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Rawls at the Crossroads

May 1945. The U.S. Army is engaged in a fierce struggle with Japanese forces for control of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. A first sergeant asks for two volunteers: one to scout enemy positions, the other to give badly needed blood to an injured soldier. Two young men—John Bordley Rawls and his friend, Deacon—step forward. Deacon’s blood type matches the wounded soldier’s, so he heads off toward the field hospital. On the way Japanese mortars rain down. Deacon dives into a foxhole, but a shell lands nearby, blowing him to smithereens.

John Rawls recalled this incident in his eminent old age in a file called “On My Religion” found on his computer after his death in 2002. Writing more than 50 years after the fatal shell fell, Rawls was still shocked by the loss of his friend. He offered Deacon’s death as one of three milestones in his transformation from “a believing orthodox Episcopalian” to an agonized agnostic. (The other two were a jarring, jingoistic sermon by an Army pastor and his discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust.)

Rawls grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, in a mildly religious atmosphere. His mother was an Episcopalian, his father a Southern Methodist. Rawls described his youth as “only conventionally religious” until his final two years at Princeton. “Then things changed,” he wrote. “I became deeply concerned about theology and its doctrines.” He even considered seminary, but decided his first duty was to fight alongside his friends. After the war, Rawls carved out an international reputation as a political philosopher, but until now few have known about his earlier incarnation as a passionate young Christian theologian.

In A Brief Inquiry, we come face to face with this bright, earnest, devout figure. The book reproduces Rawls’s senior thesis, discovered by chance in the Princeton library shortly after his death, together with excellent interpretive essays by Robert Merrihew Adams and Joshua Cohen, and Thomas Nagel. Rawls submitted the thesis in December 1942 and earned a grade of 98 out of 100. I’m not surprised: it’s a blazingly original and ambitious work, all the more remarkable considering Rawls was just 21 when he wrote it.

The thesis has two basic aims: to show what Christianity is and what it’s not. For the young Rawls, Christianity is assuredly not the faith proclaimed by the Catholic Church. He argues that the two greatest Catholic thinkers—Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas—made a fateful philosophical error. Their mistake was to express Christian doctrine in terms of Greek philosophy. “The difference between Catholicism and Platonism is a matter of degree,” Rawls asserts. Augustine, Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle all fell into the trap of “naturalism,” which he defines idiosyncratically as “any view which constructs the cosmos in naturalistic terms.” The naturalistic thinker sees things, not people. Even God is conceived as a “thing” in the universe, the obscure object of our desire. Rawls writes,

I believe that naturalism leads inevitably to individualism, that it cannot explain community and personality, and that it loses the inner core of the universe. Since this manner of thought has been prevalent in the West since Augustine we are proposing more or less of a ‘revolution’ by repudiating this traditional line of thought. I do not believe that the Greek tradition mixes very well with Christianity, and the sooner we stop kow-towing to Plato and Aristotle the better.

He then adds, rather primly: “An ounce of the Bible is worth a pound (possibly a ton) of Aristotle.”

The young Rawls is not the first to dream of prising Christianity from the hands of pagan philosophers; it’s a recurring theme of Protestant theology. Rawls is indebted to Anders Nygren, the Swedish Lutheran author of Agape and Eros. Nygren contrasted the ancient Greek notion of love (eros) with the New Testament ideal (agape) and accused Augustine of creating a monstrous hybrid of the two. He claimed that Luther restored agape providentially to its true place in Christian theology.   

Not surprisingly, Catholics find this objectionable. In the less famous part of his 2006 Regensburg address—the speech in which, according to most reports, he insulted the Muslim world—Pope Benedict XVI energetically defended the Church’s Greek philosophical inheritance. The Pope said the “encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance,” but was part of the divine plan because it anchored Christian faith in reason.

