Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category
If you study theology, you have probably already know that a committee of the US Bishops Committee on Doctrine recently raised a series of red flags about Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s most recent book Quest for the Living God: Mapping frontiers in the Theology of God. The committee suggested that the book should not be in used in Catholic schools and universities because it conflicts with church doctrine:
The Committee has concluded that this book contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium. Because this book by a prominent Catholic theologian is written not for specialists in theology but for ‘a broad audience’, the Committee on Doctrine felt obliged, as part of its pastoral ministry, to not these misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors.
The bishops’ first critique is a methodological one. The bishops write that theology must begin from faith and proceed within the heart of the Church:
Theologians must therefore, first lay hold of the content of God’s revelation, the auditus fidei, as proclaimed in Scripture and taught within the Church, through an act of personal faith. Only then are they properly equipped to inquire into the content of that faith, the intellectus fidei, seeking a greater understanding and clearer expression of it.
In the footnotes, the Committee cites Thomas Aquinas: in saying that “just as other sciences accept as a given the first principles of their particular science, Christian theology ‘does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith'” (ST I, q. 1, a. 8).
The Committee then accuses Sr. Johnson of beginning not with faith but with a critique of the orthodox doctrine of God, particularly regarding God’s immutability, incorporeality, impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.
I don’t want to comment on Sr. Johnson’s book or the Committee’s critique in any specificity. The ladies at WIT, bloggers at dotCommonweal, and the moral theologians at Catholicmoraltheology.com have done a much better job than I could in evaluating the merits of the criticisms. I, however, want to challenge the singular definition of theology the Committee provides us as “seeking a greater understanding and clearer expression” of the first principles of faith. Understanding and clarifying is one understanding of theology, which Peter Aureoli, student and commenter on Aquinas, calls “declarative theology.” In declarative theology, one starts
with some proposition about which it has been determined what has too be believed and held by faith, and then reasons for believing it are brought forth, and then doubts concerning it are dissolved, and terms expressing it [are] been explained. . .(Commentary on book I of the Sentences, Proem, section 1, q.1)
It is declarative theology according to Aureoli which can properly be considered a theological habit. But it is not the only way to do theology. He provides other ways:
The fist takes place when you draw your conclusions from one proposition that is believed and another that is necessary. A second is based on two believed premises. A third is based on one believed premise and another probable one. A fourth type of conclusion is based on two probable premises. A fifth way, depending on two necessary premises, is equivalent to the first procedure [where you arrive at a known metaphysical conclusion such as is God one? or is God infinite?], where you end up with a known conclusion, not just one that has to be believed.
In other words, theology can lead to metaphysical conclusions when it addresses demonstrative knowledge of truths that are based on necessary propositions that are naturally known, as we see in Book VI of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. This does not fit the Committee’s definition of theology as clarifying and understanding the principles of faith, but metaphysics is nevertheless a way to study theology.
Theology can also include simple conclusions of faith, “where you employ one premise held by faith and another necessary premise” such as when you conclude that Christ has two wills based on the fat that every intellectual nature has a will and Christ has two natures. The conclusions of this deductive theology are conclusions of faith, not “the habit of theology” according to Aureoli. Nevertheless, deduction from faith is a part of the study of theology, and indeed, a major part of Aquinas’ own theology.
Significant for Johnson’s book, theology can also lead to conclusions of opinion “if you ask what has to be believed in regard to some doubtful proposition in the are of faith”:
In these cases you do not acquire any habit that is different from opinion. And these make up the opinions of the doctors of theology in many of their questions.
Theological opinion is gained when we reflect on things like what Jesus was like as a kid, how the gifts of the Spirit contribute to sanctification, and what the nature of purgatory is like. Theological opinion is important, and indeed, can be very good, very persuasive, and very true. But the habit that such theological reflection leads to is nevertheless still opinion.
This seems to be what Sr. Johnson is doing in Quest. She is beginning with principles that are only probable, namely, with the experience of the living God. She is not beginning with the first principles of theology, the articles of the faith, because she is not doing deductive or declarative theology. Her contribution is still a theological contribution, just not in the narrow way the Committee has defined theology.
