Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society

Home     |     Table of Contents     |    Links    |    Discussion      |    What's New     |    E-mail  me    |  Search

       
             
 
Theme: How an analogy between the civic good and the Christian good might be perceived that would allow Christian religious belief to contribute motivational resources supportive of a postmodern civic culture
ESSAY 8: The Civic Good as an Analogue of the Christian Good
 

  

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both the pursuit of the civic good and the pursuit of the Christian good follow a pattern that can be expressed in the most general terms as one of attainment through abandonment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to establish and maintain a form of political association aimed at removing constraints on particularistic desire produced by cultural, social, and economic domination, citizens must adopt and desire to adopt a standpoint detached from every particularistic object of desire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In what sense can we understand the Christian good to involve this paradoxical pattern of attainment through abandonment, i.e., of offering a certain kind of affirmation of particularistic desire in general through a relinquishing of the standpoint proper to particularistic desire?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The characteristically human desire for desire itself thus typically takes the form of a desire for narrative significance. When human desire takes this form exclusively, it is captured by this logic and becomes its servant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The present of desire’s self-completion constitutes neither beginning, middle nor end of a story. This present is an unnarrated, dateless present, a nunc stans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both liberalism and Christianity aim at a transformation of desire that serves to affirm and support the pursuit of particularistic desire or life in “this world."

 

 

.
The civic good and the Christian good: a possible analogy

          If Christian religious belief is actually to contribute motivational resources supportive of a postmodern civic culture, this will happen only because Christians, who are also citizens, have perceived an analogy between civic moral ideals and Christian moral ideals and, as a result, shape a Christianity that will flourish in liberal democracies because it is both and equally Christian and civic. Assuming, then, that Christians, as citizens, have a civic duty to discover and develop such an analogy, we can now briefly describe what the carrying out of this project might look like. We can now ask precisely what sort of analogy might be perceived between civic and Christian moral ideals that could be exploited in the invention of a postmodern civic culture.

          Early modernist liberal political philosophers seized upon an analogy between the normative standpoint of citizenship and the standpoint proper to an autonomous faculty of reason, as articulated in the work of Descartes and others. This was the creative and defining moment out of which arose the Enlightenment project and modernist liberal civic culture in general. Modernist liberals, in perceiving and developing this analogy, brought together two standpoints that had been radically distinguished by classical political philosophers — the practical, engaged standpoint of the citizen-ruler and the detached, purely contemplative or theoretical standpoint of the metaphysician.

          Following a similar pattern, can an analogy be perceived today between the normative standpoint of citizenship and the normative standpoint of Christian religious belief? If members of different Christian communities, acting both as citizens concerned about the fate of liberal democracy and as Christians concerned to enhance Christian practice in the context of an emerging postmodern culture, were to set out today to identify and develop such an analogy, where would they look?

          Perhaps such an analogy can be discovered through an examination of what we might perceive as a certain paradoxical aspect common to the pursuit of both the civic good and the good proper to Christian life. I might formulate this paradoxical aspect as follows: both the pursuit of the civic good and the pursuit of the Christian good follow a pattern that can be expressed in the most general terms as one of attainment through abandonment.

          What I have in mind is that, in both cases, the object of desire consists, although in very different ways, in the adoption of a standpoint affirming particularistic human desire in general (i.e., affirming life “in this world"), but, in both cases, this object is attained through a certain abandonment of the standpoint proper to particularistic desire (i.e., the standpoint proper to “this world"). Further, we might note that this paradoxical aspect of the pursuit of both the civic good and the Christian good is linked to a special characteristic shared by both: in both cases, attainment of the object of desire itself, i.e., attainment of the standpoint affirming particularistic human desire in general (i.e., affirming life “in this world"), excludes representation in narrative terms (i.e., cannot be understood as a standpoint “within time").

          These two points constitute only the barest and most abstract statement of one analogy that might be perceived between Christian religious belief and a civic conception of the good. I will attempt here to flesh out this analogy a bit, with the aim merely of providing a rough model of the sort of thinking that will be required of all citizens who wish, as members of one particularistic cultural community or another, to contribute toward the development of an overlapping consensus supportive of a postmodern civic culture.

