Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
As citizens, it is the civic duty of members of all religious communities to identify and strengthen the resources within their own cultural traditions that support the practice of citizenship.
Liberal democracy requires citizens to move within two very different moral contexts, contexts that stand in a relation of tension with one another: the sphere of local community life and the liberal democratic public sphere.
As political, welfare, economic, and educational organizations, Christian churches create their own distinctive and separate cultural identity within the larger society.
The specifically Christian form of fellowship differs from communitarian solidarity in many of the same ways that civic friendship differs from communitarian solidarity. Christians who are actually united in the love of God, the desire for the eternal present, are united in a different way than they are when joined in communitarian solidarity.
Christian love of neighbor is libertarian because it imposes no conformity and requires no submission to authority. Christian love of neighbor is egalitarian because the Christian salvation of particularistic desire is a salvation of narrative significance in general, without regard to the particular life project or to the person who undertakes it.
In view of this analogy between Christian charity and civic friendship, Christian charity is bound to appear as an even more radical, extreme, and demanding form of civic friendship than that required by liberal democracy itself.
A perception of the basic analogy between the civic good and the Christian good depends on perception of the following similarities: (1) Both liberalism and Christianity seek to produce a global affirmation of particularistic human desire. (2) Both seek to accomplish this by producing a transformation of desire, so that attainment of the new object of desire involves an abandonment of the standpoint proper to particularistic desire and thus a modification of particularistic desire itself. (3) The standpoints proper to the new objects of desire — in the case of liberalism, the standpoint of the love of civic justice and, in the case of Christianity, the standpoint of the love of God — are standpoints that, in different ways, cannot be represented in narrative terms and require the development of identities characterized by the externalization of all narratively-defined traits.
Once again, the perception of this analogy is not the assertion of an identification of the civic good with the Christian good, an identification of the space of civic discourse with the eternal order. As in the case of all analogies or metaphors, the perception of this analogy is a creative act. It is not some sort of direct intuition of a preexisting essential relationship between liberal democratic cultural values and the values of Christianity.
On the other hand, analogies also can transform in a profound way our understanding of the analogues. This is the sort of creative process that must occur among the members of a number of different cultural communities if a new overlapping cultural consensus in support of liberal democratic institutions is to be achieved. Christians (like Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) in North Atlantic liberal democracies are also citizens. As citizens, it is their civic duty to identify and strengthen the resources within their own cultural tradition that support the practice of citizenship. As Christians, love of God and neighbor dictates the identification and strengthening of Christian theological, confessional, and pastoral resources that can enhance the practice of Christianity by persons who are citizens of liberal democracies.
In this way, the perception and further development of this analogy between the civic good and the Christian good would support Christians in the performance of both their civic and their Christian duties. But the development of an explicitly civic form of Christianity is not only a matter of duty. The very survival of liberal democratic political institutions in the postmodern era may depend on it. Given the fact that a large majority of citizens in North Atlantic liberal democracies are Christians or at least strongly influenced by Christianity, it may be the case that only the emergence of an explicitly civic form of Christian belief and practice can provide the motivational support necessary for an effective postmodern civic culture.
There is good reason to believe, however, that a civic Christianity can emerge that can play this role. The analogy between the civic good and the Christian good can be extended further in many different directions. For example, let us consider briefly a possible analogy that could be developed between civic friendship and the Christian love of neighbor.
A second analogy: civic friendship and Christian love of neighbor
Christians, like all citizens of liberal democracies, are called upon to cultivate both civic friendship and communitarian solidarity. They are therefore called upon to develop the moral insight or prudence required for the full and proper development of both. As citizens, it is the civic duty of Christians to locate within their own cultural tradition resources supportive of a liberal democratic civic culture. The potential resources of that tradition for such a purpose are vast. Another case of this might be noted in the congruence between civic friendship and the Christian love of neighbor. Let me point out a few general parallels.
