More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

– Nicholas Wolterstorff charts a transition in Augstine’s though – a movement from roughly Platonic/neo-Platonic ideas of ascent and hatred towards this-worldly goods and relationships to an moral vision much more informed by Biblical ideas.

Reading Wolterstorff’s treatment of Augustine in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, I’m struck by how much Augustine modifies and breaks the ancient eudaimonism – while God alone will fail to disappoint love, our mutable neighbours are, in fact, love and disturbance-worthy, while locating the much sought after tranquility in the life of the world to come. To quote Wolterstorff, in this life, love trumps tranquility.

An example:

Augustine never loses the idea of tranquility or happiness being that which we should strive for – he holds that along with the various pagan schools quite firmly. What he does, however, is to modify and in some cases break away from the eudaimonism of those schools. His idea of tranquility becomes grounded not in an ascent to the heavens but in the eschatology of the life to come – we are not to seek tranquility among the evils and miseries of the world but to acknowledge these evils, and, in his most dramatic break with the eudaimonistic traditions, be compassionate towards others, feel sorrow, joy, and anger for people and events. To do otherwise is to deny our created nature.

– Augustine’s emphasis on compassion is probably the most non-eudaimonistic aspect of his ethical and moral thought – compassion being a profoundly kenotic kind of thing, opposed to eudaimonism and certainly opposed to (explicitly so) the Stoic conception of ethics:

‘Unlike such emotions as fear and grief, it (compassion) does not have a eudaimonistic basis. Because it does not presuppose any investment in the well-being of the other, it cannot have as its basis the perceived or threatened impairment of one’s investment. On being moved to compassion, the (Good) Samaritan proceeded to care for the man in the ditch; he invested himself in his recovery. The compassion evoked the care, the investment, not the other way around.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 218)

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The Protestant Theory of Religion

Let’s define the Protestant Theory of Religion (PTOR) in a broadly Augustinian way: the idea that man by nature worships (perhaps we could call this the Worship Faculty), and if he doesn’t worship God, he worships something else, with worship being (broadly, of course) defined as a fixation upon that which we love ultimately. Examples abound in the Protestant world: one can worship money, fame, power, sex, whatever. Thus, it’s not our activity as such that is wrong but the object of it, or what our desires (on the broadly Augustinian conception, man is primarily an animal of ‘desire’) and faculties are aligned to. There is always something man is worshiping, always that to which man is fixated upon. We can then lay out the PTOR as such:

‘Man is by nature a creature of desire, who worships.’

(note: this fits in with Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern’ as well)

On this theory, it is a universal condition of humanity that they are worshipping creatures, and thus religious creatures – if their religion is not that of God, it is of something else, fame, fortune, etc – but every man has a religion. This, as Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it, is part of the ‘standard Protestant apologetic’. (Art in Action, p. 85). Is it, however, an accurate description of the human condition? Can we paint every man as someone who worships something?

A first difficulty has to do with confirmation of this theory: upon close inspection, it’s a theory which can be confirmed by anything. Search deep enough, and you’ll find something you worship, even if you’re a modern Western secularist. We’re all worshippers. We all fixate upon some ultimate concern.

A second difficulty is anthropological. Wolterstorff points out that, contrary to the PTOR, many people may not have one ultimate concern but many concerns:

‘Is it not rather the case that many live their lives with a multiplicity of conerns, shifting about from time to time, with no one concern ever being ultimate? Such people care a bit for their families, a bit for their material possessions, a bit for country, a bit for personal esteem, and so forth…if some situation would arise forcing them to choose, then one or more of those conflicting concerns would, for the time being at any rate, be subordinated. But for many, no such agonizing, clarifying conflict ever arises. Their life remains a fractured multiplicty concerns.’ (Art in Action, p. 86)

In a nutshell, some people just aren’t ultimately concerned. Some people just may never have an existential crisis. Sure, you could still say that such people are ultimately concerned and just don’t know it, but this seems like a case of trying to convince someone who isn’t sick that not only are they sick, they need your medicine. That’s the peril of existential apologetics – many people simply don’t have dark nights of the soul.

