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In “The Idea of Perfection,” Iris Murdoch – who channels an interesting amalgam of Platonism, socialism, analytical philosophy, the idea of God, virtue ethics, and atheism – explains why progress in the moral life is slow.
Moral change and moral achievement are slow; we are not free in the sense of being able suddenly to alter ourselves since we cannot suddenly alter what we can see and ergo what we desire and are compelled by. In a way, explicit choice seems now less important: less decisive (since much of the ‘decision’ lies elsewhere) and less obviously something to be ‘cultivated’. If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. This is in a way the reverse of Hampshire’s picture, where our efforts are supposed to be directed to increasing our freedom by conceptualizing as many different possibilities of action as possible: having as many goods as possible in the shop. The ideal situation, on the contrary, is rather to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience’ (Existentialists and Mystics, 331).
Moral achievement or advancement is not, contrary to a large portion of the analytical tradition, a result of choice or act of will. It is rather a redirection of the gaze, the focusing of attention on an object, in such a way that choice or volition soon falls to the wayside.
From Eugene McCarraher’s, We Have Never Been Disenchanted:
[The] sacramental critique of Marxist metaphysics would not be that it is “too materialist” but rather that it is not materialist enough—that is, that it does not provide an adequate account of matter itself, of its sacramental and revelatory character. Sacramentality has ontological and social implications, for the “gift” that [Rowan] Williams identifies is “God’s grace and the common life thus formed.”
Romantic Sacramentalism, as McCarrher continues, reminds us “that our capacity to act well relies on our capacity to see what is really there. For there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.”
Terry Eagleton once remarked that Marx made “the characteristically bourgeois mistake of confusing morality with moralism” (After Theory, 143). For many on the left, morals, being good, let alone following the Good, should have nothing to do with economics and politics. Such talk is illusory at best and ideological at worst.
Yet Marx himself was profoundly concerned about morals. Writing about the degradations of capitalism was not simply an intellectual exercise for Marx.
So why is such a confusion between morality and moralism a “bourgeois” mistake and not just a mistake in general? In Christianity and Marxism, Denys Turner offers an explanation:
It is an error of substance to call by the name ‘morality’ what has been done under that name by philosophers from Kant to Hare. For what we now call morality is in radical discontinuity with that classical conception – of which Marxism is the inheritor – which was of a scientific investigation of the social order that can generate norms of action. The discontinuity of the contemporary bourgeois with the classical conception is, therefore, important at the very least from the point of view of the studies of ideologies… It is… a conceptual response governed by the social pressure of a class society that we have to bifurcate the ‘moral’ from the ‘scientific’. It is very important, therefore, that Marxists recognize what has happened: that ‘morality’ in its bourgeois sense has abandoned the role which was once assigned to it on the classical conception and has been redefined so as to work against that role (85).
According to Turner, Marx failed to grasp the nuances or historical situatedness of moral philosophy, regarding all instances of morality as prototypically Kantian; that is, as abstract, universal, etc. Marx seems to have missed the fact that the separation of facts or scientific investigation on the one hand, and morals on the other, is itself a product of a class-based society. The “bourgeois” mistake, then, is to fail to see that the proper study of morality – the classical conception – has nothing to do with abstract rules and everything to do with the political order and concrete social relations.
Regardless of Marx’s mistake, both Eagleton and Turner point out that Marx was certainly right to disparage the Kantian morality of his time, which sadly infected so much of Christian moral philosophy, even up to present day.
Speaking to Christians in general, Turner writes that “in the bourgeois world moral views come exceedingly cheap.” He continues:
It is worrying for a Christian that all too often it is Christians themselves who are in practice the meanest buyers in the moral market. They, who talk so readily and unproblematically about (of all things) ‘love’, seem quite to have forgotten that Christianity, embodied in the life of its founder, came not so much with news about love, but rather about its price. And if Christians have forgotten what that price is, they may reasonably doubt whether they have been trading in the genuine article, rather than a counterfeit. Marxism may perhaps serve to remind them that the price of love is revolution and, ultimately, death (x).
Your daily dose of the great Christian Socialist, Karl Polanyi:
Under capitalism, humans are only worth as much as their labor output. As such, market societies are necessarily anti-Christian and therefore anti-humanist. The creative capacity of human poiesis (labor) is not only commodified, but diabolically transformed to serve mammon.
The problem with capitalism, then, is not about the system’s efficiencies (they are some), nor its inefficiencies (they are many), but that it redefines humanity. Humanity was once teleologically ordered toward the divine, but in a market society humanity is teleologically re-ordered toward acquisitiveness.
