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Religious Faith and John Rawls

Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
The philosopher Martin Buber, Tel Aviv, 1962

In December 1942, a philosophy major at Princeton, who was due to begin serving in the army upon graduation, submitted his senior thesis. It was a substantial piece of work. Entitled “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community,” it explored the connection between moral life and man’s relationship with the divine, a philosophical theme at least as old as Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro. The thesis found its roots not in the classical tradition, however, but in contemporary Protestant theology. Its leading idea—one deeply grounded in Christian thought—was that the central task of human life was to develop proper relationships with other persons, including, finally, with God. So the essay gave a Christian answer to the core question of ethics, how each of us is to live well. But it touched, too, as ethics eventually must, on questions in social philosophy, proclaiming: “The world in its essence, is a community, a community of creator and created, and has as its source, God.”

The thesis is clearly the work of a young person of remarkable intellectual gifts and a deep moral and religious seriousness, struggling to find some guiding principles as he sets off to risk his life in a great war. But in itself it would be merely a curiosity had its author, John Bordley Rawls, not gone on to write the most influential work of liberal political philosophy of the twentieth century. A defining presupposition of his mature work is that, in modern multireligious societies, there are bound to be distinct and competing conceptions of what it is to live well. As a result, if our political system is to attract the reflective support of all reasonable citizens, it cannot depend on one such overall conception.

When Eric Gregory, a professor of religion at Princeton, rediscovered the thesis just after Rawls’s death in 2002, and revealed that it was a work of Christian ethics that drew some consequences for political philosophy, there was bound, at the very least, to be some curiosity about its claims. We should be grateful, therefore, to Rawls’s heirs for agreeing to its publication, along with a short essay, “On My Religion,” that was found among his papers; and grateful, as well, to Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, who contributed a fine introductory essay to the volume, connecting Rawls’s thesis with his later political philosophy, and to Robert Merrihew Adams, whose commentary places it securely in its midcentury theological context.

Like many ambitious undergraduate essays, the Brief Inquiry has too many ideas, not all of them fully digested. But—unlike too many undergraduate theses, alas—its central philosophical thrust is clear. This is a polemic against any view in which human life is directed at some impersonal end. Both Plato and Aristotle, for example, are criticized for holding that we should aim at the Good. Because Saint Augustine borrows some elements of this tradition, we are urged to reject his view also. Views of this sort the author calls “naturalistic” (in a usage that was, he warned, at variance with philosophical custom), by which he meant that they reduced spiritual life “to the level of desire and appetition.”1

According to the view that the young Rawls aimed to defend, by contrast, the central aim of human life is to inhabit a nexus of personal relationships, in which we encounter other people in ways that involve mutual judgment and mutual self-revelation. On Rawls’s account, naturalism turns out to be the mainstream tradition of philosophical ethics, a Greek-derived tradition he does not think “mixes very well with Christianity.” As he writes in the preface to his thesis, “An ounce of the Bible is worth a pound (possibly a ton) of Aristotle.” The thesis, therefore, proposes “more or less of a ‘revolution.’”

To read this not-so-brief inquiry is to be reminded of a moment, in the middle of the twentieth century, when Christian and Jewish thinkers in Europe and North America were trying to find a philosophically satisfying account of their religious traditions in response to the crisis of Western civilization produced by the carnage of World War I, a disaster that had stopped dead in its tracks the confidence in moral progress of the Victorian era. The language of the thesis echoes the intellectual spirit of those times.

Sometimes you can hear the voice of the great German theologian Karl Barth, the central intellectual figure of neoorthodoxy, who famously advised theologians to read their newspapers and the New Testament together. (“But interpret newspapers from your Bible,” he added, to make clear the priority of God’s word.2) The aim of Barth’s neoorthodoxy was to resist both liberalism (hence orthodoxy) and biblical literalism (whence the neo- spin). He wanted to find a middle way. When Rawls’s thesis speaks of personal relations as a meeting of “I” and “thou,” and contrasts this with the encounter with objects as “I” and “it,” there’s an obvious echo of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, whose 1923 I and Thou continues to find readers.

But there is no direct quotation from either of these seminal thinkers and no evidence that Rawls had read them (although he does cite Reinhold Niebuhr, another prominent neoorthodox theologian of the period). His connection to neoorthodoxy came through his reading of the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, with whom Barth had a famous falling out; the thesis describes Brunner (who taught at Princeton) as the theologian from whom its author has “learned the most.” And, of course, Brunner had also read Buber. The other major European theologian Rawls discusses is Anders Nygren, the Lutheran bishop of Lund, in Sweden, whose two-volume treatise Agape and Eros may—as Adams suggests in his wonderfully acute introduction to Rawls’s theological ideas—have encouraged Rawls’s skepticism about the way Augustine describes love toward God.

