Is God democratic?

In his essay, Why Democracy, Stanley Fish explores, among other things, the relationship between God and democracy. He writes: “Is God democratic?” That one’s easy. God, like Hobbes’ sovereign, requires obedience, and those who worship him must subordinate their personal desires to his will. (Here the Abraham/Isaac story is paradigmatic.) His rule, therefore, is the antithesis of democracy, which elevates individual choice to a position of primacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that God frowns on democratic states or requires a theocratic one or has any political opinions at all. (On the other hand, someone who, like Walt Whitman, believes that God is not a separate being but resides in each of us might conclude that democracy is the deity’s favored form of government).’

I am reminded here of two words: one from CS Lewis and the other from (surprise, surprise) PT Forsyth. Lewis writes,

I am a democrat [believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation. . . .The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

And from Forsyth:

Democracy is but a half-truth. It must have a King. Aristocracy is just as true and as needful. It builds on an authority in things no less than democracy builds on an equality. The free personality of democracy is only possible under a free authority. The free soul is only possible in a free King … There must always be a House of Moral Lords. There must always be leaders and led, prophets and people, apostles and members, genius and its circle, and elect and a called. Ah! democratic and aristocratic principles are both deep in the foundations of our Christian faith.

Democracy is, after all, only ‘the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time’ (E.B. White)

Rowan Williams on Theocracy

A confession: the only book by Rowan Williams that I’ve read (or been interested in reading, until recently) is his Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love – a book as profound as it is beautiful. A few weeks ago, I read Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams by Mike Higton. This planted a desire to go and read some more Williams – a desire I’ve tried resisting mainly because he’s so trendy at the moment and I have an aversion to trendy theologians (a story for another blog perhaps). Tonight I started reading his On Christian Theology – another beautifully written book. I thought I’d share the three points he makes on theocracy for two reasons: (i) because it struck me how his words echo similar reverberations in Forsyth’s own thinking on the topic (there is no evidence of which I am aware that Williams is familiar with Forsyth); and (ii) because I think there’s much here to reflect on.

‘Theocracy assumes that there can be an end to dialogue and discovery; that believers would have the right (if they had the power) to outlaw unbelief. It assumes that there could be a situation in which believers in effect had nothing to learn, and therefore that the corporate conversion of the Church could be over and done with. Second, following from this, theocracy assumes an end to history. The powerful suggestions of Barth and von Balthasar about history between the resurrection and the second coming as the gift of a time of repentance and growth are set aside; instead of God alone determining the end of the times of repentance, the Church seeks for foreclose the eschaton. Third, most obviously, theocracy reflects a misunderstanding of the hope for God’s kingdom, a fusion of divine and earthly sovereignty in a way quite foreign to the language and practice of Jesus. Theocracy, the administration by Christians of a monolithic society in which all distinction between sin and crime is eroded, is neither a practical nor a theologically defensible goal’. – Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 36.