January 27, 2003

Sources of Basic Human Rights Ideas: A Christian Perspective

4:00 p.m.
University of Chicago Divinity School
Chicago, Illinois

Dr. Max StackhouseDr. Max Stackhouse
is director of the Kuyper Center for Public Theology and Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author and editor of numerous books on a wide variety of topics including most recently (with Peter Paris) a three-volume series entitled God and Globalization. His work has indeed taken him global; he has taught and lectured in places as wide-ranging as India, Germany, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hong Kong.

Other lectures in the series to be announced.

More Pew Forum events on human rights:
Sources of Human Rights: Religion’s Role in Defining Human Dignity

Jean Bethke Elshtain: We want to welcome you to this second in our series of lectures on the theme “Does Human Rights Need God?” Today, we are honored that Professor Max Stackhouse joins us to offer his rejoinder to this weighty question. He has been gracious enough to stop off in Chicago–en route from California to Princeton–to be with us tonight. Before introducing our distinguished speaker, let me just say that we are pleased to have so many fine speakers participating in this series including political philosopher and Czech Ambassador to the United States Martin Palous as well as Abdullahi An-Na’im, the renown legal scholar from Emory University. As some of you know, last fall we were fortunate to have Charles Villa-Vicencio from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission offer the first lecture in the series.

Let me also take a moment to recognize the Pew Forum Chicago staff responsible for organizing this event–Mieke Holkeboer especially as well as John Carlson and Erik Owens. Without them, this intriguing lecture series would not be possible.

Professor Max Stackhouse joins us today from Princeton Theological Seminary where he is Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Kuyper Center for Public Theology. He is author of many volumes including Covenant and Commitment: Faith, Family, and Economic Life; Public Theology and Political Economy; and important to our task today, Creeds, Society and Human Rights: A Study in Three Cultures. His research on issues and themes of globalization is particularly impressive; he is editor of Christian Ethics in a Global Era and currently working on an extensive multi-volume series God and Globalization. His personal experiences overseas are equally vast: he has taught and lectured in a host of counties including India, Germany, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. Please join me in welcoming Professor Stackhouse for his talk,”Sources of Basic Human Rights Ideas: A Christian Perspective”

StackhouseProfessor Stackhouse: More than a quarter century ago, I was invited by my church to participate in ecumenical discussions and to serve as a visiting lecturer in the theological academies of sister churches in the German Democratic Republic and in South India. I became fascinated with the way in which different ideational and social traditions treated human rights, including the interpretations of the United Nations Declaration of 1947 and its subsequent “Covenants.” Resistance to “Western” definitions of human rights were intense in the Marxist parties of Eastern Europe and, it turned out, in both the leadership of the Congress Party under Indira Gandhi in India, when she declared her “Emergency” in 1976, and in the then emerging Hindu Nationalist parties that have now issued in the current Hindu nationalist government. On the basis of these extended exposures to non-Western interpretations of human rights at that time, I engaged in a comparative study of the roots and conceptual framework that made modern human rights discourse possible. The invitation to contribute to this forum is a welcome opportunity to rethink the issues in view of new conditions.

The new conditions are probably obvious to all. Beyond the judgment against the inhumane barbarism of Naziism, that triggered the United Nations Declaration, the great struggles facing issues of human rights and pluralism of the last third of the previous century had to do with racial justice, the rising parallel movements of equal rights for women, and the worldwide movements for de-colonialization. All these took place in the context of a life and death confrontation of the “free world” with “world communism,” and the development of the idea of the “third world.” The question was whether human rights were in any sense universal, especially in view of the fact of pluralism. It is not, of course, the case that the world became pluralistic all of a sudden – it had been so for as long as we have recorded history; but the direct awareness of cultures, traditions, customs, moralities, social orders, and religions, brought to us by modern communication, transportation, urbanization and immigration made the pluralistic world more present to us.

In some ways the consensus has grown that human rights are universal, at least with regard to the issues of race and sex. Racism and sexism are widely condemned although they have not been abolished, and a number of regions are experiencing new diversities that evoke new forms of ethnic consciousness and conflict. Still, the suspicion remains that human rights in other areas of civil and political rights are an invention of the bourgeois West, in spite of the fact that the Soviet world has collapsed, and with it the chief advocates of this view. In some ways, their place as been taken by the rise of Islamist militance, with it a theocratic rather than a humanistic hope for a revolutionary change that will overthrow the influence of the world=s largest religion and of the remaining superpower. This has happened in the context of massive globalization in technology, science, democratic ideals, the increased power and range of professionalism, ecological consciousness, media influence and economic interaction, all of which also bring a fresh encounter of the world religions.

