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David Burrell Writes on "Friendship in Virtue Ethics"
July 17, 2012 | Matthew Dodrill
David Burrell Writes on "Friendship in Virtue Ethics"
Dr. David Burrell, professor emeritus of philosophy and theology at the University of Notre Dame, has recently written a glossary item on “friendship in virtue ethics” for us. Focusing on sections from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Burrell looks at the ethical significance of “the good” in relation to friendship. Indeed, Aristotle “insisted that we could not find a good more durable or nourishing than friends.” What’s more, one’s achievement of the good depends on the communal pursuit of this end, such that (authentic) friendship and the good are intimately bound to each other; friendship is a necessary condition of the pursuit of the good, yet an embracing good is what brings friends together. The dynamic relationship between friendship and the pursuit of the good should lead us to question the common definition of a human being as an “autonomous individual” who “picks and chooses” among options. As Burrell says, “true friends are more like family: they grow on us and sustain us; we did not choose them! Once we are accustomed to think of ourselves as individuals, however, we will hunger all the more for friends, though we may no longer know how to engage in true friendship.” For more on this, see Dr. Burrell’s full glossary entry here.
Journal of Theological Interpretation
July 13, 2012 | Matthew Dodrill
Journal of Theological Interpretation
Given our interest in the theological interpretation of Scripture, we wanted to point our viewers to the Journal of Theological Interpretation, edited by Joel B. Green. Peruse the website and the table of contents for past issues; perhaps you’ll be interested in the kind of research taking place at the intersection of history, theology, philosophy, and biblical studies, especially as it relates to our own research pertaining to faith and science.
Todd Wood on "Surrender"
July 12, 2012 | Matthew Dodrill
Todd Wood on "Surrender"
Todd Wood has recently written an essay that reflects on the church’s attitude of surrender. As he has said in a previous article, the way to sustain the unity of the body of Christ in the midst of a culture war over creation and evolution is to follow the surrendering humility of Christ. Dr. Wood spends a portion of this essay disclaiming the notion that surrender implies a passive and lethargic disregard for the matters at hand. Surrender is not synonymous with nonchalantly ignoring the issues or refusing to understand the deep grammar employed in these conversations. The posture taken by some Christians who do rigorously deal with the issues is often rather dismissive, despite their passionate research. On the one hand, a person’s intense study of what he or she takes the biblical text to mean might lead this person to eschew the scientific inquiries that appear to contradict or disrupt this person’s interpretive paradigm. On the other hand, a person’s scientific commitments might lead this person to ignore biblical and theological tenets that have been held by the church for millennia (Wood’s example of the dynamic between the creation/fall/redemption narrative and evolution illustrates the point). Both scenarios offer examples of the kind of surrender Dr. Wood does not propose we embody. Dr. Wood’s notion of surrender takes a cruciform shape. That is, he looks at the passion of Christ as a model of surrender, particularly as characterized in his Gethsemane prayer: “Not my will but thine be done.” As Wood goes on to say, “Christ’s surrender was not to circumstances, the Devil, or other people. Jesus surrendered to God and God alone.” And then, Wood asks the pivotal question: “How could that work in this debate over creation?” When we surrender to God and God alone, says Wood, we surrender the selfish desires that are at the root of our aspirations of winning arguments. This reminds me of a story I once heard about a professor who debated another revered scholar on a topic I cannot recall at the moment. The first professor, who was a Christian, happened to believe he’d gotten the best of the other scholar, so he later called another Christian colleague (a theologian), and told him he’d won. “I won! I did it. I finally beat Professor So-and-So!” To this his colleague responded, “What are you talking about? Jesus already won two-thousand years ago!” Dr. Wood, like the wise colleague, reminds us that the point of pursuing truth is not to have opponents “concede to our superior understanding.” If surrendering is to take on a cruciform shape, this kind of selfishness has no place in discipleship. Surrender, according to Wood, also assumes that God’s sovereignty is acknowledged. There’s a latent assumption that we are saviors of the world when we think our evolutionist or creationist positions will save Christianity and, hence, the world. The austere crusading mentality amounts to nothing but idolatry, a worship of oneself, because it assumes that God is not (and cannot) sustain the church and hold all things together. As Wood says, “the God who created this universe is still God enough to help us work out our differences.” Are you currently engaged in a conversation with someone on these issues? If so, good! – These conversations are worth having. But as you have this dialogue, what can you surrender? And how?
