And yet they are not three gods but one God

I recently re-read Keith Ward’s Christ and the Cosmos, which was published in 2015, but which I didn’t feel like I really digested upon my first reading. (Not that I fully digested it this time either!)

In this book, Ward offers a multi-part trinitarian theology, fleshing out in more detail arguments he’s made elsewhere (particularly in his Religion and Creation; see here for my discussion). In doing so, he’s trying to accomplish a number of ambitious things: first, to defend a version of theism wherein God is conceived as the personal ground of being who interacts with and changes in response to the created world; second, to critique recent popular “social” accounts of the Trinity that picture God as a “society” comprising three distinct persons or centers of consciousness; and third, to explore the relationship between the “economic” and “immanent” Trinity in light of a modern scientific understanding of the universe.

Regarding the first point, Ward argues that although God’s nature is necessary and immutable, God nevertheless has certain contingent properties. This is because, since creation itself is contingent, how God relates to that creation must be subject to change. For example, God’s knowledge of the world is contingent upon features of the world that could be otherwise. If the world was different (and most of us assume it could be, at least in some respects), then God’s knowledge of it would be different. Or, as most theists have assumed, since God didn’t have to create a world, God’s knowledge, experience, etc. would be different had God chosen not to. Thus Ward sides with modern “passibilist” or “relational” forms of theism against classical theism, although he does not go as far as, say, process theology. Ward regards God as causally and metaphysically ultimate in ways that most process theologians don’t.

On the question of the social Trinity, Ward takes on some of its more prominent proponents, both in contemporary theology (e.g., Moltmann, Zizioulas and La Cugna) and analytic philosophy (e.g., Swinburne and Hasker). The argumentative thickets are fairly dense, drawing on the Bible, theology and philosophy, but Ward’s underlying contention is that it’s very difficult to provide a strong version of social trinitarianism that doesn’t end up looking like tri-theism. He argues that it’s better to think of God as a single subject—a single mind and will—that acts in a threefold way, or with three distinct aspects. He envisions God as (1) the creative source of being who (2) self-manifests in the created order as a pattern of rationality and beauty and (3) acts within created beings to unite them to Godself. This is not the ancient heresy of modalism, Ward says, because the three aspects or activities of the divine being are essential and permanent—not successive or transitory—features of the divine being. He thinks this does a better job than the social view of balancing faith in the Trinity with a proper commitment to monotheism.

Finally, Ward criticizes the tendency to collapse the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity in recent Christian theology. Theologians are too quick, he says, to identify the Trinity as revealed in the biblical narrative with God’s inner life. He notes that some have gone so far as to say that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” constitutes the “proper name” of God. He points out that such a name might well be meaningless to other creatures in the universe (supposing there are any), relying as it does on very earth-bound imagery. He recommends more metaphysical reserve; the Trinity as revealed still corresponds to an “inner” threefoldedness in God, but the Trinity as it appears to us cannot be simply projected into the inner divine life. The cosmos is much larger than our forebears realized, and we shouldn’t be too quick to think that the way God appears to us is universally valid.

Obviously no single book is going to settle all the controversies regarding the Trinity (and I’ve only touched on the arguments Ward deploys). But speaking for myself, I find Ward’s case for a more open-relational theism pretty appealing, as well as his criticism of strongly social doctrines of the Trinity. I also agree that Christian theologians shouldn’t be so eager to describe the “inner” life of God—Ward’s criticism of the views of Moltmann and Von Balthasar, with their suggestion of an almost metaphysical rupture between the Father and the Son, is a case in point. Perhaps it’s my Western bias, but I’m more inclined to begin with the divine unity and seek to understand how it can be threefold than to begin with three distinct “persons” or centers of consciousness.

That said, Ward himself, as a philosophical theologian, is maybe too quick to abstract from the biblical narrative in trying to describe the immanent Trinity. His triad of creative, expressive, and unitive being (he is indebted to John Macquarrie here) is suggestive, but it also smacks of the kind of speculation that he warns others against. The emphasis on the Trinity in recent theology was motivated in part, I think, by a desire to think about God in a distinctly Christian way, taking its lead from the gospels and not from a priori theorizing. While this might lead in some cases to a mistaken view of the Trinity (as I think it does in the case of Moltmann, et al.), the answer may lie in greater attention to the biblical narrative as a whole. After all, monotheism is a key tenet of Old Testament religion, which ought to inform, if not wholly determine, how Christians think about God.

