A Battle of Wills

In a 1970 letter to the editor of Commonweal, a graduate student named Jean Bethke Elshtain defended Jesuit priest and social activist Dan Berrigan against what the feminist scholar and theologian Rosemary Ruether had called his problematic “radical personalism.” Elshtain suggested that social criticism required going beyond “structural analysis of the political and economic edifice” to examine the motivations of individuals. “Changes in both behavior (‘inner consciousness’) and institutions must be sought,” she wrote, “because they serve to reinforce one another. One needs structural analysis and the Berrigan sort of radical personalism.”

Such a conclusion may surprise those familiar with Elshtain’s subsequent career, in which she has become a renowned political philosopher with an increasingly neoconservative bent—her recent work has found her closely allied with the Bush administration. In fact, Elshtain’s Gifford Lectures, delivered in 2005–06, and now published under the title Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, remain true to her original, two-pronged approach to social criticism. What has changed in her outlook, however, is an overwhelming prioritization of the wisdom of institutions over the experience of individuals.

Elshtain’s contention in these lectures is that strong notions of divine sovereignty prevalent in the late Middle Ages gave way to problematic modern understandings of political sovereignty—understandings which in turn have created similarly troubling attitudes toward self-sovereignty. Her argument unfolds in two parts. The first centers on a structural analysis of the theological developments that have informed our modern conception of the nation-state. Here, Elshtain joins a chorus of modern social theorists, like John Milbank, who celebrate a theological past dominated by a particular reading of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. In Augustine, Elshtain argues, we find a Trinitarian God whose primary attribute is his logos, or reason, united to creation through the Incarnation—a primary insight into the nature of God preserved in Thomistic natural-law theology.

Elshtain argues that under the influence of Thomism, spheres of secular and religious authority emerged, with the latter giving spiritual legitimacy to the former, and the former exercising political and military authority in the service of the latter. In this account, the church served as legislative branch to the king’s executive branch of government, forming a kind of medieval checks-and-balances system of power sharing. It is at this point that the reader begins to wonder what history Elshtain is recounting. There is little reference in Sovereignty to power-hungry popes, who often managed to wield significant political influence in executive affairs, and no mention of the crusades, those campaigns of political and spiritual oppression cooperatively waged by church and state.

The Christian insight that reason is often corrupted by the desire for power seems far from Elshtain’s mind as she gazes wistfully on the Middle Ages. In her view, it was a fundamental shift in the doctrine of God that legitimated the consolidation of sovereignty under one ruler. This shift had its roots in the thought of the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus, who insisted that God’s sovereign will transcended anything accessible to human reason; divine command always trumped natural law. As this theological strain, known as nominalism, took on more strident forms during the Reformation, it came to eclipse the Thomistic doctrine. Divine will came to replace logos as the chief attribute of God. This tectonic shift disrupted the symbiotic relationship between church and state and transformed a system of checks and balances into a battle of wills.

Political theory in the early modern period, then, became a power struggle whereby such philosophers as Thomas Hobbes sought to consolidate sovereignty under one ruler—if the divine will was undivided, then the will of the people, embodied in the prince, must also remain undivided. Again, Elshtain’s suggestion that competition between church and state only emerged with the ascendance of nominalism seems a naive reading of history. In many instances, appeals to divine command were made by Reformers—for example, Martin Luther—who were critiquing a Thomism that had grown too political in its discernment of the logos. In Elshtain’s reading, however, Luther simply becomes an unwitting accomplice in the theological legitimation of the despotic nation-state. Did nominalism lend itself to problematic consolidations of power? Yes, it did. But Thomistic natural-law theory was by no means immune to such corruptions.

If Elshtain’s structural analysis in the first half of the book is hampered by a historical blind spot, she works hard to make up for it in her treatment of self-sovereignty in the second half, placing the Fall front and center. Returning to Augustine, Elshtain describes the human person as fundamentally fragile and dependent. Far from the fiercely independent and self-actualizing modern person we take for granted today, Augustine saw human beings as desperately ill-equipped to be all they can be on their own. This view has far-reaching implications. Not only does each person need a community to help actualize her potential, but any human incarnation is wholly dependent upon the Incarnation. Even when we are alone, we require divine grace to hold us together in the face of ever-present threats, including mortality itself.

As in the political realm, Elshtain argues that human psychology was progressively corrupted by a theological emphasis on the will. As God was transformed from the logos, freely given to a fallen humanity, into an autocratic will, ruling over one commanded to obey, the human person became a mirror image of the sovereign divinity—the sovereign subject. A battle of wills replaced a once cooperative relationship between God and humanity, and the sovereign human subject sought to overthrow its divine ruler. Ultimately, such a strong notion of self-sovereignty entailed the individual’s attempt to deny her own mortality, in a process that Elshtain, borrowing from the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor, calls “excarnation.”

According to the logic of “excarnation,” the only way the will can actualize its desires is by transcending the material world and, most importantly, the body. Elshtain argues that, in keeping with this assumption, the modern sovereign self has developed technologies aimed at denying its own embodiment through the total mastery of nature. Sovereignty mounts an incisive critique of those modern scientific projects aimed at achieving such “excarnation,” including medical technologies designed to rid us of the handicapped, the elderly, and the unborn. What is missing from this treatment of self-sovereignty, however, is a connection with the structural analysis in the first half of the book. If “inner consciousness and institutions reinforce each other,” as Elshtain suggested in 1970, then her Augustinian conception of the self as dependent and fragile image should lend itself to institutions that are similarly unstable.

The psychology we are left with at the end of Sovereignty mirrors the politics recommended in the first half of the book—a secular entity constantly challenged by, and held accountable to, the traditional wisdom of religion. Yet, as history has shown, this wisdom is no less susceptible to sin than is the will of a fallen humanity; and human institutions, like church and state—populated by mere mortals—must resist the presumption that they can achieve unfettered access to truth. In the end, Elshtain’s suggestion that sin afflicts individuals and not institutions reflects a failure to connect fallen subjects with the political and ecclesial communities they create. Defending Berrigan in 1970, Elshtain predicted that “radical personalities, who, through their own example, encourage, even demand that others give up a part of their comfort and conservative inactivism, will do more, ultimately, to turn this country around than any amount of structural analysis can.” If it is a revolutionary and systematic revision of strong sovereignty that Elshtain seeks, she might do well to remember the starting point for analysis she herself recommended nearly forty years ago.

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: 
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Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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