Complex Societies and the Structure of Reality
Complex Societies and the Structure of Reality

Complex Societies and the Structure of Reality

March 1 st 2002

Second of a three-part series on pluralism, edited and excerpted from James W. Skillen and Rockne M. McCarthy, eds., Political Order and the Plural Structure of Society, © 1991 Emory University. Used by permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. To order this title, contact the publisher at 800-253-7521 or at

In the first two parts of this essay, we argued that the reality of contemporary American society consists of more than liberal individualism can account for, both in its complexity and in its coherence. But how do we explain the emergence of the complexity of our society if the supposedly autonomous activity of individuals is not sufficient to explain it?

Apparently, we cannot account for very much of the structure and complexity of modern society simply by referring back to human freedom as its source. Even if one hypothesizes that contracts among autonomous individuals are the source of all human organizations and relationships (including the state), one has not explained the nature of the differences between political, educational, scientific, athletic, musical, medical, familial, and ecclesiastical organizations.

If each of these different spheres requires distinct sorts of virtues for its realization, then the deeper question is, What is human nature? Why do human beings exhibit these diverse kinds of talents and interests? Why do they form these kinds of associations and not others?

And if it is true that we err both mentally and practically if we ignore the diverse complexity of social reality, then what is it about the structure of that reality that imposes such limitations on human freedom? Why shouldn't human beings seek perpetually to level all historic, institutional confinements and express their autonomy afresh day after day?

With these questions we enter the very heart of the debate about the character and origin of modernity itself. Generally speaking, both the champions and the critics of modernization assume that the "modern world" represents a new era in history marked by its break (for better or for worse) from a medieval past. The key category here is "secularization." The modern world is a secular world even if religion still thrives here and there; it is no longer a religious world that embraces subordinate secular pursuits.

But does "modernity" really constitute a new and different era? If so, what are its defining characteristics? Why should we accept the Enlightenment's self assertion that autonomous human initiatives through science and free action have inaugurated a new era? What if that self assertion is mistaken or at best merely one among many relative claims people have made in the course of the ongoing differentiation of society? Are human beings actually free and autonomous simply because they have declared their independence from God, the church, and the old aristocracy? Has the world actually been secularized or merely declared to be so by a temporarily dominant though mistaken stream of thought?

The debate over these questions still rages across many fronts today, and it bears directly on the issue of society's pluralistic structure.

Contrary to modern dogma, many find the origin of the world as it is today not in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment's self assertion of human autonomy but in Christianity.

Max Weber was not the first scholar, though he may be the best known, to argue that the spirit of modern capitalism finds its source in Calvinism. Many historians of science have argued that the development of natural science is a fruit of the Christian view of the world. Harold Berman and others locate the foundations of the Western legal tradition in the eleventh century papal revolution. Many attribute the pluralizing differentiation of society over the past five centuries—at least in large measure—to the impact of the Protestant Reformation. And some go so far as to say that the full range of secularizing humanist influences does not stand on its own foundation at all, as modernists claim, but is a religious or idealistic displacement—a secularized form—of Christianity.

We could enter the contemporary North American debate over these issues at any number of points, but we will consider only one additional author to help us bring into focus some of these questions.

Ralph C. Hancock's Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics heightens the tension of the debate over the nature and origin of the modern world as he engages Michael Walzer, Leo Strauss, Karl Löwith, Eric Voegelin, and Hans Blumenberg in discussion.

In essence, Hancock's argument is that Calvin's reinterpretation of the Christian faith led to a strong refocusing of attention on human responsibility in this world. If, as many others beside Hancock have argued, early Christianity de-divinized the world by recognizing it as God's creation rather than as part of God, then Calvin took this conviction a step further. He so emphasized the transcendence of God that he undermined the Thomist Aristotelian synthesis that grounded human rationality in a great chain of being which ascends to God himself. For Calvin, human reason cannot ascend to God; rather the sovereign God stoops to reveal himself to finite and sinful human creatures. According to Hancock,

it was characteristic of pre-modern philosophic conceptions of order or cosmos to differentiate higher, rational kinds of being from lower, irrational kinds. This applied both to the big order, or world, and to the little order, the human soul. On this view, the soul can claim to be a microcosm because it participates intelligently in the order of the cosmos, by virtue of the rule of its rational part. Reason is capable of asserting its rule in order to constitute a hierarchy in the soul analogous to the natural hierarchy.

