Thursday, April 23, 2009

Christianity: A Select Bibliography

Our next bibliography in the Directed Reading series covers Christianity. As with our other lists, this one in no way aims to be comprehensive, let alone exhaustive, hence the adjective in the subtitle.

In deference to the fact that this is, after all, a law blog, I'd like to draw your attention to several titles in particular that well document the historical importance of Christian doctrines and ideas to the development of Anglo-American legal traditions. First, there's the two volumes of Harold J. Berman's magisterial study Law and Revolution: Vol. 1, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Legal Tradition (1983), and Vol. 2, Law and Revolution: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition (2003). Far more modest in ambition and scope but by my lights no less significant are God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (1996) by Timothy Gorringe, and James Q. Whitman's The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial (2008). I'm especially fond of the former work, if only because it explains my visceral dislike of Anselm's
"satisfaction" theory of atonement. With Gorringe, it helps to recall that "In Anselm's day, at the end of the eleventh century, the life of a stag was worth more than that of a serf, but, although he was sensitive to the needs of 'Christ's poor,' Anselm nowhere adverts to the fact. [....] Bishops and archbishops [Anselm was the Archbishop of Cantebury] could hardly read Scripture except from the position of those who exercise power."

During the Middle Ages it was not unusual for the "Christ of doctrine [to be] far removed from the Galilean preacher, with his teachings about forgiveness, and who mingled with the poor, [as] ideas about the number of fallen angels took the place of concrete attention to the miseries and oppressions of the poor." Satisfaction atonement theory, what is otherwise and perhaps better known on this side of the Atlantic as
"substitution" theory, was both influenced by and influenced penal thinking in Europe: "satisfaction theory emerged, in the eleventh century, at exactly the same time as the criminal law took shape. The two reacted upon each other: theology drew on legal notions and legal discussion, as the history of satisfaction doctrine makes clear, and law turned to theology for metaphysical justification." To make a long story short and vivid, "passion theology" on the order of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ (2004), fashioned a "rhetoric of redeeming blood [that] found concrete expression in the London hanged:"

The rites and symbols of Christianity have been the means by which Western culture has sought to master the intractable features of human existence. These intractable features have included, at their centre, wickedness, guilt and punishment. The practical business of punishing offenders 'takes place within a cultural space which is already laden with meanings and which lends itself easily to symbolic use.' Christianity was wheeled in to validate the legal process through the taking of oaths (on a book which absolutely forbids them, as Tolstoy caustically noted), through assize sermons, and through the ministrations of chaplains at the gallows. In the prison Tolstoy describes in Resurrection 'hung the customary appurtenance of all places of barbarity--a large image of Christ, as it were in mockery of his teaching.' The suffering Christ, an icon of the wickedness of judicial punishment, became the focus of its legality, and the the need for the offender to suffer as he did. An image of torture provided the central construal of the cultural space within which punishment took place.

Finally, Christianity has played a role in the recent widespread interest in
restorative theories of justice in both muncipal and international law contexts, much of it inspired by the seminal work of John Braithwaite, commencing with his book, Crime, Shame and Reintegration (1989). The transparent irony here is that this represents an understanding of Christian thought and praxis deeply at odds with the historical narrative sketched above. Lawrence W. Sherman has written a vigorous critique of the Christian ethics that inspires restorative justice theory: "Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Restoration," in Heather Strang and John Braithwaite, eds., Restorative Justice and Civil Society (2001): 35-55. In the global society of states, restorative justice practices and mechanisms take place within broader phenomena that fall under the heading of transitional justice (see also here and here) and include, for example, the resort to "truth commissions" (see also here, here, here, and here) or, more controversially, reliance on systems of "local justice," like the gacaca courts in post-genocide Rwanda. (See too the bibliographies for 'Acknowledgement, Apology and Forgiveness,' 'Reconciliation and Transitional Justice,' 'Restorative Justice' and 'Christian Perspectives on Conflict Transformation, Nonviolence and Reconciliation,' edited by Catherine Morris for Canadian-based Peacemakers Trust. These are part of a larger bibliography on 'Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding' 'intended as a starting place for...research on conflict resolution, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), peacebuilding or peace studies.')
Addendum: To further fill out our "Christianity and the law" theme, please see this post by Alfred Brophy at The Faculty Lounge discussing a response to Geoffrey Stone's 2008 Melville B. Nimmer Memorial lecture published in the UCLA Law Review: "The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?" Brophy writes: "Heck, I'm tempted to join the fray with some talk of the nature of beliefs about Christianity in the antebellum era and at the time of the framing of the Confederate Constitution." I think we'll be forgiven if we pray he succumbs to temptation!

