Dialectic Of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”

[E]nlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be. Its untruth does not lie in the analytical method, the reduction to elements, the decomposition through which reflection, as its Romantic enemies had maintained from the first, but in its assumption that the trial is prejudged. When in mathematics the unknown becomes the unknown quantity in an equation, it is mad into something long familiar before any value has been assigned. Nature, before and after quantum theory, is what can be registered mathematically: even what cannot be assimilated, the insoluble and irrational, is fenced in the mathematical theorems. In the preemptive identification of he thoroughly mathematized world with truth, enlightenment believes itself safe from the return of the mythical. It equates thought with mathematics. The latter is thereby cut loose, as it were, turned into an absolute authority. – Adorno & Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.18

Max Horkheimer is on the left, Theodor Adorno on the right.

In 1922, Karl Barth published the (massively) revised Second Edition of his Epistle To The Romans. Even more clear and to the point than the original, 1919 first edition, Barth took aim at those targets he believed had been part and parcel of Protestant Europe’s complicity in the destruction of the First World War. In this book, often cited without actually being read, Barth did the very thing his Seminary teachers had insisted was impossible – he presented St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Church as a contemporaneous document, the audience being European Protestants struggling to understand what has happened to a civilization both sacred and secular thought had declared above the barbarisms of the past. He didn’t engage in the kind of historical criticism that had been the norm for nearly a century in German-influenced Scripture study. He did not treat the epistle with the proper respect due an historical document; rather, by doing, he through down a gauntlet to the liberal theological establishment in the German-speaking and -influenced world, declaring both their too-clever-by-half assumption of supremacy and their much-vaunted intellectualism as having utterly failed to control Europe’s decent into mass death.

The explosion this book set off, making of Barth – at the time a parish minister in Switzerland, known mostly as a supporter both of Christian Socialism as well as active in his support for local unions – something of both a theological celebrity and pariah. His great teacher, the single most learned church historian ever, Adolf von Harnack, was scathing in his dismissal of his former student’s work. In response, Barth noted that von Harnack had written the infamous “apologia” speech Kaiser Wilhelm II had given, defending Germany’s declaration of war, and thus was a main target of Barth’s polemics.

Love him or hate him, Karl Barth was among the first to understand that, as a cultural force in western life, the Enlightenment had created its very own end precisely by its inability to protect the west from its own worst inclinations. Barth knew well, while never articulating very clearly, that the Enlightenment was like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his own children. Rather than something liberating, it was a horror that led to its own inevitable destruction.

A generation later, living in exile in the United States, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno surveyed the barbarism that, at the moment they began working (1943) held the continent of Europe in its grip, and understood the Enlightenment, the cultural reflection of the age of bourgeois dominance in the economy, as having become precisely what its forerunners (they focus on Francis Bacon) had declared it was a liberation from: an age of myth and repression. To the rising bourgeoisie, Enlightenment thought was the cultural reflection of the emerging capitalist economy – an opportunity to free oneself from the shackles of slavery to nature and its cultural reflections in the magical thinking of religion. Now, in the middle of the 20th century, it was clear that the Enlightenment cultural project had come full circle, creating both the final expression of capitalist domination (fascism) with the tools of Enlightenment thought brought in as bulwarks against the new barbarians who would both destroy the west as well as the possibility of thought as an escape from the terror.

In the years since it was first published in 1943, Dialectic of Enlightenment has become one of those touchstones of 20th century thought. Like many such works, it is often mentioned without having been read. Because it is neither easy nor light reading (contemporaries made fun of Martin Heidegger’s odd, often impenetrable, writing style without noting that Adorno and Horkheimer had produced a book almost as unreadable), it is often misrepresented as both more and less than it was. I don’t believe the authors envisioned it as much more than a timely bit of philosophical reflection; the subtitle of the whole work is Philosophical Fragments, after all. Trying to make the essays within as something programmatic, I think, misses the simple point that the authors were answering for themselves the fairly simple question many had been asking since the rise of the Nazi’s: How did this happen? How did the most intellectually and culturally gifted people in western Europe sink into a kind of demonic barbarism from which there would be no escape except utter destruction?

Adorno and Horkheimer are associated with the so-called “Frankfurt School”, but I think even as a name with meaning anything more than the physical location of radical post-World War II thought it really doesn’t hold much weight. Both Adorno and Horkheimer were Marxists, although as Georg Lukacs noted, they were very strange Marxists. Far more interested in culture and its products than class conflict, Adorno in particular took aim less as capitalist society and more at the culture it produced, a culture as violent and barbaric as was the society it reflected.

For Horkheimer and Adorno, it was Bacon’s equation of knowledge as the power of domination and control over nature that is key to understanding how the end result of the Enlightenment project, much like the capitalist society of which it was both a product and defender, had resulted in the kinds of violence and a descent into barbaric primitivism it promised to rescue us. As the authors note several times through the essay, for Bacon the kind of deductive thought Bacon envisaged was a liberation from the control over knowledge that resided at the time as the purview of kings and priests. Because he naively expressed the hope that such knowledge would be available to all, there certainly seemed to be a liberating quality to Bacon’s project.

It was the introduction of power, however, as part of the larger project that subsumed the Enlightenment under the control of the rising capitalist class. Precisely because the bourgeoisie sought to control the growing proletariat, the kind of power Bacon presented as freeing became just another instrument in a long age of increasing instrumental control, both of humanity over nature as well as human control over other human beings. In so doing, they argue, the Enlightenment project had replaced the alleged arbitrariness of ancient power and control through the reification of nature with a priestly class who alone possessed the means for its control and propitiation with the very non-arbitrary power of the machine, of instrumental reason, with the bourgeoisie the possessors of the secrets of control and propitiation. Except what the bourgeoisie sought to control, the industrial workers. Such control was complete and absolute, rendering even thought subservient to the instrumentality of the factory.

Like Plato, contemporary rulers were distrustful of poets and artists, those who sought to express knowledge outside the limits imposed by capitalist means of production. As long as art laid no claim to knowledge, but only isolated aesthetic enjoyment, it was acceptable. Nevertheless, art in all its forms, with poetry at the top of the list precisely because of the danger inherent in poetry undermining the totalitarian logic of the factory and marketplace, were always suspect.

As was true in much of Adorno’s work, the dialectic presented creates a barrier both to clarity of expression as well as precision of understanding. Until one understands that this dialectic, which Adorno was always pushing to the extremes in order to demonstrate the extremity of culture under industrial capitalism, is part and parcel of the larger cultural critique underway, much of the work can seem nearly impossible to understand.

Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment, which equates the living with the nonliving as myth had equated the nonliving with the living. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is nothing other than a form of universal taboo. Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear. (p.11)

Or again:

Power confers increased cohesion and strength  on the social whole in which it is established. The division of labor, through which power manifests itself socially, serves the self-preservation of the dominated whole. But this necessarily turns the whole, as a whole, and the operation of its immanent reason, into a means of enforcing the particular interest. Power confronts the individual as the universal, as the reason which informs reality. The power of all the members of society, to whom as individuals no other way is open, is constantly summated, through the division of labor imposed on them, in the realization of the whole, whose rationality is thereby multiplied over again. What is done to all by the few always takes the form of the subduing of individuals by the many: the oppression of society always bears the features of oppression by a collective. It is this unity of collectivity and power, and not the immediate social universal, solidarity, which is precipitated in intellectual forms. (p.17)

Precisely because Horkheimer and Adorno understood the processes of history as dialectical rather than linear, it was necessary to present that reality in all its confounding complexity. Once grasped, this method opens up their work, qua literary productboth as a substantive instantiation of the very reality under criticism as well as a kind of poetic protest to the blandness (and falseness) of capitalist Enlightenment and its emphasis upon logic and its rules, a logic that (the authors note in the first quote above) allows nothing outside itself any claim to truth or reality.

A major criticism of much the work of the Frankfurt School has beyond positing a totalitarian intellectual structure that accompanies the totalitarian industrial capitalist structure of which it is both reflection and defender. By refusing to exempt even their own work from the limitations late industrialism imposes upon both culture and thought, some argue, isn’t the very critique offered self-negating? Adorno in particular was prone to argue it wasn’t self-negating so much as limited in scope and of little use programmatically (thus did Lukacs deride their work as a kind of armchair Marxism, a faux-radicalism that sits in its comfortable chair overlooking the abyss around them and commenting with neither experience nor an offer for release upon the chaos around them). Theirs was descriptive rather than proscriptive in part because capitalism and the Enlightenment project offered little in the way of substantive alternatives to their increasingly violent and anti-intellectual demands for rigid conformity.

It has always fascinated me that European Protestant radicals understood the moral vacuum that the Enlightenment had become a generation before secular radicals presented it as the source of its own destruction. In part it was the very division of labor, expressed in the University in the division of the pursuit of knowledge that led to this gap. Barth took a look at the reality of European society destroying itself in the trenches on the one hand, and the grandiose promises of liberal Protestantism as a source of universal brotherhood and peace and knew that one or the other had to be wrong. Barth was, however, focused (at least at that time) on the ways the Enlightenment project in Protestantism had failed in the practice of the actual churches who had, like the socialists in the warring nations, foregone their solidarity for a fervent and suicidal nationalism.

Adorno and Horkheimer, exiles in the United States from the horrors of Nazi Germany, saw the triumph of German arms across Europe as the final expression both of industrial capitalism and Enlightenment. Because they were Marxists (unlike Barth who, while sympathetic to socialism was hardly a secular political radical), they missed the dissolution of the Enlightenment in the horrors of the First World War because they understood that war as capitalism by other means rather some self-destructive impulse embedded within capitalism itself. It took the nightmares of fascism and totalitarianism to make clear that capitalism was nothing more than a degenerate shadow of its former self, the Enlightenment nothing more than an apologia for mass death.

Because of the division of labor, and the disdain with which theology was held (and is still held) by the secular University, the self-destructiveness of the Enlightenment either was missed or dismissed (as it was by von Harnack and others) as a return to an anti-intellectualism that reveled in myth and mystery. Thus is post-modernism still derided by those last, desperate believers in the Enlightenment project as a going concern in western society. Even as industrial capitalism is replaced by the service economy (which includes as its highest embodiment a group once understood as leeches upon the body politic, the investment banker), there are those who insist the Enlightenment is our only hope of escape, with post-modernism being little more than the old myth and religion gussied up in fancy words and phrases.

We live in an age in which the critiques of capitalism, its religious expression in western Europe in liberal Protestantism and cultural expression in the Enlightenment, have borne themselves out. We continue to scramble in the dust, understanding that ours should not be the creation of any edifice that upholds a society continuing its bent toward self-destruction. I believe that, while a creation and creature of its historical moment, “The Concept of Enlightenment” can at the very least offer us the possibility of escaping the traps that still exist in a capitalist society gone senile.

Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times

To put it bluntly, it would be as misleading today to recommend Walter Benjamin as a literary critic and essayist as it would have been misleading to recommend Kafka of 1924 as a short-story writer and novelist. The describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements, such as: his erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised texts and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but, “Walter Benjamin by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian and he was not particularly interested in the Bible; he was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotiations; he was the was the first Germ to translate Proust (together with Franz Hess) and St.-John Perse, and before that he had translated Baudelaire’s Tablueax Parisiens, but he was no translator; he reviewed books and wrote a number of essays on living and dead writers, but he was no literary critic; he wrote a book about the German baroque and left behind a huge unfinished study of the French nineteenth century, but he as no historian, literary or otherwise; I shall try to show that he thought poetically, but he was neither a poet nor a philosopher. – Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times, pp.155-156


The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs.  The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.  At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.  Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.   It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258

Walter Benjamin at work

Walter Benjamin at work

Georg Lukacs wrote of some members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno in particular:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss” which I described […] as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

In much the same way, Adorno was critical of his mentor and friend Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production”, “I am all too aware of the weakness of the work. And this consists, to put it crudely, in the tendency to engage in Jeremiads and polemics” (Quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Selected With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, p.249n78), a charge I find all the more fascinating and lacking in ironic self-awareness considering Adorno’s tendency toward the exaggerated statement for elucidating a far more mundane point (something Lepper, the editor of the above volume of Adorno’s writings on music, notes early and often as part of Adorno’s “style”). Indeed, “Art In The Age Of Mechanical Production” may well be one of the most positive statements regarding the revolutionary potential of popular art (film in this case) from a leftist perspective written in the 20th century.

Just as Lukacs became contemptuous of the kind of too-comfortable armchair dialectics of Adorno and his circle, Adorno’s rejection of Benjamin precisely because he was “undialectic” (quoted in Arendt, p.162) and spoke scathingly of Benjamin’s “attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were.” (Arendt, p.163), sprung both from a fairly meritorious critical eye which nevertheless missed the deeper heart of the one being criticized. While it may well have been the case that Adorno’s life was just a tad too comfortable for one claiming a mantle as a revolutionary, so, too, were Benjamin’s works, in Arendt’s words, the strangest kind of Marxism. For Benjamin, however, his dedication to the revolutionary cause, while certainly a vital part of the intellectual toolkit he brought to every task – he came very close to joining the party in the mid-1920’s – was nevertheless uncomfortable enough with Marxist dialectics and a materialism stripped of its spiritual dimension that even to call him a Marxist (Lukacs mentions Benjamin as among his circle of “comrades” for which he grew contemptuous) is a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his work.

