The Social Dimension of the Mind of Christ

Chapter 7 of James Finley’s book Christian Meditation, about which I have blogged much, is called “Entering the Mind of Christ.” This is another aspect of what is going on in Christian meditation, or contemplative prayer.

Finley writes that the practice of disciplined contemplation (which at one place he describes as “the intimate understanding of the texture of my own heart as feelings play across its surface, flow through it, and alter its state from one moment to the next”) gives us an awareness of our unity not just with God but with our fellow human person:

It takes time, but little by little we enter the social dimension of the mind of Christ in awakening to how perfectly one we are with everyone living and dead. As this awareness slowly seeps in, we are able to grow, day by day, into a more patient, gracious recognition and acceptance of and gratitude for others. Little by little the graciousness of Christ’s empathetic mind of oneness with others is translated into a thousand little shifts in the way we think about people, our attitudes toward them, and the way in which we actually treat them day by day. (page 195)


The Inbreaking of the Kingdom – Acts 3:11-26 (Class #9, 3/8/09)

Here is the summary of our discussion for class #9 in our Acts study at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX.  The title of the course is “A New Kind of Conquest” (see blog categories below). For the outline of Acts we are using, see here, and for more info please contact Matt.

“Peter’s interpretive word”

In our previous discussion(s) of the event of Pentecost, we paid close attention to the character that the Jewish Feast of the same name. In particular we noticed that at the heart of this feast was the idea of “first fruits,” a term which occurs several places in the NT, in particular in Paul’s writing. The idea here is that the Feast of Pentecost was a time for the people of Israel to offer back to God the initial portion, the “first fruits,” of the harvest. In doing this they were saying two things: “Thanks, God, for this gift,” and also, “Now, please, God, may there be much more of this harvest to follow.”

There is a very important word in this current passage we are considering, Acts 3:11-26, which occurs in verse 15. It is the word archegos, which is very cognate with the Greek word for “first fruits,” (aparchen). These words share a common root: the word arche, which has a wide semantic range which can include “ruler” or “beginning.”

In this verse Jesus is referred to as the archegos, or the Pioneer, or the Founder, of the Author, of life. What it is saying that Jesus in the first human to “bust out: into the new realm of “heaven,” into the new realm of “the Kingdom of God,” into the new realm of “universal restoration,” which very term (Gk. apocatastasis) occurs in 3:21.

So in this passage Peter is interpreting the meaning of the healing of this crippled man. According to Peter,  Jesus, as the Pioneer of the Faith, has entered into the new world of total restoration and holistic shalom by his resurrectin and ascension, and therefore his followers Peter and John, who have Jesus’ same spirit, have been agents through which this “perfect health” (verse 16) was given or restored to this crippled man.


Tanner on Open Communion in the Episcopal Church

What follows is a summary of the article of “In Praise of Open Communion: A Rejoinder to James Farwell” by Kathryn Tanner which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I wrote this piece for my “God and Creation” class at the Seminary of the Southwest.

In this article Kathryn Tanner attempts to respond to James Farwell’s article which argues against the practice of open communion in the Episcopal Church. The article is, indeed a rejoinder to Farwell.
Her initial foray into what turns out to be the bulk of her argument is that, while Farwell is correct in pointing out that many or most advocates of open communion, following the consensus of the Jesus Seminar, deny the historicity of the account of Jesus’ Last Supper meal with his disciples, this move need not be made by advocates of open communion. Rather, all that must be argued is that the last supper account be read in light of Jesus’ larger food ministry, both his lavish, unconditionally inclusive table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, as well as his ministry of feeding the crowds. When one does this one quickly realizes that the last supper is not really that different from the latter: in both cases Jesus is dining with sinners (in the case of the last supper, with a Christ-denier and a Christ-betrayer) who are ill-informed about Jesus and his Kingdom designs and purposes. Tanner thinks that this undermines Farwell’s argument, since she thinks, for reasons unknown to this writer, that Farwell’s argument relies on the commitment of the participants in the Eucharist as well as their status as well-informed. (This is not Farwell’s argument.)
Tanner also accuses Farwell of portraying the Eucharist as nourishment for mission, but this, she says, encourages “the corrupting disjunction between worship and mission to which Christians everywhere seem prone.”
While Farwell does not claim that baptism is about commitment, Tanner does make this claim, by emphasizing that the baptismal covenant calls for radical commitment on the part of the baptized. (But what about the repetition of the baptismal covenant by the already baptized? one is led to ask.) Because of this, and because the 79 prayer book supposedly sees baptism and eucharist as part of a larger, complex rite of initiation, one can argue that the Eucharist, in giving the person the shape of the Christian life, can precede and prepare for Baptism.
One way of seeing what Tanner is trying to do here: she is applying the same “logic” which the framers of the 79 prayer book used for baptism (in our post-Constantinian context) to the eucharist. If the wider world is no longer Christian, there are many reasons to admit them directly to the table, she thinks.


Farwell on Open Communion in the Episcopal Church

What follows is a summary of the article “Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of ‘Open Communion'” by James Farwell which appeared Spring 2004 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I wrote this piece for my “God and Creation” theology class at the Seminary of the Southwest.

