Theology and Civil Society: A Proposal for Ecumenical Inquiry

by Lewis S. Mudge

Lewis S. Mudge, Ph.D., is Professor of Systematic Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.  He was a Rhodes Scholar in Theology at Oxford and received his Ph.D. from Pinceton University in Religious Studies.   He edited Paul Ricouer’s Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Fortress, 1980), and with James Poling edited Formation and Reflection: The Promise of Practical Theology (Fortress, 1987).  His most recent books are  The Sense of a People: Toward a Church for the Human Future (Trinity, 1992) and The Church as Moral Community: Ecclesiology and Ethics in Ecumenical Debate (Continuum, New York, 1998).

This article was written for Religion Online March 3, 1998.


What roles should Christian churches now play in the dialogue about democratic participation, discursive civility, and moral responsibility now emerging in diverse political cultures across the globe? The Christian vision of the people of God, understood as an inclusive company of human beings transcending the borders of churches and other religious institutions, offers a model whose intellectual reach and cogency is enhanced when it is allowed to underlie and transform our whole notion of what “communicative action” between human beings and human communities can mean.

What roles should Christian churches now play in the dialogue about democratic participation, discursive civility, and moral responsibility now emerging in diverse political cultures across the globe? American students of religion in society, including growing numbers of "good society" researchers, are discovering that they have international colleagues who bring fresh historical experiences and philosophical assumptions to the table. The churches have been variously involved in the difficult births of fledgling civic republics in Russia and Eastern Europe, in controversial initiatives toward political cooperation among forming the just-launched racially inclusive democracy in South Africa, and in varied efforts to reassert the popular will in Asian nations. If ideological obstacles can be overcome, discussion of these matters between the Northern and Southern hemispheres could soon be within reach as well. Western traditions of the role of religion in civil society need to be critically reconsidered in a new historical moment and in a greatly enlarged conversation.

Men and women in the street are beginning to sense the sorts of issues we are dealing with. Democracy needs not only appropriate political institutions but also fundamental moral convictions : "habits of the heart" which in this age cannot he taken for granted. It mews that we all--religious and secular persons alike--need to find effective responses to the growing fragmentation and deterioration of the civil sphere. Whether we live in Moscow, New York, Karachi, Bogota or Seoul, we face issues which go to the roots of peoples' social and political self-understanding. The specific configurations of these questions differ from one place to another, but awareness is rising that genuine participatory democracy requires appropriate cultual and/or religious supports. These may or may not exist at a given time or place. One hears this insight echoed in the rhetoric of politicians, in the perorations of preachers, and in the reflections of theologians of a wide range of views.

In all this talk the fear emerges that the very existence of a civil realm, of interchange through which citizens collectively steer society's course may be threatened in our time. Culturally sustained "life worlds"--traditional ways of living--have long been "colonized" (or invaded, or occupied) by different aspects of "the system:" government bureaucracy, large-scale economic enterprise and powerful media combining to control or lives. Today the economic forces seem to have won out over other system components. The market, in all its ramifications, has so far taken over human consciousness that it supplies the only coherent metaphorical basis for public rationality. The Chicago economist Gary Becker's recent Nobel Prize honored him for developing a form of rational choice theory based on economic models as the basis for understanding all human deliberation. The "cost-benefit analysis" has become a nearly universal way of reasoning. Indeed the reasoning inherent in economic decision-making has a chilling, global, coherence not matched by any other systemic element in our common life.

In face of this growing dominance of economics over other aspects of human existence, traditional Western political categories--those which define a body politic in which the people in dialogue hammer out conclusions that express their values--need to prove their relevance all over again. Such traditions of popular political participation in serious trouble because the cultural grounds on which they have stood are beginning to come apart, to ravel out, to lose coherent purchase in our imaginations. As philip Selznick says of our so-called post-modernity, "purported unities of self, community, culture, law, art science and organization are exposed as inescapably plural, conflict-filled, dissociated." We live in a world desperate to find meaningful redefinitions of democracy, but nowhere do "the people" rule. We hear of "a new world order," and more intriguingly, of "a new theory of society." Do such ideas have substance? Where are we headed and how can theologians and ethicists most helpfully take part?

