COVENANT AND THE HUMAN FUTURE (Douglas H. Knight)
1. Covenant – Israel and the Church
To talk about the human future requires that we talk about covenant.
The covenant of God with man comes in the form of one specific covenant, Abraham and his seed forever. Israel is the covenanted community, while the Church participates in this covenant in Christ. These two communities we may acknowledge the covenant of God with man. Each is, I dare to say, for the sake of those outside Israel and outside the Church, so each has to confess that they are elect as witnesses of the covenant of God with man. This distinctive task given to them – foisted on them even – for the sake of the world. The covenant of God with man is knowable only in this way as this covenant with this specific people, and thus not immediately with all but with these specific people.
Each of these communities therefore is required to understand itself as loved, for its own sake, and also as chosen for the purpose of witness to what it does not yet possess. The Church tells usthat man is a covenantal being, that God is with man, and enabled by God, man may be with his fellow man. In this fellowship he is a relational being and so is a distinct individual. Neither individuality nor relationality precedes the other. Man is not fundamentally an isolated being, and not an atom. Each of us is simultaneously one and because we are in various covenants with others, more than one. Each human is fundamental, but some human covenants are subordinate to others. All love and community involve mutual service and subordination that necessarily involves a certain asymmetry. Those outside a particular covenant are not given to one another in the same way as those within that covenant.
Man flourishes as he knows he is loved, and by love is enabled to love and give himself in service in turn. All communities and societies are entities of love. Loves aspires to permanence: we desire its growth, not its break down; love may seek self-control, so that it becomes truer and more permanent.
The Christian faith offers itself in a marketplace of worldviews. The Church cultivates its own spiritual and intellectual tradition by which it is able to question and test, affirm whatever is good, and judge what is not. The Church suggests that man is both to a degree knowable to himself and thus the object of science and social science but also to some degree beyond his own control and disposal. The Church remains in dialogue with other developed accounts of human being – Plato, Aristotle – and sustains the humanities as large accounts of human being as social and covenantal being. But the society that does not wish to discover any covenant may decide man is solely an individual, without organic connection to other people. All our relationships are then voluntary; and community represents a massive burden on each individual will. Any society or generation may decide that it cannot see why it should make this effort of will unaccompanied by covenant, tradition or their reason, and may then turn its face to the wall.
2. Marriage as covenant
Man is a creature of covenant in a second way. Mankind is twofold because he is always either man or woman. No individual human is all humankind, but each needs and seeks this other form of humanity; man seeks woman, and woman man. Were we homogenous and unisex, we would desire no other person, and there would be no society.
We desire and seek one another now, but yet we may learn to do so more: we may hope to love better, and so we may concede that we do not love and desire one another yet as we may do. Love may be discipled so that our future love may be greater than our present love. Marriage is a form of mutual self-control that enables greater self-giving.
The Church is married to Christ, and so is itself a form of marriage. It regards marriage as the form of discipleship through which we discover how to love, serve and become members of society.
Marriage gives the recognition that its offspring is not only a child but a person, who may expect to be brought up by that man and woman from whose bodies they come, and hope for a respect, love and service without time-limit. In marriage a husband and wife are dedicated to the children that they may then have. Though they are married to each other, their marriage covenant extends to their children too. To abuse the concept again, this couple is ‘married’ to the next generation, and so ‘married’ to their society’s future. Society is sustained as it succeeds in persuading people to marry and so dedicate themselves to its continuation.
3. The household
Failure to hear the Christian proposal that we are simultaneously covenanted and singular beings is surely linked to the decline of marriage, and various other declines consequent on it. The society that does not like the idea of specific permanent interpersonal relationships minimises the distinction between those who are dedicated to the procreation and service of the creation of the next generation, and those who are not. When marriage and the family are not regarded as the norm which to the state gives fiscal protection, the confidence that enables us to have children may disappear. When fewer children are produced and there is less public experience of parenthood, the rationale for marriage is lost: there is ideological polarisation and attempts to obliterate these differentiations and asymmetries become coercive. In greying Europe, no connection is made between promotion of equality and the deprecation of marriage, or between the denigration of Europe’s own tradition and dropping fertility. Demographic crisis is of course heralded by financial crisis. This really does appear to be a very moral story: if you don’t honour your traditions, and publicly express their rationality, you don’t see why you should reproduce them – and so no one does.
There is a covenant and marriage between the present and the future, between this generation and all possible future generations, but only the communities that understood themselves in terms of covenant are able to say so. The society that acknowledges that man is simultaneously a covenantal and married as well as a single being, understands that the state is for the promotion of marriage and the protection of the families that come from it. Man may take his own initiatives, start enterprises of commerce or public generosity, just as he may marry, start a family, bring up children, without requiring the permission or mediation of government. Law and government exist in order to safeguard this sphere of individual, and of household and corporate, initiative.