For Calvin, however, there is no place for reason to assert its rule, since the desires were given all the rule they needed directly from God; the self assertion of reason is not in accord with the order of creation but is indeed the cause of the fall of the creation into disorder and alienation from God. . . . According to [the philosophic idea of order], man's reason gave him a claim to comprehend the ruling goodness of nature and therefore to rise above the material system of the universe, to rule a little world in his own right. But Calvin insists on the total and uniform subordination of the entire creation to its creator: man can in no sense be his own world, for there is only one God; his essence is incomprehensible to man; and to him alone belongs the government of the whole universal system.

For human beings to be completely dependent on God rather than on reason means, therefore, that they now have only to concentrate on obeying the divine command to love God and one another in this world. If Calvin radically emphasized God's transcendence above this world, he also radically focused attention on the meaning and value of this world as God's creation—a world in which God's creatures are called to fulfil their responsibilities here and now. This world is what matters in God's sight—not some imaginary mystical or intelligible world behind the world at hand.

"Indeed," writes Hancock,

my analysis suggests that Calvinism—in particular the "uncorrupted" Calvinism of its founder—represents not at all a repudiation of this world but an intensification of worldly activity understood as redounding not only to the benefit of God's innocent natural creation but especially to the glory of God. . . . Calvin's hostility to the flesh was not a hostility to the body but a hostility to hierarchy, to human rule according to the purposes of human reason—precisely, one might say, a hostility to Aristotle.

As Hancock sees it, there is, consequently, a much closer connection between Calvin and modern rationalism (with its practical, pragmatic, this-worldly focus) than there is between Calvin and the rationality of Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas. Calvin's was not a secularizing mode of thought in the sense of claiming autonomy for human reason in a closed world of nature. To the contrary, Calvin understood human beings and the whole of creation to be completely and radically dependent on God. Nevertheless, in the world of practical ethics as well as in the sciences, the impact of Calvinism was to drive human beings to explore and to act on the creation.

This did have a secularizing impact in the sense of undermining the Catholic church's claim to being the chief and highest mediator between God and the world. Calvin emphasized the creation's direct dependence on God in all its dimensions. Not only is every believer a priest before God, but every office of authority is directly accountable to God rather than mediated through a church hierarchy. Under the impact of Calvinism, human social life could become more radically differentiated and free from ecclesiastical control. For Calvin, of course, this kind of secularization had nothing to do with the autonomy claims of modern humanists. The independence of social spheres from church control simply implied that human creatures should become more fully and directly obedient to God in each sphere of life. Societal differentiation for Calvin is part and parcel of religious intensification.

"Since Calvin denies the possibility of a hierarchical ordering of the goods of the present life," says Hancock, "he must believe that each earthly delight contains its own principle of moderation within itself, that each can rule itself without reference to any superior good." Human duty is to glorify God through love and service in every sphere of life.

The glory of God is exhibited in the outward actions of men, provided they are done for the glory of God and not in view of any human good. Thus Calvin's absolute rejection of works righteousness yields a new kind of attention to works. Although Calvin denies that human works can in any way be even a partial source of salvation, he teaches that the works God does through us may indeed be considered as signs of salvation.

This is the ground of the historical activism of Calvinism, says Hancock.

From a Calvinist viewpoint, therefore, what makes possible the differentiation of society as well as its integral ordering is neither a natural hierarchy under church supervision nor the autonomous shaping of a formless void by human beings claiming to be self sufficient. Rather, what makes earthly life possible in all of its complexity and coherence is the very order of God's creation—the law of God calling human beings to the creative fulfilment of their earthly responsibilities. The creative, energetic attention to life in this world inspired by Calvin's love for and fear of the transcendent Creator Redeemer is what gave a new boost to science, political constitutionalism, economic development, and much more.

If there is any truth to Hancock's interpretation of Calvin, then the debate over the shape and character of the modern world requires that we also direct our attention to the question about "religious motives." Clearly Calvin's vision and motivation were thoroughly and comprehensively religious in the sense of calling for the reform of all of life in obedience to God and for his glory. Equally as clear is the anti Christian motive inherent in much of modern humanism, symbolized by the French revolutionaries' cry, "Neither God nor master." Two contrary motives are at work here—one calling for human obedience to God, the other calling for human independence from God. But which motive is closer to the truth about human nature, history, and social order?

