Saturday, May 26, 2012

The shape of the public sphere in our societies: Egalitarian ideals and religion

Photo of the Cathedral of Monreale by Philipp Klinger.
(Updated on 2 June 2012 - Inclusion of Rowan Williams' speech)
(Updated on 25 June 2012 - Inclusion of Wang Gungwu's writing)

The post-colonial sociopolitical life of Malaysia and Singapore has largely being discussed without reference to its historical inheritance as well as to many of its current appeal to egalitarian concepts.

The locals in both countries have been invoking notions such as 'human rights', 'democracy', 'individual liberty', 'equality' and other utopian abstracts for various advocacy under the rubric of justice.

Take the debate on fetal abortion for example, both sides of the debate claim justice on their side. The proponents demand rights for women; justice is when choices are given, hence 'pro-choice'. While the opponents demand rights for the unborn; justice is when life is respected, hence 'pro-life'.

Given that each person is, as Nicholas Wolterstorff said, "profoundly historical creature" in as much as each society, the question that I think is missing from these invocations is 'How did these ideals emerge?'

Many may think that these are given, or they somehow dropped from the sky. Nothing can be more delusional.

If none of us live in a historical vacuum, and all these ideals precede our experience, prevail over arbitrariness, and attract our conscience, then it should be natural for us to be curious over this question. Unless of course you think that history has no place for cause and effect.

Many others have asked this question. One of them is one of the world's most influential sociologists and philosophers Jürgen Habermas. Here's his answer:
Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.
(Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions [USA: Polity Press, 2006], pp.150-151. Emphasis added.)
Habermas' view is not novel to the Christian community as theologians and church historians are aware of this historical development all this while. For instance, in one of Rowan Williams' speech at England's House of Lords:
When people speak as though religion were automatically a problem in our public life, nationally and internationally, this often reflects a plain lack of historical and cultural awareness. Usually through no fault of their own, a generation of administrators and local officials has grown up with little or no sense of how our political and legal history in this country has become what it is as a direct result of a long conversation with the Jewish and Christian intellectual world, with the ethics and the theology of the human responsibility characteristic of that world.
(Rowan Williams, House of Lords debate on role and contribution of faith communities, 29 May 2012. Emphasis added.)
To be sure, even if these ideals are translated from the Judeo-Christian theology, it is still largely unjustified to say that Malaysia and Singapore have similarly experienced through this translation process like the northern west. As Richard Madsen recognized:
Through colonialism or through anti-colonial and revolutionary movements that sought national autonomy, wealth, and power by building strong, bureaucratically organized governments modeled on those from the West, [Asian] national political leaders imposed centralized states upon [Asian] societies that had not undergone the North Atlantic world’s path to modernity.
(Emphasis added)
Wang Gungwu, the Chairman of East Asian Institute of National University of Singapore, expounded further:
...the different colonial powers, British, Dutch, French and American, introduced varying polities of state-building and each had particular notions of what a nation meant. In this way, they diversified the conditions for nation-building even further. In addition, the metropolitan power introduced new demographic and technological ingredients into their colonies, and also their respective national templates that reflected their own historical experiences and stages of development at home in Europe and the new world of North America. Under the circumstances, attempts to find common ground for Southeast Asian new nations were limited to broad generalizations about overcoming colonialism and building nation-states on more or less Western models.
(Wang Gungwu, 'Contemporary and National History: A Double Challenge,' in Nation-Building: Five Southeast Asian Histories, ed. Wang Gungwu [Singapore: ISEAS, 2005], p.3)

The modernizing leaders of Asia also had to build their new nations under the shadow of the Cold War. Given the anti-colonial backgrounds that they had all experienced, and the need to argue for self-determination through the exercise of democratic rights, there was no alternative but to do so in the framework of a world of nation-states as represented in the United Nations Organization.

