Wednesday, April 09, 2014

In Which I Come Out as an Ethical Foundationalist (Sort of)

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness (Romans 1:14-15a, NRSV).
Imagine this scene, reminiscent of the Mad Max movies: It's a post-apocalyptic time in North America, a few years after some sort of military or ecological catastrophe. A caravan with hundreds of rag-tag vehicles -- beat-up school buses, box trucks with various gang symbols, taxicabs and souped-up motorbikes -- are inching along in convoy through a forlorn southwestern desert on an old U.S. highway. They are headed on a perilous 1000-mile trek toward Denver, which is reported to be the last real city in the former United States that's still standing -- where there is reported to be food and water, shelter and possibly even jobs. It has been years, and most of the travelers scarcely believe the stories are true. But they have no other prospects, so on they trudge, looting abandoned gas stations or siphoning the grease vats from old fast-food restaurants to power their dilapidated vehicles.

Suddenly, one lonely driver, a bald guy in his early forties, who is driving a green pick-up truck remembers something he was told many years ago, but he can't remember when or by whom. Suddenly, he makes a sharp left down a side road, breaking with the convoy. He's not even fully conscious why he's bolting from the tenuous safety of the pack to head down a path that leads to...he's not sure where.

I am that lonely driver. At least, that's how I feel as I write this post.

Denver is the quasi-utopian vision of the peaceful pluralistic commonwealth, a place where individual rights and social responsibilities are balanced, yet also where members of each group can concomitantly fully live out the distinctive moral vision of their own ethnic and religious communities unhindered by onerous compromises with competing groups. Denver is a postmodern dream of what a liberal democracy might look like, and it's something far better than the corrupt, unjust, inequitable and violent plutocracy that some still dare to call a republic. But -- and this is the important part -- Denver is a democratic commonwealth without any objective moral values to hold the variegated whole together. Indeed, not only does it lack some set of core values "set in stone," as it were, like the ridiculous statues of the Decalogue that adorn some courthouses: Rather, this city on a hill somehow manages to work without even the slightest notion of an objective moral order, transcendental or otherwise, that would serve as the condition for the possibility of any ethical discourse whatsoever.

Scarcely any one really believes in Denver anymore, I'm convinced; still, nobody knows what else to do but to keep driving towards it, nonetheless.

Many of you, gentle readers, are perhaps among the drivers. You are culturally sensitive, educated in theology or the humanities. Perhaps in your thinking you draw upon postmodern philosophy, anthropology or cultural studies. You are post-foundationalists, influenced by Barth, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and their progeny to be (rightly) suspicious of any claims to universality that sidestep the scandal of the particular. Maybe you work out of a post-colonial framework and you (justly) decry the culturally imperialistic aspects of the Enlightenment project -- the attempt to build a commonwealth upon the concord of rational subjects. Maybe you're a neo-pragmatist who thinks I'm out to lunch and just projecting some fantasy for order onto a chaotic world -- that we all would do well to deal practically with contingent realities rather than tromping out some hackneyed old transcendental arguments from Plato or Kant or natural law theory.

Since you're a DET reader, you might be a "post-liberal" or someone who embraces a the sort of confessionalist nonfoundationalism, where ethics is centered exclusively upon God's revelation in Christ and in the praxis of Christian community. Or maybe you're a college student or seminarian who has internalized -- and perhaps taken too literally -- Kierkegaard's dangerous dictum that "subjectivity is truth." Or maybe you're a kind of new age thinker, imagining yourself to be like the deceased artist played by Robin Williams who literally paints his own blessed afterlife from the wellsprings of his memory and imagination.

And why can't I drive along with you? Y'all are, by and large, much better company than the ruffians who populated Mel Gibson's dystopian world. I should like to do so; I share many of your concerns and commitments, but at the end of the day I'm thrown back upon this, my own "here I stand" declaration: I believe in a transcendent, absolute, categorical basis for the good. I just simply must, and I can't help it, no matter how much theory I read (and many of you have read much more than I have). That makes me a foundationalist, of sorts, even if I demur from trying to ground this claim in some sort of epistemology of the disinterested human subject. Now saying that is not the same thing as making a fully fleshed out philosophical argument. It's rather a cry, from the ruins, that somehow, somewhere there is some reason to believe that right and wrong have some sort of basis in what is really real.

