Sunday, April 1, 2018

An Augustinian Response to Christopher Southgate’s Evolutionary Theodicy

The following is an abstract and description of a paper that I will deliver in Denver at the 2018 American Academy of Religion convention in response to the thought of Christopher Southgate.


Drawing on the biblical theology, ecological ethics and the poetry of Christopher Southgate, this paper will make a tentative case for an Augustinian dimension to his thought. It claims that Southgate’s basically Irenaean approach to theodicy requires an Augustinian component in order to make sense of the role of scripture in a theodicy, the centrality of Christ, the relationship between ecological ethics and virtue, the validity of anti-theodicy and the way that narrative helps understand sin and desire. A number of comparisons are made between Southgate's proposals and those of other contemporary scholars, Augustinian and non-Augustinian.


This paper analyzes the work of Christopher Southgate with a view toward interpreting his insights into the integrity of creation, redemption and theodicy in terms that are plausible in light of Augustine’s theology. Drawing on various contributions that Southgate has made, this paper seeks to establish parallels, connections and some agreement between his work and the great African bishop without papering over the obvious disagreements over the Fall, Original Sin, the premises of salvation and biblical hermeneutics.

The crux of my analysis is that Southgate's category of groaning in a cosmic theodicy associates the human struggle with evil with the persistence of non-human creatures evolutionary endurance. His depiction of suffering is framed christologically so that God is the great companion of suffering creatures. 

Southgate’s work is largely premised on the claim that value and disvalue are necessarily intertwined in an evolutionary creation. This claim parallels Irenaeus' claim that evil’s presence is designed to foster moral character in human creatures, a form of 'soul-making'. But in this emphasis upon experience and divine participation in this struggle within creation's limits, Southgate meanders into Augustinian territory. With Augustine, the only adequate response to evil is the redemptive love of God made through the embodiment of virtue in history and community. In my view, Southgate relies on a semi-Manichaean interpretation of nature. So, implicitly, while he does not endorse the view that nature is straightforwardly wicked or that there is a Fall of some kind to account for evil, there is a fascinating parallel with Augustine's own semi-Manichaean affirmation of nature's disorder that thwarts God's orderly love for creation.

This paper will deal with a number of specific points of convergence and divergence between Southgate’s corpus and the Augustinian tradition. These include:

a) a biblical hermeneutic that extends a certain primacy to the Incarnation of God in Jesus, though the difference between Southgate and the Augustinian tradition on the question of atonement and salvation from sin is still stark. Nevertheless, I will highlight a certain resemblance between Southgate's treatment of Romans and that of Augustine's interpretation.

b) a resemblance between Southgate’s characterization of ecological ethics and the Augustinian stress on virtue and the pervasiveness of sin that is in need of God's healing grace. As Pope Francis has stressed, ecological ethics cannot gain traction without the category of sin. Augustine's hamartiological legacy is impossible to avoid.

c) an Augustinian note of Southgate’s scepticism around non-human “sin and responsibility” and his appraisal of 'anti-theodicy'.

d) some references to Southgate's poetry, in which desire and experience complement Augustinian autobiography, which, among other things, re-frames theological scholarship understood in terms of the triad of scripture, tradition and reason.

I conclude that Southgate's evolutionary theodicy helps update an Augustinian approach to theology. Equally, Augustinian themes can aid Southgate's Christian theological aims. The paper incorporates some comparisons and contrasts with other contemporary scholars, some of whom endorse a roughly Augustinian approach (eg: Plantinga, McMullin, Deane-Drummond, Stump and Coakley). 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Christ the King

Just prior to Advent, the Church once again commemorated the Feast of Christ the King. It marks a signature dimension to the tradition's portraits of Christ. ON this feast, we attribute to Christ the role of an almost mere ordinary human person, a monarach, a ruler, a king. Jamie Smith's latest book, Awaiting the King, not to mention N.T. Wright's How God Became King are prominent recent efforts to make this role of Christ, an aspect of his ministry, central. Within the lectionary's readings of late November were an abundance of clues about what Christ's kingship signifies and I was paying particular attention because of how kingship will feature in a book I want to write by 2020.

I have already completed a rough draft of what I now foresee to be the first volume in a trilogy of theological anthropology. Leaving a rough draft on one's computer for a few weeks this fall allowed me to sense a deepening sense of where it is headed, what improvements need to be made and what points in particular need to be brought out before the final manuscript gets sent out.

One of the vexing aspects of this text is how a proposal of theological anthropology will address the criteria of adequacy that have been laid down by those theologians who advocate a christological starting point in theological anthropology. Theologians such as Kathryn Tanner, Marc Cortez - and underlying all of them, Karl Barth - have striven to move theological anthropology toward a perspective "from above", towards the person of Christ. They thus seek to move it away from vague philosophical starting points that begin from sets of attributes or categories of thought about human nature. To a large extent, I support their methodological instincts. However, in the end, I think that theological anthropology stands to benefit from extensive attention to a careful exposition of human uniqueness and our toolkit of traits that mark us out as a species. For me, it is more "both/and" rather than "either/or".

This trilogy of mine will will therefore seek to account for connections between Christ's human nature and a comprehensive anthropology "from below". It is fitting, I think, to see in the triplex munus a concrete way of linking Christ to human nature. The triplex munus is a set of attributes identified with Christ by Reformation theologians who, it should be noted, build on the Catholic doctrine of analogy. They saw great significance in thinking of Christ as prophet, priest and king. These three roles are played by Christ in ways that are tied to his work or soteriological function, rather than his person as such. In this way, Christ is made more accessible to the ordinary believer.

In the first volume of my theological anthropology, the natural, evolutionary character of human nature contains within it the element of the prophetic. To be prophetic does not mean to speak about those key elements of our salvation exclusively. It must also need to address the ways in which our sinful state is in need of this salvation in the first place. Our sinful state is not necessarily a status that is freely chosen. Human behaviour is comprised of both the predisposition to act, an understanding of what we may do, a judgment of what we ought to do as well as the free decision to act. For example, the experience (and sin) of addiction is a prophetic cry for salvation. Addicts are predisposed to addiction, albeit in ways that are neither uniform nor predetermined. In a way, it is a secular acknowledgement of the potential to sin that occurs in a peculiar form of self-harm. Jesus' command to love one another as we love ourselves first presumes the love of self. Clearly, addicts contravene not only the command but also its presupposition. In this case, the natural human way of being in the world is also unnaturally set against our survival. The role of natural law morality may also be prophetic, in that it testifies to the way that nature is originally ordered to the good but whose goodness is obscured by the haze of sin and the privation of evil that are present in the disordered effects of Darwinian genes that end up distorting the goals of goodness to which we are originally ordered. Natural law arguments and addiction are covered in separate chapters of the first volume of this theological anthropology project.

The three volumes will cover: 1) theological anthropology, evolution and sin (the prophetic and Jesus), 2) theological anthropology and political theology (the kingly and Jesus) and 3) theological anthropology, virtue and sacrifice (with attention to the sinlessness of - and the priestly in - Jesus). 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Kathryn Tanner and "Grace Without Nature"

In her recent theological work, Kathryn Tanner, professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, has stressed that theological anthropology is only viable when it is carried out in close association with christology. In her book, Christ the Key, she begins with an extensive foray into discussing human nature in order to press this point. This reinforce a related goal which is that Christology needs to pay close attention to theological anthropology. In another contribution to a book that summarizes some of the same theological terrain, (titled "Grace without Nature" in a volume titled Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology), Tanner develops one aspect of this theme: the relationship between nature and grace.

Her argument in this article, "Grace Without Nature", is essentially twofold:
1) "The image of God... is primarily a divine image and not a human one. Human beings do not image God in and of themselves." (364) and

2) There is no human nature, at least not a human nature that is understood as something defined, cast in stone or unchanging. Rather, because of rationality, humans are different from other creatures with stable natures: "While humans are a definite sort of creature distinct from others and in that sense of course still have a particular nature (they are not God who alone is different from others by not being a kind of thing), humans still stand out by their failure to be clearly limited by a particular nature as other creatures are." (367) She goes on to claim, among other things, that there is warrant from patristic sources for this idea of a human nature that is "not a nature."

