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)

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.

Is a Secular Grounding of Human Rights Possible?

Here’s a fantastic discussion/debate on the topic of grounding human rights:

It’s long and technical, but well worth your time. If you click the link and go to YouTube, each different topics beginning time is marked to make navigation a bit easier.

Beginning to Delve into Rights-History

A few preliminary thoughts:

My goal here is basically to test Nicholas Wolterstorffs thesis that the concept of natural human rights originated not with the Enlightenment, and not in the middle ages, but in the Old Testament. I’ll probably refrain from developing any theories of rights (I’ve done that, albeit not very well, elsewhere) here – this is primarily going to be a historical exercise.

Brian Tierney’s book ( does what I think is an outstanding job showing that the idea of rights goes back at least to the middle ages – I won’t be defending that thesis because honestly, I think it’s pretty hard to argue with.

There is no room for doubting the idea that justice is a major theme of the Old Testament – particularly in the writings of the Prophets. The question is, however, does this concept of justice contain a primitive idea of rights that developed into what we recognize as rights today?

For inherent, natural rights to be valid, it seems that humans must have worth – humans with value have a right to not be treated in a certain way. This is a thesis of Wolterstorffs that I agree with – that rights are grounded in worth.

‘…I conclude that if God loves a human being with the love of attachment, that love bestows worth on that human being; other creatures, if they knew about that love, would be envious. And I conclude that if God loves, in the mode of attachment, each and every human being equally and permanently, then natural human rights inhere in the worth bestowed upon human beings by that love.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ pp. 360)

If this is in fact the case, that rights are grounded in worth, then the Old Testament is a treasure-trove of primitive rights ideas – not full-blown theories, obviously. The Old Testament writers were not jurists or lawyers developing legal theory. But a central idea of the Old Testament is that human beings have worth. If the thesis above is true, thenby default the Old Testament is implicitly saying that human beings also have  rights.

This leads to an interesting question: can rights be grounded without worth bestowed by God? In other words, can a solid, well-grounded secular theory of rights be developed?

The Wounds of God

Can we wrong God?

Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his books ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’ and ‘Justice in Love’ that we can in fact wrong and even wound God by failing to treat people justly. Wolterstorff ties these notions together by pointing out that God loves each person with love as attachment – to wrong that which you are attached to is to wrong you. To treat people unjustly is to treat unjustly that to which God is attached. Wolterstorff draws upon the thought of John Calvin to fortify his thesis – in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin argues that because of the image of God engraved on each person, ‘God deems Himself violated in their person’. Roughly, to harm a person is to harm God. ‘…no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God Himself.’ Wolterstorff develops this though in more detail but that’s the basic idea.

This relates to the doctrine of impassibility that I’ve been thinking on lately – Wolterstorff does not hold to the doctrine. Calvin, however, makes a small but crucial point: ‘God deems Himself violated in their person.’ So in a sense, it seems that Calvin and Wolterstorff are at odds. Calvin says that God ‘deems Himself’ violated or injured, while Wolterstorff argues that:

‘On account of God’s attachment to human beings, one wrongs God by injuring a human being.’ (‘Justice in Love’, p. 154)

Wolterstorff does not make Calvin’s distinction that it is God who ‘deems Himself’ injured – at least so far as I can tell. Wolterstorff would hold that God is indeed wounded by our treating fellow humans unjustly, while Calvin holds that God ‘deems Himself’ injured. There is a substantial difference here.

Thoughts on Justice

‘It is not the abstract entity ‘justice as such’ that God loves. What God loves is the presence of justice in society. And God loves the presence of justice in society not because it makes for a society whose excellence God admires, but because God loves the members of society – loves them, too, not with love of admiration but with the love of benevolent desire. God desires that each and every human being shall flourish, that each and every shall experience what the Old Testament calls ‘shalom’. Injustice is perforce the impairment of ‘shalom’. That is why God loves justice. God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s creatures; justice is indispensable to that. Love and justice are not pitted against each other but intertwined.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 82)

This is an understanding of ‘justice’ I like – one with breadth and nuance. Here, justice is not simply rendering to each his due, as it was for the great Roman legal minds. Wolterstorff defines justice as something Christians are called to actually practice – justice is something we do and are called to do.

In the book quoted above, Wolterstorff brilliantly shows how the themes of justice are central in both the Old and New Testaments – part of it can be read here, and I highly recommend it as a brilliant work of exegesis:

Here’s another thought on justice from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

‘God’s concern for justice grows out of His compassion for man. The prophets do not speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea, called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God’s relationship to His people and to all men.

Justice is not important for its own sake; the validity of justice and motivation for its exercise lies in the blessing it brings to man. For justice, as stated above, is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God. “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to Me, I swill surely hear their cry…if he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Exod. 22:22-23, 27).

When Cain murdered his brother Abel, the words denouncing his crime did not proclaim: “You have broken the law.” Instead we read: “And…the Lord said: What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground.’ (Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘The Prophets’, p. 216)

Both Heschel and Wolterstorff both ground their concepts of justice not in the abstract (even if their wording and language is fairly different – one is an analytic philosopher and another a rabbi/mystic) but in God’s love and relation to all of mankind – and both see justice as something we practice, something we do and are called to do. This is where justice-talk in Christianity needs to go – justice seen as something we are called to practice, instead of an abstract concept somewhere out there that serves political ends. Bonhoeffer’s ethical though follow similar lines, and the reason I find these thoughts so attractive is that they move past the ideas of justice and ‘the good’ as being things somewhere out there that we strive to do in every circumstance and bring them down into concrete relation living.

Grounding justice and ethics in relationship and in love provides, so far as I can see, the strongest framework for these subjects – and is the direction that Christian ethical thought needs to take if it’s going to have any relevance in the world.