Covenant or Contract?

Some philosophers distinguish between a covenant and a contract.  Here St. Olaf Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Ed Langerak outlines a Christian covenantal ethic as distinct from a social contract:

“Covenantal ethics can be compared and contrasted with the social contract tradition that has decisively influenced political liberalism.  The appeal of a social contract is that autonomous individuals voluntarily (though, perhaps hypothetically) make promises agreeable to all the contractors.  In the Hobbesian strand of the tradition, these agreements are based on little more than the self-interest of the parties, whereas in the Kantian strand, the parties impose other restrictions on themselves that give the agreements a moral character not reducible to prudential bargaining.  The best known example of the latter is John Rawls’ use of the “veil of ignorance” to screen out the undeserved advantages and disadvantages (such as congenital health conditions) of the contractors, in order to insure a hypothetical contracting situation that is fair to all.  Under the “veil” restriction, each person will be treated as free and equal, since no contractor can risk turning out to be someone not so treated.  Indeed, regarding each other as free and equal choosers is the underlining theme in this influential version of political liberalism, which is why it emphasizes our right to decide which goods to pursue, rather than our rightly deciding the right goods to pursue.

Covenantal ethics also incorporates elements of voluntariness as well as respect for free and equal individuals, but they play a different role from that of contract thinking. Covenants typically are grounded in gifts, entrustments, events, or actions whereby persons become vulnerable to each other in a caring community that seeks both the common good and the good of each individual.  The covenantal roles are important ingredients in the identities of the members, and how one responds to one’s covenantal privileges and responsibilities shapes that identity.  Covenants endure over time, and circumstances change those responsibilities in ways that cannot be explicitly listed, which is why the idea of a marriage contract sounds as strange and minimalistic as a list of parent’s duties to children or of children’s to parents.  People often discover that they have covenantal responsibilities and recognize what they are, rather than negotiate an agreement about them; the corporate and historical dimensions of our existence can sometimes saddle us with responsibilities that we never foresaw, much less contracted for. This does not mean that voluntariness plays no role in covenantal thinking, since we can affirm or refuse responsibilities that bear down on us, and whether and how (gladly or reluctantly) we do so has important implication for our identities.  Indeed, generally the special covenants that shape us–community, church, family–have an “exit privilege” that distinguishes them from slavery, which is an important feature that underscores the continuing importance of voluntary choice in covenants, even as it underscores the difference from the unencumbered choice of entering a commercial contract.  When people affirm covenantal responsibilities that events thrust on them by saying “I had no choice,” they are indicating not that they are not free to refuse, but that they could not refuse and still keep the moral identity that their covenantal life had so far defined for them. Appreciating how a thickly encumbered covenantal self recognizes rather than simply chooses responsibilities is quite compatible with admiring the decision precisely because one appreciates that covenantal ties bind without reducing to bondage.

That covenantal responsibilities cannot be explicitly listed as contractual duties creates a problem and a corresponding opportunity for a covenantal ethic.  The problem is that being grounded in entrustment, gratitude, and caring relationship, it provides more motivation than precise guidance, a more lively “why” for action than a specific “what.”  Of course, if we think of covenantal responsibilities as covering a spectrum from strict duties–some of which are legally enforceable, like murder and theft–to supererogatory self-sacrifice that goes beyond obligation, it is quite possible to be fairly explicit about the strict duties, and perhaps even the obligations in the middle range of the spectrum.  But many of our covenantal responsibilities depend on a thick description of vulnerability and “response-ability,” and are inspired more by stories of good Samaritans than by coercion or even moral disapprobation.  Thus many moral decisions will be debatable, even among covenant members.  The corresponding opportunity is that, to avoid problems of “indeterminate earnestness” when even the saints are finite at best and foolish at worst, a covenantal upbringing must nurture character with stories, symbols, and role models in a way that develops a disposition to discern the (more or less) appropriate response in exquisitely complex and ambiguous situations.  I admit, and in this paper ignore, the difficulties of achieving such a disposition, and simply note that it will be appealed to later.