Celebrating the Feast of Benedict with The Colossian Forum
July 11, 2012 | Matthew Dodrill
Celebrating the Feast of Benedict with The Colossian Forum
Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher who significantly influences the thought and work of The Colossian Forum, concluded his masterpiece After Virtue by describing a turning point in the epoch leading up to the Roman Empire’s decline into the Dark Ages: "A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness." (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd edition, 263) Indeed, there was a time when a group of Christians did just that, refusing to be defined by the cultural, intellectual, and moral contours of a society that was unsustainable. This group followed the “school” of one Benedict of Nursia. In a fragmented world with no end in sight, Benedict proposed to carve out small communities of faith that would work to maintain the moral, communal, and intellectual vision that would otherwise be rendered incoherent if assimilated to the trends of the age. As the darkness fell over Rome, the light of the Benedictine communities pierced through the shadows for all to see. Benedict encouraged communal living, sharing the common purse, obedience to God, accountability, humility, friendship, hospitality, and intellectual rigor. Indeed, without the monks – who built hospitals and preserved classical texts and even contributed to the experimental sciences – we would doubtless live in a society with little memory of the goodness of civilization. The teachings of Benedict are summed up in The Rule of Saint Benedict, a short work that can be read in one or two sittings. It was written to instruct these small communities in the virtues that would sustain their way of life and, indeed, the life of the world. It was a spiritual guide for a new kind of community seeking to foster new kinds of moral and intellectual inquiry for the hope of a new world to come. Indeed, the Benedictine monasteries showed us that civility is sustained only when it is nourished by salt. And when the world loses its salt, it rots. Lamentably, the world has lost much of its salt in an age gone dark again. In the conversation at the intersection of faith and science, for example, Christians have employed the vocabulary and embodied the practices of polarizing factions in partisan politics, a system MacIntyre says is “characterized by moral incoherence and unsettable moral disputes.” After admonishing us to be careful in drawing such parallels, MacIntyre says that we, like the peoples of sixth-century Rome, have come to a turning point: "What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. . . . We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict." (ibid) The construction of such a community has economic and domestic implications. Consider, for example, the “new monastic” communities that are so influenced by MacIntyre and, ultimately, Benedict. The wisdom of this sixth-century giant does not universally necessitate precisely the new monastics’ form of living, but we would be wise to acknowledge their desire to live in the rhythms of prayer, work, Sabbath, charity, and hospitality. Ultimately, that is the wisdom of Benedict – that we would cultivate the kinds of virtues that enable a steady rhythm of the Kingdom in a world with no discernible rhythm at all. If, as MacIntyre posits, a new dark age is upon us and the virtues are our only hope, we need Christians to carve out spaces where they can be formed, body and soul and mind, by the kinds of virtues that render their moral, intellectual, and spiritual vocabulary coherent among themselves. As long as the body of Christ adopts the vocabulary of a fragmented culture with “unsettable moral disputes,” we too will decline into this dark age. Today marks the feast of Benedict, a day to remember him in our prayers and conversations. There is no greater wisdom to consult than his as we press on in our conversations at the intersection of faith, science, and culture. We don’t all have to be monks, but we certainly should, to some extent, be monastic (the meaning of the word being “one.”). In a world that lacks rhythm, ends, civility, moral and intellectual coherence, and oneness, may the embodiment of our oneness bear witness to the Truth. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Witness as Coherence
July 9, 2012 | Matthew Dodrill
Witness as Coherence
In the third and final part of Dr. Wright’s three-part series on Colossians 1:15-20, he reflects on this passage’s concluding remarks: And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. After Christ’s ascension, the church tried to account for Jesus’ presence in the world. “To see Christ visibly, truly, in the world,” says Dr. Wright, “was to see the unity of the body, the church, shaped by the practices of worship and of mercy such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, overseeing the sick so that the Spirit might bring forth the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love in the hearts of believers.” Indeed, to see Jesus is to see his body, the church. And to experience the grace of Jesus in a visceral, embodied way is to take in the consecrated elements of the Lord’s Supper. Given the integral connection between the “historical” body of Christ and the “true” and “mystical” body of Christ, Jesus’ salvific work on the