Christ’s pluralism

Aristotle begins his first great discourse on pleasure with an unexpected remark:

The study of pleasure and pain belongs to the province of the political philosopher; for he is the architect of the end, with a view to which we call one thing bad and another good without qualification.

So, for Aristotle, there seems to be a single court of final appeal for what is good or evil: political philosophy or statecraft. It’s crucial to see that this is an eminently rational opinion – one which Aristotle no doubt thought was logically necessary: if we lack one single court of final appeal, how will we avoid chaos and anarchy? If one person or body is not ultimately in charge, how is anyone in charge? Admitting two “final judges” means that some disputes are unresolvable even in principle- unless we are so polyannic as to assume that they will never come into conflict.

And yet this crazy pluralism is exactly what strikes Christians as necessary and reasonable since we recognize the necessity of civil society while at the same time having no religious civil code, even while we claim to make final and definitive pronouncements affecting the civil order. I have usually read Christ’s claim that he “brought not peace, but a sword” as simply another way of his restating that he is a “sign of contradiction”, but I wonder now if there is not a more radical sense to it: Christ insisted in the integrity and even autonomy of civil power and his Church, even though he knew that one need not wait long to hit upon some point upon which they disagree. Again, Christ develops his idea that he brings a “sword” by saying that “from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father…etc” Note first that Christ describes the world (before his return) as a “house divided”. This strikes a very ominous note, given that Christ is very clear that such a house cannot stand since it is set in fundamental contradiction with itself. Further, this contradiction is of father set against son: that is, the division in political order goes all the way to the root of political order.



  1. sancrucensis said,

    April 29, 2012 at 3:09 am

    A very important point I think. The state of things in the gap between the Ascension and the Second Coming is necessarily marked by conflict between earthly and heavenly power. There are though different ways of interpreting Our Lord’s teaching on civil authority: Gelasius I or Boniface VIII.

  2. david quackenbush said,

    May 5, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    WWDS? (What would Dante say?)

%d bloggers like this: