Rawls 3: Religion in Public Life

Last week, I looked at Rawls’s view of religion in public life. As indicated, Rawls is often charged by Christians with an antipathy to religion in public life. On the other hand, he firmly believes in the right of private conscience and belief for what he calls ‘sects,” which hold views contrary to the secular state he envisions and defends. Unfortunately, his way of protecting religious freedom is problematic. This is an area in which I find myself at odds with Rawls’s views. As a result, it has been challenging to be completely fair-minded about his critique. It is crucial to set Rawls within his historical context and appreciate his work to sustain a free society, despite any disagreements on his fundamental presuppositions. I hope this week to give an in-depth analysis of his opinions and set out what I think is a better view. As mentioned last week, I hope to be competent to set out why I believe there is a better way forward than the proposal Rawls makes.

Rawls’s View of Religious Freedom

Unlike more radical thinkers, Rawls was not opposed to the notion of religious freedom, which he regarded as a rational choice that would be made by persons in the “original position:”

Now it seems that equal liberty of conscience is the only principle that persons in the original position can acknowledge. They cannot take chances with their liberty by permitting, the dominant, religious or moral doctrine to persecute or suppress others if it wishes. [1]

Rawls assumes that all human beings, once they leave the original position will have differing moral, philosophical, and religious views, which views will have to be coordinated by the state in some way to prevent conflict. The first principle of this coordination is the apparent notion that dominant ideas cannot force themselves on minority views. Since human history is filled with attempts by religious and other groups to force their opinions upon others, this particular notion seems reasonable. I believe that were Rawls still alive; he would agree that humanist and anti-religious groups should face the same restraints.

It should be noted that there is an unexpressed assumption in this assertion: matters of morality, philosophy, and religion are “merely personal.” They do not have an ontological foundation in reality. Since this idea sits at the center of the notion of public reason to which we will next turn, it is essential to understand that many people do not believe that morals, religion, or political truth are “merely personal.” Many people believe that their personal moral and political views are, in fact, matters of public truth. Not all of these people are religious zealots or fundamentalist adherence to a particular religious belief.

I suggest that a better defense of freedom of religion requires that we accept that those seeking moral, philosophical, and religious truth seek the truth—that is, they seek to understand the true nature of reality. [2] This is true of religious and non-religious people. The fact that we disagree on the truth requires that we allow the views of all concerned to be protected not as a condition for a functional society (though it is that) but also because it is a prerequisite for the search for Truth, Justice, Goodness, and Beauty in the first place. Christians should be especially zealous in this regard because we believe that God is Truth and Love and that God’s love requires that people be free in the search in love for truth and justice and other ideals, ideals which cannot be effectively forced upon people in the first place.

Rawls, Public Reason, Religion and Politics

As mentioned, Rawls’s underlying notion is that justice is fundamentally a form of fairness. According to Rawls, “justice as fairness” is characterized as follows:

  1. Each person should have the same and indefeasible claim to an adequate scheme of equal fundamental liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of rights for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities, to be justified, must meet two conditions: (a) any inequalities must be expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and; and (b) such inequalities must be attached to offices and positions open to all members of society. [3]

Liberty of conscience is a principle of fairness inherent in the notion of “equal basic liberties,” that is, freedom of religion, morality, and philosophies of life are inherent in the idea of fundamental liberties. According to Rawls, it is a “fixed point” in his theory of justice as fairness. [4] In order, however, for persons of divergent moral, religious, and philosophical views to coordinate their efforts in public life, public discourse must be conducted so that the fundamental liberties granted are not infringed upon. [5]

As to public discourse, it is a requirement of a liberal society that such discourse be conducted on the basis that all reasonable citizens would grant as acceptable. [6] Here we can see a pitfall for religious people in public life: Rawls is not willing to give Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or other groups to argue as to matters of public debate on purely religious grounds. Put simply, Christians and News may not give as a reason for laws against murder their acceptance of the Decalogue and its statement, “Thou shalt not kill.” This is not a form of reasoning secular people accept as normative and, therefore, must be excluded from public debate.

One can respond to Rawls’s views in several ways. Initially, his idea that public debate should be only secular is an innovation with limited support in human history. In almost every culture, religious views have shaped political institutions and laws. This is especially true today in the Middle East among Muslims and Jews alike.

More to the point is the observation that, by establishing such a principle, Rawls has secretly snuck in another principle: that modern secular humanistic philosophy is valid as a matter of public fact and is not subject to question. I would argue that such a principle violates the idea that all those seeking moral, philosophical, and religious truth are seeking the truth—that is, they are seeking to understand the true nature of reality. That common search can be conducted by religious and secular people, who neither have a prior claim on what should count as reasonable in public discourse. By establishing this limitation on religion in public life, Rawls has not prevented discrimination. He has created it.

Rawls’s View from No-Where and Justice

Underlying the faults in A Theory of Justice is Rawls’s adoption of “a Kantian view of human rationality” regarding human decision-making about political matters:

Kant held, I believe, that a person is acting autonomously when the principles of his action are chosen by him as the most adequate possible expression of his nature as a free and equal rational being. The principles he acts upon are not adopted because of his social position or natural endowments, or in view of the particular kind of society in which he lives or the specific things he happens to want. To act on such principles is to act heteronomously. Now the veil of ignorance deprives the persons in the original position of the knowledge that would enable them to choose heteronomous principles. The parties arrive at their choice together as free and equal rational persons knowing only that those circumstances obtain which give rise to the need for principles of justice. [7]

Beneath Rawls’s notion of autonomy (and its desirability) is the idea that human actors are (or should be) “autonomous,” and to act with autonomous reasonableness is to somehow act without reference to natural connections, such as social position or natural endowments. Fundamental to this way of thinking is the isolation of the human actor from precisely those attributes that constitute human beings in the first place: family, neighbors, social class, education, experience, abilities, etc. This definition of reasonableness flies in the face of reality as it is and human nature as it is. It is not a form of humanism but a form of anti-humanism.