However we may eventually answer these questions, it is clearly in the interest of a wide range of persons representing many beliefs, ethnic/racial identities, and institutional affiliations to look carefully at them now. At stake could be the possibility of assembling a common assault on social incivility and fragmentation. It could be the role of churches and other religious groups, including the often dismissively maligned American "mainline" denominations and their counterparts elsewhere, to act as instigators and catalysts of a new, comprehensive, cross-cultural, international conversation about social processes and goals, on the way to reconstituting a lifeworld in which people freely express themselves and collectively work their political will.

1. the Central Challenge: Revisioning "Civil Society"

The focus of concern is democratic public discourse: how to understand it, how to practice it, how to support it, how to protect it. The most ready-to-hand sources of ideas for dealing with such questions are no doubt to be found in the centuries-long Western debate about "civil society." In most contemporary usages, this term refers to a space of civil conversation on matters of common concern--beyond the purely private sphere yet apart from the territories of market economics and state bureaucracy--which democracy needs for its flourishing. The notion of such a space for ststained civil dialogus exists today mainly as a regulative idea helping us identify sporadic instances of the phenomenon in action.Shared civil discourse does exist here and there: it happens ofter a fashion on radio talk shows, in letters to the editor, on e-mail and sometimes even in political TV commercials. But such civic conversation--if it is that--is generally too occasional and incoherent, and often too manipulated and politicized, to stand out for many people as something worth defining and protecting.

Yet few causes can be more important to our well-being. The history of this idea of public civility, its importance today, and current threats to its survival as a viable political notion, have been well set out by Adam Seligman in his recent book The Idea of Civil Society. As a politico-religious concept, this notion has the distinctive form given it by John Locke, the philosophers has the distinctive form given it by John Locke, the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the Puritans, and a few others. It is helpful for our purposes that Seligman (whose background is Jewish and seemingly secular) so strongly stresses the function of Christian religious institutions, the role of people of faith, and the influence of theological thinking in the genesis of Western civic practice. But this sort of religiousness no longer dominates our significant political arenas today, nor are Enlightenment assumptions about the rationality of public discourese as persuasive as they used to be.

Civil society, if it is to survive, needs to find some new philosophico-religious basis: a conceptuality drawing on the past, certainly, but also looking toward a very different human future. Seligman articulates the problem effectively but does not help us very much to find the solution. After careful analysis of the options, he concludes that efforts thus far to reconceptualize civil society in a post-traditional setting have foundered on the conundrum of tying cultural solidarities to human universality. Modern societies are fragmented in ways that defy any concept of universal reason and they devour the religious assumptions on which they once were based. In particular, Seligman pokes holes in the confidence of those who have looked to one or another form of Habermas's philosophy of communicative action. The same strictures would probably apply to Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen's still more recent (and enormous) book Civil Society and Political Theory, which enlists Habermasian communicative action theory for the task of retrieving a civil order. And one suspects Seligman would make a similar judgment about Alan Wolfe's Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation, a work which urges human scientists to become our new moral philosophers. Wistful about the decline of religious resources and unconvinced by efforts to construct new forms of universal reason, Seligman does not see any clear way to give civil society a contemporary conceptual form. The institutional and cultural conditions are not there: not in Jerusalem, or Budapest, or Los Angeles, three cities whose civic culture he describes in detail In a haunting final paragraph, he recalls words of William Morris from A Dream of John Ball.

I ponder all these things, how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought form comes about in spite of their defeat and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant and other men have to fight for what they mean under another name.

Such are the confusions and disappointments, not to say vulnerability to deconstruction, of all notions of progress in history. Seligman's response to Morris's words is sobering. "To accept this truth with stoicism, equanimity, and no loss of hope is the greatest contribution we can make to the future establishment of, if not civil society, then at least a more civil one.

