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Living The Legacy (Part IV)

Living the legacy (Part IV)

How to live the legacy that Robert Schuman left in Europe. From Jeff Fountain’s book Deeply Rooted (Part I here, Part II here, Part III here)

IV. Schuman believed he had a calling to politics, as others may be called to education, healthcare, business, the arts, or even ‘the ministry’. How should Christians with such a calling approach the political task? Is there any one true Christian political approach?

Many books have been written on politics, and on Christian political options. One I recommend is Political Visions and Illusions, by David Koyzis.[1]

The author analyses a range of ‘-isms’ or political ideologies which have emerged in western thought since the enlightenment. These include liberalism, nationalism, conservatism, socialism and marxism. We could add the single issue parties which have emerged in more recent years focussing on environmentalism or animal rights, for example.

Some Christians engage in politics as Christian socialists, arguing that scripture commands us to care for the poor and the oppressed, and therefore requires a socialist agenda. Others retort that as the Bible supports private property, the liberal capitalistoption is the most Christian system. Yet others style themselves politically conservative, as they identify faithfulness to the historic faith with loyalty to tradition in general.  

The net result is a ‘scattered voice’, an unnecessarily fragmented Body of Christ in the political arena, according to Koyzis. Taking sides is based on a flawed understanding of what the ideologies actually are. Rather than seeing them as intrinsically religious, many Christians see them as simply neutral systems, and ignore the spiritual roots of capitalism and socialism. 

Yet ideologies flow out of the religious commitment of a person or community, Koyzis explains. Humans are worshipping creatures,  though not all humans will admit this of themselves. An atheist denies belief in God but may effectively worship rationality, artistic prowess or military might as god. Some aspect of God’s creation assumes an idolatrous role above all other aspects. 

That’s true for liberalism and its god of maximum individual freedoms, nationalism(liberation from rule by the ‘other’), conservatism (return to the ‘golden age’), socialism (the communal ownership of all wealth), and even democracy (which without proper spiritual foundations bows to the god of popular sovereignty, as Schuman himself argued).

However, even though ideologies flow out of an idolatrous worldview, the author believes they may still have something to teach us. They may have uncovered fragments of the truth which Christians have not clearly seen. 

What, for example, caused otherwise good and decent German citizens to succomb to the attractions of national socialism? Or why did many western intellectuals turn to communism, scandalised by the suffering of the Great Depression?

Koyzis nevertheless sees the faithfulness of God to his creation despite the distortions of the ideologies. Even the most deceptive of ideologies is incapable of altogether misshaping human society in its own image. A liberal political order promoting individualism cannot totally erode the basic institutions of marriage and family. Neither has totalitarianism been successful in fully erasing family and other loyalities other than to the state.

‘For this we may rightly thank God, who faithfully upholds his creation order in the midst of our disobedience,’ writes Koyzis.  

If all our existing ideologies have idolatrous presumptions, where can the Christian stand? 

Biblical Christianity affirms firstly that all of creation is under God’s sovereignty; but that man’s sin, the fall, has affected all our activities. Just as creation and fall are cosmic in scope, so also is redemption, which is ’creation regained’.  

And this regained creation includes politics. We cannot simply consign politics to a neutral, ‘secular’ realm, nor to the sovereignty of the prince of this world, says Koyzis. We must claim it for Jesus Christ.

So what does a non-idolatrous approach to society and politics look like? Koyzis argues that it will acknowledge the sovereignty of God over all of life. It will uphold individual rights, like liberalism, yet remind us that the individual is not sovereign. It will give due place to tradition, as does conservatism, yet recognises that all human works are tainted by sin. Like nationalism and the democratic creed, it recognises the place of the human community, but not as a sovereign focus of loyalty.

The one non-idolatrous alternative, Koyzis argues, is a kind of pluralism. He explores two Christian models attempting to rise above the idolatries of ideologies, one Reformed, the other Catholic.  Both these approaches hold promise for the complex political realities of the twenty-first century, suggests Koyzis. They avoid the injustice resulting from the state over-reaching its proper, God-given task.

The Reformed tradition affirming societal pluriformity was developed by Dutch Calvinists in response to the ideologies spawned by the French Revolution. Abraham Kuyper spoke of sphere-sovereignty, recognising that ultimate authority belongs to God. All earthly sovereignties are subsidiary. The family, the school, business, labour, the arts and so on are all sovereign in their own spheres, within their God-given limits. 

We have already encountered the Catholic model, based on the social encyclical Rerum Novarum. As we have seen, this was a seminal influence on Schuman’s political thought, and laid the foundation for a Christian democracy seeking reconciliation, not war, between classes, guided by church teachings. It rejected liberalism and socialism alike, insisting that the state must govern for the common good, and respect subsidiary communities. This doctrine of subsidiarity, as we have seenhas become a foundational principle of the European Union. Society is made up of, not just of the state and individuals, but a variety of smaller communities, groups, associations, each of which should be allowed the greatest possible autonomy. This pluralist principle protects civil society.

Closely related in Catholic circles was the philosophical worldview called Personalism. Developed in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century by thinkers in France, the US, the UK and Germany, it stresses the central significance of the person in human affairs, where the person’s identity is discovered and defined through their relationships. 

Personalism found political expression in the Christian Democratic parties, which held power in a number of European countries after the war, and is still very influential in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Poland, as well as in the European Peoples Party in the European Parliament. Its influence on public policy can be seen in issues like urban planning (small cities in Germany), the strength of trade associations and resistance to embryo research. However, there are those such as Dr Michael Schluter whoas we shall now see, believe Personalism lacks vital dimensions. But it could be translated into a coherent political and economic system through a symbiotic relationship with something he calls Relationism.

(The fifth question will be published next week)

Jeff Fountain

Director Schuman Centre


[1]Koyzis, 2003; David Koyzis is a Canadian professor of political science.

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