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Theology and the Boundary Discourse of Human Rights

Ethna Regan
Published by Georgetown University Press in 2010

It is refreshing to read a deeply philosophical book rooted in the author’s passion for social ministry. Ethna Regan has provided an argument for the proper manner in which to understand the language of human rights in the context of theological discussions about social justice, an argument seated in her years of work with street children in developing regions of the world. Regan’s goal is to construct a working definition of human rights that avoids both the harsh criticism hurled at “rights-talk” recently and the tendency to assign the notion of rights too heavy of a load in Christian moral calculus. Human rights, according to Regan, function best in the larger context of “situated universalism,” avoiding the pitfalls of relativism while also constantly retrieving the notion that human rights “are always situated somewhere” (11). Further, she contends that the language of human rights is a “dialectical boundary discourse,” meaning that it holds in tension an array of polarities that renders human rights a supple discourse for any environment and that human rights-language establishes the boundaries of moral reflection and action. Nonetheless, the usefulness of rights-language is limited. Human rights must exist in a larger complex of moral concepts, assisting and leading where need be, but always holding a line that maintains the essential dignity of every human being and ensures access to basic needs.

Regan fashions her argument dialectically, placing her notion of human rights in various philosophical, theological, and political contexts. First, she suggests the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights eschews metaphysical arguments for human rights, while positing rights for all as a fundamental human characteristic. She engages in similar analyses of the place of human rights in, or the compatibility of human rights with, various documents and thinkers: several papal encyclicals, the thinking of the two most recent popes, Jürgen Moltmann, Karl Rahner, Paul Ricoeur, Johann Baptist Metz, the tradition of liberation theology, and the “new traditionalists.” Rahner’s elaboration on the human, under the guise of the “anonymous Christian,” affords Regan the opportunity to widen the scope of human dignity beyond the specifics of confessional Christianity, while simultaneously harnessing that dignity to the truth of the Christian faith. In the shadow of Ricoeur’s “just memory,” Regan argues that Metz’s elevation of memory as the key to combating the objectification of the other constitutes a bridge between the transcendental theology of Rahner and the praxis of the liberation tradition, a bridge that demands that we acknowledge the “authority of those who suffer” (133). Regan then recounts the development of the liberation tradition, which was initially critical of human rights-language as a mask for first-world hegemony, but which later began to see human rights as a helpful way to express the “preferential option for the poor.” Finally, Regan engages the “post liberal critique” of rights, with a focus on John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, and Daniel Bell. She argues that, collectively, this critique says something important about the limitations of rights-discourse for Christian ethics and about the importance of the priority of the church, but it unduly dismisses the secular, that which is outside the church, as people and circumstances that fall outside the scope of Christian ethics. Regan contends that simply dismissing the imperative to seek the betterment of the whole world, including the secular, seems fundamentally incompatible with the Great Commission of the Christian faith.

This book provides a lot to think about. First, Regan helpfully articulates a role for rights that provides basic moral boundaries, and yet also tries not to assign too much philosophical work to the notion of rights. But one wonders whether or not her construal of rights as a“boundary discourse” can do one of the above without the other. If human rights remain the central moral category for describing a general obligation to make sure people have their basic needs met, “rights” need a robust philosophical defense that does some basic things.The relationship between rights and duties must be clearer than Regan makes it out to be. If one person has a right to food, who has the obligation to provide that food? If it is a collective obligation, there needs to be some articulation and defense of a collective obligation. Unfortunately, the reader does not get much on these critical fronts. Second, Regan never offers a satisfactory explanation for why we absolutely need rights-language, especially since it is such a controversial moral category in philosophical and theological discussions. Why is rights-language better than the language of “human dignity” or of “human need”? Regan provides no reason for thinking that the language of rights is any better than other languages that may do a better job conveying the deep, moral imperatives that confront us.

One of the most problematic issues with the work is structural. The chapters of the book do not hold together very well, especially as the reader strains to see how particular chapters offer a defense of Regan’s preferred notion of rights. For instance, how does the chapter on Metz and memory bolster a conception of rights as boundary discourse? Sure, it compels one to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust and to remember that all human beings have dignity, but why must we discuss all of this in terms of rights? So the problem is how to trace the thesis of the book through the various parts of the book.

There are a number of things to be commended in Regan’s book. First, her discussion of the limitations of the “new traditionalists” seems correct to me, though I think she needs to go much further in defending her alternative position. Simply to dismiss the concerns of the secular, the worldly, in order to maintain the theological and moral purity of the church ignores a lot of suffering in the world to which God calls us to attend. We need theological ways to think about this as the church, but certainly Regan is correct that we cannot ignore the suffering in the world. Second and finally, I am generally in agreement with Regan that rights need to have a much-reduced role in our moral discourse, but that does not mean they have to be eliminated altogether. Rather, rights can exist in a larger moral context where we also discuss virtues, duties, natural laws, and so on. I am not convinced of Regan’s argument for the necessity of rights in that larger context, but I do submit that they can exist in that context and carry some moral load.

Cite this article
Geoffrey C. Bowden, “Theology and the Boundary Discourse of Human Rights”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:3 , 331-333

Geoffrey C. Bowden

Geoffrey C. Bowden, History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences, MaloneUniversity