In Hancock's debate about the nature of modernity with Walzer, Strauss, Löwith, Voegelin, and Blumenberg, he says that in Calvinism "I detect a religious motive for a certain secular rationalism." It is just possible that Calvinism disposed "its adherents to ways of life compatible with modern trends in politics and economics but that these trends had sources and foundations distinct from Calvinism or from any religious belief."

On Hancock's own terms, however, the very words "religious," "secular," and "modern" are up for question because their meaning is different if used by an Enlightenment rationalist or by a Calvinist. Different religious motives matter a great deal.

We could as easily say that in Calvinism there is a religious motive driving believers to act with such awe before God that they develop new and creative uses of their rational capacities in his creation. That motive may be the most important one that helped to produce great achievements in the fields of politics, economics, and science, only to be displaced later by a more dominant religious motive of human self sufficiency and independence from God. Adherents to the new humanistic motive may have become partially disposed to certain trends in economics and politics set in motion by Calvinism even though the humanistic motive contradicts Calvinism's proclamation of the creation's complete dependence on God.

People operating with both Christian and anti Christian motives have, of course, contributed to the development of science, democracy, capitalism, and so forth. But the conflict between basic driving motives should not be ignored as if it is inconsequential.

Different basic motives do, to some degree, control both the interpretation of reality and the shaping of its institutions. If the source of modern society's complex diversity and scientific achievements is the autonomous power of free persons, who really have nothing to do with God and his creation order, then everything appears in one light. But if the deepest ground of modern institutions and human achievements is actually the providential stability of God's good creation order to which human beings ought to submit, both in scientific exploration and in the practical development of many different social potentialities, then everything about history and humanity appears in quite a different light.

If Hancock's thesis about Calvinism and modernity is tenable, then the questions about societal pluralism become even more complicated. We must now in addition consider both the deepest motives of human life and the underlying ontological structure of reality that either undergirds or contradicts those motives.

If Michael Walzer is correct that society really is a complex of different spheres, then perhaps there are some important boundaries and heteronomous norms in the structure of reality that make possible that societal complexity. Walzer may have stumbled upon important insights into the creation's order without having come up with a correct account of why that is so.

The same might be said about Jeffrey Stout. If we do in fact need a stereoscopic view of society in order to interpret it correctly, this could be due to the reality of the creation order—an order that human beings are not free to ignore or distort without ending up with false, reductionistic theories and practical failures. If this is true, then all humanistic claims to autonomy are fundamentally flawed and misdirected even if the good creation order keeps those who make such claims from experiencing the full consequences of their motives or intentions.

Alisdair MacIntyre may be correct, therefore, in his critical assessment of the internal contradictions and antinomies of liberal individualism, but he may be mistaken in believing that Thomas or Aristotle is best able to provide an adequate framework for interpreting the integral order of our contemporary, complex, differentiating societies. There may be another standpoint from which to discern the norms for the various virtues required, in different spheres of social life, including the norms for an integral political order that is neither totalitarian nor anarchic. That other way might be found by following the Calvinist path of heeding the dynamic law order of God's creation in the light of what the Bible says about sin and redemption.

We need to consider the possibility, in other words, that the conflicts among religious motives—modern humanist, classical humanist, Thomist, Calvinist—are fundamental, in the sense that people with basically different views of life, living out of contrary religious motives, have the greatest difficulty penetrating to the root of their differences with one another. They simply talk past one another.

But MacIntyre may be too quick in accepting the ultimate historical relativity of this "tower of Babel." One religious motive and fundamental worldview may be closer to the universal truth while others are farther from it. In which case, the aim of different philosophers and social reformers should be to contend for the truth from out of their positions of commitment, rather than to retreat into their traditions as if each tradition is merely one among many.

The challenge we face in explaining and shaping contemporary society is that we must struggle to give a truthful, evaluative account of its health and deformities as well as to articulate the correct norms for our practical shaping of it. And if it is true that the ontological basis for all societal differentiation and integration is God's creation order, then every account of contemporary society will fail to some extent if it does not acknowledge and deal with that reality from out of a commitment to its truth—which might account for the present crisis of liberalism.

Topics: Religion
Jim Skillen
Jim Skillen

Jim Skillen directs the Center for Public Justice in Washington D.C., where his job is essentially to read, write, and argue with people about government and politics. He is the author most recently of With or Against the World?: America's Role among the Nations (2005) and earlier of A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (2000). He and his wife Doreen have achieved sufficient maturity to become grandparents. He would play more golf if he had more time and money and if Doreen didn't mock it as a silly little game.


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