Today we begin our three-part symposium on Graham Ward's new book, The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens. Because our contributions for this symposium are longer than some of our other chapter-by-chapter symposiums, I'm making the papers available as pdfs, with a little teaser below.
Our first contribution is from Ronald Kuipers, Senior Member in Philosophy of Religion at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario. He is the author and editor of several books, including Critical Faith: Toward a Renewed Understanding of Religious Life and its Public Accountability and Solidarity and the Stranger: Themes in the Social Philosophy of Richard Rorty. Churchandpomo readers will also be familiar with him as the interviewer of Charles Taylor and Jeffrey Stout over at The Other Journal.
Here's a snippet:
Both Taylor and Ward consider this Christian interpretation of the good (as beyond ordinary human flourishing) as both different and better than contemporary secular-humanist alternatives. For example, there is an interesting bit in A Secular Age where Taylor compares the virtues of a secular-humanist motivation for pursuing social justice and solidarity with the virtues found in a Christian motivation for pursuing the same things. While he deeply admires the self-giving service of a secular humanist such as Albert Camus, he nonetheless resists the temptation to view Camus’ “heroic individualism” as the ultimate in selflessness; for, according to Taylor, it misses something important about love that Christianity does not: “This is a bond where each is a gift to the other, where each gives and receives, and where the line between giving and receiving is blurred. We are quite outside the range of ‘altruistic’ unilateralism.” Taylor continues: “Could it be that, in a very different way, something analogous lies behind the sense of solidarity between equals that pushes us to help people, even on the other side of the globe? The sense here would be that we are somehow given to each other, and that ideally, at the limit, this points us towards a relationship where giving and receiving merge. Taylor thinks that the Christian understanding of agape, because it takes into account the sense that “we are somehow given to each other,” and “points us towards a relationship where giving and receiving merge,” provides a better account of the good than at least this particular secular-humanist alternative.
Taylor contrasts the motivations of secular humanism and Christianity with respect to efforts to attain justice and universal solidarity because he is trying to name an ethos that can bear universal human respect, but for which he thinks certain versions of Christianity provide a better account. He goes on to say that he thinks this understanding of universal human solidarity can be real for us, “but only to the extent that we open ourselves to God, which means in fact, overstepping the limits set in theory by exclusive humanisms. If one does believe that, then one has something very important to say to modern times, something that addresses the fragility of what all of us, believer and unbeliever alike, most value in these times.” The idea here is that Christians have a better way of accounting for something (universal solidarity) that most people, religious or otherwise, already profess to cherish. Christianity gets something right here that other positions do not. The cultural importance of this epistemic status lies in Taylor’s claim that “getting it right will help to strengthen it.”
I think that in this book Ward shares Taylor’s sense of the importance of “getting it right,” and by “getting it right” I think both authors mean something more or less akin to a theoretical account, one that is better able to explain or justify the pursuit of and longing for universal solidarity than other accounts currently on offer. And this is precisely where I want to insert my question in this closing section. How important is it to ‘get it right’ here, to have all of our theological and metaphysical ducks lined up in a row? I ask this because, in spite of his affirmation of the importance of this effort, Taylor still warns against a temptation that arises when we take ourselves to have so gotten it right. Throughout history, he notices, “[t]he goodness which inhabits our goal, or our vision of order, is somehow undone when it comes to struggling to realize it.” He continues:
The paradox is, that the very goodness of the goal defines us, its builders and defenders as good, and hence opens the way to our grounding our self-integrity on a contrast case who must be evil as we are virtuous…. There is no general remedy against this self-righteous reconstitution of the categorizations of violence, the lines drawn between the good and evil ones which permit the most terrible atrocities. But there can be moves, always within a given context, whereby someone renounces the right conferred by suffering, the right of the innocent to punish the guilty, of the victim to purge the victimizer. The move is the very opposite of the instinctive defense of our righteousness. It is a move which can be called forgiveness, but at a deeper level, it is based on a recognition of common, flawed humanity.”
Now I am confident that Ward would affirm most everything Taylor says in this passage, and his book is full of warnings against precisely such self-righteous presumption. So I do not want to take this reflection in the direction of such an accusation. What I do want to say, in closing, is that perhaps the pitfalls associated with ‘getting it right’ are a sign that, in insisting on its importance, we have not taken Christian renunciation far enough.
I say this because I think we ought not to confuse the task of being salt and light to a world desperately in need of such things with attempts at theoretical self-justification. When we slide from the former into the latter, we are all too easily tempted to assume a ‘no flies on me’ posture that bars the way to achieving the very effective solidarity our cherished version of the good envisions. That is why I read Luke 18:19 as such a liberating passage: “There is not one good person on earth. No one is good but God.” I do not read this passage as saying that everyone but God is bad, nor do I use it as a whip with which to flagellate myself according to some misguided form of Christian asceticism (or populist Calvinism). Instead, I read it as a passage that frees me from having to make myself good, from the task of justifying myself, and, perforce, from the need to construct theoretical self-justifications of the hope that is in me.