Like Kant and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, Rawls views society as a human institution established by human actors for human purposes. It is thus a “merely human creation.” It is not “natural” in the sense of being an outgrowth of the nature of reality and human persons as a part of that reality.  In labeling this section “The View from Nowhere” to emphasize that the Kantian view of a radical division between the human actor and reality in which human actors act without connection to other actors except through artificially created rules is a “view from nowhere in this world as it was, is or ever can be.”  This is a point of view that this series of blogs seek to replace with the belief that human society is a significant evolutionary development of the unfolding universe, and human society is an outgrowth of a deep relationality and interdependence built into the world and human beings as part of that world.

There are no autonomous individuals in the sense Rawls’s theory hypothesizes. It is not even desirable that there should be such persons. Human beings are naturally relational, social beings born, raised, enculturated, and living in a web of social relationships. Rawls is not so much trying to establish a good society in which people can flourish but a secular, Enlightenment society, which he assumes must be the result of rational actors, who in the Original State and supplied with a Veil of Ignorance, must decide as a good modern, post-Enlightenment, post-Marxian Harvard professor writing in the 20th century would choose to defend modern American liberal democracy. There are better, more realistic, and more nuanced ways to achieve this than the theory that Rawls proposes.

A Constructive Postmodernist Alternative

What I call a “constructive postmodernist view” holds that human beings are psychosomatic unities emergent from but also connected to the physical, social, domestic, and other environments from which they emerge. While human beings can and do gain a bit of objectivity about the world and others, they still maintain an inevitable rootedness in the reality of which they are a part. To pretend otherwise is neither wise nor helpful. To assume that valid social institutions require such a flight into an artificially constructed “Initial State” is unwise and unnecessary. It damages our valuable participation in the emergent order of nature and the society of which we are a part.

The search for justice is a social act—an act that not only involves the living but the communicated understandings of justice which we have received from the past, good and bad, that are part of our rational inheritance from those who have gone before us in the search for a just society.  Parties do not arrive at their choice together as free and rational persons but as members of a community, not necessarily of “equally rational persons,” but of finite and different persons who respect and are in community with others.

What of religious and moral views in such a society? The answer to this question is different from Rawls’s solution. Instead of excluding such ideas from public debate, such a society gladly brings religious beliefs into the public square, subject to the proviso that they be articulated without violence but in the spirit of open participation in the quest for justice among all members of a free society. A free society must be tolerant, including secular tolerance of religious views and the moral conclusions people draw from their faith. A constructive post-modernist view does not see religious, ethical, or philosophical pluralism as an “insurmountable” element of a contemporary and democratic society.” [8]Instead, it sees a plurality of views and opinions as posing to society questions that must be answered by reasonable dialogue in the common search for truth guided by a conviction that progress can be peacefully made in the search for a just society.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. Ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999), 181.

[2] See, Leslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1981).

[3] Id, at 53

[4] Id, at 181.

[5] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York, Columbia University Press, 1993).

[6] Id, at 53.

[7] A Theory of Justice, 222.

[8] See Adir Guedes Soriano, “Liberal Democracy and the Right to Religious Freedom” Paper presented at the 19th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium, 7-9 October 2012, at the J. Reuben Clark Law School on the campus of Brigham Young University–BYU, Provo, Utah – USA. https://classic.iclrs.org/content/events/26/569.pdf (downloaded May 25, 2023).

Rawls 2: A Late Modernist Look at Fundamental Principles of Justice

Anyone who hasn’t read the first blog in this series (Rawls 1: The Original Position and Veil of Ignorance), probably should do so before reading this week’s blog. For those that don’t want to go to the trouble, last week we looked at Rawls’ version of contract theory, which depends upon a completely ahistorical and hypothetical “original state” and a “veil of ignorance” that prevents any member of society from understanding their relative advantages or disadvantages. I analyzed his views from a number of angles, but basically critiqued his disregard for human history and cultural development as it has actually unfolded in history. Rawls is a typical Enlightenment thinker—overly confident of the power of human reason to abstractly structure human society. It is telling that he begins his analysis with the fantasy of an original state where one can make decisions, ultimate decisions without experience.

The modern Enlightenment world was created under the inspiration of the worldview that began with Isaac Newton. The world was fundamentally a machine made up of material parts held together by forces. In this view, governments were fundamentally instruments of social power that were to be led by those with the ability and willingness to embrace the science of politics. Under the influence of this idea of reality, the modern bureaucratic state emerged. Sitting at the bottom of all this was the assumption that people are rational, that a rational political arrangement satisfactory to all participants in society and be formed, and that the operation of liberal democratic politics will eventually be shown to be the final form of human government. Rawls sits squarely at the center of this movement.

With the coming of relativity theory and quantum physics, the picture of the world that dominated Western civilization over three centuries was shown to be limited. Both indicate the deep interrelationship of all reality.  Instead of the world being something like a machine, it is more like an organism with delicately interconnected parts. The world is also like a process, with each state of the world, including the political world, impacted by prior decisions made down to the fundamental level of reality and society.  Importantly, the notion that human reason can “stand outside” of reality (in an original state) and comprehend it without experience (the veil of ignorance), personal involvement, and change is a false picture of reality. There is no disinterested observer, not even Harvard professors, who can view any form of reality in this way. This insight is important in understanding the problems with the ideas of thinkers like Rawls.

