Charles Taylor and John Locke on reason

“I have borrowed the term ‘self-responsibility’ from Husserl to describe something that Locke shares with Descartes and which touches on the essential opposition to authority of modern disengaged reason. What we are called upon to do by these writers, and by the tradition they establish, is to think it out ourselves. As with Descartes, knowledge for Locke isn’t genuine unless you develop it yourself:

‘For, I think, we may as rationally hope to see with other Mens Eyes, as to know by other Mens Understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of Truth and Reason, so much we possess of real and true Knowledge. The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains makes us not a jot more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was Science, is in us but Opinatrety, whilst we give up our assent to reverend Names, and do not, as they did, employ our own Reason to understand those Truths, which gave them reputation… In the Sciences, every one has so much, as he really knows and comprehends: What he believes only, and takes upon trust are but shreads.'[1]

Plato, of course, says something analogous…. But what is different with the moderns is that the requirement to work it out oneself is more radical and exclusive, and tis in virtue of their very notion of reason.

Plato enjoins us to stand out against custom and ‘opinion’ in order to arrive at the truth. But the truth at which we arrive is a vision of the order of things. It is not absolutely excluded in principle that our best way of getting there might be to be guided by some authority–not, indeed, the corrupt and erroneous one of popular opinion, but by someone with wisdom. Once we have science [according to Plato], of course, we can dispense with guidance, but it might help us to come to this independent condition.”

I think that our first instinct is to apply this “scientific” mode of reasoning to religious questions—and it tends to strip religions down to bare and vague transcendence—which is about all that any of us can “work out for ourselves.” I’m more and more confident that this mode of reasoning itself needs to be questioned, not least because it is a “tradition” all its own. Taylor is proving immensely helpful in that project.

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[1] John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1:4:23.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 167-68.

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…

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

achan’s stones :: [part two]

The last post on this theme circuitously raised a thorny question about Scripture and God’s speech. Achan and his kin are put to death, seemingly at God’s command, and the execution seems to placate God’s anger. The blood of the offending man and his family satisfies God’s demand for retribution after his command was broken. This post and the next set out most of the escape routes that I can think of—and offer reasons why they create more problems than they avoid.

Anyone who wants to take the text seriously is faced with the problem: God speaks to Joshua to command the execution of Achan and his family. The last post questioned whether Achan was the sole culprit in all Israel (and thus the justice of his execution); but even if he was, the execution of his family seems barbaric. Does God command murder?

Modus operandi for most of us is to simply ignore these jarring and violent texts and focus on more straightforwardly edifying passages. On the whole, I am not sure that this is a bad thing; it is less than wise to quote Joshua 7 in an attempt to build up the church’s faith. But the existence of these texts subverts my desire to speak of the whole bible as the word of God—it makes me uncomfortable. Whether we ignore these texts or not, the picture of God that they present lurks in the dark cellar of faith—and we worry that he may come up into the light. For many, the problem remains whether or not it is faced explicitly.
Continue reading “achan’s stones :: [part two]”

words for the week :: evolution and reformation

Father Stephen wrote a challenging essay on what he calls the “myth” of reformation–including the poignant quip, “Semper Reformanda is not Scripture, it’s just modernism with a Latin motto.” He urges humility in our relationship to the church, and offers a reminder that we do not save the church, the church saves us. Plenty to think about, even if one would like to argue.

Avery Cardinal Dulles has an excellent article in First Things, available online, which gives a brief history of growing Roman Catholic openness toward Darwinian evolution, a typology of three coherent Christian positions on evolution, and a call for dogmatic anti-theists to interact with theologians better versed than the straw-man portrayals of faith that they lampoon.

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”

daniel’s four beasts :: four Kingdoms

I’ve just posted a paper in the “Essays and Papers” page that I wrote over the summer. For those of you with a Biblical bent, the paper enters the 2,300 year old debate over the imagery the author of the book of Daniel employs to speak about the kingdoms of the earth. The images have been trotted out in various apocalyptic schemes for thousands of years, the latest renditions being Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, and the infamous Left Behind series by Jenkins and LaHaye. The books cryptic imagery has been mis-read in some fairly fantastic ways.

The paper makes the argument that the first three beasts/kingdoms should be read historically, while the fourth should be read eschatologically. The book of Daniel, rather than being a time-table for the last days, is a warning to the powers of the earth about their responsibility to their people. When the world’s kingdoms forget the humanity of those subject to thier control, they turn into bloodthirsty beasts liable to God’s judgement. Undercutting our eschatological self-righteousness, I argue that Western nations like the United States can be identified as the fourth beast just as easily as Ancient Greece, Rome, the USSR, or any of the other “usual suspects.” The “Son of Man” figure represents the restoration of God’s image in humanity in the form of a fifth kingdom which displaces the four-fold beastly reign of terror.