In such a short space as a book chapter, Tanner's sweeping comments on human nature are liable to misinterpretation and although I find her argument convoluted, I think it is nevertheless necessary to draw out of it the essential insights of her argument.

The key to Christ, in alluding to the book for the moment, is that the Spirit of God may be said to work most effectively in ordinary situations, in the everyday life of human operations (274-5). One can see a strategy of mutual reinforcement at work: the true image of God is identifiable in the person of Christ, a divine person. In order to support the re-location of the imago dei away from human nature to Christ's divine person, human nature is said to be unstable enough to support such an image. It needs a different account of the Holy Spirit which does not start to work when human thinking stops.

Yet, from Tanner's perspective, the doctrine of grace not only emphasizes the significance of transformation of the human person, it does so at the expense of the nature of humans. Where this argument goes next is the part that begins to baffle the reader. The focus of Tanner's argument shifts quickly to the body: having justified the non-nature of human nature through the plasticity entailed by rationality (and in the book, faith), she then claims that "plastic or nonnatured bodies are the ultimate issue even for these early church theologians. at the end of the day, it is human bodies that are to be remade into Christ's body." (368)

So, here is the question: can a creature whose body is created in an evolutionary lineage of descent from other creatures with whom it shares so many morphological and genetic features be said to lack its own nature? Can the embodied human, a creature who is promised the resurrected life on account of Christ's own resurrected human body be said to be non-natural therefore? Essentially, Tanner says yes.

She says yes, amazingly, on the basis of a critique of Henri de Lubac's position on the relationship between nature and grace. de Lubac had argued for the natural human desire for the beatific vision, a desire that is naturally gifted to us. It is not bestowed on us by "our own powers." Where she goes wrong here is in elaborating the Thomist view of de Lubac as the view that "humans are moving on their own accord toward God on the basis of their natural capacities." (369) But which is it? Is de Lubac saying that we rely on some human capacity in order to attain the state of grace or is de Lubac affirming ? Tanner seems to say both of these in order to suit her argument.

I think that Tanner wants to say that grace is both divinely initiated and as such it is a process with which human beings can cooperate. This is why she speaks of the ordinary character of the Holy Spirit in her book. For this reason, grace has been traditionally understood as both operative (divinely initiated) and cooperative (humanly mediated). de Lubac is simply correcting the modern neo-thomist characterization of the relationship between nature and grace in order to say that it is consistent with the Augustinian-Thomist adage that "grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it." In contrast, Tanner can only see tension between the gratuity of grace and its effects via human freedom. She sees tension as between faithful existence and nothing. But God did not create us as nothing.

She critiques de Lubac essentially for not going far enough in his critique of the idea of 'pure nature'. What she does in the process however is she advocates the overwhelming of nature with a univocal form of grace. This way of conceiving grace will end up being burdensome by not having any relevance for the salvation of the body, an issue of ostensible concern to her. Human beings have natures because we are formed bodies. Christ's resurrection is the template for our salvation because he rescues human nature, including our bodies. Our human nature cannot be incidental to the salvific process. Christ does not wipe it out completely in his transforming action made effective in the work of the Spirit.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Consolation of Boethius

On the basis of his early remonstrations over his unjust imprisonment at the hands of Emperor Theodoric, Boethius concludes the discourse from Lady Philosophy (described early on as at times very tall, when at full height, "she penetrated the heavens") thus: "I know another cause of your sickness, and the most important: you have forgotten who you are. And so I am fully aware of the reason for your sickness and the remedy for it too. You are confused because you have forgotten what you are, and therefore you are upset because you are in exile and stripped of all your possessions. Because you are ignorant of the purpose of things, you think that stupid and evil men are powerful and happy. And because you have forgotten how the world is governed, you suppose that these changes of your fortune came about without purpose. Such notions are enough to cause not only sickness but also death. But be grateful to the Giver of health that nature has not entirely forsaken you. For you have the best medicine for your health in your grasp of the truth about the way that the world is governed."

