The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God

Eric Nelson. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-674-24094-0
Nelson (The Royalist Revolution), a Harvard professor of history and political philosophy, argues in this tantalizing analysis that liberalism has its roots in deep questions of theology. In particular, Nelson outlines the thinking of early modern philosophers such as John Locke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who endorsed the principle of human freedom when considering how people choose to obey or deny moral laws. Human freedom was particularly crucial to Leibniz’s understanding of theodicy—or the “problem of evil,” which attempts to answer why there are evil people if God exists. Tracing these ideas from the Enlightenment into the 20th-century work of John Rawls, Nelson pushes back against some of Rawls’s conclusions regarding the “moral arbitrariness” of distribution (particularly the distribution of wealth and opportunity) and how institutions can deliver justice. In the end, Nelson’s solution is what has been an underdeveloped path forward based on ancient Greek Pelagianism (which resisted a good-versus-evil dichotomy). While the work is brief, Nelson’s historical arguments are thorough and detailed. He provides concrete examples and quotes illustrating each philosopher’s position, and pulls from literary classics such as King Lear, which questions whether “the inequality of fortunes by human beings impeaches the justice of God.” However, the prose can be arduous to follow, with dense writing overflowing with technical terminology. Scholarly readers already familiar with the philosophical concepts will glean much from Nelson’s piquant argument. (Oct.)
Reviewed on : 08/02/2019
Release date: 10/01/2019
Genre: Religion
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