The hope of the kingdom

Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a 20th-century theologian and church teacher who could hold her own with the theological bigwigs of the day (Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr) while writing accessible works of theology aimed at lay people. Her books have an almost C. S. Lewisian ability to convey profound theological ideas in lucid prose. (What she lacks in Lewis’s imaginative richness she arguably makes up for in a more solid grounding in academic theology.)

Harkness was a feminist, a pacifist, a proponent of the social gospel after it became unfashionable, and a defender of liberal theology (broadly speaking) in the face of challenges from fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy. She called herself a “liberal evangelical”—a phrase that reflected her commitment to open inquiry and social improvement as well as a personalist evangelical piety informed by her life-long Methodism.

In her book Understanding the Kingdom of God Harkness considers the various ways Jesus’ message of the kingdom has been understood and develops her own approach, which combines many of the best elements of the others. She doesn’t fully align herself with any “school”—apocalyptic, prophetic, “realized” eschatology, Bultmannian existentialism—but finds strengths and weaknesses in each.

For Harkness, the kingdom as preached by Jesus has three key aspects: the present, kingly rule of God over all creation; our personal entry into the kingdom by accepting its ethical demands; and its future consummation. Harkness acknowledges that there was an apocalyptic element to Jesus’ teaching and preaching, and even that he may have expected an imminent end of the world, but she denies that this made up the entirety of his message. Just as important, if not more so, is the prophetic aspect of his teaching—“good news for the poor”—and the ethics of participating in the kingdom. She finds the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in the parables, and the chapter discussing them is one of the book’s richest.

This is not to say that Harkness denies the eschatological. The kingdom is yet to be fully consummated, and this includes life beyond death for individuals, not just a this-worldly utopia. She is (wisely in my view) agnostic about the precise outlines of the eternal kingdom—will it be a “new heaven and earth”? eternal life beyond the spatio-temporal realm?—noting that the language we have in the Bible is highly symbolic and poetic. She grounds this hope in the character of God as revealed by Jesus and the biblical tradition more broadly.

Harkness laments that mainline churches have neglected the teaching of the kingdom, while the more conservative churches have turned it into apocalyptic escapism. The book was published in 1974, but I’m not sure how much has changed since then. Harkness argues that a better understanding of the kingdom can provide hope and motivate social action without leading to escapism or political utopianism. In a time when hope seems pretty fragile, Harkness’s words provide some: “What one can say in the midst of a complex and changing world is that it is still God’s world, and God is still working for good within it.”

New year, new #content

One of my new year’s quasi-resolutions was to be a bit more intentional about recording and reflecting on the books I read. Looking back on 2016 I was dispirited by the number of books I could barely remember reading, much less had really digested.

To remedy this, I’m going to try to jot down at least a few thoughts about each book I read this year. (We’ll see how long this lasts!) Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

Enns argues that we seriously misunderstand the Bible when we expect it to “behave”–that is, to answer the kinds of questions (theological, historical, etc.) we’d like it to in a straightforward, “objective” way. That’s not the kind of book the Bible is! First and foremost it’s a collection of stories that were written not to give sober, disinterested accounts of the past, but to provide meaning and direction for the people who wrote or edited them in their own time and place, and in their own social and cultural idiom.

Allowing the Bible to speak on its own terms largely sidesteps a lot of the problems raised by more literalistic, flat-footed readings. And, as Enns shows, the New Testament authors were highly creative in their own use of scripture to make sense of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible is a place where we encounter God, but it works best when we don’t try to force it to meet our expectations of what a sacred book “should” be.

Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson

Matthews argues that Thomas Jefferson represents a road not taken in American history, an alternative to the “liberal-capitalist” ethos of Madison and Hamilton. In Matthews’ account, Jefferson is not a liberal individualist in the Lockean tradition, but a “humanist,” “communitarian anarchist,” and “radical democrat” who dissented from the emerging ethos of the market society, atomistic individualism, and the leviathan state. This isn’t just an effort at historical reconstruction; Matthews thinks this Jeffersonian philosophy still has much to say to 20th (and 21st) century America. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Matthews is engaged in a self-consciously revisionist interpretation, taking issue with both “liberal” and “civic republican” portraits of Jefferson. On Matthews’ account, Jefferson is a veritable proto-socialist and apostle of “permanent revolution” in laws and property relations.

I’m not really qualified to assess the accuracy of Matthews’ reconstruction of Jefferson’s political philosophy (though aspects of it are corroborated by Joseph Ellis’s Jefferson biography American Sphinx); but it’s a stimulating alternative to what is often assumed to be Jefferson’s quasi-libertarianism or nostalgic agrarianism. One does suspect, however, that in contrasting Jefferson with Madison and Hamilton, Matthews isn’t being quite fair to the other two gentlemen, and his view of Jefferson tends toward the overly sunny (slavery gets fairly short shrift in the discussion, for example).

I also would’ve liked to see Matthews’ Jeffersonian philosophy brought into conversation with that of John Adams, the other “pole” of the American revolution (to use Benjamin Rush’s expression). In fairness, Matthews’ book came out in the 80s, before the mini-Adams renaissance of recent years, but Adams provides a contrasting example of someone who rejected Jefferson’s optimism (naiveté?) about human nature without embracing the philosophy of “acquisitive individualism” ascribed to the other founders.(David McCullough’s biography of Adams was one of the best books I read in 2016.)

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

This is my third, and favorite, Ishiguro novel so far. The blurb from Newsweek on the back cover of my copy–“quietly devastating”–about sums it up. It’s the story of a man who so perfectly inhabits a role that he never manages to live.

Michael Walzer, On Toleration

A short but rich discussion of the meaning of toleration and of the political conditions under which a diversity of race, ethnicity, religion and culture can flourish. Walzer discusses several historical “regime types” that have facilitated tolerance to various degrees, including the multi-national empire, the nation-state with an officially dominant culture, and the immigrant society. The U.S. is an example of the last, and its combination of multiculturalism and liberal individualism presents distinctive challenges in balancing the rights of individuals with respect for cultural, ethnic, and religious difference. Walzer offers insightful discussions of how this should play out over such areas as economic and social class, education, and religion, among others. In general, while he favors multiculturalism and affirmation of difference, he thinks individual rights understood in a broadly liberal sense should generally trump the rights of groups, which will inevitably lead to a certain “thinning” out of distinctive cultural/religious/ethnic ties.

At times, Walzer comes across as a bit dismissive of objections to liberal tolerance. For example, he assumes that it is straightforwardly good that conservative forms of religion will be forced, in liberal-pluralist societies, to become more accommodating over time. I happen to largely agree, but Walzer says very little that would convince a proponent of such a conservative view. (In fairness, maybe this isn’t ultimately possible.)

Moreover, Walzer argues that tolerance and multiculturalism go hand-in-hand with a commitment to greater economic equality, cutting across an often acrimonious debate in modern left/liberal political arguments. But one might well wonder whether the broadly egalitarian politics he favors can flourish among individuals with increasingly tenuous social ties. In other words, to what extent does the solidarity required to sustain social democracy rest on shared cultural and other pre-political ties? (He is aware of this latter challenge, but understandably doesn’t try to fully resolve it here.) Walzer also comes across at points as a bit too sanguine about the eventual triumph of liberal tolerance, something that recent events certainly seem to have called into question.

These quibbles notwithstanding, this book is certainly as timely as when it was published (about 20 years ago), if not more so.

Making sense of the Bible with Adam Hamilton

I really enjoyed Rev. Adam Hamilton’s recent book Making Sense of the Bible. It’s an overview of the nature of the Bible—how and when it was written, how the books were compiled and ultimately canonized—and  a persuasive effort to reconcile its very human character with its “God-breathed” status.