To be sure, many people think about globalization only in economic terms. But this narrow understanding of our present situation B as if the economic challenges where not themselves largely a function of educational, technological, legal, communication, and, indeed, moral and spiritual developments B blinds us to one of the most difficult problems of universalistic principles in the face of pluralism, the conflict of values, of definitions of what is human and what is right held by the world religions. On the whole, globalization is the forming of a new and wider human interdependence, extremely complex and highly variegated, that nevertheless raises the prospect of a new world civilization, and the now unavoidable encounter of the world’s cultures and societies, and the religious values on which they are based, requires us to think again about universalistic ethical principles, and whether they are possible and real, what difference they make and whether they inhibit or enhance the prospects of a genuine and principled pluralism. After all, to speak of “human” rights is to speak categorically, irrespective of social and cultural differences. On this point, those who defend human rights as global principles have reason to be cautiously optimistic. We can be optimistic, for the wider vision of human rights ideas have, at the least, become a part of the ius gentium, the operating consensus as to what constitutes proper behavior by states and other formal institutions, and what counts as compelling moral argument in contemporary international discourse. Although it seemed in the middle years of the twentieth century that a neo-pagan nationalism and a militant anti-liberalism of socialist secularism, both backed by radically historicist philosophies that denied any “essentialist” normative order, could not be contained by theological, ethical or social wisdom and would bring only Holocausts, Gulags, and violence to the future, it was to often-obscured Judeo-Christian ethical principles, frequently in their religiously-neutered Enlightenment formulations, that the nations have increasingly adopted.

The background story of how this definition of human rights came to enter the official, cross-cultural, international definition of standards, however, is only now being told. In fresh research, the British scholar-pastor, Canon John Nurser, has documented in extended detail the ways in which, from 1939 until 1947, leading Ecumenical Protestant figures worked not only with key figures in developing the Bretton Woods agreements, anticipating a post-war need for economic stability and development, but formed the Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, the Churches’ Commission on International Affairs, and later the Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, all under the auspices of the Federal Council of Churches, with close connections to the emerging World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Conference. These organizations, notably led by Lutheran O. Frederick Nolde, Congregationalist Richard Fagley, Baptist M. Searle Bates, and Presbyterian John A. Mackay, among others, were dedicated to shaping what they then called a “new world order” that would honor human rights. They worked closely with Jacob Blaustein and Joseph Proskauer of the American Jewish Committee and with twelve bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to encourage the formation of the drafting committees of the United Nations Charter Committee and the committee that composed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and deeply shaped their results. Further, they worked through their church and synagogue contacts at the local level to build the popular support for what they were doing. In fact, the more of this history that is dug out, the clearer it becomes that they supplied much of the intellectual and ethical substance that formed these so-called “secular” documents. Such data is if particular importance, for it helps correct the secularists’ slanderous treatment of religion as the cause of human rights violations.

The results of such efforts are what, at least, the leaders from most of the world’s great cultures have now endorsed, and what oppressed peoples appeal to for justice, functionally recognizing principles of universal justice in the legacy of these particular traditions. Moreover, there are, at present, more people living under democratically-ordered constitutions that seek to protect human rights, there is a broader public constituency interested in defending them than at any point in human history, and there is little evidence of their fading from normative use soon. Indeed, even those who violate human rights plead special conditions, temporary delays, or hermeneutical differences regarding the relative weight of some as compared to others; they seldom deny their validity as ideals or goals. Yet if these facts give us reason to be optimistic, it must be a cautious optimism, not only because the rights of so many people continue to be savagely violated in so many places, and the exigencies of earlier battles against domination by colonialized peoples and now against threats of terrorism in many countries seem to justify the use of means that threaten the rights of groups and persons in ways that are more than “collateral damage.” For those who seek to defend civil rights and liberties and see them as a way to love their neighbors near and far, the potential erosion of the legal protections of civil rights and liberties is a matter of immediate and pressing practical concern. This is so because it denies that there are inalienable human rights that stand beyond and above civil rights, which are granted by a state and thus can be withdrawn by civil authority. It makes human rights a function of state policy not a matter of universal principle.

This points to a deeper threat, for it takes human rights outside the realm of universal, meta-legal norms that cannot be repealed by political authority, no matter how powerful. It is a refusal to see human rights as the same as the prohibition against murder. The world, after all, has known that murder is wrong for many centuries, and every people has laws against it. People know that murders occur, with very few “justifiable homicides.” But they also know that the empirical fact that things happen does not negate the normative principles by which we judge them. Today, the threat to human rights is deeper than their sometimes violation; it is a profound intellectual and spiritual problem, for many today doubt that we can have or defend any trans-empirical principles to judge empirical life. And since human rights ideas were formulated historically by those branches of the biblically-based traditions, especially Jewish and Christian, that were willing to recognize, learn from, and selectively embrace philosophical and legal insights from other cultures if they saw them also living under universal principles of right and wrong that they did not construct and could not de-construct.

Certainly we cannot say that all of Judaism or of Christianity has supported human rights; it has been key minority traditions that have argued their case over long periods of time and become more widely accepted. Nor can we say that even these traditions have been faithful to the implications of their own heritage at all times, and the horror stories of our pasts also have to be told to mitigate any temptation to triumphalism. Still, intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as “secular,” “western” principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically-rooted religions. And while many scholars and leaders from other traditions have endorsed them, and found resources in their own traditions that point to quite similar principles, today these views are under suspicion both by some Asian leaders who appeal to Asian Values and by some communitarian and postmodern philosophers in the West who have challenged the very idea of human rights. The deepest threat comes from those intellectual leaders who have adopted anti-universalist, anti-principial perspectives.

