Thursday, November 03, 2005

I'm a neo-con...federate

I've had a few questions regarding my obvious antipathy for a certain school of Protestant apologetics (and particularly, the Rushdoonyite mentality), so I thought I'd say a few words on that subject. I'd say that my own disturbance with this concept began with reading Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? Lots of people, particularly Christian conservatives, like this book a lot, because it provides a convenient excuse to blame the liberals and the Enlightenment for every bad thing in society. Not me. Despite the numerous suggestions that I had to simply "look past" the triumphalism, I couldn't, because the triumphalism over humanism and the triumphalism over Catholicism were of a piece in his argument that "Biblical Christianity" was opposed to humanist philosophy. If I thought that his critique of Catholicism was misfounded, then I had to reject the entire argument, not just the piece that I didn't like. And at the root, what I found was that Schaeffer's argument against man-centered worldviews was just as damning of his own Protestantism, rooted as it was in Erasmus's critical linguistic studies, as it was of secular humanism. Indeed, the question I had was "if Erasmus laid the egg, then why would you want anything that hatched from it?"

Another thread, seemingly unrelated at the time, was my firm political commitment to states' rights, which only became stronger throughout law school. Indeed, the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist came as a tremendous blow to me for exactly that reason; no Supreme Court Justice has ever fought so tenaciously for states' rights (as one might expect from any federal court). I did not, at the time, have a word for my idiosyncratic position of trusting the state and local government with such strength; even my liberal classmates considered it odd that I considered it acceptable for states to tax and spend all they wanted so long as it was the state and not the national government that was taking the action. People did not understand how it was that I could be so passionately anti-racism and yet so violently opposed to the Fourteenth Amendment as a solution to slavery (a position that I've held since high school, owing to my teacher Roger Miller's admonition to always take note of the key to history: money). It has only been recently, with the profligacy of criticism about "neoconservatives" in the Bush administration, that I've come across a word that reconciles these paradoxes (neo-Confederate), and it is all the more recently that I have understood the Christian origins of this position in Western Stoicism. But suffice it to say that my opposition to both the Rutherfordian idea of society and the populist notion of governance have been around in my philosophy for just about as long as I've been thinking about them.

Now Greg Bahnsen is a guy that I respect a great deal (unlike Rushdoony, who appears to handle Van Til like a battle-ax rather than a scalpel). The problem is that their concept of human will and virtue is far too Jacobite for any Christian account of freedom, and it undermines the basis on which they purport to be building their understanding. In other words, they are (ironically) starting from an alien presupposition, namely that freedom is a good in and of itself, which is what roots their entire account in the will and knowledge of human beings rather than looking past it. This is precisely what I mean by "Christian empiricism," in that it puts the primacy of reality in human experience rather than in God. A very good summary of my skepticism about the dangers of that sort of thing can be found in the work of Catholic historian Thomas Woods here:

This particular brand of foolishness runs rampant among people who emphasize the "communicative" aspects of Scripture according to the Nicholas Wolterstorff model of "divine discourse," e.g., John Frame, Vern Poythress, Kevin Vanhoozer, and it is not by coincidence that all of these people are in the presuppositional school. Leaving aside the question of whether they are even reading Wolterstorff correctly or whether Wolterstorff's argument itself answers the Barthian objection (I would argue "no" for both), the foundation on which their views are built is unstable at best. In fact, I would argue that it is not a foundation at all.

An insightful and sympathetic article by Art Sippo (who tends toward far more "colorful" statements against Protestants) about the presuppositional difficulties of Protestantism can be found here:

Sippo doesn't directly question Bahnsen's views; in fact, he commends the general approach. But at the same time, the argument he presents is a good one for why Bahnsen MUST be basing his worldview on something other than he claims to be, and my argument would be that what Bahnsen is using as a framework is precisely this undisciplined, anarchic concept of freedom as an inherent good. And BTW, from what I know from people who knew Bahnsen and studied under him, Bahnsen himself was struggling with this difficulty late in his life, and I have heard from dozens of people who have converted to Catholicism by applying Bahnsen's own challenges to his view (an exceptionally gentle and thoughtful example is "Patrissimo" over at the Envoy Magazine forums; I think he considers my own style a bit harsh :-) ). At its heart, Bahnsen critique of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is based on the idea that it is good not to have to believe something, which is the same brand of skepticism that led the Scottish Enlightenment afoul of Chrisitian morality (see, e.g., Hume, Smith, et al.). That's what leads to the following sorts of statements that sound more like atheism by Bahnsen's own standards than Christianity:

Again, it's no coincidence that anti-Catholic Evangelicals are absolutely enamored with arguments like the one presented above. I once had an Evangelical argue that Bahnsen would "eat [my argument] for lunch," presumably based on exactly this sort of argumentation. On the contrary, I think the Catholic neo-Confederate critique eats *Bahnsen's* argument for lunch. I can't see where his view of the human person begins in a substantially different place from the atheist worldview that characterizes liberalism. Bahnsen can't rationalize his own first stance by his own criteria, so his theonomic vision amounts to passing off atheism in the Trojan horse of Christian rhetoric, which correspond exactly to the destructive, anti-Christian populism I am criticizing. Because I've only recently come across Christian Stoicism, it's only recently that it occurred to me that the root of the problem might be a perversion of this ideal rooted in the Scottish nationalistic resistance to Roman Christianity. Not that it makes the antipathy toward Roman Catholicism any more reasonable (in fact, it pretty much proves that the basis for that antipathy is irrational), but at least it is an explanation for its existence, and the disturbing correlation of these attitudes with xenophobic nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and racism.

So that is, in a nutshell, why I consider the Rushdoony school of theonomy to be an abomination, beyond even liberalism in its destructive force. Liberals don't even attempt to claim that they are Christian, so the "wolf in sheep's clothing" factor is nil. Unfortunately, that is not the case with presuppositionalists in the Rushdoony school.