Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

04/24/2008 (2:02 pm)

Christian Foundation of Liberty

Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.

J├╝rgen Habermas, German Marxist philosopher, “A Time of Transition,”2004

In case you don’t know who Habermas is — and I didn’t — I’ll quote Pastor John Piippo’s brief article regarding the resurgence of religion in Europe: ‘You either drop your jaw at the thought of being taught by Habermas in the flesh, or you don’t know who he is. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy rightly says that “Habermas currently ranks as one of the most influential philosophers in the world.”‘

The quote came from an essay originally published in German, and apparently not available anywhere on the Internet in English. However, Philip Jenkins quoted Habermas in an essay from Foreign Policy (available only to subscribers), which in turn got noticed by a number of writers noting the resurgence of Christianity in Europe. Apparently the decline of church membership in Germany has stopped, with younger Germans joining tranditional and non-traditional churches in larger numbers. Catholics noted Habermas’ apparent conversion (to recognizing the Christian roots of liberty, not to becoming a Christian himself) as coincident with a conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger, who has since been elevated to the papacy. And the Wall Street Journal, noting the resurgence of faith in Europe, even invoked supply-side economics to explain it (I think it’s a pretty big stretch, myself).

Claiming that Christianity is the source of modern ideas of individual and political liberty generates controversy whenever I express it. “Controversy” is a euphemism; usually, atheists sneer, and in derisive tones toss out comments about the Enlightenment and ancient Greece. Still, I stick to the notion I first learned by reading Francis Schaeffer’s books, “How Should We Then Live” and “The Church at the End of the 20th Century,” that it was the Reformation notion of the Priesthood of the Believer that energized 17th century Reformation theologians, who transmitted their theology into secular philosophy through the works of Burke, Locke, Blackstone, and Montesquieu. Modern, secular historians and philosophers like to minimize the impact of the thoroughly pervasive, Christian culture of the West, the social and intellectual ocean in which even the secular philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries swam. The very foundations of their thinking, the commitment to truth and all assessments of common decency, came from Christianity whether they liked it or not; it was the ground they walked on and the air they breathed. It was the Reformation view of the universe, not some contemporary secular view, that filled most of the philosophy of the day.

Even today, most atheists owe the civility of the world they live in to notions arising from devotion to the God they dismiss. It seems certain to me that Atheism could never, by itself, produce anything remotely like a reasoned assertion of the inherent rights of man. While a few Greeks at their best — Plato, Aristotle, Socrates — reasoned that there might be such a thing as a natural right, their version of it was more an artistic recognition of ultimate beauty than a political or social theory articulating rights inhering to Man. It wasn’t until Augustine of Hippo that anybody suggested a law governing all men equally, and that notion grew directly from the recognition of God’s universal sovereignty — an idea from the Hebrews, not the Greeks. Without the Western tradition of natural rights and the Christian traditions of universal literacy and biblical law, atheism would produce nothing but rage, doubt, and eventually nihilism; it has no rational basis for anything else, not even for reason itself. If God does not care for us individually, if we are nothing but herds of beasts in the wild, if we are ultimately nothing but purposeless chemicals in unintended interaction, then what happens to us does not matter, and cannot matter.

A resurgence of faith in Europe cannot occur too soon, as it’s unlikely that European secularism would put up much of a fight against the evangelistic spread of Islam. On the home front, we’d better recognize the importance of Christianity to defending our own notion of political liberty if we’re going to resist the creeping socialism that threatens it; ideas have consequences, and if we jettison the ideas that undergird our liberties, we’ll jettison our liberties soon after. And on a personal note, it doesn’t feel all that bad to have such a highly-noted philosopher reaffirming a notion I’ve been touting for some time.

A tip of the plumb bob goes to Dr. John Ray, blogger at PC Watch, who boasts Habermas’ quotation on the margin of his blog. Dr. Ray featured my article about the Fundamentalist LDS Church case triggering libertarian concerns; thanks, John.

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April 26, 2008 @ 12:21 pm #

Well, that’s a surprise: Not only is Habermas mentioned but he’s mentioned in a quite positive fashion. One of the reasons I don’t spend a lot of time on the blogs on your blog roll is that on most of them a mention of, say, Habermas draws either blank stares or immediate screams of “Marxist!”

So, yeah! Habermas! It’s hard, IMO, to discuss contemporary politics without occasionally mentioning Habermas. He is one of our most influential living philosophers and arguably the most important neo-Marxist. He’s still influential in real life politics in Europe, esp. in Germany where his ideas have deeply influenced post-war democratic thinking. Oddly, Al Gore is the _only_ US politician I can think of who has quoted or mentioned Habermas.

Keep reading Habermas. He might surprise you. The two volumes of his most important work, The Theory of Communicative Action, are a tough slog if you aren’t used to reading Frankfurt School material but Between Facts and Norms is quite readable and a workable introduction to Habermas. A Berlin Republic, a series of interviews, is readable though mostly about German politics.

Habermas is probably best known in the US for his work on the Public Sphere. Wikipedia has a reasonable introduction:



There’s a brief Youtube video of Habermas here:

And an interesting full lecture on Kant and International Law here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTCuRlz22g4

March 15, 2010 @ 2:26 pm #

[…] religious, Islamic state. (For the link between American fundamental liberty and Christianity, see here, here, and […]

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