A path away from Kant?

Koyzis’ provocative thesis on authority and liberty.

Assumed Audience: Little-o’ orthodox Christians interested in political theology, or others curious about what a healthier (because more robustly!) Christian political theology might look like.

In what has to be one of the more daring moves I’ve come across in years and years, Koyzis drops this thought in his discussion of the plan for the book:

…authority is resident in an office given us at creation. Indeed, when we encounter authority, we encounter nothing less than the image of God, which always points beyond itself. The reality of this office is something firmly anchored in our common human experience but all too frequently denied by those attempting to grasp that experience theoretically. As we will discover in chapter 5, office is not a static position but a commission, an assignment, or a calling to which a proper response on our part is expected. It is other-oriented in that it is focused on service to God and to our fellow human beings, generally within a particular communal context. Nevertheless, although we often think of such offices as the presidency or chairmanship as loci of authority, we can also apply the notion of authoritative office to our very status as human beings, which the Christian tradition describes as the imago Dei, or image of God. Thus much of what the post-Kantian ethical tradition conceives of as respect for human rights in the face of external authority must rather be seen as respect for nothing less than an authoritative office resident in the human person as person. Where political authorities become tyrannical and impinge on what we would ordinarily think of as individual freedom, we might alternatively see this as a clash of authoritative offices, with one usurping responsibilities properly belonging to the other.

 — David T. Koyzis, We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God, p. 8

When I first read this, it had the force of a mental triple take:

  1. Standard reading mode.
  2. Wait, what? That can’t be right, can it?
  3. Huh. I think… that is absolutely correct.

It’s early pages yet, but the idea is striking: not simply that we’ve been getting it wrong with liberalism, but quite specifically: that the key mistake of liberalism is to ground all our ideals in liberty as such rather than to see individual liberties as a proper response to the authority of a human person qua human person: that abridgements of liberties are abridgements not because liberty is itself the supreme ideal but because it is violating another’s rightful authority over her own person (an authority that itself stands under the authority of God the creator).

Every prior critical treatment of liberalism I’ve read has had a fundamental failure: it had no answer for why we should see individual liberties as goods worth preserving. Koyzis, it seems, does:

Finally, of course, it should be noted that the unique place of the individual and her personal authority over the conduct of her own life does not stand over against this pluriformity [of other legitimate authorities] but must instead be seen as very much a part of it. In a highly differentiated society personal authority will have come into its own more than in a less differentiated one, along with the various distortions that accompany any legitimate development in human history. Such distortions, we would argue, are not reasons for repealing this personal authority and re-enclosing her within a less differentiated communal structure. The fact that Joanna may have chosen to marry a physically attractive man who nevertheless lacks personal integrity is not an argument for reinstituting parentally-arranged marriages. That consumers keep the pornography business going is no ground for abolishing the market. A monistic tribalism” is no answer to the abuses of the various pluriform loci of authority. Rather each abuse must be addressed on its own terms and in ways appropriate to the type of authority at issue.

 — ibid., pp. 15 – 16

That is: though liberalism has mistaken the grounds for its expansion of individual human liberties, it was in many cases not wrong to expand those liberties — in Koyzis’ terms, to differentiate many different kinds of authorities, including those of the individual herself.

Color me deeply, deeply intrigued.