Institutions and Justice

Rawls begins his analysis with a premise that the principles of social justice require an assignment of rights and duties among various institutions of society and the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social life. [1]By the term “institutions of society,” he means a system of rules that define the structure of society and the relative duties, powers, offices, and positions of the persons and structures that make up a society. [2]

The reason I outlined the fundamental principles of post-Newtonian physics in the introduction should be apparent: Human society, for Rawls, is like a gigantic machine, not an organism. The machine is programmed and operates by rules established by its members (or elites in control of the society), and such rational structures establish all the rights enjoyed by the members of such a society. According to this vision, human beings, in the original position assisted by the veil of ignorance, can rationally (i.e. without prejudice or self-seeking) understand and establish a just society.

Compare Rawls’s view with the organic view that underlies this series of blogs. There was and is no “original position, “state of nature,” or “state of ignorance.” Human government almost certainly gradually evolved from the human family. The original polity was a family, nuclear and extended, that joined together to survive the inevitable threats and challenges of human life. The men hunted, and the women cared for the home and children. In such a society, political power devolved upon those with the strength and wisdom to sustain the family. As time went by, the groupings would have gotten larger and larger until genetic connections within tribes became relatively unimportant. Eventually, what we call “nation-states” evolved.

Over time (millennia), the structures that characterize Western society slowly evolved. The evolution involved the decisions of multitudes of people seeking their interests, the interests of their family, social groups, and society. Some of those people were only motivated by their own self-interest. Others were motivated by faith, morals, or political vision. No participant had an “eagle eye” view of reality from above. The entire evolution of human society and political economy is a long process, only a portion of which involves human reason.

What Rawls calls “rules and institutions” evolved over this period of time, with human reason being only one factor in the gradual and precarious evolution of Western Democracy and all the various structures of human political relations we see today. In making the choices that made our society possible, people drew upon a long history and tradition, what is sometimes called the Judea-Christian and Greco-Roman foundations of Western society. In particular, the evolution of contract theory was heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition and the notion of “Covenants” that play a role in each of those traditions. [3] There was never a “choice,” a state of nature,” an “original position,” or a “state of ignorance.” In my view, it is not helpful to attempt to ground concrete institutions on a kind of fantasy but upon the concrete realities of human existence.

Two Principles of Justice

Having introduced the subject of rules and institutions, Rawls labels his theory, “Justice as Fairness.” According to Rawls, justice as fairness is characterized as follows:

  1. Each person should have the same and indefeasible claim to an adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities, to be justified, must meet two conditions: (a) any inequalities must be expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and; (b) such inequalities must be attached to offices and positions open to all members of society. [4]

These two principles flow from a fundamental principle that all “social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and. The social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all these values is to everyone’s advantage. [5] In Rawls’s view, any rational person in an original position and unaware of their own advantages and disadvantages would choose these two rules and subrules as the fundamental rules of a fair society.

The first principle requires that everyone has the same basic liberties, which for Americans include the liberties in the Bill of Rights. This second principle focuses on social quality. While Rawls realizes that society cannot avoid some inequalities such as result from such as inherited ability and talent, personal motivation, and the like, Rawls believes that a just society finds ways to reduce inequalities. Importantly, while Rawls makes allowance for private property, he does not make allowance for the private control of the means of production. The founders might have been astounded at this, as would their intellectual guides, all of whom felt that private property, economic freedom, and the like were essential for a well-founded society.

Limited Liberty

Rawls desires to provide a foundation for freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and religion and the like. Once again, without proof, Rawls assume, in the “original position” and in a state of ignorance, human beings would choose a form of government that maximizes individual freedom of conscience. [6] Once again, this stands in contrast with the facts of human history, which shows that the kind of freedoms that have been in place in Western Europe and the United States are rare in human history and in some danger in the United States and Western Europe generally. Such liberties cannot be justified by an intellectual choice made in a state of ignorance, but by hard-won liberties, liberties established and defended at great cost by people who had lived under some form of tyranny.

 Although Rawls believes that human beings should have “indefeasible liberties,” this does not mean that such liberties cannot be curtailed. Rawls holds that even basic liberties can be ” for the sake of liberty.” Thus, curbing the liberties of a group that society views as “intolerant” and in danger of harming the liberties of others may be justified:

The conclusion, then, is that, while an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and the institutions of liberty are in danger. [7]

This kind of language is also behind some of the attempts of radical secularists to silence religious views in the public square and label the expressions of religious convictions “hate speech.” The claims of those who would restrict freedom of speech by pastors and others in the areas of morality are largely founded upon a claim of “intolerance” and “danger to liberty.”


Next week, I will continue to look at Rawls, beginning with his analysis of the permissible limitations of freedom of conscience and moving to his hostility to religious views being given credence in public debate. Rawls’s theory of justice and public reason attempts to create a naked public square in which religious views and arguments are excluded from public debate precisely on the grounds stated above: Religious views are inherently contrary to a secular society and the secular state. Naturally, defenders of religion critique Rawls for ignoring and diminishing the religious views of the many members of society for which these views are important. [8] In fact, as Rawls may have realized, his defense of liberal democracy is undergirded and founded on the Christian faith he forsook under the pressure of a terrible war and the human evil that war creates. [9]

[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999), 47.

