Jonathan Rowe at Postive Liberty yesterday asks whether Human Rights are a Christian Concept? I’m gonig to set aside the question of whether the idea of individual or person is a Christian concept which was derived from the theology of the Trinity as has been claimed by a number of Orthodox theologians I’ve read recently. Without a modern notion of individual or person how else would we come to consider rights?
Instead, prompted by this post by Kim Fabricus at Faith and Theology on Freedom, I’m going to attempt (ineptly probably alas) to consider just one of those “human rights”, namely freedom. My reflections are below the fold, but do go and read those posts, as while I’ll exerpt them some, I won’t do them justice and they are thought provoking.
Mr Rowe makes some telling points in the negative. For example,
Though human rights, as originally conceived, have theistic and metaphysical premises, they are hardly Christian or Biblical. As Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind:
[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men’s labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights…are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. p. 165
Many evangelicals and Catholics today genuinely believe that slavery violates God’s law. Great. They do so, in interpreting Biblical texts, precisely by “argu[ing] that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God’s image implicitly denied the justice of slavery.” One reason why Christian Reconstructionism is seen as such a fringe movement is its beliefs — that we need to impose Old Testament death penalties and abolish religious rights for non-Christians (the OT says stone to death immediately those who encourage you to worship “false gods”) — violate liberal democratic sensibilities. However, if we go back to pre-Enlightenment times, what the Christian Reconstructionist “nuts” of today desire is not all that different from laws on the books in say Puritan Massachusetts. Further, their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is just as sound as that of the more mainstream evangelicals who would recognize the rights of non-Christians to worship and no longer want to execute homosexuals. The main difference being the latter’s theology meets the baseline requirements for living in a modern liberal democratic society; the former’s do not
And he defends the idea that we should not tie human rights to any creed or faith tradition instead:
Further, since human rights are “universal,” (in principle, knowable by man as man from the use of his reason) it’s not a good idea to try to tie them to any one religious movement. If they ought be tied to any religious notion, we ought, like our key Founders and the Freemasons who so influenced them, tie human rights to a syncretic universalist theology, or a generic monotheism, where the concept of “God” reads so broadly as to even include polytheism or belief in the impersonal forces of Nature. [ ... a bit snipped ... ]
Finally, entirely atheistic philosophical premises for universal recognition of human rights also ought be supported. The universality of human rights are so important that the arguments for it cannot be drawn from too many sources. This is something that the originators human rights and America’s Founders may not have been too keen with. But modern philosophy has progressed a great deal since that time. And thinkers from James Q. Wilson, to Larry Arnhart to Daniel Dennett have put forth convincing notions of human rights based on an evolutionary account of Darwinian human nature.
But examine freedom. Mr Fabricus tells us:
An intellectual history Europe since the Enlightenment could be written with the title “The Decline and Fall of the Concept of Freedom”. The nadir has now been reached with the banality of freedom as “choice”. From life-style and shopping, to schools and hospitals, to our bodies and death itself, the mantra is “choice”. Such an understanding of freedom “presupposes a blank will looking out at a bundle of options like goods on a supermarket shelf” (Rowan Williams). A more vulgar anthropology is hard to imagine.
Nor a more dangerous one: for “freedom of choice” read “will-to-power” and social nihilism. And all the more dangerous for the rhetorical force of the word “freedom”, with its claim to ideological innocence and, indeed, quasi- religious righteousness. Here a hermeneutics of secular suspicion is de rigueur – but so too is a hermeneutics of theological retrieval and reconstruction.
So, in considering the human right, “freedom” we need to be very careful on how we define it. Today’s largely secular thought, has perhaps debased this idea. Mr Rowe’s idea of getting our rights from a broad a base as possible might have perils beyond garnering larger support. The salt of freedom might lose its saltiness, as it were.
So, if it is important to know what freedom is, and be careful about debasing it into “freedom of choice” to replace a better definition and suffer the consequences in future generations, we might do good to turn a comment of Mr Rowe’s on its head. That is, to consider that “rights consdered” are not a modern concept and that perhaps the a definition of freedom might be found in (late) antiquity that might better serve, although alas might be Biblically based at its core. John Zizioulas for example in the book I’m working my way through writes extensively about an ontological definition of freedom as a more fundamental definition of freedom. It’s derived from St. Maximus and the Cappadocian fathers exegesis of the Bible and their subsequent understanding of personhood being fundamental and not based on our substance and that the freedom consists of transcending the boundary of self in part of the imago Dei and the freedom as found in the Trinity. But I’m afraid I’m still working my way through a fuller understanding of these ideas, as the terminology is still a little foreign to me and the text is probably complicated by being a translation (though perhaps by the author). But I’ll leave with one of Mr Fabricus final points:
The starting point for such an account will be freedom as divine gift, the gift of me and the gift of others. I am free to be the unique person the Father has created me to be, freed by the Son from the false self I have become, enslaved to sin and death, freed for life in the Holy Spirit who perfects human freedom. The Trinity sets me free from self-concern, above all the self-concern of fear. But in the same dynamic movement, the Trinity sets me free for other people, given to me to love. Evangelical freedom is thus not the “freedom” to do what I want. “What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. The source of man’s freedom is also its yardstick” (Karl Barth).
You can be the judge of whether freedom as a concept (or as a right) has a intrinsic relationship today with Christian thought.