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.

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[…] Tags: Uncategorized 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. […]

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