What’s Dignity Got to Do with It?

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Reflections upon Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical letter: Caritas in Veritate

Benedict XVI signs the papal letter, Caritas in Veritate (Charity/Love in Truth)

Benedict XVI signs the papal letter, Caritas in Veritate (Charity/Love in Truth)

 In his recent encyclical letter Benedict XVI takes on the topic of globalization, with his eye fixed on the ethical issues raised by the emergence of the modern global marketplace.  His message is clearly shaped by the present context of global recession (aka, “credit crunch”), which he takes as evidence of a need for more enlightened ethical thinking and behavior.  The root of the problem, in Benedict’s view, is that while the global interdependence of peoples and nations has become the overarching reality of economic development in our time, this global economic interdependence has not been matched by a corresponding global ethical interdependence.  He calls for an “ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development.”[1]  By human development, he refers to a vision of human dignity and vocation which proceeds from the Church’s social doctrine of charity (caritas).[2]

 As he reflects upon the sources of the problems which have led to the current economic crisis, Benedict recites the usual laundry list of general principles and hot-buttons for business ethics: the sins of short-term financial strategies, and the need  for more attention to long-term results, sustainability, transparency, respect for the diversity of stakeholders’ values (not just stockholders’ wealth), “social capital”, and the moral value of investments.  This has all been said before, and with greater depth of analysis.   But it would be unfair to criticize the pope for not having pursued these themes with more intellectual rigor.  He has a bigger goal in mind-namely, to offer a theological approach to business ethics in the era of globalization.

 This he does with cogent insight into the idea of human dignity as the basis for any discussion of economic development.  Since economic development exists for the sake of human beings, we must ask of any economic theory, what vision of human development does it provide? This is the foundational question for economic ethics.  Biblically speaking, human dignity is determined by the mystery of relationship with God.  To arrive at a coherent description of what makes humans human-that is to say, what ascribes value to human life-requires an understanding of the human person as being created for, and existing within, relationship with God.  This requires a doctrine of the whole person, the integrated self, as existing in relationship with God.  Non-theological theories (e.g. secular economic theories) lack the basis for establishing this transcendent significance of human dignity.  Benedict identifies transcendence at the very core of what it means to be human, and thus the ultimate vocation for all persons is to live in congruence (and “solidarity”) with the God-given transcendence that defines human dignity.  Responsibility to this vision is thus the ultimate vocation for all persons:

 [I]ntegral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God[3]

 And because “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension”, the dimension of eternal life becomes the decisive event for valuation of human life and calling (vocation).[4] If life held no transcendent value, then ethics could be reduced to a mere metaphysical structure grounded in materialism and/or determinism.

 But human worth transcends death, precisely and only because human life transcends death.  Human dignity pertains to the event of life, and the way in which a life is lived, as can be judged by the impact we have upon other lives.  The significance of eternal life for ethics is that it places eternal value in human persons-real persons in real circumstances, not abstract or idealized persons.   Lives are not to be relativized therefore, in comparison with other values, such as moral absolutes and conceptual ethical principles.  Of course, Dostoyevsky has said all this before and much better, in his portrayal of Ivan’s moral despair in The Brothers Karamazov: “if there is no resurrection, then everything is lawful.”

 In the resurrection therefore is to be found the ultimate justification of belief in human dignity.  This dignity pertains not to any natural endowment of homo sapiens,  nor to any moral “goodness” which we possess within our own self-reliant capacity to judge moral truths, or to will ourselves to be good, but rather, the ultimate source of human dignity is to be found in active, living relationship with the living God.  Karl Barth also identifies this transcendent source of human dignity, as being the natural endowment granted to all people, regardless of their faith or moral aptitude-

 But just because God is human in this sense, it is actually due to man and may not be denied him through any pessimistic judgment, whatever its basis. On the basis of the eternal will of God we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him on this assumption.[5]

I think Jüngel gets it right when he says that this makes Barth the champion of an even greater, more transcendent vision of human dignity as a “natural” endowment, than any version of traditional natural theology could possibly conceive.

 In this, Barth has in some measure christologically surpassed the conception of all natural theology.  One can hardly any longer make the charge Barth’s rejection of any natural theology withheld from humanity the significance which is its due.[6]

 The strength of Benedict’s encyclical derives from his effort to apply a “transcendent vision of the person” to business ethics.  We’ll take a look at some of the implications of this proposition in our next posts…

[1] Caritas in Veritate, 9 (emphasis added).