Born in 1892, coming of age just prior to World War I, seeing little in Weimar Germany to recommend itself either to himself as critic or to others as a writer, finally trapped within the maelstrom of history in western Europe in the 1930’s, Benjamin took his own life after, having already made an arduous trek through southwestern France, precious papers in hand to allow him passage, he arrived at the Spanish border the day Spain closed its doors (albeit temporarily; no one, of course, could have known this at the time) to refugees from unoccupied France. His decision to end his own life, while certainly tragic (Berthold Brecht wrote that Benjamin’s death was the first real victory for the Nazi’s against German literature), was, given the circumstances, easily understandable. Not well known in his own time, his closest friends and supporters long since gone to the United States, and his physical, emotional, financial, and probably psychological resources spent, how is one person suppose to stand against the juggernaut of that moment in European history?

All the same, I think Arendt’s inclusion of Benjamin in a volume dedicated to extraordinary people living through extraordinary times (essay subjects include Lessing, Pope John XXIII, Brecht, and Karl Jaspers along with Benjamin and a couple others) is more than a little misleading. Benjamin was, alas, no more a product and commentator upon his times than he was a “simple” literary critic or historian or theologian. Indeed, paying attention to Arendt’s descriptions of Benjamin’s work, the themes she emphasizes, and the examples she cites, it becomes clear that Walter Benjamin was far more a man of the 19th century, particularly 19th century Paris with its rich bohemian subculture, than of the 20th. He was well educated yet could not bear the thought of academe. Like many children of that first generation of German Jews to succeed at assimilation, Benjamin neither considered himself “Jewish” nor did he wish so to be perceived, yet he ran up against official and cultural and social anti-Semitism throughout his life, policies that restricted what he as an unbaptized yet also unpracticing Jew could achieve. Despite this, throughout his adult life, he flirted (at the very least) with Zionism, having made friends with Gerhard Scholem before the First World War broke out. He was constantly writing Scholem that he was considering emigration to Jerusalem, yet he could never quite make the leap precisely because it involved labeling both his person and his work indelibly as “Jewish”, something he didn’t care to do.

Like the description Arendt gives in the epigrammatic quote concerning Benjamin’s literary interests and output, Benjamin was also jealous of his own prerogative concerning the kind of man, the individual, he wished to be. Arendt uses a the French word flâneur as what best suits Benjamin. It is no surprise that part of his never-completed Arcades project saw light under the title “Die flâneur”. The flâneur were a type, not quite a class and certainly not a “community” as we would understand it, who had a certain presence in 19th century Paris. Often derided as bums, they were children of wealthy bourgeois homes who, having no responsibilities to themselves or others, would wander through the streets and arcades and boulevards of Paris, taking in what there was to see and hear, experiencing what there was to experience, without any particular rhyme or reason. Obviously there is something more than a little decadent (both in literal and political uses of the word) about such living. At the same time, there’s an attractiveness to the kind of freedom – freedom from financial worry; freedom from interpersonal responsibility; freedom from the any sense of a purpose or end to such activities – that still appeals. They were, in a word, bohemians, although perhaps without the aesthetic self-consciousness of some such.

Benjamin was comfortable in academic work (his Habilitationschrift was a study of German Baroque Tragedy), with the popular essay (“Unpacking My Library”), critical appreciation (essays on Brecht and Kafka), and even venturing a typically Marxist style and subject matter (“Theses On History”). He both desired the approval of academics, yet because of the demand that he be baptized before he could serve on a University faculty (that would have required him acknowledging his Jewishness as definitive, something he never wanted to do), was never really desirous of such a position. He could play with a variety of vocabularies – Marxist, theological, aesthetic, poetic – without either losing his distinctive voice; he could use these styles without ever becoming so immersed in them he lost his particularity. That particularly after the First World War Benjamin always kept his options open both with Zionism and Communism (two ideologies that vocally detested one another), he never concerned himself even with having to make a choice. He faced the criticisms of friends (Adorno) and mentors (Scholem) with a kind of equanimity borne, I think, from a kind of self-awareness that allowed him to know they just didn’t get him.

What to many might seem the inconsequential, perhaps even dilettante, concerns – his bibliomania, for one; an incident, highlighted by Arendt, of Benjamin becoming enthralled by two grains of wheat upon which a prayerful soul had inscribed the entire Shema Israel – and see in them an importance that others, far more concerned with the scope and sweep of History, not only wouldn’t see, but couldn’t see. This, too, is a kind of aestheticism, a very 19th century attitude toward life and the world that was very much out of place in a world riven first by tragedy in Benjamin’s early adulthood, soon to be destroyed completely. Most intellectuals considered the First World War, with its destruction of a species of European cosmopolitanism, a “turning point” in the most literal way: historical reality had invalidated the best hopes of the previous century and there was, thus, no going back. Yet it was Benjamin who wrote in his “Theses on History” that history was an Angel, her eyes turned toward the wreckage of the past, always being pulled backwards with the present moment. For Benjamin, that wreckage was both very real yet also still held the truth of what had constituted it in the very piles of dust and brick and bone and blood. Far happier in Paris than he ever had been in his native Berlin, far more attracted to the minutiae of life than to the grand sweep of History, quite happy to write quasi-Marxist cultural criticism or an appreciation of Brecht’s early works, Benjamin was far more a creature of an irretrievable past than he was the historical moments through which he lived.

We usually consider people to be products primarily of the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions within which they live. Benjamin, however, while never rejecting his own times, was nevertheless a half-conscious throwback. His “No” to his times – exemplified in his adoption of a Marxist vocabulary while never fully embracing either Marxism or the Communist Party – was as much a desire to reclaim a better past as it was a hope in a future no longer touched by the desolation of his own particular times.

There is something tragically heroic in such a stance, one which understands one’s own time only as a negation both of what has been and what will be. As long as life promises possibilities, it is easy enough to face adversity and continue to struggle on. Facing the full wrath of Historical forces beyond anyone’s ability either to withstand or even comprehend, however, that ghostly past and evanescent future can be crushed along with everything else. Thus was Benjamin’s end, death by his own hand, comprehensible. The gigantic machinery of mass death was pushing hard upon him, resisted by the equally strong forces of those who, acting out of fear, became its unwitting agents, would leave few of us the wherewithal to carry on. If the First World War had destroyed the 19th century, it is not hard to imagine one such as Walter Benjamin, believing the Gestapo was close on his heels and his only escape route now closed, to understand this new war, waged by demonic forces of anti-culture and anti-humanity, might well destroy not only the 20th, but perhaps the 21st as well.