Those who doubt the validity of human rights do so on the ground that there neither is nor can be no universalistic moral theology, master narrative, or jus naturale to support the idea. That, of course, is a universalistic claim in itself, one that ironically presses toward a universal moral relativism. Thus, they see “the West’s” pressure to affirm human rights as rooted in a positive jus civile of a particular civilization or (in some versions) in the philosophical or religious “values” of distinct traditions or historical periods of thought, and doubt that either human-wide “first principles” or universalistic ends can be found if one turns to particular traditions, especially in the face of religious variety and cultural multiplicity. The fact of the diversity of religions and cultures is taken as an argument for a relativism in normative morality. Thus, human rights are seen as a matter of socio-historical context. While some lament that more universal principles cannot be found, many celebrate the fact, making diversity, multi-culturalism, and religious distinctives themselves universally positive moral values, although on their own grounds it is difficult to see how they could defend the view, except as a cultural preference. In this situation, to insist that all people be judged according to principles of human rights is seen as an act of cultural imperialism. In addition, some argue that such “values” are altogether too individualistic, and that since abstract individuals do not exist, only concrete persons-in-relationship do, we need an ethic based essentially in the particularities of specific community-embedded practices and duties.

Politically, such arguments can be seen to feed the interests of those states that are the least democratic and the most likely to violate the rights of their own citizens, as recognized by the inter-faith Project on Religion and Human Rights. Nearly a decade ago they recognized that: To date, governmental claims that culture justifies deviating from human rights standards have been made exclusively by states that have demonstrably bad human rights records. State invocations of “culture” and “cultural relativism” seem to be little more than cynical pretexts for rationalizing human rights abuses that particular states would in any case commit. (Some)…emulate China in appealing to…national sovereignty…. (Others)…such as Saudi Arabia,…maintain that they are following Islamic human rights norms, while failing to adhere to the norms that they officially deem Islamic….

Yet these critics have one valid point that fuels their argument. They are partially correct insofar as they know that abstract principles and abstracted autonomous conceptions of human nature do not and cannot supply a full ethic for humanity or provide the general theory to guide a just and peaceful civil society in a global era. They also know that particular kinds of ethical obligations, rooted in specific traditions of duty, are authentic aspects of morality and identity and that the most significant of these are rooted in commitments that have become joined to religious loyalties, and that something precious would be lost or betrayed if these were denied.

But these critics are only partly correct. They are also partly wrong when they view the matter as a situation where we must turn either to first principles of an abstract universalistic kind or to concrete, networks of culturally, historically, and biographically-gained commitments, loyalties and expectations that shape our senses of responsibility, especially if that is how they view the highest level of religious or theological truth. In fact, most ethical issues, including those of human rights, require a synthetic judgment, one in which we must join normative first principles to the concrete matrices of experience by which we know events and read the existing ethos of our lives – that concrete network of events, traditions, relationships, commitments and specific blends of connectedness and alienation which shape the “values” of daily experience and our senses of obligation. The classic traditions of case-study, codified in the “responsa” literature and in classic casuistry as well as the modern strictures of court procedure, exemplify this joining: they require both a finding of law, which involves the critical reflection on juristic first principles behind the law, and a finding of “fact,” which requires reliance on the experience-gained wisdom, often having to argue before a jury of peers. Moreover, they require an anticipatory assessment of the various consequences of various courses of action implied by a judgment about the interaction of principle and fact.

Indeed, it is theologically paradigmatic that following the accounts of the Decalogue in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, surely prime example of universalistic abstract principles, the next several chapters are repositories of the casuistic results of the blending of the implications of those principles with the situations that people experienced concretely in their ethos. That joining rendered judgments that are held to contribute to the well-being of the common life and to the development of a morally righteous people. Similarly, much in the prophetic tradition makes the case against the infidelities of the people and/or the people in power by identifying the enduring principles in the covenants of old, the experience of social history in the present, and the prospects for a bleak, or a redeemed, future according to human deserts and divine mercy. And, for Christians specifically, to deny that any absolute universal can be connected to the realities of concrete historical experience in ways that lead to a redeemed future, is in fact a denial of the deepest insight of our faith: that Christ was both fully God and fully human, and that his life both fulfilled the commands of God, was concretely lived in the midst of a specific ethos, and nevertheless pointed to an ultimate future that we could not otherwise obtain.

This should be our first lesson in understanding the bases of human rights. They foster specific kinds of pluralism first of all because theologically-based moral judgments are, in principle, demanding of a universalistic reference point, but are simultaneously pluralistic in their internal structure. They demand critical reflection on the first principles of right and wrong, plus both the repeated analysis of the actual events and experiences of life as they occur in particular contexts, and a vision of the ultimate future – one that anticipates a more final assessment of what is right, judge what is wrong and affirming what is already good as we live toward the future. The philosophies and politics of “either/or” are inevitably lopsided.

The first implications of this brief excursus about “abstractions” for our question are these: do not trust theologians, philosophers, or social critics who repudiate first principles or advocate positions or policies that encourage humanity to ignore them in favor of a view that accents only the concreteness of historical experience. Similarly, do not trust those philosophers or religious leaders who do not take into account the complex matrices of experience that people have in the concrete contexts of life. Moreover, we should place both under scrutiny on the question of whether their proposals regarding the prospects for the ultimate future is a horizon in which we shall be able to discern an assessment of our proximate synthetic judgments.