In the first, introductory section of the article Farwell summarizes the basic argument which advocates of open communion put forth. The line of reasoning  goes something like this: “(the historical) Jesus would not have engaged in a ritual meal which in any way excluded anyone, and therefore it is unfaithful to the example of Jesus to do so. On the contrary, the Jesus of history went around and scandalized the Jewish leaders of his day by feasting lavishly with ‘sinners:’ prostitutes, tax collectors, and outcasts. The practice of ‘closed communion’ in which baptism is a ‘gateway’ to the table is exclusionary in a way which contradicts the gospel of Jesus.” Farwell, however, views this is a prima facie argument which lacks systematic rigor and makes arbitrary presuppositions, which need further scrutiny and clarification, especially given so central a matter for the life of the Christian Church. Farwell suggests that the failure to engage in this deeper reflection might lead us to give in to the dangerous “the seduction of relevancy.”

In the second section of the article, “The Argument for Open Communion,” Farwell digs deeper into one  of these presuppositions, namely that “the restriction of the eucharist to the baptized was not an early practice, and, therefore, is insupportable,” a claim made by the Jesus Seminar, seen in the work, for example, of John Dominic Crossan.
Farwell responds to this claim in the third section by saying that, according to many biblical historians such as John Koenig,  “it is not clear that the origins of the eucharist cannot reside with Jesus” (italics his, 220-221). Many scholars, for example, argue that “open meal ministry and the more focused supper with the disciples lie alongside one another in a non-dualistic relationship.” (221) It is true, Farwell grants, that Paul’s teaching on the common meal in I Corinthians does not explicitly state the necessity of baptism; however, “there is in the … passage a clear logic of participation” which requires that at least two conditions be met in order to “participate in the table of the Lord” (I Cor 10:21), the “Lord’s supper” (I Cor 11:20): embrace of “the little ones and the outsiders,” and forsaking idolatry.  This law of participation, which is for St. Paul participation in “the future that animated Jesus himself,” is “consistent with” the practice of baptism. (223) If all of this is so, then the post-apostolic documentary evidence (Farwell quotes from the Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catechesis, Theodore of Mopsuetia’s Third Baptismal Homily, and Augustine’s Sermon 272) must be reconsidered not necessarily as “the accretion of ecclesiastical exclusivity,” but rather “the deepening of the participatory logic of the NT: eucharist completes the initiation and fires the remembrance of the disciple in a pattern of life suitable to the kingdom, to which he or she has joined himself or herself in baptism” (223).  This logic characterizes participation in the death of Christ (I Cor 11:26) and so it is perhaps “disingenuous to offer this meal as if it requires nothing but the desire to participate out of curiosity, custom, or an unformed sense of spiritual longing, however sincere” (224).
In the next section of the essay, Farwell argues that “there is a classic soteriology enacted in the connection of baptism and eucharist on which the practice of open communion may have a serious impact” (228) by spelling out the “both – and” theology of baptism and eucharist. Taken together, they narrate or display both the “gift” aspect of the Christian life  and the discipleship aspect of the Christian life.  It is true that baptism explicitly centers on and embodies more of the gift element, but it also set forth the trajectory and the content of the Christian life of discipleship and obedience (as, for example, is seen in our Baptismal Covenant). Baptism “carries the weight of clarifying the life for which eucharist strengthens us,” something which the eucharist does not do in an explicit way. Rather, it is as if the eucharist is “the performed shorthand for this divine life that we both receive and adopt through baptism” (emphasis his, 226). In other words, the eucharist presupposes baptism since it is there where the content of the Christian life is most fully described.  The eucharist fortifies us and nourishes us to live the life we were initiated in by baptism. But “open communion threatens to short-circuit this enacted “both-and” soteriology of the sacraments by collapsing the entire practice in the direction of divine gift.” (227)

Next Farwell deals with two pastoral issues. He notes that, when it comes to folks wanting to approach the Altar in Communion, there is a huge pastoral opportunity to shepherd people through the whole ordeal of dealing with desire or longing. If, however, we simply and hastily bring them to the table, we cheaply shortchange them of the opportunity to learn from their longing(s). Second, Farwell suggests that advocates of open communion are falling into our modern society’s priority of the individual, a priority which leads to the loss of the common good. This, too, presents a pastoral issue which is shortchanged if we simply rush ahead with open communion.
Finally, boundaries can be hospitable: “good fences make good neighbors.” Farwell’s point is analogous to my saying that it would be inhospitable for me to invite every stranger who knocks on the front door of my house to spend the night with my wife and me in our marriage bed.


The Moral Tradition of Virtue: Kenneth Kirk & Conclusion

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows. For the introduction to this five-part essay see here; for Part I see here; for Part II see here; for Part III see here.

We turn now to a consideration of virtue as represented in the Anglican tradition, the representative in this case being Kenneth Kirk, who stands in direct succession with the moral tradition of virtue on at least two of the three features articulated above: the necessity of a pre-theoretical (note Aristotle’s use of theoretikos above) practice and an anthropological commitment to man as teleological by nature. (On the other of my three “marks” of the moral tradition of virtue – the priority of the social – Kirk is silent. We will forgive him for that, however, since he lived before this postmodern insight came to be appreciated, for example, by Michel Foucault among many others.)