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

On Heretical Anthropology - A Response to James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith of Calvin College has recently posted on the question of what comprises the elements of orthodox Christianity. The question is about doctrine (not Eastern Orthodox Christianity) and Smith refers to the statements of the Christian creed; for instance, the one affirming the divinity of Christ. Smith summarizes the common understanding of what the term 'orthodox' means with reference to those items of the creed that pertain to the nature of God and so forth. Then he suggests:
In some contexts, the use of the word "orthodox" seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith.  Indeed, in many cases "orthodox Christianity" means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage. 
Which raises the obvious question: is there such a thing as a heretical anthropology? While I tend to agree with Smith (at least in terms of the somewhat narrow terms of the question as he has defined it), I think the more complicated answer is this: while there is no anthropological heresy, there are anthropological conditions for the possibility of orthodox or heresy. That is: some conditions for the possibility of heresy/orthodoxy have to do with assessing human creaturehood.

What does this mean? I think there are a number of implications, but first, note that I am not trying to heresy hunt, as the expression has it. I am merely following up Smith's observation about the broad use of the term orthodoxy. And of course, there are plenty of theologically driven questions to ask about when it comes to anthropology such as marriage, the role of sexuality in human identity making, the ethical propriety of genetic therapies etc.etc.

So, while I doubt whether one could stipulate an anthropological orthodoxy per se, there are plenty of candidates for false anthropologies floating around that would make for a difficult starting point (or backdrop if we are trying to avoid expressing ourselves in a Schleiermacherian mode) to affirming the Christian creed.

For instance, if one were to articulate human capacities in terms of an inherent perfectibility, that would seem to rule out the need for salvation. The number of ideologies or thinkers whom we might link to an idea of human perfectibility seem clear enough at the outset: extreme nationalists cite the glory of their nation, doctrinaire socialists cite the infallibility of the state, fascists cite some mystical idea that unites the powerful against a disheveled scapegoat. Each of these ideologiues suppose an ideal to which human persons can aspire without worrying about any inherent flaws in our way.

But, are there Christian theologians who believe - inadvertently - in human perfectibility, such that it places pressure on their ability to affirm the creed? Does the condition for the possibility of denying creedal orthodoxy exist in the fields of philosophical and theological anthropology?

I think the answer is yes, and perfectibility is often dressed up with reference to plasticity or malleability. These are philosophical terms that denote a certain interpretation of human freedom, but the scope of the freedom that is implied is very wide indeed. How we measure the goodness of human beings alongside the inevitable character of sin is a difficult task, a task that hangs over the last chapter of the book I am currently finishing. One thing seems certain: simply because an issue is not a question of orthodoxy and heresy does not seem to lessen its importance. Its importance may be indirectly related to a creedal matter. But that does not render it unimportant. Anthropology lurks between the lines of the creed, we can be sure.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ecumenical Christian Art

Matthew Milliner's blog has the details, including a fascinating look at a couple of artists who work at an art centre near Boston.

Monday, July 17, 2017

On waiting

  One of the joys of summer is the experience of spending time doing nothing. It is often a pleasant experience, although some of that waiting is spent by people near big cities who are tied up in traffic, waiting to get out of the city or back into it at the end of vacation.

  Waiting is most often related to the theological virtue of hope, as in expectation: the expecting of a Messiah, of great change, of the parousia, God's interruption and bringing to a close historical time. In yesterday's second reading, we hear Paul speak of the importance of waiting for what one does not have. According to Paul, we await adoption, a good that is for now unseen:    
we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Rom. 8: 23b-25)
  What is less understood is that it is another theological virtue, love, that serves to interrupt the waiting. Indeed, it is love that is often sought or desired in order to stop the waiting. Love is what is awaited psychologically. (Though in a biblical context, it is arguably justice, namely Israel's hope for divine vindication that Jesus' messiahship both fulfills and transforms.) 

  This is why romantic love is often more relevant to the experience of waiting than it first appears. This is despite the fact that we translate love, the theological virtue, as caritas - translated as "charity" in English, but meaning love of God and neighbor in biblical terms. We are accustomed to seeing an opposition between two other kinds of love; agape and eros. These two forms of love are theologically not so much opposed but rather complementary. The experience of eros can (ought, in the context of marriage vows) lead to the self-giving toward one's lover that entails sacrifice, self-sacrifice. 

