Promoting a Flourishing Society
 

Towards a Thick Society

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

October 21, 2010

Many modern Canadians from all sides of the political spectrum would no doubt be hard-pressed to admit to the presence of civil religion in Canada. Those in the conservative tradition have long celebrated the way that Canada’s participation in the British constitutional monarchy blessed it with a form of limited loyalty fundamentally different from the demands of loyalty and conformity to the sacred national myth in the American melting pot. Meanwhile, as von Heyking describes well, the modern liberal and progressive tradition assumes the very opposite: that its vision of the rational state and individual rights fences religion off from the public square while preserving diverse, albeit private, religious expressions.

I would like to begin my response by first thanking the late Frederick Walter Hill and the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal for sponsoring this excellent lecture series in order to explore broad issues in our culture and public square that challenge and affect us all. I am honoured to participate (even if not present) in this discussion, and I am especially pleased to engage John von Heyking’s lecture on civil religion in modern Canada. In its broadest form—an exploration of the relationship between faith and politics—von Heyking’s lecture addresses one of the most significant issues emerging in Canada’s pluralistic and post-modern public square.

Many modern Canadians from all sides of the political spectrum would no doubt be hard-pressed to admit to the presence of civil religion in Canada. Those in the conservative tradition have long celebrated the way that Canada’s participation in the British constitutional monarchy blessed it with a form of limited loyalty fundamentally different from the demands of loyalty and conformity to the sacred national myth in the American melting pot. Meanwhile, as von Heyking describes well, the modern liberal and progressive tradition assumes the very opposite: that its vision of the rational state and individual rights fences religion off from the public square while preserving diverse, albeit private, religious expressions.

Setting aside the semantic debate about what constitutes “religion,” von Heyking is surely correct in locating our political life and ideals within the context of our deepest and broadest understandings of meaning, and also in describing the modern political vision as a singular “closed” system in which the meaning of human existence is confined within the intramundane, and in which competing systems of meaning—or faith—have been squeezed out of the public discourse. He is no less correct in describing the modern, liberal-democratic vision of politics, especially in post-Charter Canada, in terms of a symbiotic relationship between the comprehensive rational state and the free individual, and where other mediating institutions have been largely subordinated or marginalized. Further study, for example, of Pierre Trudeau’s liberal realism, evident early in his career in his Cite’ Libre editorials, would further illustrate his philosophical commitment to a progressive rational state securing the public life of the individual.

The persistence of this closed system, as well as its inherent tensions, was illustrated well in an article in a recent Globe and Mail (Joe Friesen and Sandra Martin, “Canada’s Changing Faith,” Globe and Mail October 5, 2010). As Friesen and Martin note, Canada’s tradition of multicultural toleration has come to be threatened by the trend among recent immigrants to root their politics in religious beliefs, such as Islam. Friesen and Martin agonize over the conflict between demands for religious plurality and freedom, including shariah law-courts, and protecting individual rights, as in securing women’s equality. And ultimately, they abandon the difficult task of reconciling these tensions, choosing instead the familiar solution of appealing to Trudeau’s approach of ensuring that the state to prioritize individual liberties.

It is precisely this tension that has been playing out across the Western world as modern liberal-democratic states, committed to tolerance and individual freedom, encounter groups that demand to use their freedom by living out their faith in public life. As von Heyking points out, Canadian courts also have faced this tension, but curiously have not defaulted automatically or exclusively to privileging only individual rights. Much more could be said about this matter of the history of legal decision-making in Canada, and I would welcome further comments from von Heyking to account for the nuanced decisions of Canada’s courts.

As an alternative to the closed system of the modern state and its inherent tensions, von Heyking advocates an “open” system of meaning based in the sacred inner substance of human personality and a return to what he presents as the original Lockean notion of self-government. There is, he states, an inner substance of human personality that cannot fully be captured in “legal or profane categories” (4). Here he suggests that room must be preserved for the transcendent that comes to expression in religious faith, and also for the myriad dimensions of human personhood that come to expression in a variety of legitimate spheres of human life in which persons, and not the bureaucratic state, must be free to govern themselves.

I believe that von Heyking’s goals are worthy, and that his strategy of appealing to the common ground of human personality offers a well-intended attempt to make his case to others of diverse views. Yet I wonder if his strategy is up to the task, in at least two respects.

First, while he alludes to them, I would welcome some further explanation of how von Heyking envisions the interrelationships between the state and other spheres of human life, and also how he envisions a public space that has room for a diversity of expressions of human faith and personality while enabling people of diversity to live together in a common public order.

Second, I wonder if von Heyking’s appeal to human personality is sufficient to move us beyond the closed system that he attributes to modern liberal-democracy. In fact, Pierre Trudeau also described individual persons as the root of authority and the basis of society, and self-realization as the purpose of human life and society. I am less confident than von Heyking that human personality provides a sufficient ground, in itself, for religious faith or the disclosure of that which is sacred, or for discerning and expressing what is right and good. The sacredness and inherent goodness of inner human personality is a familiar optimistic trope of modern thought, but one that has been deeply discredited by our experience of modern history and contemporary culture.

Von Heyking’s analysis brings to mind the earlier work of well-known Canadian philosopher George P. Grant. The resonance between von Heyking and Grant should come as no surprise, since they share an admiration for the ideas of Eric Voegelin along with their critique of modern liberalism. To Grant, as for von Heyking, the modern liberal-democratic ideal resulted in a uniform and increasingly all-encompassing state that paradoxically constrained human freedom. For Grant, however, the remedy to the paradoxical symbiosis of the technical and controlling state and the free individual was the ideal of a constitutional order based on a commonly-recognized good—a God-given law-order. Such a basis inherently restrained the self-sufficiency and self-legitimating individual and state alike, in turn having the effect of limiting the scope and claims of the state while leaving room for diversity within the common constitutional order.

Grant’s quest for a limited constitutional order based on a transcendent, commonly-recognized law order that also might preserve justice, freedom, and diversity suggests intriguing possibilities for today’s world. In a recent op-ed article entitled “All for one and one for all” (Globe and Mail, September 30, A15), Charles Taylor writes that for the social solidarity necessary to society to exist in our pluralistic world, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other spiritual and lay philosophies must all view this solidarity as central to their own faith.

Here, then, lies the key question not only for von Heyking, but for all of us: what transcendent basis for solidarity can Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others subscribe to that would provide for a common, if less-than-totalizing state, while allowing diverse non-state institutions to function and flourish in our public square?