Beati mundo corde, quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt.    The history of these words, Kirk writes, is the history of Christian ethics itself,  for Christian ethics centers on the idea of, the possibility of, the experiential attainment of, the vision of God.  For Kirk, steeped as he is in the moral tradition of the Church (and that in more than a merely academic way), this vision of God is the chief end of man. Not unlike his contemporary Henri de Lubac, he articulates this position, however, by means of a panoply of historical voices, beginning with characters from (what Christians have traditionally and historically called) the Old Testament, progressing through “pagan” stages (both “classical” as well as from the so-called mystery religions) and neo-Platonic fathers of the Church, and finally culminating with medievals such as Thomas Aquinas and 15th century figures such as Ignatius of Loyola and Francis de Sales.

“They will see God.” Virtually all of the Christian thinkers enlisted by Kirk to represent the sweep of the tradition agree that man’s ultimate purpose is the vision or the contemplatio  of God, whatever inter-mural squabbles they might  have on the details of such an experience.  Thomas Aquinas, perhaps, is on what one might think of as the “conservative” extreme of the spectrum, in that he insists that the intuition of the divine essence – the sight of God “face to face”  – is sternly reserved for eternity.

And yet, what all have in common in the conviction that the human life ought to be ordered around this telos of the direct experience of the divine. And what is this telos? Kirk is more explicit than many of his fellow participants in the tradition, certainly more concrete in elaboration of this telos than Alisdair MacIntyre, for example.  For Kirk identifies this telos for which humanity was made as worship:
The doctrine “the end of life is the vision of God” has … been interpreted by Christian thought at its best as implying in practice that the highest prerogative of the Christian, in this life as well as hereafter, is the activity of worship; and that nowhere except in this activity will he find the key to his ethical problems.

Taking precedence over “codes of behavior,” it is worship which orients the ethical project, which orients the moral life of Christian (and human) persons. Appealing to Aristotle, Kirk writes:
Aristotle … explicitly invested the high pursuit of philosophic truth with a religious coloring.  The ‘highest branch of contemplation,’ he said, ‘is theology,’ and the philosophic ideal is the ‘worship and contemplation of God.’ Met V, I (1026a, 19).

Such primacy of worship or praise could also be adduced from multiple Old Testament texts to which Kirk appeals: Jacob saw God face to face and lived (Gen 32:20) (The Hebrew Peniel here means “the face of God”). Similar insights are gleaned from Abraham and Moses in Gen 12:7; 18:1. Isaiah held the LORD high and lifted up in Isaiah 6. Amos & Micah report similar visions: Am 7:7; 9:1; Mic 1:1-3. Ezekiel saw God in his chariot; he saw the Shekinah glory.  Kirk supplies us with many more examples from history and tradition to show that, according to the moral tradition of virtue in which Kirk situates himself, worship is our ultimate purpose.
One primary way in which Kirk’s understanding of worship as man’s end is so fecund, however, is that for Kirk, while worship is an end or a purpose or a telos, it is also more than that: for it is also the way to the telos, as Kirk makes clear throughout his discussion of worship. One can see this discussion as implying a view of worship as (something like) both means and end. It is an end, but it is also the precondition to the achievement of that end. In this sense there is a deep resonance with Kirk’s understanding of worship and Aristotle’s understanding of eudaimonia, for, on Aristotle’s view, happiness is not merely a means to an end, pursued for the sake of something else, but nor is it nothing more than a telos in the sense of terminus, for it is also the way.
For example, Aristotle’s understanding of happiness is not like the production of walls from bricks and morter. The sole (or at least the overwealmingly primary) purpose of brick-laying is to produce a wall. The brick-laying is the means to that end which is the wall. But for Aristotle, eudaimonia is neither reducible down to brick-laying nor reducible down to the wall. It is both, and / or it is neither.  So also, on Kirk’s view, for worship. It is not merely a means, for worship is what we will be doing for all eternity, and is our highest possible way to commune with God. And yet it is a medium or a way which leads to something else, something more. But nor, on the other hand, is worship merely an end, for surely it is more true to say that our end is God himself, and worship is a means to that higher end. And yet, in saying this one must constantly remember that not true apprehension of God can ever take place outside of or independently of worship or praise, and so worship itself is ultimate, in that it is bound up with the ultimate end of man which is God Godself.

In showing that worship is humanity’s true end, two voices which Kirk enlists are those of Psalm 24 (“Those with clean hands and a pure heart … will seek the face of the God of Jacob”) and Psalm 27 (“One thing have I asked of the LORD, and that will I seek: to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple”). These two ancient Hebrew poems, separated by only a few strophai in the Hebrew Bible, are among the most provocative of all the voices Kirk brings to bear upon this issue of worship as both (or neither) the way to our ultimate telos and part and (or nor) parcel of that same telos. Consider Psalm 27, which conflates worship and the experience of beholding God, as if they are the same thing. Indeed these two things, says the Psalmist, are the “one thing” that he seeks. Worship and the vision of God are bound up in unity. And yet, worship is also a preparation for that “one thing:” worship purifies us (cf Isa 6,where Isaiah is penitentially “purified” by a burning coal from God’s altar) such that we are able to worship and to see God, as implied in Psalm 24. Kirk therefore shows that worship is not just (wo)man’s ultimate end but also our way of preparation unto that end.
In other words, “they will see God,” indeed. But who is “they?” Only the pure in heart, says Jesus in Matthew 5 and the tradition which follows his lead. There thus develops in the tradition, an emphasis on the pre-theoretical preparation for such a vision. The entire (neo)Platonic tradition, of course, heavily emphasizes such preparation, often in the form of purification, an emphasis nicely summarized by Seneca’s  dictum that “the mind, unless it is pure and holy, cannot see God.”

Kirk receives this emphasis on preparation for the divine vision and reads (Christian) worship as its fulfillment, for such purity must involve first and foremost a sense of disinterestedness, which “Christian ethics must advocate.”  “Worship [alone],” Kirk argues, “lifts the soul out of preoccupation with self and its activities, and centers its aspirations entirely upon God.”

Where, then, Kirk invites us to ask, is the place for service and self-discipline? By showing that “both of these are antecedents and the consequences of worship” Kirk argues for an approach to ethics which does in fact begin and end with worship but is fruitful for the life of the world:

When once it is recognized that worship is the key to disinterestedness, the effort to conform to codes and standards falls into its proper place. it is, on the one hand, an effort which the worshipping soul finds itself compelled to undertake, so that its worship may flow more freely; on the other, an invariable outcome of all true worship, insofar as it the latter invariably strives to render its environment more harmonious with the Idea of which it has caught glimpses.

Here we see that for Kirk, ethics begins with worship and ends with worship (of God, finally in the beatific vision). However, the value of this approach for (what I think of as) “the streets of the real world,” consistent with the best of the virtue tradition of Christian moral philosophy, is that worship (together with the worshipping community) is a “glimpse” (to borrow Kirk’s own term) or an icon of the world’s true nature, reality, design, and goal.

This actually underscores, and does not diminish, the importance of service and self-discipline, for Christian practices such as alms-giving, fasting, meditation, and service to neighbor flow in and out of worship – concretely in the Eucharist – as its “wings.”  Worship is a means to our final end, as are (and for that reason) Christian self-discipline and service.

We have considered, as two modern advocates of what can be thought of as a deeply traditional (though not without real critique and certain innovations) moral tradition of virtue. I would like to suggest in closing, however, that without Kirk, MacIntyre would be incomplete. For as John Milbank has argued,  MacIntyre’s articulation of the tradition, despite all its philosophic erudition, despite all its historical context, despite all its grasp of the real issues, is at the end of the day, insufficient in its affirmation of real, concrete content.
What is the concrete content of moral thought, to which the tradition of virtue, from Homer to the present, in its best and truest moments, has pointed (even if at times obscurely)? Surely it is, as Kirk argues, that man’s moral life begins, ends, and flows forth, from the worship of God, who will be seen by the pure in heart.


The Moral Tradition of Virtue (III): Teleological Anthropology

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows. For the introduction to this five-part essay see here; for Part I see here; for Part II see here; for the conclusion see here.

Having now considered two overlapping features of these three historical stages of the virtue tradition which are the predecessor cultures to modernity (Heroic society, classical Athens, medieval Christendom), we turn now to the third: the ways in which these cultures conceived of man or humanity. The core idea here which overlaps onto all three civilizations is that humanity is a functional concept, about which MacIntyre writes:

… Moral arguments within the classical … tradition – whether in its Greek or its medieval versions – involve at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential and an essential purpose or function…. That is to say, “man” stands to “good man” as “watch” stands to “good watch” of “farmer” to “good farmer” in the classical tradition.

Nowhere does one see Thomas’ reliance upon Aristotle more clearly than in this anthropological commitment to man as a functional concept. Here the Angelic Doctor appears to be taking his cues directly from Aristotle (e.g., chapter 13 of Book I of the latter’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he states and then builds upon the analogy, alluded to above, that a good man is analogous to a good harp player).  Ralph McInerny argues, that on Aquinas’ view,

Beginning with the classical tradition,  Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics, that the relationship of “man” to “living well” is analogous to that of “harpist” to “playing the harp well.” (Nicomachean Ethics 1095a 16). This “living well” for Aristotle is man’s essental telos, and the word he uses to denote it is eudaimonia, variously translated as “happiness,” “success,” and “blessedness” (among other options).

What is interesting about this elusive sense of eudaimonia for Aristotle is that it is neither simply a means to some other end (although at various points in his corpus the Philosopher does suggest that meditative contemplation of the divine – that is the Unmoved Mover – is the supreme telos of the human person ) nor is it simply an end in itself. Reducible to neither of these, it is instead a virtue (perhaps, for Aristotle, the ultimate virtue) whose end is intrinsic to itself. That is, its ultimate end (what both D.S. Hutchinson and Stanley Haurwas  / Charles Pinches consider to be “living a well-lived life”)  is intrinsic to the practice, and even the attainment of, eudaimonia. What is clear, however, is that for Aristotle man does have a purpose, which he can fulfill or accomplish well or poorly. Just as a hammer can be said to be a good hammer or a bad hammer based on how well it fulfills its purpose or performs its function, so also a human being can be said to be a good or a bad person.

Turning now to the medieval period, nowhere does one see Thomas’ reliance upon Aristotle more clearly than in this anthropological commitment to man or humanity as a functional concept. Here the Angelic Doctor appears to be taking his cues directly from Aristotle (e.g., chapter 13 of Book I of his Nicomachean Ethics, where he states and then builds upon the analogy, alluded to above, that a good man in analogous to a good harp player). Ralph McInerny argues that, on Aquinas’ view,

… the human agent is precisely one who performs human actions with a view to the good. If we want to know whether something or someone is good, we ask what its function is…. I can say that an eye is good if it performs its function of seeing well. The organ is called good from the fact that its operations are good, are performed well. The “well” of an action, its adverbial mode, is the ground of talk of virtue. The “virtue” of any thing is to perform its natural function or proper task well.

We have looked at three “chapters” in the story of the development of this tradition of virtue: heroic antiquity, classical Greek civilization (rooted in fifth century Athens), and the medieval synthesis which finds it main protagonist in Thomas Aquinas.

But where does this leave us in the early 21st century? Following on the heals of modernity’s rejection (a la Descartes and Kant, two name two foundational examples) of these three common strands we have traced (the social rootedness of morality, the pre-theoretical practice of philosophy, and the anthropological presupposition of human as a functional concept with a concrete telos) it leaves us in the morally chaotic state of what Alisdair MacIntyre describes as “emotivism.”   For MacIntryre, only traditioned inquiry is capable of sustaining a coherent, rational discourse about the good life for humans, but this – tradition in general, as well as this tradition of virtue in particular – is precisely what modernity rejects.

In our emotivistic society, moral consensus is necessarily blocked because there is no agreement among the plurality of voices on what constitutes the common good. And MacIntyre is pessimistic to say the least. Given his insistence (along with modernity’s predecessor cultures, with which he is in intellectual and moral solidarity) upon the priority of the social, the best he can envision is a “new St. Benedict” who will create new communities of formation in the midst of our fragmented and fragmenting culture.

It seems clear from the preceding account of the classical virtue tradition that the most fundamental way in which the virtue-centered, Christian moral tradition differs from modern ethical theory is that, according to the former, there is more to the moral – or even the decisional – life of persons than merely the consciously rational dimension. It is this “more than,” this dimension of the human psyche beyond reason (or perhaps behind and under reason) which must be formed or shaped according to an informed rationality. For the most part ignored by modern ethical theory, this dimension of the human psyche will inevitably be shaped and conditioned by something: left to its own devices it will be imprisoned by the drives and desires of human appetite.

See here for the conclusion to this series.


The Moral Tradition of Virtue (II): the Practice of Philosophy

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows. For the introduction to this essay see here, and for Part I see here.

We turn now to a consideration of the priority of practice – the practice of philosophy – in each of the three predecessor cultures. Once again, we see a unity among the differences: in all three cultures there is what Pierre Hadot calls a “philosophy before the [moral] philosophy.” Before an agent can know what is good or right (let alone succeed in doing it) she must do something other than – she must do something before – knowing. Knowledge of the good is conditioned by something prior.

The pre-classical society of the heroic is perhaps the most difficult case to establish, but things get clearer when we do two things. First, we must realize that, for a Homeric warrior to be morally successful, he must arrive back to his home victorious after battle. This is the primary standard for virtue in this society. Second, we must ask, “What moral presuppositions must obtain for such a victorious return? There are two moral prerequisites for success  which come into play here, and both are human practices: loyalty and accountability to his kin (otherwise he would not be motivated to return home), and appeasement of the Gods in prayer and sacrifice. The two practices – loyalty or accountability and obiessence before the divine – are for this society its “philosophy before philosophy.” They are the practices which precede and undergird the achievement of virtuous eudaimonia.

In fifth-century Athens the successful moral life also presupposes a disciplined praxis, well documented and described by Pierre Hadot. Hadot points out that, once, when Socrates was challenged
to quit his annoying irony and offer is own definition of justice, he replied: ”I never stop showing what I think is just. If not in words, I show it by my actions.” At the heart of what Socrates meant by knowledge, Hadot says, is a way of life, ”a love of the good.” That love comes from within the individual, and after it is awakened it must be renewed through self-questioning, self-examination, a personal commitment to a life of philosophy.

As Socrates and his contemporaries of fifth-century Athens would say, however, this love for the good must be nurtured and fostered. Hence the practice of paideia, what Hadot describes as “the desire to form or educate:”
This education was imparted by adults…. In the fifth century, as democracy began to flourish, the city-states showed … the concern for forming their future citizens by physical exercises, gymnastics, music, and mental exercises.

Turning now to medieval Christendom, we can see a similar commitment to a disciplined praxis which precedes the attainment of virtue. The supreme articulation and defense of this stance comes the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, where he mounts a defense of habituation or the formation of habits by human acts, as a cause of virtue. In the second article (“Whether any Virtue is Caused in us by Habituation from our Acts?”) to Question LXIII (“The Cause of the Virtues”) Thomas writes

… Dionysius says that good is more efficacious than evil. But vicious habits are caused by evil acts. Much more, therefore, can virtuous habits be caused by good acts.… We have spoken already in a general way about the generation of habits from acts. Speaking now in a special way of this matter in relation to virtue … it follows that human nature, directed to the good which is defined according to the rule of human reason, can be caused by human acts; for such acts proceed from reason, by whose power and rule the good in question in established.… Accordingly, human acts, in so far as they proceed from higher principles, can cause acquired human virtues.

For Part III of this series go here.


The Moral Tradition of Virtue (Part I): Priority of the Social

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows. For the introduction to this essay see here.

First, we recognize in each of these civilizations, a certain priority of the social. That is, the particular traits of personality or character which come to be prized in a given culture are rooted in the social arrangement of the time, along with the specific roles which accompany that arrangement. So, for example, in the heroic civilization described and narrated in the epic poems of Homer,  we find those qualities which make for an effective warrior are valued: loyalty (to kin), courage, and strength (principally physical strength). The warrior is the glue, you might say, which binds the society together, and so the virtues of the role of soldier  come to be seen (by Homer as well as his later ancient interpreters) as the highest virtues – at least in that particular society and culture – of the human moral life.

In fifth-century Athens, however, nothing could be more formative on the moral vision of Plato, Aristotle and the various schools (Stoicism, Skepticism) than the establishment of the democratic city state of Athens. Here a different politics, a different “prior social arrangement,” is going on other than that of Homer’s kinship-based, warrior society. Writes MacIntyre:

For Homeric man there could be no standard external to those embodied in the structures of his own community to which appeal could be made; for Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just. Nonetheless he also recognizes that he possesses his understanding of the virtues only because his membership in the community provides him with such understanding. The city is a guardian, a parent, a teacher, even though what is learnt from the city may lead to a questioning of this or that feature of its life.

No longer does the common good of the society depend primarily upon the warrior’s effective performance of his role. Here, in fifth century Athens, a different role is required with different standards, or excellencies, of performance. What matters now more than a society full of good warriors is a society full of good citizens, together with the different social role which accompanies the citizen.

This social situation gives rise the particular values of fifth century Athens. Hence young men were enrolled in various schools and academic formation societies in order to cultivate the virtues of   rhetoric (on the more pragmatic side) and justice (on the more theoretical side). Again, the four “cardinal virtues” of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude (among others) were seen as foundational to the well being of the city state.
With the rise of medieval Christendom, however, we find a radically different social situation. Gone are the days of classical Athens and its counterpart, that cultural echo which is the city of Rome. In this new political reality, several factors come into play to create a different kind of, and a different conception of, social space. First, no longer is the polis, as classically conceived, becomes the primary locus of one’s committed loyalty. Rather, there is a new city in town, that city set on a hill, the politeuma  of the church, together with her sister city, the Christian kingdom. In these overlapping communities a different set of excellencies, a different set of aretai, is valued, encouraged, and cultivated.

Second, in medieval Christendom, for example the span of Thomas Aquinas’ life in thirteenth century France, the church and the civilization of which it is the center is being challenged and confronted by Islam. This new cultural situation gives rise to the need for mission, and in response St. Thomas writes his Summa Contra Gentiles. Here we see an example of how the values of the community are not just for the purposes of the community itself, but also for its expansion, its social mission to the world.

Third, the Europe just before St. Thomas’ time is a Europe now getting the first tastes of the literature of classical antiquity mediated through a kind of proto-Renaissance. As MacIntyre points out, this widespread confrontation served as a social crisis of a different kind, one which forced the society how to deal with challenges from a pagan (ie, not just Muslim) world view . Such a social challenge was utterly new, nothing of its kind having occurred either in classical Greece or in its predecessor culture.

This new social situation gives rise to the particular values of medieval Christendom, values needed for the survival and bene esse of the Christian church community. Faith, hope, charity are at the top of the list of virtues required for the collective eudaimonia of the Christian church, which is why Thomas borrowed them from I Corinthians 13 and with them adorned the more secular virtues of Aristotle and the classical tradition.

We see, then, that each of these three predecessor cultures to modernity share a common feature: their social setting conditions the human character traits which it values. But the point is actually deeper than this: far from exhibiting a denial or even a nervousness of the social or political rootedness of moral discourse, these three predecessor cultures are willing openly to admit and celebrate this. And we are now in a position to show why that is: for all three of these civilizations, morality and the practice of morality was intended to serve the common good, the good of the whole community, in each of its different conceptions / configurations, respectively. And because the common telos of man / humanity is public, it is unitary in its public nature: we see no bifurcation – not in the narrative world of Homer, not in the city state of Athens, not in medieval Christendom – of the public and the private. If the private exists at all (a doubtful protasis), then it exists only for the sake of the public, for the sake of the commonweal, for the sake of the common good of all its members.

For Part II of this series go here.


The Moral Tradition of Virtue: Introduction

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows.

Within what Anglicans call the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books of Scripture, in the book of I Maccabees, we read in the first chapter that, after many years of Jewish struggle to maintain its own faithful identity in the context of Gentile rule,  that “certain renegades … from Israel … built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined themselves with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.”

“What hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?” asked the African church father Tertullian in the early third century. According to the narrative perspective of I Maccabees, the answer is clear: absolutely nothing.
And yet this paper, investigating antique (ie, pagan) virtue is not written from the perspective of Jerusalem. Rather it is written from the perspective of Antioch, or of Rome, or of Canterbury. For Christianity is not merely Jewish, any more than it is merely Gentile.

And so in this paper we are perhaps asking, “What does Rome  have to do with Jerusalem and Athens?” For an answer to this question which is at once historical and theological we will turn to St. Thomas Aquinas. But before we do that, we will rely on Alisdair MacIntyre to guide us through times and seasons before and after St. Thomas. For what precedes Thomas – what he inherits and baptizes – is a rich and complex tradition of virtue. According to MacIntyre, this tradition has its primative origins in the ancient culture which MacIntyre calls “heroic” (primarily the narrative – epic and saga – world of Homer as well as those of other lands such as Ireland, Iceland, and Germany). It then finds its touchstone in the developments of fifth century Athens of Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, and especially Aristotle.  This tradition is then translated into Latin (with Cicero and Boethius playing mediating roles) and inherited (and sometimes rejected) by medieval theologians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries such as Peter  Abelard and Thomas Aquinas.

