There is Always a State Religion

There is always a ruling oligarchy; in no other way can a society be governed, than by designating – somehow or other – a set of people to whom the power of government shall devolve. And if they are going to coordinate their decisions, the oligarchs must all speak the same language; must share certain categorical convictions about the nature of reality, and speak of these notions in such a way as to be able to understand each other.

So it is that the oligarchs must all at least give lip service to certain propositions about reality. They must at least ostensibly share a philosophy, in at least the most general terms. And this philosophy cannot but rule on first principles, on ultimate questions. If it does not, the oligarchs will not be able to stipulate to it in the practical operations of political life. If their basic convictions furnish no rationale for the dreadful decisions government inevitably entails, the oligarchs cannot be encouraged in taking them, and will quail and hesitate. Indeed, the best most courageous leadership comes from men so devoted to the noble ideals of their polis as to be motivated to the ultimate sacrifice in her behalf. Thus the oligarchy’s philosophy cannot but opine upon being, becoming, the supernatural and the divine, personhood, citizenship, the good, and so forth. Only thus may the oligarchy possibly agree amongst themselves about what is important – about the goods toward which the society they govern should be ordered, and thus what policies they ought to pursue. Only thus may the oligarchs order their own lives towards common purposes, or therefore rule effectually.

In other words, the oligarchy must have a religion, in the loosest sense of that word: an ordered system of principles, reaching all the way to ultimate things, under which they interpret all their experiences, that coordinates and binds together those experiences in a satisfactory order – not a perfect order, to be sure, but not so messy as to create intolerable cognitive dissonance, and coherent enough, and true enough withal, to enable them to devise policies that can succeed.

And the oligarchy must insist that their religion is the best, most fitting – in a word, the true and proper – under which to organize the government of society. They must, that is, establish their own religion as the ascendant, superordinate body of doctrine for the society as a whole. They must propagate the doctrine to those whom they govern, and secure their agreement thereto. And since the doctrines in question assert propositions about first principles, from which hang all the Law and Policy of the government, the agreement of the governed must take the form of credence. It is not enough for the governed to accept the ruling dogma as a pragmatic concession to the powerful, as the price of a peaceful life; no, they must be brought to believe it in their hearts, if they are ever to carry it into practice in their lives – if, that is, they are ever in fact to be governed. If the governed do not believe the ruling dogma, they will apprehend the oligarchy as fundamentally illegitimate and tyrannical, and this will eventually lead to revolt, or at least to social and economic friction, and loss of productivity. If on the other hand the governed give credence to the founding principles of the polis, they will be nerved to her defense, and moved to suffer and sacrifice for her, and for her leaders.

That nation is happiest and most prosperous whose people are all faithful to their common creed – provided it is true, and good. Poor, timorous, vicious or unhappy nations are eventually destroyed by their happier, better organized, wealthier and more virtuous competitors. In the absence of such competitors, vicious unhappy nations will turn and destroy themselves.

So there will always be an established religion, whether or not any particular religious organization receives support or subsidies of any kind from the state fisc – although usually there will be some such subsidy, or grant of special status, power, or privilege, to those charged with the propagation of the state faith.

The state faith must drive out all competitors for the hearts of men. It cannot ever rest until it has won that victory, for in no other way may its primacy be understood by the governed as legitimate, or social order therefore be preserved. The state faith must be a church militant. It must brand all dissenters as traitors, not just to the social order, but to the Good. In the limit, it must exterminate or banish them. It is here that the terrible logic of sacrifice is engaged. Once triggered, the cycle of sacrifice is self-feeding, and must grind along till all the dissenters are consumed in its holocaust – at which point, scapegoats being ever necessary to feed its insatiable maw, dissenters will be discovered on the bases of ever nicer points of political correctness or ritual purity.

What if the state religion is nominalist and atheist, like ours? It must relentlessly extirpate all reference to any objective Good, to any real essences in things, to any notion of accessible knowledge, to any natural or objective standards of beauty or decorum, to any recognition of God, or gods, or hallowed ancestors, or even of Nature. Any such expressions must be understood by all the cognoscenti as the sure signs of a traitor. Such traitors are to be ostracized and despised, their careers frustrated or destroyed, their property expropriated, their children either suborned or immolated, their political power eliminated, their doctrines rejected – not, NB, refuted, or even discussed in polite society, but spewn forth like poison.

I could go on with this, and fill in all the tiresome sordid details. But anyone with half a glimmer won’t need me to do that.

