Archive for the ‘Humility’ Category

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

January 18, 2018

This is the working draft of a paper I am preparing for a local Earth Day conference, but see no reason to wait until then to start a conversation.



Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology



Abstract:    In this paper I shall discuss the concept of humility, as discussed by Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is the original and deadly sin, from which all others derive; humility is the cardinal virtue of not thinking more of oneself than is the truth. Through Kierkegaard and Allen, this theological virtue becomes an epistemological virtue as well, providing a basis for ways to think about the environment beyond the man/property/wilderness framework often found in fundamentalist theologies and libertarian economic ethics. Finally, I shall use the concept of humility to analyze and critique the environmental pronouncements and policies of my own religious tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA).



The 18th century philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) once said that the fundamental mistake of modern theologies was their tendency to take over the dominant philosophies of their day, and try to talk about God based on those constraints. The problem in Hamman’s eyes was that these philosophies began from a more or less atheist starting point; building on this flawed foundation, any theological edifice was bound to be unstable. At the risk of anachronism, I would claim that much of 20th century Protestant American Fundamentalism falls into this trap. The philosophical foundation for writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell is a libertarian political philosophy rooted originally in John Locke. Locke’s philosophy, particularly as laid out in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, profoundly shaped the thinking and the direction of the American independence movement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the grandfather of the American Revolution. His thinking influences our culture still in ways most of us scarcely realize, and I am grateful for most of it. But when it comes to environmental thinking, his thought is unhelpful and, in its current incarnations, downright dangerous. I want here to briefly survey how Locke’s views on property and nature affect much American thought, including Fundamentalist theology. Next, I want to go back to the Augustinian tradition, and look at how the Augustinian concepts of pride and humility can give us a new starting point for discussing our relationship with nature. In particular, I will be discussing the book Finding Our Father, written by one of my favorite professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen. I will be writing this primarily as an exercise in or examination of Christian theology, but I hope the treatment will be interesting and helpful for others as well.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke lays out some very radical political theories. Having argued in the first treatise against the divine right of kings, in the second he argues that political power is in fact the expression of the will of the majority of the people. A nation, he says, is a group of people who have agreed to live together and work together to solve their disagreements peacefully and to protect each others’ life, liberty and property. They achieve this by creating a government which therefore ought to include representatives chosen by the people to make decisions on behalf of the rest, and who are subject to replacement by popular vote. In an era where the people were often treated as property of the monarch as much as the land they farmed was, the idea that the king, courts and Parliament existed to serve the people and carry out their will was quite literally revolutionary: it was born in response to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and it led to the American Revolution a generation later. Instead of considering individuals first as subjects ruled by others, Locke said each was essentially the ruler of himself or herself. No rational being owned another; rather, each owns his or her own body. Nature, by contrast, is not consciously rational, so natural resources such as water, fruit trees in the forest and so on are unowned, or common property. But if some person adds his or her own effort to the natural object, say by gathering the apples from the tree into a basket, then that formerly unowned resource is not a mixture of the natural and the efforts of some person’s body, and thus becomes by extension that person’s private property. Whenever a human shapes or changes nature, that human adds a little of his or her own body to it, and it becomes private property.

Locke does have some constraints on this natural acquisition. Importantly, he said that no one has a right to more of anything than he or she can use before it spoils. It would be irrational, a violation of the law of Reason which rules even in nature, for one person to gather all the food and hoard it until it spoils while others starve. But essentially, Locke treats the natural world as having worth only as it affects humans. People turn nature into property, and have an inalienable right to do so. Locke’s Second Treatise had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers, and his philosophy both explicitly and covertly influenced our culture and still does. Explicitly, it shaped the Declaration of Independence, and Locke’s idea for a tripartite government is the foundation of our Constitution’s division into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Less explicitly, his views of property were very congenial to colonial and frontier farmers/plantation owners, justifying their wholesale conversion of wilderness to private farmland. Locke basically assumed that Nature was inexhaustible, an idea that was questionable on the British island but which seemed obviously true to the Englishmen and later Americans looking west towards apparently limitless horizons. And even today, this view of Nature is powerful, particularly in the business community: nature is raw material, and essentially limitless, unless pesky regulations get in the way.

Locke often used religious language in his political writing, referring to the law of Nature, Reason and the will of God more or less interchangeably. This made it easy for later American religious conservatives to take over his philosophy and incorporate it more or less unaltered into such theologies as Christian Reconstructionism. This represents a major and important misunderstanding of Locke’s thought, one that in turn delegitimizes this entire theological project. In his primary theological work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argues that the true heart of Christianity is a moral monotheism. He has no real use for miracle stories, or the idea that one guy could die for the sins of others; his religion and thus his God is philosophical, ethical, and like the title says, reasonable. But at least since Rousas Rushdoony and continuing through Falwell and others, as well as countless Evangelical Protestant preachers, this idea that humans have a “divine” right to treat nature as an inexhaustible source of human wealth has been treated as an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not hinder private property. For Locke, saying this was divine law was the same as saying it is reason’s law; thus, we can use reason to interpret it. For some conservative Christians, the “law of God” is more like the absolute eternal pronouncement of the Divine Lawgiver, so far beyond all human reason that even to hint that we might be harming the Earth is literally said to be rebellion against the LORD. Not only is Nature treated as an unlimited resource with value only as human property, but to say otherwise is, in some theological circles, literally a sin. And while this attitude is not the majority opinion of religious people, it has an outsized influence on American politics through the influence of well-financed lobbyists and media organizations supporting and supported by religious celebrities and mega-congregations.   Returning to Hamann’s observation, rather than start with a religious standpoint, derive their ecological theology from that and then dialog with American culture, a large swath of American fundamentalism adopted a humanistic attitude towards nature derived from Locke’s views on property as these were expressed through American culture and particularly American business culture; then, tacking on a fundamentalist Divine Commander to the rationalist foundation, they derived a theological approach to Nature that severely limits what religion can say to humans that they are not already happy to say to themselves. There can be no prophetic voice when the theology is merely an echo of the interests of economic and political powers.

Notes on Augustine’s Of Faith and the Creed

March 3, 2016

Notes on Augustine’s Of Faith and the Creed


This is an exposition on the Nicene Creed, delivered by Augustine to the bishops assembled for the Council of Hippo-Regius in 393, when he himself was only a presbyter. For my purposes, the most important section is Chapter 4, discussing the Incarnation. Christ “emptied himself,” taking the form of a servant, a lowly human being, with no visible signs or powers of the godhead. In Section 6 he discusses how Christ’s humility gives us the pattern we should imitate, and how through humility we return to God and overcome the separation originally caused by Adam’s pride. In Section 8 Augustine discusses how God showed such humility that God came down to our level, becoming as one of us, in order that we might be returned to fellowship with God.   He was born male, but had a female mother, so Christ “honored both sexes” and showed that both are saved. Chapter 5, section 11 goes further to discuss how Christ humbled himself not just in the Incarnation but also by submitting to suffering and death, even the shameful death of crucifixion.  From Chapter 4, section 6:

For the beginning of His ways is the Head of the Church, which is Christ endued with human nature (homine indutus), by whom it was purposed that there should be given to us a pattern of living, that is, a sure way by which we might reach God. For by no other path was it possible for us to return but by humility, who fell by pride, according as it was said to our first creation, Taste, and you shall be as gods. Of this humility, therefore, that is to say, of the way by which it was needful for us to return, our Restorer Himself has deemed it meet to exhibit an example in His own person, who thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant; in order that He might be created Man in the beginning of His ways, the Word by whom all things were made.