These three predecessor cultures – primieval heroic culture, fifth-century Athens, and medieval Christendom – are important as the backdrop to modernity. For in modernity the plot thickens, as the tradition is apparently discarded by such thinkers as Descartes and Kant. I say “apparently discarded” because, as MacIntyre crucially points out, most modern thinkers (including the profoundly Christian Kierkegaard) retain many fragments of theology from this predecessor tradition while at the same time both living in a radically new social situation lacking the social and political soil in which the previous world view had grown up, and rejecting many of the philosophical and theological bases in which these very retained fragments are rooted. This situation – retaining traditional concepts like “God” or “love” while rejecting their foundations or reasons – gives rise to moral incoherence, especially when accompanied by the complex rise of pluralism, in which many different communities of voices and cultures of voices pick and choose and arrange their fragments from the past differently. MacIntyre calls this state of moral confusion “emotivism.”

As I inquire into the nature of this moral tradition of virtue, however, I do so not simply as some generic Christian, but rather as a member of the particular tradition of Anglicanism. What, if anything, does Anglicanism think of this tradition of virtue? Has it received and developed it, or simply rejected it? Is this premodern tradition in need of retrieval within Anglicanism? To begin to answer these questions, we will examine and evaluate the work of 20th century Anglican moral theologian Kenneth Kirk. What is going on in his work from the point of view of the virtue tradition (with Alisdair MacIntyre as a prime interpreter, representative, and advocate)?

Before we turn to an evaluation of Anglican moral thought embodied in the thought of Kenneth Kirk, however, we need to look more closely at these three predecessor cultures to modernity. Instead of looking simply at the differences between these three cultures and civilizations, let us examine what they share, what they hold in common. When we do this, we find three broad overlapping features, more or less shared among them: (what I will call) a priority of sociology, a practice of philosophy, and a presupposition of anthropology.

See here for Part I of this series.


Summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s “On Not Three Gods”

In this essay (a letter, actually) Gregory is arguing against those who say there are three deities.

I.    Some argue for three deities based on the idea of deity (that is, what Father, Son and HS have in common) as essence or ousia.

  • This argument is based on analogy with the way we speak of human persons, or in this case, of men. The argument is that we can refer to “Peter, James, and Paul” because of what they all three have in common: man-ness. So what is going on here is that they are being referred to as individuals by reference to what they have in common.
  • But this is actually problematic or misleading (though it would be futile to try to change the way we speak) and though this linguistic problem is relatively inconsequential for created things like men or pens, it matters supremely when we are speaking of God. What is going on here that the individual things are being referred to by their (common) nature.
  • Gregory’s argument runs something like this. I might say “I have three pens in my backpack.” But formally speaking that is not actually correct. I don’t have three distinct essences of pen-ness in my backpack; I actually have three distinct participants in  or intstantiations of  “pen-ness” in my backpack. The essence of ousia of God is like “pen-ness,” and the hypostases of God are like the individual “things” which are subsumed under the category “pen” or “pen-ness.”
  • To employ another analogy. Consider matter or materiality. If in my backpack I have three items: a pen, a rock, and a ball, I don’t say that I have “three matters” in my backpack. (It would even be a bit strange to say that I have “three materials” in my backpack.) It would be more formally correct to say “I have three material objects” in my backpack: three distinct hypostases, all of which participate in materiality or matter.

II.    Some argue for three deities based on the idea of deity (that is, what Father, Son, and HS have in common) as operation or act or energeia. But this cannot be the case because we know that all of God’s actions are shared or indivisible. We know this in two ways:

  1. In Scripture we see that all of God’s actions are one. Father sees (Ps 84:9); Son sees (Mt 9:4); Spirit sees (Acts 5:3).
  2. In our Christian experience we see that all of God’s actions are one. I have one “crown of free gifts,” one graciously given life which is from Father, Son & Spirit. I don’t have three lives, and so it must be the case Father, Son, & Holy Spirit are jointly at work in this activity of bestowing life to me.
  • Therefore, even if one conceives of deity as operation / energeia (and we know that all our categories fall short of the infinite God, cf 152), one still must admit that there are not three deities.
  • Note: Gregory’s argument here concerning the operations or actions of God, it seems to me, presupposes the neoplatonic principle that  energeia is revelatory of essence (see here).

Florensky & Pickstock (indirectly, perhaps) on the Trinity

In “Letter II” of his The Pillar and Ground of the Truth one of the things Paval Florensky is actually doing is providing some arguments, based in reason (as opposed to revelation) for the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity.

He does this in part by arguing negatively against secular ways of “knowing:” “The knowledge that Pilate (in John 18) lacked, the knowledge which all mankind lacks is above all the conditions of certitude.”

He then considers three basic attempts people have made to try to attain these “conditions of certitude:” the sensuous-empirical, the transcendental-rationalist, and the subconscious-mystical.

All pretensions to certainty, be they sensuous-empirical, transcendental-rationalist, or subconscious-mystical, are ultimately only asserting that something is given. “My sense perception is my sense perception. The sun shines because the sun shines.” This, in turn, reduces down to A=A, which is givenness in general. This tautology pretends to be necessary and universal, but in actually, in space and time, it destroys being. If A=A, then not-A=not-A, and so A comes to be defined in terms of not-not-A. So all connection between things, including the connection of being, is destroyed. Hence, tautology, A=A, destroys all being and rationality.