[2] Id.

[3] Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 43 and Lynn D. Wardle, “The Constitution as Covenant” (BYU Studies copyright 1987), downloaded February 7, 2021, https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/the-constitution-as-covenant/

[4] Id, at 53

[5] Id, at 54.

[6] Id, at 181.

[7] Id, at 193.

[8] For an illuminating and fair look at Rawls’s views, see Tom Baily and Valentin Gentile, eds, Rawls and Religion (New York Columbia University Press, 2014).

[9] John Rawls, A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith Thomas Nagel, Ed. (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). See, Peter Berkowitz, “A Review of A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith” Hoover Institution, Friday, May 29, 2009 https://www.hoover.org/research/god-and-john-rawls (downloaded May 24, 2023).

Rawls 1: the Original Position and Veil of Ignorance

John Rawls (1021-2002) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. [1] His father was a lawyer, and his mother was active in politics. He served in World War II, leaving the Christian faith in the face of unfair and needless slaughter on the battlefield. He studied at Princeton, Cornell, and Oxford Universities. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Norman Malcom, and H. L. A. Hart profoundly influenced his philosophical education. He taught at Harvard for thirty years. During the Viet Nam war, he spoke out against the war and the apparent defects of a political system that could conduct it. Many people feel that Rawls was the most influential American political philosopher of the 20th century. His book, A Theory of Justice, forms the primary basis for this blog. [2]

Political Philosophy According to Rawls

Rawls believes political philosophy plays four main roles in a society’s public culture:

  1. Philosophy proposes grounds for reasoned agreement when sharp political divisions threaten to lead to violent conflict.
  2. Political philosophy allows citizens to orient themselves within their social world. Philosophy can meditate on what it is to be a member of a particular society—in a democracy, an equal citizen—and offer a unifying framework for answering divisive questions about how people with that political status should relate to each other.
  3. Political philosophy assists society in establishing workable political arrangements while encouraging social progress.
  4. Political philosophy assists public life by providing alternatives to the cruelty, lust for domination, prejudice, folly, and corruption that often characterize public life in every society.

In the end, and importantly for this series of blogs, Political Philosophy can encourage the hope that human life is not simply domination and cruelty, prejudice, folly, and corruption, and if it is, to suggest wise and fair paths to a better future. [3] Rawls sees Political Philosophy as attempting to form a theoretical and practical wisdom that can assist society in achieving and maintaining a wise, fair, and just social order.

Contract Theory

According to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and their intellectual followers, governments were formed by essentially free (or unformed) individuals in a “State of Nature,” out of which they were free to covenant to unite and form a common government.  This consent can be either tacit, by submitting to and receiving the government’s benefits, or actual, by formal agreement to the government so formed. Locke, for example, does not think that this consent needs to be of all the members of the society but only by the majority of those forming the society. [4] Once formed, such a government is binding until properly altered.

Rawls continues the tradition of the Contract Theory and desires to outline a foundation for our political system and liberal democracy acceptable to modern people. He is to be honored for the attempt, despite my feeling that his attempt fails in fundamental ways. The best defense of Contract theory is not an abstract or theoretical foundation but a deep understanding of the historical and concrete ways it emerged. Contract theory did not spring forth from the Enlightenment without cause. It was the culmination of a long enculturation of Western Europe in which individuals in both private and public life adopted a principle of free association, which was the organic root of Contract Theory and its importance in England and America. [5]

In the beginning, covenant theology naturally found application in the notion of a “social contract,” which it did. Pilgrims, Puritans, theologians, and others found a connection between the kinds of covenants that God created with the human race in the Bible and the social covenants that human beings enter into with a lawful governing authority. If God ruled by means of covenants, then perhaps human beings should as well. It was natural, therefore, for the founders to view a “social contract” among human beings as the proper way to guide the new democracy they were founding. This foundation for their thinking was developed over a long period of Western history and only relatively recently put in the abstract formulation of political philosophers. Rawls, as a lapsed Christian but deeply impacted by Christian values, attempted in A Theory of Justice to provide a foundation for liberal democracy acceptable to modern and postmodern people.

The Original Position: Contract Theory Revisited

Whether the great philosophers who advanced the theory believed in its historicity is a matter of discussion; however, it is clear that Rawls’ formulation of the theory, which he calls “the Original Position.” is entirely hypothetical. [6] The “original position” is an imaginary situation wherein participants in a society to be formed are without information that enables them to tailor principles of justice favorable to their circumstances.  In other words, he places the human race in a fictional position in which no one knows their place in society, social status, or class, such essential times as race or gender, natural assets and abilities, level of intelligence, strength, education, and the like. [7] This is called the “Veil of Ignorance.”

The Veil of Ignorance

Rawls’ justification for this fictional situation is that it ensures that the fundamental agreements reached are “fair.” In other words, if someone knows what every human being knows, their race, family, parentage, sex, intelligence, physical attributes, social position, educational capacity, religion, etc. “fairness” could not be reached due to human prejudice. Not surprisingly, what comes of this definition is a notion of fairness that is eminently accepted among liberal elites at places like Harvard but less common elsewhere in human civilization. Unfortunately, this notion also makes a mockery of justice since it implies fairness is something that those of us who know our race, intelligence level, physical capacities, families, friendships, neighborhoods, and religious traditions cannot achieve.