Christian love of neighbor, however greatly it may differ from civic friendship, is paradoxical in many of the same ways. To see the similarity, we must remember that liberal democracy requires persons to move within two very different moral contexts, contexts that stand in a relation of tension with one another: the sphere of local community life and the liberal democratic public sphere. Participation in the public sphere, in the space of civic discourse, requires a kind of abandonment or surrender of the standpoint proper to membership in a particularistic cultural community.
Liberal democracy requires citizens to develop and cultivate a standpoint and an identity proper to civic life, one that involves a significant modification of communitarian identity. The development and cultivation of civic identity includes, among other things, the cultivation of a capacity for civic friendship, a friendship uniting all citizens without regard to their diverse and conflicting communitarian commitments and interests. But a cultivation of this civic bond of affection can be disruptive to relationships of communitarian solidarity because the libertarian and egalitarian nature of civic friendship can seem incompatible with the exclusivist and rank-sensitive nature of communitarian friendship.
Now Christianity draws distinctions and imposes responsibilities similar to these. Like citizens of liberal democracies, Christians also belong to two worlds — the world of temporal affairs, or the City of Man, and the world of eternal things, or the City of God. Full membership in the City of God, like full liberal democratic cultural citizenship, requires a relinquishing of the standpoint proper to particularistic desire. Like citizens of liberal democracies, citizens of the City of God must develop and cultivate a new standpoint and an identity — in the case of Christianity, a standpoint distinct from and even alien to identities and roles adopted within the sphere of temporal affairs.
Like liberal democratic citizens, Christians, as citizens of the “heavenly" City, must also cultivate a new kind of friendship — in the case of Christianity, a kind of friendship that is alien to the communitarian solidarity that unites members of the City of Man. This friendship that unites the citizens of the City of God is Christian love of neighbor or charity. Further, just as civic friendship and communitarian solidarity coexist uneasily, so also the Christian love of neighbor introduces tension and ambiguity into the communitarian relationships proper to the City of Man.
Let us now fill in a few details of this comparison in an attempt to show precisely how the Christian love of neighbor might become a vital element of a postmodern civic culture that supports the cultivation of civic friendship.
Christian community as a form of communitarian solidarity
We must keep clearly in view the fact that, within the civil order, the Christian community constitutes one cultural community among others. As a particular cultural community united by a shared conception of the good life, the Christian community has all the general features of every other such community. Christianity is a comprehensive doctrine that addresses (at the limit) all the general issues of human life. It offers to its adherents a totalizing world view that encompasses human life in its entirety.
Moreover, the Christian community is embodied in institutions with different types and various degrees of organization. These institutions — Christian churches — have a variety of functions beyond their strictly religious function. They are political organizations, advancing the political interests of Christians as Christians within the encompassing civil order. They are welfare organizations, satisfying the material, psychological, and social needs of Christians. They are economic organizations, often owning property, buying and selling goods, raising and spending money in pursuit of various other goals. They are educational institutions, teaching their members not only about Christian faith, but also offering them information, narratives, and arguments relating to current issues of concern to all citizens. As political, welfare, economic and educational organizations, Christian churches generate institutional structures not unlike those of non-religious organizations. Organizational activities must be initiated and managed. Some minimally hierarchical system of responsibility must be established to direct and oversee such activities.
As political, welfare, economic, and educational organizations, Christian churches create their own distinctive and separate cultural identity within the larger society. They constitute more or less exclusive particularistic cultural communities and their members are necessarily united by an awareness of their differences from members of other such communities. Governed by this awareness of difference, Christian churches generate their own forms of communitarian solidarity. They generate their own local cultures — their own ranking systems, styles of speech and dress, rites of initiation and passage, preferences in entertainment and leisure activities, and so on.
But the Christian community, understood in this way as a community united by communitarian solidarity, an institutionally organized association serving many different purposes, is not yet understood with respect to what makes it a specifically Christian community. In the vocabulary of theology, the Christian community, understood as a community united in communitarian solidarity, belongs to this world, the world of temporal affairs, the City of Man. Christian churches, as political, welfare, economic, and educational institutions, constitute the visible church, the church that stands organizationally distinct from all other forms of association found within the encompassing civil order.
