Person, Family, Law (Ralphistic Heresies cont.)

by Ralph Hancock

I appreciate Peter Lawler’s continuing efforts to give the term “Ralphism” currency among the great schools of thought of our times – or at least as a little one-person subdivision of the growing intellectual movement that is Postmodern Conservatism.  And he may point to the essence of this Ralphian (Ralphistic?  Ralphological?) position when he describes me as “more political and more familial than both [creedal, Trinitarian] Christians and [Orthodox High Transerotic] Straussians.  Peter even generously grants that “there may be a lot right about” my political-familial twist on Pomoconology.

Peter chooses to pick up my questioning by the Strauss/Voegelin handle, which is of course pertinent (and certainly the plainest way to approach initially the great Hancock/Walsh debate).   And he helpfully frames the fundamental question in terms of the Christian discrediting of both pagan natural theology and pagan civil theology.  So far, so good – but note that the proximate source of my line of questioning was an intra-Christian debate between a certain Old Thomism (De Konnink) and the Personalist Natural Law of Jacques Maritain.  It seemed to me that the former had a good and prescient point in his warning of the vulnerability of the latter to liberal individualism.   So I was really just asking, does this seem right? And is the warning relevant to what Lawler means by “Personalism”?  (And the genealogical question: is Lawler’s Personalism continuous with the French school of that name? – perhaps a mere scholarly question of provenance, but perhaps not without interest.) 

To be sure, I am not at all a follower of De Konnink’s old Thomism.  Indeed I suppose it’s fair to say I risk backsliding towards something like pagan “civil theology” – and this is where my Straussian residues are significant.  And no doubt my familialism has some connection with what is called “Mormonism” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints indeed holds that familial relations are eternal in such a way that would seem to compromise the trans-familial transparency of Peter’s creedal Christianity.  (For my Mormon reflections on Christ’s infinite atonement, see this at Patheos)

But my question was really primarily a question of political philosophy concerning the notion of transparent personhood beyond both family and city.  At bottom, it’s a very simple (which is not to say easy) question: can we even know what “relational” means, and can we even helpfully modify and determine the meaning of “personhood” with the term “relational,” without contaminating the infinite transparency of personhood by concrete contents grounded in the political and familial orders.  My worry about the terms “personal” and “relational” is parallel to a concern I have with the term “community” as in “communitarian.”  A communitarian (like Michael Sandel, and maybe Charles Taylor) is a critic of the idea of the individual as independent of “community.”  But what community?  If we say: a community that imposes no particular beliefs or obligations on the individual, then we’re back where we started from.  Our academic communitarians thus believe in “community,” but not in any real community that ever has existed or will exist.  Similiarly, if we take our bearings from a “person” whose relationality is not defined by any concrete and determinate relationship (familial, political, or religious), then we’re back to the open-ended “individual” (who in fact represents a vacuum to be filled philosophically by materialism and politically by the State).

Or religious, I said.   The content of this Christian personhood depends, obviously, upon Christianity – and perhaps upon its liturgies and sacraments as much as upon any creeds.  And upon Christian commandments, I would say, upon concrete laws not irrelevant under the reign of Personal Grace. 

But here with my emphasis on Law I am succumbing again to my Straussian/Mormon heresies.   I submit them for what they’re worth as a spur to thinking about personhood.


Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.