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.


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I make my comment here based on the title of the article. I have not read the whole series and my comments that follow may be more appropriate to a new category. But, I thought I would try this 1st and follow-up at pub if needed. Here goes:

I’m teaching a SS class on The Resurrection of the Son of God (TROTSOG) by N.T. Wright. In chapter 6 on the passages in Corinthians outside of 1 Cor: 15, a discussion of ethics around specific sins are discussed. Wright emphasizes that what we do in the body matters now because of the resurrection. So, here’s my point.

What if the NT ethical mandate is ontological not idealogical? That is that sin is like “bad art.” You don’t think of the violation of aesthetic laws when you experience bad art, you first experience and perceive its badness. So if what we do matters because of the resurrection, is that because we are making the reality of the resurrection in the present “ugly” when we sin (i.e. that is the definition of sin).

Seems like this could have radical sweeping implications for how we think about why something is wrong and why we should want not to sin.

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