Now, to the Committee’s credit, they are trying to watch out for the faith of “little ones” who might think that the conclusions in Sr. Johnson’s book are doctrinal, but that same goal could have been achieved by distinguishing the different ways in which people do theology. Aquinas clearly is awesome, but he did mainly declarative and deductive theology (as well as some metaphysics thrown in for good measure). Augustine, one the other hand, did a lot of theological opining. How much worse off would the Church be if we didn’t have Augustine’s Confessions? Or Abelard’s Letter to Heloise? Or Von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic? Johnson’s Quest, I would say, should be considered an analogous work as these great theological opinions. As such, it is good to point out that people need not accept her conclusions, but that does not mean they need not read what she has to say.
I have discovered the joys of audiobooks in recent months. As a scholar who just finished my dissertation and a teacher with three preps this semester, I don’t have a lot of leisure time to sit down with a good novel to savor on a rainy day. However, with audiobooks, I can get a few hours in each day while I walk to school, workout, or do my chores at home. So it was on audiobook that I read/listened to Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom (how else could I finish such a book and write a dissertation?). It is a different experience, to be sure, but the narration of Freedom by David LeDoux is outstanding, so if you are hesitant to plunge into such a novel, this could be your solution.
Freedom is doubtlessly trying to be the American novel, although David Brooks says it is trying to say more about America’s literary culture than America itself:
If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones. . . There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.
I’m not so sure. The disenchanted suburbanites at the heart of the tale ring very true insofar as we view them through the central lens of the novel—are they free? We are left asking ourselves at throughout, “What does it mean to be free?”
I ask this to my students in ethics and inevitably get the same answer: “The ability to do what you want without anyone stopping you.” Of course, that answer gets specified with some prodding. “Surely,” I say, “you don’t mean anything. What about murder/rape/stealing.” But the answer is still always a little distasteful. Freedom, most people seem to think, is the ability to do whatever you want so long as nobody gets hurt, basically a primitive version of Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty.
What Franzen so artfully and painfully realistically illustrates is that such a freedom does not exist. His characters are frail, morally weak but not a bad-intentioned bunch that cannot seem to stop hurting one another. What’s even more painful to witness (or listen to, in my case) is their failure to find happiness either. Take the following quote from Patty Berglund, one of the novel’s protagonists. She’s married to Walter whom she loves but who also does not satisfy her and she is in love with Richard, the rockstar crush from her college days and her husband’s best friend. Richard and Patty, of course, sleep together, something Walter is not meant to find out, but, of course, does later in the novel:
Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.
Patty has it all indeed. She wants to be a stay-at-home mom, and she gets her wish. She wants a house and she gets a gem. She wants two kids, a boy and a girl, and she gets them. Walter does not satisfy her sexually, largely because she lusts after Richard, but this is not a story with tragedy. Patty is no Mr. Rochester, for example, stuck in a loveless marriage with a lunatic and unable to be with the woman he loves because she will not compromise her moral standards.
So is Patty free? The question really needs to be, “Free for what?” One of Servais Pinckaers’ big contributions to moral theology was his distinction between freedom of indifference and freedom for excellence. The former is a teleological understanding of freedom in which one’s freedom is defined as the ability to become the person you really want to be, the person you are really called to be. This is a freedom that develops through one’s choices, not a freedom that is either automatically assumed or granted. It is a freedom that presupposes virtue.
Rich Mullins describes this concept beautifully in his (not quite his best) song “Higher Education:”
What does it mean to be human? I cannot help but believe that it means we are spiritual – that we are responsible and that we are free – that we are responsible to be free.
Franzen’s novel shows us convincingly that such a freedom is missing from contemporary American culture, largely because we have lost a sense of common morality, but also because we have lost a sense of common goals and a common good. Walter, the most morally sanctimonious character, fights moral battles over a songbird for which he is willing to almost literally sell his soul, collaborating with a wealthy Republican oil tycoon in the support of mountain top removal in order to create a safe haven for the birds. Morality is seen as a series of trade-offs, a bunch of deals with the devil in order to get something good accomplished. The characters seemed trapped, but not by anything external. They seem trapped by their own directionlessness, their own floundering, their own inability to see beyond themselves. The novel itself reflects this. It too is directionless, and even in its finely-crafted style, it flounders. I think this is intentional. The author wants his readers to feel in reading what his characters feel in living.
