God of Action, God of Institutions. But Capacity of Individuals.

In a post from last week (and subsequent comments), Greg challenged me to provide an “intellectual architecture to guide our thinking about how to resolve disputes between the consciences of individuals and the institutions that form those consciences.” Vital and such, and also hard.

Greg proposes that we connect the capax dei — a naturally-instilled capacity for God — not only in conscience but also in institutions. His reasoning is that “God is a God of action and not just of knowledge and contemplation”, and to place the capax dei solely in the conscience would imply that we act on our religious beliefs only in contemplation. Thus, we must locate the capax dei also in institutions.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, though, the conscience relies, in part, and both knowingly and not, on institutions for its formation…To deny religion its role would be grossly unfair, favoring secular institutions’ influence in forming the conscience. In other words, institutions do form the conscience, so to discriminate against religious institutions’ attempts to form the conscience — which generally includes some sort of institutional authority claims over its adherents, even if only in the educative sense — would actually be to favor secular institutions (education, media, etc.).

Greg is summing up my above position as “conscience requires institutions to form it,” which isn’t entirely what I mean but I take the point. (I would say that institutions necessarily do form consciences — goodness, take education as an institution and we’re already there, but there are plenty of media, cultural, social and religious institutions to point to that influence the conscience, both obviously and subtly.) He sees this position as inadequate for providing the intellectual architecture mentioned above, and suggests instead that if we “articulate how institutions are connected to the capax dei without having to run that connection through the conscience,” we will be better off for it.

Thus far, Greg’s actual words. Now, a reading into those words:

I think that Greg is resisting my situating the capax dei in the conscience alone because he think that if we can connect institutions — educational, artistic, professional, et al, — directly to God (n.b.: not to the capacity for God), we will be better off. In other words, if we can have at our disposal a defense of the work for its own sake, because it is part of the creative work that God entrusts to human beings, we will have a much richer defense against centralized edicts (actual or by funding restrictions) declaring what education, art, science, et al. ought to look like. If, on the other hand, we can only defend work and institutions against government encroachment by finding a way in which that encroachment violates consciences, we have very few resources to draw upon.

On this, we agree – that is, if this “Greg thinks thusly” characterization is correct. In other words, we have freedom, we ought to have freedom, to carry out all kinds of institutional work simply because it is part of God’s creation, and decidedly not the state’s creation. And that freedom should be the default position, not only ‘granted’ when conscience demands it. So in an important way, God resides in those institutions themselves. (I probably need correcting from a theologian on how to articulate that point, though.)

But I still don’t think that the capacity for God, as intended in the old doctrine of capax dei, resides in those institutions. I want to keep this as just a capacity for God, not God Himself. And that capacity is, I have to maintain, not itself active. The manifestation of it is certainly active; it is work, art, education, everything. That is, the capax dei does manifest itself in institutions. But the capacity itself is something that compels the conscience, rather than an institution, toward God or at least the search for religious truth.

Why this  matters is that I want to argue that the capax dei is an important tool in the preservation of the freedom of religion and not just the freedom of conscience. The conscience can tell a person all kinds of things; it can be wholly individualized. This leaves us without any mechanism for arbitrating between individuals’ conscience-based claims. But the capax dei links the conscience to religions, and imbues those religions with not only the value of conscience claims but with an institutional authority as that institution that mediates the individual’s capax dei with deo. Again, as I wrotea natural capacity and desire for God means that we as humans must be free to pursue not only our consciences’ demands, but God Himself. This is a subtle but very important distinction, for if we need only obey our own consciences, we can probably stop with philosophy, which helps us understand the nature of the good. But if we have natural desires and capacities to know God, we must also have religion — and, consequently, freedom of religion.

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