If there must always be an established religion, what religion is it best to establish? I say Christianity. Not because I am a Christian and think it true, or because its tradents have built the most prosperous, beautiful societies and conquered the world. Christianity does have all those things in its favor, to be sure. But the best practical reason to establish Christianity is that alone among religions it has solved the problem that the cycle of blood sacrifice threatens always to destroy even those societies otherwise most sane. In Christianity alone the logic of sacrifice is turned back on itself: the bloody holocaust of God himself has forever obviated the death either of scapegoats or innocents. Christianity therefore provides the best chance of maintaining a high degree of traditional social order that yet leaves room for creative genius to make its contribution to the endless process of social adaptation to changing circumstances. It offers the best chance at maintaining robust and flexible societies. And only a society that manages to survive has a shot at being good.

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32 thoughts on “There is Always a State Religion

  1. Agree.
    But the nations need to remember that we are commanded to Love the LORD with all are hearts and souls and mind… not the State. We are commanded not to have idols.
    For God is jealous.

    A smart ruler encourages this: it is the genius of Christendom at its best that people are loyal to God, then the local ruler. (And it is the gamble that the British took in the 1660s — to have the people’s loyalty with God and a powerless ruler, leaving parliament to rule while the King reigns). If all worship God, it tends to work.

    But without that, then the nation will fail, as all pagan nations have.

    Now the prophets once said that without vision, a nation fails. What we did not realize is how. The people stop having kids. They stop marrying. They stop being interested in sex. They become more interested in death (in primitive tribes, this leads to an increase in the suicide rate — in the moderns, it leads to a wish to be in a primitive tribe). We of the west need to never forget that the Romans did not see their fall, neither did the Greeks, nor Babylon, nor the Shogunate watching the Black Fleet enter their port.

    Without God, we will die out — for an idolatrous state religion has been tried and found wanting.

  2. Hmmm, following BillC to the Orthodox Presbyterian site for this…

    Of the Civil Magistrate

    III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

    And the Pope was quite correct when he said in Immortale Dei

    The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government. It may take this or that form, provided only that it be of a nature of the government, rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world, and must set Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State. For, in things visible God has fashioned secondary causes, in which His divine action can in some wise be discerned, leading up to the end to which the course of the world is ever tending. In like manner, in civil society, God has always willed that there should be a ruling authority, and that they who are invested with it should reflect the divine power and providence in some measure over the human race.

    I think it is fair to say that being a ruler is a noble task, ordained by God, but under the authority of God, as are all other professions. It is not something to be worshipped, nor (as a certain political party did last election cycle) should there be a cult of personality about a ruler.

  3. I don’t think oligarchs are ‘designated’ as governors of a society. Who designates them? They assume power in electing themselves – sometimes by fraud or violence; sometimes by affecting an authority through religious or political guile.

    • I would say that oligarchs are the people who have been selected by the actual mechanism the society employs to decide who will rule, however different this may be from the ostensible mechanism. As far as I can see, this is necessarily true. If you wish to know who rules in a country, don’t read the constitution (if it has one). Look and see who is, in fact, ruling. If you wish to know how rulers are designated, see how the actual rulers came to rule, not what the constitution or civics text books have to say about the matter. Certainly this may involve religious or political guile, but when it does, we should simply make effective deployment of religious or political guile part of our understanding of the operative designation process.

      Expanding this idea to the general point of the post, we should infer the principles on which a country is run from the actions of the rulers, not from official pronouncements or historical documents. Once again, there is often a large gap between the actual principles and the ostensible principles. When people notice this gap, they often wonder why the actual principles are not more like the ostensible principles, but they’ve gotten the question backwards.

      • we should infer the principles on which a country is run from the actions of the rulers, not from official pronouncements or historical documents

        Right, believe what they do not what they say. One quibble, though. How do we understand sin on this view? A person can gain power sinfully (i.e. by transgressing the rules of the state religion) or illegally (i.e. by transgressing the rules of the state constitution). Does this necessarily mean that he does not hold the state religion or believe that one should obey the law? Claudius was not a revolutionary, surely, when he killed King Hamlet. He did not think there was a principle by which regicide was right.

        One could say that we are only talking about patterns—a society disbelieves in regicide if regicide is rare. This has its own problems, though. Sin has patterns, for one thing. People close to the throne are going to be systematically tempted by regicide. On the other hand, you could have kings only rarely being killed if society is governed by the rule “Don’t kill kings unless they are very poor kings” which is quite different, say, from a divine right type conception of monarchy.

      • If rulers routinely come to power by “illegal” means, I would take it to mean that the “laws” they are said to have broken are merely ostensible laws. A law that is neither observed nor enforced is not a real law. Likewise, if rulers routinely come to power by “immoral” means, I would take it to mean that their immorality is only ostensible immorality. If we set aside the idea of God’s law, and view moral principles as social conventions as to acceptable and unacceptable behavior, it is clear that “widespread immorality” is an oxymoron. Behavior that is common, and commonly approved, is by definition “moral behavior” in that community. God may, of course, disapprove of my actions (sin), but if my neighbors don’t disapprove of my action, and subject me to some sort of censure, they are in no practical sense “immoral.”

