On the limits of the state

Iain Benson considers truth claims, civil society, and theocracy.



Iain Benson considers truth claims, civil society, and theocracy.


How can truth claims be maintained in a free and democratic society while at the same time respecting those who don’t believe them? I think the key here is to understand that truth claims don’t go all the way up, or shouldn’t go all the way up. To use a biblical analogy, when – and it’s often lawyers who interrogate Jesus, it’s fascinating, it’s a lawyer who comes to ask the question. And they’re often questions about jurisdiction. And the one I’m thinking about at the moment in relation to this question of truth claims is whether we should pay taxes. And the response is the famous coin, and “Whose image is on the coin?” This is a gesture towards recognising the appropriate jurisdiction of the state as we now would call it, law and politics.

Remember there’s a trialogue involved in culture. The state is law and politics, in a sense is the … are the systems that govern the ordering. Society, our civil society and voluntary organisations, those are the things we join freely. And there are things that we join we may be born into – so that’ll be our family, our community. And then our clubs – sports, music, all of the things … women’s groups, men’s groups, gay rights groups, you name the kind of group, they all have a voice in the voluntary association, and what results is culture.

Culture is what results from the mediation of civil society by law, ok? The problem with the coin – Jesus uses the coin, he says, whose image is on this coin? Caesar. Ok, you pay taxes to that realm. But to God’s realm, that’s where the rest – and virtually everything really important – happens, ok. So the problem with religion’s historical incapacity to deal with difference – what we now would call theocracy, the rule of the state by belief in God – was its confusion about the extent to which one side of the coin should govern the other side of the coin.