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“Vatican II,” George Weigel writes in Freedom and Its Discontents, “posed a basic challenge to the many monisms, religious and secular, ancient and modern, that continue to beset human life and the cause of human freedom.”

The Council mounted this challenge to the monistic cast of mind, a term that Weigel uses interchangeably with “totalitarian,” through a recovery and adaptation of the pluralistic principle articulated by Pope Gelasius I to Anastasius in 494 a.d. : “Two there are, august emperor, by which this world is ruled on title of original and sovereign right—the consecrated authority of the priesthood and the royal power.” In the past, monism was expressed in the altar-throne union that was held up as the Roman Catholic ideal into the nineteenth century. Today, Weigel argues that the same impulse fuels Marxist totalitarianism and the sacralization of politics of “theologies of liberation.” Similarly, Richard John Neuhaus has criticized evangelicals of the left and the right for their “monism.”

According to John Courtney Murray, to whom both Weigel and Neuhaus are indebted, monism posits that sovereignty is indivisible and therefore must be lodged in a single institution or person with overarching and absolute authority. This “monistic drive” thus seeks “a oneness of society, law, and authority.” Monism has taken various guises: from the royal absolutism of the early modern period to the Jacobin insistence on the sovereignty of the people to the virtual divinization of the Party in Marxist-Leninist states.

Rejection of social and political monism has as its corollary an affirmation of institutional pluralism. According to this view, the state’s jurisdiction is limited, society and state are separate, and the various institutions—family, church, and state—are independent of one another. These principles have a notable ancestry within the Calvinist tradition with which I identify: from the concept of sphere sovereignty developed by Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, to the Politics of the sixteenth-century German Calvinist Althusius, all the way back to Calvin himself, who spent the greater part of his career struggling for the freedom of the Church in a city where civil rulers dictated ecclesiastical policy. Insofar as monism means the absorption of all institutions by the State (or Church), Calvinism has forcefully repudiated it.

At the same time, Calvinists have insisted that a Christian account of man and society must make what many will view as “totalitarian” and “monistic” claims. Unqualified critiques of monism fail to take account of important theological truths. Surely, for example, no Christian would take a critique of “monism” as far as Richard Rorty, who has argued that anyone who subordinates all activities to one dominant end—such as, for example, doing one’s all ad maioram gloriam Dei—is simply mad. (So much not only for Calvin and Ignatius Loyola, but for Paul as well.)

Moreover, the New Testament demands a confession of the great “monistic” fact of the new age of the kingdom—the fact that absolute sovereignty belongs indivisibly to Christ, the Lord. Everywhere in the New Testament this chord is sounded. Before His ascension, Jesus claimed that “all authority is given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:19). The Father raised Jesus and “put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as Head of all things to the Church” (Ephesians 1:22). In its exhortations to kings and judges, the messianic Psalm 2 draws a specifically political message from the enthronement of the Son, an application found as well in John’s vision of Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:15–16). The confession that Christ is Lord is the “monistic” confession that there is only One Lord. To confess Christ as Lord is to confess that ultimate sovereignty is indeed indivisible. To be a Christian is to confess the cosmic mon-archy of Christ.

Such a “monistic” and “totalitarian” affirmation does not, however, entail an abandonment of institutional pluralism but instead underwrites it. Because Christ alone is Lord of all, all human authority is derived and limited; because Christ alone is Lord, it is idolatry for the Party to claim absolute Lordship. Indeed, it seems to me that the monistic affirmation of Christ’s Lordship is the best defense of the pluralism of the social order. Murray noted that the “monistic tendency has been visible in practically all the states that have paraded across the stage of history.” Even democratic systems are not immune: Murray castigated the “totalitarianizing tendency inherent in the contemporary idolatry of the democratic process,” warned against the monism of political technique that settles all issues by majority vote, and concluded that democratic monism is ultimately a monism of power, which reformulates the Gelasian principle to read, “One there is whereby this world is ruled—the power in the people, expressing itself in the preference of a majority; and beyond or beside or above this power there is no other.”

The pervasiveness of social monism in history and its appearance in modern democratic systems suggests that it is a drive deeply rooted in man. This in turn suggests the possibility that at some level some sort of monism is inescapable, and that if the monism of Christ is rejected, the monism of the State—or of the Majority or of the Party, which amounts to the same thing—is the most readily available alternative.

Christians of all people should have no difficulty with an account of human society that recognizes both monistic and pluralistic dimensions or with the double confession that “there are two” and that “there is One.” Christians, after all, worship a God who is Three and One, a God who formed man, and therefore human society, in His own image.

Peter J. Leitharta Presbyterian pastor, contributes regularly to First Things .

Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash. Image cropped.