The paradoxical nature of the civic good

          Let us consider first in what sense the pursuit of the civic good can be understood to display this paradoxical pattern of attainment through abandonment.

          In Essay 9, Section III, I noted that the establishment of liberal democracy as a form of political association is intended to remove constraints on human aspiration attributable to relations of cultural, social, and economic domination. However, in order to establish this form of political association, citizens must develop the capacities proper to liberal democratic citizenship, the capacities for civic freedom and civic justice.

          Development of these capacities requires what I characterized as a certain liberation of particularistic desire. This liberation of particularistic desire is attained through the formation of an identity that is independent of the ranking systems and the world views associated with any particularistic cultural community or conception of the good. It is the attainment of this identity or standpoint — i.e., the standpoint that provides the basis for the capacities of civic justice and civic freedom — that is desired in the desire for the civic good.

          Here we see the paradox. In order to establish and maintain a form of political association aimed at removing constraints on particularistic desire produced by cultural, social, and economic domination, citizens must adopt and desire to adopt a standpoint detached from every particularistic object of desire. A form of political association aimed at removing constraints on particularistic desire produced by domination is a form of political association governed by a standpoint affirming particularistic desire in general, affirming life “in this world." Attainment of the standpoint proper to this affirmation of particularistic desire in general, however, requires an abandonment of the standpoint proper to the exclusive pursuit of any given object of particularistic desire.

          This pattern of attainment through abandonment is linked to another feature of the pursuit of the civic good — the fact that the standpoint proper to civic justice and civic freedom excludes representation in narrative terms. The external and authorial standpoint proper to a capacity for civic freedom is not a standpoint that can itself be represented narratively. The pursuit of the civic good defines the liberal democratic public sphere, the space of civic discourse. But the space of civic discourse encompasses only a part of life. It does not constitute a totalizing order of meaning that comprehends all the general issues of human life. It does not constitute a “world" in the sense that particularistic conceptions of the good define totalizing views of the world.

          While the space of civic discourse encompasses all citizens, it encompasses all citizens only as free and equal individuals, leaving out of consideration differences and properties relevant to other life concerns — gender, wealth, talent, beauty, ethnicity, age, birth, class, and so on. Citizens create and enter the space of civic discourse motivated to attain the good proper to it, i.e., the liberation of particularistic desire. Bound together by the pursuit of this good, citizens form a limited community of a certain kind — what we can call a civic community. But this civic community is unlike the particularistic cultural communities founded upon the pursuit of a comprehensive ideal of happiness.

          Particularistic cultural communities are bound together by the sharing of a common history, a shared communitarian life narrative that gives meaning and direction to human desire in its totality. Particularistic cultural communities enjoy a narrative solidarity that is global, a narrative solidarity grounded upon shared stories that serve to foster and direct desire in all significant life activities and relationships. But the narrative solidarity proper to a civic community is very different.

          The story of any civic community is a story of the pursuit of liberty, the civic good. It is a story about human beings as public persons, human beings who, as citizens, assign priority for the moment to their identities as free and equal individuals. To assign priority in this way to civic identity is to leave behind the distinctions, the honors, the rank, the privileges (or lack of these) attaching to communitarian identity.

          Communitarian identity is shaped by the ranking system, the virtue concepts and the standards of excellence proper to a particularistic cultural community. The attributes of a person assigned on the basis of local community ranking systems reflect the totalizing world view or happiness ideal of that particular community. These attributes are incorporated into personal life narratives and, in this way, personal life narratives are incorporated within collective life narratives.

          The narrative solidarity that a member of a particularistic cultural community enjoys is thus a solidarity based upon the member’s internalization of these personal attributes, the member’s internalization of the relative position of rank and honor he or she holds within the community. To assign priority to civic identity, however, is to externalize all such personal attributes.