Let me be clear: I'm not claiming that any individual or society can fully be in possession of the moral law. Any grasp of the good in this life must needs be partial. And I'm not trying to prove this conviction on the basis of empirical evidence at all, for example, by comparing the moral maxims of great wisdom traditions as C.S. Lewis attempts in The Abolition of Man. I'm not trying to retrieve and defend, necessarily, some version of the Golden Rule or Kant's categorical imperative. Rather, all I'm saying is that all moral and ethical shop-talk strikes me as vain without some notion of a good that's greater than any of us, individually or collectively. Something that is rock solid, not contingent. My claim here is not empirically based but almost purely transcendental. What's more, like Augustine, Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr, I'm a firm believer in the noetic effects of sin -- that, even in our wisest and best moments, all our reasoning processes are blinded and corrupted by individual and class interests. I believe no human being -- with one possible exception - is qualified to stand as judge and jury over the soul of anyone else.

I'm no great political activist, but I try at least to keep up with social justice issues and do something to help if I can. Or barring that I try to befriend and encourage those who are struggling on the front-lines for a more just, equitable and peaceful society by taking risks I'm unable or willing to take. I know that, as a white male, I have no right to claim someone else's suffering and injustice for myself, but I will admit that I was deeply shaken and moved the execution of Troy Davis in 2011 -- a murder case with so many holes in it that even conservative advocates of the death penalty were virtually begging the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution. I know that I'm a hypocrite (that's actually a doctrine of my faith) complicit with many awful things and a recipient of privileges that have been forcibly denied to other people and groups. Still, I can at least confess that these events had an effect on how I see the world.

On the eve of the execution, I attended a protest vigil put on by the American Friends Service Committee chapter in Northampton, Massachusetts, where we had just moved. As a result of these events and other events, I started becoming more alert to the effects of racism and classcism that riddle our criminal "justice" system. And then the Occupy Wall Street protests began shortly afterward, and I became more aware of issues of poverty and privilege, the widening income gap and the complicity of our government institutions with a corrupt and rapacious financial service sector. All of these heady events were feeding a certain political agitation within me that had been somewhat suppressed while I studied theology and was exploring various opportunities in lay ministry -- with one foot in the parish, one foot in campus ministry and one foot adjunct teaching. (Any working adjunct out there will tell you that two feet aren't adequate for what they're trying to do.)

Others are much more qualified to write on social justice issues than I, both from the sides of theory and of praxis. But my point here is that my own growing awareness of these myriad issues has heightened for me the need to seriously revisit the question of universal human rights, and how we might do a much better job as a society and world in trying to instantiate, support and defend such ideals. This is a huge topic, and I've only begun to scratch the surface, and that's not to mention the further complications of trying to integrate such a rights framework with my Anglican-reformed-evangelical-dialectical theological commitments. (Hence the quote above, lest one forget that this is a theology blog.) I still have a lot of thinking through to do with these issues.

So where am I headed with this, if not toward Denver? Jersualem? Athens? Königsberg, Germany? I'm not sure yet.

24 comments:

Kevin Davis said...

I believe in a transcendent, absolute, categorical basis for the good.

I think this can be rendered in terms of a christology that is wary of an overly reified law ("natural" or otherwise). Barth didn't reject natural law in order that we may ground it in our subjective self-awareness.

At least, this makes you a non-existentialist. Welcome to the real! Your doubts are not that damn important, as I like to say.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks, Kevin. There is a video making rounds on the net that purports to show a staircase, on some college campus, that loops around on itself, such that one walks up one flight, turns the corner and then finds oneself walking up to where she was at the beginning. (It's fake, by the way). That's how I feel about Barth -- and Christology too. No matter what end around move I try to make, I end up back right where I started, trying to deal with the same texts and issues. So we'll see.

And you've correctly pegged me as a non-existentialist.

Leah said...

I think encountering evil which seems transcendant (or descendant?)and more then the sum of our own collective badness can lead one to believe in a transcendant good as well, the option being despair, I suppose.

Matthew Frost said...