I can only point out that the “original position” discounts what wise people have always known: the capacity for justice is learned over a long time through self-discipline and experience in life, by facing our prejudices and selfishness, by thinking clearly about the limitations of our family, neighborhoods, churches, synagogues, mosques and the like and trying to reach fair social arrangements despite our prejudices. Perhaps more importantly, what makes anyone think that we can ever put into practice a fairness ideal that begins by cutting itself off from everything human? The moment we leave the fantasy of the original position, we are, most unfortunately, in the real world of pride and prejudice, foolishness, knavery, greed, selfishness, and the like—the world where human societies are formed and must find their stability.

The concept of the original position has been criticized by better minds than mine, including Jurgen Habermas. [8]In Habermas’ view, Rawls’s theory is, as I have mentioned, overly abstract, placing the burden of supporting liberal democracy on the shaky foundation of a convenient fiction. First, the so-called Veil of Ignorance that the original position supposes has only a polemical value. In practice, the assumptions made are ungrounded in the human condition and society as they exist in the present and have evolved in the past. Secondly, its premise (that only in a state of ignorance would a just society be chosen) undermines democracy by assuming that the structure selected could not be put into practice any other way than by a convenient fiction. This creates a gulf between the social ideal Rawls is trying to advance and the flesh and blood moral agents required to sustain liberal democracy. As literary fiction, it works, but it does not provide a sufficient foundation for liberal democracy to function, as the condition of our democracy illustrates. Governments exist in the real world, and their legitimacy must be defended based on the nature of reality and human beings.

This leads to the most serious failure of Rawls’ Original Position and Veil of Ignorance, a feature distinguishing Rawls from the original contract theorists. Hume, Locke, and the other proponents of contract theory spoke of “a state of nature,” while Rawls can only talk of an admittedly illusory original position. The originators of contract theory felt that they had discerned a feature of nature and human nature in propounding their theory. They did not necessarily agree on the proper description of that nature, but they were committed to a form of natural law. In other words, they thought their approach was ontologically grounded in the world and human nature. Human beings, they thought, had been created in such a way that they ought to be free, and democracy was. Therefore, a part of the direction nature was taking the human race.

Rawls’ theory is “ideological” in the sense of that term that realists, like Napoleon, felt objectionable—it is a mere idea cut off from reality, a figment of human imagination, not a feature of reality, not even a theoretical explanation of reality identified through investigation and study. Karl Popper’s critique against Hegel equally applies to Rawls: His theory is a kind of idealized historical prophecy. He uses a non-existent convenient fiction, rather than hard facts and historical study, to ground his theory. Had Rawls done so, he might have found that there is another, more realistic ground for liberal democracy—the commitment of fallen, fallible, finite creatures to seek the character and capacity to sustain a free society in the face of the prejudice of others and even their self-centeredness and brokenness.

Failure of Contract Theories and a More Realistic Approach

Suffice it to say that, in my view, Rawls’ front-end loads his conclusions in his statement of the original position and his subsequent outline of what “reasonable people” would do in such a situation. In so doing, he violates one of the primary principles of this series of blogs: any social theory should be pragmatically based upon human society as it evolved, not based on hypothetical “original positions” or social contracts. The human community never developed in the way the various Contract Theories postulate.

The freedoms of liberal democracy were won over an incredible length of time, at least from the Greek democracies through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution. They were defeated by frail, prejudiced, self-interested human beings as they sought to construct a society where they could experience political freedom and self-determination.  The liberal democracy Rawls defends does not rely upon an Original Position or a pre-historical Social Contract. It depends upon a society of people willing to solve their problems, personal and social, and self-critical enough to make reasoned decisions to overcome prejudice and self-centeredness.  The notion of an “original position” prevents serious reflection on how liberal democracy evolved and its fragility. Freedom cannot be assumed. It must be won.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This initial section is taken from “John Rawls” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy found at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/#LifWor (downloaded May 11, 2023).

[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999).

[3] Id.

[4] For example, John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), at 376.

[5] Andrew C. McLaughlin, Foundations of American Constitutionalism (Greenwich CN: Fawcett Press, 1961), 28,

[6] Rawls, at 11 & 104.

[7] See, “Original Position” in https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/#:~:text=Rawls’s%20original%20position%20is%20an,favorable%20to%20their%20personal%20circumstances. Downloaded May 11, 2023).

[8] Jurgen Habermas, “Reconciliation Through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls Poltical Liberalism” Vol 92 Journal of PhilosophyNo. 3 (March 1995).

Preparation of Pastors and the Post Apostolic Church

This blog briefly examines how the church formed pastors after the death of the apostles but before the emergence of the European university system. It is a wonderful story we need to internalize. The formation of universities in Europe was the beginning of the modern educational system and one of the major engines of the emergence of the modern world. Today, we are entering a new era. Technology is changing how education is done and the church is not exempt from the impact of technological and other changes. But, perhaps more important is the simple fact that the current system has failed in fundamental ways to form pastoral character. This is true across denominational and theological boundaries.

We live in Changing times, as did those who lived in the first few centuries after the last of the Apostles died. The church had to envision leadership and train leaders in a new context—a context that included persecution, the decay of the Roman Empire, and the shattering of the established social order. We also live in times of change, and we can learn from the lessons of those who lived in other times of change.

Training Leaders in the New Testament and Beyond

As we have seen in prior blogs, in the early church, leaders were developed through personal relationships with those who were already acknowledged leaders. This practice continued beyond the apostolic era. The lineage from Jesus to the apostles, Barnabas, Paul, Timothy, and others, to the first post-apostolic generation of leaders shows this to be true. Those mentioned above had close connection with the apostolic witness, and the first of the leaders of the post-apostolic church, Ignatius, Clement, and the like, traced their leadership to the apostles, thus establishing transmission of the catholic tradition, the importance of apostolic succession and the maintenance of the apostolic witness to Christ.

