How Absurd Shall We Then Live? a book review

If theology is, in some sense, biography, Gospel of the Absurd(Wipf & Stock, 2017) bubbles up from R. Scot Miller’s circuitous faith journey. Miller grew up Lutheran in Flint, Michigan, rejected his childhood faith, and found belonging among anarchist and Marxist groups, practicing resistance in Detroit’s punk scene of the 1980s. There, he succumbed to a crack-cocaine addiction. His journey back to faith coincided with his journey into recovery. Today, he is a Quaker, a minister at Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids, a dairy farmer, substance abuse therapist and adjunct professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion. His theology combines a post-liberal hermeneutic with an Anabaptist Constantinian critique of civil religion, Christocentric virtue ethics, anarchist dissent and a commitment to justice and Christian community. Miller wears simple clothes and a wide-brimmed hat but is also a vocal supporter of causes like Black Lives Matter. He is the embodiment of a punk-rock-Amish aesthetic.

9781498296465[1]What is the gospel of the absurd? The absurd claim “that voluntary sacrifice of privilege is the proper response to human brokenness and the systems of domination that have lured the church toward apostasy” (back cover). Too often the Christian public ethic has been coercive, seeking to legislate morality through political power (often issues like abortion and marriage-equality). Miller writes, “I suggest that the failure of Christian ethics is related to Christianity’s continuing quest for power as a political force, because it is perceived to be a coercive force in people’s lives” (7). Miller proposes instead a biblical informed, communal ethics characterized by faithfulness.

Miller’s argument unfolds in roughly three parts. The first four chapters provide a diagnostic for the failure of Christian public witness and ethics in America. Chapters five through seven describe how narrative, revelation and eschatology give shape and specificity to Christian ethics Chapters eight through eleven describe the components of a communal, embodied virtue and care ethic.

Chapter 1 describes the failure of Christian ethics because we have understood our ethical claims as universally authoritative for all (and therefore coercive). In Miller’s analysis, Scripture remains an authority, interpreted contingently by the faith community because “it provides a community with textual discourse by which the world and truth claims can be evaluated in faith” (13).

In chapter 2, Miller describes ‘the dark shadow of the Enlightenment.’ Enlightenment and Post Enlightenment ethics rested on rationalism, utilitarianism, and emotivism. Miller names also the growing absence of the use of Scripture to articulate a credible ethic to the secular world, even among Christian ethicists. This comes into focus in Chapter 3 where Miller discusses how civil religion (à la Reinhold Niebuhr) blurs the lines between Christian faithfulness and our faith in the power of democracy. In contrast Miller describes a biblical ethic of absurdity which makes no sense to the wisdom of our age:

Perhaps a biblical ethic is an ethic of absurdity. The gospel is absurd on its face when one reads the claims made in the Sermon on the Mount, or the manner in which Jesus feeds crows of five thousand from a few loaves and fishes. Stories of resurrections may or may not be absurd, but belief in such stories most certainly is. Yet, if an ethic is to be Christ-centered, I propose that it must have two qualities at the very least: the particulars of the Christian ethic must be gleaned from a faith community’s reading and discussing scripture together, and those communities most be brave enough to have faith that even the absurd produces possibilities, and most radical kinds of faithfulness are the most fruitful. If one believes in the resurrection of the messiah, one must live as though it is true and embody the meaning of such an event for both church and world. (40)

In chapter 4, Who would Dirk Willems torture?, Miller draws upon the witness of the sixteenth century Anabaptist martyr and places him in contradistinction to contemporary evangelical discussions of the acceptability of torture. As with civil religion, scriptural and Christological considerations, get pushed to the margin, but in so doing, a Christian’s ethics become less than Christian. Our ethical arguments rest on emotivism or pragmatism.  Miller observes:

The Christian ethic is voluntary, so while an individual may eschew the Christ-centered interpretive activity of loving one’s enemies by feeding them and providing drink, they may choose an alternative, secular or military ethic by which to abide. Such a decision automatically rejects the Christian path in favor of another. A Christian may choose to torture, but in doing so may automatically render his claim to be a Christian moot. She may indeed find herself barred from participation in her congregation or group until she repents of her engagement with the world through adherence to the secular ethic. (54).

