Astrobiology requires us to rethink what is “universal” and what is “particular.” The capacities and characteristics we have learned to regard as universally human – often after some effort to overcome the prejudices of our own race, culture, or class – may need to be viewed in a different light as we discover other possibilities for life in the universe. We may have to get used to thinking of the “universal” as particular to our own planet and species. This obviously applies to human biology, but it is equally true for our declarations about “universal human rights” and for philosophical ideas like “humans are political animals” or “all men are created equal.” These universals are deeply embedded in traditions of thought and social institutions, but they may take on a different meaning when viewed in relation to other possible forms of life and intelligence.
This challenge is especially interesting when we think about religious traditions, which already speak about human universals in a frame of reference that transcends time and space. Religion, like astrobiology, locates life in the universe. It gives humanity a place in relation to reality as a whole. Perhaps that is why theologians have long been interested in the possibility of life on other worlds (Crowe 1997). A theology that understands humanity in relation to God cannot but be interested in how other life might participate in such a relationship, too.
For the most part, of course, the problems of terrestrial life give people of faith and their religious leaders quite enough to worry about. Providing universal safety, security, and peace for the one form of intelligent life we know exceeds our present capacities, and debate continues about exactly what the needs of that life are, especially when we move beyond biological requirements to consider social and political relationships.
Thus, an important concern in recent theology has been to explore the moral implications of the human dignity that all persons share. We are not only made of the same stuff. We are “made in the image of God,” as some scriptural traditions put it. To be human makes us equal, and equal at a high rank that demands the kind of respect that modern politics formulates in terms of universal human rights (Waldron 2012).
THE IRONY OF MODERN POLITICS
Tracing the interactions between the contexts that provide human goods gives us a more complex and realistic picture of how the modern world creates social order, and unapologetic politics gives us a more complete account of public discourse. No single set of rules governs this discourse or regulates the relationships between competing contexts. The successful modern state has less need of shared ideas and a greater tolerance for conflict than the theologians and philosophers who envisioned modern politics at first thought.
This success, however, creates its own need for a unity that may not be supplied by political activity, even with the expanded scope that politics has in the unapologetic model. The contexts that make up a society are brought into a working relationship through politics. For our lives, it is a different matter. As we are led deeper into family, culture, government, work, and religion, our responsibilities seem more and more to conflict and compete. We acquire the knowledge and skills that make us effective at our work, good citizens, and responsible family members. More and more, we know how to shape the contexts where we live and work, at least on a local level. Colleagues and neighbors look to us for leadership. We know that many of them – our children, our students, the teams we lead, and the people we supervise – depend on us.
Christian realism is a reminder of our limits and an affirmation of our hope. It tells us that our knowledge is imperfect, our plans are incomplete, and our expectations are inevitably distorted by self-interest. We are always trying to overcome these limitations, and we are often partly successful; but our partial successes make it all the more important to remember that the limits remain, mocking our confidence with ironic reversals and threatening our pride with forces beyond our control. Final answers and permanent solutions elude us.
Nevertheless, we live in a meaningful universe. Conflict, violence, and the relentless background drone of anxiety are not the ultimate reality. The coherence of our partial truths and the justice that expresses our imperfect love point to reality in a way that incoherence and injustice do not. So we feel ourselves always obliged to work toward a better approximation of justice and peace, and we cannot rest content merely in prevailing with our own interests.
Everyone experiences this dialectic of power and finitude, meaning and incoherence, hope and anxiety. For some, it signals a need to dig through the distortions of human subjectivity to the hard core of objective fact. For others, the persistence of incoherence and violence suggests that objectivity itself is an illusion, and the only order we will find is the one we make for ourselves.
For biblical faith, however, this unresolved tension in all human experience reveals the nature of ultimate reality and locates our place within it.
REALITY AND RESPONSIBILITY
The Christian realisms that we explored in the previous chapter call for further exploration of their history. The increasing complexity of global relationships and the sharp differences that separate our world from the world that Reinhold Niebuhr knew make different understandings of Christian realism inevitable, but the lines along which these interpretations divide reflect older and deeper controversies in Christian theology and ethics.
Christians have always lived in the tension between ultimate reality and immediate responsibility. From the beginning, they have expected God's ultimate victory over all conditions that threaten the meaning of life and deprive human action of purpose. Christians measure choice and action by this hope, and not by the chances of success or failure. Thus, theologians as different as Stanley Hauerwas and Reinhold Niebuhr have affirmed that doing Christian ethics requires thinking eschatologically. This accounts for the persistence of apocalyptic movements and ideas in lived Christian faith, even in a secular, scientific age. It also helps to explain why today's Counterapocalyptic Realists are so urgent in rejecting a political apocalypse that puts the recreation of the world in the hands of the powerful. To do that destroys the distinctive hope that Christian eschatology has always offered to the poor.