There is no echo in the thesis, however, of what might seem the greatest challenge faced by modern faith, namely the rise (at least in the university) of a scientific worldview that offers to explain much that traditional believers had seen as the work of God without an appeal to the supernatural. Previously the divine had been invoked to explain what fell outside the domain of everyday understanding, filling the gaps with the miraculous; now, the gaps that remained were becoming ever smaller, leaving less and less space for God. Naturalism in this sense—metaphysical naturalism, which rejects the supernatural in the name of science—is not so much opposed in the Brief Inquiry as ignored. Indeed, Rawls’s thesis gives a confident description of the experience of conversion, the “perception of the majesty and glory of God, of His bounteous mercy, and perfect justice.”

The young Rawls shared this conviction with the contemporary philosopher his thesis engaged most seriously, the Christian ethicist Philip Leon. Leon was a leading member of the evangelical Oxford Group, which is probably best known today for its role in giving rise to Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve-step program. In the meetings of the Oxford Group, in the 1920s and 1930s, many upper-middle-class and upper-class English and American women and men found, as they thought, an experience of the Holy Spirit. Leon began The Philosophy of Courage (1939): “It is the ambition of every philosopher to start his discussion with some fact or facts which no one can deny. The facts with which I propose to start here as undeniable are God and myself.”3

It is perhaps characteristic of Rawls, who was famously self-effacing, that his own initial assumption is “that there is a being whom Christians call God and who has revealed Himself in Christ Jesus.” No insistence on “myself” for him. (Rawls’s modesty remained undimmed by his later eminence. Indeed, when the political philosopher Michael Sandel arrived to teach in the Government Department at Harvard, having written a thesis at Oxford that launched a communitarian assault on Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), he received a phone call one day inviting him to lunch: “This is John Rawls, R-A-W-L-S,” the voice began. Sandel writes, “It was if God himself had called to invite me to lunch and spelled his name just in case I didn’t know who he was.”4)

The thesis borrows Leon’s idiosyncratic use of a distinction between “egoism,” which is a matter of desiring things, and “egotism,” which involves desiring superiority to other people. Though Rawls defines sin as the repudiation of others—a refusal of the central ethical task of encountering others in Christian love—he treats egotism as the main source of sin. It is not our desire for material things but our wish for superiority to other people that is the main threat to proper relationships with one another and so with God.

The discovery of Rawls’s senior thesis underlines one of the ironies in the reception of his mature work. Though the Brief Inquiry is not a work of political philosophy, Rawls did draw a few conclusions for politics. One was that social contract theories were false: “The person does not bring anything to society for the simple reason that he is nothing until he is in community.” So when communitarian critics of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice such as Sandel complained that it ignored the role of community in shaping the self, they were making an argument he had sketched three decades earlier himself. And Part III of A Theory of Justice, with its detailed discussions of the ways in which liberal society shapes liberal selves, shows, pace the critics, that this was an argument he never forgot.

Rawls’s later political philosophy took it for granted that the religious conscience should be respected and protected; but its most striking feature, for many devout people, was his concern to separate political argument from the distinctive claims of particular religions. Discovering that the author of these views had once been a devout young Christian (one who had even considered being called to the priesthood), you are bound to be tempted to revisit what he wrote about faith.

Rawls’s views about the nature of argument in political philosophy shifted significantly in the years between A Theory of Justice and the later view laid out in his Political Liberalism (1993). The core idea of what justice requires remains the same. First, we must have access to a system of equal basic rights and liberties. Second, where there are socioeconomic inequalities, they must be the consequence of a system access to which is governed by fair equality of opportunity, and they must be to the advantage of those who are worst off. (The physician and the banker, for example, may earn more if their work improves the situation of the poor.)

What changed substantially was Rawls’s view of the status of these claims. In A Theory of Justice, he had tried to show that these principles of justice were right because they were the principles that would be chosen by rational people reflecting on the basic structures of society behind a “veil of ignorance” that deprived them of most knowledge about their own situation. The thought experiment of a group of people reflecting on the rules of justice in what he called an “original position,” behind that veil, guided by reason, proved surprisingly powerful. Rawls aimed to make it plausible that his two principles would be chosen in such an imaginary conclave, and that the fact that they would be chosen showed that they were the right principles. The basic thought here is an idea of fairness. Given a cake to share (the goods produced through social arrangements), you divide fairly if you divide it in a way that will leave people satisfied whichever piece they get. The easiest way to get someone to divide a cake fairly, then, is make sure they don’t know which piece will be theirs. And indeed, Rawls’s first sketch of his view came in a paper called “Justice as Fairness.”

  1. 1

    Appetition” has a very specific sense in the thesis, which Adams elucidates. Rawls is following Philip Leon here (of whom more below). “The criterion of appetition,” he wrote, “is that it seeks some object, something which is impersonal, objective, and self-revealing by nature.” Hence his objection to classical ideas of the Good, so conceived. 

  2. 2

    Theologians: Barth in Retirement,” Time, May 31, 1963. 

  3. 3

    Philip Leon, The Philosophy of Courage (Oxford University Press, 1939). Reprinted in the electronic edition distributed by stepstudy.org, 2008. Rawls had read Leon’s The Ethics of Power: Or the Problem of Evil (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935). 

  4. 4

    Michael J. Sandel, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 251. 

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