Notes on “Jesus and the Cardinal Virtues”

March 3, 2016

Cochran, Elizabeth Andrew.  “Jesus and the Cardinal Virtues:  a Response to Monika Hellwig.”  Theology Today Volume 65 (2008), pp.  81-94

  1. Looks at the idea that Christians should explore how a consideration of the cardinal virtues can help the church to understand and articulate its public witness.”
  2. If the virtues are, as Aristotle says, rooted in an understanding of human nature independent of faith, this would give the church a natural common ground with moral thinkers outside the Christian faith.
  3. By contrast, Augustine is committed to the idea that we only understand the virtues by seeing them expressed in Christ.
  4. God is the Good, so any goodness must approximate God
  5. The virtues are those character traits that help us to lead a more faithful life, since a life spent in imitation of God is a “good life.”
  6. We know what God is like by looking at Christ, so a life lived in imitation of Christ is a life spent in pursuit of the good. We have no knowledge of what God is like, and thus no idea of how to live, apart from this revelation.
  7. So to fulfill our human nature, we cannot simply look at human nature from various angles and conclude that the virtues are those habits that fulfill our human needs; our knowledge gathered in this Aristotelian manner would be only an examination of fallen human nature by corrupted human reason. Instead, we must look to Christ; living the virtues as revealed in his life will fulfill our own lives.
  8. Aristotle is committed to the idea that the virtues are interconnected, but not simply one. Augustine believes the virtues are ultimately one thing, and thus vice is ultimately one thing.
  9. Humility is seen in God’s Incarnation; God humbled Himself in becoming a human being for our sakes.
  10. Humility is seen in the life of Jesus as a humble person who submits entirely to God

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

February 29, 2016

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13



This is relevant to my paper because I am researching Augustine and Kierkegaard on humility. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, argues that Kierkegaard did not promote any particular values or virtues, except a vacuous “sincerity” of commitment to totally arbitrary values chosen by the individual. In this, it provides an important step in his historical argument that the virtue tradition has collapsed, and with it all notion of good or evil, and that moral language cannot be salvaged except by adopting MacIntyre’s own communitarian version of secular Thomistic virtue ethics. But in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre offers a more detailed description of the Augustinian tradition, including a passing mention of Kierkegaard. Understanding the Augustinian tradition, and possibly Kierkegaard’s place in it, has several important possible consequences. First, if Kierkegaard is indeed part of the Augustinian tradition, that means MacIntyre’s depiction of the history of liberalism’s breakdown is seriously weakened. This in turn undermines his insistence that his philosophy is the only alternative. Furthermore, if Kierkegaard is a modern mediator of the Augustinian virtue tradition, that means that the 20th century successors to Kierkegaard, particularly the dialectical theologians, may offer a valid alternative for the postmodern world as well.

The scholars we have seen have pointed out the importance of humility in Augustine’s personal life. In the Confessions and in his sermons we repeatedly see him call on God for guidance and renewal, pointing to both a sense of personal humility and the importance of humility as a hermeneutical tool. This is reinforced when we see Augustine’s repeated references to the limits of human reason, including his own, and reason’s inadequacy to fully comprehend the vast treasury of God’s wisdom and truth. But the essence of the Augustinian tradition is that humility is not just a useful virtue, but the cardinal virtue; and pride is the original sin. Adam and Eve sinned because the serpent’s promise that “you will be as gods, knowing good and evil” was so flattering to their pride. As Augustine says, they wanted to stand on their own instead of relying on God. They wished, he says, to be “self-pleasers.” The irony, he argues is that as created beings only, they could only be “like gods” by participating in God, using similar language to how Plato describes a merely earthy triangle as having its triangular nature by participating in the Form of Triangle, or a good act or good person as participating in the Form of The Good. By turning away from God in pride and in a desire to be like self-sufficient gods, they became less godlike and fell away from God; had they remained humble and turned towards God they would have been more like God, and as much gods as their created nature was capable of being.

To use terms in keeping with MacIntyre’s description of a moral tradition, the “fulfillment” that the Augustinian tradition aims at is oneness with God. This is so because, in its understanding, God is Being, to be close to God is to exist fully and to turn away from God is to exist less. The act of will in turning one’s heart and one’s attention away from God makes the individual exist less, to have less being; but to exist at all is still to participate in God to some extent. Therefore, the proud person who turns away from God becomes a lower grade of being, less fulfilled, less “god-like,” but does not completely cease to exist. To be completely fulfilled (or “happy” in the sense of that first great moral tradition, Aristotelianism) one must be humble and turn to God, to “participate in” God (in Augustine’s words) or to be “grounded in” God (to use the metaphor of Tillich, a more modern and liberal successor). When thus grounded in or participating in God, one is more good and more fulfilled. This means that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.” It also means that God will make the tree good, and then the fruits will be good; when the humble person turns to God, that person’s will becomes more inclined to do good. Thus humility is the cardinal virtue, just as pride is the mortal sin from which all other sins flow.

Possible links Kierkegaard:

First, as discussed in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, the near-simultaneous release of the Fragments, the Concept of Anxiety and the upbuilding discourse discussing Adam’s Fall gives a picture of how sin leads to the desire of the individual to control his or her world out of a feeling of anxiety, how these efforts lead only to greater anxiety and to the complete bondage of the will, and how only the appearance of God in our existence in the person of Jesus can give us a way out of that anxiety so we can begin to turn back towards God.

Second, Hamann’s empiricist epistemology is based on his understanding of the revelation of Christ. The world gives itself, reveals itself to the senses, just as God reveals Himself to us through Christ. Truth must give itself, and the individual can only receive this truth if he or she is humble enough to accept it. By contrast, Hamann claims, the Enlightenment is a time when human pride led to attempts such as Descartes’ to found human knowledge on the efforts of human reason, which led only to greater confusion and disagreement; which is why Hamann saw this period as more of an “Endarkenment.” Kierkegaard shares Hamann’s empiricist epistemology about the world, together with his Augustinian/Lutheran metaphysical beliefs about God as Creator who reveals Himself in Christ.

Humility is necessary to understanding not only God, but also this world. First, without humility, we are tempted to fall into rationalism or other attempts to gain knowledge that is not revealed to us through our senses or to seek more certainty than the nature of our existence allows. Hume’s mistake (from Hamann’s perspective) is also a sort of pride, though different from Rationalism’s. Hume’s mitigated skepticism is too proud to risk error, and thus holds back from making any commitments. However, Hamann argues, to refuse to believe the truth is just as bad as believing an error: both are mistakes. Rationalism believes too much and tries to go beyond the world’s self-disclosure; Hume believes too little and refuses to accept the fullness of the world’s self-disclosure. Humility accepts the need for revelation while also recognizing that one’s own imperfect and limited nature means that one will never have a full and perfect revelation and will in fact sometimes make mistakes; but that is the price one pays for being open to the truth.