And this, it seems, is the crux of freedom. If Pinckaers is right and if freedom is teleological, its exercise is dependent on a telos outside ourselves, a recognition of something higher, as Rich Mullins says: “What does it mean to be human? I cannot help but suspect that at one time in the history of thinking that people believed that it meant that we were spiritual and that we could make choices and were capable of aspiring to higher ideals… like maybe loyalty or maybe faith… or maybe even love.”
Religion is almost completely absent from the book, save for a few cultural Jewish moments, and a half-hearted jab at an evangelical neighbor. The characters are too enlightened for faith. But it is perhaps this enlightened anti-theism which is the biggest thing keeping them from being free. They have only themselves to look to, and they are too frail to provide any direction. It is not the frailness that is a problem, but the lack of hope for redemption. The novel ends with a whimper, a whimper that comes from the imprisoned finally acknowledging the bars around them, and deciding to make the best of it. Are they free? I think not.
Despite the fact I hail from Boston College, I have not yet had the opportunity to immerse myself in the study of Lonergan. Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) was a Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian famous for addressing methodological foundations in philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, and in particular for developing an ethical method of the mind. Lonergan wanted to know what the mind was doing when it made a moral judgment. Because of my interest in connatural knowledge and practical reasoning, I am beginning to turn to Lonergan for insights (no pun intended).
I just finished an excellent book by Mark J. Doorley called The Place of the Heart in Lonergan’s Ethics: The Role of Feelings in the Ethical Intentionality Analysis of Bernard Lonergan. Doorley begins by reflecting on how “uneducated” people often were able to teach him more about an existential and moral commitment to God than any of his intense philosophical and theological studies had done. “How did they arrive at such a profound knowledge of God?” he writes in the Introduction. “Each spoke from the ‘heart,’ as they said. It was in their ‘guts'” (xiii). The question of how one could know “in the heart” or “in the gut” is the driving question of this book, to which Doorley turns to Lonergan for answers. He writes,
“Lonergan was interested in the human good and the way in which that good is to be realized through the cooperative efforts of human beings under the sway of the grace of God. His reflections on such a cooperative effort led him to wonder about human feelings. Moral effort is not merely a rational exercise. Feelings are involved as well” (xv).
Lonergan, in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, adopts a middle ground between emotivism and rationalism, rejecting that the emotions are either separate from or superior to reason, while also acknowledging that the emotions play a massive role in practical reasoning. However, this balance is a difficult one to strike (Thomas himself often does not achieve it, leaning more toward rationalism), and Doorley notes how Lonergan’s earlier work also reflects a tendency toward rationalism. In Insight (1957), Lonergan’s study of the conscious operations that function in human knowing, Doorley argues that Lonergan more often than not identifies the feelings “as obstacles to the operation of the unrestricted desire to know.” However, he holds this position with a certain level of ambivalence, recognizing the importance of feelings in decision-making. This ambivalence, as well as the influence of Max Scheler and Dietrich Von Hildebrand, allows him to develop a typology of feelings and an examination of their role in intentional decisions in Method in Theology (1972).
Borrowing directly from the work of von Hildebrand, Lonergan distinguishes between feelings as non-intentional states or trends like fatigue, hunger and anxiety, all of which occur independently of perception and/or apprehension, and intentional states or trends which occur in “answer to what is intended, apprehended, represented” (52, MT 30). Intentional feelings are ones which relate the human subject to an object like an apple, rather than a goal like relieving hunger (as with non-intentional feelings). His list, by no means inclusive, of intentional feelings include
our desires and our fears, our hope or despair, our joys and sorrows, our enthusiasm and indignation, our esteem and contempt, our trust and distrust, our love and hatred, our tenderness and wrath, our admiration, veneration, reverence, our dread, horror, terror . . .(52, MT 31)
The important thing to note about these feelings is that they arise in the subject following the apprehension of some object, either real or imagined. I may wake up experiencing a non-intentional dread which becomes real intentional fear when I open my computer and apprehend my dissertation I am preparing to defend. I may experience non-intentional hunger, but I may also experience intentional desire for piece or rare seared tuna. Intentional responses respond to the specific content of the apprehension. This means that these responses follow knowledge. Citing von Hildebrand, Doorley writes that “one cannot respond with joy at the arrival of a friend unless one first has knowledge of the friend’s arrival” (53).
In order to better understand intentional responses, Doorley compares them to insights.