Not only do I want to argue that the affirmation of such “universal absolutes” as those stated in the Ten Commandments and less perfectly embodied in human rights provisions of our historic constitutions and such documents as the United Nations Declaration are compatible with, and in fact seen most profoundly by, certain strands of the deeper theological heritage, I want to claim that without the impetus of theological insight, human rights concepts would not have come to their current widespread recognition, and that they are likely to fade over time if they are not anchored in a universal, context-transcending metaphysical reality.

In another way, too, I want to suggest that there is another way in which “abstraction” is required by the best of Christian and ethical views. At the practical level, persons are sometimes abstracted from their concrete historical situations and need the protection of abstract laws and rules and procedures of enforcement that say: “This person may already be alienated from his or her context of ordinary moral relationships, but the dismantling of this person=s integrity must not proceed beyond specifiable limits B it is ‘indivisible.’ Thou shalt not torture, abuse, violate, exploit or wantonly execute even the most miserable and guilty specimen of a human being!” We can see this in one way when we are dealing with someone accused of a crime, imprisoned, subjected to slavery or forced labor, victimized by rape or torture, forced to submit to arranged marriages or liaisons, or denied the ability to participate by voice or vote in familial, political or economic institutions that decide their fate. In these imposed situations, persons are functionally alone, abstracted, as they face a dominating power they cannot control and to which they do not give honest assent. Without knowing what the race, gender, nationality, cultural background, social location, political preferences, character, or network of friends of a person are, we must say, abstractly, “some things ought never to be done to them;” and if persons, to live and sustain some shred of dignity in the midst of some one or other of such situations need help, “some things ought to be done for them,” as Michael Perry has put it. This implies that other people and institutions must limit their powers with regard to persons, and not to define the whole of the meaning of a person by the communities, traditions, and habits in which they are embedded. This means also that, in some ways, a profound individualism, in the sense of the moral inviolability of each person, in contrast only to communitarian regard, is required. At other points, people abstract themselves from the matrices of life in which they dwell ordinarily, when they choose to leave home, get married (especially of the partner is one whom the parents do not approve for reasons, say, of ethnicity or religion), seek access to a profession other than that of the “station in life” into which they were born, decide to have or not to have a child by the use of pregnancy technology, and, most critical for our discussions, decide whether to follow the faith in which they were born and raised with dedication and devotion, or turn to another by overt rejection or positive conversion – that is by joining the inchoate company of atheists or agnostics or joining another community of faith. Here, in quite a different way than in some humanly imposed violation of personhood, one stands as an individual before the deepest levels of his or her own soul and before God or the emptiness of nothingness. People may be informed by other persons advice, arguments or threats, and a person=s community of origin may have rules and regulations about such things, but in the final analysis the individual person stands sociologically quite alone in such moments. All the current debates about proselytism and hence of the freedom of religion at the personal level are at stake here. Moreover, this fact of personal freedom implies the necessity of the right of people of like “chosen” faith to associate and form “voluntary associations” on religious grounds and to engage in free speech and press to seek to persuade others to join their faith. In these two areas of life, when people are under coercion that alienates them from their communities of life, or when they chose to leave their community of origin to join an association of conscientious, committed orientation, they must have the right to do so. These two areas illustrate a certain “soul sovereignty” with regard to individual human rights that, if denied, leads to the dehumanization of humanity. From a normative Christian point of view, not always recognized by all in the tradition, each person must be free from the miseries of oppression and the threat of arbitrary destruction, and must have, at least, the basic rights to form families, to find a calling, and to convert to a world-view or religion that is in accord with a personal understanding of the “best light.” Christians hold that these matters ought not be matters of coercion, and that the use of it in these areas to force or restrict person’s decisions in these areas issues in a lie in the soul and the corruption of society. In this regard, a second level of pluralism is fundamentally affirmed and advocated by this tradition.

Christians and many Jews hold this view because we believe that each person is made in the “image of God.” That is, we have some residual capacity to reason, to will, and to love that is given to us as an endowment that we did not achieve by our own efforts. And while every one of these areas of human life is at least imperfect, often distorted by sin, obscured by false desires or corrupted by exterior influences in sinful circumstances, the dignity conferred on us by the gift of the “imago” demands both a personal regard for each person, and a constant drive to form and sustain those socio-political arrangements that protect the relative capacities to reason, to chose, to love that are given with this gift. Moreover, Christians hold that each person is called into particular networks of relationships in which they may exercise these capacities and to order these networks with justice, as God guides us to be just and loving agents in the world. We believe that in Christ, we learn how God wants us to re-order the institutions of the common life – sacramentally, or as others say, covenantally – that are necessary to preserve humanity, and how to make them and ourselves more nearly approximate to the redemptive purposes God has for the world. Those Christians who know the history of the development of the social and ethical implications of their faith, believe that the historical and normative defense of human rights derives from precisely these roots and that this particular tradition has, in principle, in spite of many betrayals of it by Christians, disclosed to humanity something universally valid with regard to human nature and the necessities of just social existence.

