The Church and Secularity: Two Stories of Liberal Society

By Robert Gascoigne | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Two Stones of Liberal Society

The Ambivalence of Freedom in Liberal Society

A key characteristic of a liberal society is its ambivalence, its propensity to tell two stories. The first of these stories is of individual freedom as the source of creativity and diversity, as the warrant of critical reason to constantly reform social institutions for the sake of the common good; this story proclaims the right of even the most apparently insignificant to make their voices heard in the debates that concern their destiny. The other story is of freedom as a voluntarism that destroys the ethical and cultural substance of tradition, leaving only the emptiness of self-indulgent whim; it is a story of a society with astonishingly sophisticated means of communication but with little more than trivia and sensationalism to communicate. This ambivalence about freedom suggests a particular role for the Christian church in the context of liberal societies: to assist those societies in telling their positive story of freedom by illuminating the sources of freedom in human dignity and by acting in solidarity with all those who commit themselves to enhancing our consciousness of this dignity and to giving it practical effect.

By a liberal society, I mean a society in which the invocation of tradition is not sufficient to constrain or limit individual freedom. I understand the contrast between liberal and traditional societies to be the contrast between a society that gives priority to individual freedom and one that gives priority to certain forms of behavior that express a society's past and give it social unity. In a traditional society, these forms of behavior are not merely options or recommendations, but practices that are associated with strong expectations, constraints, and sanctions, such that if an individual were to ignore them they would experience, to varying degrees, social exclusion or anomie. A

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