Christian hope, however, is not only eschatological. The world which God will finally rule is also God's creation, which means that it is from the beginning ordered toward that end.
POLITICS AND “VALUES”
Modern politics, as we have seen, begins with a sphere of secular authority whose concerns are distinct from the search for religious truth and moral virtue. For those who accepted this modern politics, it seemed axiomatic that increased diversity would require a progressively more rigorous distinction between the goals of politics and the human good. Under what John Rawls called “conditions of reasonable pluralism,” public political discussions cannot be directed toward agreement on the good. The possibilities of agreement are too remote, and there are many urgent questions that need to be answered first. Disagreements between reasonable people about the human good are a fact around which politics must be structured, not a problem that modern politics can resolve.
Nevertheless, it seems that one result of the growing diversity in contemporary society is an unanticipated public interest in “values.” The more people see that their neighbors shape their lives in unfamiliar ways and follow different religious and cultural traditions, the more they want to know exactly what these neighbors think a good life would be. How do they think about their families? How do they see work in relation to the rest of their lives? What role does religion play in their choices?
When new immigrants flow into a community, the old residents and the new alike become amateur anthropologists, trying to understand the world as others see it in relation to the world of their own experience.
Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the problem of political order in global terms. No doubt this was partly the result of personal experience, for both of them traveled widely for young men of their day, and both came to maturity in a society that was having its expectations reshaped by the shock of global war and worldwide economic depression. Personal experience was reinforced for both men by participation in Protestant ecumenism, which before, during, and after the Second World War sought to make a united witness to the theological conditions for lasting world peace. Bonhoeffer, in the secrecy of a resistance group, thought about what the world might be like after the war. Niebuhr and the political realists whom he influenced lived to help shape it.
A decade after the end of the Second World War, Niebuhr thought that the world was still in the beginning stages of global integration. Order on a global scale was needed to repair the disorder left after two world wars, organize the rapid growth of postwar trade and communication, and control the new threat posed by nuclear weapons. The necessary institutions and practices, however, were only slowly taking shape in the United Nations and regional security organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
One problem, as Niebuhr saw it, was that democracy, which provided the best reconciliation of freedom with the requirements of community, had arrived at its solution to this problem gradually, over time and by experiment.
At the end of 1933, the future looked grim for the social and political order that had dominated the world at the end of the nineteenth century. Europe had destroyed a generation of its youth in a disastrous war and disrupted the world economy, and the effects were still being felt more than a decade later. The only signs of recovery seemed to be in Russia, Germany, and Japan, places that had abandoned democracy and capitalism for a communist or nationalist vision that would be spread by revolution or by conquest.
In light of those political and historical realities, Reinhold Niebuhr abandoned the sentimental hope of the Social Gospel that Christian ideals would change social realities for the better. Realism required a harder look at the pervasive self-interest of the rich and the need for power of the poor. Like early Christian apocalyptic or Marxist revolutionary theory, Christian realism also seemed to require a recognition that civilization had arrived at the end of an age. The foundations of social life had been so disrupted that conventional wisdom and established expectations could no longer guide responsible action.
This theme distressed many of Niebuhr's Christian readers, who still wanted to see the Gospel as a strategy for social transformation, but Niebuhr repeated the point even more forcefully a little more than a year later in Reflections on the End of an Era.
More than a decade ago, I wrote a book called Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. The distinction between the man and the method was important to me, as it was to Niebuhr himself. Christian realism did not belong to him alone, though he was its most articulate and influential voice. It is a way of thinking deeply embedded in Christian tradition, and it can be systematically distinguished from other ways of thinking about politics, ethics, and theology available in Niebuhr's time and in ours.
This volume continues that effort to take the way of thinking that Niebuhr represented beyond his own formulation of it. This is not because I think less of Niebuhr, but precisely because I think his Christian realism has been intellectually isolated by more recent developments in philosophy and theology that make it harder for contemporary scholars to appreciate his insights. I have tried to address these problems here by emphasizing the social and political pluralism in the Christian realist tradition and by stressing the theology of responsibility on which his pragmatic approach to moral problems depends. The idea of responsible action connects Niebuhr more closely than I had understood before to his theological adversary, Karl Barth, and to his erstwhile student, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book is in some respects an effort to write the theology and ethics we might have had if Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer had each had the opportunity to actually understand what the other was saying.
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