          As members of a civic community, all citizens are free and equal individuals. The honors they receive or the rank they hold within particularistic cultural communities is irrelevant. To the extent that the political community itself assigns rank and awards honor, these attributes also must remain externalized by their recipients. Any citizen who, as a citizen, views the distinctions and honors awarded by a civic community as tokens of a status higher than that of other citizens has interpreted those distinctions and honors in the wrong way.

          Thus, civic identity exists only as an externalization of all attributes of rank and relative esteem. The narrative solidarity of any civic community is a solidarity based upon this externalization. The story of liberty is a story that assumes the equality of all particularistic desire. It is a story that affirms all particularistic desire equally without regard to the rank or relative esteem of those who pursue it. In short, the narrative solidarity of a civic community is not the sort of narrative solidarity that can ever give specific direction and meaning to particularistic desire. The civic identity created by the externalization of all attributes of rank and relative esteem thus has, at the limit, a peculiar non-narrative property.

          Human life-narratives are stories relating the pursuit of a particular comprehensive conception of the good life. The function of these stories is to provide intelligibility to human desire in terms of a representation of time. Human desire flourishes most abundantly in the anticipation of its satisfaction. Human life narratives define the status of desire with respect to that anticipated satisfaction. Rank, esteem, honors granted to the main character of any particular life narrative are measures of that status. Life narratives are stories of ongoing success or failure.

          But civic identity, based upon the externalization of all attributes of rank and relative esteem, can never serve as the primary identity of the main character of any life narrative. By virtue of civic identity alone, the narrative status of one person’s desire cannot be distinguished from that of any other person. Thus, at the limit, in its full development, civic identity resists life-narrative representation altogether.

          The civic good, in the pursuit of which civic identity is formed, consists in the liberation of particularistic desire in the name of an affirmation of particularistic desire in general. As an affirmation of particularistic desire in general, it implicitly carries an affirmation of the pursuit of life-narrative significance. Yet, the civic identity that must be given priority in the pursuit of the civic good is itself constituted by the externalization of all life-narrative significance.

          Thus, in attaining the standpoint from which narrative significance in general can be affirmed, one attains a standpoint whereby all specific narrative significance must be abandoned. Here once again, but now in terms of life-narrative representation, we see the pattern of attainment through abandonment as it is exemplified in the pursuit of the civic good.

The paradoxical nature of the Christian good

          Let us now see whether we can use this pattern in order to draw a useful analogy between the civic good and the object of Christian desire. Needless to say, the analogy will not be perfect, since we are speaking here about two very different spheres of life.

          The only question is whether the analogy between the normative standpoint of religious faith and the normative standpoint of citizenship can be exploited in the process of forming an overlapping cultural consensus supportive of a postmodern civic culture. The question is, then, in what sense can we understand the Christian good to involve this paradoxical pattern of attainment through abandonment, i.e., of offering a certain kind of affirmation of particularistic desire in general through a relinquishing of the standpoint proper to particularistic desire?

          We can perhaps best perceive this pattern by describing in a symmetrical way the elements of both the civic good and the Christian good. The civic good consists in the liberation of particularistic desire by means of the formation of a desire for civic freedom and civic justice, a desire whose realization requires the formation of a civic identity characterized by a certain externalization of all personal life-narrative attributes derived from the pursuit of any specific particularistic good.

          For purposes of symmetrical comparison, we might characterize the Christian good in this way: the Christian good consists in the salvation of particularistic desire by means of the formation of a different kind of desire, a desire whose realization requires the formation of an identity characterized by the externalization of all personal life-narrative attributes derived from the pursuit of any specific particularistic good.

          To flesh out this comparison and to render plausible the analogy that it seeks to articulate, it will be necessary to fill in some blanks remaining in the characterization of the Christian good. We must briefly explain (1) what it means to speak of the salvation of particularistic desire and (2) what sort of desire is formed that might achieve this end.

          (1) The salvation of particularistic desire. Human desire is a form of animal desire. It is distinguished from other forms of animal desire in that, through speech, it can be given narrative representation. This fact that human desire can be experienced in terms of a representation of time affects desire both qualitatively and quantitatively.

