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Public Theology: Does Society Need God?
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Does Society Need God?
Philosopher Leo Strauss, so loved by neoconservatives, addressed the `theological-political problem` important for public theology and Lutheran teaching.

By Ed Knudson

Mark Lilla writes in The New York Review of Books about several books, mostly in German, on Leo Strauss, the philosopher who is said to provide much of the foundation for those today called "neoconservatives" who currently have such influence within the Bush administration. The books under review focus on Strauss as "the European". In a second article Lilla will focus on Strauss as a teacher in the United States.

Strauss questioned whether or not the Enlightenment philosophers upon whose thought the modern era emerged were correct in their assumption that society did not need God. To quote Lilla here:
Strauss often remarked that although politics can address finite problems it can never resolve the fundamental contradictions of life. Those contradictions have their source in the human need to answer the existential question "How should I live?," a supra-political question giving rise to stark alternatives. In the West, those alternatives were seen in philosophy and divine revelation, the lives of Socrates and Moses. The tension between them was, in Strauss's view, the hidden wellspring of our civilization's vitality. But the thinkers of the modern Enlightenment, horrified by religious war and frustrated by the other-worldliness of classical philosophy, tried to reduce that tension. They mocked religion, advocated toleration, and tried to redirect philosophy toward more practical pursuits, whether political, technological, or moral. They imagined a world of satisfied citizens and shopkeepers, and nearly succeeded in creating it.

But as the nineteenth century progressed it became abundantly clear that one problem, the "Jewish question," could not be dissolved. Not because of Christian prejudice, which was real enough, or Jewish stubbornness, but because the existence of the Jews as a people constituted by di-vine revelation was a challenge to the Enlightenment's hope that politics could be isolated from supra-political claims. The principle leading to emancipation—that, to quote from the debate in the French National Assembly of 1789, "the Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals"—proved untenable; the call of revelation could not be extinguished from thought or politics. And that, for Strauss, meant that philosophy needed to reconsider the original "theological-political problem" afresh.
The neoconservatives in this country have, of course, concluded that society does, indeed, need God. The Spring, 2004, issue of the neoconservative journal The Public Interest is focused on "Religion in America". In one article "Wilfred McClay argues that a proper American civil religion balances and blends religious zeal with patriotism, thereby preventing the dominance of one over the other." In another article the author says in a patronizing mode that the religious right must be included in American civil religion since it represents so many people and they cannot be excluded, without recognition of the fact that the religious right form of religion has become the dominant public expression of Christianity due its adoption by one of the major political parties in the country.

The classic Lutheran perspective on this question is that, no, society does not need God, or, better, society does not need a particular type of faith in a particular God. Martin Luther was fond of saying (it is often claimed, though no one has been able to find the quotation) that he would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian. Lutheran understanding is that any governmental authority is from God, that God acts through government for the preservation of creation, but this is not dependent on whether there is any explicit faith in this God. God is "hidden" behind the rule of government but God's will cannot be known in specific policy terms. Policy should be based on human reason, and for Christians or a Christian ruler, that means policy oriented to love of neighbor. Otherwise, Luther like the later Enlightenment philosophers placed much confidence in the efficacy of human reason within politics. At the same time Luther had a limited view of how much government can accomplish. It should provide for basic order so people don't end up killing one another. Luther said a wise prince is a very rare bird; he did not place hope in any sort of apocalypic or salvific function for government. Society in that sense does not need God.

This Lutheran view is especially helpful in today's world when the religious right has become so dominant that it is providing religious support for extremely right wing political perspectives which endanger liberal constitutional democracy which in this country has explicitly left God out of the consitution.

We will be watching for the second installment of the Mark Lilla article.

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Date Added: 10/2/2004 Date Revised: 10/2/2004 2:42:54 PM

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