According to John Calvin, from the earliest times in church history, leaders took under care youths to be prepared for the pastoral office. Given sacred instruction, those to lead the church were trained to live an exemplary life of gravity and holiness and, separated from worldly concerns, became accustomed to spiritual care and studies. [1] Before such persons were admitted into the office of pastor, they were weighed as to their merits and morals in common council with the lay people of the church (4.4.10). In addition, the examination was made as to the doctrine and morals of the person ordained (4.4.14). There were both characterological and theological requirements for church leadership. The training was both practical and theoretical, moral and pragmatic. The result was a trained and competent clergy of proven capacity to lead congregations.

Training in the Post-Apostolic Era

By the end of the apostolic era, three offices of the clergy began to appear:

  1. Bishops (episcopoi or overseers) oversaw multiple congregations in a geographic area and appointed, ordained, and disciplined priests and deacons. They sometimes appear to be called “evangelists” in the New Testament (1 Tim. 5:19–22; 2 Tim. 4:5; Titus 1:5).
  2. Elders (presbuteroi) were known as “presbyters” or “elders.” These people oversaw a local congregation. Over time, this office became known as priests. The English term “priest” is derived from the Greek word presbuteros. Elders were responsible for teaching, governing, and providing the sacraments in a given congregation (1 Tim. 5:17; Jas. 5:14–15).
  3. Deacons (diakonoi) were the assistants of the bishops and responsible for teaching and administering as well as specific other tasks, such as the distribution of food (Acts 6:1–6)

The exact division of duties was fluid in the apostolic era but soon became more fixed, with bishops having the primary responsibility to train, ordain, and discipline priests and deacons. This is important because it shows that those who trained and installed new leaders were not academics removed from ministry but active bishops with many pastoral responsibilities. The lack of this kind of responsibility in modern Protestant groups is an important limitation on their ability to train and oversee local pastors, who often need assistance and counsel in performing their arduous duties. [2]

The Pre-Nicene Era

Ignatius of Antioch, who was himself trained by the apostle John, was concerned that those in leadership protected the apostolic witness and embodied the apostles’ character. Thus, he states in his letters:

Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” [3]


Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and in soul, in faith and in love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery; and with the deacons, men of God[4]

These letters are consistent with the view that the bishops of the early church were concerned with training younger leaders with the ability to continue the faith and morals of the apostles. In addition, we can see that the model used was one of apprenticeship.

The Post-Nicene Era

This is not to say that there were no formal schools that educated clergy. [1] In particular, the Catechetical School of Alexandria and the School of Antioch were formed. In the Alexandria school, students met in the home of the master (appointed by the bishop), and the master provided a significant portion of the teaching. This school was not only a teaching center but also a focus on Christian character and day-to-day contact with the master/teacher. In other words, the emphasis was on the mind, the heart, and the soul of participants. Once again, through the office of the Bishop and the persons commissioned to train pastors, the transmission of the apostolic witness and the formation of character were ensured.

The vast majority of theologians in the age of the Church Fathers were also bishops, including such theologians as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory, the Theologian were trained in this way. Their training was both academic and in practical ministry, Greek classics, and Holy Scriptures. As a result, they were familiar both with ideas originating in the Old and New Testaments, as well as from the wisdom of the ancient Greek literature, and with the practical duties of priests, bishops, and other church leaders. For example, St. Ambrose was highly concerned with the proper training of potential clergy and concerned should live worthy of the calling to pastoral ministry. He wanted them to be excellent and profitable examples to the people. Consequently, he undertook the following treatise, setting forth the duties of pastors, taking as a model a treatise authored by Cicero. [5]

Ambrose aimed to impress upon those he had ordained the lessons he had previously taught them. In other words, to reinforce in writing what he had already taught them.  In this book, he encourages pastors to internalize and demonstrate good character in forming their minds, reason, and appetites. In the process, Ambrose encourages the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love and the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. In other words, he is teaching them of Christian character.

With the coming of Constantine and the formation of monastic orders, church leaders were additionally taught in monastic communities. In this context, church leaders emerged in the context of prayer, study of scripture, work, and service to Christ. The monastic orders of Benedict and Augustine and the work of Basil the Great profoundly impacted the education of church leaders, an impact that continues today.

The most outstanding leader of the period was Gregory the Great, whose Pastoral Rule continues to be influential among those concerned with pastoral training. Gregory was highly educated, a gifted administrator, and a shrewd leader. Gregory begins his Pastoral Care by encouraging the formation of good character at every stage of formation. He understood the damage that would be done by an improperly formed clergy, including a clergy with moral defects. He encouraged a prayerful and contemplative form of servanthood in the leaders he trained. [6] For our purposes, one particular quote from Gregory is important:

Further, there are some who investigate spiritual precepts with shrewd diligence, but in life they trample on what they have penetrated by their understanding. They hasten to teach what they have learned not by practice but by study, and belie in their conduct what they teach by words. [7]

The many pastoral failures of recent years indicate that a return to the primacy of spiritual and moral character in training pastors is needed.

