Theology, Politics, and Apologetics: Pt. 3

In my previous two posts on ‘theology, politics, and apologetics’, I considered the work of Raymond Plant (Politics, Theology and History, Cambridge University Press, 2001); specifically, I evaluated his views on what might provide a common ground between divergent communities existing in a pluralistic society. Plant considers the approaches of narrative theology and natural law theory and their respective merits in grounding a Christian political theology. Plant finds the first overly restrictive as it may relegate communities to islands of ‘truth’ which have no communicative access to other such islands; and he finds the second approach insufficiently specific as it fails to delineate the kinds of things which are intrinsic and common to human persons. Thus, for Plant, while narrative theology is open to the charge of moral relativism, natural law theory is prone to a utopian idealism.

In my third and final post in this series, I commend what I see as a promising third way for a Christian political theology to provide common ground among divergent traditions – a common ground which also justifies a kind of Christian apologetics which motivates evangelism across religious traditions. My approach makes use of the Aristotelian notion of the human telos, end, or good.

The term ‘telos’ in Greek means ‘purpose’ or ‘end’. When Aristotle spoke of the human telos (cf. Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 1, Chs. 2-3), he had in mind that for which human persons are meant to live. Just as a hammer has a proper ‘end’ (namely, being used as a tool for driving in nails) so a human person has a proper end as well. To be sure, a hammer may be used for, say, propping open a door; and just as surely something else may be used to the job of a hammer – for example, a spine of a hardcover book may be used to drive in the nail. Such misuses, however, only highlight the fact that there are ends proper for some things and not for others. (There’s a reason that hammers sitting at the bottom of doors seem misplaced; most of us would be appalled if all books were only used for hammering and never read.) Likewise, there is an end which is proper for human lives and many which are improper. (I’ll leave it to your imagination to draw up improper ends … without end.)

Given that there is some human telos or end which befits a human life, I ask: In what does this human telos consist? What are the ends proper for human living? I humbly submit two simple possibilities: relationality and purposiveness. All human persons are relational (or in Aristotle’s words: ‘Man is a social animal’.). As philosopher Charles Taylor points out, a ‘crucial feature of human life is its fundamentally dialogical character’ – that is, ‘we define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, . . . our significant others’ (Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition’, pp. 32-33). Relationality is an essential mark of human life. As to purposiveness, again drawing on Taylor, it is clear that, ‘Freedom is important to us because we are purposive beings’ (‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’ in The Idea of Freedom, ed. Alan Ryan, pp. 182-83). That is, insofar as human persons desire to be free (a fair assumption to make), they are purposive – for, were human not purposive, freedom would not matter. Thus, I suggest that these two ‘human goods’ comprise the human telos.

With this idea in mind, I suggest Christians can construct a political theology which provides rich resources to ground a common moral world with those of other traditions. Given the qualities of human relationality and purposiveness, we make laws (e.g., do not murder, respect the right of religious freedom, etc.) and go about the business of human society. Similarly, the project of Christian apologetics finds its conditions of possibility: knowing that other human persons are relational and purposiveness (and very plausibly intrinsically so), Christians may invite the non-Christian into relationships marked by love (the Church) and to a mission marked by purpose (the Great Commission). All of this is made possible and urgent because of the greatest Christian human good there is: knowing (relationality) and glorifying (purposive) the God who has made us for himself.

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2 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Kurt Jaros

    Kurt Jaros - December 28, 2012, 2:15 pm

    Thanks, Richard! I really enjoy reading your series on this.

  2. Profile photo of Richard S. Park

    Richard S. Park - December 28, 2012, 11:12 pm

    Thanks, man – I hope it’s helpful!

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