[2]  Benedict claims that this social doctrine promotes “development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value”, 9.   As representative of church doctrine on this score, Benedict draws extensively upon his predecessors’ encyclical letters, especially: Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, and several writings from John Paul II.

[3] Caritas in Veritate, 11.

[4] Caritas in Veritate, 11.

[5] Barth, The Humanity of God, 50.

[6] Eberhard Jungel, God’s Being Is in Becoming, 97.

A ‘Saving Interruption’

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A ‘Saving Interruption’: Moral Knowledge and Participation in Christ 

The heavens are telling the glory of God;       and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.       [Ps 19:1]

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made…          [Rom. 1:20]


Lake Louse, Alberta

Lake Louse, Alberta

What can we learn about the moral order through the power of natural reason?  Is there moral content in nature?  These questions have perennially challenged the doctrine of theological ethics.  The challenge lies in the inescapable tension between the school of lex naturae, and the school of prayer.  I might express this same tension in other words, as tension between an ostensibly ontological concept of moral order, and the experiential reality of participation in Christ. 

  I presented a paper on this topic this week at the Scottish Universities Theology Conference here in St Andrews.  If you would like to read the paper (7 pages) you can download it from this link: saving-interruption paper

 Synopsis: Toward a “more natural” theology

 As an entrée to creative wrestling with this tension, I should like to explore briefly Eberhard Jüngel’s notion of a “more natural” theology.  In his commentary on the Barmen Declaration Jüngel recognizes the need for the Church in every age to:

 …outline a more natural theology than so-called natural theology: a natural theology which knows Jesus Christ as the one who has reconciled both human beings and the world (2 Cor 5:19).[1]

 I shall explore briefly the epistemic significance of Jüngel’s approach, drawing particular attention to ‘participation in Christ’ as the epistemic event in which moral knowledge occurs, and then to interpret Jüngel’s statement that truth is to be understood christologically as an event of a “saving interruption.”[2]  Following Jüngel’s lead then, the task I am assigning for these next few pages is to look at natural theology through a christological lens, and consider what implications may ensue for the doctrine of moral knowledge.

 The first question that comes to mind is: Can there really be a “christological natural theology”?  Does this not seem a contradiction in terms?  Are “christological” and “natural” mutually exclusive modifiers for theology?  Not necessarily.  In view of Christ as the one in whom, through whom, and for whom all natural things are created [Col. 1:15ff], we might find these to be eminently compatible adjectives. Even the great opponent of natural theology, Karl Barth admits that

  …we are certainly not always wrong, if we believe we hear a song of praise to God in the existence also of Sirius and the rock crystal, of the violet and the boa-constrictor.[3]

 Thus, while Barth may reject the premise of traditional natural theology, he does not reject the questions it asks regarding what can and cannot be discerned and known through natural capacities of human comprehension.[4]  Indeed, he even goes so far as to consider what a “Christian” natural theology might entail, though he does not develop this concept in depth, preferring instead to apply his energy to polemics against the pseudo-theology that he saw lurking in the motivations of traditional natural theology.[5]

 Eberhard Jüngel has blazed a helpful path in this direction of seeking a christological natural theology.  Picking up where Barth seems to have left off, Jüngel presses on in pursuit of “a new approach to solving the old problem of natural theology.”[6] Jüngel rightly frames the problem in christological terms, asking how the doctrine extra Christum nulla salus (outside Christ there is no salvation)[7] can be reconciled with natural theology.  In other words, how can it be that “this exclusive truth claim becomes an inclusive granting of a truth that concerns every human being as such”?[8]

 Jüngel sets the cornerstone for construction of his christocentric natural theology upon Luther’s statement that “justification by faith is the theological definition of the human person”.[9]  In this paper I show how this christocentric basis for natural theology leads to the understanding of truth as a ‘saving interruptoin’ (in Jungel’s phrase). 

 Here is the significance for theological ethics–      Moral knowledge is saving knowledge.  It interrupts.  Something happens.  It is not merely an interruption of our attempt to explain morality in ontological categories; but rather, it is a participation in the event which brings understanding to morality.  It is thus a “saving interruption”, not only in the sense that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” [Rom. 10:13]; but also in the sense that it saves our understanding by interrupting the premises by which we might otherwise explain things. 

 [1] Jüngel, Barmen; Kirche Zwishen Versuchung und Gnade, E.T. Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration, trans. by D. Bruce Hamill and Alan J. Torrance (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1992), p. 26.

[2] Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming: the Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth. A Paraphrase, trans. by John Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 138.

[3] Barth, Knowledge of God, 41.