It gets worse. The great proponents of market society (von Mises, Hayek, etc.) understood that humans are not by nature competitive, driven toward acquisitiveness, or even inherently rational. They maintained that in order to best structure society, we must ensure that humans become competitive, acquisitive, and rational. The problem is that this re-ordering of humanity does not come naturally to most folks. Unlike liberals, most humans value tradition, family, hearth, and irrational things, like high feast days and sacred spaces. Most would rather till their own land rather than work for slave-wages in someone else’s factory. In order to get this “Great Transformation” up and running, the government had to intervene in the affairs of society.
The peculiar nature of market society is such that it requires ongoing state intervention and government planning, with the result of compounding economic and political crisis. The market overreaches, society reacts, markets crumble in response, thus leaving a wake of social and environmental devastation.
Enter the Greek crisis. Neoliberalism imposes austerity measures on Greece’s sovereignty. The people react, the market reacts, and because the market is more powerful than popular democracy, the market wins and society is further devastated. As Polanyi observed about the “ambiguous position” of democracy under a market-driven society,
While the action of the market called forth widespread reactions and helped to create a strong popular demand for political influence of the masses, the use of the power so gained was greatly restricted by the nature of the market mechanism: isolated interventions, however urgent on social grounds, could often be shown to be economically harmful, while economically useful interventions of a planned type could not even be considered. In political terms, while piecemeal reform could be discredited as a damaging interference with the working of the market, outright social solutions, which would have been economically advantageous, had to be excluded altogether. Under conditions such as these, the striking power of the forces of popular democracy was necessarily limited (For a New West, 208).
It remains to be seen what will happen to Greece and the EU. For Polanyi, 19th century society faced two options: in response to crises, society will either implement some variation of socialism, such as the New Deal, and will for a time be placated; or fascism will take over.
Polanyi didn’t shirk from this grim picture. In a letter to a friend from 1929, he referred to these historical “facts,” but added, “we must make life out of these facts as faith builds life out of death.” This seems a good a starting point as any.
“The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not yet first experienced being terrified unto death about himself and his human prospects and likewise what is revealed within himself about the situation and constitution of mankind in general.”
From Geoffrey Rees’s very interesting, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality:
Perhaps it is difficult, in an era that is in many ways inured to the fragility of the body’s immersion in the material universe by several centuries of progressive technical mastery of the universe – inured also to the import of that fragility to philosophy and theology by several centuries tradition of isolating philosophy and theology as intellectual disciplines – to appreciate Augustine’s keen awareness of the interrelatedness of body and intellect in relation to God. Such appreciation is potentially very uncomfortable or worse, undermining as it does any sensibility of immunity from dependency, or of progressive diminishment of dependency, as the horizon of self-actualized personal fulfillment. Yet even at the beginning of the twenty-first century human beings remain mortal, finite, embodied creatures. Persons who accuse Augustine of unduly disparaging or denigrating the body may therefore miss sometimes how the claims that they criticize arise out of vivid and searching reflection on embodied experience that is not and cannot be one’s own exactly; that these claims are so troubling because they are rooted so intimately in questioning of one’s created existence; that it is arguably the present age, and not Augustine’s that is fact disparages the body; that Augustine may have raised all the hard questions he does not because he doesn’t take the body seriously, but because he takes the body with ultimate seriousness (156).
Reading Herbert McCabe this time around – mostly in preparation for the upcoming McCabe Conference in DC – I was struck by how often McCabe refers to divinization when discussing the role of the virtues.
In On Aquinas McCabe writes that the virtues,
enable us to live the life of caritas, which is the life of God, life in the Spirit, although they encourage us to more intensive practice, are rooted not in our efforts but in the initiative of God – this is what we mean by God sharing his life with us. This is what is traditionally called ‘infused’ as distinct from ‘acquired’ virtue. The divine, or so-called ‘theological’ virtues of faith, hope, and charity can only be infused through the grace of God, but this grace also gives a new dimension to, and indeed transforms, our acquired virtues. As Aquinas puts it, the charity we have becomes the form of all our virtues, and our whole life becomes a sharing in divinity (70).
In relation to the virtues as participating in the life of God, a number of key factors stand out. First, because the virtues are infused rather than imputed, our actions or practices are not simply “our” actions any more than a word is my head is a result of my own private language. I wonder then if McCabe’s Wittgensteinian-Thomistic understanding (and rejection of) the private language argument is related to the doctrine of infused virtue or grace. Through grace we are drawn into the life of God as adoptive children, as the new creation. The agape that God shares with us inhabits our whole life, all that we do. As McCabe puts it, “having been given to share in the divine life, we then live it out in our human way an exercise not only our strictly and exclusively divine virtues of faith, hope, and charity but also our divinized human virtues” (105-106).
