Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, With “On My Religion”
by John Rawls
Harvard, 275 pages, $27.95

To read A Brief Inquiry is to be led to ponder whether, as Wordsworth wrote, the child is father of the man. For the book makes available a text that was not generally known to exist, the senior thesis written by the late John Rawls in 1942 to complete requirements for graduation from Princeton. After graduating, Rawls enlisted in the army and served in the Pacific”returning after the war to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy and become an extraordinarily influential moral and political philosopher.

Thus, A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin and Faith makes available the thoughts of a twenty-one-year-old Rawls and, perhaps surprisingly to many who know his mature work, a deeply religious Rawls. The book also includes a brief piece titled “On My Religion,” written (though not for publication) by Rawls sometime in the 1990s. In it he makes clear that by June 1945 he had abandoned the Christian beliefs so resoundingly asserted in the thesis three years earlier, and he offers some speculation about why his beliefs had changed.

Along with these two pieces by Rawls himself, the book contains an introduction written by Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, which attempts to sort through continuities and discontinuities between the young Rawls of the thesis and the well-known scholar of later years. It also includes a roughly seventy-five-page essay by Robert Merrihew Adams called “The Theological Ethics of the Young Rawls and Its Background,” which examines the argument of the thesis in detail. Adams’ essay is helpful for understanding and situating Rawls’ thesis”though seldom has a piece of undergraduate writing received such rigorous analysis from an eminent scholar, and it led me (perhaps counterintuitively) to wonder whether the thesis really merits quite this level of attention.

Cohen and Nagel write that “the thesis is an extraordinary work for a twenty-one-year-old, animated by youthful passion and powerful ethical conviction, often vividly ex­pressed, and informed by erudition and deep philosophical reflection.” This strikes me as rhetorical overkill, although clearly the author of the thesis is a very bright and thoughtful student. As a stylist, the undergraduate author is clearly father of the man. There is a labored quality to the thesis, as it sets out what will be done and extends promissory notes in a manner all too reminiscent of A Theory of Justice , the great 1971 work that was to make Rawls’ reputation.

What is most striking to me about the undergraduate thesis is a feature about which I am somewhat ambivalent, for it goes beyond work one might ordinarily expect from an undergraduate in its theoretical ambition. The young Rawls does not content himself with analyzing and evaluating the work of important scholars. (He does, though, make use of some, perhaps especially Emil Brunner and Anders Nygren”and makes still more use of the Bible, “always the last word in matters of religion,” as he writes.) The thesis is less analytical than constructive, as the undergraduate Rawls attempts to develop his own view of “the inner core of the universe,” at the heart of which are the concepts of community and personality.

About this I am, as I said, ambivalent. Even granting that a senior thesis comes at the end of the undergraduate experience, one’s energies may be better focused on understanding and analyzing the thought of important thinkers than of constructing one’s own system. And certainly, at least for this reader, it is the constructive parts of the thesis that are least clearly formulated. One may, as Cohen and Nagel do, note certain continuities and discontinuities between them and views developed by the mature Rawls, but there’s not much else to be gained from them.

About the content of the thesis I will say relatively little. Rawls develops a distinction between what he calls naturalism and the view for which he argues, which makes personality and community central. He acknowledges that his use of the term naturalism is somewhat idiosyncratic and stipulative. Roughly, he means to distinguish natural relations, in which a person is drawn toward an object, from personal relations, in which two subjects meet in mutual community. In natural relations, an active subject stands over against an object; the relation is not mutual. In a personal relation, both subjects are active”revealing themselves to each other and, sometimes, judging each other.

Thus, any ethics that focuses on our desire for various goods, even one that is quite concerned to distinguish proper from disordered desires, is condemned by Rawls. From this perspective he can and does lump together Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. “They have all failed to understand the communal problem and consider ethics a matter of relating persons to proper objects, such as the Form of the Good, Truth, or God, who is conceived by Augustine and Aquinas as the most desirable object.”

One sees here the considerable influence of Nygren on Rawls, even when it comes out with undergraduate confidence in these sentences from the preface: “I do not believe that the Greek tradition mixes very well with Christianity, and the sooner we stop kowtowing to Plato and Aristotle the better. An ounce of the Bible is worth a pound (possibly a ton) of Aristotle.” And in the rejection of every eudaimonistic strain of thought (since even the attempt to sort out ordinate and inordinate loves still assumes that the point of the moral life is to relate ourselves properly to desired objects), one can see the germ of Rawls’ later Kantianism, which took shape in a theory of justice based not on goods to be sought but on fair terms of cooperation.

Having developed his reasons for rejecting naturalism in favor of persons-in-community (with, by the way, the inner life of the triune God as a model), the young Rawls completes the thesis with chapters on the meaning of sin and the meaning of faith. These chapters are also constructive, as he attempts to think through theological concepts from the normative standpoint he has developed. The “appetition” that seeks God as its object turns out to be, fundamentally, sin. “If one cannot have faith in God just because He is what He is, but has to add that He is most satisfying in His beauty and such an object that we shall never crave anything else”then perhaps it is better not to be a Christian at all.”