  Love and expectation are closely related to waiting. On a wooden railing at the hiking area at the Chutes de la Mastigouche in the Lanaudiere region of Quebec a couple of weeks ago, I saw that someone has carved “Fanny et Matthew: jamais un sans l’autre’ (Matthew and Fanny: never one without the other”). One can recognize in the graffiti of lovers an expectation that their love is binding. Two become one. Spatially, these lovers imagine future space as occupied by both of them together or neither of them. Time stands still to somehow honour the unity of this love the power of which feels like it has the authority to be inscribed in wood railings. Grafitti is a permanent marker of love that others will notice publicly. 

  In the experience of intense romantic love, time does have this character of lacking chronology or duration because the waiting appears to be over. What has been so elusive is now within one's grasp - supposedly. Augustine is the one who describes time as duration and it is this very quality of time that disappears in erotic love when physical passion and emotional vulnerability of self-giving allow one to lose touch with events, commitments and other people. This interrupting quality of love ends one sort of waiting and inaugurates another. Human beings are insatiable. We are created with the kind of desires that C.S. Lewis describes: 
"If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
  It is for this reason that erotic love can serve as an analogue for the kind of relationship that we will eventually enjoy in a condition with God in which the qualities of time as duration dissolve. (I suppose this entails some sort of atemporal view of God, which is interesting but not my main claim here.) The fleeting and proleptic features of romantic love are hints of the heavenly ecstasy promised by God as love. God is love according to the Christian tradition (1 Jn. 4:8) 

  Our craving for God –as lovers craving for each other -- consists of a unity that will overcome the business and duration of time. Waiting therefore is the kind of experience that perfectly contrasts the perichoresis or non-temporal succession of love that exists among the persons of the Trinity and our participation in that community in eternal life. Between earthly loves and heavenly love lies the self-sacrifice of agape that straddles time and eternity, which is why married life ought to intertwine both loves (eros and agape) so as to allow the earthly to prepare for the heavenly.   

Monday, July 10, 2017

Montreal concert going

Not a theology post! I went to see Jesse Cook the other evening. Not to be missed if you have the chance! My favourite song was Bombay Slam. It was part of Montreal's spectacular and very diverse jazz festival (read: probably too diverse to be called a jazz festival). Last year, I went with my son to hear this band for free in a street venue: Beirut. Also not to be missed!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Chicago, Northpark Seminary Conference - The Theological Interpretation of Scripture and Science

Here is the conclusion of a paper I am delivering at this symposium, which is titled "Evolutionary Psychology and Romans 5-7: The 'Slavery to Sin' in Human Nature":

In Luke 15, Jesus asks his audience of sheepherders, those close to the land, a question: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” In his appeal to their own sense of selflessness in order to speak of God’s mercy toward the 1 lost sheep, Jesus draws on the experience of ordinary people and their common experience in order to interpret the tradition’s view 
of salvation as it was understood through the Jewish scriptures. The goal is to speak of God, not as an agent whose intentions are reducible to human forms of pastoral activity, but as an agent whose intentions are analogously understood from the most selfless example of love within the available frame of ordered desires of human living.  

The idea here is that sheepherding is a livelihood that meets a set of self-interested desires that is the expression of human nature as this is given particular emphasis by evolutionary psychology in its determination that our interests are preset according to genetic proximity or perceptions of reciprocal exchange that assist our status. Yet, from within the set of tasks that a given livelihood such as this one implies, opportunities exist to offer mercy that would seem to contravene rational self-interest, notably in a case such as this where the pursuit of one sheep puts the herder at risk along with the herd. The point here is that Jesus himself accepts the limits and finitude of human existence yet sees within those limits the episodes of natural living in order to speak of God’s ordered love and God’s inordinate justice.

The parable of the lost sheep affirms the idea that Jesus is concerned for the salvation of the individual. Our natural and cultural environments incline us to sinful behavior in the ways already spelled out, but even within the limits of those inclinations, Jesus manages to identify the kind of activity that suggests the exceptional concern God has for us. If sin is natural, it is also possible to see – in natural terms – the possibility of supernatural love that is a greater power than the sinful power that has befallen nature. A theological interpretation of Romans 5-7 ought not to downplay the genuine paradoxes or contradictions that lie both within human nature and between nature and God. Sin is real and it is not simply a function of the will. 