Second, the practices or virtues are not solely a result of the will. In this McCabe follows a standard (but neglected) pattern of basic Aristotelian-Thomistic rational appetite theory and concomitant rejection of voluntarism (103). Before we will something, say, an apple, we have to understand and interpret that it is in fact an apple that is before us and not a brick. “All desire,” writes McCabe “is simply being attracted or repelled because of an interpretation of the world” (59). Since will and intellect operate together, involving a “single complex operation” on the basis of language, the desire to undertake a specific practice is dependent upon a prior language or linguistic community that operates independently of our deliberation or will. All of this is to say that, “there is more to my life than what goes on in my head” (63).
In light of McCabe, it seems that recent critiques of the practices rest on a set of misplaced assumptions; namely, that our actions or practices exist on one plane, while Christ’s actions exist on another; and that the practices are primarily a result of successfully exerting one’s will-power rather than joining the bonds of solidarity, which mirror the inherent social nature of salvation.
So, if the gift of grace then is not simply God changing his mind about his creatures, but rather is the gift of sharing his Divinity, as it is for McCabe, then the conversation is greatly altered. What’s more, the practices no longer appear as auxiliary to the life of salvation, but as mysteriously inherent to it. This helps us to see why so much of St. Paul’s thinking is about the virtues and salvation as being part of Christ’s body.
Given the role that divinization plays in McCabe’s thinking about the virtues, it’s clear that the practices are not in any true sense of the word “our” property as much as they are God’s caritas working through our material reality. In other words, the church does not stand on one side of an impenetrable ontological divide, fated to go through the motions as it were, while God sits comfortably enthroned in Heaven. Rather, the virtues have a definitive goal in mind – agape with God, becoming Christ-like in our bodies through the power of the Spirit.
In the end, McCabe helps us to make sense of the letter of the Hebrews’ injunction to keep going “on toward perfection.” Our healing “has only begun in the period between Christ’s resurrection and the parousia. Until then we live by faith and work at the difficult task of growing in virtue and maturity while coping with our emotional and intellectual incompetences. But in all this, by grace, we share in the ‘infused virtues’ – part of our living by the Spirit” (164).
Sometimes I just like the sound of his voice:
“Baptism is not just the baptism of an individual into an individual relationship with God through Christ. Baptism is coming into a community, which is structured, which has to wrestle with problems of authority.”
I think Eugene Rogers is spot on when he writes the following in After the Spirit:
I think a recovery of deification or consummation is not possible without a livelier doctrine of the Spirit, whose intratrinitarian office it is not just statically to represent but personally to witness or glorify the love between the Father and the Son ( 9).
By “a livelier doctrine,” Rogers no doubt means a recovery of the Spirit’s materiality and how this bears on doctrine. This is the argument he makes in his Introduction to The Holy Spirit: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Rogers argues that we tend, good moderns that we are, to treat the work of the Spirit as ‘spiritual,’ floating free of matter and as ultimately superfluous to the work of the Son. As Jesus has already saved us, what exactly is the Spirit for, especially since “anything the Spirit can do, the Son can do better”?
In order for us to escape this cul-de-sac of modern thinking, we need to recover the incorporative pattern of the Holy Spirit’s work of introducing humanity into the divine life (2). This is, however, a thoroughly material affair: “to think about the Spirit it will not do to think ‘spiritually’: to think about the Spirit you have to think materially” (AS, 56). In other words, the modern image of the Spirit working by osmosis – penetrating the epidermis until it at least reaches the relevant part of our body, presumably the intellect – is seriously compromised by the biblical text and tradition. Rather, something material comes to pass. In light of the church’s witness throughout the centuries, Rogers states that,
In many [all?] cases, the Holy Spirit does not float free of bodies, but befriends and accompanies them, paraphysically as it were, coming to rest on holy places, holy people holy things. In baptism, the Spirit alights on the body of a person. In the Eucharist, it inhabits the body of Christ as the fire in the bread and wine. In unction, it covers a body by means of oil. The Spirit hovers over the waters of creation, of Mary’s womb, of the Jordan, of the font, resting on the body of Christ in the world, in the womb, in the river, and in the church. The Spirit befriends the body as light, fire, incense, wine, and song. The Spirit transcends things, so that it can also inhabit them (3-4).
Such a view will rattle our modern conceptions of the Holy Spirit and perhaps even raise our ire when it comes to specters of ecclesial triumphalism. Yet as Rogers demonstrates again and again, both the biblical text and the long history of Christian thought all indicate a sense of the uncompromising materialness of the Holy Spirit’s work.