          The narrative representation of desire constitutes an intensification of animal desire because to the experience of present satisfaction can be added a representation of continued and increased future satisfaction. Narrative representation also constitutes a modification of animal desire to the degree that the very anticipation of continued and increased future satisfaction can become itself satisfying and can therefore become itself an object of desire.

          As a result, perhaps the most characteristic form of specifically human desire is the desire for desire itself. The state of desire is a state of both dissatisfaction and anticipation of satisfaction. The desire for desire is a desire for that state of anticipation. In other words, human desire flourishes most completely not by being satisfied but in the anticipation of satisfaction. The most characteristic form of human desire is the desire "to have something to look forward to." But this characteristic form of human desire is potentially a source of danger and a point of vulnerability.

          The characteristically human desire for desire invests human life in the logic of narrative representation (i.e., in the logic of “temporality"). Narrative representation serves the desire for the anticipation of desire’s satisfaction by linking events to one another in terms of a narrative closure constituted by the attainment of desire’s object. Events that are linked narratively in this way to an anticipated satisfaction gain a certain kind of narrative significance.

          In virtue of the very logic of narration or story-telling, all narrated events are assigned narrative significance in terms of the narrative closure, the end of the story, to which they are referred. But in the case of human life narratives, events are assigned a special surplus of meaning in this way. The rhetorical function of human life narratives is to articulate the current status of desire in terms of a representation of time. The narrative significance assigned to events in a life narrative is defined by the link between those events and some desired and anticipated narrative closure.

          The narrative significance of events in an ongoing human life narrative articulates in this way the current status of desire. Events have narrative significance to the extent that they can be defined in their relevance to an anticipated satisfaction. The characteristically human desire for desire itself thus typically takes the form of a desire for narrative significance. To the extent that human desire takes this form, it invests itself in the logic of narrative representation. When human desire takes this form exclusively, it is captured by this logic and becomes its servant.

          This condition of servitude to the logic of narrative representation is likely to affect the current status of human desire only when the narrative significance of events is threatened. Such a threat emerges when events occur or promise to occur that are incompatible with the currently anticipated closure of an ongoing life narrative. War, illness, unemployment, natural disasters — all such events can disrupt ongoing life narratives and thus strip life events of their current narrative significance. The paradigmatic event of this kind, of course, is death.

          Death is an event that marks the end of a life narrative, but an event that, in most cases, cannot be taken as a narrative closure. Events generally cannot receive human life-narrative significance by reference to an end of the story that is not an anticipated satisfaction. Death rarely is such an anticipated satisfaction. Death, as an event, for the most part constitutes a narrative disruption for the person suffering it, a narrative disruption that can not only strip life events of their current narrative significance, but — at the limit, given the finality of death — can destroy all narrative significance as such.

          It is in the narrative encounter with the event of death, then, that above all makes evident the condition of the servitude of desire to the logic of narrative representation. When human desire has been captured by narrative representation, it takes exclusively the form of a desire for narrative significance. In the narrative encounter with death, in the encounter with death as a narrative disruption, the narrative significance of life events is threatened. To the extent that the threat is realized or seems inevitable, human desire for desire itself is threatened.

          If human desire flourishes most abundantly in the anticipation of satisfaction, it flourishes least abundantly not in the anticipation of the failure to attain satisfaction, but rather in the condition where no narratively representable anticipation makes sense at all. In this condition, all events and even human desire itself seem completely pointless and in vain. This is the condition invited by desire’s servitude to the logic of narrative representation.

          Let us characterize this condition, to speak in a semi-religious vocabulary, the condition of desire’s capture by the things of this world, i.e., desire’s attachment to the temporal order. The temporal order is the narrative order. “This world" is the sphere of personal and collective life narratives shaped by the pursuit of particularistic desire. Particularistic desire aims at a satisfaction that can be anticipated and represented in narrative terms as a narrative closure. The goods sought by particularistic desire are the goods of this world, the goods whose pursuit gives narrative significance to the life events instrumental to their attainment.

