Archive for December 2008

Smith, Bourdieu and Yoder on Postlapsarian Morality

December 18, 2008

The paper I’m presenting at the “Adam Smith as a Theologian” Conference is entitled “On Not Over- or Underestimating the Fall: Prospects for a Moral Economy in Smith, Bourdieu and Yoder.” I’m about half-way through, but decided to go ahead and start posting some of the sections. Here’s the introduction:

“The realization of a moral economy faces many impediments, among which the most commonly cited are greed, natural disasters, and ill-planned economic systems. To these a Christian may add what she regards to be a more fundamental impediment: the fallen state of the world. For this Christian, economic immorality is simply a postlapsarian fact, a “natural” outcome of our race’s long rebellion against God. Where a non-Christian might see a series of unconnected injustices, the Christian sees an old, awful coherence. Between the Christian and non-Christian, however, we find a basic agreement that the extent to which moral practices of distribution and exchange are realizable at all, is related to a belief in the degree to which “sin” or oppression pervades our societies. Put simply, if  oppression is all-pervasive, there will be no moral economy; but if there are limits to oppression, then there may be a moral economy, however imperfect.

There is, of course, a spectrum of attitudes between denial of the possibility of a moral economy and blind optimism in the same. This paper locates three thinkers—Adam Smith, Pierre Bourdieu and John Howard Yoder—on that spectrum and assesses their positions in relation to a normative biblical account of morality after the Fall. The biblical account is developed first; here we suggest that the work of Christ both exposes the inadequacies of our moral efforts and births the hope of moral practice. We then turn to Smith to argue that in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he underestimates our moral inadequacies; his optimism in human moral systems approaches what the Christian tradition has typically branded Pelagianism. Alternatively, Bourdieu’s treatment of symbolic violence leaves little hope for moral practice. Though he presents clear standards for moral transformation, it is unclear if, within his own system, those standards can ever be met. It is Yoder, we argue, who more closely approximates the biblical understanding of morality after the Fall: Yoder’s theology of the powers depicts society as essentially rebellious, yet still subject to the reign of Christ. Affirming Yoder’s position may seem obvious—he is the only Christian among the three authors—but he is often accused of holding a position closer to Bourdieu’s. Contrary to these accusations, we believe Yoder’s theology provides  the appropriate amounts of hope and skepticism needed to construct a truly moral economy. “

The Dugg

December 15, 2008

Virginia Military Institute, my maternal grandfather’s alma mater, has a men’s basketball coach named Duggar Baucom. That is all. Oh, and he has a very thick neck.

Ricoeur on Prophetic Politics

December 9, 2008

I’m currently doing some research on the social uses of the concepts “sin” and “Fall,” and have been led to the early work of the French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur. Currently I’m reading his Symbolism of Evil (1960). This is my first encounter with Ricoeur’s writing and so far I’ve found him fascinating. As phenomenologists go he’s actually quite readable. Moreover, the breadth of his engagement with biblical materials and research on the Ancient Near East is impressive, exempting him from my earlier critique of “phenomenologists of nothing.”

There are various overlaps with Yoder I’d like to explore someday, particularly on their readings of prophetic politics. In Ricouer’s terms Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah teach a “political ‘nihilism,'” “the expression of a pedagogy of historical failure that aims at placing the ethical demand beyond any assignable historical end, beyond any finite observance, beyond any self-justification” (62). For Ricoeur, this move towards infinite demand characterizes the prophets, and completes the Old Testament’s overall picture of ethics as simultaneously a call to unconditional righteousness and to specific, finite acts of righteousness. Without eliminating the latter, the prophets want to “shatter any assurance that the pious man might draw from his observance of the commandments.” Instead of political zeal, no matter how “righteous,” it is through prophetic “non-resistance” (61) and “unarmed obedience” (57) that “the song of hope of second Isaiah might be heard” (62). (By “second Isaiah” I assume he means Isaiah 40-55, though he might have another division in mind.)

Though Yoder would likely (and rightly) refrain from calling this “political nihilism,” there are clearly certain accents here that go well with his treatment of the Jeremianic “politics of exile,” as well as with his general project. For Yoder, Jeremiah’s admonition that Jews exiled in Babylon “seek the peace of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7) prefigures the politics of the cross which, for Yoder, are the politics of not being in control, of giving up “handles on history.” Though this politics does not count on immediate success, it does follow the “grain of the universe”–it corresponds to the underlying moral order and thus in the long run is far more realistic than what politicians short-sightedly call “realism.”

I’m not sure where Ricoeur will go with the phrases “non-resistance” and “unarmed obedience” or with his general reading of prophetic politics, but from a Yoderian perspective it’s a good start. Perhaps the influence of Gerhard von Rad is notable here, as Ricoeur draws from him extensively, and Yoder (with his student Marva Dawn) translated von Rad’s Holy War in Ancient Israel. As a non sequitur, I’m also curious to know what influence, if any, Symbolism of Evil and related works had on Derrida, who was Ricoeur’s teaching assistant around the time he wrote it.

Alba Rising

December 1, 2008

My lovely Scottish schools, St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities, were featured today in a NY Times article. It’s about why there are so many of us Americans over here ($$$).

Quote(s) of the Day

December 1, 2008

On my way to school I came across the following passage from Yoder. It made me laugh, but I realize I’m a total nerd.

“To deny Jesus Christ today would mean being secularist, an agnostic, or an atheist, claiming in one way or another that there is not, or that there is no way to talk about, a transcendent reality coming to us in Jesus. The doubters in the late first century were making just the opposite point. They did know about transcendent reality. They thought of themselves as responsible for the preservation and refinement of a high level of religious insight. Historians call their position ‘gnostic,’ from a root which refers to special inside knowledge. They were the insightful, the initiated. Today we might call them gurus, maharishis, or systematic theologians.” (J.H. Yoder, “Glory in a Tent,” He Came Preaching Peace, 77).

A couple pages later, Yoder writes this beautiful passage on John’s inversion of gnostic language:

“That is what the Gospel prologue [John 1:1-18] does with the language of gnosticism. It turns inside out a whole system of thought, whose entire purpose had been to dramatize the distance between the spirituality of God and our poor humanity, and to describe the need for rare and costly exercises of meditation and initiation to seek to rise in contemplation just a step or two toward that distant light. This is the language which is seized and stood on its head to claim–no to proclaim–that all the meaning behind creation, all of the orderliness and purposefulness and goal-directedness of the created order, has come right into our life in a form which preposterously puts itself at our mercy, letting it depend on us whether we will let it illuminate us, transform us, and make us children of God.” (J.H. Yoder, “Glory in a Tent,” He Came Preaching Peace, 80).