You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Philosophy’ category.





In his contribution to The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the Future of Political Economy, Eugene McCarraher looks to blow the dust off of R.H. Tawney’s legacy: “Often admired but now rarely consulted, Tawney’s work deserves a spiritual revival.” In Sublunary Sublime’s modest opinion, this has got to be one the great theological understatements of the decade.

McCarraher writes that Tawney’s work suggests “theological acuity and depth,” as can be seen from his Commonplace Book and other critical works. As McCarraher explains,

Tawney lauded the medieval economic imagination, in which work and goods were judged in the light of the beatific vision. Surveying the wisdom of scholastic philosophers and canon lawyers, Tawney reclaimed their conviction that “the ideal – if only man’s nature could rise to it – is communism,” since sharing in communion was the order of heaven. Seen in this light, corporate capitalist property and production were grotesque distortions of the divine economy. Against the corporate order which protected stockholders and other parasitic classes who merely owned and lived off the labor of others, modern Christian socialism would, Tawney hoped, revive and older conception of property as “an aid to creative work, not an alternative to it.” Artfully made and justly distributed, material goods could be tokens of beatitude, “aids to blessedness,” as Tawny put it (105).

We can see how Tawney’s theological acuity is demonstrated in his understanding of St. Thomas’s claim that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it”; his depth comes from grasping the material implications of this seemingly esoteric doctrine. In Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, Tawney writes,

The contrast between nature and grace, between human appetites and interests and religion, is not absolute, but relative. It is a contrast of matter and spirit informing it, of stages in a process, of preparation and fruition. Grace works on the unregenerate nature of man, not to destroy it, but to transform it. And what is true of the individual is true of society. An attempt is made to give it a new significance by relating it to the purpose of human life as known by revelation. In the words of a famous (or notorious) Bull: “The way of religion is to lead the things which are lower to the things which are higher through the things which are intermediate. According to the law of the universe all things are not reduced to order equally and immediately; but the lowest through the intermediate, the intermediate through the higher.” Thus social institutions assume a character which may almost be called sacramental, for they are the outward and imperfect expression of a supreme reality. Ideally conceived, society is an organism of different grades, and human activities form a hierarchy of functions, which differ in kind and in significance, but each of which is of value on its own plane, provided that it is governed, however remotely, by the end which is common to all (26).

As Tawney goes on to argue, in the absence of a common end the ideology of efficiency reigns supreme. The rejection of teleology birthed the market state and the market state in turn birthed the individual. “The concept of religion as a thing private and individual does not emerge until after a century in which religious freedom normally means the freedom of the State to prescribe religion, not the freedom of the individual to worship God as he pleases,” writes Tawney (Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, 149).

All in all, Tawney presents a sobering vision, one that appears to leave little wiggle room for the more liberally minded. It is, however, a sentiment shared by no less than Simone Weil and Alasdair MacIntyre:


On the whole, our present situation more or less resembles that of a party of absolutely ignorant travelers who find themselves in a motor-car launched at full speed and driverless across broken country (Weil, Oppression and Liberty, 114).


From an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal political society can appear only as a collection of citizens from nowhere who have banded together for their common protection (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 156).

Theodor W. Adorno

The undiminished irrationality of rational society encourages people to elevate religion into an end in itself, without regard to its content: to view religion as a mere attitude, as a quality of subjectivity. All this at the cost of religion itself. One needs only to be a believer – no matter what he believes in. Such irrationality has the same function of putty… the jargon guides the petit bourgeois to a positive attitude toward life. It fastidiously prolongs the innumerable events which are to make attractive to men a life by which they otherwise would be disgusted – and which they would soon come to consider unbearable. That religion has shifted into the subject, has become religiosity, follows the trend of history. Dead cells of religiosity in the midst of the secular, however, become poisonous.

Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, 21-22.

Medieval b

Catholicity and Covenant has written a patient, yet forceful, critique of GAFCON’s response to the Pilling report. It’s well worth a read.

As it stands, the GAFCON statement seems to have formed an unholy alliance with the logic of moral intuitionism. With the help of Oliver O’Donovan, C&C notes that such paradigms are dominated by the modern “immediacy of insight” and therefore run the risk of making “the interpretation of Scripture seem superfluous.” Truth is here regarded as self-evident, immediately present to the subject irrespective of ethical formation, authority and history. Kant again triumphs over Aristotle.

In Church in Crisis, O’Donovan doesn’t mince words when it comes to criticizing such forms of biblical-moral-intuitionism:

We must not, then, in the supposed defense of a “biblical” ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic of “conservative” temptation to erect a moment in scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word “authority” means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief – a refusal to open ourselves to the questions, What is God saying to us through his world? [...]

The interpretation of Scripture is a matter in which we wait upon God – not, of course, as though we had understood nothing, but simply because we have not understood everything. The text and my reading of the text are two things, not one, and the first is the judge of the second. I can always read further, study harder, think deeper. To precipitate myself from the pinnacle of the text, and demand that angel wings shall bear my interpretation up, is to cut short the task of waiting and attending; it is to tempt the Lord my God (79-80). 