        I’m not sure about your example of regicide. I suspect that you are right to say that no government could condone regicide. But then I ask myself, why couldn’t successful violent usurpation be the approved means of legitimate succession? My guess is that it results in the tyrant preemptively killing all potential rivals, and so depriving himself of a competent officer corp. So a government that condoned regicide would place bold and ruthless men at the top, but fail due to weakness at the next level.

        Our state religion is of the sort one expects to find in an empire. It is pantheistic, in the old sense of honoring a all gods (i.e. multiculturalism), provided the ultimate authority is in no way challenged. Few things are more pathetic than the sight of Christians allowing Christ to be placed in a pantheon.

      • “If you wish to know how rulers are designated, see how the actual rulers came to rule, not what the constitution or civics text books have to say about the matter. Certainly this may involve religious or political guile, but when it does, we should simply make effective deployment of religious or political guile part of our understanding of the operative designation process.”

        A source for this pragmatic attitude could be traced back to “The Prince”.

        (I don’t know how to make use of the formats for quotations, italics, links, etc., at a WordPress blog. Am I missing something obvious?)

      • Alex, no you just have to know some html mark-up. Here is a short but useful list. In all cases, you have to substitute the parentheses I am going to write with angle brackets (over the comma and period on US keyboards):

        (blockquote) Who would fardles bear (/blockquote) would produce

        Who would fardles bear

        (i) this is italics (/i) would produce this is italics

        (b) this is bold (/b) would produce this is bold

        (a href=”http://www.google.com”) this is a link to google (/a) would produce this is a link to google

        You can google around for how to make other useful things like strikethrough and other effects. Notice that some blogs permit html mark-up, some do not permit html mark-up, and the ones which do permit it all permit different tags (the things between the angle brackets). Many blogs don’t permit the blockquote tag in comments, for example.

        Also, don’t forget to “close” your tags—that is, don’t forget to use the tag after the text with the “/” They are like switches.

      • Thanks, Bill. I tried to make use of these tags once before, made a mistake, botched a comment, and got scared off. I’ll try again.

        Alex. You certainly find a realistic appraisal of political power in (i) The Prince (/i), although there it is combined with a demonic endorsement of ruthlessness. I like to think I’m approaching politics in the manner of Aristotle, who asked of every political system, how does it actually work, and who recognized that the ostensible values of a system were often different than its actual tendencies. His famous discussion of the tendency of democracies to become tyrannies is a good example. By his account democracies always make lots of noise about liberty and equality, while all the time moving towards tyranny.

      • JMSmith:

        You have to replace the parentheses with angle brackets. Italics is left-angle-bracket i right-angle-bracket (you might prefer calling left-angle-bracket less-than-sign). I couldn’t type it in my little list properly because the html interpreter, seeing the correct format for the italics tag, wouldn’t print the italics tag, instead it would start printing the next character in italics.

        Hmmm, I wonder if html has a verbatim tag. No, but there is a kludge instead. See if this renders properly:

         &lt i &gt this is italics &lt /i &gt 

        would produce this is italics

        Assuming the line above did what I wanted it to, it should show the correct format for the italics tag now, with the angle-brackets.

      • When he says brackets, he means the characters for “less-than” and “greater-than” Those aren’t really brackets. On the US keyboard they’re on the comma and period keys.

  4. Good post. This is easily misunderstood, though:

    The state faith must drive out all competitors for the hearts of men.

    There are plenty of examples of state churches tolerating religious dissent. To pick everyone’s favorite example, Jews have now been tolerated in the Mediterranean world for >2,000 years, first by Rome’s pagan state religion and then by its Christian and Muslim successors. What isn’t tolerable are dissenters who are actively seeking to overthrow the state religion and establish a different one.

  5. Thanks Bill: I know how to use HTML tags: I wasn’t sure how they work on a WordPress Blog. (Having an Edit/Preview button is useful for checking you’ve got them right).

