This post originally appeared on Groundmotive.net.
There are countless ways of understanding God’s nature. New atheists such as Daniel Dennett, for example, reject a variety of theisms that defines God as a supernatural agent who desires humanity’s worship. Peter Rollins, a self-identified emergent Christian defines God as “that which we cannot speak of [and] the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”* Rollins finds inspiration in Christian mystics such as Meister Eckert, tending away from anthropocentric understandings of God like the one Dennett rejects. Like Dennett, Rollins aims to disturb conventional theism while, unlike Dennett, maintaining a semblance of orthodoxy. Jack Caputo, taking these ideas a step further, conceives of God as an “insistence” with little agency in the world other than the ability to disturb and haunt our actions.
Conceptions of God play a critical role in shaping our moral lives; some theists practise an escapism because their God shuns the world, while others become champions of social causes because that is what they believe God desires of them. This post will work backwards, so to speak, considering how our daily attempts to act ethically can shed light on God’s nature. To this end, I will employ virtue ethics’ approach to moral life, a school of ethics that emphasizes virtues, opposed to an emphasis on the need to follow rules (deontological) or an emphasis on the consequences of one’s actions (consequentialism).
In a nutshell, virtue ethics claims that we should always make decisions that encourage health. On a personal level, this means being concerned with one’s character, believing that if one engages in the daily practice of care, for example, one will be prepared to act caringly when a weighty ethical situation demands such action. Similarly, on a societal level, a subscription to virtue ethics would aim to develop life together in ways that encourage healthy relationships — for example, by building neighbourhood landscape that create opportunities to practice hospitality.
But what does this ethical school have to do with our conceptions of God?
Virtues such as love, justice, wisdom, and hospitality can be imagined as a movement, or a dance, with rhythm. There is an unconditional character of virtue — what we understand when the word “wisdom” is uttered (or read). Yet in life, we enact a contingent or concrete kind of virtue. When we try to act virtuous in daily life, we respond to the call of virtue. It moves from an ideal to an action. God could be understood as the movement between the ideal and the events that actually happen.
For a practical example, consider Bonhoeffer’s excellent chapter in Ethics titled “What is Meant by ‘Telling the Truth’?” Although Bonhoeffer’s conception of God might differ slightly from mine, I think those familiar with the work will see the resonance. Bonhoeffer discusses the situatedness of truth: what it means to tell the truth must reflect concrete situations and a serious reflection on them. Using the example of a parent-child relationship, Bonhoeffer explains that for a child what it means to tell the truth is far more straightforward than a parent who must consider a vast field of responsibilities. Telling the truth means something different depending on who you are and the types of situations you’re asked to confront. Yet, all are called to tell the truth, regardless of their present situation. The principle of truth is universal and unconditional, but how it appears in daily life needs to be conditioned by each unique circumstance in which it’s enacted.
Here’s another example, that illuminates the movement involved in scenarios characterized by justice. Sometimes my two-year-old son needs help doing things, such as safely navigating a treacherous flight of fourteen stairs. Justice calls me to help him with encouraging words or helping hands, but as time passes the answer to justice may change. I might reconsider intervening for the sake of my son’s self-confidence. Perhaps I have already been too helpful and spoiled his character. It is impossible to tell for sure. But I can’t ignore him, that would certainly not be just. Therefore, my actions are always accountable to the ideal of justice, meaning that each new response may be different than the last; and sometimes I must apologize and transform past action.
Similarly, Bonhoeffer points out that “the ethical cannot be detached from reality, and consequently, continual progress in learning to appreciate reality is a necessary ingredient in ethical action” (360). All actions, as we saw in our first example, are one-sided, originating from incomplete knowledge within a unique situation. Thus, actions that aim to make justice or truth actual must be held accountable to the ideals of justice and truth. The agent is a kind of bind, they must act, but to do so violates the unconditional nature of the ideal. The ethical, therefore, both demands that I act and calls me to hold these actions open to future events or revelations.
Following philosopher Jacque Derrida, Shannon Hoff articulates well the movement observed in the examples above: “In order to respond to a particular situation I must act, but in acting I interpret what the ideal requires for this situation and so assert my own authority in place of its authority; I take on the conditions that acting requires and thus fail to enact an unconditional ideal; I bring about another one-sided situation that may need to be transformed for the sake of the ideal of justice.”* Virtue requires a continual movement between its ideal and its concrete expression. It is this productive tension, the dance between the ideal and the real, that plays a necessary role in animating our life together.
As we become sensitive to the call of truth, we begin to feel its rhythm, learn its dance steps, and allow ourselves to be swept up by its dynamism. And, a focus on a single melody dials in the full orchestra of virtues that accompany it. Perhaps, God is the movement.
Conceptualising God in this way is helpful for many reasons, but especially because it avoids the temptation to escape the concrete world by locating God either in some supernatural realm of ideals or to limit God to subjective experience. The realm of ideal and the arena of action are both important, but only in so far as they find meaning in the dynamic relation that binds them in productive tension.
What about Christ? Perhaps Christ masters the dance life, but he doesn’t show us all the steps our daily life will require. However, just as the “work music” of African American culture inspired the Blues and as the Blues passed the rhythm on to Rock and Soul, so is Christ a preserver and a giver of the rhythm of life.