The Church declares that not all relationships are the same: marriage uniquely intends to serve its offspring all the way up into adulthood, providing the security in which their own readiness to receive and enter covenants, and their own generous individuality, may develop. Children must be the first product of any economy and society, and persons brought to maturity in the virtue and industriousness that has created that society must be the second product of that economy. By industriousness I mean the virtues that amount of readiness to enter those covenants which bring a new generation into existence and then to maturity.
The family and the household has its own dignity. It cannot be compared with the services represented in the formal economy, and thus the sum of the service represented by the household cannot be priced. Its functions cannot be adequately separately identified and bought in from outside. Yet one after another the functions of food and other forms of production, education, care of relatives and finally care of the children themselves have disappeared from the family economy (Allan Carlson). The market percolates into the family and household, identifying the separate desires of its members in order to provide services so that the family as a whole doesn’t have to, so that a family is no more than a set of brief sentimental ties. The market is ready to absorb the family and household, the public sphere to assimilate the private sphere.
If the state is not able to concede that the household is the first workplace, and must always remain so, it will take as its mission the homogenisation of roles, and promoting the absorption of the family and household into the formal economy. When the private sphere is not honoured, and its autonomy protected there is decline of morale and then of fertility, and a contracting population makes for economic contraction. So there is another marriage to be honoured – that of the public and private spheres, and another asymmetry to be observed – that between the present and the future.
Market and the state are helpless to prevent themselves from taking on the responsibilities of the family. When it does so it undermines the confidence that persons have to enter marriage and start a family. Government regards persons as individuals regardless of whether they are married: marriage – the possibility of individuals entering covenants – seems is invisible to government. Fiscal and welfare policies mean that people do not have to face the economic costs of failing to hold the family together; family break-up means the opportunity to grow to responsibility and maturity in the course of serving one another and their children is lost (Patricia Morgan The War between the State and the family: How Government divides and impoverishes). Could it be that government policies are creating a European crisis of childlessness? Is ‘demographic winter’ drawing in?
But since the dominical warning that the last will be first has become the principle that the previously marginalised give us our new norm, the married and fecund are the new marginalised. The state that does not hear from the covenanted community of the Church, is drawn into a new gospel, which declares that all relationships are equal. But if we are all undifferentiated beings, the state exists before us, nominates and delegate our functions to us. Society is then a single household, and the state is its head, our universal parent. Then the state is the one real person, the meta-human being, and we are only persons to the degree that we receive from it and serve it.
But then there is the Church, that other entity that confesses a prior covenant, and that insists that we are also essentially particular persons. Simply by being not-the-State, the Church indicates the limits of the state and prevents it from absorbing us into its totality. By distinguishing itself from the world and the state, the Church provides a true secularity and holds out against the immanent eschatologies of market and state.
4. The public and private spheres
Man who is male and female is arranged in these two forms, of public and domestic spheres. There is the family and household, this inviolate and primal unit of production and service created by a marriage, that creates children and intends to enable persons. And there is the marketplace and public square in which we encounter and exchange with one another, and again intend to become persons. There is this inner and this outer economy. Inasmuch as the Church marries people it also affirms that there are these two economies of domestic and public, inside and outside. There is a ‘marriage’ between these two spheres.
The distinction between these two economies, the family and the formal economies, relates both to the given difference between men and women (natural law), and it relates to the redemption of men and women (eschatology). It not only relates to what we are, so to the present, and regards this as good, even as the gift of God, but it relates to its formation and transformation and so to a future, which since it is genuinely future, we cannot entirely foresee. The distinction between male and female, is analogous to the distinction between outside and inside, and to the distinction between this present time and the future.
If the private economy of the household is the sphere of the married woman, the public economy of the market and formal economy is the sphere of the married man. Yet she is never wife without a husband. Each economy exists only as its seeks and serves the other, and the distinction between these economies and functions only continues as people are willing to become husbands and wives, that is, to give themselves to this one other person, for the sake of that which they can only bring into existence together.
Economics is the discourse by which we make our encounters with one another explicit, as transactions. But the discourse of economics ceases to be useful when it is asked to do too much. It is asked to do too much when the discourse of the outer public sphere – the workplace of the husband – is generalised. When wives are encouraged to have careers and ‘go out to work’ the complementarity and mutual responsibility of husband and wife, is lost: males and females cease to be husbands and wives, these relational and discipled beings. If we abolish the husband-wife distinction we are trying to talk about the inner covenanted life of the family in terms alien to it, and so to collapse the two distinct discourses of marriage (with its mutual service and subordination, within the family) and of economics (with its discourse of maximising, or satisficing and of the total reciprocity in each transaction). The result is that we can talk about the present, but not about the future.
The public sphere without the private sphere is sterile: it cannot make children. The private sphere without the public is immature, for without interaction with many other households in the public sphere and economy children cannot grow into public persons. If we do not become public persons, we cannot encounter and fall in love with and give ourselves away to, those who are not like ourselves, can take no new society-promoting initiatives, that are commercial, political, charitable, intellectual or in any other way creative.