The young Rawls sees further proof of Catholicism’s innate individualism in the lives of its mystics. “We reject mysticism,” he declares, “because it seeks a union which excludes all particularity, and wants to overcome all distinctions.” We might object that Rawls is confusing the mysticism of the West with that of the East. When St. John of the Cross achieved mystical union with God he didn’t become a vaporous divinity; he remained John of the Cross. But Rawls insists on his point. The trouble with mystics, he says, is that they regard God as an object in the universe—the highest object, to be sure, but nonetheless an object. They teach that God alone satisfies man’s thirst for beauty, goodness, and truth. That is not an innocent mistake, says Rawls: it is a sin. “If one cannot have faith in God just because He is what He is, but has to add that He is most satisfying in his beauty and such an object that we shall never crave anything else—then perhaps it is better not to be a Christian at all.” The implication is radical: John of the Cross and his ilk are no saints; they are dangerous heretics.

Having established what Christianity is not (Catholicism), Rawls explains what it is. It’s sometimes said that what matters most in theology is where you begin. Rawls’s theology starts with the claim that man’s unique quality is not his reason, his sensitivity to beauty, or his other abilities, but “that he was made for community.” So when we say man is created in God’s image, we mean he is able to enter into community, “since God himself is communal, being the triune God.” The true Christian grasps that the universe is not a collection of objects, a cosmic junkyard, but a community of Creator and created.

With community firmly marked out as his starting point, Rawls addresses two classic theological problems: sin and faith. He defines sin as the “repudiation, destruction and abuse of community for the sake of the self.” Egotism is the “master sin” from which all lesser evils flow. To see sin in action, Rawls says, look no further than your local athletics club. The members pride themselves on their sportsmanship and consider non-athletes inferior. He calls this the phenomenon of “the closed society.” In a passage that is filled with pathos, given that he was about to take up arms against the Axis powers, Rawls describes Nazi Germany as the ultimate closed society. “If one was not a Catholic,” he writes, “one could become one. If one was not an educated Frenchman, one might also become one. But one cannot become an ‘Aryan’ by wish. One is excluded or included from birth.” When a group’s membership is utterly exclusive, he says, egotism knows no bounds.

Rawls believes that sin throws man into an “abyss of isolation.” Faith restores the sinner to community. But we can do nothing to merit this restoration. Those who seek to placate God with good works, Rawls says, are like social contract theorists. Both seek to bind the “other” to protect their personal interests. Regardless of whether it is political or religious, a society based on a contract is no community at all.

The rejection of merit is, of course, one of the more controversial features of his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice. It’s not the only point of contact between A Brief Inquiry and Rawls’s mature masterwork. As Cohen and Nagel note in their introduction, both works insist on the separateness of persons, a morality defined by interpersonal relations rather than by seeking the highest good, and the evil of inequality based on exclusion and hierarchy. In his earlier work, Rawls’s frame of reference is moral and theological, whereas in TJ (as fans know it) it is moral and political.

The conclusion of A Brief Inquiry may shock those who only know Rawls the agnostic. In language that would not look out of place in St. Paul’s epistles, Rawls looks forward to the day (“which may not be far off”) when Christ vanquishes sin and establishes the perfect heavenly community.

“On My Religion” leaves little doubt that Rawls would have been embarrassed by his youthful religious zeal. The war destroyed his unselfconscious certitudes. After he learned about the Holocaust while stationed in Asingan, he found it difficult to pray and decided finally that the idea that God guided history according to his will was “hideous and evil.” Unlike the New Atheists, Rawls’s fundamental problem was not God’s existence but the rightness and justice of Christian moral teachings. “I came to think of many of them as morally wrong, in some cases even repugnant,” he recalled. “To the extent that Christianity is taken seriously, I came to think it could have deleterious effects on one’s character.”  

Many today argue that the trouble with Christianity is that it is too moral. For Rawls, it wasn’t moral enough. Perhaps this explains why he spent the rest of his adult life developing an alternative moral theory, rooted not in the divine will but in his own exacting sense of justice. Between A Brief Inquiry and A Theory of Justice, Rawls abandoned an astringent form of Christianity for an even more astringent moralism.  

Luke Coppen is editor of London’s Catholic Herald.

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