However, what unites Christians specifically as Christians is not a form of communitarian solidarity. To the extent that persons who are members of Christian churches have developed and cultivated a specifically Christian understanding of who they are and what their lives are about, they are united in a different way. The bond of affection that unites Christians as Christians is the bond of charity, the Christian love of neighbor. How does charity differ from all forms of communitarian solidarity?
The libertarian and egalitarian nature of Christian love of neighbor
Whatever other pursuits may unite Christians in communitarian solidarity, the pursuit that unites them specifically as Christians is the pursuit of the Christian good, the love of God. As noted in Essay 8, the love of God consists in the unique transformation of human desire that Christianity seeks to accomplish in its adherents.
Christian faith seeks the salvation of particularistic desire. Human desire characteristically takes the form of the desire for desire or the desire for narrative significance. But the desire for narrative significance in human life is vulnerable to a variety of obstacles and frustrations. To the extent that human desire is exclusively bound to the logic of narrative representation, those obstacles and frustrations pose a threat to the affirmation of particularistic desire itself.
One obstacle in particular — death — appears to constitute an insuperable narrative disruption that seems to be alone sufficient to destroy the narrative coherence and significance of a human life. In order to overcome this appearance and to save particularistic human desire from this apparent threat of defeat, human desire must be freed of its bondage to the logic of narrative representation. The problem is not death, but this bondage. What is desired in the desire for narrative significance is the desire for desire itself, the closing of the circle of desire that escapes all narrative representation utterly. Christianity seeks to foster a kind of desire for desire that escapes its bondage to narrative representation and that closes the circle of desire. This desire is the desire for the unnarrated and dateless present, the desire for the eternal present, the love of God. Members of Christian churches whose desire for desire has been successfully transformed in this way are united by their shared love of God. The bond of affection by which such Christians are united is charity.
This specifically Christian form of fellowship differs from communitarian solidarity in many of the same ways that civic friendship differs from communitarian solidarity. Christians who are actually united in the love of God, the desire for the eternal present, are united in a different way than they are when joined in communitarian solidarity. United in charity, they are citizens of the City of God. United in communitarian solidarity, they are citizens of the City of Man. United in communitarian solidarity, Christians are members of the visible church, an institutionally organized association that is distinct and seeks to be distinct from other kinds of association. Members of the visible church know who numbers among them and who does not. The visible church has public criteria for inclusion and exclusion. Members of the visible church actively differentiate themselves from members of other religious communities as a means of strengthening their communitarian bond.
This awareness of difference and distinction introduces pressures for conformity and submission to authority into Christian forms of communitarian solidarity as it does into all forms of communitarian solidarity. But charity follows a different logic. Charity follows a libertarian and egalitarian logic similar to that of civic friendship. Charity is libertarian, i.e., affirms and empowers otherness and difference, and egalitarian, i.e., establishes a bond that disregards all measures of relative rank and merit, by virtue of the good that it serves and attains. Christians are united in charity through their shared love of God. But the love of God is a love for the eternal present that releases human desire from its bondage to the logic of narrative representation. This transformation of desire produces (1) a transformation of identity and (2) a transformation of desire that are the sources of the libertarian and egalitarian nature of specifically Christian friendship.
(1) Christians who have fully attained the standpoint of faith, the standpoint proper to the love of God, gain an identity that is no longer defined by any particular personal life narrative. The standpoint of completed desire, the standpoint of the eternal present, is dateless and not subject to narration. The personal identity that is shaped by a particular life narrative is formed by the narrative internalization of personal traits and attributes of rank assigned through a process of comparison with others. This narrated personal identity is defined by a reading of life events that distinguishes a person in terms of biological and economic properties, goals, interests and achievements. A person thus defined becomes the central character in the ongoing construction of his or her personal life narrative.