Notes on “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.”

January 31, 2016

Fitzgerald, Allan. “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.” Religions 2015, v. 6; pp. 204-210.


The author says this article grew out of his experiences teaching Augustine. Generally, the classes tend to center around “issues” such as whether unbaptized infants go to Hell or Augustine’s theory of predestination. Dr. Fitzgerald asserts that this is the wrong approach, because it misses understanding Augustine himself or his approach. When challenged about infants, his response was to rely on apostolic authority and to say, in effect, “I don’t understand this, but I am a mere human and no apostle. It is not my place to argue with God or to claim to understand everything; the riches of God exceed all human understanding. Even if it seems absurd to us, if Scripture says that salvation comes to those who are baptized in the name of Jesus and only to those, we cannot argue. If God so wills it, it makes sense to God even if it is beyond our comprehension.”

Similarly, his sermons contain claims like “I did not study this today, so that now I could be aided by your prayers and together God will reveal the truth to us.” In both cases, Augustine asserts his own limitations and denies any personal authority to pronounce dogma; it is all to the left to God to teach. He as the preacher is just as reliant on the Holy Spirit as are the laypeople listening to his sermon.

Critics have claimed that

  1. These examples, particularly relying on apostolic authority rather than trying to argue and prove his views, shows a lack of intellectual rigor.
  2. Some of this, particularly the sermons, may be just rhetorical ploys to draw the audience in and make them co-opt the message.

Fitzgerald argues that Augustine’s protestations of ignorance are neither feigned modesty nor intellectual laziness. Rather, Augustine is asserting that there is truth, seeking truth is necessary and beneficial, but there are limits to human understanding and that some important things are simply beyond us. In those cases, Augustine names the mystery, points out what it is and the general borders where the truth must lie, but by claiming it is a mystery asserts both that there is something there and that it is not within our grasp.

In Fitzgerald’s view, truth is something of a horizon for Augustine. We strive towards it, but we can never reach it. But that does not mean we abandon the quest, either. Augustine could not help but ask these questions, and he thought it was a human need to want and to strive for these answers. Doing so is a spiritual exercise as well as intellectual growth. And it is an exercise in humility. Humility recognizes one’s limits and dependence on other powers than oneself.

Relativism says there is no truth. This was intended to promote humility; the “dictatorship of relativism” came about as intellectuals told others that any truth claim was innately oppressive and that everyone has a right to his or her own “truth.” But in fact, relativism promotes arrogance. The rise of climate deniers, voodoo economics, anti-vaxxers and so on reflects a general trend in postmodern America, and indeed in postmodern society in general: the assertion of unfounded beliefs as “truth” even when those beliefs are contradicted by overwhelming evidence and ironclad logic. If indeed there is no “truth,” then my belief that the Freemasons manipulate the weather with chemtrails is just as valid as your belief that there is a general trend of climate warming beginning with the Industrial Revolution due to the burning of fossil fuels. I am free to believe and act on my beliefs, even if it means burning tires to stave off the Ice Age the Freemasons are trying to trigger.

By contrast, humility says there is a truth, and that we must accept responsibility for seeking it, and that we must submit to it. It also says that I admit I might be wrong, and you (if you have a realistic humility) admit the same. Therefore I have to listen to you and agree to test our views by every available means. We argue and debate.

Religiously, we see this humility in Augustine’s motto “I believe in order that I may understand.” God reveals truth; we can try to understand it as best we are able, but we don’t create it.

I see a parallel between this and Kant’s view of the transcendental ideas. It is useful, for example, to assume the existence of God as a way to tie all our experience together; such a belief can further investigation into phenomenal reality. If we assume that reality is simply absurd, we will give up sooner; having faith that there is a first cause or ultimate unity will cause us to push the boundaries of knowledge further and to discover connections we never would have otherwise. Still, Kant says, ultimately we cannot prove the transcendental ideas to be either true or false. Pushing for these truths may lead us somewhere and help us to grow, but ultimately these ideas are beyond our grasp.

Methodologically, Augustine invites his readers or hearers to join in the search for truth, rather than to simply passively receive. Humility denies authority. Augustine may feel his study and prayers have revealed some part of the truth and that he needs to share that, but he also places himself in the same place as the hearer of the sermon, relying on prayer to reveal the truth.

As Fitzgerald presents it, there are parallels to Socratic method here; the teacher does not claim to be the “wise one” but only to love the Truth, to be a fellow traveler, a co-disciple (condiscipuli). I am struck by how similar this is to Kierkegaard as well. In his discourses he renounces authority, and asks his hearer “does it not seem so to you as well?” His pseudonyms are entirely aimed at placing the reader at a point where he or she makes the discovery and the decision. But all of this humility does not mean Kierkegaard denies there is truth, or that it does not matter what truth one accepts. Just the opposite: it is the truth that humbles, and the esthete (who does not accept the existence of good/evil or true/false, but leaves everything to will) who is the willful relativist tending ultimately towards solipsism and derangement.


Notes on “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.”

January 24, 2016

Krom, Michael P. “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.Journal of Religious Ethics, 35.3:458-77.


This essay examines the argument by Paul Weithman in “Toward an Augustinian Liberalism” that modern liberal political theory, with its beginnings in Thomas Hobbes, should see itself as a development of Augustinian political thought. For Hobbes, pride is the source of social chaos, in that individuals compete for superiority and domination. The only peace is found when every citizen admits that he is equal to every other, and that all owe obedience to the sovereign/State that protects them all and enforces peace. Augustine, too, regards pride as the original sin, and humility is the cardinal virtue; therefore, we should be able to construct an Augustinian liberalism that can balance the need for humility with the need for legitimate exercise of control by society. Krom analyzes Aristotle’s “magnanimous man” as the epitome of virtue in contrast to Augustine’s notion of humility. The magnanimous one has justified pride, being neither vain nor self-effacing; he knows he is morally superior and superior in other ways, and in fact only acts in ways that will support and increase the honor he is due. Likewise, he is ashamed to accept favors or ask for help, since his superiority implies independence and the ability to sustain himself. However, Aristotle also acknowledges that the magnanimous person, if he is to be truly happy, most have some degree of good fortune; in fact, there are many things that he cannot control. This is part of why he shuns accepting help: to do so is to admit that he cannot control all, and is in fact weak in some way.

Augustine says that this pride, which Aristotle calls a virtue, is in fact a vice. The “magnanimous” person is not in fact independent; he is a creature of God as is every other person and thing, with whatever gifts and needs that God has given. By seeking to be independent, the pagan rebels against God and is also self-deceived.