Still a third implication of this tradition for pluralism and human rights is signaled by the direct mention of the term “church.” The formation of the Christian church, anticipated in certain sociological ways, of course, in the older traditions of the synagogues and, to a degree, in the ancient Mediterranean mystery cults, was a decisive influence in the formation of pluralistic democracy and in the generation of civil society with legal protection of the rights of free association. I shall not speak extensively about these matters here, except to state that I think that one of the greatest revolutions in the history of humanity was the formation of institutions differentiated from both familial, tribal and ethnic identity on one hand and from political authority (as under the Caesars, Kaisers, and Czars of history), as happened in early Christianity by slowly making the claim stick that the church was the Body of Christ with an inviolable, divine sovereignty of its own. This was gradually made more actual by those now obscure, ancient struggles between Pope and Emperor, Bishop and King, and Preacher and Prince, and again, more fully, in the modern Protestant, especially Puritan and Pietist, demanding of the right to form congregations outside of state authorization, and in the struggles for tolerance. These developments have generated a social fabric where multiple independent institutions can flourish. This has not only generated a diversified society in which colleges and universities, multiple political parties, a variety of economic corporations, and a mass of self-governing charitable and advocacy groups flourish, it has established the legitimacy of their claims to rights as associations with their own purposes. Indeed, it has made those parts of the world where these influences are most pronounced the safest havens for non-established and non-majoritarian religions, including non-Christian ones, to enjoy. The empirical consequence is that the Christian faith and its concrete social embodiment, for all the ambiguities, foibles, and outright betrayals of Christianity’s own best principles (this faith did not abolish original sin, after all), has opened the door to the development of dynamic pluralistic democratic polities that are both protected by human rights ideals and laws and provide the organizational infrastructure for the protection of human rights of both persons and of groups.

Two related problems in this area face us as we face a global future. One is the basic question as to whether we can form a global civil society that does not have a theologically-based inner moral architecture at its core. Historically, no society has ever existed without a religion at its center and no complex civilization capable of including many peoples and sub-cultures within it has endured without a profound and subtle religiously oriented philosophy or theology at its core. Yet some civilizations have seemed to have been repeatedly renewed by the development of doctrines and innovative social institutions based in its deepest heritage while others seem incapable of perpetual self-reformation. The present world-wide rhetoric and legal agenda of human rights, with its several “generations” of rights is, I believe, most deeply grounded in a highly refined critical appropriation of the Biblical traditions; but many of the current activists on behalf of human rights have little place for religion or theology in their conception of what they advocate. Can it endure without attention to its roots and ultimate legitimations? Doubtful!

However, if human rights are universal in principle and the biblical, theological and social legacies here identified provide a strong, possibly the only, grounds for recognizing and enacting them in the midst of a highly ambiguous social history, as I have suggested, we still have to ask what this means for those religions, philosophies, and cultures not shaped by this legacy. I am personally convinced of the fact that the theological motifs here discussed are, in this area of thought and action, scripted into the deepest levels of the human soul, even if they are overlaid by obscuring other doctrines, dogmas, practices and habitual ways of thinking in many of the traditions of the world=s religions B including some branches of Judaism and Christianity. Thus our task is to identify where, in the depths of all these traditions, that residual capacity to recognize and further refine the truth and justice of human rights insights lies, for this is necessary in order to overcome what, otherwise, is likely to be a “clash of civilizations.” And if, God willing, we are able to survive such a clash, should it come, it is these that could, more than any other option known to me at least provide a model for a just reconstruction of a global civil society.


Jean Bethke Elshtain: We want to thank Professor Stackhouse for a subtle and rich and intricate presentation put together in a complex way, what as you know, is often driven apart in these discussions, including the universal abstract claims about persons and the particularity of the contexts in which people find themselves and that is just one part of what you had to offer us. We are now open for questions. You will see the microphone in the center. If you have a question, please line up at the microphone to be recognized and I am going to sit down and let Professor Stackhouse field this, unless you get unruly, in which case I will try to do something about it, but I trust that we have a very well mannered group here.

Questioner: My question is, what do you see as the value or dis-value, comments, peril, advantage or disadvantage about making arguments about Christian distinctiveness? What is it about such claims that can facilitate or impede dialogue?

Stackhouse: Well, I would like to try to sort your question and see behind some of it. Some people would argue that Christian distinctives are only for Christians and they have only meaning for them and Confucian distinctives have only things for them, so that every people speaks their own language in their own valley. But part of the attempted claim of this, in some other work that I’ve done, is to suggest that that’s true for certain parts of our religious and theological heritage. It is not true for all parts of our religious and theological heritage. Some parts of our claims, which may be rooted in distinctive sensibilities, nevertheless, point to or actually contain or claim universal validity. So, let me use a rather crude analogy. Einstein was a German Jew, but when he developed the theory of relativity in the way that he did, it was not a German Jewish theory, it was a claim about the way things universally are and that then has to be tested by people in other contexts, to see well, is that really the case, and so forth. Well, I am claiming that, in this area of human rights, the Christian impetus, particularly, Judeo-Christian impetus illuminated parts of reality, moral reality in this case, that are universal in scope and other people then have to test it and find out whether that is true. So, it is not only a claim about what I believe, though, at certain points I’ve tried to introduce what I believe. I wasn’t sure I was making a universalistic claim at that point, but some things in this tradition do seem to me to be quite universalistic. I don’t think it strange at all that a tradition that’s rooted in the idea of the Divine related to the particular human would say that on the basis of something we’ve learned from that particular human there are universal elements that everybody can acknowledge. In fact, and I don’t want to go on very long with this if I am on the right track, but when I find Hindus and some Buddhists and some Confucians tying into the idea of human rights and the best of them know that it was generated out of a particular conceptual and historical framework, they say, but we can find analogies here in ours. When they do that, very often they lift something out of the depths of their own tradition that has not been highlighted, but when it becomes highlighted, it internally partially converts that religious tradition and provides a common bridge. The theological term for this is the principle of common grace.

