In a way we must call extraordinary, all the interlocking fields that have so far constituted the discussion of the Immanent Frame will find a provocative interlocutor in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s triumph of a book about justice. The book consistently presses at delicate genealogical and theoretical points relating to our construal of the secular and our naming of the religious. No doubt the diverse and illuminating responses to the book already building up on the blog and elsewhere are just the beginning of what will be a wide and welcome influence of this book in ongoing discussions of religion, the secular, and justice.
I want to remark all too briefly on several very specific questions this book opens up for me, as a scholar of early Jewish and Christian writings whose recent work has focused on the way shifting protocols of biblical scholarship have operated within modernity’s quest to disclose and stabilize distinctions between “religion” and “secularity.” In that particular mode, I want to consider the translation and mirroring at issue between the first (genealogical) and the second (theoretical) half of Wolterstorff’s book.
As readers will recall, the first half of the book gives us a kind of genealogy of human rights inasmuch as it counters a story we hear (interestingly, from avowedly theological and secularist authors alike) that ties rights talk to an incipient atomized individualism or an incipient secularism. Against that story, Wolterstorff presents a lively counter-narrative in which the “birthright” of rights talk, its “title” as it were, is not alienated by being handed over to “secular moralists, who claim it as their own.” Wolterstorff’s engagement with biblical literature (the implications of which are of interest to me here) allows him to push the moment of the birth of rights talk back, before the incipient atomism of the nominalist Ockham (and so on), not to mention the “secular” status of recent moralists.
The tour through biblical literature is therefore an important lynchpin for the genealogical portion of the book. But it has an important part to play in the latter half as well. One thing that interests me, in fact, is whether in the latter, theoretical part of the book the earlier references to biblical literature become all the more rhetorically potent when they are glossed or summarized simply as a “theistic” position. For example, with implicit glossing of the sections about biblical literature as a “theistic” position or a “religious framework,” we easily forget something that is clear in the earlier sections specifically about biblical texts, all the loose ends, “problem” texts, and unsightly warts the old literature so obviously presents for the interests of the formal, universalizing, or theoretical later chapters. And inasmuch as it is in these later chapters that we find revealed the “theistic” framing/grounding of human rights—in opposition to ungrounded and untenably unframed “secular” alternatives—this is a forgetfulness that seems to me very important.
I do not think the basic problem of translation (from biblical literature to “religious framework”) is news to the Wolterstorff of the first half, where we are told, essentially (though not very often!), that the genealogical union between history and theory is not seamless, that there is no “theory” in the biblical texts (which, I add once more, are nevertheless later to become glossed as a “theistic framework” for rights), or that some texts are indeed problematic for his efforts to find nascent rights talk in the Bible. I am interested for now only in the implications of this line of thought (rather than the convincing interpretive justification—as Sheehan points out, at a theoretical level, who would care?). So for now I’ll just agree rather dogmatically that, yes, there are problem texts here for Wolterstorff’s theistically grounded liberalism, but (more importantly) that these problem texts include the ones that early modern Monarchists theorized as the basis for their own political declarations that the Sovereign remains absolute, in a relation of exception or singular transcendence in relation to law. They include, we might say, all those texts that gave Wolterstorff’s earlier interlocutor, John Locke, something to challenge.
The early modern struggle to yield a Bible that spoke for or against the personal sovereignty of the monarch, or for or against a new regime of generic, procedural norms of the (later) Liberal or Whig state are delineated in an excellent article by Yvonne Sherwood, “The God of Abraham and Exceptional States, or the Early Modern Rise of the Whig/Liberal Bible.” As Sherwood articulates, these purveyors of the (pre-liberal, as it were) Monarchic Bible were intrigued by God’s demand to Abraham for the sacrifice of his son (Genesis 22), by Jephthah’s power of life and death in relation to his daughter (Judges 11), and Judah’s inherited right to kill his daughter-in-law (Genesis 38). But, I should also point out, they could have found other forms of contingency, other moments of exception to legal norms, in these texts as well. Some exceptions are more violent, from the imagined genocide of outsiders—because they are outsiders—in Joshua, to God’s sending “lying spirits” to the prophets in order to lure troops to their doom in Kings or Chronicles, to God’s characteristic changes of heart and re-alignment of political allegiance in Samuel. More pressingly for Wolterstorff’s genealogical project, I think, other non-procedural moments of exception are more to our liking, breaking the rules or shrewdly inventing new ones at just the right moment, from the redemptive tricksterism of Jacob to the powerfully subversive implications of the story of Ruth or Job, or even to the wonderful stories of Abraham or Moses talking God down from some act of vengeful mayhem for the good of the people.