It has been the work of many to resurrect Benjamin’s life and work, reconstitute his correspondence, and try  best to explain this one individual, lost in his own time, to those who have come after who, perhaps, feel more than a little affinity for one who just wasn’t completely at home in his own times. His subject matter might seem to be inconsequential. His style might seem eclectic, even precious on occasion. His scope of interests  are not quite as clear if we consider only what was published in his lifetime. All the same, this incomplete life (Benjamin was three years younger than I am now when he died) and his incomplete work together demonstrate that even fragments can be meaningful.

After all, someone once wrote the Shema Israel on two grains of wheat. In the scraps of life we might yet find the whole of history, if we are willing to look with enough care.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ethics

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. . . . The knowledge of good and evil shows that [humanity] is no longer at one with [it] origin. . . .

The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. . . . It is no longer a matter of a man’s own knowledge of goo and evil, but only of the living will of God; our knowledge of God’s will is not something over which we ourselves dispose, but it depends solely upon the grace of God, and this grace is and requires to be new every morning. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp.17, 38


This book is not the Ethics which Dietrich Bonhoeffer intended to have published. – Eberhard Bethge, “Editor’s Preface,” p.7


Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics . . . – Me, “Richard Rorty ‘Texts and Lumps’, No One Special, October 11, 2016

Albrecht Durer's engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Albrecht Durer’s engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Once many years ago I tried to explain Bonhoeffer’s basis for his Christian ethical reflection to someone. Needless to say, even quoting the author didn’t do much good. If one is predisposed to believe that the Christian life entails moral absolutes that are timeless, true always and forever across time and space and language and culture, then hearing that a well-known if little studied Christian theologian calls bunk on that just won’t sound right. All the same, the opening pages in Bonhoeffer’s collected writings on Christian ethics were little less than a bomb going off for me.

I remember the day I read this. It was a Saturday afternoon, mid-September, 1991. I was listening to . . . something . . . on the radio. The music was little more than background noise. I was taking a seminar on Bonhoeffer’s writings, and first up on the agenda was Ethics. A strange choice considering that of all his major works published after his death, it is precisely this volume that would have given the living Bonhoeffer fits. Assembled from bits and pieces of writings scattered across the years 1939 to Bonhoeffer’s execution in 1945, some of which his literary executor and editor admitted were written on scattered pieces of paper, some just a single sentence, the result can best be described as a mishmash of traditional Lutheran ethical reflection combined with truly mind-blowing insights.

When I read that first chapter, I remember thinking, “Oh my God! Did I just read what I thought I read?” I went back and read that chapter again. Yup. I did indeed read exactly what I thought I’d read the first time.

Words like “morality” get tossed around both by philosophers and non-philosophers as if everyone knew precisely what we’re talking about. Bonhoeffer gets to the heart of the problem with so much ethical and moral thought by insisting that, rather than concern itself with “good” and “evil”, proper Christian ethical reflection concerns itself with the will of God, sought and lived anew each day. Rather than yet again redefine a concept that had become (to use Rorty’s phrase) shopworn, Bonhoeffer cleared the boards completely.

I felt myself at a bit of an impasse regarding matters related to what it meant to live as a Christian; the relevance of personal moral uprightness to the call to live faithfully; the demand for a social ethic that replaced personal moralizing with a kind of political moralizing; these things and more were pushing me to wonder whether or not I could, in good conscience, even call myself a Christian. Then along comes Bonhoeffer. The Gordian Knot into which my brain had been turned was not only cut; the sword that dangled from it pierced me all the way through. It is impossible to describe every thought and feeling I had that warmish September afternoon 25 years ago. I can say with certainty that I felt an enormous, “YES!” ringing through the world, as if simultaneously confirming my questions were the right questions and that this, this presentation right here, offered a solution consonant with Christian Scripture and Christian doctrine that, while perhaps not fully realized by the author, was among the more revolutionary statements Christian theology produced in the first half of the 20th century.

“Does this mean you don’t believe in right and wrong?” That was the question I was asked a decade ago when I tried to explain all this. The answer to that question is simple: Any four-year-old understands the concepts of right and wrong. The belief for one moment that serious, faithful reflection on Christian living in our contemporary milieu should explain something clear enough to toddlers is ridiculous on its face. “Believing” in right and wrong is neither here nor there. As, too, is the distinction between good and evil. I remember well in the time after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington some on the right insisting that “liberals” were unwilling to call an evil act evil, or that the person who performed an evil act, in Pres. Bush’s words, an “evil doer”. Again, what relevance does such labeling have for serious reflection upon faithful living?

I think the best example of why I find the whole “Call it evil!” business is the following, in which I quote at length a piece no longer available on the web:

Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.

The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.

A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.

I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.

That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.

The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.

People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.

Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.

But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.

If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.

One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.

But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong. – “”Moral Indignation,” May 8, 2010

Whether it’s kitten-burning, or demanding liberals call evil acts “evil” or somehow be complicit in them, for some reason the proof of a proper moral outlook can only ever be that everyone speak out against, well, kitten burning and terrorism. As if somehow that makes on a moral person.

Denying to the Christian life any concern with good and evil certainly does not mean either being insouciant about them or, worse, condoning immoral acts. In just the same way, Christian ethical reflection does not exclude particular matters from consideration, including the old standbys of smoking, drinking, and sex on the one hand, or how best to participate in the social and political life of one’s community, whether that be local, national, or international. Rather, Bonhoeffer’s claim here directs the believer’s attention toward God and Divine Will. There aren’t any eternal moral laws, either revealed or accessible to reason. There is no once-for-all-time declaration from the Almighty regarding “what ought we to do”, whether in our personal or social conduct. All there is, for those whose faith declares the crucified, dead, and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, is a reliance upon Divine grace. This grace is, as Bonhoeffer notes, new each day. So, too, is the answer to the question, “What ought we to do?” Asking questions about good and bad or right and wrong, demanding to know the immutable moral will of God isn’t “wrong” in some absolute sense. They’re just the wrong questions to ask, the wrong matters with which to be concerned should one be seeking an authentic Christian life.