  6. Kris,
    The viewpoint you have expressed is clear and self consistent. But you are mistaken in one crucial way: reality is not, cannot be, as clear and self consistent as your intellectual construct. Some of the responses have adumbrated this point. For example, what is the core motive of those who have power? To a large extent, though not necessarily exclusively, it is simply the desire for power. I don’t think this means that the ideals civilizations claim to uphold are meaningless or utterly without efficacy. But the reality of human society is messy–one one thing that makes it messy is the mixed–and often not even mixed, but purely venial–motives of the oligarchs. Always, to a greater or a lesser extent, what the oligarchs are imposing is not some ideal order or ideology, but simply their own power which in fact sees the ideology as a mere tool. So all power is necessarily to some degree illegitimate. I do not like some therefore jump to the conclusion that authority is in itself something evil. Rather, I very much sympathize with the efforts of many of the writers on this blog to restore our appreciation of the necessity of authority if we are to have any sort of humane society or any society at all. The second point you overlook is the following: what is this ideal order or ideology or belief system that is to guide or regulate society? Can it be identified with a completely worked out set of propositions like a mathematical theory? It cannot. Christianity cannot. If you think it can, I disagree. Are you going to throw me in jail? What I am saying is that we should take Augustine’s outlook seriously: “faith seeking understanding.” Seeking is part of faith. If faith could be finally encapsulated in a clear, definite, unchangeable intellectual construct, there would be no more seeking. If there is needs to be seeking, there needs to be dialogue. Where do you draw the line between dialogue “within” a faith and dialogue between different faiths? There is no way to do that apriori. Part of the way faith seeks understanding is the effort to discern the implications of Christianity for government and social order. The Bible does not spell this out. Does the tradition of Christian theology? Does that tradition–however one defines it–give one clear, unambiguous, universal, permanent answer? No. That tradition is one of faith seeking understanding. This moves into a further point: you seem to assume that Christian faith implies the necessity of a particular kind of social, political, and economic order. Well, I think that is just not true. And a yet further question: is the central aim of Christian faith, to order human temporal society? I think that is also not true. The central aim of Christian faith is to restore the relationship between humans and God. Christian faith obviously does essentially have ethical implications, and in fact implications about how human society should be ordered. But from that it does not follow that there is a form of social order which uniquely satisfies those implications. This is something humans, and Christians, must struggle to work out. And a further point: is the only, or the essential, foundation of a good, or the best possible, social order, necessarily, or even possibly, Christian faith? Secular institutions which are not overtly based upon Christianity may nevertheless fulfill its requirements. In short, I think you misunderstand the relationship between Christian faith and social order. I think you are simply identifying Christian faith with the set of assumptions and rules necessary for the best kind of social order to flourish. This is mistaken for three reasons: 1) even from a Christian theological perspective, there is no one best social order; 2) social order always involves mixed motives; 3) social institutions, rules, ideas, are capable of being valid, even from the perspective of Christian social ethics, even if they are not explicitly based upon Christian beliefs. I think your motive for your absolutistic position is a justified reaction against the prevalent relativism of our society today. But you go to an extreme in reaction that is incorrect not so much because it is “the other extreme” as because it doesn’t make sense.

    • Jeremy:

      Thanks for taking this so seriously. I’m honored that you do.

      I’m going to intersperse responses in a copy of your comment.

