2016: Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, delivers the ninth annual Theos lecture
The Political Bible, part 8: Freedom and order
26th September 2011
This series has explored the impact that the Bible has had on politics through British history.
I began by arguing that the Bible is and has been repeatedly used as a profoundly political text – or, rather, one with profound political implications. I have tried to make the historical case that our commitment to fundamental political virtues – such as justice, democracy, toleration and equality – drew deeply from biblical Christianity. But I have also acknowledged that there has often been a profoundly ambiguous relationship between Christianity and each of these political virtues.
This is in large measure because Christians have ignored, misread and twisted scripture to suit their own political ends. But it is also because there is a serious ambiguity built into the political Bible. Tracing the impact of the Bible on British politics is not an exercise in Whig history because, in as far as there is any unifying theme to the political Bible, it is a discordant and discomfiting one.
The Bible contains two powerful, distinct and apparently conflicting political impulses. The first is to freedom. This derives from the story of The Exodus, an icon of political liberation; from the conditions placed upon kings in the Torah; from the origins of Israelite kingship in all its ambiguity; from the various tales of wicked Old Testament kings; and from the subservience of all kings before the King of Kings, who would one day judge them for the way in which they discharged the divinely-set obligations of their office. If the biblical thrust towards political freedom has a proof text it is Acts 5:29, on which those reformers eager to find a biblical warrant for resistance seized: "We ought to obey God rather than men."
The second is the impulse towards political order. This was drawn from the respectful way in which both Testaments spoke about royal power; from the way in which Old Testament kings were anointed, thereby sanctifying them with the very authority of God; from the way in which King David, even when hunted down by a tyrannical Saul and presented with the opportunity to kill him, declined, saying he could never lay his hand on God's anointed; from the fact that Israel's glory days were synonymous with kingship; from Christ's recognition that Caesar had a right to what he was due; and from the high level of respect that the earliest Christians had toward political authority.
If this biblical thrust towards political order has a proof text it is Romans 13:1: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."
Is it possible to square this circle, to reconcile "we ought to obey God rather than men" with "everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities"?
The simple answer is no – at least, not fully and not here. The tension between these two impulses is profound rather than cosmetic. According to this conception of human politics, there is no endpoint, no polity, no earthly system in which both impulses are satisfactorily served. Search for it as we might, there is no place where peace and security, justice and righteousness, freedom and order perfectly coexist; no utopia; no heaven on earth.
The reason for this lies in that fundamental Christian conviction of inherent human fallibility, also known as "sin". Perfect freedom and perfect order are unrealisable because our very nature makes them unrealisable. Put another way, because humans are sinful, we are apt to abuse our freedom in a way that harms others. Because of who we are, unregulated freedom would be a disaster, heralding anarchy and social disintegration. We need political order to keep us in check.
But what applies to political freedom applies also to political order. We are as liable to abuse political authority as we are political freedom with even more deleterious effects. Political order, structure and authority are necessary but they too demand limitation. Thus a ruler's reign is always under law, his authority is under judgement and his power is limited, in particular (historically) by the need to respect and honour the relationship between the individual (or the church) and God himself. It is this spiritual freedom that formed the basis of wider, political freedoms. Thus, just as political order necessarily constrains our freedom, religious and political freedom must undermine our demands for order.
The result is a dynamic rather than a static situation. Politics never achieves a still point in the turning world because human nature will not let it. Our struggles for freedom will always need to be restrained by political order.
Our emphasis on order will always need to be challenged by freedom. Only if and when human nature is itself completely transformed – something that Christian theology contends may begin but will never be completed on Earth – only then can there possibly be a resolution to this tension. In the meantime we are stuck with an agonistic politics in which our twin impulses towards freedom and order struggle together.
This article was first published in the Guardian.