This is one reason why I find so much of our current moral discourse, whether it’s political or within the churches, so appalling. Rather than seeking in prayer what it is we are called to do, we pronounce eternal judgment upon those with whom we happen to disagree (regardless of which “side” one finds oneself taking), ignorant of how such actions are antithetical to real Christian ethical reflection. Despite Bonhoeffer’s status as a contemporary martyr, so little is known about his thought even among those who praise his courage in the face of Nazi tyranny that bringing this particular bit of his thought to light might well cause far more problems than it solves.

I read this at the same time I’d been reading Rorty. What I saw in Bonhoeffer, this emphasis upon our limited, contingent existence; a refusal to seek universal answers to particular questions; an opening to particular possibilities rather than general demands and laws; all this I understood was also part of Rorty’s ethical and political and antiepistemological agenda. I had long since become comfortable with a kind of general acceptance of the contingency of all that is as well as the necessary limits such contingency places upon us in our understanding. Now I had encountered a Christian thinker who seemed equally comfortable rejecting the long-running notion that the moral life was a set of hard-and-fast rules either revealed to humanity or accessible to human reason therefore accessible to all human beings at all times and places. Embracing human contingency of life, of thought, of language, and of action, Bonhoeffer offers the freedom from precisely all those phony and ridiculous “moral laws” and “ethical demands” that has so exercised western thought for millennia.

Few things taste and smell as sweet as that first breath of free air.

Richard Rorty, “Texts And Lumps”

The pragmatist concludes that the intuition that truth is correspondence should be extirpated rather than explicated. On this view, the notion of reality as having a “nature” to which it is our duty to correspond s simply one more variant of the notion that the gods can be placated by chanting the right words. The notion that some one among the languages mankind has used to deal with the universe is the one the universe prefers – the one which cuts things at the joints – was a pretty conceit. But by now it has become too shopworn to serve any purpose. – Richard Rorty, “Texts and Lumps,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1, p. 80

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990's.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990’s.

This is less a “review” of the article in question than it is an appreciation for a piece of writing that changed the way I think about all sorts of things. Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics; the short novel Waiting for the Galactic BusStephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life – I encountered Rorty’s essay at precisely the right moment in my life. Oddly enough, it was because I didn’t have much of a background understanding either of philosophical vocabulary in general, or the particular issues with which Rorty engages in this essay that I found something revolutionary here.

First, a brief sketch of the essay is in order. After an introduction in which he signals his major intention or erasing the assumed boundaries between the general disciplines of the natural sciences and the humanities, Rorty sketches a brief understanding of pragmatist theory regarding words such as “truth” and “objectivity”. In the course of the opening few pages, however, Rorty offers a reading of the late Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that I have since come to understand doesn’t exactly portray Kuhn’s thought so much as Rorty’s reading of Kuhn in the light of his understandings of William James and John Dewey. This, however, is less a weakness in Rorty’s larger presentation than it is a demonstration of one of the main themes of the essay: that rather than think of particular interpretations as “good” or “bad”, it is far more useful to consider interpretations as serving particular functions within a larger story one wishes to tell. To that end, Rorty’s reading of Kuhn, being not completely wrong, serves the purposes to which Rorty wishes to put it.

The bulk of the essay is a friendly discussion with E. D. Hirsch over what Hirsch insists are the clear distinctions of “meaning” and “significance”. As Rorty writes on p. 84:

. . . I think [Hirsch’s] distinction between “meaning” and “significance” is misleading in certain respects. My holistic strategy, characteristic of pragmatism (and in particular of Dewey), is to reinterpret every such dualism as a momentarily convenient blocking-out of regions along a spectrum, rather than as recognition of an ontological, or methodological, or epistemological divide.

Rorty goes on to develop this reinterpretation, using Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities” to tell a story of people looking at two unknowns, one a previously unencountered text, the other an unknown lump. What distinguishes how we come to understand what is in front of us isn’t something that inheres in either the text or the lump. Rather it is our choice of a particular set of tools for undertaking the task of understanding what it is we are encountering. One of those sets of tools might be called “chemistry”. Another might be “anthropology”. Perhaps “literary criticism” works well. It may well be the case that we choose “chemistry” to understand something we encounter because we are (a) chemists; or (b) we hold the belief that chemistry is the best method for such understanding. This no more privileges “chemistry” as a way of understanding than does the belief that “literary criticism” is not fit for our encounters with unknown lumps mean that literary criticism isn’t a source of human understanding. Encountering a text and insisting that “chemistry” is the best tool for understanding it isn’t being wrong; it’s picking up a welders mask and torch to do carpentry. Nothing more, nothing less.

Rorty’s larger philosophical project is to reinterpret the philosophical project in light of certain realities we understand to describe what it is to be human. First, we understand ourselves as radically contingent creatures both in terms of our restricted lifespan as well as in evolutionary terms. There is no reason for our existence, evolutionarily speaking. Yet precisely because Homo sapiens sapiens is a successful evolutionary species (so far) we have particular endowments that make us both survive in the competition for food and resources and thrive by continuing to reproduce. That some of these endowments include a particular set of tools we have come to call “knowledge” or “understanding” or “language” does not make any of these more interesting than, say, our upright posture and gait or our opposable thumbs. That some human beings wish that it were so and have constructed elaborate stories about why this is so does not make it so. Doing Rortian pragmatism, whether anti-epistemology or ethics, is nothing more or less than trying to find a place for philosophy in the wake of the radical understanding of ourselves as contingent creatures.

This same sense of radical contingency is present in late medieval nominalism, particularly its Ochkamist variety. Emphasizing the absolute supremacy and freedom of the Godhead, Ockham stripped the realist philosophy and theology of the High Middle Ages of its most powerful tool: It’s insistence that things that exist do so either because they reflect something Real (Plato) or because they participate in some Realness that connects like objects to like (Aristotle). Ockham would argue this is not only putting the cart before the horse; it’s assuming there are things calls “carts” and “horses” about which we can know anything prior to encountering particular instances of them (thus the term “nominalism” – it is in our naming of things they become real, rather than being real and the name being something that exists prior to our acceptance or even encounter). Because there could be nothing restricting or binding or otherwise creating necessity in the actions of the Divine, how is it possible that there might be “cartness” prior to the actual existence of the variety of things for which the word “cart” more or less fits well? Rorty is little more than a nominalist in a leisure suit.