Be sure to check out Elizabeth Stoker’s recent post, “Pope Francis, Abortion, & Quandary Ethics.” As Stoker shows, both the left and the right are having a very difficult time placing Pope Francis; try as they might, the man just doesn’t quite fit into their narrow political paradigms.

Stoker goes on to discuss and diagnose the problem of “quandary ethics,” a form of moral reasoning that continues to infect most of our cultural debates. Quandary ethics imagines a world of renegade trolley cars and fat men being tossed from bridges; it seems to have little time for everyday dilemmas, like affordable day car or PTA involvement. Such ethical reasoning represents

a tendency to think of ethics as the universal rules that arise from the resolution of high-stakes, zero-sum moral puzzles, like abortion and the infamous ‘trolley problem.’ As Pincoff points out, one of the major problems with the quandarist pursuit of ethics is the type of reasoning it demands to produce suitable solutions: “what is relevant must have nothing to do with me, only with the situation: a situation in which anyone could find himself. What is right for me must be right for anyone.” This is essentially the stripped-out, hyper-abstract sense in which we’ve come to imagine abortion, despite the fact that both sides harp endlessly about dealing in the harsh realities of lived human experience. In practice, the discussion of abortion zeroes down to categories so broad they’re almost vacant: woman, fetus, equality, freedom.

This form of abstract reasoning not only creates unhelpful generalizations, but creates political stalemate. As just one example, witness the impasse in The Episcopal Church over sexuality. The net effect of this peculiar ethical reasoning insists “upon ethical rules too general and too extreme for our real sense of the matter,” as Stoker points out.

Proponents of quandary ethics tend to side with Kant over Aristotle: authority is rule-based in nature and application. Compare this, however, with traditional catholic teaching on ethics, where factors like “intention, purpose, and overall cultural tendencies” inform moral decision making, and you can see how far some Christian ethical discourse has strayed from its classical roots.

But isn’t this to be expected? After all, “Aristotle is the great historical figure that the Enlightenment forgot,” according to Sam Wells.


At the end of the day, Classical Christian ethics is a messy affair; it doesn’t have the luxurious clean lines of quandary or rule-based ethical systems, which is to say, it doesn’t have the precision of math. As Wells reminds us, “the key question about New Testament ethics is not ‘What exactly do these instructions require and are exceptions ever legitimate?’ Instead the key question is ‘What kind of a community did the early church need to be to be faithful to Jesus in the light of the world’s challenges, and thus what kind of a community does the church today need to be to do the same?’”


If Herbert McCabe is right, that to invoke Aristotle against Cartesian dualism is not only a battle over abstract philosophical ideas, but as “a tiny contribution to the liberation of our world from bourgeois presuppositions that have quite definite oppressive economic and political correlatives,” then it would seem that Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft’s is onto something.

In his NYT article, Crawford contrasts his time as a “knowledge worker,” a euphemism for exploited labor if there ever was one, with the “soulcraft” he was able to cultivate in motorcycle repair. Yet it’s not the case that Crawford is simply contrasting manual labor with office work; rather, he’s contrasting the difference over what type of work builds character and leads to moral excellence. In a word, Crawford is harkening back to Aristotle: moral virtue has to do with the formation of certain habits. Crawford is also challenging the entire modern edifice of efficiency and effectiveness.

Unlike his soul-sucking office job, “mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about.” Crawford asks his readers to consider the character of work over and against something as nebulous as “jobs.”

A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.

So, how do we reconfigure our sights on the character of work – especially when so many are being left behind in the global workforce? There’s a temptation, as Justin McGuirk writes in Dezeen, to simply focus on what is close-to-hand when our capitalist economic system breaks down. “It seems that when industrial capitalism is in crisis we fall back in love with our tools,” writes McGuirk, “there is something steadying about the feel of the screwdriver in our hand. It makes us feel in control again.” The problem, however, is that there are structural and political issue at play beyond what takes place in the private garage or studio.

In light of our many problems, Crawford is onto something in attacking the idols of the left and right; something that appears to be theological in nature. To get back to McCabe’s point above, to invoke Aristotle against Cartesian dualism is to resist the modern binaries that plague our dominant political paradigms. Good old fashion communal-based moral formation might be the best way out of this mess.


It should come as no surprise that both Gillian Rose and Hegel lurk in the background of Rowan Williams’s recent Gifford Lecture series. In his third lecture, “No last words: language as unfinished business”, Williams offers a tantalizing note about Hegel and how the self only is through time, conversation and encounter.

To know myself… is to be involved in a narrative exercise. I don’t look for a timeless true self at the heart of all I do or say, but I do look for a sequence of encounters that I can narrative.”

Borrowing from Stanley Cavell, Williams continues,

“The reason we cannot say what the thing is in itself is not that there is something that we do not in fact know, but that we have deprived ourselves the conditions for saying anything in particular.”

That is, the search for thing in itself is a search to escape from language. We can’t talk about what something is like when we’re not talking about it. We can’t talk about an object in a way that avoids the staking of a position, and the opening of an intelligible future of debate and exchange. We can’t surprise the object when it’s not expecting to be looked at. And this in desperately condensed form is of course arguably what the entire argument of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is all about it…

It’s not, to labor the point again, that there are unrepresentable realities that would ground what we say if only we could get at them. It’s that the way we know and understand is by representing and risking the form of our representation and shared discourse as time unfolds. 