An insight is a supervening act. It adds to the data what is not intrinsic to the data as data, namely intelligibility. . . As with insights, intentional responses operate in relation to a presentation or an image. They operate, as well, in relation to an apprehended object or a possible course of action. Once these feelings occur, they are capable of directing the flow of consciousness. such direction influences the further images, further questions and further insights that might occur. Rather than becoming moments in the formation of a viewpoint, as insights do, intentional responses have the capacity to become vectors in the flow of consciousness (54).
Intentional responses, like insights, go beyond the empirically apprehended data (the empirical residue) and add something to the object, something that goes beyond a merely biological response. Such intentional responses move the subject from mere experience and response to a state of self-transcendence. A dog may desire a steak, and this is a kind of intentional response. But a human may desire a steak, and have that desire “sublated” to a higher level of consciousness which allows her to decide about the goodness of the steak, to transcend the mere empirical data to the immaterial round of goodness.
This brings us to Doorley’s argument that in Lonergan, there are two types of intentional responses, one to pleasure and one to value. The latter orient the subject to that which is valuable independent of the subject. According to the former, the farthest I get in emotionally responding to the steak is whether it is good for me. This is self-oriented response. An intentional response to value allows me to transcend myself and respond to the steak apart from my own subjective pleasure. This self-transcendence is made possible by my unrestricted desire to choose the good. Doorley writes,
The subject who allows this unrestricted desire, in both its cognitional and moral manifestations, to be the primary force in consciousness is one who is able to achieve cognitional and moral self-transcendence with some degree of regularity. Authenticity, then, is achieved when, and insofar as, the unrestricted desire to know and choose the good is the central dynamism of one’s existence. (75)
How does one allow the unrestricted desire to choose the good become part of one’s existence? By practice, by “painful yet persistent, practice” (77). This is the important part. If one does something, say, eats a steak, that action is grounded in a judgment that this action is good. Now, eating a steak could be good for myself in that it is tasty and juicy. But if I just restrict my judgment of value to what is good for me, I never really achieve that truly self-transcendent state where the unrestricted desire to choose the good is completely operative in my existence. To get there, I have to go beyond myself, to ask whether or not eating the steak is good for the cow, good for the environment, good for the economy. And if I decide that it is not, and I choose not to eat the steak out of concerns that go beyond my own pleasure, I am forming the habits necessary for moral self-transcendence:
The judgment of value, then, on the fourth level of consciousness plays a pivotal role between the intentional activity of the subject and his moral activity. A judgment of value presupposes the activities of experiencing, understanding and judging. It presupposes the process of deliberation which allows further questions to arise, discerns the movement of one’s feelings, and grasps the sufficiency of evidence for a judgment of value. The judgment of value is presupposed by a further process of practical reflection which issues a number of alternatives for action. These alternatives are then met by the deliberative question which seeks the best possible option. A comparative judgment of value, different from the simple judgment already mentioned, pronounces which alternative is the best. A decision chooses which alternative will be followed in accord with the prior judgment comparative judgment of value. And action realizes the value in question. The action itself is conditioned by a disposition in the subject to act in accord with the evaluations of conscious intentionality. (77)
Lest this seem too intellectualistic or rationalistic, the role of the feelings play a dynamic role here. The feelings help establish the horizon of a person, that is, the limit of her concern. A horizon is determined by past insights, judgments, decisions, and actions. If I decide to act out of concern for the cow who made my steak, this concern for animal life becomes part of my horizon. This forms the basis of future concerns for animal life. This means that it is possible for such an intentional response to value to arise in the future. We can compare this process with being in love. When a person is in love, their whole being is directed outward towards the beloved. The state of “being in love” provides the basis for all of her actions. This feeling establishes her horizon, expands it beyond herself, so that she acts in a way that is good for the beloved. To return to Doorley question at the beginning regarding the knowledge of God possessed by uneducated people, the reason is that their horizon is constituted by the love of God. As such, their judgments of value or at the height of self-transcendence. What they know, and what they are able to do, is established by an almost-limitless horizon.
It’s complicated stuff but we can break it down to a basic need to be attentive to one’s feelings, because one’s feelings reveal one’s values and the limit of one’s horizon (or sphere of concern). When one discovers that one’s values are self-centered, one can use the activity of reason to direct one’s concern outward, and to act in such ways as to expand one’s horizon and transcend mere self-regard. The feelings and the mind are mutually interdependent in satisfying the human desire to know and to choose the good. As Doorley concludes, the task of integrating one’s feelings into activities of consciousness reveals to a person that “she is the source of the person that she has become and that she is the source of the person that she might want to become. This is the beginning of moral conversion” (99).
