In response to the evident defects of liberalism, we might well ask what the alternatives might be. We evidently cannot return to the religious establishments of old. Even the most dedicated communitarian is highly unlikely to make such an obviously retrograde proposal. Although at least one church body has long sought to amend the US Constitution to recognize the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ, no one would argue that, for example, the state’s coercive apparatus should enforce ecclesiastical judgements issued against recalcitrant members.
Everyone now presumably agrees that the execution of heretics handed over by the Inquisition to the civil authorities was not only a very bad idea but fundamentally unjust as well. Nevertheless, the major Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries charge the civil authorities with the responsibility to “protect the sacred ministry; and thus [to] remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted.” By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this confessional charge to the political authorities was sounding less and less plausible in the increasingly pluralistic societies of Europe and North America.
In this context, the Dutch statesman and polymath Abraham Kuyper charted a different path in articulating the relationship between church and state. To begin with, Kuyper understood better than many of his predecessors that the church-state issue was part of a larger societal pattern characterized by a multiplicity of agents, including individuals and a variety of communal formations. In a mature differentiated society, an ordinary person would find herself embedded in many overlapping communities of which the gathered church and the state were only two.
The question is thus enlarged: How do church and state relate to each other? now becomes: What are the proper relationships among church, state, marriage, family, school, business enterprise, and a whole host of voluntary associations? If Thomas Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” is inadequate to account for the complex relations between state and gathered church, it is certainly inadequate for understanding how a variety of human communities function in the real world.
Kuyper came up with a description for this phenomenon: soevereiniteit in eigen kring, that is, sovereignty in its own sphere or sphere sovereignty. Of course, God himself is ultimate Sovereign, but in his grace, he has conferred limited sovereignty, or, better yet, authority, on human beings and institutions, none of which can claim this ultimacy for itself. “This perfect Sovereignty of the sinless Messiah at the same time directly denies and challenges all absolute Sovereignty among sinful men on earth, and does so by dividing life into separate spheres, each with its own sovereignty.”
Sphere sovereignty corresponds to Mouw and Griffioen’s “associational diversity,” but it is not without relevance for spiritual or directional diversity, even if it is not identical to it. The very notion of sphere sovereignty can hardly be religiously neutral because it is dependent on the recognition that ultimate sovereignty belongs to God alone and cannot be monopolized by a mere human individual or institution. In other words, what I like to call the pluriformity of authorities cannot so easily be divorced from directional diversity.
In fact, the relationship between these two types of diversity is a complicated one. Although many tend to conflate the different forms of diversity as if they were all of one piece, this is not exactly correct. The tolerance of different claims to truth so championed by Crick would, after all, allow one’s fellow citizens to believe in the very ideological illusions that would deny sphere sovereignty and ascribe ultimate sovereignty to the individual, the nation, the economic class or the state. This means that, despite the fact that the concept of sphere sovereignty, for many of us, seems better to account for societal pluriformity than does liberal individualism, the two approaches remain competitors and thus must be tolerated within the political arena.
Acknowledging pluriformity will thus stand in some tension with spiritual or directional diversity, which suggests that efforts at doing public justice to both realities will not reach an easy solution capable of commanding universal assent. The only way to lessen the tension may be for those of us who are persuaded that sphere sovereignty is superior to liberal individualism to show in practice how this superiority is manifested in ordinary life.
This is precisely what Kuyper sought to do both in his writings and in his practice. Two of his essays are particularly relevant to this effort. The first is titled, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” which he delivered fairly early in his career in 1869, that is, before he entered the Dutch Parliament and before he founded the Free University. Although this essay is perhaps marred by some of the elements of a typical nineteenth-century romantic nationalism, its central point has positive social and political ramifications: that God’s creation is a diverse creation with its unifying principle found in God alone, while a secularizing modernity is improperly preoccupied with seeking another locus of unity in something created. Hence the longstanding efforts of the various pagan and modern rulers to establish an imperial unity that would bring order to the apparent chaos of created diversity. As Kuyper puts it, “sin, by a reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity, seeks a false, deceptive unity, the uniformity of death.” The world strives for a stifling uniformity that would erase all legitimate distinctions found in God’s creation, but it does so in imitation of God’s plan, which is to unify creation in himself.