The modern tendency to see a narrative of progress in human affairs is both contradicted by the New Testament and evolutionary psychology, though it is a narrative that has a powerful hold on the western imagination, in part because it is inspired by the possibility of redemption from falleness. This narrative of progress is contradicted by our evolutionary nature, since a pattern of predictable partiality in human affairs exists by human beings toward kin and toward those with whom we are engaged in reciprocal economic or social arrangements. Human nature is also irregularly distorted by inclinations toward addiction, compulsion, anxiety, hyperactivity that interact with a variety of vices that result in behavior that ill befits the body as it was created It is also contradicted by Christ, whose offer of freedom is a final ‘no’, as Barth said, to a purely natural religious reconstruction of human desire. The ‘ordered desire’ of Augustine’s City of God is consistent with both a recognition of our fallen state and the eschatological tension that exists between this state and our final destination with God. It is fitting to end with Augustine, because as he was the proponent of the Doctrine of Original Sin, he had a consistent, realistic view of the wretched tendency in human wilfulness to disturb the ordering of desire. A theological interpretation of scripture must also be a faithful, realistic interpretation of the human condition, both in all its natural goodness and its tendency to evil.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

June 25 - St. Thomas University: Catholic Engagement in Philosophy of Science

After travelling around a massive thunderstorm, I'm in Minneapolis for a Saint Thomas University conference, the Catholics Engagement in Philosophy of Science conference that is following on the heels of the History and Philosophy of Science Association meeting here last week. Here is the CEPOS conference website.

Below is my paper abstract.And here is the draft of the paper itself on academia.

Lonergan, Science and God: Phenomenology in Nature and Historical Faith

Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (d. 1984) advocated a critical realism, in which scientific and theological knowledge are products of self-critical phenomenological analysis. Allying his thought with Thomas Aquinas in elaborating a cognitional theory to serve epistemology and metaphysics, Lonergan challenged reigning idealist and empiricist philosophies. He expressed an understanding of the human knower as ordered to both the known world and to divine providence. This paper will sketch a few key ways in which Lonergan constructs a methodical link between phenomenology and both contemporary philosophy of science on the one hand and theology on the other hand. Like several other twentieth century Catholic thinkers, Lonergan rejected the idea of a choice between the thought of Thomas Aquinas and modern thought as regards science and religion. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Viewing & Reading - May 31

With apologies for the lack of posts, despite my earlier pledge to blogging regularity, here are a couple of things that might properly fall under the label of miscellany.

1. Nicholas Kristoff seems to have experienced an epiphany, and I wonder whether it is due in part to having conversations with his fellow New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat. Be that as it may, his Saturday column sort of doubles down on an earlier column which exposed the ideological monolith of contemporary American universities. (The earlier column is linked from the latest one.) I say "sort of" doubles down, because while Kristoff's point is absolutely correct, he lacks the explanatory persuasiveness that the column could have enjoined -- namely as to why and how it is that "liberals" of a particular variety are so dominant throughout the contemproary humanities and social science disciplines. I still cringe at the usage of the word "liberal" in these contexts, because it is a peculiar Americanism that has infected the braoder English language perception of political theory. The liberals Kristoff refers to are not liberals so much as leftists with a quite specific view as to the form of the collective they wish to shape. Classical liberals have had the word wrested from their grasp and are now referred to, often inaccurately, as "conservatives", even though many of them are not conservative. But kudos go out to Kristoff. He has touched a nerve, and as a liberal (in his own understanding of the word) he has credibility in making the diagnosis he's made in the way that Douthat could not succeed in doing.

