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?
If you take the time to explore the building just off James St. North on Cannon, you might stumble upon a fantastic little community called The Commons. It was at The Commons that I met Matt Thompson, a kindred spirit who persuaded me to join him on a trip to Baltimore to hear John D. Caputo at an event hosted by Home Brewed Christianity. Last spring, Matt Thompson, Adam Getty and myself were rewarded, with not only the opportunity to hear Jack speak, but also a chance of sharing a beer with him.
After some discussion, we felt that it would be beneficial to open up the conversation to others at the Commons and in our networks. Although we had originally planned on reading one of Caputo’s texts, we’ve opted to read Peter Rollins‘ book “How (Not) to Speak of God.“
As a way of beginning, I thought it would be good to make some preliminary remarks on my own relationship to the text and thereby situate some of my own commentary.
Although there are many points of reference between Caputo, Rollins and myself, the point that brings us together is an admiration of Derrida and “deconstruction.” One way I’ve learned to approach deconstruction, through my work at ICS, is by thinking about the movement between determinate action and the principles that inspire it (Caputo often uses the words “name” and “event” to describe this dynamic). Attempts by law to respond to the call of justice is an example of the movement between determinate action (law) and principles that inspire it (justice). When injustice, like poverty occurs in a community, justice demands that we take responsible action. An action to this effect might result in a law that alleviates pressure on the poor by providing affordable housing. In this way, determinate action, in the form of law, brings about justice. Determinate actions, therefore, enable or reveal the presence of the principle. Yet, this action is always partial. As a community grows and changes with time, using the money allocated for affordable housing elsewhere, like rehab centers for example, might prove to be a more just course of action. This demonstrates that determinate action cannot replace the principle it attempts to embody. The two are not interchangeable because actions are always determinate and particular, while principles, like justice, demand universality. As a result, we must always be willing to suspend the consequences of determinate action in the name of the principle that they attempt to follow. Deconstruction describes the necessity of both determinate action and universal principles while appreciating the call and response movement between them. As Christians we often try to articulate this dynamic by discussing the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Continue reading