In short, I agree with Wolterstorff that, while there is no theory in this extremely diverse array of biblical texts, readers may “nonetheless sense a certain rhetorical unity pervading the great bulk of these writings.” We just disagree about what this narrative unity is. What if we said that the “red thread” (so to speak) which unites these tales is not a “frame” guaranteeing rights but rather the clear and repeated indication that humanity is faced with traumatic contingency, surprise, and uncertainty, and that they are at times (for this very reason) subjects of remarkable, even Promethean moments of invention?
And it is in such a light that I found Wolterstorff’s Bible, of such central significance for his genealogy, to be both forgetful but also missing something we may need for any ongoing struggle to think seriously about justice. His Bible (as it were) is forgetful in the sense that it elides the remarkable interpretive interventions (say, of Locke and others) to bind the sovereign Monarch God of the Bible to a managerial dispensatio (cf. Sherwood) of universal norms. Why now naturalize such moments as if they were there all along? Why not highlight them as crucial moments of invention or, indeed, supreme acts of faith? (With either option, we already see how the alleged chasm separating the triumphal secularist narrative and Wolterstorff’s “theistic” counter-narrative here begins to slip away.)
And, secondly, isn’t this forgotten or elided moment of contest and translation (again, of the Bible into a “theistic framework”) also a crucial resource for us today in a way that is not expressed in Wolterstorff’s quest to find objective, universal human rights, indeed their “theistic frame”? As I understand him, Wolterstorff does not make a virtue out of tales of sovereign contingency and change of rule he finds in biblical texts to the same degree that he wants to privilege the pre-existing and stable nature of human rights. This theme runs throughout the book and it comes to define what a “religious framework” for rights is. For example, Nygren must be wrong (that love not justice is the ultimate horizon) because forgiveness presupposes a calculable set of obligations that may be violated. For Wolterstorff, ideas of universal rights always need to pre-exist action, which is to say that action is never really creative in this regard. “It seems safe to infer that it was these ideas [WB, of imago dei, etc.] that lay behind Jesus’ practice of showing no partiality….” Or, most strikingly to me (given, say, traditions of Kantian aesthetic judgment which Wolterstorff knows intimately): “The performance of juridical judgment, as an exercise of rectifying justice, presupposes the existence of a state of affairs of primary justice or injustice.”
In short (as he asserts against the secularist occasionally), rights do not emerge ex nihilo, without pre-existent ground. But (and here is what we might find perennially useful in what has been excised from Wolterstorff’s Bible-become-“frame”) is this not just what we witness in all those exemplary struggles for justice that Wolterstorff (and we with him) finds so precious a legacy? Can we not say that there was something radically inventive, properly speaking revolutionary (and perhaps “evental” in a sense that is more “messianic” than procedural-juridical), in these agenda setting declarations of respect-worthy freedom? In either case, one gets what one pays for here. The price Wolterstorff’s quest for frame and stable ground pays, I think, is that he must (as it were) naturalize or routinize these pivotal moments, as if such declarations of freedom or justice could have been made at any time from the age-old certainty of the “religious framework.”
In keeping with the anxieties of Wolterstorff’s epilogue, I do not know what will be more likely to betray the fragile alliances, friendships, and respects that constitute the world today, a lack of belief in the divine-as-guarantor of human rights (Wolterstorff’s “theism” and “framework”) or a forgetfulness of the ungroundedness and frailty, the delicately “miraculous” nature of these declarations that have emerged, as it were, ex nihilo. But just here is the striking irony that Wolterstorff’s book presents to me. His Bible (become “framework”) stands in stark contrast to recent “materialist” engagements with biblical texts (e.g., in Alain Badiou or Slavoj Žižek) inasmuch as the latter find in the ancient texts strangely contemporary explorations of justice in a world of contingency (in a strong sense), a world without stable ground or a “framework” that guarantees its moral distinctions. The (pre-Lockean?) Bible is alive and well, interestingly, and among those who think, precisely, that God-as-“frame” or guarantor of rights, is long since dead. More accurately, it is the death of the “frame” of the “theist” that has, paradoxically, rendered the ancient texts of interest once more.
At the very least, this paradox suggests that—whether facing the future with or without human rights (in Wolterstorff’s sense) is more truthful, or more dangerous (i.e., whatever the outcome of Wolterstorff’s gamble—and our own—on this matter)—the play of identities in every story of religion, the secular, and the Bible is much more elusive, contorted, and tricksterish than might at first be assumed. Why not say, for example, that Wolterstorff’s “religious framework” or “theist” is the real secularist, whereas Alain Badiou’s (self-described) “atheist” reading of Paul is, because faithful to the sovereign contingency and lack of stable framework we observe in the biblical traditions, the faithful work of biblicism!
And (just to mention one reason among many) for helping us to see the paradox so clearly, and to fathom the kinds of political issues involved in our negotiation of it, we owe a debt of gratitude (in all the juridical ambiguity of this phrase) to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s passionate quest for justice.