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Why Law, Why Religion?—A Conversation Between a Lawyer and a Theologian

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2015


Categories such as religion and law are social constructs, proposed for some purpose or other, good or ill, but whose use is worthy of serious question. Consider, e.g., Karl Barth's insistence that Christianity is not a religion or Dietrich Bonhoeffer's coinage of “religionless Christianity.” I will later offer a way of delineating how I use these categories of religion and law, but I am mindful in doing so that there are many ways these, and allied terms, are invoked. We should acknowledge, for instance, that there are many Christianities; many forms of Buddhism; and differing kinds of Islam. We should take note of the serious question whether "customary law" is really “law.” How about “natural law”—is it really law or a “brooding omnipresence in the sky”? Are Torah, Shari'a, Dharma, and Tao cognate terms in some sense? Are they simultaneously “religion” and “law”? In what respect are canon law and common law both “lawful”? Should we adopt Wittgenstein's proposal that words, after all, are but tools embracing a “family of meanings”?

Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2008

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page 373 note 1. See Wittgenstein's, LudwigPhilosophical Investigations (Anscombe, G.E.M. trans., Basil Blackwell Oxford 1968) (originally published Macmillan 1953)Google Scholar where, reflecting about the status of language, he suggests that in pursuing the meaning of words we seek not an inner essence, but instead look at their usage in varying contexts. Hence the same word may have multiple meanings, even though those meanings may resemble each other.

page 374 note 2. YPSL is the acronym of the Young People's Socialist League, a part of the Socialist Party of America which at the time was under the leadership of Norman Thomas. FOR is an acronym for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest interfaith peace association in the United States, initiated in Great Britain in 1914.

page 374 note 3. These words, set to the melody of a Welch hymn, were drawn from a longer poem by Lowell, James Russell, The Present Crisis, composed in 1844Google Scholar. That poem later became an inspiration to founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was the origin of the name of its central publication, The Crisis.

page 375 note 4. Meland, Bernard Eugene, Faith and Culture 111112 (Oxford U. Press 1953)Google Scholar.

page 376 note 5. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, is among the founders of Latin American liberation theology, devoting much of his life to living among the poor in Lima. His text, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Orbis Books 1973)Google Scholar, is a classic statement of the fundamental principles of that continuing theological tradition. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist cleric, was prominent in the civil rights struggle during the late 1950s and the 1960s in the United States. His call for a global revolution of values culminating in an encompassing “beloved community” persists among his devotees among many forms of faith. Rosemary Radford Ruether, a Roman Catholic theologian and activist, considers herself an eco-feminist. She is a critic of the patriarchalism of the Roman Catholic tradition, a vigorous opponent of military violence, and a radical progressive in political philosophy. Michael Lerner is a rabbi and political progressive who, throughout his activist life, founded a magazine, Tikkun, and an associated community dedicated to the transformation of the world. He collaborated with like-minded activists among other forms of faith in developing a Network of Spiritual Progressives to promote a “politics of meaning” whose basic principles are affirmed in a “Spiritual Covenant” setting it over against prevailing forms of both liberalism and conservatism.