Yale Daily News

Author and Harvard professor Eric Nelson argued in a talk last week that many liberal political ideas are rooted in religious teaching, suggesting the two concepts typically seen as disparate are in fact related.

Nelson spoke to a crowd of around 50 Yale community members in the Whitney Humanities Center on Thursday. Drawing on ideas from his book “The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God,” Nelson argued that “given the theological and ethical views that most Western theorists have shared over the last two millennia, there is simply not a sharp distinction to be made between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ arguments about values such as justice, fairness and rights.”

He drew significantly from Pelagian thought — a Christian argument that original sin from the Garden of Eden does not inherently taint all humans — to describe a concept of freedom, which can lead to an original form of liberalism rooted in accountability.

“Freedom is the one thing that is transcendently valuable,” Nelson said. “That is to say, our capacity for morality — the fact that human beings are able freely to choose to do good — is the thing that has transcendent value. And if, as we must suppose … it was necessary, in order for there to be creatures like us who are capable of morality and freedom in this world, that this world also as a byproduct must contain certain ‘bads’ like earthquakes and cancer — then God’s justice in creation can be vindicated, as well in so far as the transcendent value of morality and freedom outweighs the badness of those ‘bads’ that we must assume are simply part of the recipe that goes into creating a world that features good beings like us.”

Nelson further emphasized that liberal thought emerged from theodicy — the Christian dilemma of the existence of suffering and injustice “if God is both good and all-powerful.”

Nelson initially got the idea for the book in 2010 when he met colleagues Michael Rosen, Jeremy Waldron, Tamsin Shaw and Sam Moyn to discuss the place of religion in contemporary political philosophy.

“Professor Waldron had the idea that we should all do some common reading in advance of the event, and he accordingly assigned us John Rawls’ undergraduate senior thesis,” Nelson said. “I recall at the time being rather annoyed at having to engage with this piece of Rawlsian juvenalia. But as I read the text, I became transfixed. I had always joked with my students that Rawls’ political theory was secularized Augustinianism. I now began to consider for the first time the possibility that this might not be a joke.”

Nelson emphasized that the “liberalism” in his book is a tradition in political philosophy, and the research in his book examines “what has gone wrong” with this political philosophy to examine the contemporary “liberal” political label.

This lecture was sponsored by the Yale Humanities program, which brings in scholars to deliver talks on the “pursuit of fundamental insights into the human condition as they arise in literature, the arts, history, philosophy and the sciences.”

“The Humanities Program has been sponsoring a number of events on humanistic approaches to political questions,” Professor Bryan Garsten, who is the chair of the Humanities program, said. “I especially like to sponsor events in books. Authors devote their full attention to developing the most nuanced version of their thoughts in full-length books. Events such as this one allow us to confront and discuss the best of their thinking.”

Writing this book has prompted Nelson to become more interested in exploring “how individuals can be said to ‘consent’ to political institutions in ways having nothing to do with voting.”

Imad Rizvi ’22 walked out of the talk with a “better understanding and appreciation” of political philosophy.

“The talk was very interesting and I am glad I got to learn more about Pelagian thought, something I haven’t been able to explore much of before,” Rizvi said.

This event was also sponsored by the Elm Institute.

Khue Tran | khue.tran@yale.edu