In chapter 5, Miller describes how a shift from describing ethics as a rational system, to understanding ethics through narrative, allows us to articulate an ethic of faithfulness (with a particular focus on the biblical narrative). Miller writes, “The reality of experience can only be translated from one age to another through narrative, providing the story with the authority to credibly interpret events” (70).

His argument comes into sharper focus in chapter 6 and 7 as his discussion turns toward the nature of revelation and eschatology. Miller calls us toward an understanding of revelation “as neither mystery or paradox, but a call for the church to act in history with a new understanding of brokenness” (81). This shifts our concept of revelation away from philosophical and abstraction towards actionable faithfulness. Miller also asserts the biblical narrative gives shape to our understanding of how to be in the world. In his discussion of eschatology, Miller encourages us to not see eschatology and the coming of the Kingdom of God as an end to our space-time universe, but the in-breaking of the Spirit of Christ into human history and our present (103). Thus, eschatology is not about the world burning, but our ability to imagine new possibilities in God.

In chapter 8, Miller describes his own commitment to non-violence, the practice of the early church (evidenced by the fourth century Acts of Philip) and the call for Christians to embody an ethic of faithfulness. So while there is an eschaton in which Miller appeals to, he is hoping also for a recovery of the faithful witness of the church prior to Constantine:

I have suggested that to begin a return to being a church that reflects faithfulness, a starting point is not to suspend reason, but rather to prioritize faithfulness to God and the divine desire for human relationships evidenced in the life of Jesus. We must also revisit the history of the early church to identify not only what the witness of the church looked like before Constantine, but what social and political factors facilitated the radical changes I believe occurred during that era that skewed the manner in which Christians viewed the role of the church in the world. (111)

This ethic of faithfulness, presses Miller toward a virtue ethic patterned on Jesus (who embodied faithfulness to God) and lived out in the faith community (126-127). Miller builds on this Christological virtue ethic, by drawing on womanist theology to illuminate a care ethic which enables us to become “more Christlike, more biblical in our work, and more present in our work for God’s justice” (132).

In chapter 10, Miller explores the experience of injustice faced by African-Americans in this country, and the theology of James Cone and womanists, in order to describe ethics from “the other.” Miller notes that the Bible has been used selectively against people of color and on the margins in our country (e.g. to prop up slavery, Jim Crow, sexism to maintain systemic injustice and patriarchy, etc.); however a theology from the margins  “rejects both naïve realism and idealism” and engages in both a hermeneutic of suspicion and resistance (147). By exploring the African-American experience, Miller elicits both empathy for the injustices black Americans have suffered and invites us to listen to their wisdom on what it means for us to walk in the way of Jesus. Miller writes:

White Christians cannot relate to or walk a mile in the shoes of African-Americans, refugees from war zones, undocumented Latinos, or American Muslims targeted as “terrorists” Yet, I offer the views of black Americans above to illustrate how we might view the historic person of Jesus within a context that allows for an experience of Ricoeur’s “secondary naivete” of Jesus’ social location, as well as an understanding of the necessity of emptying oneself of privilege in order to perform as a witness to God’s redeeming and reconciling work through incarnational presence. We can begin to unpack the nature of the cross, and what is necessary to the efficacy of the cross in light of resurrection theology. I believe we can embody the moral vision that is part and parcel of this kenotic theology through the development of care ethics grounded in a community’s interpretation of the text. Practice will lend itself toward sanctifying perfection.

Chapter 11 concludes the book with some reflections on our current political moment (2017) and invites congregations to share meals and discuss the gospels and Acts and ask what we are expected to do in response to what we find there (153).

Miller synthesizes the insights of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and presents a strong case for re-engaging scripture in community with an eye for how we should then live. He also highlights some of the common missteps which keep us from embodying faithfulness in the way of Jesus (e.g. rationalism, emotivism, civil religion, etc). There is a lot that is fruitful here, for this moment of history. There are evangelicals who have accepted Trump as their champion, while never asking what his agenda has to do with the way of Jesus. There are those more upset about football players dishonor a flag than they are about the systematic and state-sponsored destruction of black bodies. This is our cultural moment. Miller calls us back to the gospel faithfulness first modeled for us by Jesus. Following in the way of Jesus means both to the obedient life of discipleship and to a lifestyle of care for the marginalized victims of systemic injustice and patriarchy. And to Christians like me, raised and nourished by an evangelical faith that emphasized personal salvation, Miller reminds us that the Christian life is lived in community.

I read this book a couple of times before writing this review, to make sure I was following the flow of Miller’s thought. There is no introductory roadmap and for a short book, it is fairly dense. That isn’t a criticism, so much an acknowledgment that if your church small group is used to reading something fluffy and banal (I’m resisting the urge to name names here), this may be too close to the deep end for them. However, this would be a great book to read and discuss with your thinker and activist friends. I give this four and a half stars. -★★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock Publishers in exchange for my honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own

Anglo-Catholic Evangelical Ethics: a ★★★★★ book review

In seminary I read about deontological, consequentialist and virtue ethics; however, I didn’t read much in the way of Catholic moral teaching. Aquinas was mentioned and footnoted, but not engaged with in any substantial way. My understanding of virtue ethics was mostly meted out to me by Hauerwas. Daniel Westberg’s Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character and Grace delves deeply into the moral heritage of the Catholic and Anglican tradition exploring the nature of character formation, practical reason and ethical living.

9780830824601Westberg wrote this book as an attempt “to breath new life into [the] Anglican tradition, with the immediate aim of providing a systematic presentation of Christian ethics that builds on the Thomistic foundation with Catholic moral theology” (9). His wider, and more inclusive, purpose is to “provide  for the general Christian public a blending of the strengths of the Catholic tradition with evangelical emphases and convictions” (10). This combination of Catholic and evangelical insights, is designed to help readers from both traditions, to see the strengths offered by each (28). Westberg explores Thomist ethics in an evangelical key, sighting scripture and attending to the nature of conversion. His book divides into two parts. In part one Westberg describes and advances the components for a renewed moral theology. Part two looks in-depth at the seven classic virtues.

Part 1.

In chapter one, he argues for renewal of moral theology with a: (1) renewed biblical basis, (2) a sound moral psychology, (3) an understanding of the proper place for law in ethics, and (4) and thoughtfulness about the spirituality of virtue/character formation (25-26). In chapter two, Westberg discusses the relationship between purpose, reason and action and describes the ‘Thomistic Practical Syllogism.’ It is composed of an operating principle (‘Do this’ or ‘avoid this’), a minor premise evaluating a proposed action, and a conclusion (a commitment to do or not do something) (39-44).

Chapter three looks in more detail at Aquinas’s view of practical reasoning. Whereas the traditional reading of Aquinas identifies  a twleve stages in the process of human action, alternating between reason and will, Westberg sees the intellect and volition working in concert, and describes Aquinas’s reasoning as a four stage process comprised of: (1) Intention  → (2) Deliberation(if required) → (3)Decision → (4) Execution (51).  This model  describes the components of reasoning that birth  to an action; however a person’s intentions are shaped by  a person’s desires and history. “One simply has desire sand attitudes that have been adopted, shaped and instilled by past experience. One deliberates about and decides on the actions that are judged as means to the purposes one already has” (54). This means a persons formation determines where her reasoning takes her. Chapter four discusses how to evaluate good and bad actions based on their object, their end, and the circumstance (62-65). This ethical framework takes into account the situations in which ethical actions occur without capitulating to relativism (68). Westberg also observes the role of consequences in Aquinas’ theology. (69)

