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Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The discussion about the labels “fundamentalist” and “liberal” as well as the role of dialogue in contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy lead me to do the following reflection on the role of Christian morality in the public sphere. The problem seems to be that there are two conflicting anthropologies which determine the role attributed to Christian morality in the public debate.

On the one hand, we have the traditional anthropological pessimism which was radically restated by Hobbes following the denominational wars that were the consequences of the radical dissolution of norms in the form of the Western Reformations of the 16th century. According to this anthropology, humans have an inescapable capacity for evil which must be restrained through power and norms. Otherwise the human condition will become the war of everyone against everyone (bellum omnium contra omnes).

On the other hand, we have the anthropological optimism of the Enlightenment (e.g., Rousseau), which holds that evil is caused by ignorance and that evil can be destroyed by education. Ironically, anthropological optimism negates human freedom, since evil is not the result of a choice but of external circumstances which can be abolished. Dostoyevsky frequently attacked this anthropological optimism due to its negation of human freedom, which also includes the capacity to become evil (e.g. Notes from Underground and A Writer’s Diary).

The politicization of Christian morality through the so-called culture war seems to be based on the anthropological optimism of the Enlightenment. Both the so-called progressives and the so-called conservatives seem to agree that politics should create a certain type of ideal human being through political means, but they disagree on the role of Christian morality in the description of this utopian human being.

Traditional anthropological pessimism does not believe that politics can create a new type of ideal human being. Politics can restrict the possibility and consequences of evil, but it cannot remove the human capacity for evil grounded in the human condition after the Fall. In this perspective, Christian morality is not a blueprint for Utopia but an ascetical means to help the individual to struggle against the innate capacity for evil which comes with human freedom. The ideals of Christian morality constitute an eschatological horizon to which we should move through ascetic struggle rather than the blueprint for a utopia which can be created in this fallen world. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

David Heith-Stade holds a PhD in practical theology from Lund University in Sweden. He is a translator, researcher, and vice-secretary for the Society for the Law of the Eastern Churches in Vienna. His list of publications and papers can be viewed on his blog.

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