There is, I would note, no creaturely neediness here. The young Rawls’ religion is fundamentally ethical, concerned with the proper structure of personal relations in community. But the most fundamental religious impulse of all”to worship the One for whom we are made and apart from whom we cannot be fully ourselves”is less in evidence.

Those interested in connections to the political theory of the mature Rawls are likely to be struck by the thesis’ rejection of any community “based upon mutual egoism or mutual advantage.” Indeed, he writes, “all ‘contract’ theories of society suffer from this fundamental defect.” Because Rawls might be said to be the greatest social-contract theorist of the last half of the twentieth century, this looks like a large discontinuity in the development of his thought.

In their introduction, however, Cohen and Nagel argue that such is not the case. Rawls’ mature concept of justice as fairness did not depend, they suggest, on a vision of self-interested individuals bargaining about the terms on which they would live together in society. Rather, he used “the idea of a contract under the veil of ignorance principally as a device for representing the value of fairness.” This seems strained, for, even behind the imagined veil of ignorance, in which one does not know one’s own life circumstances, one must somehow ask what sort of risks one would be willing to run in order to share a life in community. Self-interest has not been eliminated.

The concluding chapter on faith includes a long discussion of conversion, an intriguing attempt to interpret the doctrine of election in communal more than individualistic terms, and a puzzling rejection of the “false conception” that God might be angry and punish. What Christians may sometimes imagine as the anger of God is really the experience of being “left within the aloneness of sin.” What makes this puzzling is its appearance in a thesis that exalts personal relations between subjects, who may, of course, hold each other responsible and judge each other. Why God should here be conceived less personally than human subjects is hard to understand.

One of the peculiarities of the short later document, “On My Religion,” is that at certain places it articulates viewpoints the author of “A Brief Inquiry” should have known were questionable. For instance, the older Rawls rejects a notion of “salvation by true belief,” even though the young Rawls had already distinguished faith (as trust) from belief (as a cognitive state). He rejects notions of predestination, characterizing them as depicting “God as a monster moved solely by God’s own power and glory,” even though he had himself once taken the meaning of election to be that “God is working to establish a community.” And perhaps most surprising, the man who had placed community at the heart of Christian faith writes that “Christianity is a solitary religion.” The last of these, in particular, is genuinely puzzling.

“I started [the war] as a believing orthodox Episcopalian Christian, and abandoned it entirely by June of 1945,” Rawls writes in “On My Religion.” He does not claim that he can really account for or explain the change, but he mentions three incidents that, at least in memory, seem to have been important. The first of them is something for which an unnamed Lutheran pastor, then serving troops in the Pacific, has a lot to answer. At least as Rawls remembered it, this pastor “gave a brief sermon in which he said that God aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs.” This depiction of so clearly partial a divine providence angered Rawls; he even says that he “upbraided” the pastor for using Christian teaching in a way designed simply to give false comfort.

The second incident”a striking one that we can easily imagine would embed itself in Rawls’ memory”grew out of the death of Deacon, a friend and fellow soldier. One volunteer was needed to give blood; a second, to scout out some Japanese positions. Because Rawls happened to have the needed blood type, Deacon received the other assignment and was killed by a mortar attack.

The third incident”“really more than an incident,” Rawls notes”was news of the Holocaust, gradually making its way to troops in the Pacific. The link between these three incidents seems clearly to involve a questioning of the notion of divine providence. A religion that had been focused on morality ran aground when it came to seem out of kilter with morality. “To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them.”

These issues are, of course, profound and troubling. One could hardly argue that Rawls was wrong to be troubled by such questions. His reflections seem to have led him away from Christianity, though not from some form of theism. What he lost in that movement, however, was a God who cares enough about us to involve himself in our life and history. Lacking such a God, we are left with our own efforts”both theoretical and practical. In his last major work, The Law of Peoples , a work with explicit ties to Kant’s vision of perpetual peace, Rawls concludes by claiming that, because it is not entirely unreasonable to hope for the establishment of a just social order, we have reason enough”even apart from the realization of such an order”to “reconcile us to the social world.” So long as it is reasonable to hope that we”or others in the future”may achieve such a society, we can do our part now in pressing toward that goal.

An eschatological hope, a quasi-religious conviction, continued to be needed to give meaning and point to the work to which Rawls devoted his life. This is, however, a rather different hope from that with which the young Rawls concluded his senior thesis, picturing the entire Creation as moving toward “that great day” of the Lord, which “may not be so far off as we think.” Whether the hope that moved the younger Rawls, grounded in a God who enters our struggle and fulfills what we are unable to do, was not in fact the more reasonable hope is a question that the trajectory of Rawls’ work may invite us to consider yet again.

Gilbert Meilaender , a member of the First Things editorial board, holds the Deusenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift