The Academy and the Poor (Part 2 of 3)

(Back to Part 1)

3. The study and teaching of theology, of all disciplines, is perhaps most likely to turn out to the benefit of the poor. This assertion has never been truer than it is in the present. The hegemonic economic and political structures that bind people in poverty (or encourage them to bind themselves) are based on myths about humanity and humanity’s role on the planet. The beginnings of justice are found in the telling of a better story; the trajectory that leads to real justice culminates in worship. The operant myth behind the thick curtain is that human beings are essentially (naturally, rationally, pragmatically—pick your adverb) in charge, in control, and self-directed. Some people lose, and some people win, but the game is all about who gets the most choices. And far too many of us are eager to participate in the eschatological promise of “Progress”: perpetual growth through cycles of innovation, consumption, and commodification that opening ever new vistas of “liberation” enabling us to increasingly self-determine the reality we recieve (from family size to facial structure, from the temperature of our desk chairs to the “branding” of our own personalities).

Thus, the interminable conversation about who should bear the blame for poverty—in caricature, either the lazy, good-for-nothing, mooching addicts or the self-interested powermongers perpetuating the oppressive system that locks people out—is interminable because both options are sub-plots of the same story. Mutual service, genuine friendship, or really anything beyond the hollow pretense of politeness are not possible where the human ideal is buffered autonomy. Puffed up in our own knowledge of good and evil (our pretense to sovereignty), we die. As we die, we kill. Who can tell a story that excises this curse?  The old myth (the old lie, really) needs to die, and theology patiently but adamantly proclaims the truths that choke this dragon. Human beings are for worship and for service; human beings are for the delight of their Creator; human beings are for the good of the whole planet.  Liberation is found in the community reconciled to one another, to God, and to all creation.

Where is this story told? Foremost, it ought to be the hallmark of every church on every street corner. Yet all too often, churches have assimilated (and subsequently promulgate) aspects of the old lie. Theologians are charged with two tasks in this regard: 1) helping (polemically, if necessary) the church to express more clearly in words and action her central commitments, 2) exposing the dangers and deviations, through careful and rigorous analysis, of false stories about gods, humans and creation. Those tasks involve long conversations with people on all sides—those who are members of the church, and many who are not. Theologians, at their best, help to keep the church faithful to the poor. In part, they do so by calling to account the people and systems that benefit from exploitation.

4. Really learning theology (which only means thinking deeply about the whole gospel) always drives people toward the poor because this particular good news is about the God who favors the poor and dwells with them. There are few truly original ideas under the sun (none, according to Qoheleth), so the theologian’s task is not necessarily to formulate a host of new ideas, but to find ways of expressing the gospel that lead people to action. The ideal mode of theology is a conversation rather than a book—an interaction between people (perhaps even in a classroom) that moves toward action. The writing of books is a requisite part of this endeavor, but theological texts can only be understood properly within cycles of conversation that incorporate concrete practice. The impartial or disinterested theologian is a most perverse creature because theology is necessarily modeled as much as it is taught, insofar as it is expressed in the church’s preaching and prayer (neither of which make any sense without active service).

(On to Part 3)

The Academy and the Poor (Part 1 of 3)

About a week ago, Dan asked folks to consider the merit of their academic endeavors in light of the plight of the world’s poor. He argues, quite rightly, that:

I believe that, confronted as we are with the massive brokenness of the world, and the suffering of our neighbours, our academic endeavours must be shaped by certain commitments. We are not free to pursue every little rabbit-trail that we find captivating.

And so Dan asks us: “When confronted with “the Poor” of today, how do you justify your academic endeavors?” 

I wrote this before starting to read Dan’s own efforts to answer the question posed, not least because his answer is likely to be more thorough and insightful than my own. I have five responses, which I will post in three segments. 

1. The strange place of theology within the academy is both a boon and a burden of responsibility in pushing to reconcile the activities of study and teaching with the realities of poverty. Many theologians profess to work for the church even as they are employed by a university (and other academics sometimes wish that they actually did). Theological writing and teaching is always, from my perspective, done in service of the church’s preaching and prayer. Good theology is an aid to preaching the gospel with clarity and an effort to pray more truly. My own modest academic goals are entirely circumscribed within the life of the church-the church whose life is bound to the poor (even and especially when that is forgotten). If I didn’t think that academics could genuinely be an act of service on that order, I hope that I’d have the integrity to start bending nails for a living.   

So if academic theology cannot be done as an act of service, one rendered unto “the Poor,” then I do not want any part of it. No doubt there are countless academics gratified by the satisfaction they find in being able to introduce themselves as some sort of scholar. No doubt there are many who enter the academy with the intention of crafting for themselves a lasting name through a brilliant career of research and publication. I cannot totally disavow every trace of such motives in myself, though I confess them before God and others. But there is still more substance to the academy than mere pretense-abusus non tolit usum-the abuse does not negate the use.

2. Second, taking up academic work is no more a barrier to working for and with the poor than earning one’s living by, for instance, selling shoes. The choices made as an academic can insulate someone from the plight of the unfortunate and broken, or they can bring someone into closer proximity. While academic study does require hours (and hours) of solitary reading, thinking, and writing; when that work is placed within the context of a whole life, it is not inherently alienating-one’s companions are still a matter of choice. Both as a student and as a teacher, one can hide behind a pile of work and find oneself “too busy” to do anything for others-but there is nothing necessary or inevitable about this. In speaking of academics and poverty, we are not talking about oil and water.

varieties of secularism :: comments (1) “secular spirituality”

Series Index

I’ll admit that it has taken me longer than I would have liked to get around to writing a summary of my thoughts about the conference (which was now a month ago!), but “late” and “never” are still two different categories.

The first thing that I’d like to offer comments on deals with the papers offered by many of the conference speakers. A common theme among many of the presenting scholars was a search for something along the lines of a “secular spirituality,” though the shape of that quest was portrayed diversely by those considering it a worthwhile goal.

Simon During described in great detail a particular moment in which a novel’s main character finds an ordinary street corner, on an otherwise drab afternoon, to be suddenly and spectacularly remarkable. He refrains from attaching any meaning to the conjunction of cement, pavement, tufts of grass in the cracks, and sunshine, but nonetheless finds the sheer existence of such a scene, its “here-ness,” to be an uplifting and motivating experience. The unlikeliness of the whole thing coming together in just this way is cause for something like reverence—but it is a reverence entirely bound within the scene itself. During calls this a moment of “mundanity” and he speaks of the “mundane” as something which exists outside both the religious and the secular.
Continue reading “varieties of secularism :: comments (1) “secular spirituality””

zimbabwe :: a word from the churches

Amidst the continuing electoral crisis in Zimbabwe, the church of that nation is calling out to make public the oppression and violence being perpetrated on the people. The crisis seems to consist of nothing more than the ruling coalition’s inability to recognize that they have lost the election—despite all their efforts to “steer” the outcome.

People are being abducted, tortured, humiliated by being asked to repeat slogans of the political party they are alleged not to support [that is, ZANU PF, the party which has held power for 28 years under Robert Mugabe], ordered to attend mass meetings where they are told they voted for the ‘wrong’ candidate and should never repeat it in the run-off election for President, and, in some cases, people are murdered.

I urge others to make the statement of Zimbabwe’s churches more widely known, and to join in prayer for the people of Zimbabwe—that they would not succumb to chicanery and intimidation, and that peace and justice would be restored to this ravaged land. Lord have mercy.

varieties of secularism :: keynote address

Series Index

Below are my notes from Charles Taylor’s presentation at the end of the conference a little more than a week ago. I’ve put a bit more effort into filling in the gaps of these notes to make them more intelligible than the notes from the previous sessions. Hopefully that effort pays off in increased understanding. [Why am I posting notes?]


Apologies for an “incomplete” book. [!] It’s unapologetically a master narrative—an attempt to tell the whole story. Master narratives are unavoidable because we all live within them. We all tell the story of our world (in however proscribed a manner) in order to “place” our lives in context. The only way to beat a bad master narrative is with a slightly better one. This book is an attempt to trace the master narrative of secularization, the book is introduced at a time when the old narratives were crumbling. Forty years ago many people expected us to have progressed beyond religion altogether. The more a society develops, so the story goes, the more secular (in the sense of atheistic) it becomes.

What was wrong with the “old” narratives of secularization is that they were subtraction stories. Once inhibitions to “secularity” (like superstition, disbelief in science, parochialism) are gotten rid of, then the secular simply comes to the surface, secularity is taken as “basic” or “natural” for humanity in a question begging way. In other words, the presumption of many people is that “rational” or “natural” human beings have no religious commitments; religious commitments are something added to humanity, an unnecessary accretion.

Against this kind of story Taylor asserts that we all “construct” a way of being in the world. What distinguishes modernity is not only what we have lost, but what we have created. Secularity is not the result of getting rid of the impediments to secularity, but rather is one way of constructing human social patterns among many.

The enchantment which was “un-done” by modernity (i.e. “disenchantment”) is not the same as the enchantment which is being reasserted in the present. Taylor is attempting to look back through history to find the “boundaries” at which we began to see things differently. We cannot go back. If by “re-enchantment” we intend to restore the possibility of naïve or unreflective belief in the transcendent comparable to what we imagine to be the case for people of the past, we will only be disappointed. Re-enchantment of that sort is a project that cannot be attained because we cannot simply change the way that we see the world; we have crossed a boundary which enables (and forces) us to see in a new way.

It is not totally clear what the boundary is between the spiritual and personal. In an enchanted world, the self is porous, and includes the possibility of things like possession by spirits. In our “self-understanding,” our “selves” are simply not porous in this way. We have buffered selves, and in that we have lost a sensibility and a sensitivity toward the transcendent in our daily operations. The difference lies not in ideas, the difference lies in (at least) two ways of experiencing the world.

The immanent frame:

What is a “social imaginary”: an attempt to describe the way in which a whole society or group understands what is acceptable, meaningful, and worthwhile. It is the understanding we share about society. It is what people have to have a grip on in order to make sense of their own actions. [This seems quite similar to what Taylor calls elsewhere the “background.”]

An example of a shift in social imaginary: 17th c. revolutions were justified by looking backwards—they were efforts at restoration. The American Revolution starts this way (the violated rights of English-folk rather than the dream of a glorious “land of the free”). But the Declaration justifies a revolution on the basis of a forward-looking stance. Revolutions today can only be justified publicly by articulating what they will accomplish; they are forward looking events. Our conception of “what justifies a revolution” has shifted. When did those shifts take place and what were the underlying logical steps that led to the shift?

Taylor’s use of the word “fullness” has been widely misinterpreted. Taylor only means to signify a quality of life that we all seek to attain. Our distinction between “higher” and “lower” points in our life (and our attendant desire to have more of the “higher” and less of the “lower”) points to what Taylor means by “fullness.” We all make these distinctions and make our life choices in these terms, regardless of what we have in mind when we think of something analogous to “fullness.” We fail to understand other people (especially Other people) when we fail to understand their particular notion of a motivating life-intensity (i.e. “fullness”).

The main thesis:
Reform Master Narrative (in Christendom): the attempt to bring the masses up to the ideal, real, best, most authentic, expression of Christianity. The first seeds of the RMN show up in the high medieval period. The RMN came to be seen as genuinely plausible. The RMN is the first seed of secularization in the N. Atlantic world. Attempting to bring everyone “up” to the higher expression of the faith changed the perception of the faith to those who were preached to. It made a distinction between “the way things are down here” and the way that they should be “up there” (in the higher, ideal sense). All of this leads to the immanent frame. What we think of as the Lower, (the way things are) is something can be understood on its own terms (and must be in order to be brought “up”). In the “old” world understanding things within our immanent frame simply would not have made sense.

Conditions of Belief:

The galloping multiplication of the “options” of belief. The presence of a multiplicity of plausible identity and belief structures makes living within any single account feel narrow, cramped, or implausible. In other words, it makes believing anything difficult.

Taylor writes as a Catholic, but he is trying to start a conversation with everyone. He is trying “explain” in a larger sense. Taylor’s kind of Catholic has a calling to understand very different perspectives, and especially the concept of fullness within those other perspectives.

We don’t understand ourselves until we drop the crutches of narratives that paint the other perspectives in negative terms. Until we cease to regard people who view the world in ways very different from our own as “irrational” or “unnatural” then we don’t authentically understand the degree to which our own views of rationality and naturalness are equally contextual. There are better and worse ways of seeing the world and we should talk about these, but our own views don’t actually grow any more plausible simply by denigrating the views of others without making at least minimal efforts to understand where they are coming from.

It is possible to build friendship across these boundaries, based on a sense of what motivates the other. Taylor is not looking for an “average” position that is somehow more foundational than distinct traditions (by means of transcending them—this is the myth of modernity). But an “agonistic” friendship across the boundaries is a worthwhile goal. “Agonistic” not because conversation ought to tend toward battle, but because we all come to the table thoroughly owning our own positions and intent on both understanding and being understood across difference (rather than around it…) A reconciliation across differences.

Is the book an apologetic? It can be read that way. And Taylor is speaking to his co-religionists along with many, many others. He’s not a big fan of “Catholicism from high places.” But the book is also bigger than an apologetic project for the faithful, it’s a book for all of us. We need enough people who have a gut sense that there is something valuable in the Other that merits an understanding across the boundaries of difference.

varieties of secularism :: session four

Series Index

The fourth session of the conference was by far my favorite, both José Casanova and John Milbank’s papers were excellent, thought-provoking, and close to my own area of interest in Taylor’s work. As an added bonus, Milbank included the line, “Humanism without a party no longer obtains.” Enjoy. [Why am I posting my notes?]

**José Casanova – Georgetown University – A SECULAR AGE: DAWN OR TWILIGHT?

We live “esti deus non daretur.” Self-sufficient and self-contained attempts toward fulfillment.

Modern unbelief requires the perfect tense. “We have overcome belief.” Implicit in unbelief is the narrative of “having been” a part of a believing culture that now sees other options.

All analytical and phenomenological accounts of modernity are always grand narratives. They are genealogy and they tell us who we are by giving us something of a lineage by which we can trace out our own figure against the background of those who came before us.

4 genealogical accounts of modernity:

1. Emancipation. The narrative of “progress.” Taylor does not dispute the positive claims of this account, but critiques the extent to which it thinks that it has “moved beyond” and not grown out of Christianity and faith. He also distances himself from any assertion of progress being a series of necessary changes (from “progress” as eschatology).

2. Intellectual deviation. Modernity is a problem and a significant going-astray. At some point things went off the rails and now we are stuck with the cultural morass that is modernity

3. Modernity equals Protestantism.

4. Modernity is the bastard child of Christianity. The seed conditions of secularity are present in Christianity and it thus grows out of the faith (before it turns to attack it).

[Interesting to try to place Taylor’s account in this scheme. Casanova may have made a suggestion, but it was subtle enough that I didn’t catch it. I would argue that Taylor’s retellings of modernity in Sources of the Self and A Secular Age combine elements of both the second and the fourth type.]

Two Questions to raise:

1. How are we to understand the explicit aims of Taylor’s “summa,” but also its unintended consequences? Will he be remembered as the prophet of exclusive humanism?

2. How is one to account for the radical secularity of European society, and the persistence of religious belief in a widespread way in the United States? Both sides of the Atlantic live within the immanent frame, and we are all humanists. So what accounts for the difference?

a. Perhaps the religious persistence in the states can be explained by the fact that there was no church establishment to “overcome.”

b. For this reason, American politics and American civic consciousness has rarely, if ever, had the anti-Christian edge that it has carried in Europe.

c. The “age of authenticity” came early to America because of the predominance of dissident believers and marginalized pietists. Thus the “imperative to authenticity” did not drive Americans away from belief in the way that it drove Europeans away.

How does globalization affect a secular age?

Can the immanent frame and secularity take root in places with alternate cultural backgrounds? Or will it be recognized only as a Western force growing out of Christianity (and thus as some odd extension of colonialism).

Dichotomies and mediation. Repeated attempts to eliminate the gap between the immanent and transcendent. Attempts to overcome the secular space, turning the secular religious.

Two patterns of secularism, two different patterns of modernity. Will we discover other modernities and other secularities “under” or “out of” other religions? Casanova aims at something like a “global denominationalism” where we recognize the “otherness” of various other bodies and the parochiality of our own perspective.

Race and religion are the two ways of organizing identity in America—from the first boats in the beginning to the present. Notice the difference between Senegalese immigrant communities in Paris and in the Bronx. The latter maintain their religious identity while those in Paris are often stripped.

**John Milbank – University of Nottingham

A Secular Age could only have been written by a North American. Any European would not have been able to balance the German, British, and French strands of thinking and would have come off as a partisan.

When a new book comes out, often the big idea is so big that no one is able to recognize it for some time. Taylor’s book is anti-sociological in a radical way, and no one has yet recognized it. Anyone who cannot see Ivan Illich as the hero of the book hasn’t understood it.

Impersonal order. This book, astoundingly, says that we only live in an impersonal order because Christianity has betrayed itself. Chrisitianity is supposed to be incarnational, and yet has produced the most excarnational culture in history.

Why is this book anti-sociological:

Sociological accounts talk about “putting religion in its place.” Taylor respects sociology, but refuses its marginalization of religion as an inhabited (and inhabitable) perspective. Non-sociologically, Taylor claims that secularization is an entirely contingent event, one that can only be explained by a historical narrative that points toward its happening-to-us. The heroes of the book are historians and not social theorists (because the of the extent to which the latter press a prefabricated and ossified notion of “society” upon us).

Religious people are both wildly Dionysiac (in touch with crazy transcendent realities) and Puritanical (extremely well-behaved). Sex and violence both lie close to religion because both deal with wild energy. There is a reflection on ethics running throughout Taylor’s book and he is right to pay attention to both sex and violence.

What happens when we lose the “pre-ethical” religious framework behind ethics? A founding of a “tame” in the “wild.” The tameness of ethics is best grounded in the wilds of religion. Yet we’ve lost the wild energy (religion) that holds the tame (ethics) together, and so our wildness takes on a religious air—it’s where we look for meaning.

Ivan Illich—attempts to institutionalize and “tame” love. We’re trying to do without the mystical roots that make sense of and hold together our ethics. All we’ve got left is codes of civility, order-producing, bland, value-less bureaucracy. Many of us then blame this on a (rule-making) God, when in fact; it is the distance from religion that makes secularity so insipid.

Right at the end of the book, Taylor connects “reform meta-narratives” with “intellectual deviation” story of modernity. Med. Fransciscan theologians became suspicious of Greek elements, separated reason and faith, and flattened the world.

It is a certain type of piety that wants to “disenchant” the world. The animation of the world is idolatry. Anti-celebratory anti-festive sorts of religion (Calvinism, certain sorts of Evangelicalism, Wahabism, etc) are actually furthering the progress of secularity and disenchantment.

The instability of liberalism. The thinness and inadequacy of liberalism. Liberalism does not stop torture—we can see that now. Have we moved beyond the age where the driving narrative of secular humanism functions?

A link between the ethical and the festive is necessary. Humanism without a party no longer obtains. It has no way of believing in human beings, trees, or ordinary things. Religious believers are once again holding the “common-sense” vision against the “rational economic male” or the buffered self. The stance of suspended neutrality is fading away.

My question for Milbank (connecting back to his question at the end of session two):
Does the attempt to detach ethics from ontology, end up speaking of a different kind of love. A love that knows only total self-emptying (a total loss of self, rather than utter obedience)? Does making love bureaucratic and “taming it” also lead to a loss of hope? Is the best model of Christian love really utter self-emptying, or is that an appropriation of modern thinking? Would it be better to speak about committed obedience?

without knowing good and evil :: Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology

Flipping pagesAt long last, I put the final touches (and blows) to the thesis today, and it is ready to be shipped off for grading. Quite a relief to have this monkey off my back and to be on to other projects. Below I’ve posted the abstract to the thesis; if you are interested in a copy of the whole thing then drop me an email.