"These leaders were aware that the concept of nation-states was alien to Asia. The forms had been evolved in Europe but, even in Europe, there was a great deal of variety. The new Asian states after 1945 did not, of course, haev to copy any of them. But they did seem to have taken them as guides, if not as exact models. [...] They were more likely to look to the successful examples of nation-states like Britain, United States, France, Netherlands, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states.
(Wang Gungwu, 'Nation and Heritage,' in Nation-Building: Five Southeast Asian Histories, ed. Wang Gungwu [Singapore: ISEAS, 2005], pp.251-252)

...the [Southeast Asia] nationalist leaders have taken Western nation-state models as the highest form of what they wanted to achieve after their colonial leaders left. In a strange way, almost all of them first wanted to re-create what made colonial powers powerful in the first place. While the Indonesians looked at the Dutch experience, the classic models were the nation-states of Britain and France.
(Ibid, p.268)

In other words, even though Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore have skipped the translation process, yet on conceptual level, these ideals are adopted. To ignore this conceptual heritage is to dehistoricize them.

By doing so, we are deforming these ideals into abstraction. And if abstraction, it then becomes "idle postmodern talk"; ideals can then mean anything to anyone. Hence, the two opposite sides of any public issue can appeal to the same ideals, such as justice to support their case.

This makes me wonder whether is it therefore more beneficial for all parties involve in the deliberation of public life in both Malaysia and Singapore to pay attention to the conceptual inheritance as the way to move forward?

I think it is, for only when we recognize the heritage of the ideals that we invoke, we may better grasp what are we actually invoking. This means that sociopolitical discourse needs to go back to Judeo-Christian theology if for no other reason than it is the tradition from which our beloved sociopolitical ideals emerged. As Williams emphasized:
A failure to acknowledge [historical development of contemporary ideals] leads to the dangerous assumption that our political and legal settlement needs no argument in its defence because it is obvious to all right-thinking people. But if we are to sustain our legacy of dignity before the law, participative government, and hospitality towards minorities, we had better be aware of just how and why our ancestors developed such a political ethic and what depth of thought and imagination is needed to keep it alive.
(Rowan Williams, House of Lords debate on role and contribution of faith communities, 29 May 2012.)
If so, then this is attuned to what the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London said:
It thus seems both theoretically productive and politically salient to stick to Judeo-Christian logic.
(Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? [USA: Verso, 2001], p.107. Emphasis added.)
What do you think? Is this giving too much credit to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and since this is politically incorrect in our multi-cultural/religious societies therefore we should ignore it even if it is true?


Martin Yee said...

Hi Master Sze Zeng,

Great post again. This to me is related to the discussions on natural theology and the analogia entis which Karl Barth rejected but upheld by Emil Brunner. Both Luther and Calvin acknowledge the place of natural law. When God created the world, He put in place many natural laws - been reading about some of these in a book on Cosmos Theology published by IVP academic. Some of the natural laws are pretty fascinating and I never knew about them before. However we also need to bear in mind natural laws also have many dimensions - physical, ecological, ontological, sociological, biological, genetical, soteriological and ethical.

God has also placed some of these natural laws in the hearts of all men as Paul wrote in Romans 1. The Judeo-Christian heritage involved a combo of both natural and revealed laws. But many of the OT laws are actually "natural reasons" and some can even subjected to "amendments" when the need arises or circumstances changes. Professor Hugh Williamson has highlighted this in the inaugural Trinity Lectures. Gordon Wong also noted this in his article in Daniel Koh's book on "Law and Justice in Singapore" and cited examples. So those who are fixated on obeying the letters of the Law are in for a shock - they are subjected to changes. The letters of the Law is not immutable. God is immutable and impassable (at least according to Athanasius and surprisingly also the Arians, but of course not according to Jorgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson). The letters change but the spirit does not. Augustine and Luther have also noted this. The letter kills but the spirit gives life.

So what I am trying to say that the Judeo-Christian ideals are not uniquely by and for the Jews. The real source is actually still God's natural laws.

Just a 2 cents worth.

Your pupil,

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

We are all pupil to one another!

Without referring to scriptures (if I may see it as the 'objectified special revelation'), we will never know that law can be "natural" in contrast to "special". In other words, without the scriptures with passages such as Romans 1 et al, we can never know that law can be distinguished into "natural" and "special".

Therefore, even to begin to talk about law as "natural" (as opposed to "special"), we are already assuming a category provided to us by the objectified special revelation.

IF the creation is the platform of God's covenant redemptive activities (as per Barth), then laws that are unfold within on this platform are to be understood from God's covenant. Whether a law is in accordance with the covenant is another thing, yet what makes a law valid at any time is its endowed relevance given by God's covenant.

I said these in agreement with the gist of your comment, and also highlighting my own 2 cents attempt to understand the nuance implicit in it. :)