      The viewpoint you have expressed is clear and self consistent. But you are mistaken in one crucial way: reality is not, cannot be, as clear and self consistent as your intellectual construct. [Agreed; but that doesn’t mean we should never use models or theories.] Some of the responses have adumbrated this point. For example, what is the core motive of those who have power? To a large extent, though not necessarily exclusively, it is simply the desire for power. [No argument there.] I don’t think this means that the ideals civilizations claim to uphold are meaningless or utterly without efficacy. But the reality of human society is messy–one one thing that makes it messy is the mixed–and often not even mixed, but purely venial–motives of the oligarchs. Always, to a greater or a lesser extent, what the oligarchs are imposing is not some ideal order or ideology, but simply their own power which in fact sees the ideology as a mere tool. So all power is necessarily to some degree illegitimate. [While I agree that most power is somewhat vicious, I doubt that absolutely *all* of it is.] – I do not like some therefore jump to the conclusion that authority is in itself something evil. Rather, I very much sympathize with the efforts of many of the writers on this blog to restore our appreciation of the necessity of authority if we are to have any sort of humane society or any society at all. The second point you overlook is the following: what is this ideal order or ideology or belief system that is to guide or regulate society? [Did I say there was one? It must be out there somewhere, I suppose, as the ordinances of Eden perhaps. But it is nowhere to be found on Earth since the Fall.] Can it be identified with a completely worked out set of propositions like a mathematical theory? It cannot. Christianity cannot. If you think it can, I disagree. [I don’t. As I said in the post, Christianity as a state faith offers the possibility of a robustly traditional society that is nevertheless tolerant toward the heterodox. But it’s just a possibility, and of course the details must be worked out in situ, on the fly.] Are you going to throw me in jail? What I am saying is that we should take Augustine’s outlook seriously: “faith seeking understanding.” Seeking is part of faith. If faith could be finally encapsulated in a clear, definite, unchangeable intellectual construct, there would be no more seeking. If there is needs to be seeking, there needs to be dialogue. Where do you draw the line between dialogue “within” a faith and dialogue between different faiths? There is no way to do that apriori. Part of the way faith seeks understanding is the effort to discern the implications of Christianity for government and social order. The Bible does not spell this out. Does the tradition of Christian theology? Does that tradition–however one defines it–give one clear, unambiguous, universal, permanent answer? No. [But it does provide some good indications; viz., Catholic social theory.] That tradition is one of faith seeking understanding. This moves into a further point: you seem to assume that Christian faith implies the necessity of a particular kind of social, political, and economic order. [What did I say that made that apparent? I don’t believe it.] Well, I think that is just not true. And a yet further question: is the central aim of Christian faith, to order human temporal society? [No.] I think that is also not true. The central aim of Christian faith is to restore the relationship between humans and God. Christian faith obviously does essentially have ethical implications, and in fact implications about how human society should be ordered. But from that it does not follow that there is a form of social order which uniquely satisfies those implications. This is something humans, and Christians, must struggle to work out. [Right. My hunch is that a Christian society has a better chance of working it out than other sorts of societies do.] And a further point: is the only, or the essential, foundation of a good, or the best possible, social order, necessarily, or even possibly, Christian faith? Secular institutions which are not overtly based upon Christianity may nevertheless fulfill its requirements. [Of course. I didn’t say otherwise.] In short, I think you misunderstand the relationship between Christian faith and social order. I think you are simply identifying Christian faith with the set of assumptions and rules necessary for the best kind of social order to flourish. [But I didn’t do that. Christianity is not a totalitarian religion like Islam. It leaves lots of room for play. That’s one of the things that makes it a good candidate for a state faith.] This is mistaken for three reasons: 1) even from a Christian theological perspective, there is no one best social order; 2) social order always involves mixed motives; 3) social institutions, rules, ideas, are capable of being valid, even from the perspective of Christian social ethics, even if they are not explicitly based upon Christian beliefs. I think your motive for your absolutistic position is a justified reaction against the prevalent relativism of our society today. But you go to an extreme in reaction that is incorrect not so much because it is “the other extreme” as because it doesn’t make sense. [With respect, it seems to me that you are, not ungenerously, reading a lot of things I didn’t say into what I did say. E.g., what extreme did I recommend? That societies do better with Christianity as the established religion? On the one hand, this is trivially true; on the other, there are lots of different sorts of Christian society, *even within the history of Christian Britain.* I was silent as to the details. They have to be worked out in response to the situation on the ground. My suggestion is that this process of working out the details has a better chance of success if a society’s general approach to first things is (merely) Christian.]

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  8. Hi Kris,
    Your passage quoted in the reply above was the one that prompted me to characterize your position as “extreme.” And by “extreme” I meant, inconsistent with the idea of “faith seeking understanding.” (By the way, I think it important to remind myself that “faith seeking understanding” does not mean that even understanding that thinks itself faithful is incapable of betraying that faith.) I *think* that when you characterize “oligarchs” you mean to say that society must have oligarchs to even exist, and that the best kind of society must have Christian oligarchs–and even when you have the best society with the best Christian oligarchs, what you say here will still apply to them: “The state faith must drive out all competitors for the hearts of men. It cannot ever rest until it has won that victory, for in no other way may its primacy be understood by the governed as legitimate, or social order therefore be preserved. The state faith must be a church militant. It must brand all dissenters as traitors, not just to the social order, but to the Good. In the limit, it must exterminate or banish them. It is here that the terrible logic of sacrifice is engaged. Once triggered, the cycle of sacrifice is self-feeding, and must grind along till all the dissenters are consumed in its holocaust – at which point, scapegoats being ever necessary to feed its insatiable maw, dissenters will be discovered on the bases of ever nicer points of political correctness or ritual purity.” Am I understanding you correctly here? If so, my response to your response is that this passage does seem to me to characterize Christianity as a totalitarian religion. The attitude toward “dissenters” you here describe is incompatible with the idea that faith must seek understanding, if we accept that that seeking must be intersubjective and take the form of dialogue.

    • A dialogue with whom? With dissenters? Or with the authority in whom one has faith? And what, exactly, is faith seeking to understand? If there is something sought, must there not be an end to this seeking, at which point faith possesses understanding? This phrase to which you attach so much importance seems very ambiguous to me.

      Faith, as I understand it, is the faculty of reason by which beliefs are formed on the basis of testimony. Those who have faith are confident that some party has spoken the truth or can fulfill a promise. Christian faith is confidence that Christ spoke truly and can fulfill his promises, and that his words have been faithfully transmitted (by the Church or the Bible). Admittedly there is much that Christ said that I do not understand, but I don’t seek to understand it by faith. I assent to it by faith. I seek to understand it as I seek to understand any words: with my understanding.

      It seems to me that you use the word faith to denote a spiritual sense sixth sense with which one perceives transcendental truths. Is that right?