Knowing the difference between good and evil seems central to any account of ethical thought. Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Christian ethics’ “first task” is to supercede this knowledge. Rejecting the knowledge of good and evil, Bonhoeffer regards modern ethics as continuous with Adam and Eve’s illegitimate meal in the garden of Eden. Grasping at wisdom apart from God, the earliest humans brought death and division into the world. Bonhoeffer’s account of Christian ethics is inimical to the self-justification, judgment of others, and autonomous notions of individual freedom that the knowledge of good and evil provides. Human beings employ their knowledge of good and evil in efforts to unify their lives and communities, but Bonhoeffer sees that these actions spring from the divided state of fallen humanity. Yet if Christian ethics really involves “un-knowing” good and evil, on what basis can Christians confront the complex and difficult decisions that they face daily? How are Christians to respond to violence, destruction, and immorality—both in their own lives and in the acts of people around them? How are Christians (and others) to teach their children how to behave without recourse to some conception of good and evil? This thesis explores the knowledge of good and evil in Bonhoeffer’s writings and traces the development of his ethics as an alternative account of moral knowledge. The ethics of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, is grounded in the knowledge gained through being incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ, through extending his mission, and through proclaiming his gospel.

Bonhoeffer blog conference

Halden announced yesterday the beginning of what is sure to become a long and illustrious tradition—a Bonhoeffer blog conference. The profundity of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics lies in its insistence on pushing theological meditations toward the most concrete expression possible. Unlike many, his drive toward concreteness was not the result of an insipid focus on the “practical,” falsely contrasted to the abstract and theoretical; rather, he saw that proper theological work underlay the faith that leads to action. He is a tremendously attractive figure to so many of us because we have a sense that his life held together with a unity and integrity that most of us only strive to imagine.

In the last couple of years we have witnessed a substantial rise in collaborative theological scholarship via the blogosphere.  The recurring Karl Barth Blog Conference promises to be an excellent staple among theo-bloggers, as does the forthcoming Balthasar Blog Conference.  In the spirit of fostering further substantial theological scholarship in the blogosphere, I am happy to Bonhoefferannounce the First Annual Bonhoeffer Blog Conference.  The topic for this conference will be: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Contemporary Theology.  The aim of this conference is to foster sustained reflections on Bonhoeffer’s last major theological work, Ethicsand to explore its implications within contemporary theological, ecclesial, and political contexts.  While some spots are already filled (which will be announced later), there is plenty of room for submissions and proposals.  Any submission related to this general focus would be open to consideration.  Creative approaches to the work of Bonhoeffer is encouraged.

This conference will likely take place in early November, 2008.  Submissions can be emailed to Halden at halden-at-wipfandstock-dot-com.  Halden encourages you to promote this event on your own blog, if you are so inclined.

After Virtue:: a critique of modernity from the inside

Alasdair MacIntyre provides an exquisite account of the moral failings of modernity in After Virtue. His account is both exquisite and itself thoroughly modern. For what we find in After Virtue, is the brilliant commentary of one thinker standing back from the culture and providing an account of the whole. MacIntyre’s account of modernity’s moral self-destruction is thoroughly modern on account of the stance that he takes; for he stands at an uncommitted distance and offers the most objective account of our moral condition possible.

As valuable as MacIntyre’s account is, in the end it is hollow. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After Virtue is not an account of virtue itself, but an account of what is necessary for virtue to flourish. If an astute but morally perplexed individual came to After Virtue hoping to find moral guidance she would finally close MacIntyre’s book with a vastly clarified sense of the moral landscape around her, but she would also face a great choice. For MacIntyre’s book delivers its reader to the point at which she must identify with a particular tradition—chosen from the array of traditions (and pseudo-traditions) available. MacIntyre leaves readers at the front door of the moral supermarket, convinced that while a tradition is precisely what is needed, a tradition is precisely what MacIntyre’s account lacks. Apart from arguing for the unique coherence of a broadly Aristotelian understanding of ethics (and how many Aristotelians have you met lately?), MacIntyre’s account delimits the shape of tradition in general without ever mentioning tradition in particular.

