family,” historians and anthropologists tell us, vary over time with social and economic conditions. There are reasons why adultery (just for example) used to seem so heinous, and now appears (or perhaps is supposed soon to appear) as trivial, even incomprehensible as a crime/sin. (Substitute other norms governing sexuality if this analysis seems hard to credit.) Christianity and historicist anthropology seem to agree on relativizing morality – or at least much of it.
The problem is, though, that, in relativizing political morality, Christianity is always at risk of undermining its own moral basis, and thus its own practical meaning. For the projection of another world depends upon a grounded sense of this world.
TO BE CONTINUED

Articles by Ralph Hancock

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