In Defense of Discrimination: Why Richard Hooker Still Matters


by Brad Littlejohn

To many casual onlookers, the renaissance of Richard Hooker that we here at Davenant have been so passionate in promoting can be more than a bit baffling. Reformed folks who know their history well are liable to remember Hooker as the hammer of the Puritans, a defender of a repressive state church and what they see as relics of popish worship. Anglicans, on the other hand, after a couple of centuries quietly venerating Hooker as a dovish model of Anglican tolerance, common sense and middle-of-the-roadness, have now by and large stopped caring about doctrine to the point that they have forgotten Hooker altogether.

To dredge this forgotten Elizabethan doctor up from the depths of time might seem a mere exercise in antiquarianism, a hobby-horse of little relevance in a time when presbyterians and Anglicans have gone their separate ways and few people lose sleep over the biblical prooftexts for the office of deacon, or whether or not we ought to recite the Lord’s Prayer in corporate worship. Why have we gone to such lengths to retrieve Hooker from a moldy cellar of theological history, dust him off, dress him up in fresh modern prose, and hold him up to the light? Well, I could give many reasons, but if I had to pick one, it would be that Hooker can teach us anew the art of discrimination.

 

 

The Art of Discrimination

It is telling that the word “discrimination,” which used to be considered a virtue, is now wholly negative in connotation. To understand the difference between one thing and another, to draw relevant distinctions, refusing to blur important boundaries between objectively different things—all of this is essential to politics, to law, to theology, and to thought in general. But today, we are inclined to deconstruct any such claims to objective distinction as just so much subjective prejudice. Richard Hooker, a master of discrimination, knew better:

 

“To lump together in speech things which are different in reality is the mother of all error. To remove all confusions which give birth to errors, it is necessary to distinguish, and to rightly distinguish, the mind must sever things of different natures and discern how they are different” (Laws III.3.1; our edition, p. 165).

We can see Hooker at work in this task of discrimination throughout his work: discriminating between nature and grace, visible and invisible, justification and sanctification, between different kinds of certainty, different kinds of law, different aspects of the church, different theories of the sacraments. And all of this discrimination, far from being a mere exercise in logic-chopping, enables Hooker, he thinks, to “resolve the consciences” of his readers—to dispel doubts, to forestall conflicts, to provide a sound basis for harmonious public action. If we are to learn from Richard Hooker today, perhaps this is the best place to start—to learn from him the difficult business of “severing things of different natures.” 

Although Hooker had plenty of choice words for Puritan leaders who were quick to jump to judgment upon their authorities, and even their brothers’ souls, and yet few virtues are so frequently praised in the Lawsas that of judgment. This might not sit well with the dovish picture of Hooker as conciliator and reconciler, occupations that we tend to think of as requiring a fair bit of fuzziness and compromise. Of course, this picture is one-sided at best; Hooker is a sharp and effective polemicist, and is not at all interested in reconciliation between truth and error. And yet it remains true that Hooker is no mere partisan; he has much more important objectives in mind than merely winning an argument or vindicating a particular theological position. It remains true, in short, that if one is looking for a relatively conciliating voice from the contentious sixteenth century, Hooker’s easily stands out from the pack. Despite being far more interested in discrimination and judgment than his 21st-century successors, Hooker is an ecumenist of sorts, a valuable resource for a deeply divided church and a divided society today trying to learn how to peacefully sort through its differences.

Of course, discrimination means labelling, and we live in an age that cannot stand labels. The reflexive “Don’t label me” of the rebellious teenager has become a motto for our generation. Everyone wants the freedom to carve out their own identity. But Hooker would have been the first to point out that we cannot very well do without labels, something that we find today in the curious paradox that our culture is obsessed with labeling even as it complains about it, cooking up a new label for the myriad of new identities we try and generate for ourselves. Whether in politics, religion, or sexuality, it seems, one now has to identify oneself in relation to an alphabet soup of different orientations and movements. And for all our insistence on freedom in shaping our identity, once shaped, we guard it jealously—as evidenced by that new term that has recently entered our language and that makes havoc of our societies, “identity politics.”

 

Identity Politics and Common Objects of Fear

So how can Hooker be both discriminating judge and irenic reconciler? Today we seemed condemned to choose between either judging and dividing or withholding judgment in order to get along. Two aspects of Hooker’s understanding of the world are worth highlighting. First, Hooker is unafraid of corporate identity. We may have gained much in the emergence of individual liberties over the past four centuries, but we have clearly lost much as well; we have lost the sense of ourselves as part of a larger whole within which we find meaning and in whose priorities we can rest without having to decide everything anew for ourselves. We bitterly resist the idea that our identity is conferred on us by our family or place or church or even national history; it is ours to remake as we wish. Of course, we have found to our chagrin that such radical individualism is not as easy as it sounds; humans naturally crave community, as Hooker well recognized, and if they throw off the claims and constraints of the community in which they are born, they will find some other community of meaning to attach themselves to. 

But here’s the catch. Because this new community is chosen rather than given, forged rather than received, it often acquires a militant zeal and defensiveness, defining itself in opposition to all others, vigorously policing dissent, and often presenting itself as the only viable future. We see this today at both ends of the cultural spectrum. On the one hand, no sooner has the gay rights movement (a paradigmatic instance of “identity politics”) won its campaign for tolerance and respect than it has turned violently on all rival communities of value, demanding no tolerance at all for traditionalist views of marriage. On the other hand, conservative denominations of all stripes, or transdenominational “movements” defined by a celebrity pastor or guru, readily develop a mass psychology defined by “insiders” and “outsiders,” “orthodox” and “apostates,” reacting fiercely to dissent and sustaining a delusional optimism about their own importance on the global religious scene. 