The Hobbesian understanding of “pride” is the tendency of each individual to strive for superiority against every other. Augustine sees this not as the original pride, but as an outgrowth; first the creature declares independence from the Creator, and then begins to assert control over the rest of humanity. Thus, the pride that liberalism is concerned about is not the same sort of pride as that which most bothers Augustine. We can see this further when we look at Aquinas’ attempts to rehabilitate magnanimity and reintroduce it into Augustinian ethics. St. Thomas does this by insisting that the properly magnanimous person recognizes that his (or her) gifts all come from God, and thus is proud of those gifts only as a way to give glory to the giver. To hide his or her gifts would be to hide God’s gracious power, and thus to deny neighbors the opportunity to appreciate those gifts and praise God. The magnanimous person thus can take proper pride in the gifts, but must also be humble enough not to take credit as the author of his or her own virtue.

This would again oppose the liberalism that flows from Hobbes, and sees all claims to superiority as dangerous. To liberalism, each person can claim no superiority at all, whether from God or his or her own nature; each is perfectly equal. The magnanimous person is claiming a superiority, and even at least implicitly asserting that the rest of us should honor his or her virtue; in the Hobbesian scheme this threatens the peace since social peace is based on the notion that all must bow equally to the will of the Sovereign. Krom concludes by arguing that while this shows that liberalism is not especially consistent with Augustinianism, the Augustinian tradition can coexist with any political structure that will accept the independence of the City of God. This is in contrast to Augustinians such as Reinhold Niebuhr   and Paul Ramsey, who argue that democratic liberalism is the best or perhaps only political structure that takes account of human sin and thus the only one that admits the Augustinian demand for humility.

MY PROJECT: I am looking at pride and humility in Kierkegaard and Augustine, to help explore Kierkegaard’s relationship to the Augustinian tradition, to see what this reveals or clarifies in Kierkegaard’s thought, and whether this offers any resources for us today.

Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy as a social force could relate to this analysis of pride in liberalism. The “age of reflection” denies all distinction except sheer numbers (Two Ages). What Krom presents as simply a description or fact of liberalism, Kierkegaard presents as a sickness; what Krom presents as a striving for equality, Kierkegaard calls “envy.” Although Kierkegaard was not a student of Aquinas, he did know his Aristotle; and while I am not aware of precise words to this effect, it is clear that he would have been drawn to this description of the “magnanimous” one who combines a realistic appraisal of his (or her) own gifts with the humility before God who is the giver of all, and also the one who judges all as equally sinful and equally loved. He repeatedly says, for example, that the simple man and the simple wise man get equally far, but the simple man knows, and the simple wise man knows that he knows or knows that he does not know (I think this is from the Postscript; these are notes so I’m working from memory). But in the Present Age, the simple wise man who admitted to being wise, even if he allowed that his wisdom did not amount to anything essential, would be set upon by the forces of envy. By contrast, a thousand arrogant fools would represent authority from numbers, while the one humble wise man is despised because he is not in the majority and therefore is wrong (and if he is distinguishing himself by admitting his is wise, he is seen as attacking the herd and set upon).   For this reason, the magnanimous person cannot openly admit or display his gifts; he must behave as the “secret agent” and teach only indirectly.

My primary interest, however, is not political, but epistemic, psychological and soteriological. How does pride distort our perception of reality? How does this lead to anxiety and the bondage of the will? How does faith restore us to something resembling our original state, so that we can again approach reality in humility and freedom?

Krom cites Hobbes as saying that it is pride that leads us to each strive to control others. Kierkegaard, in his upbuilding discourse discussing Adam, describes how before eating the fruit of knowledge Adam perceived God immediately—God was not separate or hidden, but completely present and immanent all around. In disobeying, Adam establishes himself as separate, and begins to understand how dangerous and unpredictable the world can be; so Adam seeks to control the world. Thus for Hobbes, we might say, pride leads to a desire to control others; but for Kierkegaard, pride goes further, and is the reason for the desire to control the world, including others. For Hobbes, the danger of this is that all the other people are trying to control each other, so you too could be killed or enslaved. For Kierkegaard, the danger is more immediate; you can’t control, and the more you try the more you realize the impossibility and thus the more anxiety. In the end, this attempt to assert freedom before God becomes completely unfree, as everything one does is dictated by one’s anxiety, and everything becomes self-defense. Kierkegaard further develops this notion pseudonymously in Concept of Anxiety, published the day after this discourse. There, the fear of the world becomes anxiety about possibility in general, since every possibility is the possibility to go wrong; and the more the individual tries to fight his or her way out of anxiety, the deeper he or she becomes ensnared. The only way out is outlined pseudonymously in the Fragments.


The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion (presentation paper)

September 18, 2011

Philosophical Scraps

Presented to the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin,


ABSTRACT:  The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion


This essay is a personal response to an article that appeared in 2007 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Five internationally known religious writers responded to the question, “What is the most dangerous idea in religion?” each offering his own nominee and some reasons for fearing that particular idea above others.  I wish to examine these opinions, and discuss:  what common themes emerge between two or more of these dangerous ideas, suggesting some common ground between the different perspectives presented in this article?  What common shortcomings do the responses share?  I seek to analyze all these ideas through the lens of my own nominee:  “The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion is My Own.”


The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion:  A Religious Perspective

         In 2007, journalist John Blake asked some of the leading religious writers of our day, “What is the most dangerous idea in religion?”[1]  The answers, published in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are perhaps most surprising in their predictability.  Richard Land, a leading ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, said it was “Violence in the name of God.”  Mentioning radical Islam in particular, he pointed out that “It’s corrosive to public discourse to say if you disagree with me, I’m going to kill you.”  Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, an internationally recognized scholar of Islam, said the most dangerous idea was “Converting others to your religion.”  While he admitted that “I wouldn’t believe in a religion if I didn’t believe it to be better than other religions,” (and thus that endorsing a religion implied a sense of superiority and exclusive access to the truth,) he argued that seeking to share that truth with others is “a very loaded and dangerous idea” because it is “always embedded in power.”  The missionary or evangelist seeks to share the truth with others; and worse, he or she also brings in schools, hospitals and other resources.  Missionary activity is all about showing that your group has the resources to provide for needs and thus to show off power; as he says, “you don’t find Muslims coming to prosyletize in the United States.  But you do find Americans going to all sorts of Muslim countries.” Rabbi Harold Kushner, the liberal Jewish teacher and author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People (among other books), would presumably disagree with both his Christian and Muslim colleagues.  His nominee for most dangerous idea is “My religion is right.”  Whereas Dr. An-Na’im asserted that to believe in a religion is to accept that your religion is right and others are wrong, Rabbi Kushner argued that “You have to understand that religion is not about getting information about God.  Religion is about community.”  And of course, community is the very opposite of exclusivity, which both the Christian and the Muslim seem to accept is an essential part of religion.  To Rabbi Kushner, believing that your religion is right is dangerous because it undercuts interfaith dialogue.  My love for my religion need not lead me to despise yours, any more than my love for my wife should lead me to insult or despise your wife or your marriage.  We each have our own commitments, and we each share a respect and joy over them.