In any event this Divine freedom precisely highlights the kind of God we Christians claim to encounter in the Incarnation: A God of love, of infinite patience and grace, the God of Election who in Jesus Christ pays the price necessary for reestablishing the creature’s relationship with the creator. Belief, then, isn’t a question of “truth” (“truth” for Christians is the person and work of Jesus Christ) or the proclamation of something eternal. On the contrary, belief is the possibility offered to we radically contingent, finite, limited, and sinful creatures. Whether it is in our proclamation, our confession, or our discipleship, we must face the reality of all our limitations as creatures.

The doors and possibilities this particular philosophical essay opened for me is difficult to describe now after so many years. When I first read this particular essay – certainly not understanding all of the references even as I understood the overarching concern – it was as if words were being given to me to say what it is I thought about the world, about our human place in it, and even about our faith as Christians. Over the decades, I have certainly become far more critical of particular parts of Rorty’s philosophical project; at heart, however, this particular essay opened up the possibility of speaking and living with a particular kind of integrity, best expressed in Karl Barth’s dictum that while we should never claim to know the truth, we should always live as if we did know the truth.

Gaston Bachelard The Poetics Of Space

The Poetics of Space is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. It is to be taken slowly – the author’s primary idea is that people crave spaces that inspire them to daydream. The style of the book is one that inspires daydreams itself; you will suddenly find that you have placed the book in your lap and you were off daydreaming! Poetics of Space is a methodical, carefully argued book which tells us that we read spaces like we read a book. There is a distinct psychology to each type of space – attics, cellars, the forest, and nests are just some of the spaces examined. The author was chair of the Philosophy department at the Sorbonne. For most of his life, he examined the philosophy of science, but in his later years he turned to artistic reverie as his main subject. The book is written with thought, love, and passion and is a tour-de-force. Highly recommended to those who enjoy poetry, philosophy, architecture or art. – Matthew Belge, Amazon.com review of The Poetics Of Space

I'm sure I had this expression on my face after reading the first 15 or so pages of Bachelard's book, having prepared myself by reading the above review before purchasing.

I’m sure I had this expression on my face after reading the first 15 or so pages of Bachelard’s book, having prepared myself by reading the above review before purchasing.

I’ve been trying to decide  if I should offer a long apologia for my review or not.

My review: Facile, purple-prosed gobbledygook. (I was going to use the word twaddle, but discovered another Amazon reviewer had stolen it)

So I guess I’m just going to leave this here.

By Whose Authority?: Burrows On Gerson’s Vision of Ecclesiology As The Source And Locus Of Authority

[Gerson] admits in a provocative digression that he considered “the authority of ruling [auctoritas regiminis] to be the very basis of religion.” This is no small point, not only in terms off the theoretical basis of his eclesiology but for grasping the broader question of his functional view of religion: religio represented for Gerson, as in its classical sense, the structuring force for society in general terms. Obedience, therefore, was not a matter of one’s reasoned conclusion that the structures or duties imposed by superiores were correct and hence acceptable. Quite the contrary: authority itself served as the basis of religion, even if concrete instances of its exercise were somehow misguided . . . – Mark Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologiae: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age, pp.264-265

Jan Hus burned at the stake at the Council of Constance. Gerson's friend and mentor, the Cardinal d'Ailly, was prosecutor. Gerson himself had been a long-time advocate for silencing Hus, agreeing with both the verdict of heresy and judgement that Hus be turned over to the secular arm for execution.

Jan Hus burned at the stake at the Council of Constance. Gerson’s friend and mentor, the Cardinal d’Ailly, was prosecutor. Gerson himself had been a long-time advocate for silencing Hus, agreeing with both the verdict of heresy and judgement that Hus be turned over to the secular arm for execution.

The quote is misattributed to Winston Churchill: ‘If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.’ Proving that a misattributed quote has little value, my own predilections and preferences have continued a leftward drift, socially, politically, and theologically. At the same time, I always temper my own radicalism with an unswerving dedication to particular institutional structures as the necessary context within which particular radicalisms make sense. For example, I have been very public in my agreement with the radical critique of American party politics and their elections as tools used by the ruling class, by and large, to provide the illusion of democratic control over public policy. In broad outlines, where the money talks and the bullshit walks, neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties differ all that much in their commitment to rapacious capitalism. A the same time, I am committed to the American electoral process – particularly in our present historical moment – as the last safeguard against the collapse of our republican experiment into a kind of amalgam of fascism and strong-man authoritarianism like much of the so-called Third World experienced during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In a similar fashion, I side with those within my own particular denomination who, exhausted by the constant struggle against a better organized yet increasingly irrelevant conservative plurality, demand we change our policies regarding sexual minorities. At the same time, any movement toward schism, whether it is a left-leaning schism or right-leaning, is abhorrent to me. My prior commitments to the institution of the United Methodist Church – both to its theology as well as its current certainly flawed really existing structure – is the framework within which my radicalism occurs, and is the background against which I believe change should occur.

In the last chapter of his study of Gerson’s De consolatione theologiae, Mark Burrows looks at how Gerson underpins his vision of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, guided by theologiae, to our final rest in God. While Gerson’s text itself, his understanding of theology as paideia, his voluntarist soteriology, and his vision of the converted viator as working with God to bring about “the new Jerusalem”, all point to a series of changes, some of them particularly progressive considering the age, to Gerson’s thought, Burrows contends this vision of a biblical and reforming theology cannot be separated from Gerson’s prior commitment to the Church as the source of authority to which all must submit. While Burrows suggests the Gerson presents the Church, too, as in via, a pilgrim Church not yet “washed clean and without blemish”, it is precisely the actual structure and order of the church and its hierarchy that reflects a divinely ordained “law and order” forming the basis for all who would wish to be “on the way”.

The theme of authority runs throughout the chapter. It’s in a discussion of Gerson’s hermeneutic and view of “tradition” as the source for understanding Scriptural texts. It lies behind his distinction between what Gerson calls iustitia fraternae, the kind of admonishments necessary for the proper ordering and functioning of the institution, and the broader framework of lex divina et ordo, which for Gerson certainly justify silencing those whose teaching and practice threaten the very fabric both of the social and the ecclesiastical order. It is the heart of his polemics against, in particular Jan Hus’s overly-moralistic “neo-Donatist” vision of the Church as comprising only those “elect from eternity”, such election providing them not only with the confidence in their works but served as the basis for Hus and his followers to dismiss the authority of what was admittedly a broken and corrupt church.

