Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reading St. Paul as a Respectful Liberal

[This is a version of the PDF I handed in for my Intellectual Freedom class this week. We were to summarize an assigned chapter by creating a 1-2 page handout.]

In his Introduction to Courting the Abyss, John Durham Peters characterizes modern liberalism as hypocritically respecting everything, except the rejection of liberalism itself. What is his proposed alternative? The spirit of St. Paul:

"He respects those who do not know or choose not to know, something the liberal tradition has rarely excelled at. Paul makes space for those who opt out of his theory and thus offers one antidote to illiberal tendencies in liberalism." (k. 644-645)

To eat or not to eat

Christians celebrate their faith with bread and wine which represents (or becomes) Jesus' sacrificial body. In Paul's time, pagans celebrated their faith by sacrificing food to idols, then eating it as a form of communion with their gods. Question: is it wrong for Christians to eat food sacrificed to pagan gods? Paul gave two answers.

No — Pagan gods aren't real. There is only one true God and "food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat." (1 Cor 8:8)

Yes — If a fellow Christian grew up in pagan culture sees you do this, he may be encouraged to eat such food with his old mindset of worshipping false gods. "But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idolʼs temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?" (1 Cor 8:9-10)

Today we might ask whether it's ok to drink alcohol and be told, "Yes, unless your drinking encourages an alcoholic to stumble."

Private freedom & public restraint

"The eyes of others alter private liberty: this is a strange and delicate moral standard." (k. 534)

A key failure in modern liberalism — by Peters' account — was the ACLU's defense of the Nazi march through Skokie, Illinois. He draws an analogy between these liberal defenders and the Christians in Corinth who wanted to "eat whatever they please without concern for what others think." (k. 642) Freedom is commendable, but not when it causes others distress.

"Paul's key difference from other revolutionaries is that the radical bows to the conservative." (k. 871)

More food for thought

Is this division of private freedom and public inoffensiveness desirable or even possible? Peters offers this criticism of his own position: "Paul's solution might seem to favor the wealthy, who can afford to eat their meat behind closed doors and out of the eyeshot of the offendable." (k. 552)

What about people who were offended by interracial couples? Would Peters have advised these couples to refrain from public displays of affection? Would he advise same sex couples to do the same today?

"As with food and conscience, Paul lets the lowest common denominator set the communicative level." (k. 666-667) Is this really what we want?

And how do we deal with those who are offended in mutually exclusive ways? There are Americans who are offended by government schools preaching a particular religion...and those who are offended when this doesn't happen. Paul may have wanted to "become all things to all men" (1 Cor 9:22), but this just isn't possible.


Is there perhaps a more refined position between letting Nazis parade through a Jewish neighborhood and creating an artificially offense-free public space?

Biblical quotes from the New American Standard Bible. All other citations are Kindle locations in Courting the Abyss.

Peters, J.D. (2005). Courting the abyss: Free speech and the liberal tradition (Kindle edition). Chicago, Illinois: University Of Chicago Press.

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