New Age spiritual writer and psychologist Wayne Dyer argued that the most dangerous idea is, “Follow our rules or else.”  Quoting Carl Jung, Dyer claimed that we all have an innate connection to God as parts of God’s creation; organized religion of any sort merely gets in the way of our direct experience of God.  Fellow PBS spiritual authority Deepak Chopra argued that the most dangerous idea is “A tribal view of God.”  In his quest to combine the insights of Western science with his Hindu spiritual upbringing, he has become convinced that while our understanding of the world and of technology has advanced greatly, our spiritual sensibilities remain both primitive and parochial.  Only by moving beyond our spiritual tribes to embrace the higher unity of all spirit will we be able to live in peace and grow to our full potential.

So, to sum up:  All these men (and all the writers interviewed for this article were men) agree completely:  That other guy is NUTS!  The Evangelical Christian says the Muslim is dangerous; while it is true that he carefully specifies that it is only “radical” Muslims who are dangerous, it is definitely a subgroup of Muslims, not Christians or anyone else or even “radicals” per se.  The Muslim says it is evangelists, missionaries, and specifically American missionaries who are dangerous; and of course, the most common are the Evangelicals, whose very name reveals that their religion is essentially connected with spreading the good news.  And it isn’t just overt spreading of the Gospel that is dangerous:  the hospitals, schools and other social work for which Southern Baptists are so well known, even in countries where they are forbidden by law to preach the Gospel or to accept spontaneous converts, is also part of the insidious plot against Islam.  The rabbi, living as a minority religion in mostly Christian or Muslim countries, sees the rejection of interfaith dialogue as the most dangerous idea.  The religious syncretist sees religious particularism as the most dangerous idea.  And the psychologist sees organized religion as dangerous, because it conflicts with the psychological, individualistic spirituality he represents.  Each one agrees that the most dangerous idea is the idea he sees dominant in some other group, and which is an external threat to his own group.

This is a political definition of a “dangerous idea.”  A “dangerous idea” is one that is dangerous to others, and particularly to me and mine.  It is not a religious definition.  When I read this article, I was struck immediately by this fact.  The Evangelical did not condemn the religious violence carried out by Protestant terrorists in this country, from the KKK and Know-Nothings to the Olympic Park Bomber and more.  He did not condemn the violent rhetoric of Christian Zionists and millenialists, who push for the ethnic cleansing of occupied Palestinian territories precisely because they look forward to the Rapture and the war between Israel and all its neighbors and the final, fiery cataclysm in which Satan, the U.N. (widely considered the tool of the Antichrist) and all other evils will be destroyed.  He did not condemn the common practice of mass prayers for the death of liberal judges and politicians.  Likewise, when the Muslim condemned religious conversions backed by imperial power, he did not suggest that Muslims should return the Christian lands of Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, North Africa, or Albania, all converted during times of total political and military control by richer, more sophisticated Muslim colonial powers.  He did not even condemn the widespread laws punishing anyone who might seek to return to the Christian or Jewish faith of his or her earlier ancestors.  If your father or grandfather became a Muslim to gain economic resources, you’re stuck; if you duplicate that decision by seeking to convert from Islam, you’re both a victim of neocolonial oppression and a criminal deserving imprisonment or possibly death.  Those who reject organized religion see organized religion as the most dangerous idea; those who belong to minorities see the majorities as dangerous, and so on.

The religious definition of “dangerous” is different.  My immediate reaction was shaped by my Christian background; but I believe most religions have similar notions.  The Christian formulation is this:  Fear not what can kill only the body and then can do no more; fear that which can destroy the soul.  (Matthew 10:28)  The terrorist’s bomb cannot kill my faith.  The missionary cannot snatch my faith from me, if I have it at all.  The church or mosque cannot rob me of my personal connection to God unless I choose that it should; indeed, historically these have often spawned anti-establishment mysticism and spirituality.  The only thing that can destroy my soul is my own idea.  The only religiously dangerous idea is my own.

Seen in this light, must we reject all the nominees for “the most dangerous idea in religion”?  No, but we must reinterpret them.  How is violence in the name of God dangerous to the one who practices it?  How is the notion of evangelism dangerous to the evangelist?  How is the tribal view of God dangerous to the members of that tribe?  And so on.  How am I harboring those ideas that I see as dangerous?  As Paul writes, “you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself?  You who say, “Thou shalt not steal,” do you steal?” and so on.  (Romans 2:21)  That is what is sadly, predictably lacking in the five arguments in this article; and it reflects something universal in our tendency to think about religious matters.  We tend to judge easily and well the sins of others, particularly when we are ourselves in physical danger or emotional discomfort.  We have more difficulty seeing how we ourselves may engage in those same sins.  And perhaps most difficult of all, we often fail to appreciate that the most dangerous ideas of others have their sense in the lives of those others.  To Rabbi Kushner, “My religion is right” is the most dangerous idea; to Dr. An-Na’im, it is a natural and even inevitable assumption of any religious believer, in itself only dangerous if it leads to missionary activity; which to Dr. Land, it is a fulfillment of the Great Commission, given by the Divine Word Incarnate that we should make disciples of all the world (Matt. 28:19-20), so that refusing to practice this “dangerous idea” is disobedience to God; and so on.

When I conclude that the most dangerous idea in religion is my own, I must in turn hesitate to judge others too harshly.  After all, I was taught to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”  (Matt. 7:1)  Quite simply, what others think or say may be wrong, but it is not the most dangerous thing, since any external threat can at worst kill me.  Of course, on the other hand, if everyone thought this way there would be no “dangerous idea” in the sense of being dangerous to others.  As long as I am more worried about my own religious intolerance, my fear of the intolerance of others is somewhat tempered.  As long as I am worried about my own tendency to impose my truth on others, my fear of the missionary from another faith is mitigated.  Quite simply, when I remember that I am a sinner, flawed, and quite frankly a danger to myself and to others, I have a lot less time to judge others.  This could in turn have enormous social consequences.  For example, think how much quieter the debate over same-sex marriages would be if only those who had always been faithful to their partners were allowed to speak?  Anyone who has been divorced, or committed adultery, or cheated on a boyfriend or girlfriend, or even considered it, (since, as Jesus said, to look at a woman with lust is to commit adultery; see Matt. 19:10) all of these should just keep quiet about family values and the meaning of marriage.  Instead, each of these will think about what marriage means to himself or herself, which will probably lead them to agree with the disciples of Jesus:  If that is what marriage is, it is better not to marry at all!  Then the problem would no longer be a religiously dangerous idea at all, but only a political question of how best to live together.  This might not solve the problem, but it would at least calm it down.

Perhaps, though, in my rush to condemn the judgers I have myself judged them.  Instead of pointing out what is wrong with the five nominees for Most Dangerous Idea, perhaps the better path would be to see if there is anything they agree on.  Four of the five express some fear of some sort of compulsion in religious matters.  This suggests the importance of freedom of conscience.  Everyone longs for freedom of conscience for himself or herself.  And all five share a common fear of intolerance, or more broadly, close-mindedness.  The tribal person, or the violent one, and so on are all close-minded.  They are not just certain; they are closed to any possible dialogue or new information.  This close-mindedness lies behind the willingness to compel others, whether by threat or institutional power.   So I suggest that the most dangerous idea, the cardinal dangerous idea is, “I know what I know.”

The person who says, “I know what I know,” seems to be stating a tautology—-which would be self-evidently true, empty and thus harmless.  But in fact, “I know what I know” generally means, “I know what I know and nothing can change my mind; I am inflexible, close-minded, impervious to facts and logic.  And why should I change, since I am right, and I know it?  And why aren’t you agreeing with me, since I know I’m right and therefore you must be wrong?”  And this idea has the added strength that even the person who holds it may think he or she is merely stating a tautology.  I’ve known a fair number of close-minded persons; I can think of only one who consciously and directly said, “I’m close-minded.”  Even to say this implies an element of self-criticism or at least self-awareness that is already gazing at the path of understanding, even if it fears to tread it.  “I know what I know” requires no self-awareness.  It sounds, at least to one’s own ears, like a claim to knowledge and wisdom.

“I know what I know” is, of course, true in a sense, and true of every person equally. In Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus says that the difference between the simple person and the wise one is that the simple one knows, and the wise one knows that he knows or knows that he does not know.[2]  The wise one, like Socrates, knows that his or her knowledge has limits and falls short, and that true wisdom is often more aspirational than actual.    Faith is not knowing, he says; faith is floating over 70,000 fathoms and still being joyful.[3]  That sort of believer does not dare compel or impose upon or judge another person, since when one’s own faith is so much work, who has time to look over someone else’s shoulder?  At the same time, this sort of believer has that joy, and does not succumb to the dictatorship of relativism.  I know what I know, which is my own experience; I don’t know what I don’t know, which is yours.  I know I don’t know what I don’t know; this is humility.

As I said, the original article has a political tendency:  what are the five religious ideas most dangerous to others, and specifically to me, the person who is asked?  As a political principle, “I know what I know” seems pretty powerful and pretty destructive to the body politic. Why ask the considered opinions of all sides, when you can simply shout everyone down and impose the right answer?  Why listen, when you’re right?  This isn’t a left-wing or right-wing observation; I’ve seen avowed Marxists and avowed Libertarians argue the same way.   “I know that I don’t know” would be a powerful political principle as well.  It’s hard to push for humility, of course.  It’s hard to be decisively uncertain.  It is much easier to embrace the self-confidence of invincible ignorance, to choose one’s preferred side and to ram it home without further let or hindrance from facts.  Sadly, though, what is so helpful to ensuring victory in a debate may be counterproductive if the goal is to ensure the prosperity of our nation, or survival of our species.  We need truth to survive and to thrive, and to find truth we need to be open to the truth, and that means humility.

So I suggest that the most dangerous idea in religion is, “I know what I know.”  It is dangerous in that it is dangerous to our social and cultural life together, since it fragments us into impermeable echo chambers where we listen only to the sounds of our own voices.  It is dangerous to our survival and vitality, since it gives us a ready defense against reality when facts or logic conflict with our preferences.  And it is truly religiously dangerous, threatening the soul and not merely the body.  Instead of floating joyful over 70,000 fathoms of water, “I know” believes the water is at most a few feet deep.  If “faith is hope for that which is not seen,” then “I know” is the death of faith, and thus of the believer as well.  And “I know what I know” seems to embrace the concerns of all the other nominees for Most Dangerous Idea.  It is the wellspring of them all.

Presented to the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin on April 10, 2011.  All rights reserved ; permission to reprint by the express written consent of the author only.

[1] John Blake, “Faith and Values:  What’s the most dangerous idea in religion?”  Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 30, 2007, main edition (…/WhatsTheMostDangerousIdea06307.pdf)

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 181

[3] Postscript, pp. 140, 204; see also Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way:Studies by Various Persons; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1988) pp. 444, 470


September 14, 2011


Presented to the American Academy of Religion

                                                                                                                                                        November, 2005
In his seminal work After Virtue, MacIntyre portrays Kierkegaard as the arch-liberal, destroyer of moral reasoning and the virtues.  He is said to have championed the “criterionless choice,” the decision to be esthetic/or ethical for no reason, since there can be no reasons for existential choices.  All that is important, in this reading of Kierkegaard, is to choose with passion, to be sincerely and unequivocally committed to whatever arbitrary life-choice one has made, whether to be saint or sinner. [1]  As an illustration of the breakdown of the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal standards (rather than revelation, tradition or community) this portrayal serves an important part in the overall argument of After Virtue.  But as a reading of Kierkegaard, it is tendentious because it is partial; it only works if one ignores the signed works which Kierkegaard published alongside his pseudonymous books.

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? by contrast, MacIntyre quotes Kierkegaard with approval, contrasting his “Purity of heart is to will one thing” with the fragmentation of value seen so often today.[2]   He does this in the context of his discussion of the Augustinian moral tradition, suggesting that Kierkegaard may not be the absurdist boogeyman he is often said to be (in, for example, After Virtue).  The claim that Kierkegaard might be an Augustinian is nothing new; what particularly interests me is the notion that MacIntyre’s writings themselves seem to support this reading, and what the implications of this might be for his argument and for an understanding of Kierkegaard.  The key elements of the Augustinian moral tradition are identified in Whose Justice? as (1) the expansion of the moral community beyond the polis to the civitas Dei; (2) the centrality of the concept of will (voluntas) to direct and order human desires, and thus to motivate human morality; and therefore (3) the characterization of pride (superbia) as “the fundamental human vice,” and humility (humilitas) as the cardinal virtue, so that no other virtue is possible unless pride is checked and humility attained.[3]  I shall return to the first later, and the centrality of will is almost a cliché in Kierkegaard discussions; so let us turn our attention to pride and humility.

The upbuilding discourses have relatively little in common with Kierkegaardian ethics as expressed, say, in the deontological portions of Judge William’s writings.  By contrast, they show a keen interest in the virtues, a theme not alien to other aspects of William’s thought.  In modern philosophy (such as MacIntyre’s discussion), it is common to associate virtue ethics with antifoundationalist, tradition-based ethics.  A tradition or linguistic community will have certain character traits that it values, and these become its virtues.  In Christianity these would include love and humility, whereas in the Homeric age courage would be more highly valued.[4] Kierkegaard is himself heir to an ethical tradition running from Pauline Christianity through Augustine, Luther, Kant, and many others.[5]  However, his adoption of virtue ethics is not here based on a self-conscious membership in this tradition.  Rather, it seems more rooted in epistemological considerations.  William assumes that he knows the essential human nature, and that he knows what is the universal that we are to realize, and hence he has a pretty good idea of duty as well.  Kierkegaard by contrast has asserted that we do not know what the good is, or even our own nature.  We do not know what our duty might be, what values or what human nature we should strive to actualize.[6]  But we can know what character traits are appropriate to our state of ignorance.  Love was discussed in the discourses of October 16, 1843.  Patience is another virtue that receives extensive treatment, in following discourses.  Concern and expectancy are also discussed.  Each of these virtues or character traits has one thing in common— receptivity.  In adopting these virtues, one opens up to the other, to God, to the unknown.  One must receive knowledge of one’s true self, of the good, of God, of the needs of the neighbors one ought to help.  The religious individual must adopt the stance of positive passivity, actively awaiting some sort of revelation, however long it might take and however piecemeal it may turn out to be.  While “patience” is specifically described as a virtue of weakness, in fact all the virtues described in these upbuilding discourses are virtues of weakness.  After one has nurtured the proper virtues and developed the proper nature, right action and true understanding of duty will follow more easily.  One begins from a condition of ignorance, and must learn, often slowly, what one should do or become.  Remarkably, even courage, traditionally thought of as the most aggressive, assertive, “manly” virtue, is described by Kierkegaard as the courage to be humble; and cowardice is described by him as self-assertion and pride based on a fear of one’s own nothingness before God.[7]