    • @ Jeremy:

      Yes, I do mean to say that, “society must have oligarchs to even exist, and that the best kind of society must have Christian oligarchs.” Bearing in mind that it is at least conceivable (whether or not it is either possible or true) that there may be other religions than Christianity that can produce the best sorts of societies. Perhaps it would be best just to say that Christianity has produced the best societies we have yet seen. But the establishment of Christianity is of course no guarantee that a society will be vicious. It just makes viciousness less likely. I think for instance that it is perfectly possible for a Christian society to become totalitarian, and to persecute and exterminate all dissenters.

      But one of the things that makes Christianity less vulnerable to this sort of thing is the fact that Christianity insists that, God himself having effected a blood sacrifice sufficient to compensate for any possible creaturely sin, provided only that the individual sinner has accepted the fruits of that sacrifice, any further blood sacrifices to attain moral purity are not needed. Christianity therefore makes the atonement of any particular sinner contingent only on his inner acceptance of the everlasting, total sufficiency of the Passion. In order to be a Christian at all, you must believe that Christ has redeemed all your sins, and all the sins of your people, and that beyond these your beliefs, nothing else is needed to effect atonement. Christianity therefore obviates any move on the sinner’s part to devolve his sin upon a sin-eater or scapegoat, and then extinguish the sin by banishing the sin-eater or killing the scapegoat.

      Christianity is also therefore the only religion that has fetishized service to inveterate sinners, or those who are ontologically deficient on account of sin – whether their own, or someone else’s – the poor, indigent, imprisoned, the sick, lame, and lowly, the prostitute and tax farmer, the slave and captive. These are just the sorts of folks that non-Christian societies shun, and use as sin-eaters or scapegoats.

      Thus of all religions and quasi-religions such as liberalism, only Christianity entails the social adoption of a control mechanism that will prevent the descent of a society into fiendish persecution of the politically incorrect. The prevalence of Christianity in a society does not guarantee that this control mechanism will be adopted. Nothing can, I guess. But it offers us a shot at threading that needle.

  9. Here is the quote from Augustine: “If we have understood this, thanks be to God; but if any has not sufficiently understood, man has done as far as he could: as for the rest, let him see whence he may hope to understand. As laborers outside, we can plant and water; but it is of God to give the increase. “My doctrine,” saith He, “is not mine, but His that sent me.” Let him who says he has not yet understood hear counsel. For since it was a great and profound matter that had been spoken, the Lord Christ Himself did certainly see that all would not understand this so profound a matter, and He gave counsel in the sequel. Dost thou wish to understand? Believe. For God has said by the prophet: “Except ye believe, ye shall not understand.” To the same purpose what the Lord here also added as He went on “If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak from myself.” What is the meaning of this, “If any man be willing to do His will”? But I had said, if any man believe; and I gave this counsel: If thou hast not understood, said I, believe. For understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand; since, “except ye believe, ye shall not understand.” “(Tractate 29 on John 7.14-18) It might sound like from this quote that for Augustine faith means automatic understanding, as if, once there is true faith, that itself instantly produces correct understanding. But he says “believe in order that you may understand.” Understanding depends upon faith, not vice versa. And with faith, understanding comes. But did Augustine mean that it comes instantly, automatically, fully all at once? Did he mean that human thinking and effort have nothing to do with faith based understanding? And most importantly, did he mean that faith is an absolute guarantee of correct understanding? That he himself could never take a wrong turn in his understanding of his faith? That he would not need to listen to others and even to think together with them? It is true that the answers come from God–but does our thinking and effort have nothing to do with the God disclosing those answers to us? Just look at some of the opening paragraphs of the Confessions. “And how shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord, since, when I call for Him, I shall be calling Him to myself? and what room is there within me, whither my God can come into me? whither can God come into me, God who made heaven and earth? is there, indeed, O Lord my God, aught in me that can contain Thee? do then heaven and earth, which Thou hast made, and wherein Thou hast made me, contain Thee? or, because nothing which exists could exist without Thee, doth therefore whatever exists contain Thee? Since, then, I too exist, why do I seek that Thou shouldest enter into me, who were not, wert Thou not in me?” A remarkable fact about this remarkable passage in this remarkable book is that these words which we are reading and he has left for to read are really the record of a prayer to God, but while it is a prayer through and through, it at the same time expresses Augustine’s effort of thinking–of trying to understand God and himself and the relation between the two through the great effort of formulating the right questions and pondering them. Was Augustine so arrogant as to believe that because he had faith and faith is of God, the thoughts of the faithful will always be correct? Hardly. We can also look to St. Paul, who said “now we see as but through a glass darkly, but then, face to face.” Paul is sensitive to what faith is really like: on the one hand, it holds firmly to an unquestionable object, but on the other, has to humbly recognize that this object (God) is not one to be clearly grasped but only as through a glass darkly. And yet, this passage implies that faith is not exactly blind either: now we *see* (but as through a glass darkly). So the confidence of unshakable faith is in the final absolute reality of God. But the humility of faith is that God is not one over whom our thoughts are master. But faith does and must humbly seek understanding–and since faith is in a community, and we are called to love, that seeking must also take the form of dialogue with others who also seek.