In his recent lecture, “Wholly Holy: What the Identity of Being LGBT adds to the Identity of Being Christian,” Sam Wells argues that we need to shift the debate of human sexuality away from creation to the new creation; away from something like “pure nature” to the new identity given in baptism. That we tend to begin such debates with a modernist anthropology – beginning with a static account of human nature rather than graced nature – belies that fact that much of our thinking is still colored with Enlightenment presuppositions that stand at odds with orthodox Christianity.

For Wells, the issue hangs on whether one reads the New Testament in a modernist, Kantian framework, or whether one reads the text in a classical vein, as the narrative of God’s involvement with fallen humanity. As Wells goes on to explain:

The key question about New Testament ethics is not ‘What exactly do these instructions require and are exceptions ever legitimate?’ Instead the key question is ‘What kind of a community did the early church need to be to be faithful to Jesus in the light of the world’s challenges, and thus what kind of a community does the church today need to be to do the same? [...] 

This is where I think the terms of the debate need to change. If you see heaven as an embodied interaction between God, humanity, and the renewed creation, then embodiment is essential to human identity, because it is part of our eternal nature. The human body is not a ladder we kick away when we enter heaven… It must be that we discover all our desires are a sublimated desire for God, and a poor token of God’s fundamental desire for us, on which the whole five-act play is predicated. What I’m talking about is shifting the conversation from creation, which happened once, to heaven, which last forever.


Liberalism… is often successful in preempting the debate by reformulating quarrels and conflicts within liberalism, so that they appear to have become debates within liberalism, putting in question this or that particular set of attitudes or policies, but not the fundamental tenets of liberalism with respect to individuals and the expression of their preferences. So so-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debate within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.

Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 394

HT to the recent post by Cosmos The Lost InThe Ideological Winters of American Catholicism.

von bal

In The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, von Balthasar gives a notable nod to the German Idealists and to Hegel in particular.

In order to read even a form within the world, we must see something invisible as well, and we do in fact see it. In a flower, a certain interior reality opens its eye and reveals something beyond and more profound than a form which delights us by its proportion and color. In the rhythm of the form of plants – from seed to full growth, from bud to fruit – there is manifested an essence, and to reduce the laws of this essence to mere utilitarian principles would be blasphemous. And in the totality of beings, as they ascend and maintain their equilibrium, there is revealed a mystery of Being, which it would be even more blasphemous and blind to interpret by reducing it to a neutral ‘existence’. As especially the Romantics and many German Idealists deeply knew, we are initiated into these mysteries because we ourselves are spirit in nature and because all the expressive laws of the macrocosm are at work in ourselves (444).


About the “mystery of Being,” a mystery that requires “initiation” as Hegel rightly noted in The Phenomenology of Spirit, von Balthasar continues,

At the level of total humanity, we can speak of a knowledge worthy of man only where we do not preliminary bracket out ‘the substratum of unknowing’ (as the so-called ‘exact sciences’ attempt to do), but, rather, very expressly include this dimension of mystery. For it is only in this way that the figure which lies at the heart of the matter becomes legible as a figure of reality. This is a fact which in Hegel is attested to in a hundred different ways and variations, his final dissolution of it into a divine omniscience notwithstanding (446).

So why is this important for von Balthasar? And why begin with the mystery of Being rather than the Christ event or at the very least creation?

Because for von Balthsar, the revelation of Christ is both a manifestation and concealment that takes place within Being. “The Incarnation of Word means the most extreme manifestness within the deepest concealment,” writes von Balthasar (456). What’s more, “this unique relationship of revelation and concealment is inscribed” in humanity’s Being (449). And as von Balthasar continues, “the revelation of grace is not the establishment of a new form within the created world; it is but a new manner of God’s presence in the form of the world” (451-452). What protects God from being subsumed into the order of nature, Being, or humanity is this dual nature of revelation. Si comprehendis non est Des (450).

As such, revelation,

does not have its place alongside the revelation in the creation, as if it competed with it, but within it. In the same way, the revelation in the Incarnation has its place within the revelation of God’s Being in man, who, as God’s image and likeness, conceals God even as he reveals him. In this instance this mean that, in Christ, man is disclosed along with God. This is so because God does not use human nature like an external instrument in order to articulate, from the outside and from above, the Wholly Other which God is; rather, God takes on man’s nature as his own and expresses himself from within it through the expressive structures of that nature’s essence. Thus the interiority in his expressive relationship derives from the fact that it is the Creator who is at work, and that he does not misuse his own creation for a purpose alien to it, but rather, by his becoming man, he could only honor it and crown it and bring it to its own intimate perfection (458-459).

And here is the kicker, the connection to what this all has to do with Being:

In abstract language we could say that it is Being itself (and not an existent among others) which, in this existent that is man, has found for itself definitive expression (459).

The mystery of Being protects God as the Wholly Other, yet reveals God as that which is most intimate, as the “Not-Other.”



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 37 other followers