December 20, 2015

On Religious Pluralism and Other Evening Meanderings

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

The theonomy debates have me tired. Seriously, exhausted. I don’t write on them much anymore. And in fact, the official back and forths on the internet have quieted down as of late. Unfortunately, I very unwisely and against all common sense have somehow neglected to “unfollow” various pages on Facebook in which many theonomists still talk about it day in and day out. Some approach this ever-constant reality by urging these people to talk about something else. As for me, I have my own obsessions and so really don’t care whether these people spend all their time online defending it. I have just grown weary of much of its rhetoric. You might be wondering why I don’t just unfollow the pages and be done with it. Why write about it on the blog?

Because it’s 11:30pm, I’m drinking hot tea, the kids and wife are asleep and I feel like putting words on digital paper and exposing myself to the world. Deal with it.

Let’s talk about religious pluralism. The theonomists are against it. I’m in favor, depending, I suppose, on its definition. And what “in favor” means. Here’s the thing about theonomists: they rightly remind everyone that they are against statism and the ever-encroaching state. In this way, and several others, they have their affinities with libertarians. But their worldview and set of goals are much different than my own. In the past, I have not made this clear enough. The religious pluralism issue is a good example of the way each camp approaches things.

What is religious pluralism? First, what is religion? Here’s an easy answer: religion is just a synonym for worldview, which is just a word that refers to “philosophical system.” Christians and non Christians alike get caught up on these words and war over whether they are or are not actually religious. Hence the benefit of defining what I mean by it. Most people have a philosophical system. Everyone can agree with that. They have a certain framework for interpreting the world around them. That is all religion means: philosophical system.

Religious pluralism can mean a belief that all philosophical frameworks are equally valid. This is ludicrous and contradictory. Reason doesn’t allow it. Reasonable atheists and Christians alike should reject this understanding of religious pluralism.

I don’t think, however, that this is the best definition of religious pluralism. It is better to think of religious pluralism as the idea that people in society are allowed to believe, teach, and advance their own philosophical system without fearing government aggression against their person or property. Religious pluralism is the idea that multiple philosophical frameworks are allowed to exist in a given society and this is not criminal. As such, advocates of religious pluralism believe in freedom of religion.

Those who have been swayed by theonomy in recent years might find this troubling. But this is part and parcel to libertarian teaching, and, I am convinced Christian teaching as well. Why? Enter another heated difference between us libertarians and the theonomists: this world is passing, it is not our home. The kingdom of heaven is not of this world and thus the culture that surrounds us, the civil liberties for which we long, and the civilization that we wish to leave our children are aspects of God’s second kingdom. Uh oh: I just admitted a belief in 2kingdom theology. Yes, I believe that those who belong to the kingdom of Christ are all the elect, those who have been or will be justified. All others are part of God’s second, earthly kingdom.

I have stated numerous times and so I will again, that this belief in 2k theology doesn’t put me fully in the dreaded (in the eyes of the theonomists) camp of David van Drunen. Why so? Because I think that propositional revelation is more epistemologically sound than natural theology. Simple as that. But let it be said that DVD doesn’t bother me like he seems to bother many anti-2kers.

Let’s talk about something else: changing the world, or “influencing the nation.” The theonomists either want “this nation” to receive the wrath of God, or else to repent and therefore receive His blessings and prosper. The 2k libertarian framework is different. He doesn’t focus on changing the world, or this nation. He just wants to be free, to be left alone to go about his business (and for the Christian, to have the freedom to preach the Gospel, which is about one’s eternal destination, not earthly kingdom building). The 2k libertarian sees the “change the world” narrative as a scheme for control, for domination, for a single social order.  He doesn’t want to build a Christian nation. He just wants a free society, and he would prefer, of course that individuals believe the right things and they act according to those beliefs. But a “Christian” is one who believes the true propositions of the Gospel. As such, nations can’t be “Christian.”

In short advancing the kingdom of heaven is not the same as desiring a better culture. I too want my children to live in a decent world. But this pursuit has nothing to do with the gospel and the kingdom of heaven.  

Moving on, many theonomists, though very certainly not all (and especially excepted are people like Joel McDurmon and Gary North), get antsy when they hear Christian libertarians quoting and learning from “secularists” like Mises and Rothbard. Here is where their own version of “Presuppositionalism” takes them: “they are not Christians, therefore they didn’t build on the foundation of the Bible, therefore everything they say is wrong and they are not worth learning from.” That’s silly. That’s also an absurd form of presuppositionalism. It is not against reason to learn from those who have built impressive systems of thought using the tools of logic and rational thinking that are common to all men, given that all men are made in the image of a rational God. Just because the Christian has a better epistemological axiom does not mean all propositions written down by non-Christians are literally false. Such a position would be skepticism perfected.