    • Yes, obviously, we must advance the deliverances of faith with humility. And no, no person of faith would say that his thoughts are master of the one in whom he has faith. All of this I grant. If I trust what someone says, I certainly should not then twist their words to my own desires. And to avoid this it certainly makes sense to listen to what other seekers say. But there is no reason on earth why I should enter into “dialogue” with them. My aim is truth, not peace. Should I enter into “dialogue” with the Devil? Of course not. And where does this faith in private judgement come from. Certainly not from Christ.

      • I am very puzzled by your saying “there is no reason on earth why I should enter into dialogue with them.” Well, what are we doing right now?
        Do you mean to be saying that on EVERY single question a believer faces, an answer should only be sought from a higher human authority within a church hierarchy who is to be unquestioningly obeyed? The Catholic church takes many specific stands on the basis of its teaching authority, for example. But does even the Catholic church claim that the individual Christian, in making decisions about his or her own life, simply need make no effort to understand what it is he has to do? Isn’t the point of the Church’s teaching authority rather that it lays down moral principles within which choices need to be made? I really don’t think that even from the Catholic point of view, for example, Christians are supposed to just ask the priest what to do at every point of their lives! Consider Saint Augustine again. He is thinking. He is using his individual judgment. And yet he is aware that it means something to pray. What I am pointing out that there is no clear line to be drawn between praying and thinking. Praying is of course more than thinking. But he doesn’t stop thinking when he starts praying. I am making no claim about the autonomy of individual judgment apart from God. But I am asserting that faith has an ineluctably individual dimension. By which I mean NOT that what I believe and how is simply up to me. But my embracing of revelation–which reaches me uniquely through scripture, tradition, and the church–must nevertheless be MY embracing. Were it not, it would in fact be insincere and unreal. And this embrace is not without thought. (I should mention that I am not in fact a Catholic, that the Catholic approach to authority nevertheless makes sense to me, and the point I am making is that even in the case where an essential element of a church tradition is teaching authority which makes specific claims, it cannot be the case that the requirement is blind, unthinking obedience or that the teachings of the church go so far as to predetermine exactly what everyone should do in every circumstance.) Here is another example of what I mean by the role of thinking or reason in faith. In earlier eras, scientific knowledge of embryology was much more limited than today. They were not in the same position as we are to know when a human life begins. I do not believe there is any specific teaching directly referring to abortion in the New Testament or the Bible as a whole. But clearly, the love commandment must prohibit the killing of an innocent human being. (But even that conclusion requires some thought!) Now, as a result of scientific investigation, it has become clear that there is only one point at which in nature a clear distinction between a) mere human cells and b) a distinct human being, can be made. And that is the point of conception. So through a process of reasoning on the basis of faith we must come to the conclusion that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being.

      • @Jeremy Smith (above)
        I think there is a good chance that our disagreement is smaller than it appears to be. Much of it comes down to certain words, which you use responsibly enough, but which are very often abused. I’m particularly referring to “seek,” “dialogue,” and “faith.” I don’t for a moment deny that one comes to Christ by way of a search–I spent twenty-five years in the forest of disbelief–but do deny that the seeking that brings one to Christ is itself Christ. I was a seeker, and then I was a Christian, but I was not a Christian while I was seeking. Seeking is part of the process, but the important part is finding.

        When it comes to “dialogue,” I’ll admit that I’m prejudiced by modern debasement of the word. For most people today it does not mean a dialectic search for the truth, as in a Socratic dialogue, but rather political bargaining and compromising in search of peace. This takes us to Unitarianism. This is why I said I would “listen” to other seekers, but not necessarily enter into “dialogue.” I’m not interested in hammering out some Christo-Judeo-Islamo-Animist Global Fusion Religion.

        Lastly, I think we should restrict ourself to a very austere definition of faith because the word is today too often used as a stalking horse for the individual will. A very holy man might be safe with the dynamic faith you describe, but for most of us sinners it simply serves to sanctify impulsiveness. They have faith in the authority of the promptings of their
        heart.

        One last remark along these lines. You say that revelation “reaches me uniquely.” I agree with you if you are saying that the means of reaching are unique, but disagree if you are saying that the revelation is unique. God speaks to us individually, in terms that we can understand, but the content of his message is the same for everyone.