"I believe in a transcendent, absolute, categorical basis for the good."

Correct me if I get this wrong:

- Transcendent: something not to be found within the framework of our moral actions
- Absolute: some one particular thing, the same regardless of situation or person in question
- Categorical: something to which there can be no exception within its scope

What you haven't answered there is what kind of thing this "basis" is. I can presume you're not a naturalist, and I've watched you reject cognitivism, but that just narrows the field. In what do you find this basis? What kind of thing is it?

Are you a moral realist? Do you believe the values exist, that there is something non-subjective by which they may be known? Or are you an anti-realist for whom human subjectivity is simply not constitutive of moral value? (Or are you something else, and I'm missing the point?) In short, is the moral basis a subject, or an object?

J. Scott Jackson said...

Good questions. I basically accept the way you've defined the three terms.
Now to your questions (at least some of them):

1) On naturalism -- I think most ways naturalism might be construed would exclude the sort of appeal I'm making, so your presumption is correct.

2) What is the thing (or subject?) itself that forms the basis? I'm not sure the inquiry as I've framed it is necessarily capable of answering that question. Indeed, it is THE question. If you look carefully at what I'm saying, I think I'm not actually claiming (here) to have found this basis or to be able to identify it. I'm trying to keep the argument (for now) as purely transcendental as possible. The weird move I'm making -- at least, it feels weird to me -- is that one could affirm that there simply must be a moral law even if we don't know, even if we can't know just what "it" is -- or what its grounding is.

3) Realist/antirealist? -- Human values exist, but any such value we could name is inherently partial and contingent. That doesn't mean, though, that they have no force. It just means that particular moral demands and claims are not what I'm trying to get at here. I don't think of myself as an "antirealist" -- at least the way I understand that term often to be used. The ground of morality is real, I guess I'd say -- as in The Real (so the basic move here is a kind of platonic one). But that doesn't mean any particular set of human moral judgments could be absolutized.

4) Subject/object-- I'm very sensitive to the critiques of the Enlightenment project, and I'm wary of any proposal that would proceed to construe the (individual/"rational") human subject without attending to these critiques. I'm trying to avoid the kind of pedestal that that the subject gets ensconced on in Kant's famous "What is Enlightenment?" essay.

Does any of this help?

David W. Congdon said...

Scott, thanks for the post. It's very interesting. I find it especially interesting given my job as editor at IVP Academic, in which I've overseen two projects related to this topic: a multiview book on "God and Morality" (with two atheists and two theists discussing moral realism vs. nonrealism) and a monograph by R. Scott Smith on "In Defense of Moral Knowledge," an extensive philosophical argument for moral realism grounded in God. All that's to say, I find it interesting to see how many people are taking up this topic. In some ways it all goes back to MacIntyre, though the conversation has certainly progressed since then. I suppose it's all a reaction in various ways to what people see as the moral decay of our time, whether one locates this decay in things like marriage and sexuality or in capitalism and violence.

Anyway, I confess to being what I would call a “non-naturalist moral non-realist.” I don’t believe there are objective moral values that are universally accessible to all people, and that’s because I cannot separate morality and ethics from theology, and my theology is rigorously dialectical (i.e., fideist). The good, so to speak, is not a moral law in the traditional sense of the term but rather an event in Christ that commands and commissions us in the kerygma. It is the “law of Christ” or the “law of the Spirit,” as Paul says, and this law is fulfilled in the word, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13.9-10). Of course, this word does not tell us what to do in each particular situation. The divine command does not come prepackaged with determinate content to guide us in specific ethical dilemmas. Christian morality is a matter of discerning what it means to love the neighbor in each new moment. There is no universal law here that could determine in advance what a person should do.

Having said all that, I am open to a kind of natural pragmatism that reasons in community to discern the best course of action. I don’t think a genuinely Christian morality necessarily competes with this, but I would want to strongly differentiate the two. The relation is sort of like the relation between [science/politics/any nontheological field] and theology. The differentiation ensures that we don’t confuse the theological good with natural, human goods.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks for your thoughtful remarks, David. I'm not surprised to learn that others are plowing similar fields. The autobiographical part of my piece does show, I think, that part of what's fueling my basic move here is a frustration with moral anomie and the apparent impotence of our institutions to deal with it without resort to violence and oppression. I have a good bit of back reading to do if I choose to spin this into some sort of formal project, so thanks for your suggestions there. It might also be time for me to revisit Jeffrey Stout's Ethics After Babel, as it's been a long time since I read it.