The following excerpts from two books by John Cottingham will endeavor to serve as a sensitive and in some respects normative introduction to our
bibliography for Christianity:

In the history of philosophy, the epithet 'spiritual' is most commonly coupled not with the term 'beliefs' but with the term 'exercises.' Perhaps the most famous exemplar is the sixteenth-century Ejercicios espirituales ('Spiritual Exercises,' c. 1522-41) of St. Ignatius Loyola. As its name implies, this is not a doctrinal treatise, nor even a book of sermons, but a structured set of exercises or practices; it is a practical course of activities for the retreatant, to be followed in a prescribed order, carefully divided into days and weeks. [....] In Ignatius...we are dealing with a practical manual--a training manual--and the structured timings, the organized programmes of readings, contemplation, prayer, and reflection, interspersed with the daily rhythms of eating and sleeping, are absolutely central, indeed they are the essence of the thing. Ignatius himself opens the work by making an explicit parallel with physical training programmes: 'just as strolling, walking and running are exercises for the body, so 'spiritual exercises' is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one's soul to rid itself of disordered attachments.' [....]

What holds good for any plausible account of the tradition of spiritual exercises also holds good more generally for any true understanding of the place of religion in human life: we have to acknowledge what might be called the primacy of praxis, the vital importance that is placed on the individual's embarking on a path of self-transformation, rather than (say) simply engaging in intellectual debate or philosophical analysis. [....] The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a striking advocate of this line of thought. His famous nuit de feu or 'night of fire' on November 23 1654--the intense religious experience that led to a radical change in his life--generated in him what he describes as feelings of 'heartfelt certainty, peace and joy' [cf. the Sanskrit formula, saccidananda in orthodox Indian philosophy and comparable descriptions of the Buddhist's nibbana.] But the God who is the source of these feelings is 'the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,' not the God of 'philosophers and scholars.' Commentators have discussed the exact import of these words, but the general point is clear enough: faith, for Pascal, must arise in the context of a living tradition of practical religious observance, rather than from debate and analysis in the seminar room. This is consistent with Pascal's general philosophical stance on the epistemic status of religious claims, which may be described as proto-Kantian; questions about the nature and existence of God are beyond the reach of discursive reason. 'If there is a God,' says Pascal, 'he is infinitely beyond our comprehension...and hence we are incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is.' And since reason cannot settle the matter, we have to make a practical choice, a choice on which our ultimate happiness depends. [....]

...[O]n any plausible understanding of the goodness of God, He cannot be supposed to bribe or threaten human beings with happiness or damnation. Standard Christian doctrine makes it clear, instead, that salvation is offered as the 'free gift of God' (in St. Paul's phrase); and that in any case, properly understood, it involves no mere affirmation or placing of a bet [a la Pascal's 'wager'], but a radical moral transformation--or, in the image of St. John's gospel, a new birth. Yet Pascal's position is in fact much more subtle than may at first appear. In the first place, though his wager discussion is often called 'the pragmatic argument,' he is emphatically not offering an argument for the existence of God.... In the second place, and very importantly, he is not offering an argument designed to produce immediate assent or faith in the claims of religion; in this sense, the image of placing a bet, an instantaneous act of putting down the chips, is misleading. Rather, he envisages faith as the destination--one to be reached by a long road of religious praxis; considerations about happiness are simply introduced as a motive for embarking on that journey. And thirdly and finally, the rewards invoked are not simply those of the next world (though that is, of course, how the wager is initially presented), but instead emerge by the end of his discussion as signal benefits related to the present life.
Pascal once famously observed: le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point--the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know at all. [In her 1988 paper, 'Love's Knowledge,' Martha Nussbaum has suggested] a persuasive variation on this enigmatic theme: there are certain kinds of truth such that to try to grasp them purely intellectually is to avoid them. What I am proposing (and what seems to me to underlie the Pascalian position on faith and praxis) is that religious truth should be seen as falling into just this category. [....]

[N]othing in the idea of the primacy of practice necessarily involves a permanent abandonment of critical rationality. [....]