Chapter five describes  the relationship  between actions, disposition and character. Developing our capacity toward virtuous living involves moderating emotions, coordinating reason and will, and developing a habitus which imparts the skill and disposition that enable the virtuous life (80). This involves intentional practice, “We develop self control by understanding the reasons for it, desiring it and actually making decisions that incorporate moderation and self control in, for example, eating or sexual pleasure” (84).  Yet Westberg  argues that within this schema, faith, hope, and love are theological virtues gifted to us by the Spirit. We are unable to develop them by ourselves. The final three chapters of part one, explore the reality of sin (chapter six), the nature of conversion to Christ(chapter seven), and the role of the Law in Christian formation (chapter eight).

Part 2

Part two begins with an overview of the virtues, discussing their interrelationship and the central role of prudence. In chapter ten, Westberg walks through the seven classic virtues assigning a chapter to each of them. The four cardinal virtues discussed are ‘wisdom in action’ (prudence or practical wisdom); justice, fortitude, and self control (or temperance)(discussed in chaptets ten through thirteen). The theological virtues are faith, love and hope (chapters fourteen through sixteen).

Westberg’s treatment of the cardinal virtues offers practical insight for character development. In discussing practical wisdom (prudence) he observes the intellectual character of this virtue and discusses its relationship with other virtues, “The moral virtues depend on practical wisdom, but practical wisdom cannot be developed without the simultaneous development of the other moral virtues” (175). The virtue of justice has to do with how we relate to other persons (i.e. righting wrongs, restitution, gratitude to others, truth telling, etc). Fortitude is moral courage and commitment. Temperance is the ‘one virtue directed purely toward oneself'(209). It involves mastering appetites and living in moderation. Each of these virtues are shared by Christians and non-Christians alike, and Westberg correlates the exercise of virtues in Christian and secular settings (i.e.  the virtue of justice based in the dignity of human beings created in the image of God is in some sense related  to contemporary secular discussions of human rights).

The theological virtues have God as its source and focus (221). Westberg treat faith as an intellectual virtue, our belief in the God of the gospel. Love and hope are virtues of ‘the will. Westberg describes love as friendship with God—unselfish love (239-240). “Hope perfects the will by directing our desire to what God offers in the age to come” (259). Westberg takes on the notion that agape love is purely non-preferential. He show the biblical evidence doesn’t warrant the strong a divide between phileo and agape often argued by evangelicals influenced by the Lutheran tradition (238-40). Instead he views God’s love as inherently unselfish (instead of selfless, self sacrifice).  The telos of new creation gives us Hope and enables us to work for justice with fortitude. The content of of our hope helps us avoid both a liberal activism or an escapist quietism (270).


 

Virtue Ethics is sometimes criticized for an overemphasis on character—’being’ is seen as  more significant than ‘doing’  or ‘decision-making’ Because Westberg roots his exploration in Thomas Aquinas’s moral theology, he gives significant space to both virtue formation and moral decision-making. In fact, his discussion of practical reason, precedes his exploration of the virtues (though he hints at their strong relationship to one another). This means Westberg (or Thomas) is not guilty of some of the reductionisms that virtue ethicists are accused of (neither are many virtue ethicists). Action and character both come into sharp focus.

Westberg wrote this book as a seminary textbook and it is well suited for that purpose.Students will find  solid engagement with Catholic moral theology and theological ethics. But does it have any practical import outside the classroom? Put another way: is practical reasoning, practical? Yes it is. Pastors can utilize this framework to encourage ethical reasoning in congregants. The discussion of the seven classic virtues is fruitful for personal use, or for anyone responsible for Christian spiritual formation. Westberg is theologically rigorous, so the typical lay person may find it difficult to wade in, but certainly the framework Westberg presents is applicable more broadly in the lives of ordinary Christians. I recommend this for Christian leaders and educators concerned about spiritual formation. Westberg  doesn’t provide a ‘practical how-to,’ but a way of ‘thinking through’ moral decisions’ and actions. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review