I want to muse on a couple other things you said.

"I don’t believe there are objective moral values that are universally accessible to all people..."

I was playing with the notion of an "objective" (that is to say, "real") standard that is precisely not accessible as such, at least not directly. Not sure how to hold those two aspects of the matter together, so I'll have to keep ruminating.

"and that’s because I cannot separate morality and ethics from theology, and my theology is rigorously dialectical (i.e., fideist)."

I'm a little surprised to find myself trying to begin with ethics without beginning the argument from a confessional theological standpoint. But to argue, as I do, that there must be an absolute good or ground for goodness without any proof of it's reality perhaps -- because it simply seems to me it must be true -- may, in the end, make my position every bit as fideist as yours.

I'm not uncomfortable, on the face of it, with the basic framework for theological ethics you lay out here -- your event framed agapism, if I may put it that way.

But when you say, "There is no universal law here that could determine in advance what a person should do," I am inclined to push back a little. I'm not positing some fixed set of rules with clear-cut applications either, but I am groping toward some notion of a standard, albeit one that could never be fully possessed, from which any human action could be judged.

"I am open to a kind of natural pragmatism that reasons in community to discern the best course of action."

Me too. And I'm not sure whether what I offer above has much to add to this at the end of the day. I'm not sure we have anything but this. That's the challenge of a pragmatist perspective, right? One tries to avoid piling on superfluous levels of abstraction when what matters is the practical results of ethical reasoning.

"I don’t think a genuinely Christian morality necessarily competes with this..." I agree.
And I don't disagree about differentiating "the theological good with natural, human goods", though I'd also want at least to find some way to relate the two, without subsuming one side into the other.

I don't think I'm registering any strong disagreements here, but I think that I am looking for a certain "something more."

And now my response has gone on way too long.

Matthew Frost said...

Scott, thanks for the response. I agree, the inquiry you've framed does not force the answer to my major question one way or another. That's my job. ;)

You've said, as far as I can tell, that you have been led to dissent to relativist and subjectivist morality by positing the existence of some ... let's call it "objective" moral basis, if I can do that without prejudicing the answer to subject/object. That there is a morally relevant fact of the matter, outside of our inquiry.

I think David has the better of it when he calls the thing I was aiming at "non-realism" rather than "anti-realism." But don't let that terminology shake you; the question isn't whether the basis for values is real, but whether the values themselves are. I've tried to suggest in the past that Barth is a theological realist, but a moral non-realist, for exactly this reason. The theological object, God, is real—but unless the moral object is also God, chances are it has no reality beyond our own subjectivity.

So when it comes to my question as to whether your foundation is subject or object, I have absolutely no interest in ensconcing "the subject" as that basis. The Copernican revolution already happened, and we're inside of it. I only want to know if your "transcendent, absolute, categorical basis for the good" is something that itself has subjectivity—something we can only therefore approach via intersubjectivity—or whether it is an object that we may approach on our own terms.

I'm a moral subject, but in the most important cases I am not the ultimate fact of the matter. (Of course, I also think that my/our moral subjectivity is often an important fact of the matter.) On the other hand, God is a moral subject as well—and it's no less foundationalist to suggest that God is the ultimate fact of the matter ... if a useless kind of foundationalism, because it may mean that there are no permanent moral values, and that all grasp of them is tenuous at best and illusory at worst.

I have no idea if that's clearer or muddier.

Matthew Frost said...

... and if I had only waited for you to respond to David I'd have has my answer. :)

The problem with theological voluntarisms is that Plato has stuck us with the idea that either a god wants things we could therefore know objectively and then discard the god, or the god could want anything at any time. Either God has taste, or morality can only be had by intersubjectivity.

But if God has taste, who's to say that that taste can ever be adequately quantified? That's nothing against there being an objective moral code in a theistic system—just against us ever having it in an adequate sense as a human moral code.