[4] “But the problem [of natural theology] itself we cannot reject. If God is knowable, then it is necessary also to ask how far He is knowable to man”, CD II/1, 129.  Cf. Barth’s remarks on the Barmen Declaration, CD II/1, 178.

[5] CD II/1, 94.  Barth goes on to diagnose the concept of a “Christian” natural theology as problematic due to the dilemma of desiring to “really represent and affirm the standpoint of faith” and at the same time to arrive at knowability of God through the “unbelief” which he attributes to traditional statements of natural theology.

[6] E. Jüngel, “Extra Christum Nulla Salus-a Principle of Natural Theology?” (1989) p. 174. Jüngel takes his cue from “the problem which [Karl] Rahner indicates by speaking of anonymous Christians”, 173-4.   We need not analyze Jüngel’s interpretation of Rahner’s statements here; the essential point for our study is that Jüngel’s response to Rahner addresses precisely the same issue of the epistemic role of faith which concerns our thesis.

[7] Cf. Acts 4:12; John 14:6.

[8] Jüngel, Extra Christum., 175-6.  The easy answer of course is to insist that there are two distinctly types of knowledge-salvific vs. non-salvific-and that the Gospel belongs to the former, while ethics and natural knowledge of the moral order belong to the latter category.  This is, of course, a non-solution, in light of the inseparability of ethics and dogmatics, which is a point we need not rehearse here.

[9] M. Luther, The Disputation Concerning Man, thesis 32, LW 34, p. 139, quoted by Jüngel, Extra Christum, 180.

Humus Sapiens, Part IV

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Ascension Sunday, 2009

What gives meaning? Order.

What gives order? Direction.

What gives direction? Purpose.

What gives purpose?  Wrong Question.

     Who gives purpose.


In our previous essay, we looked at the human capacity to discern order.  Order is in the eye of the beholder, however.  Two people can look at the same stars and see different orders.  One might see the outline of a bear in a constellation.  Another might see a big dipper.  Similarly one person might see a star as a massive, photon-spewing ball of atomic nuclei held together by gravitational force.  Another might see that same massive photon-spewing ball within the larger context of a universe created by the Living God.  The order is not within the arrangement of particles themselves, but rather the order is in the meaning discerned by the observer.

This is why we say that religion gives meaning because it explains the world as more than a chance happening, a collision of atomic particles without purpose.  There is direction to it.  There is purpose.  And the purpose lies outside the object.  Meaning will always transcend the particles and the events of their interactions.  Meaning requires a greater context in which to discern purpose.  That is the realm of religion-the transcendent realm, the realm beyond the meaningless collision of particles. 

This is the realm in which events have meaning because they are contingent upon a purpose which lends order to what would otherwise be purposeless and random.  And as we peel the next layer of the onion, and seek the source of purpose, we ask where purpose comes from.  Purpose comes from persons.  A persons lives, creates and designs with intent.  If purpose could exist in an impersonal something, a ‘what’, then that ‘what’ would not transcend itself.  It would be without intent or the capacity to design & create.  That’s why “what gives purpose?” is the wrong question.  The right question is “Who?”

That ‘who’ is either me, or us, or God, or all three.  If it’s just you and me, and if we are part of the ‘what’ of creation-random fluctuations in space-time-then that’s not much of a purpose.  Here we see why there is a great divide between theological and non-theological interpretation of the orders within creation.  Theological interpretation can and must discern order in creation, precisely because the creation exists within the context of the living God.  Indeed, this theological interpretation looks like a closed circle of thought to those who stand outside it, looking in. But it is not a closed-minded circle of knowledge.  To the contrary, it is the only circle which can logically and rationally claim to possess knowledge of the meaning of it all, even though that meaning remains shrouded in mystery and only partially discernable.  To stand outside the theological circle, looking in, is not merely a stance which finds no hope in theology.  Even worse, it is to adopt a stance that finds no hope in any discernable purpose, from any source.  Purpose is to be found in the ‘who?’ not the ‘what?’ of creation, and this is the realm of the theological circle-to wrestle with the ‘who?’ question.

Karl Barth reminds us of this distinction which belongs to the theological circle of knowledge-

The distinction between this order and what is customarily called “order of creation” elsewhere is clear and irreconcilable. To be aware of this order we do not leave the closed circle of theological knowledge. We do not in some way read off this order where we just think we find it. We do not understand it at all as an order which can be discovered by us, but as one which has itself sought us out in the grace of God in Jesus Christ revealed in His Word, disclosing itself to us as such where we for our part could neither perceive nor find it. We not merely suppose it; we see and know it. We do so in the secret of revelation and faith, but in this way really and authoritatively.[1]

When the meaning of creation is revealed to us, we see and know.               When our eyes see that which by grace is revealed by the one who beholds us,  then we have a reason to say, “seeing is believing.”