          However, the servitude of desire to the logic of narrative representation constitutes a threat to particularistic desire. To the extent that desire has exclusively bound itself to narrative representation, the narrative encounter with death can cast doubt upon its validity. To the extent that particularistic desire has been captured by narrative representation, the characteristically human desire for desire can be weakened and even (at the limit) extinguished by the threat of narrative disruption. Such desire stands in need of a liberation from its condition of servitude to the temporal order. Such desire stands in need of salvation.

          (2) The Christian transformation of desire. In this notion of the salvation of particularistic desire, the rough outlines of an analogy between the civic good and the Christian good can perhaps begin to become visible. The civic good consists in the liberation of particularistic desire for the sake of the free pursuit of particularistic desire. Affirmation of the civic good achieves its goal of liberating particularistic desire by forming a new desire, a desire that takes precedence over the pursuit of any particularistic good — namely, a desire for civic freedom and civic justice.

          Christian belief and practice proceed in the same way. The Christian good consists in the salvation of particularistic desire, i.e., the liberation of desire from its attachment to the temporal order, for the sake of the preservation of particularistic desire itself. Christianity achieves its goal of liberating particularistic desire from its servitude to the logic of narrative representation by forming a new desire that takes precedence over the pursuit of any particularistic good — in this case, a desire for a good that cannot be represented in narrative terms at all.

          We must now ask: In what way does Christianity accomplish this liberation? What is the nature of the transformation of desire fostered by Christianity? Further, how does this way of accomplishing the liberation of particularistic desire evince the pattern of attainment through abandonment?

          As noted above, human desire is a form of animal desire that is distinguished from other forms of animal desire by the fact that it can be experienced and rendered intelligible in terms of a representation of time. It is the very fact that human desire can be experienced in this way that gives rise to the characteristic form of human desire — namely, the desire for desire itself. The desire for desire itself is a desire for the anticipation of desire’s satisfaction. This satisfaction is represented in narrative terms as a relationship between a present event, the present moment or condition of desiring, and the event of satisfaction, represented as a narrative closure, an end of the story. This relationship defines the narrative significance of the present event or condition of desiring.

          In this way, the characteristic form of human animal desire consists in a sort of second-order desire — i.e., a desire not merely for a particular satisfaction, but rather for a relationship between the present state or condition of desiring and an anticipated satisfaction. This characteristic form of human desire thus refines and intensifies animal desire by taking a step back from the immediacy of animal desire. In this form, human desire for desire is experienced as a desire for the narrative significance of the present. Desire becomes not merely the desire of a particular satisfaction (as in the immediacy of animal desire), but rather a desire for the successful construction of a coherent and complete life narrative.

          Human desire for desire, then, as the desire for narrative significance, includes within itself a representation of the present incompleteness of desire. The object of desire is the present state or condition of desiring, but understood through its relationship to its object. As we have seen, this characteristic form of human desire constitutes both a qualitative and a quantitative change in animal desire. It constitutes a qualitative change in animal desire because the object of desire becomes the very state of anticipation of future satisfaction. It constitutes a quantitative change in animal desire because what is desired is not only the object of satisfaction but the anticipation of that satisfaction as well.

          But this characteristic form of human desire can take one further step away from the immediacy of animal desire and experience both a quantitative and qualitative transformation in a another way. The desire for desire as a desire for the anticipation of future satisfaction has for its object the present event, state or condition of desiring itself. But that condition is still tied to the immediacy of animal desire by virtue of its connection to some anticipated satisfaction. Such desire for desire takes for its object the present state of desiring with respect to its incompleteness and to its promise. By virtue of this incompleteness and promise the present state of desiring possesses narrative significance.

          Human desire for desire, however, can become fully itself only as a desire for the present event, state, or condition of desiring, without regard to its relationship to an anticipated satisfaction. In this case, desire becomes truly and fully its own object. In this case, there is no longer a question of the incompleteness of desire or a promise of satisfaction. The satisfaction of desire is attained through the act of desiring itself. This constitutes the most radical transformation of human animal desire possible, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

          When the present event, state or condition of human desire becomes its own object in this way, human desire possesses explicitly the object possessed only implicitly as the desire for narrative significance. Human desire characteristically flourishes most abundantly not in the satisfaction of desire but in the anticipation of its satisfaction. This is because human desire is characteristically the desire for desire, the desire for the present event or condition of desiring. When this present of desire becomes the explicit object of desire, the previously open circle of human desire is closed and human desire finds its greatest and most intense completion in its present moment.