Richard Hooker diagnosed this social pathology right at the outset of the Laws. Commenting wryly on the religious scene in Switzerland at the time of Calvin (and no doubt with an eye toward the mindset of Puritanism in England):

 

Every new Reformed church that came along aspired to remove itself even further from any hint of the Church of Rome than the churches before it. Thus they drifted further and further apart from one another in practice, and as a result there came to be much strife, jealousy, discord, and bad blood between them (Laws Preface 2.2; our version, p. 5).

The problem that Hooker lays his finger upon here is a common one, but always destructive in social and political life. As Augustine famously observed in the City of God, and Oliver O’Donovan has masterfully expounded in our own day, communities must be defined around a common object of love; without such, they are not communities at all, but merely a chaotic herd of individuals who have congregated together for safety. Often, however, a community can substitute a common object of fear or hatred for a common object of love. This is the new state of American politics, as Senator Ben Sasse has recently described powerfully in Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal. Such a community is defined less by what they all value and hope to accomplish (although they may indeed share positive values) and more by their fear of outsiders or desire to be as unlike them as possible. To be sure, in the sixteenth century, there were many good reasons for Protestants to be afraid of Catholics and want to distance themselves from them, but such fear could never be a sustainable basis for a vibrant church, much less a system of government, as the Presbyterians hoped to create. (The unsustainability of such an ethos of paranoia was quickly proved in the tumultuous years of the English Civil War, when the Puritans finally got their turn to try and govern.)

 

Community, Identity, and History

Hooker’s answer to such a militant sense of identity, forged in conflict with the other, the oppressor, the persecutor, is a sense of identity rooted in history. This appeal to history is how Hooker’s vision of the church acquires such capacious breadth without sacrificing depth. The depth comes not from the contemporary moment, which can only sustain the necessary depth of meaning by a ferocious stress on purity, from but from the long legacy of custom and tradition. For Hooker, the common object of love that sustained his vision of an English church and civil community was the whole cultural inheritance that Elizabethan England had received, an inheritance that included not merely the triumphs of the Protestant Reformers, but the great edifice of medieval scholasticism (which, for all its errors, nonetheless offered countless lasting theological treasures), of the English legal tradition, of the early church, and the great classical heritage that had nourished the Fathers and the medievals. The result was no narrow jingoistic nationalism, but a striking cosmopolitanism—Hooker could certainly say, with Terence, humani nihil a me alienum puto (“I do not consider anything human alien to me”)—that was nonetheless deeply rooted in the particularity of the Elizabethan experience. 

Of course, communities founded on identity with the past can easily become pathological as well: resistant to change, fearful of newcomers, irrationally defensive of obsolete institutions. Such is the standing criticism of political and cultural conservatism. Hooker was certainly a conservative—we need only remember the opening sentense of the Laws(“though for no other cause, yet for this—that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream…”)—and has been criticized for undue allegiance to the status quo. But the vision of the Lawsis marked far more by its flexibility than its rigidity. While asking us to defer as a general rule to longstanding customs and conventions, Hooker repeatedly insists on the importance of rewriting or discarding obsolete old laws. Laws are “instruments to rule by,” and if that which they have to rule has changed, then so must the instrument. The identity which the past confers upon us does not weigh heavily on our shoulders, or confine us like a straitjacket, in Hooker’s philosophy of history; rather, it simply equips us with the tools to function effectively in new settings. Perhaps part of how Hooker can simultaneously sustain this reverence and looseness towards the past is the very capaciousness of the past he seeks to recover. Any community that clings doggedly to a narrow old tradition of orthodoxy in the face of persecution, that prides itself on being heir to the “faithful few” (we might think of Scots Covenanters, for instance) will be more likely to feel imprisoned rather than liberated by its historical identity. It certainly will not be able to cope well with change, change that may require it to shed elements of that identity. However, a community founded, as Hooker’s ideal community was, on Jewel, Luther, Calvin, and Vermigli, on Aquinas and Anselm, Augustine and Athanasius, Aristotle and Cicero, not to mention centuries of national law and custom, could afford to be more flexible. If one’s inheritance is vast, one need not fear the loss of any particular portion of it; such a community can change in changing times, without wholly losing its identity.

Hooker thus models for us how it might be possible to embrace a particular identity, an identity one did not even choose for oneself, without either feeling trapped in it, or using it as a weapon against every other community. In an age when our politics is descending into mutual comprehension and siege warfare, and our churches are grappling with an increasingly post-denominational landscape in which many Protestants wonder if their divisions mean something was fundamentally wrong with the Reformation, Hooker’s voice is more needed than ever. He provides us a set of categories with which to discriminate between the issues that ought to divide us, and the issues that ought not, between the identities that ought to define us, and those that should not. The particular battles today that we might fight may be different (though in some quarters of presbyterianism and Anglicanism, not much has changed in 400 years!), but the tools of wisdom, faith, and charity that we use to fight them have not. 

 

If you are struggling to understand what it means to be a faithful yet irenic Christian in a compromising church and a contentious culture, I urge to tolle et lege—take up and read. 

 

“There is no learning that this man hath not searched into; nothing too hard for his understanding: this man indeed deserves the name of an author; his books will get reverence by age, for there is in them such seeds of eternity, that if the rest be like this, they shall last till the last fire shall consume all learning.”

apocryphal quote attributed to Pope Clement VII in praise of Hooker 

 

 


 

 

Read Hooker in Modern English!