This paper comes out of a course taught by Regent’s Iain Provan, and he deserves credit for most of the good ideas in the paper (you be the judge) but he should be exonerated from its faults.

personal belief and corporate confession :: creeds and community (part IV)

The last entry thinking about the creeds focused on the relationship between the creeds and scripture. As normative confession, the creeds guide the boundaries of our interpretation of scripture in order to enable us to read scripture well. The creeds stand as a history lesson about God’s people reading God’s word; they are our opportunity to hear and understand the thought of those Christians who down through the generations have passed on the gospel and put the scripture in our hands. We disregard their advice at our own hazard. We cannot even touch scripture until someone gives it to us – and that event (taking the book into our hands) links us to a long chain that reaches back to the roots of our tradition. Any loss of memory constitutes a crisis of identity, but especially an intentional ignorance with regard to tradition.

In this entry however, I’d like to dig into questions about the normative influence of the creeds within the church today – look at how we relate to these ancient documents, and how we are to look at them. How do creeds function within our communities? What do communities that move away from creeds replace them with? Continue reading “personal belief and corporate confession :: creeds and community (part IV)”

moral (in)formation

The obsession with information in our culture has left us with a situation in which we each choose our own elders and role models.

Previously, your parents, your extended family, or your community would pass lessons on to you about the meaning of life and the proper way to exist in the world. One went through years of an “apprenticeship” watching one’s parents interact with all sorts of people, work in the field or the pasture, distinct from the vocational institution.

These days, we throw kids in front of a television, give them a library card, and put them on the Internet. The flow of information is relentless, and formative. We learn as we grow, but there are so many voices. Out of the cacophony one voice strikes a particular chord, or one piece of advice is particularly poignant. And for the moment, that voice, that advice is our pole star. We may be utterly disconnected from its author, but if it rubs us the right way we take the information to be revelation, and we are prepared to live for the idea.

This leads to the situation where our cultural “wisdom” consists of the patchwork quilts each of us assemble from the endless flow of “good ideas” we come across.

On the one hand it is a relief to think that we haven’t lost the practice of mentorship and eldership altogether. We still pass on wisdom. It’s still important to learn how to live. On the other hand it is disturbing that the whole process is so disconnected – and so individually selective. We listen to the voices that we want to hear and shape our behavior accordingly. Nothing compromises our personal sovereignty. Truth is what I want to hear – what sounds good to me.

room for humans :: the words of God

Reading Telford Work’s book Living and Active, I’m recognizing the amount of breathing room available within the biblical tradition. We often speak as if there were only one way to be “biblical” people. We imagine that there is one cookie cutter mold for how to be faithful (and not surprisingly, that cookie cutter looks an awful lot like our own silhouette). But even within the Bible there are traditions at tremendous tension with one another, and in the world that Scripture describes, there is room for many different sorts:

Wisdom literature portrays a world where the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. The wise are blessed and saved, the wicked judged and condemned. God’s mercy is then a kind of converse of God’s justice. The apocalyptic vision turns this conception of salvation on its head. In a world where the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, one is not saved from God’s eschotological judgemnt. Rather, one is saved from injustice and wrath, through God’s eschatological judgment. God’s justice is itself a dimension of God’s mercy. (159)

There is a breadth to truth that acknowledges the validity of many perspectives. What a relief that God speaks through many voices. The “American Dream” wisdom of Proverbs (work your tail off and you’ll do alright) stands side by side with Daniel’s very different version of wisdom. Daniel reminds us that beastly and inhuman empires have their way on the earth only for a time, but that in the end, God’s power and God’s judgment are ultimate. As Ghandi says – every oppressor dies someday. Continue reading “room for humans :: the words of God”

pauperes and ecclesium :: memory and movement

The first things that get “forgetten” are the hardest things to do. To serve the poor, to look out for those in need, to give a voice to the voiceless. We do many good things. But when we abandon the poor, overlook those in need, and leave the marginalized in the silence of the periphery of our lives, we crack the foundation on which everything else stands.

“Extra pauperes nulla salvus,” says theologian Jon Sobrino, tweaking Augustine’s dictum, “extra ecclesium nulla salvus.”

“Without the poor [church], no one is saved.” Doing theology means hard thinking, it also means meeting widows and orphans, addicts and those abandoned as our brothers and sisters (not primarily as widows, orphans, addicts, and abandoned sorts). Theology that isn’t done in the overlap of Augustine’s “ecclesium” and Sobrino’s “pauperes” undermines its own content. “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

creeds and criticism (Part III) :: the Bible :: or why reading scripture apart from theology is like eating without food

Despite the contemporary desire to treat it this way, the Bible did not fall out of the sky. Christians are not “people of the book” in the same way that Muslims or Mormons are. The Bible is not eternal truth dictated word for word from the clouds to faithful scribes waiting pen in hand. Christianity’s attitude toward its book is significantly different.

As a starting point, we need to realize that the Bible wasn’t written for us. At least not primarily. Paul was not thinking of you when he wrote (or dictated) his letter to the Romans. We abuse scripture itself if we refuse to let Paul write to his friends at Rome, and recognize this as a conversation that we’ve been allowed in on. And if we start there, we had better understand what his friends would have understood from his writing before we start proof-texting individual verses out of context. That means hard work and study. Continue reading “creeds and criticism (Part III) :: the Bible :: or why reading scripture apart from theology is like eating without food”