But is that all? How is it possible to consider Seligman's conclusion with "no loss of hope?" This in itself is a religious question which ultimately asks us what we believe about the whole course of human history. It asks whether the details of our particular struggles in our particular places and times have anything to do with some larger vision. That is a question which needs first to be asked from the ground up, not from the top down. Seligman may well be too pessimistic both about the contribution of Enlightenment, kind of public rationality. The question needs to be opened again. I believe that Seligman and others underestimate the capacity of solidaristic social groups, many with religious inspiration, to seek justice both for themselves and for people other that themselves. He may also underestimate the possibility that people representing divergent interests can also, given the right conditions of trust, talk rationally with one another across cultural chasms.

Clearly, we must not take for granted that the Western notion of "civil society," as it developed largely in Britain and America from the seventeenth century onward with the close collaboration of the forebears of today's "mainline"protestant denominations, has answers for a contemporary global society. To suppose that might only mean writing as essentially pre-modern, Western, prescription for a global range of post-modern illnesses characterized by totally unexpected turns for better and for worse and facing highly uncertain prognoses. But a world order which has gone so far as ours has in recognizing cultural, ethnic, racial and ideological particularities needs somehow to turn again toward talking about the conditions of common human flourishing. We have gained important insights from our "post-Enlightenment" attention to difference, but ironically this attention has tended to shortchange less, interdependent as members of a global community. It will not do to take leave of the Enlightenment--or of the forms of religious faith that flourished alongside and nourished it--without having something better to put in their place. But this original philosophical and religious content will not serve without supplement for practical applications today. The original ideas must be filled out with new substance. The content needed can only arise now out of a dialogue of moral visions among our planet's many cultures. A discussion which for centuries has been largely European and North American now enters an international phase which both complicates it and offers new possibilities. Religious groups whose ancestors helped articulate the civil society idea in the first place now exist in diverse cultural contexts across the globe. Without seeking to dominate the conversation, they may make an indispensable contribution to its outcome.

2. New Social Phenomena and Practical Responses

Today's rhetoric has us seeking "a new theory of society." We need both to consider the kinds of social phenomena that are driving us to think such thoughts, and the many practical initiatives on the ground designed to address them. We need to ask whether reinterpreted religious traditions in combination with new understandings of social reasoning processes might open possibilities not so far seen.

Myriad popular political and social movements ranging from right to left across the political spectrum now emerge of the public stage, More than the musings of philosophers and theologians, these initiatives make the civil society question thematic in our time. There are international movements like Amnesty International, Oxfam and World Vision which imply visions of coverantal ties between human beings across lines of nation, culture, class, race, and gender. There are movements national in scope and of diverse political tendency such as the American organizations Sane/Freeze, Common Cause, People for the American Way, the Good Society group, feminist groups and communitarian groups of various kinds, Outside America there are many other initiatives, likewise shaped by their particular circumstances and goals. We can point to the polish democratic opposition which led to the advent of the Solidarity movement, to the discourse generated by the "Second Left" in France in the mid-1970's and afterward, to thinking of the originally West German "Greens," to the forces that have led the transformation from authoritarian regimes to fragile democracies in Latin America, to the complex network of organizations behind the fall of state socialism in Eastern Europe. In Korea the "Minjung" or people's movement seeks theological in character. The list could go on.

Organized thinking about such matters has become a growth industry in itself. Conferences bringing representatives of religious communions together with other concerned groups--foundations, think tanks, social scientists, ethicists--dot the landscapes of developed nations and occasionally others as well. The lay academies associated with the Germans churches have become important centers for dialogue of this kind. A multitude of local programs, differing according to the national cultures and social systems in which they sparing up, struggle to improve public education, deliver medical care, reduce crime, and enhance economic opportunity. These strive to make themselves known in the media, file numerous grant applications, and recruit support from exitiong religious grant applications, and recruit support from existing religious bodies and other organizations. Most important of all perhaps, are national and international debates which in effect, redefine our covenantal social ties. The lengthy wrangles over the Law of the Sea and the successive rounds of negotiation related to the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade illustrate the dimensions of civility at the global level. In America, the health care debate is the most significant at the moment of writing. In Europe people are asking how national self-determination and European unity go together in face of such issues as the burden versus economic advantage of guest-workers and refugees. In the former Soviet Union the question is democratic reform versus neo-fascism in the midst of an anarcho-capitalism lurching toward possible economic collapse.

