Saturday, November 3, 2012

Towards a Distributist principle of Separation of Interdependent Concerns, or Multidimensional Subsidiarity

One thing that sometimes annoys me as a Heathen and a Distributist is that because Distributism arose from within the English Catholic tradition, some people think Distributists must support Catholicism or at least a religion like it (Orthodox Christianity and the like).  The argument then is that a state must support a policy of discouraging a specific act not because of identifiable social harms but rather because such an act is sinful.  Because I don't accept the Christian view of sin, I cannot agree.  I do however agree that many people find such a view useful and I don't think they should be denied this.

I see society not as a series of concentric circles starting with the individual, then family, then community, then state, but rather as a multidimensional tapestry, woven in different directions, with each of us as a thread weaving in and out around the others.

I recognize that this post breaks with Distributist tradition in important ways.  Many Distributists would like to see the polis closely fused with religion and proponents of this approach rightly point to the fact that most communities in fact are highly integrated in these areas, but large territorial units do need to accommodate diversity, and this is nothing new.  The Roman Empire was very pluralistic (unless, like the Jews and Christians, you refused to participate in the pagan traditions around the military and therefore would not assist with the defence of the state), as was the Archaemenid  Empire --- Cyrus is mentioned in Isaiah as something like a Messiah for allowing the Jews to return home, but Cyrus was a worshipper of Marduk and conquered Babylon using religious politics as his primary strategy, and those who followed him were mostly Zoroastrians.

Religious pluralism is thus at least possible even going along ancient models.  The specific place of that pluralism though is not well agreed upon in Distributist thought.  I have decided to offer my own proposal then, which looks at social context as being several interdependent "dimensions" each depending on and pervading the others.  This is thus not so much about separation of church and state as it is interdependence of religious and public order, and of the institutions which support them.  The nature of that interdependence may need some further discussion to flesh out however.

In the development of a response to this issue, I came to the view that there was a larger principle at stake, namely that different social spheres required different organizational dimensions to address, and that the institutions that populate and support these spheres have duties to all the others.  Thus rather than the principle of separation of church and state in liberal philosophy, I end up with the idea that the church, state, guilds, families, etc. should remain generally neutral towards the other players in the other dimensions but support the functions of the other dimensions as they can.  Church and state are then interdependent rather than independent and each has a duty to the other.

Additionally the occasional calls for moralizing of the state I think miss important lessons from the Middle Ages and how the hegemony of the Catholic Church set up the very power struggles that lead to the Reformation.  Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a delicate dance of power between kings and churchmen, often over money, sometimes with temporary victories on each side.   This delicate dance of power can perhaps be seen to be the source of the Reformation, where the ideas of Martin Luther became a staff with which nobles and kings could beat the church with.  Understanding the Reformation in terms of this struggle goes a long way towards understanding both why it was successful primarily in areas less subject to Roman acculturation, and why many other laws accompanied the Reformation, such as bans on use of certain herbs in brewing beer (under rhetoric almost identical to the modern "war on drugs" no less).

I believe instead that it is possible to recognize that human flourishing is best handled, not by dividing social contexts into mutually exclusive spheres like we often do in modern society, but by recognizing that different aspects of human flourishing require different organizations to support them, and that these organizations are as interdependent in society as they aspects of human life are in the individual.  What arises from this is a very different notion of separation of church and state than we are used to.

Before I get into this, I expect that addressing social functions of religious groups will certainly ruffle feathers.  I want to note that my thoughts there are largely tentative and that it is hoped that further discussions particularly with people who disagree with me, will help us all arrive at greater truth.

In my view, the goal of a pluralistic society can no longer be thrown away, nor should it be.  Distributism is already making inroads into Neopagan and other non-Christian religious groups for the same reasons that Catholics adopt it, but where there is a search for roots with hands in the soil, there is also possibility of conflict over issues ranging from abortion to animal sacrifice.  In a pluralistic society,  some truce must be made.  The Catholic will not wish to participate in a pagan animal sacrifice, and the pagan household will not wish to be forced to baptise their children.[1]

The Importance of Social Context

One central theme of distributism is the recognition of the basic anthropological truth that humans are largely defined by social context and that we best grow when we recognize we are not isolated individuals but rather parts of larger units.  This isn't to say that the individual isn't important.  In fact social contexts change over time in part because of the actions of individuals, but social context nourishes us, and when we are all alone in a crowd, we suffer.  One point I am adding here is that government, alone, cannot create all aspects of social context, nor is it simply the household writ large.  Many aspects of the household must be supported by non-government organizations acting with the support of the local government.