If the household is the workplace of the married woman, to suggest that women should see it as unfulfilling is to promote ‘maleness’ over ‘femaleness’ and devalued the currency and product of the household. The economy that does this has no future. The currency of the formal economy – money – is without value unless it serves in the up-building of those persons who will create a new generation
5. Two cities, two anthropologies
If covenant is basic, mankind is multiply differentiated. There is Israel and there are the gentiles; there is the Church and there is the world; there is marriage and there all other forms of singleness and relationship; there is the household and there the public sphere of politics and economics, and finally here is this present, and there is the future, or at least, the question of the future.
The Church compares two accounts of mankind. It sets out its own christological anthropology: man is not alone but in fellowship with all men, for Christ is the truth and the future of man. And it identifies another anthropology, which declares that man is on his own, without organic relationship to anything that is not himself, and thus without any means of recognising or admitting anything that is not himself. The Church has to make this other anthropology, and this possible unhappy future for man, explicit too. There is the city of God and the city of man; more precisely, there is the society of God for man, and there is the society of man that does not know of God or even which holds out against the society of God for man.
The Church suggests that product of the economy is finally man. Economics is about the growth and ascension of man. We must say both that we are human and that we are not yet all that we shall or may be, for we have yet to become man, but we cannot say that we are yet made perfect – and so we cannot say that we above judgment. The gracious formation and discipling within that may take us towards the goal of human life in society in which human differences and uniquenesses are redeemed and affirmed.
The Church may offer its christological anthropology in which persons are glad to find themselves in covenants, and willing to enter new ones, and in which persons are not entirely knowable because they are creatures with future, and thus knowable only through time, and time without end.
The discourse of economics attempts too much
So political economy may be brought back into dialogue with theology, so that our talk about our material and financial interaction and exchange may be reunited to our talk about our ends and hopes, virtues and our deficiencies. The theological discourse of development and maturity, and of sin as regress from that maturity divided some three or four centuries back to create two discourses describing parallel worlds, in one of which man is free, in other of which he is an actor in a finite economy. But we may bring together these two languages of credit, debit and debt, and of gift, grace, and sin: then we will recover the ontology for a more mature anthropology in which the individual is not pitted against all other individuals. This describes our relationships not just as though they are necessarily fleeting, but as long-term and inter-generational too.
The Church’s discourse of gift, allows us to understand that we may love and act in freedom and so give ourselves to one another. We not only work unwillingly (driven by need) but we also work willingly in order to be able to give. God is the true labourer and giver: as we receive his labour and provision well, we may truly provide for one another without limit. The provision of God enables us to act and trade on our own account, to be active on one another behalf; he releases us into a good service and creative, even artistic, work on and for one another.
Rich accounts of man as public and material being existed long before a distinct science named ‘economics’. We produce, exchange, give and use; four concepts of production, exchange, distribution and use were employed by Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas (John D Mueller). Indeed ‘economics’ represents a very reductive view of what is happening when we meet and transact with another human being. Adam Smith, notional founder of economics as a science, offered only a reduced version of what had been regarded as economics hitherto, an account in terms of production and exchange alone. The third concept, of use or utility, and thus marginal utility (which allows that we transact in a continuum with many other transactors) was re-introduced at the end of the nineteenth century. But contemporary economics is still oblivious of the concept of gift, by which we are able to say we may also distribute deliberately and uncoerced, and thus in freedom, as persons to persons.
Economics provides us with one of the two accounts we need. It gives us the finite account in which each encounter is instantly and completely denominated and completed. Within each transaction whatever you did for me is mirrored and cancelled out by what I did for you: the total economy remains constant zero-sum – equilibrium. Each transaction is unit and monad, without promise of any continuing relationship, so in this finite account all our transacting leaves us unchanged.
We need another non-zero sum account in which it is clear that in all these encounters it is we who are being gathered, and growing and increasing (or being consumed and depleted). The (Christian) account in which the whole economy is based on covenant, promise and gift relates to the Christian insistence that man is not entirely knowable, and that his action may point to a future and that we able to risk giving ourselves for that future.
The discourse of economics allows us to talk about vast number of interactions between persons, by analogy with the interaction of non-human forces. But since it suggests that we are in a world of impersonal forces unable it is also the form in which we delegate and alienate our freedom and responsibility. Economics is thus the most obvious way in which man expresses his fear that he is fundamentally without covenant and alone.
Money is a discourse that we give too much work to do. Not everything can be made explicit. The temptation to make all explicit relates to our desire to control man, and to persuade ourselves that we already have control of him, and thus give an account in which his future is already in his present possession. The discourse of economics may be brought back into dialogue with the rest of the humanities, and so with the discourse which understands man understood as singular and covenantal being, knowable, but not yet entirely. Each of the concepts of which economics is made up can benefit from being exposed to the examination of the whole Christian, Platonic and Aristotelian tradition with their discourse of learning, judgment, self-control and self-gift. Then we can show that man is free to give himself away entirely to one other person, for the sake of yet other persons without present existence, and through this very particular covenant, to enter further covenants that make up the public sphere. We are free to give ourselves – for no certain or immediate return. So in order to talk about the human future we have to talk about covenant.