It is too soon to tell whether there can emerge out of all this ferment a body of coherent political insights, and whether these insights will be a replay of familiar themes or have distinctly "post-modern" characteristics. Both the descriptive terminology and vocabulary-in-use in new social movements count in trying to grasp what is going on, yet they are not enough. Important also are the background assumptions, the unexamined or unspoken philosophical presuppositions, of all this effort on society's behalf. American political philosophers would classify many of the initiatives described as "communitarian," in several senses of the word. Yet this term is only one of many. One hears also of efforts to induce the emergence of a mew "civic culture," and of hopes for a civic "change of heart" among many who are tired of the fragmentations and contention of our common lives.

Religious groups are significantly, but not yet massively, involved in this range of social initiatives. Much is at stake for them. In some cases they have had no alternative but to be involved. The full story of the role of the churches in the fall of state socialism in several Eastern European countries is not yet well-known in the West. The World Council of Churches has full documentation. The same may be said for the role of the churches in the liberation of South Africa. The general religiousness of that nation, so different in cultural character from that in North America, has contributed both to a measure of forgiveness and mutual trust within a highly plural body politic, These attitudes to be sure are both flawed and fragile, but they have made a difference.

In Western Europe and North America matters are more complex in the sense that the issues multiply and religious forces are divided, But just as much is at stake. I shall argue not only that the civil society movement needs the involvement of religious communions in general but that groups representing the weakened, dispirited and confused religious "mainline," by taking a distinctive critical and constructive role among these civic-cultural initiatives, might begin to rediscover both their traditions and their reasons for continuing to exist in the late twentieth century.

3. The Distinctive Situation in North America

It already obvious that while I seek a global understanding I write from a distinctly North American standpoint. My thoughts about religion and civil society clearly take their rise from that context. This is as it should be. There is no such thing as "the view from nowhere." The writer's social location is important to the analysis that follows.

What are we to say of the possible role of American religious bodies in the larger discussion? On the one hand, much of the recent thinking and experimentation with regard to civil society has been North American, and one needs to consider the contribution to global understanding that can come from that source. But on the other hand, it is my conviction that the United States cannot solve its own social problems, let alone make a contribution to the resolution of civil society issues elsewhere, by thinking largely in isolation from human beings in other polities and cultures.

Americans have indeed sometimes thought and written as if the whole question of civil society and democracy belonged to them exclusively, or at least as if insight on this subject had reached its apogee in the USA. The most advanced political technology on earth, some have assumed, does not need to study that which is more primitive. But such attitudes are increasingly rare. We can learn from Europe, Africa and Asia, and no doubt too from other places. While the new South African constitution is partly modelled on our own, for example, it will undergo trials from which we can, if we are wise, learn a great deal, Examples of such potential learning could be multiplied.

The American scene as such is important for the particular form our history has given the question of religious traditions and the civil order. The American preoccupation with "church and state" issues in some ways narrows our imagination of the range of possibilities. Yet unquestionably the accommodation achievement. The First Amendment is still in place, as is Jefferson's imaginative (and misleading) language about a "wall between church and state." We tend to forget that the framers of the first Amendment wanted to protect the churches from the government, not the other way around.

Religious conceptions having to do with a providential ordering of events and the moral texture of human community were undoubtedly at one time a dominant frame of reference for American civil discourse. The literature of that lost world needs to be consulted for insights of potential value today. But the problems we face today are distinctively different, and need new styles of reflective as well as action-oriented thinking. American society has changed radically from what ist was a generation ago, and with that change have come new circumstances and challenges for churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith communities. Steven Carter urges us to note that the intellectual and media elites occupying our power centers today know they tend to trivialize. The ever before, and what they know they tend to trivialize. The spiritual energies people hear most about are burgeoning on the peripheries of power. Formerly largely outside but now pressing into the public arena, they ally themselves both with the aspirations of excluded groups and the ambitions of the political right. These forces tend to be divisive rather than integrating in their total impact, destructive of civility rather than supporting it.

