SovereigntyTo Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, and others who lived in the misnamed and therefore misleading Dark Ages, God alone was sovereign. Church and state were virtually one. God’s sovereignty on earth being administered by prophet and priest.

But then came the great rebellion, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. God’s sovereignty was bound and chained to the church. The state was set free and its rise was hailed by men such as Hobbes, Locke, and Machiavelli.

In time, however, with God, if not dead, at least on His sickbed, and the utopian dreams of the state proving too ethereal or turning into a nightmare, man took it upon himself to become his own sovereign. Believing the original lie, mankind came full circle in the philosophy of Kant, Mill, and Nietzsche.

The late Jean Bethke Elshtain traces and tackles all of this in her fascinating and challenging book, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. Not for the faint of heart, reading Elshtain’s book, according to some critics, is like sitting in one of her philosophy classes at the University of Chicago. Fair enough—it’s heady stuff. But if you choose to stick it out, and not drop her class, she has much to teach. The best professors are always the most demanding professors. And this is a demanding book, dealing with a demanding subject.

As a Christian, it should come as no surprise that Elshtain eschews the notions that the state or the self is “unbound” (unlimited) in their sovereignty; one leads to an utopian fantasy that becomes the seedbed of tyranny and despotism, the other leads to nihilism that becomes the seedbed of concentration camps, pogroms, abortion, euthanasia, and genetic manipulation (cloning). She doesn’t come to these conclusion flippantly, but through careful thought and analysis.

A champion of “bound” (limited) state and self sovereignty, Elshtain roots both in the only other sovereignty available: God’s sovereignty. Or as she sometimes calls it, “transcendence.” It is only when the state and the self recognizes that sovereignty, unbound, is held in higher hands than their own will the state and the self flourish. She makes this argument, yes through the likes of Augustine and other Christian thinkers, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but her surprising (and refreshing) ally is the atheist Albert Camus. Relying on Camus’s essay The Rebel and novel The Plague, Elshtain argues that humans—individual, unique persons, not a collection of automatons—were made for community; we were made for each other. However, community can never be achieved if the state or the self insists on unlimited sovereignty because the interest of unbound states and selves will war with each other, insisting that each other give way so each other can fully exercise their sovereignty. In other words, without agreement and obedience to a transcendent sovereign our states and our selves fall into anarchy and violence. Nietzsche called this the “will to power.” Here’s how Camus put it in The Rebel:

If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro or con: the murderer is neither right nor wrong. We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. . . . Since nothing is either true or false, good or bad, our guiding principle will be to demonstrate that we are the most efficient, in other words, the strongest. That is the only measure of success.

Elshtain ends her study of sovereignty with a story of how one Catholic organization—one that obviously adhere’s to the unbounded sovereignty of God, the lover of human souls and bodies—cares for the handicapped. “Love may not be all we need,” Elshtain observes, “but without it we are naught but husks or willful ‘spirits’ rushing onward into the abyss.”

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