The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason.
"Without war," Rousseau writes in the First Discourse (1750), "there would be no history." What, then, is the place of political philosophy in a cosmopolitan world, in which passions have been transposed into interests, and war has been rendered obsolete by free trade? Perhaps that is a dream for the future, but nevertheless we are justified in asking whether political philosophy is useless when wars end. The efflorescence of political philosophy in the twentieth century--Strauss, Arendt, Voegelin, and a host of others come to mind--cannot be understood without reference to the conflagrations that were witnessed. What now? The century of ideology has ended. Whence political philosophy? After Ideology (the title of one of David Walsh's books ), now what? That is not directly Walsh's concern in Third Millennium, but his recent work wrestles with just this question. The present book extends his ruminations on the subject.
A perusal of the political philosophy literature at the dawn of the new century suggests that Rousseau's intimation is being confirmed: Democratic theory and other largely ahistorical modes of inquiry are rising to preeminence, and the study of the history of political thought seems to many to be of antiquarian interest only. Walsh's book attempts to redress this imbalance by considering the meaning of the advent of the third millennium, both for the West and for the world as a whole. Tocqueville remarks in Democracy in America (1835) that, in the democratic age, man deliberately forgets his past and attends to the immediate concerns of management. Contemporary political philosophy increasingly conforms to this prejudice. For Walsh, our entrance into the third millennium offers an occasion to take stock of the larger meaning of history for human affairs. In doing so, perhaps there is also an opportunity to retool political philosophy for the postideological age, in such a way as to take history seriously aga in.
What shall we make of the Christian categorization of history, according to which we have just entered the third millennium? This is, for Walsh, more than a mere convenience. It speaks to the ongoing presence of a Christian world, which is confirmed less by doctrinal and confessional adherence than by the existence of those two pillars of the modern, increasingly cosmopolitan, world--the natural sciences and human rights. Both are historically indebted to Christianity and, more to the point, must continue to rely on Christianity in order to retain their coherence. The question of their ongoing debt is the interesting one to consider, of course, since today a great many secular liberals--Walsh is a theological liberal-think that the debt need no longer be paid. Modern man is debt free.
In order to assess this question, the relevant categories must be established. Those whose allegiances are owed to the Enlightenment think that the proper categories are enlightenment, on the one hand, and religion, on the other, the latter of which is taken to be inimical to scientific investigation and the idea of human freedom. Walsh does not cite Augustine, but he well might have. Augustine's City of God (430) supposes that the real alternatives are not enlightenment or religion but paganism or revealed religion. (In Leviathan , Hobbes understood this, too.) Man is a religious animal; he cannot live long without enchantment. The question is not whether mortal life will be enchanted but where it will be enchanted.
Myth is one manner in which the world can be enchanted, but the age of myth is surely over, anthropologically at least. The Greeks, notwithstanding their discovery of philosophy, retained the idea of a cosmos that was enchanted, and so they could not develop natural science worthy of the name (pp. 131-2). With Christianity, however, we have for the first time the definitive possibility of recognizing "this world as a world... [for] it is only the light of transcendent perfection glimpsed momentarily that reveals the finitude and imperfection of everything else" (p. 130). The possibility of conceiving of a disenchanted world is made possible by a divine condescension "into the world," a phrase that already confirms Walsh's point. Revelation occasions the differentiation that the natural sciences require in order to proceed. Furthermore, by virtue of God becoming man, "no higher value can be attached to finite existence than to regard each individual as a unique irreplaceable vehicle for the radiance of transc endent presence" (pp. 140-1). God in mortal form reveals to man his own final destiny and standing.
The escape from religion is not the precondition for the success of the natural sciences and human rights, far from it. They require a differentiation of reality into distinct aspects that Christianity best provides. The natural sciences are possible because on this side of the divide enchantment is impossible; human rights are possible because on the other side of the divide we find an authorization for human personhood. The ongoing separation, which Christianity decisively achieves, is necessary for the natural sciences and for the idea of rights to remain coherent. Thus, the modern mind is apt to find the twin pillars of the modern age-the natural sciences and human rights-natural to the imagination because, "irrespective of personal inclinations or faith, it is impossible to think outside of the categories defined by the revelation of Christ" (p. 129). Christianity has won! Nietzsche states in The Genealogy of Morals (1887) that "it is the Church and not its poison that offends us." The natural sciences and human rights are the poison that we continue to imbibe, although not to our detriment, as Nietzsche would have it, but rather to our benefit.
Like all historical achievements, however, there is no absolute assurance that the Christian disenchantment of the world will retain its hold on the modern imagination. Walsh's point is that Christianity maximally differentiates the world; the open question is whether such differentiation can be secured into the future without the ongoing presence of Christianity, however conceived.
One of the more interesting claims of Third Millennium is that without the existential balance, as it were, made possible by the advent of Christ, which situates all that we do in the context of both finitude and transcendence (p. 144), reason loses its stability, and human life "oscillates between enthusiasm and dejection" (p. 226). Not only science is at risk, however; without a substantive grounding in Christianity, human rights talk proliferates without end. "In place of a well-defined understanding of human dignity, we are left with a blank slate on which anything may be written" (p. 100). To those who argue that the modern achievement of the natural sciences and human rights no longer need acknowledge a debt to Christianity in order to be vouchsafed for the future, Walsh suggests that any deformation in the Christian accomplishment will deform the natural sciences and human rights talk as well.
A host of questions can be raised here, some perhaps answerable, some not. If Christianity is necessary, how may we may render it what is due? The influence of Voegelin on Walsh's thinking rules out any easy answer. Moreover, this influence occasionally colors Walsh's assessment of modernity too strongly: The close connection between faith and reason in this superb analysis quietly indicts the project of the Reformation, which sought to rethink that connection in light of the experience of the radicality of sin and the experience of anxiety that attends it. Because any analysis of the emergence of modernity must give considerable weight to the Reformation, a supplemental analysis is required. Finally, although there is very little in the way of Christian triumphalism in Third Millennium, it would be nice to hear more about the global conversation among world religions that surely will occur in the present century. If Christianity best authorizes the natural sciences and human rights, and if these are the tru e global currency, then what does this say about the manner in which other religions-or Judaism and Islam within the monotheistic tradition- can authorize such things? These are important questions, for on them hinges two distinct possibilities: either Christian imperialism or the arrival of a genuine global pluralism, in which the natural sciences and human rights are each authorized by endemic religious traditions.
This is a very fine work that I recommend highly to anyone interested in the question of where political philosophy ought to direct its attention now that the totalitarian crisis has receded.
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|Publication:||American Political Science Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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