          Since desire in this state finds completion in its present moment, this moment itself can have no narrative significance whatever. An event gains narrative significance only through reference to some other event and finally through reference to a narrative closure. But the present moment of desire, taken as desire’s own absolute object, is referred to no other event. The completion experienced by desire in this condition cannot be represented in narrative terms at all.

          The present of desire’s self-completion constitutes neither beginning, middle nor end of a story. This present is an unnarrated, dateless present, a nunc stans. Such an unnarrated, dateless present, using a more or less traditional religious or theological vocabulary, may be termed the eternal present. The order of desire to which this present belongs is the eternal order. This eternal order of desire is opposed to the temporal order, i.e., the order of narrated desire, the order of narrative significance.

          Christianity fosters and mandates this transformation of desire whereby the object of desire becomes the eternal present. Let us call the desire that has been thus transformed the love of God. But such terms can be misleading. In speaking of this transformation of desire, language itself becomes increasingly strained and problematic. This is above all because there can be no human speech addressed to others from the standpoint of the eternal present. All human speech must take into account the elements of the rhetorical situation it addresses. Among those elements are the specific place and time of the communicative act itself.

          Further, all human speech offers, at least implicitly, a narrative interpretation of the rhetorical situation itself, a story of its very occasion, to its hearers for their acceptance or rejection. In these ways, human speech belongs completely to the narrative order of desire, to the temporal as opposed to the eternal order. The standpoint of the eternal present consists in an absence from this narrative order. The form of human speech native to the eternal present is in fact no speech at all, but rather a silence that bespeaks a completion of desire that is always already fully achieved.

          Nevertheless, if Christianity is to foster the desire for this completion, it must be spoken about in some way. In Christianity, human speech about the eternal present typically adopts the vocabulary and perspectives proper to the rhetorical situation of human speech and to the narrative order of desire — the vocabulary and perspectives of “this world." The standpoint of the eternal present, the perspective proper to the eternal order of desire, thereby comes to be framed in speech as a realm absent to or beyond the temporal realm within which dwell the speakers who refer to it — it comes to be framed in speech as the world beyond this world, the “after-life."

          The discourse through which Christianity seeks to foster and mandate the transformation of desire thus becomes a discourse about this life and the next, the temporal order and the eternal order, the love of this world and the love of God. This discourse is then addressed to those who have encountered the threat to particularistic desire posed by an exclusive dependence upon a representation of that desire in narrative terms.

          In other words, Christian discourse becomes a discourse addressed to those in this world who have understood the need for the salvation of particularistic desire. This discourse seeks to affirm and preserve particularistic desire that has fallen into this condition of servitude to the temporal order by breaking the bonds of narrative representation and nurturing a desire for the unnarrated, dateless present — i.e., by nurturing the love of God and the desire for eternal life.

Political and religious transformation of desire

          Keeping the import of this language clearly in view, perhaps we may now perceive more clearly and work out more fully the analogy between the pursuit of the civic good and the Christian love of God.

          Both liberalism and Christianity aim at a transformation of desire that serves to affirm and support the pursuit of particularistic desire or life in “this world." Liberalism does so through the establishment of a distinction between the realm of public life and the realm of private life. Persons who become citizens in the full cultural sense in fact develop the capacities that permit them to participate in the public realm, the space of civic discourse. These capacities for civic freedom and civic justice require citizens to form an identity that is not exclusively defined by any single personal or collective life narrative. Citizens must learn to identify themselves and others effectively in action and speech as free and equal individuals, individuals whose self-understanding is not exclusively determined by the ranking systems and virtue concepts of any particular cultural community.