We mainline Christians usually emphasize that we reject “inerrancy” and other shibboleths of the more conservative churches, but we’re not always as clear about what positive role the Bible plays in our faith. Hamilton–the senior pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and a prominent voice in United Methodism–distills a lot of mainstream scholarship to present the Bible as a record of people in specific contexts struggling to make sense of their experience of God and the world. He argues that “inerrancy” doesn’t do justice the nature of the Bible as we have it and as it was written.

That doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t “inspired.” But Hamilton suggests that the inspiration at work isn’t different in kind from the way the Spirit works with people in all ages. The Spirit doesn’t override human freedom to ensure infallibility. Rather, because they were open to the Spirit, the Word of God was able to speak through the biblical authors, but not in a way that bypassed their finite human capabilities. The Bible is not “dictated” by God; it’s a record of humans struggling to articulate the revelation they have received.

For Christians, the Word of God is preeminently Jesus, the incarnate Word. The Bible is authoritative for us not because it was composed in some supernatural fashion that protects it from error (how would we know this in any event?). It’s authoritative because it contains the earliest, most authentic witness to Jesus. Accordingly, Hamilton argues that Jesus—his teachings, his life, and his death and resurrection—provide a prism or sieve for looking at the rest of the Bible.

This approach allows Hamilton to address some of the “challenging passages” of the Bible, such as those that seem to portray God as endorsing horrific violence, approve of slavery and the subordination or women, or teach things add odds with a scientific understanding of the universe. The Biblical authors (like us) were finite, sinful human beings, and they didn’t necessarily always get it right. Interpreting the Bible in the light of God’s definitive (for Christians) revelation in Jesus may lead us to set aside certain passages as no longer binding or reflecting the true character of God. (This is something Christians have always done, whether they admit it or not, most obviously in the book of Acts.)

As I said, most of what Hamilton writes is based on mainstream biblical scholarship, and his conclusions would be broadly accepted in mainline churches. It’s essentially the view that I’ve more-or-less held my entire adult Christian life (such as it is). But I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone articulate this understanding of the Bible so clearly, persuasively and accessibly.

ADDENDUM: I wrote this, on getting by without an infallible Bible, a couple of years ago, and I think it holds up pretty well. As it happens, it was inspired by an interview I read with Rev. Hamilton!

Some recent reading

Shamelessly plagiarized from my Goodreads page:

Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin

A vivid, searing exploration of religious, racial, sexual, and individual identity. An American classic.

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A very different book from Go Tell It On the Mountain, but still occupied with the nature of the self, its desires, and its self-deceptions.

Looking through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book of 2014, Graham Tomlin

Nothing particularly ground-breaking, but a sound and edifying set of meditations on how Christians should approach power, suffering, ambition, failure, reconciliation, and other areas of life, informed by a Luther-esque “theology of the cross.”

Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement, Paul Fiddes

I’m not sure I’m fully convinced by Fiddes’ preference for “subjective” accounts of the atonement, but this is a helpful study of how the major models of how the cross saves (sacrifice, victory, love, etc.) can still speak to us.

I’ve just started reading, at the recommendation of Alastair Roberts, Moshe Halbertal’s On Sacrifice. I’m not very far into it, but it already promises to be quite good.

Read anything good lately?

Favorite books of 2014

I should say, books I read in 2014. Most of these weren’t published this year.

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, H. W. Brands

A compelling and readable (indeed, almost novelistic) account of the life and times of our 32nd president. Brands doesn’t gloss over his flaws, but I came away even more impressed with FDR’s political genius and his sincere desire to make the United States a better, fairer country.

Doctor Who: Harvest of Time, Alastair Reynolds

A lovingly crafted story of the third Doctor and his arch-nemesis (and here temporary ally) the Master. Reynolds is a popular “hard” sci-fi writer, and he brings some of that ethos into this story, while remaining faithful to this particular era of Doctor Who (which also happens to be one of my favorites).

Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams

This was a re-read, and I’m still convinced this is one of the best contemporary introductions to the Christian faith. Organizing the book around the theme of the “trustworthiness” of God beautifully illuminates how the various parts of the creed hang together.

The Magicians trilogy (The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land), Lev Grossman

Grossman’s trilogy is a sort of mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books filtered through the sensibility of a Brooklyn literary hipster. Which sounds kind of insufferable, come to think of it. But, despite the at-times aching self-awareness, Grossman manages to tell an original story about friendship and growing up infused with a genuine sense of wonder.

Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel–refugee from European Naziism, mystic, rabbi, theologian, friend and comrade of both Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr–is a near-legendary figure. So I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this is the first time I read him. Even more, I’m sorry I waited so long. Heschel’s writing sits somewhere between poetic allusiveness and philosophical argument, but radiating at the core of this book is the insight that wonder–or what Heschel calls “radical amazement”–at the sheer contingency of being is our deepest clue to the existence of the transcendent–and to a worthwhile human life. I’m currently reading the companion volume, God in Search of Man, where Heschel lays out his vision more explicitly as a “philosophy of Judaism,” and am enjoying it even more. He is easily the religious writer I’ve been most excited to discover in years.

1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Walter R. Borneman

It seems inappropriate to call a book about a war “fun,” but Borneman’s history of the War of 1812 (meant for the general reader) is definitely written with a light touch. Borneman focuses mainly on the theaters of war (the Western frontier, the Great Lakes, the Eastern seaboard, and the Gulf Coast), and I for one would’ve liked to see a little more attention to the social and political context. But he brings to life the admirals and generals on both sides who executed the war, and deftly shows how the conflict helped put the “United” in “United States.” I knew very little about the particulars of the war going in, but after reading this, my appetite to learn more has been sufficiently whetted.

Cosmic piety

There’s a lot going on in Douglas Ottati’s Theology for Liberal Protestants–much more than I’m going to be able to cover in a blog post (or several). But as I’m nearing the end of the book, I think what will stick with me most is Ottati’s insistence on a cosmic theocentric piety.*

What does this mean? Mainly it’s about adjusting our theology and piety to the size and scope of the universe as modern science has revealed it. Christians often pay lip service to this, have we really adjusted our worldview accordingly? Many of us still think of humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, if not indeed the very reason for the creation of the entire cosmos. And we think of God’s activity as centered on the human race.

But this just isn’t realistic given what we know about the universe and our place in it. The universe is billions of years old and contains probably hundreds of billions of galaxies, themselves containing countless trillions of stars (the Milky Way alone contains something on the order of 400 billion stars) and, potentially, life-bearing planets. Add to this the fact that in all likelihood the human race will go extinct (quite possibly as the result of a self-inflicted wound) long before the universe itself winds down into a heat death or some other unimaginable final state. Taking these facts into account, it’s very heard to see humanity as particularly important to the cosmic drama. As Ottati puts it:

If all the cosmos is a stage, then it is far too vast and complex for us to plausibly consider it the stage for human history alone. Indeed, given the vast expanse of the cosmos, the staggering cosmic time frames, the astounding number of stars, planets, and meteors, the gases, chemicals, ice, and dust scattered through space, and so forth, perhaps the appropriate analogy is not a single stage but a world with many different venues, theaters, stages, and shows in many regions, cities, hamlets, and towns. (p. 227)

For Ottati, God is both the ground of the universe’s existence and the source of the processes that give it structure and coherence. And within this cosmos, humanity may be one of many “players,” and not a particularly central one. What we should hope for, he says, is a “good run”–we have our “place and time” to live out as participants in a vast, complex, cosmic ecology.

This prompts the shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective. If humans are displaced from the center of the cosmic drama, the cosmic ecology as a whole can nonetheless be seen as having value for God and as being a product of the divine creativity. This doesn’t mean that human beings don’t have a special value, but it’s as “good creatures with distinctive capacities,” not the “fulcrum . . .  of all creation.” The proper religious response to this is to understand ourselves as participants in the cosmic ecology and ultimately as dependent on God as its mysterious ground and source. As Ottati summarizes it, the “chief end and vocation of human life” is “to participate in true communion with God in community with others” (p. 306).

The second, yet-to-be-published volume of Ottati’s theology will cover the traditional topics of sin, redemption, and eschatology. I’m intrigued to see how he reconciles these more down-to-earth (so to speak) topics with the wider, cosmic perspective he develops here.
*By “piety” Ottati means a pattern of sensibility or a general orientation toward God, self, and world.

Augustinian, Protestant . . . and Liberal?