A third difficulty is biblical: is it in fact the biblical teaching that all men are religious in this way? Is this a universal statement made by the biblical writers? Again, Wolterstorff disagrees:

‘The Bible speaks about the true worshippers of the true God, and describes their unity-in-variety. But it never attempts to locate some ineradicable religious tendency which, though it can be turned in different directions, can never be resisted. It never tries to pinpoint some tendency such that what ultimately differentiates the true worshipper of the true God from all other men is that the former turns that universally shared tendency in a different direction than all the others – namely, in the right direction. It never contends that all those who are not true worshippers of the true God nevertheless have a Religion. It simply regards them as falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways.’ (Art in Action, p. 87)

Wolterstorff then gives a brief exegesis of Romans 1, which for brevity’s sake I will not reproduce here. He concludes, however, that Paul is not teaching that all men have a religious tendency which cannot be resisted but only directed.

This raises some a few questions: If Wolterstorff is right, and I think he (of course) broadly is, what are the implications? Perhaps one implication is that instead thinking of man as primarily a creature of worship (note: man still certainly is a worshiping creature, only not primarily so) perhaps man should be thought of as creature of action. This, of course, is not a novel insight – the Christian idea of vocation has been around for a good long time.

Another question that’s best perhaps phrased in the form of an answer: God is not found at the limit of human life but at the center. This is a huge theme in Bonhoeffer, especially his Ethics and Letters and Papers From Prison. Instead of attempting to identify an existential crisis or God-shaped hole, which may or may not be there or may or may not be viewed as significant, the Christian should simply act in the world. It is in the real world, in the concrete actions of the Christian in the real world, in the center of our existence, not in the deep dark existential moments, where God is. When God is found in the gaps, even deep existential gaps, He disappears when they close.

Quick Note on Justification in Wolterstorff

Wolterstorffs take on justification is interesting. Whereas Wright emphasises the fact of God’s covenant faithfulness, Wolterstorff tries to really focus on the content of said faithfulness – namely, the justice of God’s covenant faithfulness. Wolterstorff .holds that that the topic of Romans is more about justice than covenant faithfulness alone (Wright). God’s inclusion of Gentiles is thoroughly just in the tradition of the Old Testament teachings about the justice of God. The inclusion of the Gentiles does not violate justice

Reading Notes 7/19/2014

I’ve almost exhausted the Lovecraft volume I have.  I’m not really sure which Lovecraft story has proven to be my favourite, though. Possibly ‘The Colour Out of Space.’ His use of ‘blasphemous’, ”unspeakable’, ‘unnameable’, and ‘infinite’, do get a bit old though – especially since it’s already difficult to picture exactly what is supposed to be so mind-numbingly horrifying. I’m gearing up to read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’, now. Not just any old version, though – this is the unabridged and expanded version, coming in at roughly 1200 pages. I’ve started reading it (only about a dozen pages in so far) and I can already tell it’s going to take me a good minute to get through this one.

Earlier this week I started going through part of Torrance’s ‘Incarnation’, specifically the sections where he criticizes liberal theology (Bultmann primarily, but also Tillich, Schweitzer, Dodd, and others). As is par for the course, he’s incisive and occasionally devastating, though I do get the feeling that some of his criticisms are a bit overblown.

I started dipping back into Plantinga and Wolterstorff – ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’ and ‘Warranted Christian Belief’, from the former and ‘Divine Discourse’ from the latter. WCB is just outstanding – as far as analytic philosophy goes, this is probably some of the better writing out there. Clear, balanced and to the point. Wolterstorff, though he’s one of my favourite philosophers (the breadth of his thought is very impressive, ranging from music, architecture, ontology, metaphysics, politics, human rights, justice, art and more) is not one of my favourite writers. He has a very dense, very academic style – if you don’t pay attention to every single line, you’ll likely get lost. His criticisms of Ricouer are pretty interesting -Wolterstorff argues that there’s no ‘sense of the text’, against Ricouer.

Along those lines, I bought the Plantinga/Wolterstorff volume ‘Faith and Rationality’, yesterday, which is where a lot of Reformed epistemology got worked out. Alston (and others of note) contribute(s) as well, and I’m looking forward to getting into it.

On Foundationalism in Theology

Foundationalism is basically the idea that knowledge has to be built on certain foundations – typically, self-evident propositions or axiom, Descartes being the most well-known example of this. In theology, its most well-known and capable proponent was St. Thomas Aquinas. In recent years, thanks more or less to the school of Reformed epistemology, led by Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and William Alston, among others, foundationalism has been pretty much dismantled. I won’t go into the details because it’s actually a pretty long and boring story like much of analytic philosophy.