The second essay is simply titled, “Sphere Sovereignty,” and was delivered in 1880 on the occasion of the opening of the Free University. Sovereignty Kuyper defines as “the authority that has the right, the duty, and the power to break and avenge all resistance to its will.” Of course, only God can possess sovereignty in this absolute sense. Nevertheless, God has graciously conferred a portion of this sovereignty on a variety of earthly agents. As Kuyper affirms, “This perfect Sovereignty of the sinless Messiah at the same time directly denies and challenges all absolute Sovereignty among sinful men on earth, and does so by dividing life into separate spheres, each with its own sovereignty.” The state and the gathered church are but two of these spheres, which also include “a domain of the personal, of the household, of science, of social and ecclesiastical life, each of which obeys its own laws of life, each subject to its own chief.” The differences among these spheres are irreducible in that the sheer variety of spheres cannot be reduced to or derived from a single sphere superior to all others. God has invested each with its own authority and given it a distinctive calling within the larger panorama of his creation. This is something for which liberal individualism cannot easily account.
An example will suffice to illustrate this. I am lecturing a class of eighteen-year-olds in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, and someone walks into the room without prior knowledge of what she will find there. She may be aware that people are inside, but as yet she has no idea who these people are or what they will be doing or what sort of relationships might exist among them. However, once she enters the room, she does not have to employ sophisticated reasoning to intuit the presence of an instructor and students whose interactions are structured by the classroom context. She knows, almost without thinking, that she is not in the presence of a family. The reasons are obvious. The oldest person in the room is decades older than every one of the young people and physically resembles very few, if any, of them. In other words, he is obviously not their father. He is too short and dark, whereas the males in particular tend to be tall and blond. There is no way he could have sired all of them, at least without the co-operation of a large number of prospective female partners. In other words, there are unmistakable biological cues that this is not a familial community. The fact that the young people are seated at desks while the older adult is on his feet talking up a blue streak suggests that this is not a gathered church community either. Nor is it a parliamentary body, few of which would have eighteen-year-olds as deputies and certainly not in these numbers. Nor is it a business enterprise, a labor union or a garden club. The reality of the classroom community presents itself to the visitor almost immediately upon entry. It is not an abstraction created in her mind out of the raw data of aggregated individuals. The classroom is a classroom. The labor union is a labor union. State is state, and church is church. It is as simple as that.
Many people tend to assume, drawing on H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories, that Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty is part of a grand effort at Christ transforming culture, perhaps through political means. Yet that is to misunderstand what sphere sovereignty is about. Yes, it has implications for political and other forms of social life, but it is above all a framework enabling us to understand the diversity of God’s creation, especially the human cultural and social project. It represents an effort to grasp social realities apart from the distorting effects of the post-revolutionary ideological illusions that sought unity somewhere other than in the creating, redeeming and sustaining God.
However, it is fairly evident to even the casual reader of Kuyper that he did not develop sphere sovereignty into a sophisticated theoretical framework capable of making fine but necessary distinctions. For example, he rather easily conflated political federalism, contextual diversity and societal pluriformity. It would fall to Kuyper’s more philosophical heirs, such as Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), to articulate a more consistent theoretical foundation for sphere sovereignty, something that would have an impact on such organizations as the Center for Public Justice, the Canadian think tank Cardus, the Christian Labour Association of Canada, the Acton Institute, and the network of Christian universities loosely associated with the Christian Reformed Church. In some fashion these would all affirm principled pluralism, including the spiritual or directional pluralism described by Mouw and Griffioen, yet they recognize that they still have an important task before them, namely, to persuade their fellow citizens that a framework taking seriously the diversity of God’s creation is superior to those attempting artificially to squeeze this diversity into a single principle, whether that be the sovereignty of the individual or that of the state, nation, people or class.
Acceptance of directional or spiritual diversity is not, in other words, a pretext for acquiescing in the persistence of differences of opinion that really do matter. There are still battles to be fought and there will continue to be such until Christ returns. But it does mean, in most circumstances, that we wage our battles with civil means, making our case before the watching world and demonstrating, as we are able, that recognizing and respecting societal pluriformity, better than its competitors, leads to flourishing communities and balanced social development. There will never be a complete congruence between these two types of diversity, but one provides a context for us to promote the other to the best of our abilities, and that may be the best we can hope for in between the times.