2. Here is a link to an Anthony Bourdain / Parts Unknown programme that was first broadcast last year I believe. It was re-broadcast yesterday evening and it contains compelling, anecdotal evidence about the current drug use epidemic in the United States that is far more serious than media outlets are able to convey, in their obession with (for instance) Donald Trump's tweets. One of the most interesting aspects of my research into human nature over the past year or so is the encounter with the nature and scope of addiction as well as the philosophical questions that stem from addiction research. Some of the anecdotal evidence that pertains to a proper consideration of substance abuse are the following: its correlation with rates of loneliness, despair and social breakdown, its relationship to the notion of habit (bad addictive habits and the good habits that are necessary to adopt in order to re-wire the regions of the brain) and probable genetic predispositions to addictive behaviour. The brain's reward centers (the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, amygdala and the prefrontal cortex) need re-wiring through supportive and intricately threaded social networks of small groups and voluntary agencies to counteract the corrosive and dangerous personal impact of addiction. It is staggering to me that media coverage of social issues that seem to be banal or even frivolous receive vastly disproportionate amounts of attention in relation to the substance abuse epidemic currently ravaging many parts of North America. Bourdain places himself vulnerably at the centre of this important narrative (by talking about his own prior addiction to heroin) and thumbs up to CNN for allowing him to do so. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Evolution, Theological Anthropology and ... Political Theory?

In connection with an upcoming paper that I will hope to present at the 2016 ESSSAT conference, the following is a good portion of the outline for it. I'm still currently trying to write it up, but there is a lot to say in a short space. The perennial problem. In the paper, I want to make a connection to the political theorist Edmund Burke (1730-97), the classical liberal thinker known (paradoxically) as a father of Toryism. This is the part that is still a bit sketchy in my thinking but Burke's interpretation of society as a natural organic reality, it would seem logical to conceive of his political theory as a sort of natural extension of theological anthropology in a dialogue with nature. He differs from the 'pessimism' of Thomas Hobbes and the somewhat more abstract thought of John Locke. Both of these philosophers preceded Burke by many decades.

Interestingly, I have come across a portion of his 1782 speech on the nature of the representation of the Commons in parliament where he speaks about the importance of time and the rightness of constitutional government. Burke conceives of constitutional government as a kind of prescription which suggests to him that "The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species, it almost always acts right." (Selected Writings, 331) The context for these remarks is the Magna carta and the resulting English constitutionalism. The significance of these comments has to do with Burke's particularly biological way of framing the rightness in a polity that constitutions prescribe - once long periods of time have passed. The biological note is observed in his use of the term 'species'.

In any case, here is that outline: 

Against overly optimistic and negative anthropologies, this paper takes up a theme that is present in three distinct areas of literature: i) Paul’s Letter to Romans, ii) recent literature dealing with the character of addiction and iii) a political theory of human nature. I want to argue for a component of human uniqueness that is tied to what Kierkegaard and others regard as ‘anxiety’. This paper argues that human uniqueness is comprised in part upon an ability to engage in a complex yet necessary assessment of our own human desire in order to arrange human societies in a way that political order reflects human nature as it is found. 

Chapters 5 – 7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides a template for this portrait of human nature by alluding to the following: sin’s entry into the world (5:12), God’s love experienced in our hearts (5:5), the role of law in multiplying the incidence and revealing sin (5:19, 7:7), the experience of enslavement to sin (6:6), the correlation of enslavement with embodiment (6:12), the weakness of flesh (6:19) and the internal struggle between good and evil (7:19ff).

This Pauline template can be shown to have traction within an evolutionary framework in light of current research on the nature of addiction. Addictive personality profiles suggest the presence of a condition analogous to disease. Positive recoveries from such conditions are positively effected through social groups that instill a positive virtue ethics perspective in order to resist addictive behaviours (eg: Alcoholics Anonymous). The classic moral framework of habits, continence and temperance is the most relevant means to understand and overcome these forms of moral weakness. 
Historically, the science-theology dialogue has not incorporated reflections on any political theory that is implied by a human nature informed by various disciplines. But, the moral struggle claimed by Paul’s reflection on sin and anxiety as well as the experience with substance abuse demonstrates the need for a political theory that is sensitive to the limits of freedom, socialization of human nature and yet the impossibility of human perfectibility.

Edmund Burke (1729-97) is an Enlightenment liberal whose embrace of religion and the need for individual rule over the passions is a timely resource. He offers a political theory that recognizes the uniqueness of moral struggle, the danger of utopianism and the created yet frail character of human nature that can be offset by stable social conventions. The uniqueness of human nature lies not in any particular capacity but in the dialectical process in which prudence, virtue and social order can mitigate natural inherited weaknesses.