      • I’m a little confused by how the blog works–I mean to be responding to JMSmith’s last comment (Aug 28). I appreciate your thoughtful response. I think I am trying to get at something that the world “dialogue” in common parlance often misses. And your last comment helps keep what I am trying to say on track. “unique” is another word in common parlance! The way you put it is exactly what I am trying to express. I do mean that in the deepest sense the message is the same for everyone. And I do mean certainly that the message is not something I create. “dialogue” “unique” and “create” have a certain common connotation in modern enlightened educated “liberal” parlance. And this connotation is unfortunate (i.e. it’s along the lines of “everyone has their own truth” so “let’s just get along”). I guess I am nevertheless trying to insist that in a crucial way, those terms should not be simply abandoned. Faith must be in an essential sense “personal” if it is to be faith at all. There is another one of those words. Maybe a good way to say it is that faith reaches the human person as human person. And here again we have to be careful not to interpret this to mean that revelation satisfies what I think I want! But revelation reaches my true personhood, which sin has obscured, and the world tries to reduce to a utilitarian pattern.

      • Jeremy Smith:

        If we abandoned all the words that modern usage has debased, we’d have difficulty forming complete sentences. So don’t give up on “seek,” “dialogue,” and “faith,” just beware of the dangerous constructions some people will put on them. I sense that you and I are in fundamental agreement on these issues.

  10. If there must always be an established religion, what religion is it best to establish? I say Christianity. Not because I am a Christian and think it true, or because its tradents have built the most prosperous, beautiful societies and conquered the world…. Christianity therefore provides the best chance of maintaining a high degree of traditional social order… It offers the best chance at maintaining robust and flexible societies.

    These are all utilitarian arguments — Christianity provides secular goods such as wealth, beauty, power, and social order to its adherents. Yet the purpose of Christianity is not secular, it is spiritual. If one does not believe Christianity is true, then the argument that atheism, hedonism, and individualism provide better “secular goods” is always going to win the day.

    To say that we should order society on the basis of Christianity even though we do not believe Christianity is true is inherently contradictory, because Christianity has no meaning without belief. Furthermore, this has actually been tried and is a notable failure. Efforts to create a “Christianity for those who do not believe it is true” (e.g., unitarianism) are laughably absurd and simply another step on the road to the atheistic hedonism of the secular Left.

    • These are all utilitarian arguments

      Yes. I was arguing empirically from an analysis of societies in general, as we meet them in the world, and of no matter what sort. Empirically, we find that Christian societies work better than their alternatives.

      This does not of course mean that there are no other sorts of arguments for a Christian establishment. The strongest possible argument, I should think, would be from the simple truth of the Christian revelation. But as you point out, this argument will cut no ice with pagans.

      As between two policies otherwise similar, that which is founded upon truth will in practice prevail, ceteris paribus, over that which is not. If a social arrangement succeeds in utilitarian terms, then, it is probably better fitted to reality – closer to true – than its alternatives. Because it is better in utilitarian terms to choose policies that are founded upon true doctrines, the empirical predominance of Christian societies over their competitors looks something like an empirical indication that Christianity is true.

      If one does not believe Christianity is true, then the argument that atheism, hedonism, and individualism provide better “secular goods” is always going to win the day.

      It will win the day only among the ignorant, the unwise or the imprudent – not that there is any shortage of them in positions of authority these days. The scientific data more and more support the argument that Christianity provides better secular goods than hedonism, atheism, et al.

      To say that we should order society on the basis of Christianity even though we do not believe Christianity is true is inherently contradictory, because Christianity has no meaning without belief.

      In the first place, I didn’t say we should order society as Christian even though we think it false.

      In the second, while of course it would be less than ideal, there would be nothing contradictory in so doing. Plenty of politicians through the ages have given full throated support to the faiths of their nations, even though they did not believe them. Did Augustus think he was a god? I rather doubt it. Why would politicians do such a thing? Because they know that it helps their people if they do.

      Certainly to the extent that a king professes Christianity in vain, he commits a mortal sin, and puts his everlasting life at great peril. But he would nevertheless be a better king by propagating Christianity in bad faith than by propagating other religions, whether in bad faith or good.

      Furthermore, this has actually been tried and is a notable failure.

      I would actually wager that most oligarchies through history have reassured themselves that they understood reality, and ergo the relation of their ancestral faith thereto, better than their subjects. In this they were probably correct. Oligarchs are sophisticated. It goes along with the greater than average intelligence typical among oligarchs. The great temptations of intellectual sophistication are, of course, sophistry on the one hand, and gnosticism on the other.

      The most dangerous rulers are gnostics, like Hitler. The great majority are sophistical skeptics. This means that most established religions have been only tendentiously supported by the oligarchs. And this goes for successful nations, too.

      As between two nations otherwise identical, of course, that nation whose leaders are Christians in good faith will prevail over the one whose leaders are Christians in bad faith.

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