Burrows describes Gerson as both a conservative and progressive reformer. Gerson wishes zeal to be tempered by moderation and patience. Gerson envisions what Burrows repeatedly calls “a pilgrim Church”; his return to a thorough-going Augustinian anthropology discussed previously allows him the freedom to condemn the kind of moralizing Hus and his followers both taught and practiced* as missing the point about the nature of the Church in via. He opposes a regnant apocalypticism with a moderate eschatology that, while always present as an operative part of his larger theological vision, is nevertheless tempered by a faithful patience. In a time in which one of Gerson’s theological opponents was writing polemics justifying regicide while Hus’s followers continued to declare the Roman Church the anti-Christ, Gerson’s conservative progressivism was a voice of reason in a time when, it seemed, reason no longer mattered.

And it all comes back to the matter of authority. As described by Burrows, Gerson saw the hierarchies of church and society as reflecting the Divine law and order. It did little good to kick against those pricks precisely because they were instituted by God; far better to work within this lex divina et ordo so that the Church could more properly set itself as the Church on its way, yet never to reach its final goal until the end of history, an end Gerson adamantly insisted was still a long way off.

We post-moderns, accepting the modernist critique of authority, struggle with matters of authority. The opposition of the social good versus the needs of the individual still exist despite the rejection of the theoretical foundation of authority, whether rooted in revealed truth, tradition, or some metaphysical understanding of human nature. Thus we find ourselves ill-equipped to weather the particular storms of our age, whether they be within the Church in its various manifestations or in secular society with its warring groups and the voices demanding the primacy of the individual. In the midst of this cacophony, a moderate voice like Gerson’s – appealing to authority as an already-existing and necessary part of human life, ordering and limiting any individual’s place within the interwoven strands of larger commitments, whether they’re social, political, or religious – would be welcome while, I think, little heard.

It is at this point that I want to add just a couple thoughts. First, I am glad that, 24 years after I purchased it, I committed myself to reading and reflecting on Mark Burrows’s book. This afternoon I was thinking of Ecclesiastes, how there seems to be a time for all things and each thing; this particular moment in the life of my own Church makes discovering Jean Gerson and his tempered progressive vision of reform not only welcome but, I think, important. Like Gerson’s insistence that theology is too important to be left to the professional theologians, Burrows’ book is far too important a source for insight into the complex and confounding history of the Church as well as one of its more neglected theologians to be relegated to academic church historians. While certainly not an “easy” read, it is one that should have a far broader audience precisely because in our own disordered age we are in dire need of a Biblical and reforming theology that is conservative in the best sense of the word while nevertheless progressive as is necessary.

And a special thanks to my good friend Mike Jones. A fellow Wesley Seminarian, I asked Mike to oversee my reading, holding me accountable both for reading and writing these reflections. Because of my commitment to that covenant, I feel like I’ve gained much from this study of Gerson’s dialogue. As I move on, I feel grateful for the peace that passes all understanding, as Gerson ended De consolatione theologiae, as it accompanies my further reading.

*It is not for nothing that while I sympathize in principle with Hus’s condemnation both of the structural rot of the Mother Church as well as the scandalous practices from simony to concubinage prevalent within the hierarchy I believe most of my immediate contemporaries would find little attractive in Hus’s highly moralizing vision of the Church. It is one thing to be right in principle; it is a wholly other thing to be right in all the wrong ways. Hus may have been correct in his description of the Church, and his judicial murder solved little; that does not make Hus’s antidote any more correct. It was a villainous era with few heroes, including Jan Hus and Jean Gerson.

It Is A Fearful Thing To Fall Into The Hands Of The Living God: Soteriology & Providence In De consolatione theologiae

In Christ, beside the divine will – for He was Himself God – the threefold will . . . is to be found. According to the first Christ wished continually whatsoever God willed, praising and approving the order of divine wisdom, goodness, and justice in whatever God willed and accomplished: in heaven regarding salvation, in the abyss of condemnation, and on land and sea regarding the various activities of those to be saved and those damned. Therefore we ought to imitate Jesus according to this will, even if we are not in everything able while we live to reach equality, both because we have not yet been confirmed and because through the second of these wills the higher will within us is able to be distracted and disturbed. – Jean Gerson, De consolatione theologiae, quoted in Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologiae: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age, p. 201.

The Resurrection Of Jesus.

The Resurrection Of Jesus.

It is only fitting that the pivot point both of Mark Burrows’s study of Gerson as well as Gerson’s work is a consideration of the doctrine of soteriology, one which Burrows describes through the title of the fourth chapter as via media et regia. Encompassing as it does matters of Christology, atonement, election, anthropology, and Providence, how we understand and live through our understanding of salvation is how we show the world who we believe God to be. The heart of Christian discipleship lies here; matters of justification, questions of freedom within an acceptance of Divine Providence as absolute, and the place of the crucified and risen Jesus; the ethical obligation placed upon those who seek to be conformed to Christ; we either get these things right exactly at this point or we end up in a muddle.

Thus it is this particular chapter is both lengthy and extremely technical both in its exposition of Gerson’s views on these matters as well as in Burrows’s rhetorical point that by presenting a way through the scholastic divide presented by a near-absolute determinism on the one hand and a Pelagius-like reliance on the human will to achieve salvation through works Gerson has altered his previous reliance upon one particular strand of late-medieval thought. It would be ridiculous to attempt a summary of all Burrows has to say without essentially retyping his entire chapter. For our purposes, therefore, I wish to focus upon Burrows’s explanation of Gerson’s rather high Christology, with its emphases upon Divine grace as granting faith to those who have succumbed to the despair described in the previous post. I also want to point out how Gerson’s acceptance both of Divine election as well as the burden placed upon the Christian to follow Christ – using the late-medieval idea of imitatio Chisti – not only demonstrates what Burrows’s calls Gerson’s “linear dialectic” of despair and hope, but preserves a particular imputed dignity to the one living through faith in hope lived out in acts of charity. To those familiar with Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, much of this might well sound familiar.

After opening sections in which Burrows grounds Gerson’s soteriology both upon the absolute will of God in the Divine Election and a species of pessimistic Augustinian anthropology, Burrows answers the unasked question: If God’s will is indeed absolute and the human condition is one of sin in its three-fold expression – original, acted, and habitual – upon what rock does human hope rest? That cycle of despair discussed previously, it would seem, leaves us nowhere but a kind of existential terror. It is precisely at this point in the discussion that Burrows begins a section entitled “Pastoral Theology In A New Key: The viator’s Role As Seeker”. Introducing this theme, Burrows writes on p. 176:

Gerson quite deliberately opposes any form of trust in one’s own accomplishments; salvation is “not by works,” since these inevitably lead to desperation in one’s abilities coram judice Deo. But the broader structure of the Ockhamist soteriology apparently remains intact: that is, what Gerson takes away through his suspicion of moral works he replaces with a covenant of seeking. Hence, the shift in the pastoral basis of Gerson’s soteriology from facientibus  to inquirentibus is extremely significant, since this conceptualization of the biblical covenant by which viatores become contractual partners with God both avoids absolute resignation while also preempting the pride falling upon those who trust in i own works as effecting salvation. Justification is “by grace alone” and not strictly speaking by works, though the biblical covenant of Heb. 11.6 calls viatores to the “work” of seeking God and trusting in divine rather than human iustitia.