We now need an understanding of our American secularity which will let our manu religious traditions of values and ends play a mew role in maintaining the common life the Constitution was designed to reflect and protect. Seeking a new social civility in a post-modern age, we need to think in fresh ways both about the nature of reasoning in the public sphere and about the ways specific traditions of life can contribute to that reasoning. What should that fresh thinking by, and about, religious institutions in the public sphere be like?

Sheldon Wolin's argument about what has happened in America remains persuasive. The vision of social civility bequeathed us by the Enlightenment with the collaboration of religious institutions extended classical Greek and Roman concepts of democracy from an aristocracy to the life of the people, giving us a truly participatory democracy in the early years of the republic. At least in theory, the people became sovereign, They could act on their own behalf. The people could choose to restructure political life though either reform or revolution. They could be the founders of their own polity and constitution. But concurrently in nuce and eventually massively, centrist, elitist, great-power competitors competitiors to people-power arose and flourished in various forms: robber-baron enterprises grew into modern corporations, a federal government that had discovered how to fight a civil war soon found new fields for the exercise of authority and control Concentrations of power in the political and economic spheres began to deprive the people of genuine political participation while keeping them in the illusion that they still possessed it. Genuine people-politics and a growingly centralized political economy of world power lived side by side in America until after World War II, when the people without realizing it, had imposed on them a final revision of the original social contract and accepted a passive a-political or anti-political form of citizenship which left them no important role, no understanding of what had happened, and with no language for formulating such an understanding.

This helps to explain some of the discomfiture of the religious "mainline." Members of these religious bodies today are children of the people who, coming to majority after World War II, finally lost the capacity as citizens to be genuine political actors in America. They had been at least minor movers and shakers in their communities, people who felt some responsibility for what went on around them largely because of a match between the moral teachings they grew up on in church and the possibilities inherent in their middle-class social roles. They were school principals, merchants, small-town lawyers and doctor, athletic coaches, car dealers, insurance agents, and so on. They were able for a long time--perhaps for their whole lives--to believe that their moral behavior made a difference, that what they stood for could count. The religious institutions which formed such people and continued to claim their loyalty took public responsibility in this sense for granted, The churches preached a gospel which supported responsible lives without needing to draw their members deeply into esoteric spiritual disciplines or arcane theological issues. The public world which mainline churches supported in this way was itself seen as a sphere of moral values in which people could act out the doctrines of secular vocation they had been taught. When this world began to become more complex, pluralistic and morally ambiguous and it also became clear that influences other than those which could easily be understood on Main Street decided the course of events, both the old teachings and the institutions that taught them began to seem less relevant.

Simultaneously the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants among these "mainline" groups were suffering cultural and economic eclipse on other fronts as "minority" Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, and persons of no religious affiliation improved their relative positions in the society. The result has been disillusionment and confusion to this day. Unwilling to face, let alone respond creatively to, their loss of establishment status, the laity of the religious mainline became ineffective, disorganized, dispirited, and prone to diversionary infighting that weakened them still further. There began to be the sense that events could be influenced only by large-scale, remote economic or governmental forces, or by extreme political initiatives on the right or on the left. Gone was any sense of significant moral agency in the middle class.

The response of religious leadership (denominational officials, seminary professors, many parish clergy)to all these social changes was quite otherwise. While the laity were confused by their loss of significant social roles, they by and large maintained their support of the system that had disempowered them. The leadership, by contrast, repudiated for theological and moral reasons much of the emerging mass culture, the economic system, and many of the works--particularly military adventures--of the system's political leaders. The task of maintaining prophetically critical positions over against such a society seemed much more important than ecclesiastical institution-maintenance. Some religious leaders took up the critical stance they desired by moving moderately to the right and others by moving somewhat to the left. These moves were hardly extreme, but they could appear so to embattled and confused laypersons. On the moderate right emerged strategies that amounted to a withdrawal from typical lay concerns: leaders busied themselves with church-union dialogues on esoteric themes, the cultivation of liturgical renewal, evangelism as the promotion of personal piety, and tradition-maintenance that could look like theological antiquarianism On them moderate left leaders sought involvement in social initiatives which seemed to bypass lay concerns for more adventurous fields of engagement: support at home for civil rights and anti-war movements, ecumenical efforts to combat racism in Africa, and a generally more "liberal" (in the popular sense of the word) stand on a side range of issues. Many religious leaders and thinkers combined these ostensibly rightward and leftward commitments in creative ways.