In attaining the standpoint of faith, however, the Christian gains an identity that is different from any narrated identity, an identity that cannot be defined or expressed in narrative terms. In the standpoint of completed desire, the object of desire is always already fully possessed. The identity proper to this standpoint thus cannot in principle be understood as one belonging to a character undergoing a process of life narrative construction, a character on the way to some specific narrative closure. As a result, the differentiations and distinctions that define any narratively-constructed identity fall into irrelevance.
In the Christian love of neighbor, persons are united on the basis of the sharing of an identity that stands beyond all differences and distinctions subject to narrative representation. This includes, at the extreme, even those differences produced by injurious and hostile actions. The Christian love of neighbor thus encompasses (at the limit) even the love of enemies. Of course, who is loved in the love of enemies is not the other as enemy, for the characterization of actions as injurious and hostile belongs to the sphere of narrative representation. In the Christian love of neighbor, even the enemy becomes neighbor as the entire sphere of narrative representation itself falls into the oblivion of the eternal present.
(2) Further, the Christian love of God and neighbor transforms not only personal identity, but particularistic desire as well. The Christian good is the salvation of particularistic desire. Christian faith achieves this not by the denial or disparagement of particularistic desire, but rather by freeing it from its bondage to the logic of narrative representation. The Christian love of God fulfills human desire for desire by transforming it completely into itself as the desire for the unnarrated and dateless present.
But no human life could ever live wholly within an unnarrated and dateless present. In human life, contemplation of the eternal present, the silencing of the narrative imagination, is inevitably an affair of the moment. Human beings are living things whose desire is distinctively qualified by the human power of narrative representation. The love of God closes the circle of desire momentarily not in order to close it permanently, but rather in order to permit this momentary completion of desire to liberate particularistic desire from the constraints of an exclusively narrative self-understanding.
This liberation of particularistic desire abolishes permanently any appearance that desire can remain incomplete as a result of events that disrupt the construction of coherent personal life narratives. The power of death, as one such event, is thereby overcome. The result of this liberation of particularistic desire from bondage to the logic of narrative representation is a global affirmation of the narrative significance of human life in the face of all narrative disruptions.
In the vocabulary of Christian faith, this global affirmation of narrative significance is the theological virtue of hope. In any case, this global affirmation of narrative significance is an affirmation not of any particular life narrative pattern, but rather of any and all life narrative patterns. In short, this affirmation entails an equalization of particularistic desire, an equal affirmation of every human project of constructing a coherent personal life narrative. Therefore, the Christian love of neighbor, as a bond of affection between persons based upon an identity beyond all differences, is also a bond of affection that embraces equally every life in its particularity.
Thus comes into view clearly the intrinsically libertarian and egalitarian nature of Christian charity. Christian love of neighbor is libertarian because it imposes no conformity and requires no submission to authority. Charity flourishes there where differences are greatest — even at the point of the most extreme difference, in the Christian love of those who hate Christianity. Further, Christian love of neighbor is egalitarian because the Christian salvation of particularistic desire is a salvation of narrative significance in general, without regard to the particular life project or to the person who undertakes it.
The congruence between civic friendship and Christian charity
Thus, once again we see a possible congruence between the pursuit of the civic good and the pursuit of the Christian good, between Christian charity and civic friendship. If guided by this perception of congruence, those who attain fully the standpoint of faith and who practice the Christian love of neighbor will find the practice of civic freedom and civic justice an inevitable and natural extension of their Christian way of life. In fact, if this analogy between Christian charity and civic friendship is plausible at all, Christian charity is bound to appear as an even more radical, extreme, and demanding form of civic friendship than that required by liberal democracy itself. The friendship of citizens of the City of God might then be viewed as the fulfillment of that bond of affection realized in civic friendship only as promise.
We may press this analogy between civic friendship and Christian charity one step further, a step that reveals what may be the most important contribution Christianity can make to the invention of a postmodern civic culture. We have noted the way in which libertarian and egalitarian civic friendship stands in a relationship of tension with communitarian solidarity. Communitarian solidarity is a vital force in the shaping and direction of human desire. Communitarian friendship nurtures and supports human aspiration by grounding it in collective life narratives that provide models of human achievement and success.
