Sermon on the Mount (  I’ve just returned from presenting papers at two conferences during the past week, in Rome and Cambridge.  From the Vatican to Westminster College, this trip surveyed Christian faith from multiple vantage points of culture and tradition, traversing the intertwining paths of metaphysics and morality.  The Rome conference, The Grandeur of Reason (1-4 September), displayed the courage which Pope Benedict XVI calls the academy to embody:

The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.[1]

This conference served up the whole smorgasbord of metaphysics, from Plato, to Augustine, to Hegel, to Kierkegaard, to now and back again, in four days of papers, often running concurrently in multiple sessions, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

The Society for the Study of Christian Ethics (SSCE) conference followed immediately (5-7 September) in Cambridge, discussing The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Ethics.  The papers here faced into the mysterious challenge of Jesus’ teaching to “Judge not!” [Matthew 7:1] in matters of ethics, all the while living in a world which brings the daily burden of judging for ourselves [cf. Matthew 5:25; Luke 12:57].

In his plenary address Oliver O’Donovan shed light on the central place of the Lord’s “Our Father” prayer in the Sermon on the Mount.  Christian ethics are inseparable from prayer.  Apart from prayer our judgments will be distorted and even incapacitated by the “log in our own eye” [Matthew 7:3]. As O’Donovan has previously taught, Jesus’ question, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” might better be translated, “judge of yourselves”.[2]  This directs our attention back to consider our need to be healed of our own distorted vision and unloving judgments.  Thus the authority and rightness of Christian ethical judgments will rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in our self-examination.  Christian ethics emerges from “hopeful attention to the inner dialogue with God” which takes place in response to “the evangelical summons to be judge of ourselves.”[3]

These back-to-back conferences traveled from metaphysics to morality and back again, traversing the well-trodden paths of restless human thought. If there is any resting point along these circuitous paths, it lies in the center, with the heart of prayer which Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  Prayer-that inner dialog with the Holy Spirit-preserves and chastens our moral deliberations and protects us from investing our worship in a metaphysical representation of God, rather than in God himself. Even the famous skeptic William James warned of the monster that lurked in the creation of a metaphysical god:

So much for the metaphysical attributes of God!  From the point of view of practical religion, the metaphysical monster which they offer to our worship is an absolutely worthless invention of the scholarly mind.[4]

I believe it was Bonhoeffer who counseled us in this regard, and told us how to stay on the paths of metaphysics and morality which lead to God, when he said:

Retreat from the ontic along the lines of the ontological is inadmissible for Christian life.

[1] Address to the University of Regensburg (“Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, 12 September 2006).[2] O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 293.

[3] Ibid., p. 309, 312.

[4] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Mentor Book, 1958) p., 371.  I am indebted to Stanley Hauerwas for calling attention to this quote in With the Grain of the Universe (London: SCM, 2002), p. 75.


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