Questioner: I am sure my questions are going to appear very naïve, but, I am really going to ask you, just sort of give more in the dimension of the sources of human rights. I was struck at how in your talk we never really had a definition of the very concept of a right. You use the word, but the concept of a right as opposed to a good or a value or something I like a great deal or something that my religion tells me ought to be valued wasn’t really specified. If one takes a right to be something like that to which you can claim that you are entitled to respect by virtue of merely being a person…

Stackhouse: That’s a pretty good one.

Questioner: Okay. Then I guess I want to hear more about your notion of the source of that because the only two things you mentioned was that it was rooted in love of neighbors near and far and ultimately that it turned on a single belief, namely, that human beings are made in the image of God. Well, my naïve question, I am sure this is really going to sound naïve, is it would strike me that that would imply a rejection, let’s say for example, of a Darwinian account of the evolution of human beings on the one hand. It seems to me that it would seem to suggest that Christian ethics has nothing to say about animal rights, for example, that, in fact, it would be blocked from developing anything of animal rights, unless it claims that they are made in the image of God too. The notion of being made in the image of God, of course, suggests human beings who do all sorts of things. They not only love their neighbors, they hate their neighbors. So, it doesn’t really tell us that you are made in the image of God, what it is that should be entitled to respect in human beings or what aspects are Godly or what aren’t and, indeed, it seems to very quickly turn into a position which was whatever is is okay, because it was made by God and that becomes relativism.

Stackhouse: That part is not fair. The other question is a very fair question.

Questioner: But, well in any case, how one then distinguishes what’s entitled to respect is still left open because, of course, what has been made in the image of God is highly varied and includes all sorts of things you would disapprove of as well as approve of and so I feel like that I am totally adrift with regard to how you draw…..

Stackhouse: Well, it is true. Let me try to respond to this, to several of your questions. I may not get them all because it is a rich set of questions. But, one of the things is that I am using the term, the imago dei, the image of God in a way that is rather well developed in the tradition and often when you do speak in theologian short- hand you say a term and you imply the whole paragraph or the whole treatise, you don’t apply the term, but I do think that this means that there is something holy, that is sacred that is not an inherent dignity, but a bestowed dignity. If it were an inherent dignity you could look around and find examples of people in infancy or people in the aged who hardly seem to manifest any of these characteristics of inherent dignity as an empirical matter, still, there is a real sensibility we ought not wantonly destroy them and the way of speaking symbolically about imago dei, points to that sacred respect that we should offer them. Why do we do that? We think that in principle each person has some residual capacity to use reason, with flaws, with difficulty, obscured by interest. If one has a chance to exercise will, freedom is somehow there, so there is some possibility of choices there. Furthermore, people have a capacity to love, to bond to others, so the capacity to think, to will and to love are seen to be very distinctive capacities so far as we know, of the human species. You raised the question about animal rights and I am a colleague of Peter Singer and we have had many conversations about this and he is just dead wrong and he has a simplistic argument. He is very subtle in the way he works his utilitarian logic, but it doesn’t cohere in the final analysis and this does not, however, seem to me to void any appreciation of the work of Darwin. It does put it in a different context. As a matter of fact, just a few months ago Peter Singer and I were on a panel together on Darwin and this is one of the things that is up for discussion. For the emerging Christian consensus, insofar as there is one among theologically thinking Christians, about the relationship with Darwin and Christian history, there are two major options that are alive and working. One of them is that rationality is an emergent rationality and there is not just one form of it and therefore there is a kind of evolution of rationality in the rationality principle. So, when you get to the early Biblical statements that “in the beginning was the word” there seems to be a kind of recognition of this emergent rationality; that’s one shorthand for the view. The other is that God did create humanity in the world, but that humanity in the world has fallen and that Darwin gives us a marvelous empirical account of the fallen world. So that all the devastation and the hostility that takes place between the animals and the evolution of things is an empirically valid account without normative characteristics, except when it is taken ideologically. Well, this is too short a response, but those are the two directions in which I would go with that. Don Browning.

Questioner: Thanks. First of all, pardon me for asking you a question in this context. We see each other a lot, but as is often the case we don’t get to talk about the things that really matter. I thought your presentation was very convincing with regard to a historical description of the close association of Judaism and Christianity in the formation of the human rights tradition, historically and certainly in the 20th century and I thought one of the most intriguing aspects of your presentation was the comments on the possible influence of ecclesiology on the development of the human rights tradition.

Stackhouse: I didn’t develop that very much here.

