Theonomy and Thumos

Theonomy and Thumos May 5, 2021

At the risk of stating the obvious, as a general rule I tend to think it’s prudent to evaluate contemporary controversies in light of analogous prior situations. The cultural challenges associated with human nature, after all, do tend to recur. And so for instance, whenever I read arguments for “Benedict Option” approaches to cultural retrenchment that don’t seriously reckon with American evangelicalism’s decades-long efforts to build out a comprehensive parallel polis, complete with its own schools and arts and publishing houses, I think something important is missing. To be sure, there are ways available to problematize any naive comparison—depth of respective traditions, range of resources available, pedagogical aspects of liturgical practice, and so on—but on the whole, the points of similarity probably outweigh the differences. If the evangelical movement’s project of creating a thoroughgoing Christian alternative to secular “culture” ran into problems with youth retention and “deconstruction,” what exactly will be different this time around? That question certainly seems salient to me.

And on that point, as the last few years have passed, I’ve found it increasingly surprising that I haven’t run across much sustained reflection on the remarkable parallels between purported contemporary alternatives to political “liberalism” (such as Catholic integralism) and the Reformed theological movements that can broadly be placed under the label of “theonomy.”

To the modern mind, both systems may seem unthinkable. Where integralism calls for the subordination of the temporal power—any secular regime—to the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church, theonomy contends that any legitimate state must enforce the Mosaic civil codes of the Pentateuch “in exhaustive detail”—right down to the stoning of malefactors. But while the proponents of each political theory would undoubtedly be the first to describe each another as schismatics—and justify severe penal sanctions on that basis—it often seems to me that these two philosophies have rather more in common than not.

Perhaps most notably, the limited political success of both theonomy and integralism—coupled with the immense and rapid intellectual output of their proponents—seems to reflect a common problem of theory outpacing praxis. The core ideas are rich enough to fill out lengthy volumes, but neither paradigm makes much of an attempt to test the consequences of its theories “in the real world,” and their closest organized analogues—the Constitution Party and the American Solidarity Party, respectively—have never come close to electoral viability.

Moreover, projects like these tend to fracture quickly over very precise points of theory—in the theonomy movement, this took the form of a rift between movement godfather Rushdoony and son-in-law Gary North over the precise contours of patriarchal “father-rule.” A similar dynamic has played out in integralist circles. At present, critics of liberalism committed to the “Catholic” tradition (I use the term expansively enough to include Anglo-Catholic theologians like John Milbank) fall into at least two different camps: one interested in reviving a generally premodern balance of temporal and spiritual powers, and one pushing towards something “beyond” the terms set by contemporary liberalism. (And there’s arguably a third, represented by Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister, than takes a more sanguine view of modern capitalism than either of the preceding two factions.)

But finally (and most importantly), I increasingly think the appeal of paradigms like these is ultimately rooted in a common human impulse. Towards the end of A Secular Age, Charles Taylor advances the provocative argument that the root of modern atheism is less metaphysical or epistemological than it is ethical: an individual’s sense of “pressure” to adopt secular materialist commitments has more to do with a perceived moral obligation to own up to “reality as it really is,” in all its stark indifference and purposelessness, than with anything Spinoza or Feuerbach might’ve recognized. As such, on this view to reject traditional faith entails a kind of “courage”: the audacity to reckon frankly with the disenchanted cosmos, rooted in a felt sense of duty to conform to the truth. Taylor’s point is that, while such a claim cloaks itself in the guise of objectivity, it is never truly “disinterested” and thus never truly free of ethical commitments that transcend the strictly empirical.

At the admitted risk of “psychologizing” certain claims with which I do not agree, I think something similar to this may be at work among the most vociferous proponents of theonomy, integralism, or other “radical” theological approaches to public life. On all such views, it is important for adherents to publicly express their willingness to accept claims that seem prima facie outrageous to the majority of people—such as the reimposition of the Mosaic civil law or the rehabilitation of throne-and-altar politics. Such willingness serves as a kind of litmus test of one’s thumos, or spiritedness. And so in turn, those who reject such conclusions are construed as morally decrepit, lacking the stomach to do what is necessary to live rightly and restore the polis. Such a conviction may be substantially less compelling when viewed from an abstract theoretical perspective, but that’s not to deny its psychological pull (at least for a certain set of people).

A great deal has already been said about some of the more controversial teachings of these movements, and I won’t rehash all that here. I’ve been contemplating a different question recently: is there an alternative way of engagement with these paradigms that doesn’t simply fall back on liberal dogmas—perhaps a way of appreciating some of the genuinely interesting ideas that can emerge from thought experiments such as theonomy and integralism? After all, the animating question of both paradigms—“by what standard” is law to be made?—is the same question raised by Arthur Allen Leff in his seminal 1979 essay Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law, which appeared in the Duke Law Journal.

Perhaps. I’ve recently been reading Chaim Saiman’s fascinating book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, which explores the various ways in which Talmudic law has been understood through the centuries—particularly within contexts where there’s no realistic possibility of operationalizing its requirements—and Saiman draws out an important point about the function of religious law. As Saiman frames the matter, debates over arcane points of theory need not be debates over conclusions that one would necessarily back up with the coercive force of law. From a certain point of view, the very act of debating the matter is a fundamentally religious discipline—a way of “loving God with all one’s mind” and taking seriously the implications of His commandments within a hypothetically unified society, whether or not that society has ever appeared. So, for instance, debating the meaning of longstanding Christian proscriptions on “usury” isn’t a project undertaken with an eye to immediately introducing specific legislation on the floor of the U.S. Senate; it’s a way of seeking to learn to think in fundamentally Christian terms, so that when questions of economic justice eventually present themselves to the participants, they will be prepared to exercise right reason in that context in a manner formed by their theological tradition.

And—absurd utopian hypotheticals notwithstanding—there are rather worse outcomes than that.

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