Consider the potential here for disillusionment and misunderstanding. Vast numbers of laypeople confronted a public world in which they no longer felt able to be significant moral agents, simultaneously they found their denominations' leadership preoccupied either with what looked like one form or another of left-leaning ideology or well-meaning but out-of-touch tradition-maintenance, or both. Either way, embattled religious leaders and thinkers seemed to have retreated from or bypassed the task of supporting the secular vocations of their laity. They appeared to have abdicated the task of provisioning their people spiritually in this public world, a world the people continued confusedly to occupy, with diminished influence, in order to make a living. No wonder many formerly mainline laypersons migrated into forms of evangelicalism willing to simplify traditional teachings and at the same time promote them by means seemingly consonant with a market-oriented secular world.

What hope is there that this still very large but mostly confused and silent religious center of the American population may yet rouse itself and make a contribution to public civility worthy of what it made in the past? Such a possibility today is clouded by numerous practical difficulties. Most important are the preoccupations of the putative discussion partners: the confused search for theological self-understanding, cultural self-definition, institutional interest, group survival, and the usual political infighting. The forces that could join to promote a restoration of civility and moral responsibility in America are as fragmented as the country itself is. We dare not ignore, either, the misunderstandings and phobias, many of which religious people internalize from portrayals of themselves in the media, which inhibit the full contribution of religious insights in the dialogue about public needs.

Yet I argue that participation in initiatives to restore a civil society in America, with appropriate reflective self-understandings, could meet the needs and activate the worldly spirituality of precisely those millions of middle-of-the-road citizens looking for the sorts of moral meanings, the kinds of religious roots, these communities used to represent and in some ways still do. This American religious center is a sleeping giant, an immense resource, whose activation could serve the interests of the religious communities and of the body politic at the same time.

4. How Do We Begin to Address These Issues Theologically?

This essay cannot deal with all these questions directly. We must hold them in mind as background to the main task, which is to explore the interaction of theologians and human scientists as they seek to formulate a new concept of civil society which can draw traditioned communities and other human associations into a larger covenantal bond. Any such vision will need to draw both upon classical politico-religious conceptions and upon religious insights preserved in the traditioned communities concerned, while responding to the new challenges which beset humanity on this planet.

I write not only as one engaged in the wider debate but also as a theologian of one of the communions I hope to see involved in this effort. I Have already sketched a perspective which seems to me to offer some leads for this project. In a recent book, I called for an ecclesiology built around the conviction that God is gathering the whole human race toward unity and that the calling of Christian churches--and of members of other religious groups in their own ways--is to be present in the world as signs, sacraments and instruments of that ultimate human conversation, that comprehensive acted-out coherence of human meanings. Such a calling, rightly understood, could be energizing for Christian denominations seeking new identity and purpose. Far from dissipating the religious traditions concerned or blunting their impact, such a calling can only be pursued through a retrieval of theological specificity: by seeking resources for "living distinctively traditioned lives for the sake of the whole of human life.

I also want to make my contribution to the social and political theory needed for effective pursuit of this task. Religious bodies need their own kinds of sophistication in such matters. They also need to be in conversation with those who work professionally to understand what is going on in our society: above all, those who pursue human science disciplines with philosophical responsibility. The heart of my own approach to human science has both religious and philosophical roots. I believe that social concepts and their use in practical philosophical root. I believe that social concepts and their use in practical political reasoning always have beginnings in culturally maintained symbols and metaphors. If it is true that symbols give rise to thought, then social thinking which has come loose from its cultural origins will eventually become thin and distorted, often with disastrous practical results. So much that is wrong with contemporary Western society--radical individualism, consumerism, the glorification of choice for its own sake--represents the debased enactment of originally rich religious images and philosophical ideas. Unless these understandings can be recovered and shared alongside those of the new cultures among us, we will continue to live in a fragmented and brittle society. There will be no moral content to hold open social space for the civility we need.

