The Time of Religion and Human Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 14, No. 2, Pp. 137-82 (Fall 2019–Winter 2020)

47 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2021

See all articles by Louis E. Wolcher

Louis E. Wolcher

University of Washington School of Law

Date Written: May 2, 2020


Most people interested in religion and human rights look only at the contents of these institutions: the “meanings” contained in God’s commands, for instance, or in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They do not inquire into the temporal milieu, so to speak, that allows religious and legal norms to be cloaked with ostensible meanings in the first place, by providing them with the time (or time-space) they need to come into being. According to positive religion, God gives people moral laws; according to natural religion, God gives them a faculty (reason) that allows them to produce valid moral laws for themselves. Just like the conventional idea of positive law in general, both forms of religion display a kind of pre-rational “faith,” so to speak, in what can and should happen after the moral law comes into being. That is, law, natural religion, and positive religion all adhere to the proposition that the past in general can and does provide a secure foundation for right action in the present. But how, exactly, is this supposed to happen? There is an important difference between linear time and existential time – one that corresponds to the difference between subservience and freedom, thought and action, and determinacy and indeterminacy. Linear time attempts to reconcile reason and history by giving religion and law their proper textual grounds; but as Goethe says, in the beginning was the deed, not the word. Existential time is history by providing a site for the inherently groundless enactment of law and religion; but as Kant says, intuitions without concepts are blind. But what if neither concept is adequate to deal with the tragic dimension of law and religion? What if we reconceived time as sheer force rather than as milieu? This essay elucidates the rich contrast between these two modes of temporality, and meditates on their significance for the task of thinking about the common project of religion and law, which is to launch “right” action on the basis of authority from the past.

Keywords: human rights, natural religion, rationalism, language, meaning, time, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Benjamin

Suggested Citation

Wolcher, Louis E., The Time of Religion and Human Rights (May 2, 2020). Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 14, No. 2, Pp. 137-82 (Fall 2019–Winter 2020), Available at SSRN:

Louis E. Wolcher (Contact Author)

University of Washington School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States

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