Second to last thing: I have noticed that I am more excited to learn with the thoughtful and sharp atheist who loves economic and political theory than from the Christian who refuses to engage with libertarianism’s heroes because “they are secularists.” Seriously. Are we really that unable to see wisdom from wherever it comes? In my estimation, Gordon H. Clark is one of the greatest Christian thinker/philosophers that modern history has produced. And yet, half of his works are utilizing “secularists” to combat both other secularists and even other unreasonable Christians. Of course, he uses a logical scalpel to slice through these philosophical frameworks as well on his way to constructing his own Augustinian one. At any rate, the point is that it is nearly depressing to see Christians in the Reformed Libertarian Facebook group say things like: “oh you guys are fans of Murray Rothbard? I thought you were Reformed.”

Final thought of the night: our libertarianism is not an altering of the Rothbardian libertarian framework. We really are complete libertarians. We aren’t libertarians with a twist. “Reformed” doesn’t modify or alter our libertarianism. It merely serves the following two purposes: it acts as an opportunity to clearly state that, yes, one can adhere to the system of theology that was crafted and advanced by John Calvin, his followers, and those who came later and improved on his system, and at the same time embrace an Austro-libertarian political/economic framework. Second, and perhaps more personally, it serves as an expression of the foundation on which our libertarianism sits. Libertarianism is a “thin” doctrine. Libertarianism is not to be confused with its foundation. Mises was a utilitarian politically. Rothbard was a natural lawyer. I am a Christian rationalist. Each of us are fully libertarian. I just decided to come right out and express my philosophical foundation.

My tea is cold. Good night.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • “I too want my children to live in a decent world. But this pursuit has nothing to do with the gospel and the kingdom of heaven.”

    This is a great point that should be emphasized more.

    “It must indeed be acknowledged, that as vicious tempers and immoral practices have a natural tendency to impair health, distress the mind, and waste the property; to the exercise of holy affections, and the practice of true godliness, have the most friendly aspect on a Christian’s own temporal happiness, (except so far as persecution intervenes) and on the welfare of society. But then it is evident that this arises from the nature of things, and from the superintendency of common Providence; rather than from the dominion of Christ, as a spiritual monarch. For, so considered, spiritual blessings are all that they have to expect from his royal hand.

    By the prophetic declarations of our Lord himself, and by the history of this kingdom, it plainly appears, that among all the subjects of his government, none have been more exposed to persecution, affliction, and poverty, than those who were most eminent for obedience to his laws, and most useful in his empire. The most uniform subjection to his authority, and the warmest zeal for his honor, that ever appeared upon earth; were no security from bitter persecution, from pinching poverty, or from complicated affliction. Our divine Lord, considered as a spiritual sovereign, is concerned for the spiritual interests of those that are under his government. His personal perfections and royal prerogatives, his power and wisdom, his love and care, are therefore to be regarded as engaged, both by office and by promise, — not to make his dependents easy and prosperous in their temporal concerns; but– to strengthen them for their spiritual warfare; to preserve them from finally falling by their invisible enemies; to make all afflictions work together for their good; to render them, in the final issue, more than conquerors over every opposer; and to crown them with, everlasting life.

    Our Lord has promised, indeed, that their obedience to his royal pleasure, shall meet with his gracious regards in the present life. Not by indulging them with temporal riches, or by granting them external honor and ease; but by admitting them into more intimate communion with himself, and by rejoicing their hearts with his favor.[ 66] Yes, to deliver from spiritual enemies, and to provide for spiritual wants; to indulge with spiritual riches, and to ennoble with spiritual honors, are those royal acts which belong to Him, whose kingdom is not of this world. In the bestowment of these blessings, the glory of his regal character is much concerned. But millions of his devoted subjects may fall by the iron hand of oppression, starve in obscurity, or suffer accumulated affliction in other ways; without the least impeachment of his power, his goodness, or his care, as the sovereign of a spiritual kingdom.”

    Booth, Abraham (2015-04-08). An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ (Kindle Locations 1122-1130). Reformed Libertarian. Kindle Edition.