Friday, October 02, 2020

Divine mandates and the present crisis

In the tragically unfinished Ethics manuscript entitled The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates, Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins to investigate what a well-ordered human society might look like.  The first thing he wants to be clear on is that in a well-ordered society we are always faced with the one concrete commandment of God "as it is revealed in Jesus Christ".  There can be no neutrality on this point; Christ Jesus rules in every sphere of life.  (Bonhoeffer pushes back here against the Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms; indeed, he does not consider this to be authentically Lutheran teaching at all).  But the one commandment encounters us in particular circumstances, particular spheres.  Bonhoeffer talks about the four divine mandates of church, marriage and family, culture (or sometimes 'work'), and government.

In each of these four mandates we come up against the concrete commandment of God; each is ordered from above, from heaven, and is not merely an outgrowth or development of human history.  The four mandates are envisaged as co-existing: "None of these mandates exists self-sufficiently, nor can any one of them claim to replace all the others."  They are with-one-another, for-one-another, and over-against-one-another; that is to say, they are limited by one another even as they exist to support one another.  The obvious target here for Bonhoeffer is the encroaching Nazi totalitarianism, which wants to subordinate all spheres of life to the state.  In fact, each of the divine mandates finds itself limited in two key ways in a well-ordered society: from above, because it is constrained to serve God's commandment and not its own ends, and from all sides, because it cannot arbitrarily encroach on the territory of the other mandates.

This is Bonhoeffer's version of a theory which has been commonplace in Christian thinking about politics and society.  Whether it is the high mediæval assertion of the church's liberties against the crown (think Beckett), or the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, or the Barmen Declaration railing against totalitarianism in the 1930s, the goal is the same: to understand, on the basis of God's creation and Christ's universal Lordship, what it means for human institutions to exercise legitimate authority within their particular spheres.

This is a peculiarly Christian approach.  Because God sits above every sphere, and because each of the mandates finds it authorisation in him and his providential arrangement, it is not possible for any to usurp the place of the others.  Family is not dependent on the state for its authorisation; the church is not dependent on the culture for its authorisation; etc. etc.  Each mandate operates with divine authorisation within its own sphere.  The mandates are oriented towards each other - they are not hermetically sealed against each other - but they cannot arbitrarily claim an authority to interfere in other spheres.  If the church is to interfere in the state, it must not be to usurp the state, but to establish the state in its independence within its own sphere.  If the state wishes to be involved in regulating family life, that can only be for the sake of the independence of family life from the state.

To my mind, this is what has been missing from a lot of Christian debate about the response to Covid from Her Majesty's Government.  Many of the responses I've seen have relied on a biblicist citing of Romans 13 to suggest that we must always submit to the Government's whims.  Most have jumped straight to the practical question 'when should we disobey?'  But the background questions which urgently need working through are: is the state currently operating within its legitimate sphere, or has it usurped the place of other mandates; and, where the state has impinged on other mandates, has it done so with the legitimate aim of strengthening those mandates in their independence?  These are the questions which are raised by the historic Christian tradition of political and social thought.  I'd like to see some more work done on them.  We ought not to take it for granted that the state has the authority which it claims for itself, nor should we short-circuit the theo-political thinking that needs to happen here by a quick appeal to a Pauline proof-text.

The church is uniquely well placed to offer constructive critique here.  This sense of a divine division of powers has largely faded in our society; we are ripe for totalitarianism, even if it does turn out to be democratic totalitarianism.  The church, though, is still able to see Christ on his throne above it all, limiting but also authorising the various human institutions in their particular spheres.  The church can and should speak out - not only when her own sphere is threatened, but also to speak up for the rights of family, and of culture, and, yes, even of the state where those rights are threatened.  Because we see each sphere as established by God, we cannot be content to see them dissolved into one another.

The present crisis is the time to think this through, to work out what we are called to say and do.  Crisis is always the time when institutions threaten to overflow their banks.  Legitimate crisis response easily becomes illegitimate accumulation of powers.  We should not take it for granted that when the crisis passes things will return to 'normal'; it is far more likely, I think, that the crisis reveals what has been really going on for years.

1 comment:

  1. 'it is far more likely, I think, that the crisis reveals what has been really going on for years.' Yes, I think that's exactly right. Both that the church has become somewhat dependent on or entangled with the state in a number of ways in the first place. But also in terms of family and the state. I just finished an interesting book by the late historian Christopher Lasch, 'Haven in a Heartless World'. He was an interesting mix, applying Marxist theory in defense of the traditional family structure against the intrusion of state and psychological officials. Worth a look, as is his opus 'The True and Only Heaven'.