Friday, March 10, 2006

Stout and Wilken

Herein is the last post for sign-my-Bible-week. After all, I do have class. Having added two bonus lectures from the original lineup, I don't feel so bad. For Robert Jenson coverage I suggest you turn, as will I, to KP who plans to post on his talk. Meanwhile, onto Jeff Stout and Robert Louis Wilken:

Cardinal Virtue
In yet another of the week's public lectures, this one on the Role of Religion in Education, Jeff Stout emerged from sabbatical to make the point that education involves "break[ing] through the dreamworld produced by the adolescent privileged ego." A classroom environment should "try to create a context where people are trying like crazy to tell the truth to each other," and the question for a teacher leading a discussion is "How can you get the bull@!#ting to stop without people getting constipated?" Teachers are those who "love their subject matter in public" and should try to point students away from the mediocre toward what is truly excellent. The Aristotelian references continued, for to do this requires that one exhibit the cardinal virtues (justice, practical wisdom, temperance and courage), which any good teacher should be able to cultivate. Perhaps this puts Stout's remarks more in the sign-my-Nicomachean Ethics than sign-my-Bible category, but still, how refreshing to see a professor wise enough to not need to reinvent the wheel.

Stout is what one might call a referee for democracy, calling the American citizenry to steer a middle course between Rawlsian liberalism and religious traditionalism. Though not a Christian himself, Stout is hot at the Seminary due to his being friendly to and conversant with theologians, and unafraid to call them to task if he thinks their rhetoric unhelpful to democracy as he understands it (the most famous case perhaps being Stout's critique of Hauerwas). Stout suggests a "modus vivendi" pluralism, by which he means not a philosophy of pluralism, but a pragmatic defense for the pluralism in our society that already exists. He argues that this kind of pragmatism's
"purpose should not be to put theologically inclined citizens on the defensive.... If the God of the philosophers is dead, not everthing is permitted. There can still be morally valid obligations to constrain us, as well as many forms of excellence in which to rejoice" (268).
Though I'm not unsympathetic to Stout's suggestions, for an alternative perspective do consider Alan Jacob's reflections on novelist George Eliot. Furthermore, I'm puzzled as to why Stout doesn't include Richard John Neuhaus in his list of democracy-friendly theologians, making as he does the intriguing case that healthy democratic loyalty is best realized when democracy is rightfully seen to be of penultimate concern, an insight which (for evident reasons) is often best grasped by the "theologically inclined."

Professors Cornel West and Eddie Glaude had some worthwhile remarks as well, West for example saying that the point of education is to show students there is more than the "hedonistic narcissistic individualistic careerist road." And as there most certainly is, I left the event with great confidence that what was said was good. But also with the sense that what was said was not enough. For those of us that agree that careerism is a bad thing and cardinal virtues are good - then what?

To put it another way, Stout illustrates his defense for good without God at the end of a chapter revealingly entitled Ethics without Metaphysics by playing with a stairway image borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"The stair I am on is higher than the one below me. It affords a better view. This view excels the other. I declare it excellent - but not perfect, for I can imagine a better one. Does this judgment depend, for its objectivity, on whether the uppermost actual stair affords a perfect view [i.e. theological claims]? If I cannot yet see to the top, don't I still know what I'm talking about when I assert the excellence of the view I now enjoy" (269)?
I suppose I can grant that. But why on earth, especially considering the tenuous status of the stair we're standing on, wouldn't one want to keep climbing?

Theological Virtue
Wilken's talk moved into the realm of the theological virtues (faith, hope and love), taking on specifically the question of which church is their best conduit. As Wilken, (like Reno) is a Tiber swimmer, his remarks made the case for the Catholic conduit. He embarked on well trodden turf by arguing for Rome's continuity with the early church. The question is not whether development occured, but whether it is the right kind of deveolopment. As put G.K. Chesterton, it's not whether or not the puppy grows, but "Does the puppy become more doggy or become a cat?" This is of course classic John Henry Newman, who certainly got his due in the talk.

Wilken proceeded by focusing more on practice than doctrine (how postmodern of him), specifically by contextualizing three classic Protestant scruples: The Mass as sacrifice, prayers for the dead, and the office of the Bishop. He quoted a host of early church fathers to prove deep precedent for each one. I shant bore you with the details (there were many), for the interesting things came out in discussion when, as is often the case with Catholic leaning talks at Princeton, the true Prots get smoked out and ask the tough questions. Wilken handled himself quite well, and two points worth noting I thought emerged:
1. Wilken claims that the search for the essence of Christianity is futile; to single out one aspect is to seek for something that never existed and never can exist.

2. In regard to diversity in the early church, it is one thing to learn from the heretics and appreciate their arguments, a practice which Wilken encourages. It's another thing to side with them, something Wilken fears happens all too often in the excitement of "rediscovering" heretical thought today.
Whether or not one decides to become Catholic (here are some interesting reasons not to), I would hope one can agree with Wilken on both counts.