Implications for Pastoral Training

As concluded in a prior blog, the Scriptures of the Early Church, the witness of the Gospels, and the traditions of the early church support and encourage changes in how pastors and other church leaders are trained. It is not primarily the duty of Christian Colleges and Seminaries to train church leaders. It is the responsibility of the church to train leaders from among those who have shown promise to existing church leaders. A second conclusion is that training for church leadership must be personal, intimate, and authentically mentoring. Jesus mentored the Apostles in a close, personal relationship. The Apostles and their immediate followers mentored the next generation of church leaders in just the same way Jesus mentored them. By the time the New Testament closes, we are at least in the third generation of mentoring leaders in life-transforming life and community. [8] Finally, during the period of the Church Fathers, the model instituted by the apostles continued to be observed, albeit in an evolving way.

As the church of the 21st Century comes to grips with the need for a new generation of apostolic leadership, our churches will need to renew the role of mentoring and personal relationships in preparation for ministry. Traditional seminaries, online training, and other “cognitive-alone” strategies will not solve the problem of training a new generation of church leaders.

An urgent need in contemporary pastoral education concerns clear standards for preparing pastors and restoring the church’s teaching office so pastors can fulfill their complex tasks in modern society. Pastors today face many challenges not encountered in prior generations, or if they were, the social pressures involved were much milder. Today, pastors must build their congregations and disciple people in an increasingly hostile environment. Modern scholarship is hostile to the idea that a recognizable system of doctrine and morals exists in the text of Scripture. Some believe it is impossible to discern such a system in Scripture. As a result, pluralism of doctrine and morals reigns. There are so many different Christian sects and denominations that it is difficult for Christians to maintain their unique identity in our culture. The lack of doctrinal and moral consensus makes training and examining pastors who embody a standard set of theological and ethical skills impossible.

In this situation, it is the responsibility of the church to ponder how to train the next generation of leaders for the church.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 19600, at 4.4.9 to 4.4.14.

[2] This is still true in the Orthodox Church and a few other groups where persons are normally deacons, assisting priests before their ordination, assuring that they have been properly mentored during their formation as priests.

[3] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians 2 at 6:1.

[4] Id, at 13:1–2.

[5] Ambrose, “On the Duty of the Clergy” found at  https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/34011.htm (Downloaded May 11, 2023).

[6] Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care in The Ancient Christian Writers Series Volume 11 tr. and ed. by Henry Davis, S.J. (New York, NY: Newman Press, 1950, 1978).

[7] Id, at 23.

[8] Jesus mentored the Apostles, who mentored Paul and Barnabas, who mentored John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke, and Onesimus.

Popper 3: Reason, Cooperation and Achieving Social Progress

The work of Karl Popper I have been reviewing is illuminating and important in combatting the misplaced single-mended idealisms of our time. This week, I have not had time to analyze an entire section of his work, but I do want to describe his fundamentally rational way of looking at social problems, a strategy that puts him at odds with those who from single-minded and unwise conviction in the correctness of their own opinions harm others. I am then presenting a rewritten version of prior thoughts on the Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr that may illuminate the potential for a reasonable approach to the search for justice. Niebuhr is important as a figure who combines philosophical and theological analysis in his work.

Popper’s View of Political Reasonableness

At one point in critiquing those who felt they had discovered an inevitable future for human society either by reason or understanding socio-economic forces, Popper says:

We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong, and you may be right, and by and effort, we may get nearer to the truth.’ It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interest clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach – perhaps by arbitration – a compromise which, because of its equity is acceptable to most, if not to all. In short, the rationalist attitude, or, as I may perhaps, label it, the attitude of reasonableness, is very similar to the scientific attitude, to the belief that in the search for truth we need co-operation, and that, with the help of argument we can in time attain something like objectivity. [1]

This aspect of Popper’s thought embodies his fallibilism (the view that personal views on matters of social policy may be wrong), and the function of a reasonable and scientific approach to political problems offers the best hope for human flourishing in a sound and peaceful society. Popper opposes power politics, totalitarian ideals, and underhanded policy formulations. Instead, he believes that human reason, aided by dialogue, debate, discussion, and compromise, can bring a society to an objective and reasonable solution to social problems.

It is amazing to me that certain persons who claim an understanding of Popper and an allegiance to his ideas also support clearly violent and underhanded methods of seeking social change. Popper’s work is one extended argument against such an approach to human social problems. In Popper’s view, modern political thought influenced by Freud and Marx is actually a revolt against reason. It involves a kind of unreasonable prophetic view of social change that inevitably ends in suffering and social failure.

Reasonableness, Justice, and Love

The Christian theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr makes a distinction that is important for a reasonable,sophia-agapic, approach to the principle of justice. For Niebuhr, the term “nature” refers to the currently existing historical possibilities of justice in society, while “grace refers to an ideal possibility of perfect love potentially present in any society. [2] In every society, the search for justice is a process whereby a set of institutions are formed and a degree of justice is attained, but in which there remains an unfulfilled quality to the justice achieved, which is always further illumined by the inevitable operation of love.

The process might be described as follows:

State A: A society achieves a degree of justice in a particular historical situation (Phase 1).

State B: The agapistic principle at work in a society illumines the limitations of State A and new possibilities of justice (Phase 2).

State C: New ideas of justice and institutions of justice are created (New Historical State).

This communal process of seeking a more just society is never-ending within human history because historically bound and limited human institutions never achieve perfect justice and social harmony (shalom) at any given moment in human history. In this analysis, the sopia-agapistic principle (reason and love) is at work to achieve a continually expanding ideal within history through reason, the sophistic principle.