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Scott. I like the term "event-framed agapism" or, better, "actualistic agapism," to describe my position.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts about Barth's actualistic divine command ethics. I suspect all of this is really a rejoinder to Barth and, perhaps, a rejection of it. I have many friends in Princeton, shaped in various ways by the pragmatism of Stout and others, who think Barth is incoherent, perhaps even mystical, in his ethics. I have questions about Barth's ethics, too, but it seems to me he was more right than wrong.

Thoughts?

J. Scott Jackson said...

Okay, Matt (you go by Matt, no?), you're trying to push me into saying something actually theological. Here at DET, of all places. The very idea! ;)

So let's talk shop then. I could always say the foundation is beyond the subject-object split, but that would probably be to sidestep your question -- again.

No, the foundation can't be object if by that we mean -- at our disposal, subject to our manipulation, etc. I should rather think it would have to be the other way around. But what about "something we can only therefore approach via intersubjectivity"? Possibly, as long as that doesn't make it sound too easy. But I think answering that deals with the question of revelation -- special revelation, to be more exact.

But as for this statement -- "The theological object, God, is real—but unless the moral object is also God, chances are it has no reality beyond our own subjectivity." -- I just don't think I can go there, the "no reality" part, because that's exactly the sort of position I'm trying to avoid (if I haven't misunderstood you). That's not the same thing as saying, that I or anyone ever has anything more than a "tenuous grasp" on the good. I don't think my argument forces me to conclude this.

The way you distinguish God (real) from the moral object (not real) just won't do for me. Does this mean, then that the "moral object" just is God. Well, yes, I guess so, in some sense. I guess I would say if the font of the good/goodness itself (himself/herself) is God, then somehow human morality -- the impulse itself, not necessarily its fruits -- does seek God as the source of the good.

But before we go making too much of that claim, spinning some sort of ontotheological bridge between the Good and lesser goods (or Creator and creatures), I'll invoke the more Kantian move I began with and posit some sort of wall between the two realms. Yearning is not possession. Or isn't it?

J. Scott Jackson said...

Sorry, Matt, I missed your last comment when I was making mine.

J. Scott Jackson said...

David, I'm going to stew on your question a little more and get back to you. Yes, you're right, I am trying to come to terms with Barth here. More later.

Matthew Frost said...

Ah, good. :) False dichotomies, and all that. I have no interest in ontotheological bridges by which the fact of creation makes God the source of moral order in the world. If one posits a continuity between the order of the world and the will of God, one usually has too small a doctrine of sin, too small a role for creaturely agency, or both.

On the other hand, I also have no interest in walls between the Creator and the creature, as that tends to produce more bad ideas than it resolves. We tend to use that kind of inaccessibility against God more than against ourselves, and then have massive Reformation-dividing quarrels over how God can possibly overcome it.

I find that apocalyptic works well enough to posit a disjunction between the fully self-ordering creation and the will of God. And then we're at the question of revelation.

You said "special revelation"—do you believe in general revelation, and if so how? What's the difference?

Matthew Frost said...

David, I'd like to take a stab at mediating between Barth and Stout.

The pragmatist will of course scoff at the idea that the only essential moral fact, and the one determiner of the lines between what is and is not moral, is to be found through prayer and communion with the living God. But then, it's telling when people use "mystical" as an intensification of "incoherent."

Pragmatism, no less than idealism, is an example of doing ethics according to the self-ordering world. It is an example of demiourgia. We do ethics without God as a way of crafting the world for ourselves, however justly or unjustly. Everything Barth hates about "systematic theology" applies here. We create our own systematic coherence, and attempt to rule out the incoherent. We reconcile what we feel needs to be reconciled. But there's no foundation there; it's us all the way down.

And it really is us all the way down. The world isn't founded on God. Even as creature we do not seem to exist in direct dependence upon God, though it's a nice pious sentiment and a scriptural one to boot. The world may be nothing more than reordered creation, but that fact cannot be demonstrated from the world itself. The world we know is fundamentally order-agnostic.

The absolute joy of Barth's ethics, for me, is that he gets this. And because he gets this, he refuses to argue with systems of ethics, much less to posit his own alongside. But he leaves as much room for them alongside the dogmatic ethics necessary to the faithful community, as he does for the phenomenological anthropology and cosmology we do in the sciences.

