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The latest issue of Modern Age (Winter 2009) is now available for general consumption and features a symposium on Remi Brague’s amazingly erudite book The Law of God . Besides a very fine lead contribution from Mark Shiffman (who blogs over at Front Porch Republic ) you’ll also find short essays from our own Peter Lawler, Ralph Hancock, and me. Peter’s article will be of special interest to those looking for an excellent and synoptic introduction to his thoughts on how Christianity decisively shaped the West through its interpretation of logos as irreducibly personal. Also, Ralph’s deep reflections on the relationship between law and counsel will whet your appetite for his book-in-progress on Strauss, Tocqueville, and Heidegger.

If you have any philosophical eros left after their fine essays, then take a look at my own modest (and painlessly brief) contribution which comments on the character of our nation’s internecine intellectual disputes as a peculiar reflection of the Straussian distinction between reason and revelation. It often seems that our most pressing and most visceral debates take their bearings by Strauss’ austere dichotomy. Committed secularists want science to impose a monopoly on the market of reason and political discourse relegating any mention of religious belief to superstitious attachment. Similarly, it often seems that our religiously faithful are just as uncompromising, preferring to argue their position on the foundation of scriptural authority rather than rational persuasion. Either way, both sides seem to have found common ground in interpreting their positions as mutually exclusive foreclosing the possibility of a serious and fruitful dialogue versus personal and angry recriminations. These contests of will often speak directly to the very foundations of the American regime since they focus on (or sometimes reduce to) the question of whether our original premises are comprehensively secular or essentially Christian (or some complicated amalgam of the two).

These debates are typically based on three misunderstandings—an overwrought sequestering of reason from revelation, an exaggerated view of the liberation modernity achieves from the Christian categories out of which it is born, and a related reductionism with respect to the undergirding premises of the American founding. As Peter discusses in his piece, the truly important historical (and philosophical) distinction is not between reason and revelation simply (and even Strauss understood his formula here as hyperbolic) but rather the “fundamental choice” is “between the impersonal logos of the philosophers and scientists and the personal logos that does justice to what we can really see about who we are.” While the logos of the ancient philosophers is unambiguously impersonal culminating in their trans-erotic solitude, the modern interpretation of logos is more schizophrenic—it vacillates between the hyper-personal (extreme subjectivity and comprehensive historicism) and the impersonal (the technological or scientific take on logos). This dual character of modernity (and the resistance of Christianity to worldly appropriation) makes it possible for Christianity to both exist in tension with modernity and to be responsible for its emergence and subsequent character.

As Brague argues in The Law of God and elsewhere, the modern project of comprehensive secularization, or its mission to sunder the divine from law in the service of individual autonomy, is “only made possible, in the final analysis, by the Christian experience of a divine without a law.” In fact, Brague proposes that the very notion of a modern state, or of citizenship, or of the separation of church and state, or our fundamental interpretation of democracy, or the distinction between the sacred and the profane, and even atheism and the idea of secularization itself are all ultimately inheritances of a Christianity which modernity set out to reject but instead deeply but unwittingly absorbed. To complicate matters further, it might be the case (and Ralph points out this is a conclusion Brague seems committed to) that the way in which Christianity emancipates religion from law (and the entire domain of the practical from the divine), makes the more radical modern separation of the normative from the divine (and the lionization of the individual) possible. Paradoxically, it might also be the case the modern appropriation of Christianity, despite its efforts to conceal its parentage, provides further illumination regarding what is true about Christian psychology and anthropology.

As I argue in my essay, America is particularly emblematic both of modernity’s debts to Christianity and its frequent attempts to resist any acknowledgment of these debts—the historical disputes over the Lockean or Thomistic nature of the American founding expresses itself in our theoretical disputes regarding the relationship between morality and law. This struck me the other day watching Obama’s address to Notre Dame—he makes some superficial concessions to the deep disagreements Americans have over abortion but marginalizes those who object to abortion by reducing their sentiments to a purely religious (and there not rationally defensible) impulse that only has legitimacy as a matter of private conscience (versus in the public square). Of course, this compartmentalization of private conscience and law is a caricature of both and depends upon a Straussian dualism that  has become the modern conceit. Unfortunately, Obama’s position of moral neutrality is a pretense designed to usher in his own preferred ideological commitments. It might be the case that one of our most pressing problems today is the way our own odd American Straussianism has a tendency to prevent public debate as a matter of principle, or to diminish those debates as politically irrelevant, and to transfer whatever debate is deemed legitimate from the prudence and consent of common citizens to the expertise of bureaucratic elites.

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