cross cannot be separated from the “bodily presence of the church on the earth in witness to the world.” Indeed, it is primarily the church’s witness that testifies to the truth of what was accomplished on the cross – Jesus reconciled to himself all things. The coherence of this truth hinges upon the reality of a community that embodies this reconciliation. By “coherence” we do not mean that it is up to the church to tell the world why Christianity “makes sense,” as though the truth of Christianity depended on its credibility to the modern world and its standards of what counts as true. Rather, by manifesting the character of Christ, the church’s head, the communion reveals to the world the embodied truth of Christ reconciling to himself all things. Indeed, the embodied practice of charity and hospitality reveals to the world a people who want to be credible to God. The coherence of Colossians 1:19-20 hinges upon a community that loves each other and wants to demonstrate what the world is like if Christianity is true, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it. Doing research at the intersection of faith, science, and culture is first and foremost an act of worship. It is not a means of winning a culture war or establishing our positions at the expense of ecclesial unity. Rather, it is an act of reconciliation, a communal pursuit of truth among people whose agreements and disagreements can and should be bound up in their oneness in Jesus Christ. As this passage in Colossians concludes, all things are being reconciled to Jesus by making peace through his blood. May our rigorous research embody such peace to a world that knows mostly of fragmentation and violence.
Jesus, the Center, and the Myth of "the Secular"
July 5, 2012 | Matthew Dodrill
Jesus, the Center, and the Myth of "the Secular"
In the second part of Dr. Wright’s three-part series on Colossians 1:15-20, he reflects on Paul’s proclamation that all things hold together in Christ: For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Wright believes the reality of this passage has some bearing on the philosophy of existence on a fundamental level. That is, this passage reveals what contingent creation is by reference to who Jesus is: Jesus, as the eternal Word (Logos) of creation, gives the universe its form, its shape, and its very existence. And this existence has no life, form, or shape without holding together in its center – Jesus Christ. If the way Dr. Wright interprets this passage is correct, it is difficult to imagine a reality in which nature and grace are mutually exclusive. It is not as though the world has existence in-and-of-itself apart from Jesus. If Christ is abstracted from the center of creation, there is no creation to speak of! That is why, as Dr. Wright says, “the secular never was separate from God; nature never was natural but always a gift.” But in a world “of a technical reason that fragments, disassociates, and pulls apart,” we are tempted to speak of a “secular” realm that confines Jesus “to an orb within human beings called ‘the religious.’” But if Jesus is holding all things together at the center of creation, there really is no such thing as “the secular” at the fundamental level of existence. How could there be? If Jesus is the center, the cornerstone, and the eternal glue of contingent reality, there can be no extraction of the sacred from the natural world. And this is precisely why we can do science as Christians; this is why Stephen J. Gould’s notion of the “non-overlapping magisteria” – the separation of “religious” and “scientific” domains – is, at the level of fundamental existence, a myth. Since creation is always already “graced” by Jesus Christ, there can be no such thing as “pure nature,” nor could there be a fundamental separation of “the religious” from “the natural.” As the late Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac would put it, everything in creation is already sacred. The consequences of separating “the secular” from “the religious” are dire: “The center becomes drawn at the intersection of the relationship between the two different orbs. We can become prone to protect the newly created ‘center’ by arguing for its superiority (and thus ours) from others who articulate the center of the relationship in their own way. The body of Christ fragments with the loss of a common center, just like ‘the secular’ has been created by reductionist reason that itself fragments our lives into various discrete realms of experience.” When this fragmentation occurs, we replace Jesus with a human-constructed center, constituting idolatry. And when Christians lose the common center of Jesus and become dogmatically protective of their own created centers, the body of Christ fractures and ceases to be recognized as distinctively Christian. We are especially wont to do this when discussing tough issues like evolution, the origin of humankind, global warming, homosexuality, and the like. We should remember, however, that as we pursue the truth of these things together, Jesus holds it all together. As Dr. Wright concludes, it is in our worship that we find this center. Indeed, it is there that we realize, cognitively and bodily, that the Truth is not a category or a position or a human-constructed center. Rather, the Truth is a person. Stay tuned for a reflection on part three of Dr. Wright’s series.