10. Interlocking Spheres of Public Life

A good bit of analysis in The Naked Public Square [1] flows out of Neuhaus’ understanding of the work of Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt, who saw the state, religion, and “culture” as the three great spheres or powers of a civilization. Perhaps out of a reaction against medieval Catholicism, he saw religion and the state as spheres of authority but culture as a sphere of freedom. For Burkhardt, social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature and the sciences were places of freedom. There was a natural tendency for the state and religion to impinge upon this area of freedom and upon each other.

Right at the beginning, it is important to take a look at this analysis. A culture is a bigger and more complex thing than Burkhardt believes. The “area of freedom” is much different in, say a society like Stalinist Russia or modern China where the state dominates everything, including religion, and various parts of the presumably free culture, such as the media are state run than in the modern democratic West. The culture of the East is profoundly different where the toots of religion are Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, or Shinto than in the West where Christianity is dominant. The cultures and politics of the Middle East, where Islam are different than that if the West or the East.

Furthermore, putting together the arts, literature and science with technologies is a suspect division, and in modern society it ignores the enormous power and power seeking of technologically driven media outlets. The “Fifth Estate” has become its own sphere that profoundly impacts and seeks to control the spheres of religion and the state.

Nevertheless, there is a fundamentally profound insight in the view that society ought to both have many differing spheres of influence and the relative autonomy of those spheres ought to be protected.  The state the media, arts, science, commerce and other spheres of cultural life are separate, yet interlocking spheres of life which require for their highest operation a degree of freedom. This is particularly true of religion, science, and the arts. The monstrous corruption of science and arts under Stalin are a reminder of this fact. [2]

A Christian understanding of culture and politics begins with the notion that religion is an important sphere of life for many, many people. Freedom of worship and practice one’s religious faith is central to a free society, as is freedom of the press, of science, of the arts, etc. If the danger in the Middle Ages was that religion might overshadow and control the state, commerce, the press, the arts, and other organs of culture, the danger in the modern world has been that the State would do so.

The key to the proper functioning of a free society is recognize that these and all spheres of culture should have a kind of “relational independence,” by which each sphere respects the relative freedom of the other spheres, but at the same time exists in a kind of relationship with the other spheres that protects not just their independence, but the relational freedom of all the spheres. There can be no absolute freedom or absolute power in any of the spheres, for absolute freedom of any one would mean that it had absolute power and therefore could dominate and distort the others. The working out of this relational independence is the day to day business of all the spheres in their relationship to the other.

In this “dance of interdependence,” the state is the most to be feared, for it is the modern state that has at its disposal heretofore unknown means of legal, bureaucratic and physical compulsion. [3] It is the state, whether controlled by the right (Nazism) or the left (Stalinism or modern Chinese statism), that poses the greatest danger to freedom. It is also important that the state and other combinations of independent spheres not combine to distort freedom, as can be the case with the media and the state.

Neuhaus believes, and I think rightly so, that in this “dance of interdependence” religious groups have a unique role. Theirs is the role of relativizing the other spheres against a transcendent ideal. It is religion that brings the other spheres under the judgement of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, directing each sphere to a perfection greater than its own. It is religion that draws each sphere beyond its purely instrumental goals to a greater goal of, in the Christian tradition, the Kingdom of God, where there is complete peace and where Truth, Beauty, and Love rule. This goal is not achievable inside of human history, but it is the goal towards which Christianity in particularly draws the other spheres of culture.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), referred to herein as, “The Naked Public Square.” This blog is a discussion of Chapter 9, entitled, “Private Morality; Public Virtue” found on pages 129 to 143 and Chapter 10, entitled “The Purloined Authority of the State” found on pages 144-155.

[2] See, Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983), Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962) and especially Science, Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946). Polanyi’s work is a response to the corruption of science under Russian Communism and is a reminder to free societies today of the dangers of absolute governmental control over all the organs of society.

[3] The phrase “dance of interdependence” is mine not Neuhaus’. In a later blog, I will further outline the reasons for and importance of this dance.

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