[1] Barth, Church Dogmatics  III/4, 45.

Further reflecting on the difference between the “corridors of faith” depicted by William James and C. S. Lewis (see my “Hall Pass”, 17 September 2008), I wonder what life would be like in the “rooms” leading off the halls of James’s and Lewis’s imaginations. What would be their distinctive marks of character?  Would I enjoy living there?  Or would they be “nice places to visit, but not to live?”

At first glance, we notice that both James and Lewis acknowledge wide variation in the rooms leading off their corridors.  As James said, it matters not what takes place in the rooms, whether they be places for atheism or prayer or chemistry or metaphysics.  And Lewis’s hall similarly leads into very different sorts of rooms, where language, aesthetics, norms and customs vary widely.  Nonetheless, the rooms of each corridor do share common traits, and we must look to what characteristics they hold in common if we are to understand the significance of either James’s mere ‘pragmatism’ or Lewis’s mere Christianity. We must peer into the rooms and discern their quality of life, for it is in the rooms that life is lived; it is in the rooms that the fruit of our labors is produced and harvested.

 Perhaps the most obvious difference between James’s and Lewis’s depictions is that James’s rooms are private rooms, peopled by individuals pursuing their independent sciences, philosophies and worldviews.  Lewis’s rooms, however, house communities of people sharing life.

James explicitly describes his “rooms” of pragmatism in terms of individual pursuits-“In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties…”, and so on.  And this makes perfect sense, given that the individual pursuits matter not.  Indeed one person’s pragmatic pursuits and beliefs must not hold sway over any other person’s pursuits or beliefs, for that would open the door to dogma and dogmatic teaching.  James’s corridor of pragmatism can thus lead to any pursuit, any worldview, so long as it “works”, so long as it suits the individual pursuing it.  James’s corridor thus is perfectly suited to the postmodern mantra of “whatever works for you.” Relativism rules, because relativism is the antidote to noxious dogma. In this regard James truly was ahead of his time, for his “Whatever!” trumps “credo.”

 Lewis, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that life takes place in community.  The “rooms” in his metaphor are all communities of faith. There is no room for solitary confinement.  Much as people can and do disagree in his rooms, even on important matters of faith and dogma, people will also be held accountable to their community and to their shared faith, and even in an important sense people in each room are accountable to the others in all the other rooms.

Herein lies a sharp challenge for faith: How can a faith community tolerate internal disagreements over dogma, let alone find a way to get along with the secular community around them?  Such disagreements are decidedly impractical, are they not?  The Christian life therefore stands as antithesis to pragmatism.  It is patently impractical, non-pragmatic, and even non-conformist, by the standards of James’s ‘mere pragmatism.’[1]  No wonder James held such antipathy toward Christianity! Yet, this will be a defining mark of Christian faith, if Christianity is true-communities of faith will live out their beliefs by honoring God above all, even above dogma.  And they will find a way to do it that invites others in to share their fellowship; in Lewis’s metaphor, people will perennially invite outsiders into their particular “rooms” of community and faith.

The Christian life therefore presents the world with something strange-a community of belief that holds something as more important than, shall we say, more sacred even, than their own ability to articulate a shared dogma.   This will be the defining mark of Christian faith, over and against pragmatism, and it can only be expressed in the form of witness among a worshiping community.  Barth rightly explains why Christian belief is inseparable from life lived as a witness to belief-

Because the election of Jesus Christ is the truth, then the difference of those who are chosen in Him (their calling) is the witness to the truth besides which there is no other. There and there alone the truth is testified-there and there alone it finds expression…[2]

And what will this witness look like?  How will this nonconformist, zealous Christian life appear to others who are both inside and outside the faith community?  Strange?  Yes, but strangely human:

It is thus most striking that he [a Christian] presents himself to other men of the world as a nonconformist, as one who is zealous for God’s honor, as a witness to what he, who is also a man of the world, has to advocate to others of his kind.  He does this by offering to them the image of a strangely human person. [3]



[1] Karl Barth elaborates on this impractical and non-conformist character in The Christian Life: “Hence he can have not practical use for enterprises that still compete with the knowledge of God in the world”, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 203.

[2] Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church Dogmatics, II/2 (345).

[3] Barth, The Christian Life, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 204.