Of course people are imaginative and inventive.  One of Victor Turner's major contributions to anthropology was the way in which the people he studied (the Ndembo tribe in Africa) tended to re-purpose religious rituals, so it is not at all true that individualism isn't an aspect.[2]  It is just that the individual and the social context are both engaged in an eternal dance, each forming the other, and, we hope, nourishing the other.

In the spirit of addressing this social context, let's now turn our attention to fundamental social institutions.  Each of these institutions is necessarily a cultural institution.  One thing I would like to emphasize is that just as we might expect that there would be multiple trade guilds in a state, so too we should expect there may be many different religious communities.  In the interest of proper human flourishing, the government should not take sides in conflicts between them.

The different spheres are then less independent than interdependent, and each sphere has duties to the others.   I will look at the following spheres and their social organizations here:

  1. Family life, organized into household
  2. Commercial life, centered around guilds or other organizations
  3. Religious life, organized into religious groups
  4. Public order, organized by the state
It is assumed that subsidiarity applies to all levels.  The extended family applies subsidiarity to households, and those to individuals.  Each sphere has duties to the other spheres including enforcing subsidiarity appropriately.  Of course significant abuses by smaller entities can mean larger entities may eventually have to take over (one example in modern history might be federal anti-discrimination statutes as a reaction to state-enforced segregation).

Each of these dimensions is a cultural dimension and it is fully dependent on the others, and must therefore consciously support the others.

The Function of the Household and Family

The household is the bedrock institution of any society.  Children are begotten and raised in a household.   The household is the primary force in transmitting culture on to the children and it is the primary influence in providing social context to children.  In our modern world we have many forms of households, as has been the case forever.  Some households will have one parent, and some two, for example, and whether the loss of one parent was due to divorce or death is perhaps secondary to the question of social support for the household itself.

I want to save questions like divorce or abortion for future posts, but I will note here that these are questions which have tremendous importance for households generally, as do issues of reproductive responsibility. (As a Heathen I am reasonably sure that my stances on issues like divorce or abortion will not be welcome to Catholics or Orthodox Christians, but I hope they will be thought-provoking.)

The household has may be seen as the meeting point of all dimensions of society, but in actuality the most local level of any other dimension meets all the others as well.  Thus they serve multiple purposes towards every other dimension.

Households support the economic sphere in numerous ways including home-based businesses, members of the household holding or working other businesses outside the home, and choices in purchasing and consuming economic goods.  One key challenge today is to bring consciousness today to such household choices.

Households support the state through their enculturing role in raising children, and encouraging good citizenship on the part of members, through contributing (through taxes) to the maintenance of public goods, through participation in bodies of government, through being available to defend the state when attacked and in numerous other ways.

Households support religious groups through participation and economic donation, but more important I think is the capacity of households to take part in discussing religious tradition, asking questions, challenging answers at times, and thus ensuring a greater understanding of that tradition when enculturing children into it.  There are of course many other ways that household support religious groups.

(I have decided to skip the guild in this discussion because this area needs additional thought regarding how to better integrate into at least a transitional approach.)

The Function of the Religious Community or Church

For the purpose of this discussion, I will be talking only about the social benefits of religion.  The spiritual benefits are the source of these social benefits, but for this discussion this is not relevant.

Religious community is important for a human sense of place for many reasons, and consequently it nourishes the family, trade sphere, and state.  Religion is the fundamental basis for the way people think about the order of life and hence every other aspect of life, from the family to commerce to the state.  Faith, not belief, orders everything, and tradition orders faith.

Religions provide two components necessary for a meaningful life: rite and mythos.  Everyone has at least some of these and we order our lives around them.[3]

Both rites and mythoi provide narratives deeply steeped in human life and spiritual experience, which provide patterns for us to live in our life.  The rites and mythoi provide an internal sense of order and this provides order not only for the individual but the family, the business, and the state.

In order to do its job properly, the religion needs relative independence from the sphere of public order.  It must be at least partially detached from mere worldly concerns.  The state may defer to the religious group on matters like marriage, but the religious group must be free to conduct rituals largely free from the interference of the state.

