What Does it Mean to be Human? Leithart on the Nature of Natures (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. IV)

(See previous installments of this review here, here, and here).

In this installment, we turn to what is perhaps the most puzzling, but also perhaps one of the most consequential, features of Leithart’s book: his treatments of the notion of “nature.” It is, I must confess, far from clear just how much Leithart is trying to do with his reconceptualization of this basic metaphysical and theological category. On the one hand, we might be dealing with little more than rhetorical flourishes or shifts of emphasis away from a category that Leithart thinks has too often preoccupied the attention of Christian theologians. On the other hand, we might be dealing with a fundamental reconception of the status of the human person and its relations to God and to other persons along radically voluntarist lines, a reconception that cannot help but have far-reaching consequences for much of Christian theology and ethics, consequences which could not but be largely harmful in my view. I wish to tread carefully, for fear of either being an alarmist on the one hand or a naively charitable reader on the other.

Similarly to my approach in the previous post, I will first state in a nutshell what I take to be the salient features of Leithart’s exposition on this point, and then list my main points of concern/critique. I will then expound these points at considerably greater length (though thankfully shorter than my last post), with accompanying quotations from the text, before concluding by suggesting a better way forward. Read More

The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith.  Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else.  Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…”  At least, such was the story. Read More

Deliberation, Obedience, and Scripture

Another gem from the O’Don, this time on the relation of Christian ethics to Scripture:

“Ethics reflects on the conditions of good moral thinking .  Were it to posit an ideal relation of text to action which, in the name of obedience to scriptural authority, effectively abolished thinking, it would abolish morality, and thereby abolish itself.  There is a necessary indeterminacy in the obedient action required by the faithful reading of the text.  Acts are ordered in a basic repertoire of kinds and types, and of these kinds and types Scripture has a great deal of normative force to tell us; but Scripture does not determine the concrete act itself , the act we must perform now .  If Scripture totally determined our actions, there would be no obedience, for there would be no deliberation.  Deliberation does not simply repeat what it has heard; it  pursues the goal of faithful and obedient action by searching out actions, possible within the material conditions that prevail, which will accord with the content of the testimony of Scripture.  On the conditions of success in this pursuit Ethics as a theological discipline reflects.  Those Anglicans between the Reformation and the English Civil War who took issue with the Puritan use of Scripture, did so in defense of faithful and obedient discipleship as they understood it.  Hooker’s advocacy of ‘reason,’ often misunderstood in later generations, saw it as a hermeneutic servant of the text, giving concrete deliberative form to the normative demand:

‘For whereas God hath left sundry kinds of laws unto men, and by all those laws the actions of men are in some sort directed; they [the Puritans] hold that one only law, the Scripture, must be the rule to direct in all things, even so far as to the “taking up of a rush or a straw.”  About which point there should not need any question to grow . . . if they did but yield to these two restraints: the first is, not to extend the actions whereof they speak so law as that instance doth import of taking up a straw . . . the second, not to exact at our hands for every action the knowledge of some place of Scripture out of which we stand bound to deduce it, as by divers testimonies they seek to enforce; but rather as the truth is, so to acknowledge, that it sufficeth if such actions be framed according to the law of Reason; the general axioms, rules, and principles of which law being so frequent in Holy Scripture, there is no let but in that regard even out of Scripture such duties may be deduced by some kind of consequence.’ (LEP II.1.2).”
—O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time , p. 77

(See also “Obedience Without Cost: The Necessity of Moral Thinking“)



Ethics as Spectator Sport

No sooner have I announced a blogging hiatus, than I have stumbled upon another gem of a passage in O’Donovan’s Self, World, and Time  (which I continue to dip in and out of) which simply must be shared.

“But here a danger arises: in its zeal to improve the quality of moral thinking Ethics can become programmatic, fastening on a single moment in the discursive processes of moral thought and constructing an account exclusively in terms of that moment.  The opening sentence of Kant’s Grundlegung  [“It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation, except a good will“]  is the paradigm instance of this zeal, so peremptory, so unqualified in its reconstruction of all our natural ways of thinking that it struck the mind of revolutionary Europe with the numinousness of a divine revelation, which unfortunately it was not.  Something very similar is afoot with Mill’s ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ principle, or, indeed, with R.M. Hare’s employment of the Golden Rule.  So there developed the fashion that anyone with an observation to make about a moral concept—H.R. Niebuhr’s useful observations on responsibility, for example—had to present it in the form of a new moral program, an ‘Ethic of X,’ which proposed to drive its rivals from the field.  Ethics became a Battle of the Titans in which the rival Grundmotiven pitted against one another their capacity to save the appearances while reconstructing moral thought in terms of a single ruling idea.  And as commonly happens with such battles, there was generated a secondary form of Ethics as a spectator sport, conducting a running commentary on the struggle from the sidelines: ‘Now the Utilitarians say this. . . . Now the Kantians reply . . .’ etc. etc.  In which stultifying form the educational cultures of Europe and North America, as though resolved to produce a generation more unfitted for life than any of its predecessors, imposed the teaching of Ethics (in place of religion) upon senior high school students.  The battles were less real than computer games, their protagonists never more than two-dimensional reductions of a dense and complex moral experience” (72-73).