I just finished Muriel Barbery’s charming and provocative The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the French novel (or extended philosophical essay, depending on how you look it) narrated by Renee, a widowed middle-aged concierge and clandestine intellectual, and Paloma, a wealthy and intelligent twelve year old. So convinced is Paloma of the meaninglessness of life and so frustrated is she by the banality of her class that she plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday after burning down her family’s apartment.
Renee is an autodidact, a lover of Tolstoy and Ozu, a critic of phenomenology, a “traitor to her archetype.” So convinced is Renee of the hostility of the upper class towards her own that she hides her intelligence behind her concierge uniform and the smell of proletariat cuisine wafting from her apartment. She plays dumb around the intelligent residents of the French apartment building she oversees, yet her narration is full of hostility towards the hypocrisy of these malign aristocrats. At the same time, one perceives a loneliness underlying her criticism. Renee has only one friend when the novel opens, Manuela, the Portuguese cleaning lady, and even when she talks about her late husband, the tone is stiff, formal, and lacking in intimacy. She is, as Paloma says, like the hedgehog: “on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”
One is tempted to think that the title derives its name from this description, but as the NYTimes review cleverly points out, “there is no mention of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Renée’s beloved Tolstoy, which may make this the sliest allusion of all.”
(What are the odds that a philosophy professor with a working knowledge of hedgehogs and Tolstoy would not have known it?) In Berlin’s famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”
Berlin took the name of his book from the Greek poet Archilochus’ statement, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” What does the original quote mean? Who knows, although there is a helpful little debate in the New Yorker from 1980. Berlin took it to mean two different ways of knowing the world: those for whom all knowledge is an expression of a single idea like Plato, Pascal, Hegel, and Proust, and those whose knowledge relies on multiple disparate ideas and experiences like Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Joyce. Hedgehogs are the monists, foxes the pluralists.
My intention is not to go into Berlin’s text, but Archilochus’ phrase brings to mind two slightly different ways of knowing than Berlin discusses: simple apprehension and discursive knowledge. According to Aquinas, spirits (that is, angels) as well as God, know by simple apprehension. When they know an object, they grasp its essence of the object, its quiddity or “whatness” along with all of its accidents in one single act of knowing. Human beings, a hylomorphic unity of body and soul, do not have the power of simple apprehension. Humans know by discursive reasoning. When a human apprehends an object, it is only partial, and perfect knowledge is gained only by synthesis or syllogizing. Aquinas sums up:
the angels hold that grade among spiritual substances which the heavenly bodies hold among corporeal substances: for Dionysius calls them “heavenly minds” (1; 55, 1). Now, the difference between heavenly and earthly bodies is this, that earthly bodies obtain their last perfection by chance and movement: while the heavenly bodies have their last perfection at once from their very nature. So, likewise, the lower, namely, the human, intellects obtain their perfection in the knowledge of truth by a kind of movement and discursive intellectual operation; that is to say, as they advance from one known thing to another. But, if from the knowledge of a known principle they were straightway to perceive as known all its consequent conclusions, then there would be no discursive process at all. Such is the condition of the angels, because in the truths which they know naturally, they at once behold all things whatsoever that can be known in them. (I, Q. 58, art. 3)
Accordingly, spirits are the hedgehog who “know only one thing”; humans are the foxes who “know many little things.”
The reason this is important as relates to the book is that both Renee and Poloma are illustrations of discursive reasoning at work. Both proceed from what is known to what is not known. What is known is the stirring of the heart at the story of Levin and Kitty, the fall of a rosebud on the table, the shiver of delight at the sound of Mozart, the repugnance of phenomenology and nominalism, and the allure of Japan. What is unknown is love, truth, and beauty. Both Renee and Paloma reason discursively to arrive at the knowledge of love, the knowledge of beauty. Human beings cannot grasp the essence of love or beauty in an instant; we must arrive at such knowledge by experience, by piecing together bits of what we know over time, imperfectly and slowly, but nevertheless, humanly. Human beings are foxes. But we are foxes capable of becoming hedgehogs.