To call the account hollow is not to argue that After Virtue is not worth reading. I mean to be descriptive, not dismissive. I would recommend MacIntyre’s lucid argument to any number of friends with the requisite basic grasp of philosophy. Rather it is only to say that MacIntyre’s account is not really complete until its reader identifies himself (and begins to work within) a tradition of the sort that MacIntyre describes broadly, but refrains from advocating specifically.

This sort of noncommittal pose is politically astute—it is precisely what catches modern ears and leaves them tingling. MacIntyre offers a stance from which to explain every other stance (and make sense of the incommensurable disagreements between them). The position at which MacIntyre leaves us is one that is tempting to occupy longer than would be healthy. Like Christ on the mountain, MacIntyre has shown us all the kingdoms of the earth—the temptation would be to rule them all from an uncommitted distance. Like the character of the “manager” he describes at length (74-78), MacIntyre really understands how ethics “works.” Unlike that manager, his understanding does not enable him to really “work” ethics until he joins himself to a community of like-minded folk inhabiting a living tradition—that is until he comes down off the mountain and takes up residency within one of the kingdoms below.

The “hollow”-ness of the account also explains the enthusiasm with which his account has been received by theologians, who already stand within a semblance of the tradition described. MacIntyre’s work can be read as a sort of ethical pre-apologetic, dropping people off on the sidewalk outside the church’s front door, where they can be invited inside. To read it as such is not at all to misuse the book. After Virtue can also be read as a framework within which to understand the ethics of a community whose lives are bound within the narrative tradition of the gospel, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, has put MacIntyre’s thought to service in precisely this way. Here, the book is the impetus for a restoration of the church’s virtues and a fuller account of Christian life as a whole. Reading After Virtue, Hauerwas’ work came to mind with regularity; it is not too difficult to hear his voice echoing MacIntyre’s.

In the next week or so, I hope (no promises) to offer a few comments on MacIntyre’s account of action and its relationship to a few other philosophers…


Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

faith, hope, and love :: opposites

Thanks to Ken, Ryan, and Tim for their answers, here’s my poke at the question. Of course comments are still welcome; I can’t pretend to have the final word.

The opposite of faith is idolatry

There is no opposite to faith in the sense of an total absence of it (so says Ryan), but there is an opposite in the sense that faith can be, and often is, misplaced. “Idolatry” is a word both tired out by misuse and loaded with cultic connotations, so perhaps it’s not the best one for this context. But I use it advisedly to suggest that the opposite of faith is to put foundational trust in something other than God. Most often these days (as Tim and Ken suggest in different ways) that takes the form of placing foundational trust in my knowledge and my experience, so that in our context, another opposite for faith might be pride.

The opposite of hope is resignation…

…because hope is something active, something that dies when it is not practiced. The hope of salvation then, is not the reassurance that I’ve got a cloud with my name on it, but rather reconciliation between enemies, the inclusion of the marginalized, the provision of daily bread—the embodiment of Jesus Christ in the present. Resignation is the mark of someone subject to fate. Hope is the fruit that grows in someone who prays in God’s name.

The opposite of love is fear:

I was going to say indifference, but I think that Tim’s answer gets even more radically at the source of indifference. To love means to commit oneself and one’s resources in openness to another. We are often indifferent because we fear, and perhaps rightly so, for a lack of time, a lack of resources, a lack of energy. We are indifferent because we project scarcity. The word “love” in Christian circles is often conjoined to the modifier “self-giving” which of course calls to mind the most basic definition of love that Christians can know—the cross. And, precisely there in the cross, faith, hope, and love hold together.

The wrong tree? :: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and knowledge of good and evil

Ben Myers at Faith and Theology, was kind enough to post a piece on Barth and Bonhoeffer in a venue where it would attract a few more comments than it would here (and therefore hold a bit more value in my ongoing research). He even found pretty pictures! At the moment I find myself impersonating that loathesome creature, the solitary theologian, stranded on the East coast and far from my theologically-minded cohorts in Vancouver. The dialogue is much-appreciated. The text appears below. Continue reading “The wrong tree? :: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and knowledge of good and evil”