Why pride should be the deadly sin is clear from the first upbuilding discourse to the last. In “The Expectancy of Faith” (1843) Kierkegaard describes faith as the highest gift, the only unqualifiedly good gift.  It is equally accessible to anybody; at the same time, it can only be received by one who is willing to grasp it.[8]  One must have the expectancy of faith if one is to be assured of victory over time; one must be taught by God to have that faith in God.  And if one is unwilling to grasp this, and would instead have pride in being self-taught or in having distinguished learning not available to all, one can never receive the expectancy that alone can overcome anxiety throughout one’s life until its end.  It is pride that would block the individual from receiving the one good gift; humility is the condition to receive the gift, and the gift itself is the humility to rely upon God.  Likewise, in the last of the eighteen discourses, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In That God is Victorious,” again it is pride that leads away from victory and humility that is essential to attain it.  Here the “struggle” is to convince God to give one the good gifts one desires and save one from the bad; the “victory” is not that God relents and gives one what one asks, but that one realizes that God is goodness itself and already wants what is truly good for each person, so that you give up your pride or desire to be in the right if God fails to fulfill your wish.  One struggles with God to persuade God to fulfill one’s desires; one is victorious when one’s desires change, and one’s only desire is God.  Just as Job demanded God appear and explain why he, a righteous man, was suffering, so the one who struggles in prayer wants first to have good things, then concentrates his or her will on one wish, then ends by seeking an explanation why God who is good did not give this one good thing.  Kierkegaard writes:

The external world and every claim on life were taken away from him; now he is struggling for an explanation, but he is not even struggling his way to that.  Finally it seems to him that he is reduced to nothing at all.  Now the moment has come.  Whom should the struggler desire to resemble other than God?  But if he himself is something or wants to be something, this something is sufficient to hinder the resemblance.  Only when he himself becomes nothing, only then can God illuminate him so that he resembles God.  However great he is, he cannot manifest God’s likeness; God can imprint himself in him only when he himself has become nothing.  When the ocean is exerting all its power, that is precisely the time when it cannot reflect the image of heaven, and even the slightest motion blurs the image; but when it becomes still and deep, then the image of heaven sinks into its nothingness.[9]

All of this is a far cry from the stereotype of Kierkegaard as the champion of the choice “for no reason,” who urges one to make the leap of faith by one’s strength of will and live sincerely with whatever choice one has made.  Here there is a reason:  victory, fulfillment of one’s truest and deepest needs and wish.  One does not make a leap, but ceases to struggle and allows God to pull one across.  There does seem to be something one can do by one’s own will, but that is only to resist God.  The pride that leads one to try to do for oneself leads to failure; the humility  to cease striving allows  one’s nature to reflect God’s, and allows one to receive the good gifts God freely offers.

Kierkegaard has both theological and philosophical reasons for endorsing just this sort of virtue ethics; and his strategy can be interpreted in two very different ways.  The discourses are certainly based on Scripture, and hence reflect Christian traditions even if they are held to be only “religiousness A.”  Furthermore, the Scriptures are interpreted through a largely Pauline-Augustinian-Pietist lens, emphasizing individual will and commitment, and the importance of humility before God and of openness to God’s grace.  Therefore, it is possible to see Kierkegaard as a voice of the Augustinian moral tradition, and to see his arguments as valid only for readers who have bought into that tradition. At the same time, many of his arguments appeal to more universal standards of rationality and truth and objective (gasp!) reality.  Is he writing for the internal consumption of the Augustinian moral community, or to convert the unconvinced?

These same questions arise when we look at one of Kierkegaard’s favorite authors, Johann Georg Hamann.  Hamann was a contemporary and friend to Kant, and introduced Kant and Germany to the philosophy of David Hume. Kant famously took Hume’s epistemology as a challenge to be met and overcome, rescuing certainty in human knowledge by moving the realm of knowledge from the physical and metaphysical realms to the realm of a priori concepts.  Hamann saw Kant’s solution as worse than Hume’s skepticism, for if Kant is right and truth itself does not come through the senses then the Incarnation (where Truth became a flesh and blood man to be known through the senses) is essentially false.  Additionally, he had philosophical objections to Kantian idealism; he claimed that Kant’s solution relied on abstracting knowledge so that it could be systematized, then rejecting whatever did not fit the system.[10]  In response to Kant’s first Critique, Hamann argued that Hume basically had it right:  all knowledge really is derived from the senses.  Until thought can eliminate the need for language, thought cannot eliminate its essentially sensual roots, for language is sensuous and arises from the senses.[11]  But Hume has shown (convincingly, Hamann thought) that there is no certainty either of sense knowledge nor of spiritual knowledge.  Hamann accepted this and argued  that reason, believing and sense-experience are in fact all connected and all rest upon receptivity.[12]  If one is to have anything other than skepticism either of God or earthly matters, one must have faith.[13] It is pride that leads a person to reject the conditions under which true knowledge is given and to grasp after an impossible certainty; it is humility that opens up to receive the knowledge which is available to our human condition.

For Hamann, faith is humility, and humility is both the cardinal virtue and the essential prerequisite for knowledge; pride is the deadly sin and the first error.[14]  As he writes:

Faith and doubt affect man’s ability to know, as fear and hope affect his appetitive instinct….  All our knowledge is in part, and all human grounds of reason consist either of faith in truth and doubt of untruth, or of faith in untruth and doubt of truth…. If the understanding believes in lies and enjoys it, doubts truths and despises them with disgust as bad food, then the light in us is darkness and the salt in us has lost its savour — religion is pure church parade, philosophy is an empty word-display, superannuated and meaningless opinions, out-of-date rights without power.  Scepticism about the truth and credulity of self-deceit are thus inseparable symptoms as cold and heat in a fever.[15]

Or as Kierkegaard writes:  “False doubt doubts everything except itself; with the help of faith, the doubt that saves doubts only itself.”[16]


Hamann has been called the first important Augustinian of the modern era.[17]  Kierkegaard might be the most widely influential, considering the range of thinkers who have drawn from him.  Kierkegaard learned much from Hamann, and both shared a concern to protect Christianity (specifically Augustinian, Lutheran Christianity) from corruption and co-option by philosophy.  Each sought to carry out this task not by simply opposing Christianity to philosophy, but by developing Christian philosophy.