Questioner: You sketched it out suggestively. Now, I can imagine that argument going in one or two ways. A skeptic could come in and say, well, you gave us some good sociological reasons why the church might fight for what we call human rights today. But I don’t see anything particularly intrinsic to the church’s tradition, the skeptic might say, that shows the theological argument. For instance, in order for Christians to convert other people, why they argued for the right of conscience, to make sure that the church was something separate from the state, they said the state could not dictate religion. To make sure that they understood that the church was something different than the family, they made sure that family tradition did not dictate church …. They were simply fighting for their own identity, somebody might say. Can you make sure that doesn’t convert into a sociological defense of human rights? Is there a way to keep that from happening?

Stackhouse: Oh, I hope so and that is I guess I would go in this direction. They were not only fighting for the church’s own identity, they were fighting for what they believed to be fulfillment of the deepest levels of human nature so far as we can speak of it. That is the zone in which you are not under political authority, you are not under patriarchal authority in principle, but are under an authority that is a transcendent authority and you can give your loyalty to that. That allows you to relativize the other pretenders to authority throughout the society and yes, I do think, that the church is not only the Body of Christ as stated theologically, but it is also a sociological institution. It is a social historical reality that is not eternal. It is a fascinating thing to look in the last book of the Bible where you get the vision of what the end time will be. There is no church there. There is no temple there. The church to which I try to be a faithful servant, is a temporal, not eternal instrument in this regard and one of the temporal functions that it has is to defend the zones of relative freedom, the social space where people can take up questions that are hotly disputed and of ultimate importance and which people just simply don’t, most of the time, otherwise do after they graduate from the University of Chicago.

Questioner: I would like to echo the Chair’s comments of appreciation for the rich lecture. Thank you very much. I am not clear whether human rights needs God or not in your judgment. I thought for a while that you were going to tell us that human rights needed God in the sense that humanity would not have seen the validity of these abstract principles absent the historical effect of religious traditions of the West. But, then you told us, or counseled us, to be cautious of any advocates of human rights who do not join them to a vision of the ultimate future, and mentioned God in that context. I thought then that human rights do need God. But you glossed that comment with the fact that the ultimate future might be something besides God, envisioned as emptiness or nothingness. So that seemed to say that human rights do not need God. Although, they need some vision of the ultimate future. Toward the end you told us that you were doubtful that the discussion of human rights or better, perhaps, the extension of human rights in the world, would increase without a theological context and I wasn’t entirely clear whether theological there meant God. So, would you clarify that for me? I guess I am particularly interested in whether or not you think this vision of the ultimate future might have various forms? Not all of them theistic in character and various ones of which might also support the agenda of human rights?

Stackhouse: Well thank you for, as usual, a subtle complex question. I did leave that open. I think the arguments in favor of universal principles of right and wrong and arguments about the contextual analysis of our human condition are stronger arguments both logically and historically than the argument about the ultimate end of things. You see, the problem with arguing about the ultimate end of things is the data isn’t in yet and that is an area in which we specifically have to live by faith and faith alone and the way in which we do this. So, although, I can hint more confessionally about what I think it should be and what I think would more fully guarantee and fulfill the prospects of the universals and the particulars in their joint way, but I can’t argue about that and you are quite right, the reference about the emptiness of nothingness was an insertion, having just worked through some materials on Buddhist eschatology. One of my former colleagues, Mark Heim, has written this new book called Salvations and in volume three of this series, Jean mentioned, I used quite a bit of that at certain points. He argues persuasively to me right now that the different world religions and sometimes secular world views, let’s say Marxism, with the vision of the perfect classless society, these have eschatological ends and ways of getting there that are the most incommensurate of the areas of discussion between the world views. We can make, as you have tried to make, and I think in my review of your book on the good, I thought it was awfully serious in the way you went about it. There are ways in which you can ask probabilities about certain of these ends, but there is really, finally, no knockdown argument on that point. The arguments are closer to knockdown on the other two points. That is part of the pluralism of moral judgment making, first principles, what’s the case, what’s the likely ultimate end or purpose or goal, the telos of all this? And, the third one is the hardest to come to finality on and on that point, I think that we do have to live by faith and allow the senses of what we are going toward loop back and try to assess, is that the direction in which we want to go? So, the Islamic paradise, the Buddhist nirvana, the Hindu notion of release, moksha, and the Christian idea of the New Jerusalem, these are just quite different ultimate ends and to go back to Darwin, survival doesn’t seem like it is quite of the same order. I would put it in a lesser state. But the Marxist vision of a perfect classless society was a contender or has been a contender. On these points we have to say, do they also preserve first principles of right and wrong? Do they also preserve the rich plurality in the contexts of life that allow them to fulfill and not only to negate these possibilities and that’s the best argument I can make on it

Questioner: If I may make just a few generalizations. I think we, in the West, see ourselves as defenders of human rights. I think we are aware of the, if I may say so, the evils of communism. I think we are very unaware often of the evils of individualism. I am wondering what your understanding of human rights, what implications it may have for that sort of dialectic? Often we overlook, I guess, if you want to try a positive spin on it, the communitarian rights over against the individual human rights. If you would comment on that I would appreciate it.