So far I have been alluding to what are called “special covenants,” those with family and smaller communities.  But covenantal ethics also teaches an “inclusive covenant” with all persons.  Unfortunately, the dark side of too many covenantal people is that they do a better job of being neighborly to those with whom they are in special covenantal relationships than in recognizing the scope of who is a neighbor; it is difficult to infuse the inclusive covenant with the vitality too often restricted to special covenants.  Hence Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan.  It is natural and appropriate that special covenants have thicker motivations, ties, and responsibilities, but the Biblical doctrine of being created in God’s image, requires us to recognize that every person deserves the sort of love and respect due imagers of God.  This doctrine has rightfully been called “the democratizing of the image of God,” since it makes a radical move:  the high status that until then in the Middle East was claimed only by royalty, is now applied to all persons.  The implication is that some of the awe we feel toward God we should also feel toward all persons, who image God, both as “mirrors” who have some of God’s characteristics, such as creativity, and as “representatives” who have the privilege and responsibility to make stewardly decisions about how to live and act in God’s world.

This awe toward imagers of God calls for a reverential and diffident love, one that incorporates a “stand-back” element and not just an urge to nurture:  it “eschews domination” and, says Glenn Tinder, fans both a reason and a passion for seeing each individual as “exalted” and as an end-in-herself.  Tinder argues that this reverence toward the sanctity of persons provides a firmer ground for toleration than do appeals to utility or to a secular notion of universal dignity.  Even if liberty is not a value in itself, it is such an important aspect of incorporating all other values to oneself that we must take a “tragic view of liberty” and admit that the theological requirement to grant it to fallen people, while an act of hope, does make a possible way for sin.  Toleration, after all, is neither indifference nor affirmation; it involves enduring behavior that one thinks is wrong on a matter that one cares about.  This is why it took so long for Christians to realize that, not only are there powerful practical and prudential arguments for religious toleration, there are also important theological and covenantal moral principles to ground it.  Each normal, adult member of a covenantal body is a thinking member, and must be addressed as a hearer and giver of reasons, not just as a follower of orders, even of orders that are in his or her own interests.  Thus Christians have theological reasons for respecting autonomy, though they need not agree with the type of liberalism in which autonomy outranks all other goods.  And, of course, many actions cannot be tolerated.  However, that is not because they are wrong, but because they are wrong in ways that cause significant and intolerable balances of harm over benefit.  Indeed, we may have to be intolerant of some actions which are based on views that, while wrong, can be respected as reasonable and as ones that people are entitled to hold.  The question we must return to is whether, when deciding issues of intoleration and coercion, Christians should be covenantally disposed toward specific sorts of self-restraint in making their political decisions and arguments about harms and goods, out of respect for imagers of God, even erring ones.

My final point about Christian covenantal ethics, is that it sees many of the main secular ethical theories as one-sided exaggerations of valuable elements in a responsible ethic, and not simply as contradictions to it, though it recognizes that an exaggeration can sometimes inspire contradictions and not just embellishments of the truth.  Even Christians who are leery of appeals to a natural law available to neutral reason can grant that the fall does not prevent humans from appreciating the basic values necessary for social existence, if not flourishing.  Thus we are not surprised that there tends to be, among thick world views (or what Rawls calls “comprehensive doctrines”), an overlapping consensus of thin, or minimal, values.  These tend to emerge only on those special political occasions when we are asking about possible accommodation between communities with different–and even largely conflicting–outlooks.  To call such values “thin” or “minimal” is not to imply that they are shallow or lack intensity.  Nor does it imply that they are a universal foundation for tacking on the thick or maximal values that are distinctive to communities and that give moral and religious identity and motivation to individuals.  Thin values are generally embedded in the thick ones, and it takes special effort and special occasions to see whether there is overlapping consensus and what it might be.  And when it is located, it involves the values that are closest to our moral bones:  “thinness and intensity go together, whereas with thickness comes qualification, compromise, complexity, and disagreement.”  Moreover, each community will retain its distinctive way of expressing the basic values; they are less a moral Esperanto than a recognition that different comprehensive doctrines have their distinctive ways of inspiring overlapping commitments to the health of social unions.  Still, these basic values can function as a check on maximal ones; even if they cannot be given a context independent justification, their sharing common features can be used to critique abuses sometimes perpetrated in the name of diversity.  Of course, one can agree with the above and still wonder whether any overlapping consensus is substantial enough to settle most debates about what society should legally tolerate and what it should not.