It would seem that no thought-through secular substitute for the philosophical and religious convictions which once helped give society a reliable fabric of civility has as yet won widespread support. It may be that none has even succeeded as a self-standing philosophical argument. This matter still needs careful study. But it is probably safe to say that there is as yet no coherent, post-religious, sense of shared purpose in the public sphere. This religious, sense of shared purpose in the public sphere. This situation, I believe, is not an invitation for theologians to dance on the grave of Enlightenment though. That way is darkness and not light. It is an invitation to reenter the public dialogue constructively. Much thought is needed to clarify how this ought to be done.

The heart of the problem, I think, lies in grounding the possibility of trust between human beings over chasms between cultures and divergent interests. Adam Seligman says this repeatedly, but H. Richard Niebuhr said it first and said it better. How does trust expand from its primary location in face-to-face relationships, in conditions of practical solidarity, to include others with whom we need to be related less in terms of love and more in terms of justice? Habermas claims to have overcome the antinomy of solidarity and universality in his theory of communitcative action. But it is doubtful whether that theory in itself has accoplished this . Seligman signals his doubts at both the theoretical and practical levels. These objections will need to be answered in the proper place.

I claim that the Christian vision of the people of God, understood as an inclusive company of human beings transcending the borders of churches and other religious institutions, offers a better model: one whose intellectual reach and cogency is enhanced when it is allowed to underlie and transform our whole notion of what "communicative action" between human beings and human communities can mean. The notion of the people, i.e.Minjung, and of small-scale movements and initiatives which represent them, is from the Christian point of view partly a socio-ecclesial vision in the sense of a theological appraisal of the church as social reality in the larger body politic, and partly eschatology in the sense of a vision of the ends worked out within, and ends which extend beyond, human history.

But how is such content to be recovered in societies which now lack ideational centers? I reject the notion of social conquest or reconquest by any religious group, including my own. Modern conditions have undercut the religious ideas which in the long course of historical development made those conditions possible. Religious groups, however, can continue to exist in our pluralist societies as "signs," or even "sacraments" of the social visions they embody. It is not enough to remind us that such resources are still to be found in books. Our task will not be accomplished merely in academic seminars. Actual social forces must be marshalled to effect the recovery. In every social initiative or program there are background assumptions, concepts not always well-articulate but usually taken for granted. These can be signified, by being acted out, by particular religious groups on the scene. Ccollective decisions themselves are always theory-laden and subject to a variety of interpretations. The notion of civil society itself is such a multivalent concept. I believe that its presence as a presupposition of efforts to generate a new civic culture can be signified and lived sacramentally in a variety of ways by religious groups involved in the dialogue.

Metaphors and visions may make the point best of all. Religious groups, expecially if they include signigicant cultural diversity within themselves, can be islands of civility, settings where, as Richard Mouw says, democratic interchange can be modelled, kept alive for the larger body politic. I sometimes think of these religio-civic enclaves as skin grafts which doctors working in burn units hope will "take" and grow. What might be involved if religious communities were to cooperate with others of good will to broker enclaves of spiritual civility, dialogical skin grafts in our ravaged neighborhoods of hate speech, misunderstanding and mistrust, provisional gatherings of our many persuasion, that could model a search for the good in common?

5. What Needs to Be Done: An Overview

The metaphor just suggested could launch us on a long-term quest. As theologians and pastors we need to press toward formulating and articulating the ideas needed for the support of practical tasks: in this case the task of providing skin-grafts of civility for ravaged human societies. Practical strategies always rest on implicit or explicit intellectual work. Intellectual work generally leads to new practical strategies. We must pursue the needed understanding, furnishing the discussion with historical of sociological and philosophical journey through civil society debate. Our voyage can show how Christians can take a lively part in this debate with good theological conscience and contribute substantially to it in the process.

I do not yet know how (or indeed if) my image will translate into theological and social concepts, and how these concepts will illumine the actual strategies churches might be able to conceive and enact in their situations. I am simply not ready at this time to propose ready-made answers. That is just as well, I think. Proposals made "cold, " so to speak, often invite criticism because people have not worked together from where they are to where we want to be. This article has been designed to formulate some common questions I propose that we fine-tune the questions first, and then work together in the long term to find the answers that fit our various local and national situations.

