Six Scholars, Six Accounts of God and the Moral Life — Myriam Renaud

May 15, 2014

University of Chicago Professor, William Schweiker, said it best: the conference, “God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities,” was “dedicated to one of the most profound and far-reaching questions in the religious and moral life.” The global scene, he holds, is “alive—maybe ablaze”—over the question of the relationship between God and the moral life. Indeed, people murder and perish each day because of the ways in which they answer this question.
 
Eleven scholars made their way to the University of Chicago Divinity School from around the United States and Europe to participate in the conference. They began their lectures by setting forth the particular problem or issue they planned to address. Their framing problems or issues are familiar ones. The existential concerns of theologians are concerns that we all share.
 
In our struggle to know God and what God demands of us, we are driven, each in his or her own way, to the task of theology. Seeking to answer fundamental, human questions, academic theologians confirm their relevance. They provide us with helpful resources and with useful models for “doing” our own theology. These scholars generally focus on one or two key theologians and philosophers to “think with.” To this end, scholars study, in-depth, the ideas developed by these key theologians and philosophers, fighting the temptation to reduce complex arguments to simple formulas. When “thinking with” more than one theologian or philosopher, academic theologians take each thinker on his or her own terms, noting commonalities and desisting from harmonizing his or her ideas if doing so risks distorting them.
 
The Marty Center takes seriously its mission to promote conversation about important religious issues, in part by funding expensive conferences like the one on God and the moral life. Blessed are the graduate students who are selected to receive funding while, as Junior Fellows, they spend a year in the Marty Center engaged in research, writing, and collegial exchange. Tragically, however, many other centers and institutions of higher learning have seen their budgets slashed. Lacking financial resources, they don’t offer tenure-track positions, or they assign such heavy teaching loads that junior faculty members struggle to find time to devote to original research. Academic theologians are an endangered species. Their work and the vital resources they provide us are in peril.
 
For now, though, the work continues. Today’s Sightings finishes the task, started in last week's Sightings (May 8, 2014, see "Resources" for link), of summarizing the lectures given by the conference’s presenters (with whom it was an honor for me to share the podium). Here are the remaining six summaries:

1.         What do we do in the face of atrocities, keynote-speaker Michael Fishbane(University of Chicago) asks. Do we hide? Do we, in Nietzsche's words, let insane laughter rattle down the hall? Or do we remain standing and allow horrors to make a claim on us? 

Our response, Fishbane argues, is tied to the level of the self we've attained. He identifies three levels.

As a natural self, our drive to keep going and our ability to interpret the world and our experiences are intertwined. Sometimes horrors reduce us to near paralysis and we rely “on small gestures.” Other times, we turn toward our condition and open up to the world.
 
As a cultural self, we participate in the interpretive work of our community and are characterized by multiple loops of entwinement. We learn about ourselves by studying the sacred texts of our religious community. Faced with horrors, we may seek to save our faith—because its framework provides us with stability, we may attempt reassert the role of tradition with desperate arguments and meaningless rhetoric. Alternatively, our attitude may be transformed into one of compassion.
 
The highest level, the theological self, breaks through our religious tradition’s sacred texts, exploding self-serving paradigms in favor of God-centered ones. We are reformed into a disposition of humility and are graced by endless intimations of God’s name: “I Shall Be.” Our interpretive work arises from our divine depths and our spiritual values make physical trials bearable.
 
2.         William Schweiker (University of Chicago) asks what we mean when we speak of the highest good. To answer this question, he “thinks with” the German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and “with” the English co-founder of Methodist Protestantism, John Wesley (1708-1791).
 
Happiness, for Kant, results when our basic needs are met and human life can flourish.Christian happiness, for Wesley, results when we perceive “the divine life animating one’s own life.” Wesley also has a notion of holiness that unfolds in stages until we reach perfection: the “complete love of God and love of the neighbor as one’s self.”
 
Both Kant and Wesley argue that we need God to secure happiness: to procure the goods that meet our basic needs (Kant) and to animate our lives with the divine life (Wesley). Schweiker adds his own twist: he maintains that happiness requires both conditions—sufficient goods to meet our basic needs and the divine life to animate our own.
 
Kant and Wesley conceive of God as guarantor of the highest human good—the combination of happiness and virtue (Kant), or happiness and holiness (Wesley). Schweiker also conceives of God as guarantor but he revises their notion of the human good. For him, the good, grounded in this life, is “bound to the responsibility of persons and communities to exercise and enhance the integrity of life, human, non-human, and even divine life.”
 
3.         When she noticed the shame and guilt of postcolonial, postmodern theologians over the harm wrought by colonial and modern ideologies, Mayra Rivera Rivera(Harvard Divinity School) sought words and practices to help these theologians express these feelings.
 
Rivera finds inspiration in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), a French, Roman Catholic philosopher. As she “thinks with” Merleau-Ponty, she notes that he did not look away from his religious tradition’s complicity in the Holocaust. Instead, he wrestled with the failure of Christians to act until he identified the cause. The Catholic view of God contains an ambiguity—God is both interior and exterior. We assume that by going inward, God is immediately accessible, but by doing so, we turn away from the outer world and are no longer affected by it. When we turn inward, the site of intimacy with God, we turn away from the poor and the stranger.
 
In God’s incarnation, Merleau-Ponty sees a prescription. By becoming flesh, God consented to become externalized. God became flesh, not in the sense of “body,” but in the sense of the relationship between our bodies and things in the world. God thus privileged the world and calls on Christians to do the same. Following Merleau-Ponty, Rivera concludes that her theologian friends’ shame and guilt are to be expressed through actions in service of this world.

 4.         Joshua Daniel (University of Chicago) asks about multiculturalism—are we limited to offering alliances with Others or can we can offer them recognition? To answer these questions, he “thinks with” the American theologian, Jonathan Edward (1708-1858).
 