And I had wondered all these years if it was just something wrong with me that I found the usual presentation of Ethics within higher education sterile and cartoonish.  No wonder I found myself inclined to do something useful with my life and become a teacher of Historical Theology instead. . . .  

“Obedience Without Cost”: The Necessity of Moral Thinking

I came upon another extraordinary passage from Oliver O’Donovan recently, this one in a lecture entitled, “What Kind of Communty is the Church?” (the 2005 Richard Hooker Lecture). It has considerable bearing, I think, on the ongoing review of Doug Jones’s Dismissing Jesus that I have undertaken here, and on what lies behind some of the concerns I have voiced.  It expresses, far more capably than I could, some of what I tried to express on this subject in reply to a comment on Pt. 1 of that review, and in a somewhat rant-ish post from earlier this year, “The Death of Evangelical Ethics“:  

“How is a true self-knowledge to be gained? Only when we place ourselves as practical agents and our situation as a practical calling in the light of Holy Scripture and allow it to illuminate and direct our practical reasoning by the truth. And that is when we acknowledge the authority of Scripture in earnest.

There is a danger that we may seem to take the authority of Scripture seriously while actually evading the challenge of this third stage. Practical reasoning can never be truncated by the reading of Scripture, as though we could arrive at our decisions without having had to reach them, merely by leaping from the quotation of a text. This danger is sometimes referred to as ‘literalism’, sometimes ‘fundamentalism’ – both quite inappropriate titles. What we have to do with here is a kind of hastiness: a quick glance that lights upon some moment in the biblical text, a quick glance that takes in some apparent feature of the contemporary situation, the immediate conclusion that this text and no other is precisely what this age needs. It is not an error confined to conservative Protestants, though we may think it typical of them; but there is justice-fundamentalism and inclusivist- fundamentalism as well as purity-fundamentalism, all of which have in common that they propose to evade the tasks of practical reason, which is actually cheating God. Scripture is given us to guide and to discipline our practical reasoning; it sets us free to engage in clear-sighted deliberation leading to decision.

Moral theologians, it sometimes seems to me, are in possession of a secret knowledge that is apparently concealed from all other theologians. They know that the most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, ‘What does Scripture mean?’, but, ‘What does the situation we are in mean?’ Those who have written about hermeneutics in terms of a fusion of two horizons, the horizon of the text and the horizon of the present day, have frequently conveyed the impression that we ourselves and our present situation are a perfectly known quantity, so that it only remains for us to go back to Scripture to pick out something relevant to what we already understand about ourselves. But Scripture proves its authority to us precisely by its capacity to shed light on ourselves and our situation at the points where we do not understand them, overcoming our preconceptions. The discernment through which we understand our own situation as agents is not given immediately in the text. It is given by the Holy Spirit as we frame questions under the illumination of Scripture about our situation. The Scripture tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbour; but whether this or that ambiguous statement we have it in mind to make to the next journalist who calls us up is false or merely discreet is something the Scripture, taken in isolation from our practical reasoning, will not tell us. We do not read about our own problems with the journalists directly in Scripture; yet it is from Scripture that we gain the categories of understanding that allow us to understand our situation and reach a judgment on how to handle our dilemmas.

To which I can imagine a certain resistance. ‘That is just another way’, someone will say, ‘of intellectualizing our relation with God. What ought to be a matter of immediate obedience becomes a rational exercise’. To which I answer. Yes, in a way; in another way, no. Yes, in that our obedience must be thoughtful obedience. Obedience without thought is obedience without cost; more exactly, it is not obedience at all, but disobedience. No, in that thoughtful obedience does not exclude the immediacy of encounter with the commanding God. On the contrary, it is as I give my mind to the witness of Scripture to God’s character and will that the Holy Spirit brings God near to me, convicts me of what God would have me do. Such moments of fear and trembling before the immediacy of the divine command may come to us, and we must be open to them. But they are not an alternative to reflective and deliberate thinking, the logike latreia, the ‘rational worship’ of Romans 12:1f., by which our minds are said to be renewed to dokimazein ta diapheronta, to ‘appreciate distinctions’.

A church living perpetually under the critical authority of Holy Scripture is protected from those hectoring voices that arise with shocking suddenness to propose radically new formal arrangements. Where such voices suddenly emerge with a terrifying and radical impact, it is a sure sign that the Church has slumbered, that it has not been attentive to its permanent task of self-reformation. For that task is a perpetual engagement in practical reasoning about the Church’s calling and mission, an engagement that has responded step by step to the new demands of its situation. A Church now waking up to find itself surrounded by fire alarms ringing on all sides must ask what it is about this task that it has been neglecting. And if we are ever to find our way out of the crisis in which we have come to be placed, it will only be by an intensive application to the tasks of thought more demanding than any that has been imagined by an intellectually complacent and sluggish Anglicanism that for generations past has squandered the once glorious legacy of reflection and interrogation that we have recalled gratefully in these two lectures.”