This theological approach could turn out to resemble what the American legal scholar Ronald Dworkin calls "philosophy from them inside out." We need to argue from specific situations to equally specific conclusions. But we must not think we will finish the journey today or tomorrow. On the way we will inevitably discuss certain issues in theology, ethics, sociology, social philosophy, cogency to touch on them. Although we will sometimes engage technical philosophical questions, we must begin with and remain focused upon issues of fundamental human importance. We do not need to construct a qeneral theory of civil society in the context of contemporary political philosophy: that could lead to an endless discussion of different positions and the myriad attempts in the with the practical question of the role of Christian communities in attempts to refurbish, or newly establish, participatory democratic societies across the globe. We need then to ask what larger issues need to be raised in order to illumine what is involved in this practical concern.

We might look first at the actual situation of our civil polities on the ground, at diagnoses of our global political situation coming from different cultural standpoints, and at the new social and political movements springing up to meet our social ills. We coould examine the relevance to these needs of Western "civil society" thinking, in its history and in the current state of the question Along the way we should consider the condition of our churches and their social thinking the degree of openness of contemporary political and social philosophy to religious life-views, the possibility of joining religious and social thinking in a modified theory of communicative action, and the possibility of testing this combination in relation to certain moral questions of public import. In the end, we need to reach a social vision frankly theological in character, a vision of the Beloved Community.

The first part of our work, if we are to be realistic, should be in the "religious studies" as well as the theological mode. That is, we must try to see ourselves "objectively" (meaning as others see us), looking at the commitments and kinds of thinking found in our church groups as inwardly motivating factors and as ingredients in the reality we present to the world. At the same time, we must be bold to press human-science categories to their philosophical foundations, asking how far the underlying assumptions of these fields permit adequate understanding of religious formulations and motivations.

But in the end we must try to think together in the mode of a public theology: that is, a form of discourse which uses symbols of ultimacy but also seeks publicly negotiable warrants for its assertions. We must do this theological work with all the philosophical rigor we can bring to bear on it. At the same time, we will work from the standpoint of our own religious tradition of protestant Christianity, understood both in its own history and in its openings to other religious traditions. There must be in our work a confessional element which is not merely theological in the public sense but communal and personal, Our ultimate commitments are powerful. It is imperative that they be made explicit.

Ronald Dworkin writes of "undiscovered planets" whose gravity moves the orbits of the known planets this way or that. So it is with presuppositions so basic to our being that they move us argumentatively in one direction or another. It is my view that all human beings come to the realm of human civility with ultimate assumptions about the purposes and ends that run through human history. Civil society is a space of meeting for the acted-out consequences of such assumptions. Every writer on this subject needs to disclose his or her most basic concerns. They are present, either incognito or recognized as such. each time he or she sets pen to paper.

The element of trust which is central to civil discourse has unavoidable theological dimensions. The recovery and extension of a civil society based on well-grounded, justified, trust is as much a religious quest as it is a civic one. There is a sacred quality in the vision of humanity as a moral order in which human beings are fulfilled in active public responsibility. This, I take it it, is the heart of Hannah Arendt's personal commitment underlying The Human Condition. I think it is a religious one. Given appropriate caveats in the formulation, I do not think she would have disagreed.

But there is more to this sacredness than Arendt saw. The discourse of the human species is a field of self-reflective symbolization in which the universe comes to at least a limited awareness of itself. The inclusive well-being of the human race, its realization of the good-in-common, is therefore the needed moral ground of this self-consciousness coming-to-be within history. The involvement of human beings in history's ultimate ends is requisite to the realization of this good, which is in turn requisite to our limited but real awareness of our human implication in Being. Democracy, then, has theological purposes. The emergence of a people in whose awareness appears some sense of God's reign is needed if there is also to be a collective symbolization of Truth. To grasp the ultimate meaning of civil discourse we need also to posit One who stands as Partner within the dialogue and also beyond it: an Interlocutor now and at the end of time.

San Francisco Theological Seminary

San Anselmo, California

September, 1994

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