The "peace envisaged" in Dante's maxim that "in his will is our peace," is not mere tranquillisation or externally engineered submission to a higher power, but is the peace of an autonomous being whose reason has recognised the truth of the ancient religious idea: to serve goodness is the most perfect freedom. [....]

[I]f there is an infinite, self-subsistent being behind the phenomenal world, one might well expect it to be beyond the grasp of our normal literal and scientific language, and thus reasonably suppose that it can be glimpsed, if at all, only via intimations, or symbolic or other figurative modes of discourse. [....]

...Kant famously said that he went 'beyond knowledge in order to make room for faith.' Science, on the Kantian view, is confined to describing the phenomenal world; and what lies beyond the horizon of science cannot therefore be proved--but neither can it be disproved. It follows from this that what is 'impossible,' in the sense of not being a possible object of human knowledge, can nevertheless be a proper object of faith. According to Kant, I cannot prove (or disprove) God; yet because it would be humanly impossible to devote my life to the good if I thought I was striving after 'a conception which at bottom was empty and had no object,' it is appropriate for 'the righteous man to say "I will that there be a God...I firmly abide by this and will not let this faith be taken from me."' [....] Like Descartes and Pascal before him, who thought our human reason could not comprehend infinite being, Kant allowed for a transcedent reality outside the phenomenal world, one that we cannot reach by demonstrative inquiry, but one it makes sense to believe in, and for which (Kant went on to insist) our human existence has a profound need. [....]

God's existence may not be the conclusion of a valid argument, or a plausible empirical hypothesis; affirming a transcendent being is thus in this sense a leap into the unknown--a leap beyond the boundaries of discursive knowledge. But for all that, for the believer it is more than a blind leap, more than a mere act of will, since the belief resonates in a striking way with occasional but powerful intimations, enduring traces that are manifest in the moral and spiritual fabric of our lives. [....]

The Christian understanding of the Incarnation involves "the idea that the 'inaccessible light' of the divinity (1 Timothy 6:16) becomes visible in the person of one human being who is the 'icon of the invisible God' (Colossians 1:15). [....]

The Freudian diagnosis has been highly influential, and can often be seen as informing the idea, voiced by many contemporary atheists, that God is merely a projection formed in response to our human insecurities. But there are at least two problems with this way of dismissing the religious impulse. First, though the abject helplessness of the infant is an apt image of the fragility of the human plight, that fragility, as Freud's own analysis affirms, is clearly not confined to infancy. Our vulnerability, and that of our loved ones, to death, disease and accident is an inescapable part of the human condition; and this being so, to be appropriately aware of it seems precisely what a normal rational human ought to be (even granted that constantly dwelling on it may be a sign of neurosis). In the second place, talk of God as a projection does not in the end advance the debate between theists and atheists very much, since it cannot settle the question of whether the impulse to project our longings outwards to an external source does or does not have an objective counterpart. It is certainly plausible that frail and insecure humans would want to project their need for security onto a protective heavenly Father; but a religious believer can equally maintain that since our true destiny lies in union with our creator, we will naturally feel insecure and restless until we find Him. Indeed, precisely this latter theme turns out to be the refrain of many ancient writers on theistic spirituality: nata est anima ad percipiendum bonum infinitum, quod Deus est; ideo in eo solo debet quiescere et eo frui--'the soul is born to perceive the infinite good that is God, and accordingly it must find its rest and contentment in Him alone.' The result of the debate over projection is thus a stand-off: the fact that humans feel a powerful need for God's loving protection logically says nothing either way about whether that protection is a reality.

...[I]t is logically impossible for a perfect being to create something other than itself that is wholly perfect (for a wholly perfect being would just be identical with God). So if he is to create anything at all, God must necessarily create something less perfect than himself; creation necessarily operates, as a long tradition going back to Augustine has it, by what we may think of as a subtraction or diminution from the perfect divine essence.
---John Cottingham

References and Further Reading:

  • Cottingham, John. On the Meaning of Life. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Cottingham, John. The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Haught, John F. Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Kellenberger, James. The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
  • Smart, J.J.C. and J.J. Haldane. Atheism & Theism. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2nd ed., 2003.
  • Smart, Ninian (Donald Wiebe, ed.). Concept and Empathy: Essays in the Study of Religion. Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 1986.
  • van Inwagen, Peter, ed. Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. What Did Jesus Mean? New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


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