This is not to say that religious freedom is a blank check.  Where religious practices threaten the ability to live together as a community, it may need to be abridged.  Certainly one cannot allow one group to kidnap children of another group for human sacrifice or as brides or bridegrooms of their religious leaders, but a mere sense by one group that a practice is wrong is not enough to interfere with it.

Traditionally religious groups have typically provided additional support structures to families as well.  Churches have fed the poor, grown food for the poor, arranged help for those who need it, and so forth.  Such support structures have ranged from the seasonal Things in pagan Scandinavia to the Catholic Worker houses and farms.  Thus religious groups not only order life but support and protect the family household.

Religious groups have a general obligation to support the family and the state, and to protect both from the other.  They facilitate commerce by providing additional forums for social discussion.   Religious organizations thus provide a philosophical, personal, and experiential ordering of all spheres of life which are not found directly in the other dimensions.  Public order is not personal order, and not an order for life.

The Function of the State

The state exists to provide public order, and to prevent any single entity in any other sphere from becoming too big or powerful.

Cicero said that the basis of the law is that there are certain requirements for us to live together in cities.[4]  This largely echoes Aristotle, who places the household at the center, and this is a path Cicero continues in his discussion of turning in family members for crimes.[5]

The state must take over at least the following concerns:

  1. Encouraging just distribution of property, and ensuring that no other entity in other dimensions becomes too large or powerful
  2. Protecting property rights of the household and members of the household from violence by other households
  3. Running those pieces of public infrastructure which otherwise would require monopolies odious to the Distributist social order.  This is a key difference between libertarianism with its religious faith in business and Distributism with its emphasis on community.
 The responsibility of the state doesn't end there. The purpose of the state is to nourish and provide proper ordering for the other dimensions of society as entities in those areas interact with themselves.  Business deals occur as matters of public order.  In essence the state does everything needed to ensure the religious groups, the families, the guilds, the small businesses, etc. prosper and that the larger businesses do not get so powerful so as to threaten or distort the structure of society.

Cross-Dimensional Concerns of Subsidiarity

A state which is too large, or a trade guild which is too powerful, or a great aristocratic family can all threaten the social order.  One important aspect of subsidiarity is the management of power and responsibility and the way to ensure that actions are taken where knowledge is local. A state which is too powerful will threaten religion and the family, as we see in modern America,  A religion which is too powerful will threaten the state.  Church and state fighting the hegemony of the other lead to the possibility of total victory by one side, such as in the Reformation in Germanic Europe and the British Isles.  The large businesses too can distort the society (again see modern America for examples there).

Every dimension of society has a responsibility to push for subsidiarity in every other dimension.  Churches must push for smaller states, states must push for smaller, more intimate and personal, churches.  The megachurches of thousands of worshippers every Sunday must give way to the small congregation of perhaps a couple score of faithful.   Powerful families must be reined in, powerful businesses must be reined in.

But through this approach we can have pluralism not only as the liberals suggest, but real, deep, and vital pluralism of culture and tradition.  Our immediate social circles can be smaller but more personal, intimate, and supportive.  As the immature ecosystem contains large numbers of poorly supported plants which eventually, through succession, get replaced by smaller numbers of more productive, mutually supporting plants, so too our communities can thrive and prosper.

In the next post, I will go over my view of human flourishing from my heathen tradition and parallels in Hindu and Catholic thought.


[1]  This was required legally in most of the Middle Ages.  For example the Gragas in Iceland had significant discussion as to who was required to do a baptism and under what circumstances.  My argument is that without turning our backs on having some degree of plurality in our culture, we can no longer have such requirements.

[2] Turner, Victor.  "The Ritual Process"  See also Grimes, Ronald. "Deeply Into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage"

[3] For example, Eliade, Mircea, "Myth and Reality" and "The Myth of Eternal Return."  Also see Eliade's "The Sacred and the Profane."  The one thing  I am less than convinced by is the idea that secularists lack a sacred.  Just because one claims not to have rituals doesn't mean that in fact one in fact lacks them, as the Quakers show.  The same can be shown with myths, and I would be unsurprised if a close look at secularists wouldn't show the same patterns.

[4] Cicero, "The Republic"

[5[ Aristotle, "Politics."  In The Republic, Cicero suggests that family members should not turn eachother in for crimes because the interest of the state in strong families outweighs the interest of justice.

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