If we return to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, we see that his history of philosophy needs a fundamental rewrite.  One of his primary villains in the Enlightenment corruption of moral philosophy actually turns out to be part of an Augustinian alternative to the Enlightenment project, one with roots going back to the days of Kant and Hume.  It is not simply a reactionary or fundamentalist stonewalling, but a genuine attempt to respond to the Enlightenment challenges with different answers.  This Augustinianism extends the cardinal virtue of humility from theology and ethics to epistemology.  Epistemologically, humility means accepting uncertainty and seeking receptivity, accepting that knowledge is given rather than created in the human mind.  Morally, humility means accepting the other as other, recognizing the independent concrete reality and importance of the other.  (With minor extensions this humility can even be extended to the nonhuman world and offer a basis for environmental ethics.)

My first, almost trivial conclusion is that MacIntyre has misread history:  moral philosophy and virtue did not vanish; they were still going on at least as late as Kierkegaard.  This means, second, that we should consider the Augustinian alternative proposed by Hamann and Kierkegaard  as a live option, not simply as a passé forerunner to Aquinas as MacIntyre implies.  By what standards can we judge this option?  By its own standards, Augustinianism would claim that pride leads to errors of morality and understanding, to crimes and sins as well as prejudices and mistakes.  Humility means being open or receptive to the otherness of persons and the otherness of facts, practicing love as well as open-mindedness. However, this argument only justifies Augustinianism in holding to its own values; can it produce an argument why  anyone should  embrace its views?

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? MacIntyre claims that the strength of a tradition is seen largely in how well it can account for the arguments of rivals.[18]  If, as Cardinal Ratzinger has said, our age is a dictatorship of relativism, can modern Augustinianism respond with anything other than dogmatism?  The chief appeal of relativism is its toleration.  Truth claims are seen as inherently oppressive; only a moral nihilism is sufficiently open to the feelings of others.  It is impossible and even immoral to make judgments or raise questions about the practices of another culture, the argument goes; each culture and perhaps each individual must define its own good and evil.  Looking at the history of crosscultural judgments over the millennia — crusades and jihads, pograms, segregation and so on — the moral mandate to “live and let live” is undeniable in the would-be postcolonial world. This is why Benedict XVI’s call to respect the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has such limited appeal. He offers an answer to moral ambiguity and uncertainty, but he seems to be speaking only to those who already more or less belong to his moral tradition and are in danger of leaving or diluting it.  That is, the appeal to authority is meaningful primarily to those within the group, and only to those who are already convinced that ambiguity and uncertainty are bad.  Many in the postmodern world seem more than ready to embrace this uncertainty, in order to preserve the more valued virtues of tolerance, open-mindedness and progress.

Hamann was able to remain a strong advocate for tolerance while remaining a vigorous defender of objective truth.  When the cardinal virtue is humility, one must accept the fact that some of one’s beliefs are in fact false even while remaining committed to the search for truth.  And likewise, at least some of the other’s beliefs may well be true; in any case, it would be the height of arrogance to attempt to forcibly impose one’s views on another.  This approach to morality and theology rejects the bigotry of insisting that everyone must adopt the same tradition or values, beyond the value of openness to truth; at the same time, it remains optimistic that there is in fact truth and that it will make itself known, albeit partially, to anyone who is truly willing to accept it.  Ironically, relativism or emotivism are usually considered rationalist positions, as compared to the intuition and revelation called for in an Augustinianism like Kierkegaard’s; yet it is relativism that renders reason irrelevant to morality, while Kierkegaard allows an important continuing role for moral reason.  It seems that prideful reason cannot achieve the universal moral certainty is seeks, and ends up with skepticism or with rival claimants to absolute truth; it finally must abandon its quest to guide moral action entirely, yielding the task to emotion and custom.  Kierkegaard’s approach to the virtues, based upon Hamann’s simultaneous convictions that truth is knowable and that uncertainty is unavoidable, relies on revelation and grace, on God’s power and on human humility; yet this humbled practical reason is able to remain fruitfully engaged in guiding human choice, action and belief.

Kierkegaard’s upbuilding discourses present a vision of virtue largely based upon Hamann’s epistemology.  This epistemology was itself based upon Hamann’s understanding of the Incarnation, where truth (God) gave itself so that any who would receive it humbly could do so.  He broadened this theological doctrine to become the basis of general theory of knowledge:  all truth must give itself, and faith is necessary to receive knowledge of the world just as much as knowledge of God.  Therefore humility is a cardinal virtue not just for the Christian pursuing a life of discipleship, but for any knower, and in relation to any reality.  If Augustine widened the moral community beyond the polis to include the civitas Dei, Hamann may have widened it even further; now the moral horizon and moral community includes anything that is.

Given all this, what is there here for the nonreligious person?  Is this a morality of use only to the believer, or is there a word here for the nonbeliever as well?  After all, it is hardly likely that postmoderns are going to line up to embrace Augustinian Christianity no matter how solid its philosophical underpinnings or how worthy its virtues.  Certainly, it is possible to embrace the virtues of humility, love, patience, even faith (in Hamann’s sense) without becoming an avowed theist.  Simone Weil has a very similar moral vision, though she frames it in reference to an impersonal God which Kierkegaard explicitly rejects.  Iris Murdoch presents a non-theistic morality based on love as humble acceptance of the other and the rejection of egocentric pride.  Clearly there is much to work with here in exploring the virtues, as well as in the philosophical framework of Hamann and Kierkegaard.  On the other hand, Hamann would be the first to admit that epistemology is not innocuous; every philosophy has its own theological assumptions, its own gods.[19]  The essence of the Augustinian moral tradition is the recognition that the self is not the center of the universe, that there are other centers of value and the highest center of value is God (for the theist) or Being (for the non-theist).  Even if one rejects the concept of a personal God, it is very difficult to reverence Being and the cosmos as higher than oneself without coming to feel something akin to faithful submission.  Therefore, it seems likely that eventually the implications of this sort of ethic would lead one towards the religious.[20]


Alexander, W. M.  Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith.  Martinus Nijhoff, The

Hague.  1966.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with

introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton University Press; Princeton NJ:  1990.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue.  University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:


Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:  1988

Smith, Ronald Gregor.  J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with

selections from his writings.  Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York.  1960.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1984) pp. 40-43, 49; see also Louis Pojman, Kierkegaard and the Logic of Subjectivity

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1988) p. 165

[3] Whose Justice?  pp. 153-58

[4] Whose Justice?  pp. 1-29; 146-63

[5] Robert C. Roberts, “The Virtue of Hope in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses,” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, ed. by Robert L Perkins (Mercer University Press, Macon GA, 2003) pp. 184-5

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 126-32

[7] Martin Andic, “Against Cowardliness,” The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, p. 290

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Expectancy of Faith,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 8-14, 28-9

[9] Kierkegaard, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In that God is Victorious;” Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 399

[10] W. M.  Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith  (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.  1966), p. 72

[11] Ronald Gregor Smith, J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with selections from his writings  (Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York; 1960), pp. 214-217

[12] Smith, p. 257

[13] Smith, p. 76; Alexander, p. 163

[14] Alexander, pp. 37-39

[15] Smith, pp. 231-32

[16] Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses  p. 137

[17] Alexander, p. 160

[18] Whose Justice?  pp. 166-67, 362-66

[19]Alexander,  p. 86

[20] And of course, that is what Kierkegaard, and Hamann too,  have been saying all along.