The elegance of the hedgehog is the “suspension of time that is the sign of a great illumination,” as Paloma reflects as she watches a rosebud fall. “It”s something to do with time, not space.” Time is the recurring motif in the novel. Paloma writes in her journal about kairos, a Greek concept that means roughly ‘the right moment . . . kairos is the intuition of the moment, something like that.” It is the “split second of eternity” when, as Renee reflects, “a few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar piece, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss of the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling the foliage, the forward rush of life is crystallized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with the light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart.”
The Elegance of the Hedgehog unintentionally provides an excellent theological anthropology. Human beings are somewhere between earth and heaven, body and spirit. They are trapped in time and yet desire eternity. They are limited and yet desire transcendence. They know imperfectly and yet long for perfect knowledge.
For Aquinas, such perfect knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of understanding. John of St. Thomas writes:
The gift of understanding does not judge analytically, nor does it reason about supernatural truths through their causes. From an interior impulse of the Holy ghost and from an affection toward spiritual things, it discerns spirtual realities from corporeal, and separates the things to be believed from those which are not the be beleived, or errors. The evidence of a reasoning process is not required for this type of judgment. It does not proceed from cause or from effect, nor does it resolve the conclusion to its principles, since the gift of understanding, like the habit of first princeples, is concerned with principles. Rather, this judgement is formed from a better and keener penetration of the terms in these truths, their congruity, and the incongruity of the opposing errors (84).
This is why understanding lasts persists in heaven. It is the knowledge of essences that human beings will possess for eternity.
Yet for both characters in the book, kairos is a result of a kind of analogy to grace, the undeserved and even unwilled friendship of the perspicacious Monsieur Ozu who sees through the rough facades of the two narrators and reveals to them the essence of love. Left to their own devices, the discursive reasoning leads only to an imperfect knowledge of love, beauty, and truth. Alone, Renee and Paloma are nominalists who see philosophy, art, and literature only in their particularity. With Ozu, they become realists who realize the beauty of a Dutch still life and an Italian Renaissance painting are expressions of the same beauty, of Beauty itself. The elevation of the intellect and the will and the senses that comes from the influence of Monsieur Ozu allows the characters to transcend their former selves, to grasp love and beauty and truth in an instant. It is these moments of eternity which make life worth living, as Paloma discovers, and it is the desire for these pockets of eternity to last which renders death beautiful, the perennial beauty of the camellia against the moss of the temple. For these two atheists characters, this is just about as close to a knowledge of God as one can come. The “elegance of the hedgehog” is just God by another name.
I just got finished reading Wayne Meeks’ The Moral World of the First Christians. The “moral world” which Meeks analyzes here is more of the “social world” of the early Christians, that is, the cultural context which helped shape their worldview and moral judgments. This social world was a complex one, rooted partially in Hebrew culture and religion, and partially in Hellenistic culture and religion.
Meeks is not concerned here with a careful delineation of the specific moral judgments of the early Christians. There is no mention of what members of the infant church thought of homosexuality, of abortion, of divorce. Rather, Meeks has something much more comprehensive in mind than figuring out what Christians thought of particular issues—he wants to figure out the worldview which framed any particular moral decision. In other words, he wants to know how the first Christians engaged in moral reasoning, not what their specific conclusions were. This is what he calls “looking at ethics from the bottom up,”
[According to ethic from the bottom up] it is a perfectly proper form of ethical directive to say, for example to a child, “We do not do that.” Probably the response from the child, and perhaps also from the professional ethicist, will be, “Why not?” Very often that is an important question to ask, but there are other occasions when it may be more productive to ask a different question: Who are “we”? The question “Why?” calls for an explanation; “Who?” invites understanding. . . . Most, perhaps all, of the writings that now make up the New Testament, and a great many of the other earliest Christian writings as well, had as their primary aim the shaping of the life of Christian communities. Arguments and rules, of course, had their place in those writings, but we fail to understand the force of the arguments and rules if we take them out of the contexts in which they stand. A much more comprehensive process was going on, by which participants in the new movement we call Christianity were discovering a new identity–learning to think of themselves as”the churches of God,” “the holy ones,””children of God,” “slaves of Christ,””brothers and sisters,” “those for whom Christ died,” and so on. “Practice” or custom” was not something added to that process of developing identity, but an integral part of it. The writers repeatedly urge all the Christians to “exhort,” “admonish,” and”encourage” on another. The aim of such moral conversation is, as Paul puts it in another place, “that you should behave in a manner worthy of the God who calls you”(1 Thess. 2:12) (11)
Hauerwas fans will find much to be lauded in this description of ethics, and Meeks explicitly mentions Hauerwas’ term “communities of character” as particularly apt for describing what he is trying to describe as “‘character’ suggest the essential dialectic between community and self. Groups as well as individuals have character. Character signifies identity, and it implies specifically moral identity. Character takes shape, moreover, within a social process.” (11)
So who was this early Christian community? Meeks places heavy emphasis on the prominence of the Hebrew influence. In his chapter on Israel, Meeks surveys later wisdom literature (Sirach), Qumran, Philo, and the Rabbinic tradition as providing much of the basis of the symbolic world that the first Christians occupied, with a special emphasis on the themes of purity, Torah, and a moral interpretation of history (i.e. God’s intimate involvement in the trajectory of history). The early Christians drew explicitly from the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that they did not with other literature of their social world (e.g. Homer or Plato).