Further, on page 177, he specifies the locus of our faith in and hope for salvation:

In a striking passage early in De consolatione theologiae Gerson establishes faith as the operative concept – or what has been called the “Klammer” or brackets – by which divine and human freedom are held together, thereby distancing his soteriology from the acceptatio Dei doctrine which for Scotus had served this purposes. . . .

Having argued that predestination and election occur “from eternity” and according to the “pure generosity and grace” of God, . . . [Gerson] argues that although God has ordained “fitting means without number for acquiring the “beatitude” that God’s acceptance promises, “principal among these means is grace” itself

It is important to point out that for Gerson this is not the mediated grace of the sacraments, relying as this idea did upon the idea of faith as a “deposit” held by the Church to be offered through sacramental practice to the faithful. Rather, this is the grace of Jesus Christ, of whom Gerson writes (quoted by Burrows on pp. 177-178), “since He has merited this grace in sufficient measure for all . . . .”

The rock of human hope, a word Gerson uses specifically (p. 184), then is the crucified and risen Christ. What Burrows calls Gerson’s “linear dialectic” of despair (from a zealous scrupulosity) and hope (rooted by faith in the hope that the Divine iustitia is incarnate in the crucified and risen Christ rather than any human act). As Burrows writes on p. 184:

[This inquiry into the linear dialectic} drives to the very heart of Gerson’s soteriology, exposing the foundation of his via media where doctrinal and pastoral considerations coalesce: namely his understanding of how faith and righteousness intersect, following the Pauline formuation credere ad iustitiam (Rom. 10.10). Indeed, this these establishes the biblical rational for Gerson’s newly conceived pastoral theology by which he argues for a “certitude” of salvation, since viatores who “believe unto righteousness” do so by moving from despair in themselves and their own iustitia to hope in God and a trust in the divine iustitia.

After moving through a discussion of humility and its place as the root of Christian discipleship, Burrows then asks the following question (p. 203) that pushes to the heart of the late-medieval conflict between a too-confident reliance upon imputed righteousness through good works (particularly partaking in the sacramental life of the Church) and a view of Election and Providence not just as precognition but as pure determinism, stripping humanity – and indeed all of creation – of any freedom whatsoever. “[I]s [Gerson’s] theology of seeking, rooted as it is in a mystical doctrine of justification, compatible with the voluntarist emphases of his soteriology, and particularly with his admonition that viatores are to conform their wills to God’s?”

This, it seems to me, is the question each generation of the Church must face squarely. How do we faithfully reconcile what, in plain terms, seems irreconcilable? After noting that Gerson’s discussion of the human will, discipleship as imitatio Christi in a particularly moral framework, Burrows notes that Gerson still does not allow this as the basis for any alignment of the Divine and human wills. “Ultimately, the conformity of the human and divine wills depends upon divine grace, as mediated per Jesum Christum, such that Gerson place the discussion of imitatio Christi within the broader soteriological framework of Christus victor.” (p. 205)

[D]oes Gerson allow any language of the free conformity of the will from the human side? Apparently his via media does allow for this, although without giving up any ground on the question of election. And with this he falls back upon the language of paradox, offering an argument strikingly similar to Aquinas’s explanation that “man’s turning to God is by free choice, and thus man is bidden to turn himself to God;but free choice can be turned to God only when God turns it.” Gerson echoes this Thomist theme in essential structure and logic . . . . [Gerson] prefers to speak of the human will not as free in an unqualified sense, but as “free by participation” in God’s higher will; the human will must be “freed” by participation in the divine will, since the libertas arbitrii is ultimately “fortified” and “established” insofar as the human will is “vivified in Go through grace.” (p.205)

It should be noted at this juncture that, as I pointed out at the beginning, Burrows roots Gerson’s soteriology in part in a thoroughgoing pessimistic Augustinian anthropology; yet Burrows does not point out that here, at the other end as it were of any discussion of theological anthropology we come face to face with the Bishop of Hippo’s understanding of how grace works in the life of the believer. To this extent, while Gerson might well be using the language of late-medieval nominalism, his thought is rooted in the heart of Christian theology – St. Augustine.

This idea of human freedom as “participation” leads directly to a discussion of Providence as “co-operation” of God and viatores.

[V]iatores serve as partners in God’s providence, and thereby act with a freedom which confers upon them what Thomas had called “the dignity of causality”. God’s ministratio does not stand over against, but encompasses free human acts in the broad spectrum of causation, yet these require “beyond nature” the “gratuitous governance of the spiritual” in order to attain “to the goal of eternal beatitude . . . an eschatological qualification which again brackets the scope of human freedom in teleological terms.

This conception of ministratio Dei, which unites divine and human freedom in a process of cooperation, overcomes any tendency toward determinism in Gerson’s soteriology. And, against a synergism of human acts, he conceives of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love along with “the prayer linked to them” as the means by which the viator freely chooses to “participate” in the divine will. (p. 208)

If this sounds familiar to any United Methodists, it should. With a high doctrine of Divine Freedom, a high Christology, and a modified Augustinian understanding of the redeemed human person as participant in the Divine will, viewed eschatologically, there is much in Burrows’s description of Gerson’s soteriology and Providence that resonates with Wesley’s view that sanctification is much the same journey Gerson’s viator travels, one’s actions ever more rooted in love for others to the glory of God (Wesley’s understanding of human perfection). I’m not suggesting Gerson is a protean Wesleyan (anymore than Burrows cautions readers in seeing Gerson a kind of proto-Lutheranism, either in a too facile sola scripturasola gratia, or sola fide). I am suggesting, however, that the roots of Wesley’s teachings regarding sanctification have deep theological roots that extend not only to the East, as is pointed out a bit too often. Those roots also lie squarely within this Western church tradition through Gerson to Duns Scotus, St. Thomas, and St. Augustine.

Gerson’s vision of humanity as free participants along with God in the penultimate work of preparing Creation for that final beatific presence not only snatches hope from the jaws of despair; it preserves the notion of humanity created imago Dei, this Divine image restoring itself by faith through grace in hope God’s righteousness, incarnate in the crucified and risen Christ, really is the final arbiter of divine justice.