Stackhouse: Jean is sometimes identified with the communitarian points of view and I share many of her commitments. But I share them much more as what I called an associational point of view, the voluntary associational point of view. I spent enough time in these researches and travels around the world working on these general background problems of globalization and how it affects different communities, to live for a while in tribal communities where in the Dalit communities,in south India, where the sense of communalism is extremely pronounced and in fact, it frequently almost totally swallows the individual into a kind of organic whole where they are little more than a cell and I don’t think, here I am drawing subconsciously, I should put it out front, on the older Tonnies book, Community and Society, it is really a classic, and he talks about the difference between primal communities which have this organic wholeness about them and then society or associational forms of life in which people can enter or exit by will and choose therefore some personal individual quality that would allow them to enter and, if necessary or desired, on certain circumstances to exit. Well, I am an associationalist and that was the reference to the societalists or associationist themes from James Luther Adams that I mentioned. The collectivism, and by the way, this is just a pet peeve of mine and if this were a class I would go into a 5 minute tirade about the idea of community. The idea of community is one of the most loved and least sordid ideas, at least in seminary communities that I know. Maybe you have cleared that up here.

–Audience laughter–


But, it is hard to say. What do you mean? The community of nations, the community here at the seminary, at the Divinity school, the ethnic community, the neighborhood community, the intelligence agency community? The forms and, in fact, associations, societies, clubs and aggregates are all terms that need to be factored in to sort out, how do you know one when you see one and what’s a genuine when you see it? My bet is that almost no one today in America lives in community, but lives in a multiplicity of associations and relationships that are sometimes very meaningful. I would like to find the appropriate covenantal ways of talking about how to bond significantly in those communities so that they are not mutually exploitative or disruptive of other person’s well-being.

Questioner: Thank you Professor Stackhouse for your very informative talk and also for your sustained commitment to this project and this topic and the way that you have met the challenges in an ongoing way as this issue has been complicated and made more complex by the world in which we now live. My question is about the absolute status of rights. You mentioned a couple things, for example, I think we can all agree on that there is no right to rape or torture. These are all rights that should never be violated and perhaps something more basic than that, though, certainly more complicated, is the basic right to life, because we do know that there are circumstances in which that right is violated. Now, and I am thinking particularly about the use of force, the “authorized use of force”, and so I wanted to ask if there might be something at stake, even problematic about making the rights, the language of human rights too absolute? Some would handle this issue of taking, you know, the right to life or taking life involving force or war in a few different ways. Some would say well, if it is not the intention, it’s not your intent to take this life, well then, this isn’t really an issue. You are still upholding the standard and I think, of course, there are some problems with that. You certainly know entering force or entering war that you are going to take and violate rights. That’s inevitable. Some would say, well, it is competing rights. In order to sustain the rights of one political community or in long term, that you have to violate or take these lives of others. But I am also wondering if there might be another way or yet, more ways of saying of, well, there are certain times when rights just can’t be absolute even the most basic right to life in order to sustain wider global, political values of order or security, all of which are sometimes, in large part tied to basic understandings of human rights or friendly to those ideas.

Stackhouse: Well, this is an important question and I should clarify the way in which I use the word absolute. We all say murder is wrong and we mean that pretty absolutely, but then you have first degree murder, second degree murder, third degree or accidental manslaughter, justifications for military action under certain kinds of conditions, all of which seem to allow that. But, we have new definitions and say that’s not quite the same as murder being wrong. So, one does have to recognize the gradations in the absoluteness. The second thing you might have to note is or that I would want to argue for, is still a slightly different interpretation of the options in the definition of the word absolute than the ones that you presented, which are very common and that is that absolute has to do with the fact, kind the root meaning of the word, it doesn’t dissolve over time or in historical circumstance so that it’s non-soluble, which is what absolute sort of means. So, that even if under certain rare circumstances and with high levels of justification you want to say…I want to say you should never engage in capital punishment. For example, if you have a decent prison system, not many states do these days, but, if you have a functional prison system where you can keep people in some kind of situation where they are not a threat to others or themselves, that is the preferable option and it’s kind of absolute obligation not to kill them. I would say the same thing applies on the whole to a fetus or to a terminally ill, demented victim of Alzheimer’s. These are not expendable items. Nevertheless, there could be circumstances in which, what you would want to say is, that in these circumstances, when there is no other option, when the circumstances are so rotten and terrible, I have to engage in one of these counter, presumably absolute actions, but one of the justifications for doing that, is not only that it is an exception, it is a particular kind of exception. It is a kind of exception that allows a new society, a new social arrangement, a new kind of context to be formed in which that kind of behavior is not legitimated and in which it is sustained that that ought not be done. So, if you have to in extreme circumstances murder…a rapacious thief is breaking into our house and threatening our kids and if I have to shoot the darn person, if I owned a gun, I might do that, but I would do that only on the grounds that I would want to have to build a society in which people didn’t break into other people’s houses, where they didn’t have…where they had higher preventive methods of knowing people who are dangerous, got them the proper kinds of treatment, and so forth. Is my logic clear? It’s a way of non-dissolving the principle even if you have to modulate the behavior under rare circumstances to preserve the absolute principle itself.

Jean Bethke Elshtain: I would ask you to join me one more time to thank Professor Stackhouse for this afternoon. I am afraid that it won’t be possible for him to linger up here. He has had a long day and we are going to try and give him a little bit of food and send him to the airport. He has a plane to catch. So, thank you all very much for coming. I know it is quite cold out and I appreciate the good attendance this afternoon and I appreciate, especially, the care that you offered…that was displayed in your presentation. Thanks a lot.