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Book Review: Stefanus Hendrianto on Joshua Neoh’s “Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular”


Editor’s Note: In this installment of I•CONnect’s Book Review Series, Stefanus Hendrianto reviews Joshua Neoh’s book on Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular (Cambridge University Press, 2019)


–Stefanus Hendrianto, SJ, PhD, University of San Francisco

When Joe Biden entered the campaign of the 2020 election, he adopted a catchphrase to describe the election as the “battle for the soul” of a nation. Indeed, the phrase has aptly framed the contest, even with no standard definition or universal concept of the “soul of a nation,” a term for which numerous scholars have offered their own interpretations.[1] An excellent book by Joshua Neoh, Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular, proves a missing piece of the puzzle in the debate over the “battle for the soul” of a nation.

Neoh’s central claim in his book is that the American constitutional ideal is shaped in part by the Christian Monastic ideal.[2] The monastic ideal constituted a total and comprehensive code of conduct for the monks. To belong to a monastery, as Neoh remarks, is to be part of a consecrated order.[3] Neoh posits that, during the American constitutional experiment in the late 18th century, the ideology of puritanism helped to build the constitutional order in the United States[4]. Like the medieval monks before them, New England Puritanism contained elaborate legal codes and subjected daily affairs to statutory regulation. The Puritan Ideology was carried over into the American theory of constitutionalism, in the form of a theory of public virtue, discipline, and order.[5]

Neoh claims that the monastic ideal subscribes to a particular configuration of constitutional values, primarily law as authority and freedom as identification. Relying on John Finnis, Neoh posits that law provides an account of authority with reference to the common good, in which authority is necessary to realize the common good in common life.[6] Thus, the values of the authority of law are directed to human flourishing.[7] Freedom as identification consists of active participation in collective power. Under this model, the individual is in some way lost in the nation.[8] What is required to attain such freedom is to identity oneself with the groups outside the individual.

At the opposite of the monastic ideal is what Neoh calls the antinomian ideal, which subscribes to a specific configuration of constitutional values such as law as resistance and freedom as independence. Under the antinomian ideal, the value of law does not lie in authority but resistance.[9] Law allows its subject to resist authority because submitting to authority means subjecting oneself to a self-imposed restraint. In their resistance to restraint, they may secure a victory in which they fight the oppressive law by using the law itself. The antinomian ideal places freedom as independence on a high pedestal. Freedom as independence consists of being left alone to conduct one’s private matters, and one can choose what one wants to do with their own life.[10]

The battle for the soul of a nation in the American political context can be seen as the battle between two sets of values. One the one hand is the nomian constitutional values with the monastic ideals at their core, bringing together law as authority and freedom as identification. On the other hand, there are the antinomian constitutional values with the antinomian ideal as its core, bringing together law as resistance and freedom as independence. Instead of abandoning us to clashing values, Neoh argues that the opposing values are inextricably intertwined and need each other.[11]

In a perfect world, such opposing values would successfully realize that they need each other. But, as Neoh admits in his book, both sides try banishing their opponents’ values from their lives.[12] While Neoh posits an intriguing theory of the American constitutional ideal, he does not explain whether or not such an ideal still exists in the 21st century American constitutional order. After all, many constitutional interpreters do not subscribe to any theistic belief, let alone the Judeo-Christian tradition.

One cannot deny that circumstances have changed in the last two hundred years. Yet another aspect of Neoh’s book that is valuable for reflecting on the battle between two opposite values is its focus on love. Neoh contrasts the nomian concept of love that is universal and collective, such as the love of humanity or a love of a nation, with the antinomian concept of love, which is directed to the unique individual.[13] Despite the difference, love can be a unifying force between the two opposite camps. Love and forgiveness were the only proper way to preserve the harmony between the competing elements in the soul of a nation and gradually exist together. In “The Human Condition,” the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt talked of vengeance.[14] How does one stop it? Arendt argued that the only thing that could stop vengeance was mutual forgiveness, itself a free and responsible act that must be recognized by both the forgivers and the forgiven.[15] What the United States is witnessing in its current crises is the erosion of love and forgiveness. Until we learn how to love and forgive, we must rely on a constitutional order, with the hope that constitutionalism can fend off the twin temptations of totalitarianism and anarchism on either side.

Suggested Citation: Stefanus Hendrianto, Review of Joshua Neoh’s book on Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jan 31, 2021, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/01/book-review-stefanus-hendrianto-on-joshua-neohs-law-love-and-freedom-from-the-sacred-to-the-secular


[1] For an excellent analysis on the notion of the soul of the nation in the context of the founding of United States of America, please see Joshua Mitchell, The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy and the American Future (1995). See also Edward Rubin, Soul, Self, and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State (2015).

[2] Joshua Neoh, Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular (2019), 119.

[3] Id. at 107

[4] Id. at 120 -121

[5] Id. at 123

[6] John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).

[7] Neoh, supra note 2, at 47-52.

[8] Id., at 72 -76.

[9] Id., at 53 -58.

[10] Id. at 68 -72.

[11] Id. at 188.

[12] Id. at 187.

[13] Id., at 59 -66.

[14] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1998)

[15] Id. at 236 -243.

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Published on January 31, 2021
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One Response

  1. Kishor Dere

    Understanding ‘soul’ is a difficult task in itself. When it comes to comprehending the soul of a nation, it becomes even more challenging. Moreover, can one afford to neglect the body even after having had grasped the soul. Prof. Joshua Neoh’s work entitled Law, Love and Freedom: From the Sacred to the Secular, is timely, thoughtful and thought-provoking.
    Stefanus Hendrianto’s review of this book eloquently summarizes the crucial aspects of this valuable research work. The democratic political system in the US aptly captures this “battle for soul of the nation” as a fight between rival forces contending for domination. Two opposite camps represent their respective values. While the nomian constitutionalism talks about “law as authority and freedom as identification”, the anti-nomian values refer to “law as resistance and freedom as independence”. Since these are complementary and supplementary to one another, they co-exist. Circumstances and actors decide which ideals would lead when.

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