However, Greece and Rome also provided much of the substance of the early Christians’ moral world, particularly the philosophical traditions of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism. It is from the Romans and Greeks that the first Christians learned to think of the polis, of the virtues, of ways of conceptualizing pleasure, of the legal process. Even for Christians who did not study the legal, literary, and philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome, their was a top-down transmission of the ideas of the academic elite to the masses.
In chapter 4, after surveying the great traditions of Greece, Rome, and Israel, Meeks compares the social forms of the early Christian communities with those of the surrounding cultures, first by comparing the early Christian communities to messianic Jewish sects, and second with household associations in the polis. In chapter 5, he turns to the “grammar of early Christian morals,” examining both canonical (1 Thess. and 1 Corinithians) and non-canonical sources (The Didache, Iraneus) in order to discern the “grammar of their sensibilities and their behavior, which of course includes the force of ideas” (125). The goal of this chapter is to show how the first Christians were “re-socialized” into a new distinctively Christian symbolic world.
What does this volume teach us? It teaches us that the ethics of the first Christians was not a deductive process of applying certain principles, rules, and norms to concrete issues. Rather, the ethics of the first Christians was an inductive process of first figuring out who they were, and then discerning what behavior was appropriate to that sort of identity. The parallels with contemporary virtue ethics should not go unnoticed, and MacIntyre’s useful summary of virtue ethics as asking three questions (Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there?) definitely seems operative in Meeks’ understanding of ethics.
What is useful about such an approach for our contemporary world is that it allows us to see Christian ethics not as something fixed and unchanging, but rather a dynamic process of identity influencing behavior. Thus, to figure out what the “Christian” way to behave in our world today, Meeks would not advocate turning to the Scriptures for specific rules of conduct to apply:
We cannot every fully know the world of the early Christians; still less can we re-create it. to be sure, those movements in the history of Christendom which have sought to restore the church to its “primitive” purity, from the Montanists to the Campbellites, have released powerful currents of change. Yet what they in fact brought about was inevitably something unlike the past. there is no time machine. We must live in our own world, which is irreversibly different from the of the first Christians (162).
Moral concepts like “duty,” “virtue,” “sin,” and “purity,” had very different meanings for the first Christians than for Christians today because they occupied very different symbolic worlds than we do. We Christians today have formed our own synthesis from the influence of the various symbolic worlds we occupy (post-Enlightenment rationalism, humanism, scientific empericism). Thus, we must live with the messy understanding that what we deem sound Christian moral judgments regarding sexuality, political involvement, the economy, and the environment are largely syntheses of the moral worlds around us, influenced of course by the literary and living tradition of the Christian church. We must be willing to accept change, not because there is something inadequate about an earlier form of Christian ethics, but because that earlier form is not our own and can never be recovered. As Meeks concludes,
In the first generations of Christians, we see many people who have a kind of double vision. Two different kinds of symbolized universe overlap in their minds and in their social experience. . . . Somehow, they had to live in both, and it was not easy to find a way to do that. There were many disagreements, many alternative ways, some of which failed. From them everyone who craves a vision of a juster, kinder world, everyone caugt not merely between what is and what ought to be, but between conflicting certainties, disparate but impinging maps of what is, all may have something to learn” (162).