But the equalization of all particularistic desire that is affirmed in civic friendship seems to involve a certain relativization of all models of achievement and lead to a general debunking of heroes. In other words, the egalitarian character of civic friendship can seem to promote a general disaffection from all particular ranking systems, a disaffection that, at the extreme, becomes full-blown nihilism.
Further, the sort of collective narrative that supports civic friendship, i.e., the narrative of the liberal political community’s quest for civic freedom and civic justice, is not the sort of narrative that can give human desire specific direction. In the narrative identification with the story of liberty, a citizen must adopt a narrative standpoint external to the particular collective life narrative that frames his or her own personal life narrative.
The cultivation of this narrative standpoint that looks at all local collective life narratives from the outside, so to speak, is necessary for the development of a capacity for civic friendship. But it can also promote a skepticism toward every community narrative that is presented with moral or inspirational intent. Such skepticism can in turn promote a generalized disengagement from the particular cultural communities whose members are motivated by these local moral histories.
In other words, the libertarian character of civic friendship can foster a detachment from community life that, at the limit, can become full-blown alienation. In this way, the cultural resources required to support civic friendship seem to conflict with the cultural resources required to support communitarian solidarity. The citizen’s civic duty to cultivate equally both civility and communitarian solidarity can thus seem to be self-defeating, to require the development and reconciliation of hopelessly contradictory and mutually undermining normative standpoints.
The Christian love of neighbor coexists with communitarian solidarity no more comfortably than does civic friendship. The libertarian and egalitarian nature of Christian charity, however, gives rise to different tensions for different reasons.
Christian love of neighbor also affirms the equality of all particularistic desire. The proper Christian response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?" is “Anyone at all." But the Christian community is also one particularistic cultural community among others, with its own identity and organizational structure. The members of the Christian community are united in communitarian solidarity as they carry out the political, welfare, economic, and educational tasks that constitute part of the mission of Christian churches.
Christianity, in order to survive as a doctrine and way of life, must create organized and institutionalized forms of association, forms of association that cannot flourish in the absence of communitarian solidarity. But Christian love of neighbor is the affirmation of an identity among persons that lies beyond all differences of community membership and local culture. Communitarian solidarity, on the other hand, is based precisely on an affirmation and cultivation of such differences. It then would seem that the communitarian solidarity necessary for the survival of Christian churches stands in hopeless conflict with the highest ideals of the Christian love of neighbor.
Further, Christian love of neighbor is libertarian in a way that could promote, at the limit, the abandonment of community membership entirely. Christian charity is the bond of affection that unites persons in their pursuit of the Christian good, the love of God. As noted above, the love of God releases human desire from its bondage to the logic of narrative representation. The love of God consists in a transformation of human desire for desire such that desire receives its perfect completion as the desire for the unnarratable, dateless present. This standpoint of the eternal present provides the Christian with a radically new identity, an identity wholly stripped of all those personal properties that define the main character of any particular personal life narrative. The Christian love of God realizes the most extreme liberation of human self-understanding from the constraints of narrative representation.
For the Christian, this unnarratable identity becomes the “real" or preferred self. Christian love of neighbor is the recognition and affirmation of either the actuality or potentiality of such a “real" self in all other persons at all times and in all places. But such an unnarrated self must always be juxtaposed with a narratable identity. Human beings are living things whose desire is subject to narrative representation. It is as narratively representable selves that human being speak and interact with one another. It is as narratively representable selves that human beings organize community life and enjoy communitarian solidarity.
But the Christian love of neighbor seems to require a turning away from narratively representable selfhood and association. The Christian love of neighbor seems to follow a logic that leads toward a radical separation of the City of God from the City of Man. It would seem to promote an otherworldliness utterly inhospitable to involvement in temporal affairs and participation in the life of any particularistic community. Thus, like civic friendship, Christian love of neighbor seems to stand in a very uneasy relationship to communitarian solidarity, potentially generating its own unique forms of disaffection from particularistic desire and alienation from particularistic community life.
Page last edited: February 23, 2002
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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