          Citizens who have actually developed civic identities have the capacity to give priority to the civic good over the communitarian good whenever the civic good comes into conflict with particularistic desire. They develop a love of civic freedom and civic justice. Through this transformation of desire, citizens permit the establishment of a civic community that guarantees the free pursuit of particularistic desire, that guarantees a pursuit of happiness freed from obstacles produced by interests in social and economic domination. Thus, for liberalism, the liberation of particularistic desire is achieved only to the extent citizens subordinate its pursuit to the pursuit of the civic good.

          Now Christianity, as opposed to liberalism, is a comprehensive doctrine. It constitutes a particularistic cultural conception of the good life. It offers a totalizing world view that addresses all the general issues of human life. On the other hand, Christianity, like liberalism, aims at a transformation of human desire that seeks to affirm and support the pursuit of particularistic desire. Christianity, like liberalism, does this through the establishment of a distinction between two realms of desire — in the case of Christianity, a distinction between the temporal order and the eternal order, “this world" and “the next."

          Christian faith thereby preserves and perfects human desire as the desire for desire itself. Particularistic desire can undermine itself by becoming exclusively dependent upon a narrative representation of its status. Human desire for desire then becomes exclusively a desire for narrative significance, a desire for the ongoing construction of a coherent and complete life narrative. Events incompatible with the narrative coherence of life — above all, death — can, when encountered or anticipated, strip life events of their narrative significance and therefore seem to deprive desire of its object.

          Christianity is addressed to those whose desire has been captured by the logic of life narrative representation and who have recognized the threat to narrative coherence and therefore to desire itself. To save particularistic desire, Christianity fosters a different form of desire, a form of desire that supplements and transforms the desire for narrative significance and coherence. For those Christians who have attained the standpoint normative for the Christian community, this desire, a desire for the eternal present, takes precedence over the pursuit of all particularistic goods.

          This priority given to the eternal order of desire over the temporal or narrative order, however, is not intended as a depreciation or disparagement of the narrative order or of “this world." Its purpose is to break the exclusive power over desire of the logic of narrative representation. The desire for the eternal present cannot replace the pursuit of particularistic goods. Human beings, as human beings, cannot live in the unnarrated, dateless present, beyond speech and beyond world. Human animal desire requires the order, meaning and direction that only a narratively coherent pursuit of particularistic goods can provide.

          The salvation of desire sought by Christians is a salvation of human animal desire, a salvation of the temporal order. But it is a salvation of the temporal order that can be realized only through the formation of a desire for the eternal order. Particularistic desire can be saved only through the development of a desire to be free of all particularistic desire. The desire for “this world" and its goods can be saved only by placing first the love of God.

          Thus, though in different ways and with a different content, both liberalism and Christianity evince the pattern of attainment through abandonment — the affirmation and support of particularistic desire through a relinquishing of particularistic desire. Recognition of this pattern in both liberalism and Christianity by Christians who are also citizens conceivably could promote the shaping of postmodern forms of Christian belief and practice along lines that would support a new culture of citizenship. If Christian communities explicitly undertook the project of developing the analogy sketched here, Christianity could make an absolutely crucial contribution to the development of an overlapping cultural consensus that would provide the foundations of a postmodern liberal civic culture. A congruence could be established between the pursuit of the civic good and the pursuit of the Christian good such that civic life and Christian life would mutually enlighten and reinforce one another.

          This certainly would not mean that the civic community would become identical to the community of Christian faith. Such an identification would without doubt destroy the civic community and almost certainly corrupt the Christian community by entangling it unduly in the affairs of this world. Yet a Christian community formed in belief and practice with a view to the pursuit of the civic good would be a Christian community whose members would find themselves to be, as citizens, more fully Christians in their pursuit of the civic good and, as Christians, more deeply committed to the civic good in their love of God and pursuit of eternal life.

. . . .  Back to top

 

  

 

  

Home     |     Table of Contents     |    Links    |    Discussion      |    What's New     |    E-mail  me    |  Search

Back to The Postmodern Reconstruction of Civic Culture topics list 

Page last edited: February 23, 2002

Copyright © 1997 - 2002  Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
Hosted by Interland