A secular state needs a secular ethos. And there isn't one absolute and necessary one—only the game to be played. Likewise, the faithful community needs an ethos of faith. And there isn't one absolute and necessary one—only the game to be played. But these are different games. In one, we are the only morally relevant fact of the matter. In the other, God is. The Christian isn't forbidden to play the other game—in fact, we're required to. But we can't play it as though we were the only morally relevant fact of the matter, nor can we subject anyone else to our own versions of a faithful ethos. We must play the pragmatic or idealistic games faithfully.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Okay, Matt, I'll come back to your last set of points -- after I've slept a little. The short answer to your question -- general revelation? -- is yes.

But I won't be able to sleep at all until I take a stab at David's questions. He was direct, concise and unrhetorical, and I'm afraid my answer is going to be the opposite of all those. Sorry about that.

Two parts, one easier and one hard -- two anecdotes. First the easy part. When I lived in Chicago I would sometimes go to the interfaith Thanksgiving service at Rockefeller Chapel, which raised money for the Hyde Park food pantry. At the time, I found it amusing, pretentious, a little lame (but hardly as pretentious as I myself was in those days). I thought: This is not about any of the of the particular religious communities represented, with their particular beliefs, practices and symbol systems, but it's about something else -- something contrived, something less significant, almost trivial.

I was wrong. I didn't realize how rare such cooperative events were in the "real world." That was before 9/11, before I realized how nearly impossible it is to build a mosque or Islamic study center in about 99.9 percent of the religiously "tolerant" U.S. without a virtual riot breaking out. Turns out, an interfaith gathering to feed people -- which our commonwealth seems incapable of doing on its own -- is in fact something. It's not everything. No one walked down the aisle and made a profession of faith. No one, to my knowledge converted from a false religion to a true one. But it was something.

Now that the radical Marxists will be chortling at such a bourgeois anecdote, I'll also say that such interfaith cooperation is characteristic of a lot of grassroots work in more radical peace and justice work too.

Nothing I've read in Barth -- nothing I remember reading, at least -- has helped me in the least to understand or appreciate such phenomena: Pragmatic cooperation in pursuit of some goals, however modest, to promote human flourishing.

That doesn't mean that Barth, had he been in that audience at that interfaith service, wouldn't have emptied his wallet too when the plate was passed around. I'm sure he would have. And his homily might have been a little more interesting than some of the ones I heard there. But when I try to write something like this last blog post, Barth doesn't help me much.

I take it back: There was an essay of Barth's that helps me. It is his 1911 address on Jesus Christ and socialism. There he suggests not that secular socialism and the gospel of Jesus be collapsed into one thing nor that one be subsumed into another but, rather, that socialism and Jesus' kingdom teachings something in common in terms of aims, and thus these two groups had something to talk about.

I wouldn't go so far, to borrow Tracy's language, of proposing some "mutually critical correlations" between the gospel and socialism but rather I'd say (using Weber's language) that there is something of an "elective affinity." It's something.

But is it enough? Surely, a properly Christian ethic has more to say, more to offer the world than such conversations as these. What about the concreteness of the biblical narrative -- the election of God, creation as understood in the confession, the covenant of reconciliation? What about the living God? This is where the harder part comes in -- and how might Barth help me here?

J. Scott Jackson said...

Now the hard part. Another anecdote, I'm afraid is necessary.

Some time at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, William Stringfellow spoke at a conference that featured such luminaries as King and Heschel. I think maybe this was in Chicago too, but I forget. Anyway, he got up and stunned the audience by saying the efforts of this illustrious gathering were "too late" and "too lily white." If that weren't enough, he also declared that the only real answer to the civil rights crisis was baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. The "liberals" in the audience -- the christian liberals! -- booed him.

But was he wrong to say these things? I can't say that he was, because for Christians -- even of the Reformed variety (am I right, Travis McMaken?) -- baptism is about life and death, the most fundamental of human realities. And there must be a wealth of stuff in Barth's ethics that would help me unpack and live into these truths. This is something a struggle for me. Sometimes I find myself more attracted to the ethics of the Romerbrief than, say, the passage from CD II/2 on the command of God I was recently coming across again or some of the passages in the Christian Life fragments, stuff I find it difficult, frankly, to read.

But I'm starting to fade, and maybe I can come back to this later.

J. Scott Jackson said...

So finally, David, to get at your actual question (finally): Yes, I might want to question several of Barth’s moves in the CD that have a bearing on his ethics. This is all very tentative and I need to dive back into the primary texts to begin to formulate this properly, but here goes:

First, I’m starting to second guess the way law is subsumed to gospel. Is this really true to human experience?

Second, and this is related to point one, I wonder if Barth overextends the use of the federal framework to encompass doctrine and ethics christologically – a bit of his reworking of his Reformed heritage. I’m thinking of some comments Tanner made in Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity that suggest the incarnation is something that goes beyond the covenantal framework. Of course, the covenant partnership motif, which is so beautifully developed in CD IV/1, offers much of the relational and dynamic aspects of Barth’s later thought that are so attractive to many readers.

Third, is the divine command rubric too vague? I understand that the way Barth develops this is intended as a means to keep ethics humble and open-ended, radically God dependent rather than doctrinaire. But not to sound too fundamentalist here, I wonder if this relativizes too much the notion of command as, well a command and not a process. If we take Jesus’ kingdom sayings in the Synoptics, there is something really stark and uncompromising we find there. It isn’t just that the sermon on the mount transvalues our values or shows up our sinful limitations (though that certainly is the case too): It seems like perhaps Jesus really intends that his followers do something. There seems to be real concrete guidance here. Maybe there really is some sort of a program here. Barth doesn’t seem to like programs too much. (This observation may seem to undercut some of the more agnostic tone of some of the things in my post I said about the “transcendent” character of the moral law, but maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing either). Maybe Barth needs a corrective here – perhaps Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, or Kierkegaard’s rigorous application of the love command in Works of Love, or maybe Wink’s praxis-oriented interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount? But then again maybe my shift toward a deontological ethic is too rigorist and abstract to try to describe what a loving and living God may intend for God’s creatures.

Fourth, I’m starting to have some questions about this actualism business, whether there might be some danger that some of us are reifying it to the point that it, ironically, might turn into its own kind of essentialism. Whitehead, in his own way, is a sort of actualist. But them’s fighting words, and I better cut and run before I get too deep.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Matt -- quickly. Sorry to be curt. I'm trying to think things through again about revelation and what we might legitimately say about it. I think an absolute rejection of the category of "general revelation" is unwise. I do know many of the kinds of objections that have been raised against the category, and they must be dealt with, but I don't believe there is adequate biblical ground to reject the category of general revelation altogether.

Matthew Frost said...

The way Barth subsumes law to gospel is quite the opposite of what we traditionally do—and that's the point of it. While it may be the antithesis of our universe of laws in which the gospel can only be relief, it is the form of the covenants, in which grace creates the only relevant obligations of the redeemed. It utterly reconceptualizes "law"—or perhaps sublates is the proper term. And it destroys much of the Federal frame in the process.

W. Travis McMaken said...

*chuckles

Scott, your comments in this thread stand as "Exhibit A" that DET is tolerant of diverse theological viewpoints.

;-)

J. Scott Jackson said...

I'm glad you're taking it in that spirit. I love reading Barth -- if only there were more ideas in the day! And I respect all of y'all too. I know I get a little over the top sometimes. Like last night. Perhaps I owe David an apology for being unduly provocative too -- especially since his questions were very respectful and charitable. But I enjoy the pushback, so thanks for indulging.

J. Scott Jackson said...

* Of course, I meant to say -- "too many hours." The "too many ideas" was perhaps a Freudian slip.

David W. Congdon said...

No, you don't me an apology, Scott. "Provocative" is practically my middle name! I've really enjoyed reading this comment thread. I don't really have much to add.

I like your suggestion of correcting Barth by way of Kierkegaard. I think that has some legs. (I, too, like the ethics of the Römerbrief period.) I'm less convinced about Bonhoeffer. I think his discussion of the mandates is either incoherent or problematic. But that's a topic for another time.