In Edwards’ triune theology, the Son of God is God’s idea of Himself. Since God’s ideas must be perfect, the Son is perfect, shining forth God’s glory. In the Son, God the Father sees His face as if He were looking at Himself in a mirror. The Son manifests God’s beauty to the Father. The Son comes to love and delight in the Father just as the Father loves and delights in the Son. With the Holy Spirit, an infinitely sacred energy, the triune God achieves fullness of being and of mutual recognition.
 
The triune God breathes within Itself and towards us; in this way, we humans participate in the triune fullness and are objects of God’s divine recognition and particular love. God beholds His glory in His creatures.
 
Based on Edwards’ work, Daniel answers his central question—by participating in the Triune God, we recognize each other as potentially divine regardless of our cultural differences.
 
5.         For Myriam Renaud (University of Chicago), God is the ultimate reference point guiding and orienting our lives. Given the daily violence that perpetrators claim is condoned or demanded by God, a passive moral relativism toward concepts of God is not tenable. Renaud thus asks: how can we determine whether a concept of God is validly moral?
 
Renaud elects to “think with” the American theologian Gordon Kaufman (1925-2011) who argues that no knowledge of God, whether cognitive or experiential, is certain. For Kaufman, the God of Whom we speak is a concept that we imaginatively construct. He develops a theological method to help theists construct, or more likely, reconstruct their concepts of God.
 
Seeking a strong moral test with global buy-in to identify validly-moral concepts of God—whether generated by Kaufman’s method or not—Renaud turns to the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic. The Global Ethic’s four directives were drafted by the German theologian, Hans Küng, vetted by religious ethicists from various traditions, and ratified by several thousand delegates at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions. TheGlobal Ethic claims to make explicit the shared moral directives that are, by and large,implicit in the world’s cultural and religious traditions. Though the directives are often ignored, all of the traditions already accede to them, endorse them, and are bound by them.
 
To test the claim that directives are held in common, Renaud teases out the Global Ethic’s assumptions about the highest human good. She compares these to the UN Development Programme’s metrics of human development (i.e. human good). She finds a strong correlation between the two. Accordingly, Renaud advocates relying on theGlobal Ethic to evaluate concepts of God to determine whether they are validly moral. 

6.         God, for keynote-speaker David Tracy (Emeritus, University of Chicago), is infinite love. Tracy identifies, in the history of ideas, moments when God, the infinite, intersects with ethics.
 
The historical arc drawn by Tracy begins with the ancient Greek philosopher, Plotinus (204/5-270), who first conceives of God as infinite—the infinite One who is also the Good. The One, the dynamic source of all reality, is impersonal, uncaring, and ineffable. Still, for Plotinus, all of reality is good since it emanates from the One, the Good.
 
Tracy next focuses on the Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), for whom God is infinite and therefore incomprehensible to our finite minds. Unlike Plotinus’ infinite One, Gregory’s Christian God is infinite love. We, with our infinite love for the infinite God, stretch in this life into infinite life, reaching toward unreachable knowledge of God. For Gregory, it is good to stretch; change is a constant and it is a good.
 
Tracy’s retracing of history ends with the twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who, unique in his time, developed an ethics of the infinite. For Levinas, the Other [person] is radically Other. This Other makes an infinite claim on us; indeed, the Other’s most fundamental command is “Don’t kill me.” The God who comes to mind is the Ultimate Other.
 
Tracy hopes that attention to the concept of the infinite will eventually become as standard in the history of ethics as it has become in mathematics. The advantage? God as infinite opens, rather than resolves evil, tragedy, and the hidden.
 
Because these summaries can only hint at the depth and nuance of the original presentations, video recordings of the presentations are available:http://divinity.uchicago.edu/multimedia. Also, in the “Resources” section (see below), you will find details about works authored by each scholar so that you can delve into their ideas and “think with” them.
 
As this week’s summaries and those of last week show, the theological views of the presenters do not always intersect. Sometimes they differ significantly. Aware of this lack of agreement, the presenters, for whom conversation is of primary importance, nonetheless came to Chicago. Noteworthy also: those who attended the talks may not have concurred with the presenters but they remained respectful throughout, listening attentively, asking relevant questions, and offering helpful critique. Over time, perhaps more people will adopt this courteous approach to sharing and receiving deeply-held ideas. If so, conversations about religion at the dinner table could resume. 
 
In the meantime, the Divinity School and the Marty Center will continue to host and to model inter-religious dialogue at its best.

Resources

Renaud, Myriam. "Five Scholars, Five Accounts of God and the Moral Life." Sightings, May 8, 2014. http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/five-scholars-five-accounts-god-and-moral-life-—-myriam-renaud.

Renaud, Myriam. “Gordon Kaufman’s Humanizing Concept of God.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 48:3 (September 2013): 514-532. http://www.zygonjournal.org/issue2013_3.html.

Fishbane, Michael. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
 
Schweiker, William and David Klemm. Religion and the Human Future: An Essay On Theological Humanism. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
 
Rivera, Mayra Rivera. The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

Daniel, Joshua. “Towards a Perfectionist Liberal Theology: Reading H. Richard Niebuhr through Stanley Cavell.” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 34:2 (May 2013): 97-116.
  
Tracy, David. On Naming the Present: Reflections on God, Hermeneutics, and Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995.

Image Credit: The University of Chicago Divinity School. From left to right: David Tracy, Myriam Renaud, Joshua Daniel

ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor and author, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She and Dr. Joshua Daniel organized the conference, "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," held at the University of Chicago Divinity School and largely funded by the Marty Center, April 9-11, 2014. 

 

 

Publication author: 
Myriam Renaud