“Where there is no difference, there can be no connection.” Enter Pickstock, who argues that “context is everything,” that meaning comes in connections. (Hence the senselessness and the nihilism of asyndeton.)

“Where there is no difference, there can be no connection. There is therefore only the blind force of stagnation and self-imprisonment, only egotism. Outside of itself, every I hates every I, and, hating, I strives to exclude every not-I from the sphere of being. And even the I hates itself, I, over time: the present I hates the past I, etc.”

This state of senselessness is an unavoidable antinomy of human ratioality, which Florensky describes another way: “… it turns out that the rational is at the same time unexplainable. To explain A is to reduce it to “something else,” to not-A, to that which is not A and which therefore is not-A. But if A really is satisfies the demand of rationality, it it is really rational, ie, absolutely self-identical, then it is unexplainable, irreducible to “something else”…. Therefore, A is absolutely non-reasonable, blind A, opaque to reason.

Florensky is saying that real things, reality, life, is inot in accord with “rationality,” but with reason, by which he surely means (something like or related to) logos, the divine logos.

The alternative to A=A is indirect discursis of reason, which posits a chain, a regression of reasons, which either “dream of eternity” or ends in God. But this is only marginally better than the above.

One is an impenetrable wall; the other an uncrossable sea.
What does all this have to do with the Trinity? Florensky’s critique of these three rational systems does not hold for the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity does not simply reduce down to A=A. Florensky shows, that when the church Fathers (surely he has in mind the Cappedocian Fathers) said that God is one ousia but three hypostases, they were in effect saying that A=A and that A=notA.

Are the things in the world connected? This, the problem of the one and the many, is the age-old problem of philosophy. Florensky’s ultimate answer is going to be: “Yes, the things in the world are connected, because the “things” or the hypostases in God are connected. This connection, in the language of ontology and metaphysics, is called essence or ousia. But, as we have seen above, in order for there to be such a connection there also must be difference. And, in God, there is: three distinct persons, three distinct hypostases in harononious plenitude.

Pickstock is correct: context is everything; meaning is in the connections.


Note to Self: No Drinking & Deleting

OK, thanks to so many of you who recently have made wonderful comments on my blog. Granted, this is not the most heavily trafficked blog on the internet, but many good and insightful discussions have happened here through the comments.

Which is why I’m sad that, yet again for the second time, I accidentally deleted all the comments my readers have made on this blog (on average, about 1.5 comments per post).

What’s most pathetic is that both times I have done this, I have been enjoying a pint or two.

Anyway, hopefully it won’t happen again … and please keep commenting!


Entering the New Community – Acts 2:37-47 (Class #7, 2/22/09)

Here is the outline for class #7 in our Acts study at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX.  The title of the course is “A New Kind of Conquest” (see blog categories below). For the outline of Acts we are using, see here, and for more info please contact Matt.

Acts 2:37 – 47 (Sunday, February 22, 2009)

“(Entrance into) the New Community”

I. Review: “these last days” from Holy Eucharist Rite II, Prayer B.

II. Repent & be baptized.

A. Repent, or turn, from what?[1]

B. Baptism: comparison with John’s baptism

1. Repentance in Lk 3 (vv 3, 8)

2. “What should we do? (Lk 3:12)

C. Baptism: contrasts with John’s baptism

1. Name of Jesus

2. Reception of HS

3. John’s baptism not sufficient: 18:24-26;19:4-5

III. Life in the New Community

A. Teaching

B. Fellowship / koinonia

C. Breaking of Bread

D. “The Prayers”

· Rather than look at all four of these separately and in depth, I want to suggest that this is a picture of a “worship service” in the early church. The key to this is to see that it was the breaking of bread which is central (perhaps because tactile and concrete) to the worship service: see Lk 22:19; 24:30-35; Acts 20:7,11.[2]

[1] NTW, 40 – 41.

[2] For some background on “first day of the week,” see John 20:1,19. Here John is stressing that it was on the first day of the week that Jesus rose from the dead.


Pentecost as New Creation – Acts 2:1-36 (Class #6, 2/16/09)

Here is the outline for class #6 in our Acts study at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX.  The title of the course is “A New Kind of Conquest” (see blog categories below). For the outline of Acts we are using, see here, and for more info please contact Matt.

Acts 2:1-36 (Sunday, February 15, 2009)

“The Beginning of the New Creation”

I. The Phenomenon of Pentecost: Thinking Typologically (2:1-4)

A. Holy Spirit as first fruits.

1. Some NT uses of this word.

a. Rom 8:23

b. Rom 16:5

c. I Cor 15:20

d. James 1:18

2. First fruits of what?

B. Holy Spirit as new law.

II. New Words for New News (2:5-13)

A. Blessing the World through Israel.

1. Reversal of Babel

2. New house / oikos.

B. Deed à Question à Word (NT Pattern of Mission)

III. Words of Explanation: Peter’s Sermon (2:14-36)

A. Prophecy of Joel: Now Being Fulfilled (2:14-21)

1. “Last Days”

2. “Day of the LORD”

3. Earth-shattering events.

4. Radical Inclusivity (& Political Discomfort)

5. “Salvation”

B. King of Israel, for the World.(2:22-36)

1. Ps 16: King of Israel

2. Ps 110: for the World