Human Nature and Justice

Unfortunately, human nature limits the realization of justice in any specific social context due to human finitude, self-centeredness, brokenness, and limitations of reason, theoretical and practical, within the boundaries of any human society. Human limitations restrict the human capacity to realize justice in society. [3] Nevertheless, the human capacity for self-transcendence in the search for ideals does create the potential for achieving relatively just social structures over time.

Because of what Niebuhr calls “the indeterminate character of human possibilities” (i.e. the human capacity to transcend nature and natural instincts, human societies are intrinsically dynamic and characterized by change, Laisse-faire Capitalism, Marxism, liberal democracy, and the various “isms” of the post-Enlightenment era view the trajectory of change as inevitably progressive, a view that this study challenges. To be on the “right side of history” is to act in accordance with these forces, be they visualized as economic or ideal. There is, however, no inevitable “right side of history” to which selfish and self-centered human beings will agree. There is only a slow process of seeking a greater unfolding of justice within human history’s constraints at a given point in time.

Law and the Principles of Justice

In discussing law and justice, Niebuhr helpfully distinguishes principles of justice from institutions of justice. Principles of justice are abstract ideals reflected in our theoretical notions of justice and law. Institutions of justice are concrete structures embodied in an existing human community. [4] In any given society, these institutions and the rules they administer are only approximations of a society’s ideals regarding justice.

Systems and principles of justice are the servants and instruments of the spirit of brotherhood in so far as they extend the sense of obligation towards the other, (a) from an immediately felt obligation, prompted by obvious need, to a continued obligation expressed in fixed principles of mutual support; (b) from a simple relation between a self and one “other” to the complex relations of the self and the “others”; and finally, from the obligations discerned by the individual self to the broader obligations which the community defines from its more impartial perspective. These communal obligations evolve slowly in custom and law. [5]

Niebuhr’s idea may be a bit difficult to grasp without an example. Let us take the modern Social Security and Medicare system as an example. In the beginning, an individual or individuals saw the predicament of elderly parents in an industrial society when they could no longer work. Over time, a fixed principle of justice, the notion that society should provide some minimum financial security for the aged, evolved. Over time, this ideal sense of justice became a communal obligation seen as such by most people. In the end, concrete laws were enacted that embodied a wider collective sense of responsibility. As a result, the Social Security Administration and Medicare were formed—concrete institutions that embodied the social ideal. Over time, these institutions have further involved bringing drug prescriptions and other items within the ambit of the initial architype intuited by society. In all this, the ideal of justice was gradually unfolding in American society.

Hope for Consensus

Beginning with a sense of mutual obligation (a form of social love), intuitions of society are gradually translated into ideals of justice and then into laws and institutions embodying the initial intuition. This social process is communal and supports the continuing stability of society. In one particularly illuminating passage, Niebuhr states:

The definitions of justice arrived at in a given community or the product of a social mind. Various perspectives upon common problems, have been merged and have achieved a result, different from that at which any individual, class or group in the community would have arrived. The fact that various conceptions of a just solution of a common problem can be fully synthesized into a common solution, disproves the idea that the approach of each individual or group is consistently egoistic. If it were, society would be an anarchy of rival interests until power from above subdued the anarchy. [6]

Here Niebuhr sets out a democratic ideal amid the struggles for a justice society in which people are involved in the West. The “social mind” differs from the individual minds that make it up, and cannot be reduced to something more fundamental. A society’s social mind evolves as debate, disagreement, dialogue, and further study merge to improve a concrete set of social problems and solutions that become “common” over time. The fact that Western democracies have achieved the degree of justice they have achieved is a testimony to the human potential for change and social progress. Niebuhr includes a final warning: If a society degenerates into egoistic self-seeking of individuals and groups, social anarchy and tyranny can and will result. Western democracies at the time of Niebuhr had shown themselves capable of reasoned practical adjustments required in a functional democracy. One can only hope that the same remains true in our day and time.


The dynamic, evolving, but never complete activity of love seeking justice in human society is an important idea to ponder. It is part of overcoming the misplaced moral fervor of our time and replacing it with a rational sense of justice as a process of which we are a part but cannot complete. What I have called “misplaced moral fervor” is not misplaced because the moral sentiments of people who seek a more just society are wrong in their motives and desire. It is misplaced because it ignores certain aspects of ethical behavior (often peaceableness and honesty) in service of a single moral ideal.

Michael Polanyi called this phenomenon “Moral Inversion,” a term I like but think is inadequate to the phenomenon and its danger to our society. The phenomenon Polanyi describes might better be called a misplaced and unwise “Single-minded Idealism.” In Russia, this misplaced idealism allowed for the killing of millions of people to serve the cause of an illusory perfect dictatorship of the proletariat—a dictatorship that turned out to be a dictatorship of thugs led by Stalin to the impoverishment of society as a whole and every individual within that society, the leadership included.  We see examples of the same phenomenon in our world today.

The works of Karl Popper and Niebuhr are important in combatting the misplaced single-mended idealisms of our time. Both these thinkers are realists who believe in the need for social change but also understand the dangers to human progress inherent in any view that claims an absolutely true understanding of human history and its unfolding in society. Both were early attracted to Marx but ultimately embraced a different approach to social change. We have reached a point where the certainties of political actors, left and right, prevent wise and loving social evolution guided by reason and concern for our neighbors, loved ones, and society. Only a slow, reasonable process of rebuilding community, making difficult decisions to achieve social harmony, and avoiding pride and Single-minded Idealism can allow America and Western society to move forward in freedom and relative prosperity.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 431.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986),, at 246.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 248.

[6] Id, at 249.