“Foundationalism has been the reigning theory of theories in the West since the high Middle Ages. It can be traced back as far as Aristotle… Aquinas offers one classic version of foundationalism. There is, he said, a body of propositions which can become self-evident to us in our present earthly state. Properly conducted scientific inquiry consists in arriving at other propositions by way of reliable inference from these (demonstration). A few of these (for example, that God exists) can be inferred from propositions knowable to the natural light of reason.

…within the community of those working in philosophy of knowledge and philosophy of science foundationalism has suffered a series of deadly blows in the last 25 years. To many of those acquainted with the history of this development it now looks all but dead. So it looks to me. Of course, it is always possible that by a feat of prodigious imagination foundationalism can be revitalized. I consider that highly improbable…” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, pp. 26-27).

However, despite broad agreement with status of foundationalism as dead, there are those who hold to it on theological grounds. This is an example I found earlier today:

http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/review/christian_philosophy_a_systematic_and_narrative_introduction

‘This view—that the Bible does not provide us with a set of indubitably known propositions—cannot be reconciled with the best of what the Reformation affirmed. As a matter of fact, with all of their good and necessary references to Christ and to Christian, and not just theistic, philosophy, it is not easy to tell exactly how they might know of this Christ, or of what it means to be Christian. Not only so, but, as Richard Muller points out, it was the very problem of epistemology that was the “single most important contribution of the early Reformed writers” to the area of prolegomena (see his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume 1: Prolegemona to Theology [Baker Books, 2003], 108). This was the case because of the recovery, during the Reformation, of the central and determining place of God’s revelation for all of knowledge. If that is true, and I think it is, then it seems any “Reformational” philosophy worthy of the name must take its starting point—not simply in an “Origin” (as in Dooyeweerd), nor in “Christ,” but in the inscripturated Word of God, which alone is able to tell us who this Christ is. Without an infallible and authoritative, self-attesting Word, any attempt at Christian philosophy will itself be fraught with dialectical tension.’

As far as I can tell from that review, the authors of that volume are not arguing for a distinctively Reformed viewpoint, but that’s an aside. There’s a deeper issue at play here, which the above passage notes – epistemology.

The issue with the foundationalism here is the idea of self-evident, or indubitably known, propositions. Theologically and biblically, it is quite plain that by reason alone (self-evident propositions, for example) one will not arrive at the Truth of the Scriptures, which is Christ. Truth is not a matter of method, whether reasoning from self-evident propositions, discursive reasoning or any other method. This is not to say that the truths of scripture (Paul writes in Romans about God’s law written upon our hearts) cannot be described by reason or reasoned about. The Psalmist prays that his eyes may be opened to behold the wonders of the Law, and that knowledge of God is too wondrous for him to attain.

What one needs to know God and to know the Truth of the Scriptures is not an infallible book or an infallible method but rather repentance, a continual turning of the whole of man, mind, heart, body and soul, towards God, without which not even the most learned philosophers will know God. Only one who loves God and worships God will know God, not one who has the superior deductive method. Infants and children know that which no method of reasoning can arrive at by its own strength.

More Metaphysical Musings

If great art reflects in some way the glory and beauty of God, what of somber art, or sad music? I remember Wolterstorff said something quite profound about God and suffering:

‘It is said of God that no one can see His face and live. I always though this meant that no one could see His splendour and live. A friend said perhaps it meant no one can see His suffering and live. Or perhaps His suffering is His splendour.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Lament for a Son’, p. 81)

That particular volume is a profound and painful meditation in the context of the loss of a dear loved one – but I wonder if something along my current line of thought can’t be drawn from it. Could it be the case that genuine sad music, genuine heartbroken, grief-stricken music, reflects an element of God’s suffering (I here affirm Barth’s position in impassibility, which you can find in the ‘Barth’ category on the right side of the blog)?

God, Rights, and Justice

‘The assumption of Israel’s writers that God holds us accountable for doing justice has the consequence that when we fail to do justice, we wrong God. We not only fail in our obligations to God. We wrong God, deprive God of that to which God has a right.

‘Injustice is perforce the impairment of shalom… God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s human creatures; justice is indispensable to that.’

God holds human beings accountable for doing justice; and God himself is committed to justice, both in the sense that God does justice and in the sense that God works to bring it about that human beings treat each other justly. (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 91, 83, 89)

Our obligation is twofold: to our fellow human beings and to God. By treating our fellow human beings justly is to honor that which to God has a right. Treating others justly is to honor their natural human rights, which are grounded in both the imago dei as well as God’s love for all human beings – when we honor this right, that is doing justice, and that is how we bring about shalom.