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Persons, Community, and the Image of God in Rawls’s Brief Inquiry

Jeremy Waldron

New York University School of Law

December 15, 2010

NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 11-03

The idea that humans are created in the image of God – imago dei – is an idea that John Rawls deployed in “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith,” his undergraduate senior thesis from 1942, published last year in a well-received volume edited by Thomas Nagel. Usually when talk of the image of God is in the air, emphasis is being put on the individual: the individual human person, created in the image of God, commands a certain respect and must not be used, violated, or desecrated – not even for the sake of the greater good of a community to which he or she belongs or with which he or she is associated. But in Rawls’s dissertation it is community that is said to be created in the image of God; the individual human in his or her own right is not dignified directly under these auspices. The community is dignified with the image of God, but because God Himself is a community, on the theology that Rawls is using: God is “perfect community within Himself,” as Rawls puts it, “being three persons in one as the doctrine of the Trinity states.” In this paper, I criticize the young Rawls’s use of this communal image argument. In their introduction to “Brief Inquiry” Tom Nagel and Joshua Cohen say that Rawls’s communal image argument is compatible with (even congenial to) his later insistence in “A Theory of Justice” on taking individuals seriously (and criticizing theories like utilitarianism which fail to take seriously the distinctions between persons). I argue that Cohen and Nagel are wrong about this. I also argue that if one reflects on what I call “the circumstances of (human) community,” one will see that nothing but confusion follows from any analogy (even an idealizing analogy) between human community and whatever community exists in the “social Trinity.”

Number of Pages in PDF File: 24

Keywords: Community, Image of God, Individual, John Rawls, Justice, Religion, Rights, Trinity

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Date posted: December 17, 2010 ; Last revised: July 15, 2011

Suggested Citation

Waldron, Jeremy, Persons, Community, and the Image of God in Rawls’s Brief Inquiry (December 15, 2010). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 11-03. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1726128 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1726128

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Jeremy Waldron (Contact Author)
New York University School of Law ( email )
40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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