Thursday, February 16, 2006

Review of Max Stackhouse's Powers-taxonomy

Jonathan Chaplin “On Globalization – an Exercise in Public Theology” Comment V. 21 I. 2 (Spring 2003).

I’m going to pull some lengthy excerpts out of this article, which is an exploration of a series of three books which are the product of Princeton’s Center for Theological Inquiry. What follows is excerpted from the article, but you can read the whole thing here.

Can a theme as complex and seemingly technical as globalization be adequately addressed through the eyes of religious faith? The authors of this handsomely-produced series proceed from the assumption that it can only adequately be addressed through such eyes.

The subtitle of the series is “theological ethics and the spheres of life.” The notion of spheres is billed as playing a central organizing role in the volumes. In his introductions to the three volumes, Max Stackhouse sets out an imaginative framework for analyzing globalization in terms of a series of differentiated domains of social life—“spheres of dynamic activity”—which make up the modern globalized world. These spheres act as channels for powers—“moral and spiritual energies”—which drive the core principalities structuring human life in every society: the economy, the polity, the family and sexuality, culture and media, and religion. Stackhouse proposes that these are universally present: they reflect the deepest needs and capacities of human social life, and, he implies, they are grounded in our very created being.

The modern world has also seen the emergence of specific authorities which have come to be differentiated from the principalities, including the classic professions of education, law, and medicine. A newer species of authority are the regencies of late modernity. These include familiar authorities such as science and technology.

Stackhouse also suggests that nature has come to exercise an authoritative hold over the late modern mind. And the heroic personal authority of figures such as Ghandi, Mandela, Tutu-in his chapter, Peter Paris calls them “moral examplars”—also hold regency-like sway over us. These regencies are “seats of power . . . exercised in the various spheres of life by those principalities, authorities and dominions” possessing moral and spiritual legitimacy.

Finally, the dominions traverse and penetrate all the above. These are civilization-wide religions like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism. A dominion is what “integrates the principalities into a working whole, and gives distinctive shape to the development of authorities in complex societies.”

…Stackhouse’s crucial proposition is that the plural spheres of our differentiated society have not emerged, do not function, and cannot be sustained in a spiritual vacuum. They challenge head-on the assumption that institutions such as the state, the market, the professions, and the universities must be insulated against the influence of religion. Indeed, when religious believers participate in debates about global human rights, they should first dig deep into their own confessional traditions to find an authentic language in which to speak about such rights.

A possible pointer toward a distinctively Christian account of globalization appears in Stackhouse’s introduction to the first volume (God and Globalization: Religion and the Powers of the Common Life Vol 1. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000.) It arises from his posing some fundamental theological questions: are the powers, principalities and authorities somehow based in creation? If so, how radically have they diverged from their created purpose by sin? Can they be open to redemption?

I [Chaplin] would answer yes to the first and third questions (the second doesn’t admit of a simple answer). But we also need to be able to link these basic affirmations to an account of contemporary globalization. To do this we need a biblically-based account of historical development and the norms which should govern it. Such an account seeks to trace the ways in which the created design of our social possibilities can be discerned historically through the enormous variety of particular practices and institutions in many different cultures and even amidst the deep distortions and oppressions caused by human sin.

Using this idea of historical development, the Christian social scientist Bob Goudzwaard proposed a generation ago the suggestive idea of the normative “disclosure of society” as a framework for evaluating major historical transformations in social and economic life (Capitalism and Progress Eerdmans, 1979). He has now applied the idea to our contemporary context in Globalization and the Kingdom of God (Baker, 2001). Goudzwaard ventures that globalization can be viewed in principle as a further normative historical disclosure of our created social possibilities, even though its present course is being profoundly warped by the gross over-extension of the economic sphere.

I think this is a promising perspective. We have been created to aspire to mutual enrichment and global interdependence within God’s one world. More specifically, globalization is a disclosure of the spatial dimension of our created social possibilities, as they work themselves out in many spheres of human activity.

Note that disclosure is not just endless forward or outward movement. It is a vocation to advance human well-being by widening the circles in which we cooperate for the common good of all God’s creatures. So while expanding global trade for needed goods is valuable in itself, it must not be allowed to thwart or destroy other dimensions of human well-being, such as the stability of local community or equitable access to basic resources.

[Chaplin then argues that] the connections between the spheres, powers, principalities, authorities and regencies in each of the various fields are not stated precisely enough. For example, if the powers of regencies are, as Stackhouse suggests, exercised by principalities and authorities, how can they have come to be emancipated from the authorities? And how can dominions which are civilization-wide religions also exercise the power of regencies? Are spheres more basic than powers, or vice versa.

Part of the reason for the conceptual slackness in the framework may be because most of the terms used to denote the six categories of sphere arise directly out of an exegesis of specific New Testament Greek words (e.g. powers is a rendition of exousia; principalities of archai). It is not clear, however, that such terms correspond sufficiently closely to the contemporary realities they purport to illuminate. Is the economy as a whole really what the word principality appropriately refers to today? Isn’t a transnational corporation or a currency market a closer fit?

Such biblical language may serve well the aims of theologians whose main focus is, rightly, the overall spiritual direction of such modern spheres. But social scientists and policy-makers will want a more detailed and exact conceptual apparatus.

The volumes seems to circle around but do not pay consistent enough attention to the centrality of institutions. Although Stackhouse tells us that the spheres include organizations and “clusters of institutions,” none of the terms in his six-fold classification correspond exactly to specific entities like states, schools, corporations, hospitals, and families, or networks of structured interactions between them, such as markets, media domains, or policy-making networks. Yet these are the actual centres of decision-making shaping globalization-or the vulnerable recipients of its effects.
Cf. the previous post in this series: With the cross of Jesus / Marching on before.

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