I like that Presbyterian theologian Douglas Ottati is willing to go to bat for the much-maligned tradition of liberal Protestantism in his recent book (which I’ve just started reading). Liberal Protestantism is pretty unfashionable in theological circles these days. From what I can tell, it’s much cooler to be “post-liberal,” “post-conservative,” “postmodern,” “Barthian,” “Radical Orthodox,” or even just “progressive.”

But Ottati thinks that liberal Protestantism–while probably never destined to be a majority view within Christianity–provides a vital minority position that’s still worth defending. He says that liberal Protestants often know what they stand for in social and ethical debates, but that they currently lack solid theological underpinnings. That’s what he’s trying to provide in this book.

Ottati points out that there’s no such thing as a “generic” liberal theology: it has to be rooted in a specific tradition. He describes the tradition he’s working in as “Augustinian-Protestant-liberal.” It’s Augustinian in emphasizing the priority of grace and the profundity of human sin; Protestant in denying the infallibility of church or tradition; and liberal in making engagement with contemporary modes of thought and social reform central.

I’m only about 50 pages into the book, but I’ve found it really engaging so far. (It helps that Ottati is a wonderfully clear writer.) I’ve long resisted identifying as a liberal Protestant, but if I’m being honest, it’s probably the tradition within Christianity that I stand closest to.

UPDATE: I originally wrote that Ottati characterizes his theology as “Augustinian, Reformed, and Liberal.” It should be “Protestant,” not “Reformed.” I’ve corrected the post.

(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.

Buyer’s remorse, reader’s guilt

When I was young–particularly when I was in college and grad school–I had a lot of time to read. Hours upon hours if I wanted to. What I didn’t have was a lot of money to buy books. And these were the pre-Amazon days when it wasn’t easy to come by any book they didn’t carry at the bookstore in the local mall. Just going to Barnes & Noble in those days was like a religious pilgrimage.

Now things are different. I have a lot more money than I did as a student, but time is now a much scarcer commodity. With two small kids at home, my discretionary time is probably at an all-time minimum. If I’m lucky I might have an hour to myself after everyone else in my house has gone to bed.

And yet, like a once-starving man who can’t help but gorge himself when presented with a limitless supply of food, I can’t stop acquiring books. I get them from Amazon (often used from third-party sellers), from yard sales, from boxes people leave on the sidewalk, from library book sales–you name it. I have a very hard time passing up a book that I think I might conceivably, some day want to read–especially if it’s cheap, or free.

And the results look like this:

On my dining room table, staring at me reproachfully.

On my dining room table, staring at me reproachfully.

Yep, that’s a pile of books–most of them good I’m sure–that I acquired months, or in some cases years, ago but just haven’t gotten around to reading. (Well, that and a stegosaurus.) And these are just non-fiction; they don’t even include the novels. Not to mention e-books–I have a bunch of Kindle books languishing in electronic purgatory too.

I’m now at the point where I can acquire books much more quickly and effortlessly than I can read them. Which isn’t to say I don’t still read–I’m reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness right now, and I recently finished a hefty biography of F.D.R.  Despite my (imagined?) lack of free time, I still managed to read a couple dozen books last year, at least if my Goodreads account is to be trusted.

But I’m not sure how I can keep justifying the never-ending acquisition of more and more books. When exactly do I think I’m going to read them? Once my kids go to college? Am I still going to be interested in reading Sexism and God-Talk or The Divine Relativity  fifteen years from now? Maybe. But there’s going to come some point when the number of books I own outstrips the number I can reasonably expect to read during my remaining decades on earth.

I also worry that I get distracted by books that catch some fleeting interest while neglecting “classic” works. After all, few of the books in the pile above probably rank as stone-cold classics. My choice of reading has usually been a result of serendipity as much as anything else, but that was back when I could afford to be promiscuous with my time. But now I wonder when I’m going to get around to reading War and Peace? Or this? Or this?

I’m not sure there’s a good solution to this (admittedly, “first-world”) problem. Probably I just need to be more disciplined and intentional in what I choose to read (or buy). Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a title I saw on Amazon earlier that I wanted to check out a little more closely. . .