Posted by: gcarkner | October 16, 2020

John Owen : In Defence of Democracy

Protecting Democracy from the Outside

Wednesday, November 18 @ 4:00 p.m.

John Owen

Taylor Professor of Politics

Senior Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

Senior Fellow, Miller Center of Public Affairs

University of Virginia

Meeting ID: 957 5971 7947

Passcode: 175501


Three decades after its supposed permanent global triumph, democracy is in trouble nearly everywhere.  In the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, constitutional self-government is on the back foot, as polarization destroys societal trust and anti-liberal populist movements and leaders gain power.  Autocracy is becoming even more entrenched in the two giants, China and Russia. Some other countries proclaim the desire to be more like them.  Once seen as an inevitability, democracy now appears a fragile achievement. In world politics, there is an evolutionary dynamic which the international environment selects for some types of state.  Since World War II, the United States and other mature democracies have deliberately tried to preserve democracy at home by shaping the international environment through a liberal-internationalist foreign policy.  In the language of evolutionary theory, they have engaged in niche construction, altering their environment to “select for” constitutional self-government, and “select out” authoritarianism.  They enjoyed great success, but in recent decades, the niche has actually come to undermine democracy, favoring autocracy.  Liberalism itself has been transformed from its earlier classical forms to a cosmopolitan version that seeks to erase all barriers to economic and social interaction in the name of individual fulfillment.  Such cosmopolitan liberalism has provoked a cultural and economic backlash that acts to jeopardize constitutional democracy itself.  China and Russia meanwhile are constructing their own niches, reshaping the international order to select for autocracy.  Defending democracy from the outside will require a reformed liberal internationalism that will de-polarize electorates, restore solidarity among democracies, and be less inclusive of authoritarian regimes.  As the most powerful constitutional democracy, the United States retains the most important role in this reformation.


John M. Owen is Ambassador Henry J. and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Miller Center of Public Affairs, at the University of Virginia.  Owen is author of Confronting Political Islam (Princeton, 2015), The Clash of Ideas in World Politics (Princeton, 2010), and Liberal Peace, Liberal War (Cornell, 1997), and co-editor of Religion, the Enlightenment, and the New Global Order (Columbia, 2011).  He has published scholarly papers in the European Journal of International RelationsEuropean Journal of International SecurityGlobal PolicyInternational Organization, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, International PoliticsInternational Security, International Studies QuarterlyPerspectives on Politics, and several edited volumes.  His articles have appeared in Foreign AffairsThe Hedgehog ReviewThe HillThe Washington Post, National Interest, The New York Times,and USA Today.  He is a former Editor-in-Chief of Security Studies; he serves on its editorial board and that of International Security.  Owen has held fellowships at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Oxford, the Free University of Berlin, and the WZB Berlin Social Science Research Center.  He is a recipient of a Humboldt Research Prize (2015).  He holds an AB from Duke, an MPA from Princeton, and a PhD from Harvard.  In Fall 2020, he is a Visiting Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia.

Karl Mannheim 1942: “With the coming of the Renaissance and Liberalism, Christianity failed to remain the basic ferment and integrating force in social life… The spiritualization and regulation of human affairs, public and private, has gradually been left to the competing institutions in society… This secularization produced a stimulating variety of human experience… But the fact that the competing value systems cancelled each other out led to the neutralization of values in general. This is one of the reasons why liberal society at its present stage is handicapped in resisting the spiritual and political challenge coming from the totalitarian states… A liberal and competitive economy and its society can function quite well with neutralized values as long as there is no threat from within or without which makes a basic consensus imperative… [in which case] liberal education for intelligent partisanship… must gradually be replaced by a new education for responsible criticism, wherein consciousness of the whole is at least as important as awareness of your own interests… Such a new morality can only be achieved if the deepest sources of human regeneration assist the rebirth of society”.

Tolstoy predicts the current epidemic of fake news: “The more men are freed from privation; the more telegraphs, telephones, books, papers, and journals there are; the more means there will be of diffusing inconsistent lies and hypocrisies, and the more disunited and consequently miserable will men become” (The Kingdom of God is Within You – 1893).

Also Recommended: Netflix Documentary called Social Dilemma

See also

Posted by: gcarkner | October 5, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 12.

Zen Versus Incarnation

Beyond Gnosticism to the Logos Made Flesh in Community

In this series, we have been exploring the recovery of ethics, moral agency and identity through a reflection with our grande pensée Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It has been an amazing, enlightening journey indeed. The consequences of this discussion are earth-shaking. At the core, we have been positioned by a retrieval of the language of the good, the hypergood, the moral framework, preserving the good within community, the transcendent turn towards agape. We have become aware that Millennials and Gen Z need this message in a big way as they grapple with their existential identity crisis and their loss of hope.

Charles Taylor’s Concept of Moral Realism by Gordon E. Carkner

Continuing from our discussion about how the good is carried forward in community as an embodied lifestyle entity, we now elaborate further the concept of the incarnation of the good. In which way do we traverse late modernity? Is it the via positiva (incarnation frame) or the via negativa (Gnostic or Zen frame)? This is a crossroads for us in the West, it is very consequential. Do we try to escape the world and our responsibilities or do we find that deeper calling towards a thick self?

The Big Comparison

We compare through the scintillating quotes and reflections below the two radically different stances on truth and reality, spirituality and identity, personal hope and destiny, moral empowerment and deep freedom.

–At the end of the day, everything depends on whether God has spoken to humankind (John 1: 1-18) or whether the Absolute or Being or the One (Plotinus) remains silent beyond all words.

The Gnostic Frame of Mind

–Natural (Gnostic) man tries to escape from this world of limitation, finitude, death. Individualistic schemes of salvation lead him to dissolve his individual humanity or to dissolve his ties with the rest of humanity in attempts at union with the Absolute. In the end, all systems of natural religion or religious philosophy are based on attempts at identity. Without the revelation that comes from a personal God, a personal Absolute, reason tends to take over and reason projects itself as a monologue, the union is ultimately with oneself…. The way of human religion and religious philosophy is the way of ascent—towards God to be sure, but most significantly away from the world of multiplicity, individuality, relativity…. One is in danger of losing both the world and God. There remains absolute emptiness, Nirvana…. The ascent is always the way of silence [negation]. (Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence, 69-70)

–Zen is apex of East Asian development of negative theology: Selflessness as Emptiness, The “Unword” –Anima technica vacua creates hunger for Zen in the West, a soul technologized to the point of emptiness which seeks fulfilment in the occult, in Zen. –Zen was the tradition of the élite in China and then Japan, now in the post-Christian West. –Zen is the view of absolute nothingness, Non-Being, Nirvana = Samsara—a religious nihilism (double negative of being and non-being)–. Zen represents the most intense, the extreme human attempt to escape the limits of the human condition.– It implies the annihilation of God, man, and the world—the emptiness of Sunyata. Speech and meaning disappear. Finality and form are to be overcome.

–We are talking about “absolute nothingness.” Illusion is Being, therefore Nirvana has the name of “Non-Being” = the Truth– Being is actually itself Non-Being: the way of Zen is one of realizing the identity of Being and Non-Being and living accordingly in contemplation and everyday life. Thus the Zen philosophy of selflessness (practiced loss of self).– It is a radical religious nihilism—the belief that all things come from nothingness and are nothing. The Absolute is ineffable, inexpressible. We are dealing with the mystery of emptiness, a total paradox.– Therefore, Zen is the unword, silence, self-annihilation, the void. It is dis-incarnation.

The Incarnation Frame of Mind

–This insight is based on the brilliant, rich writing of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Theologian Kevin Mongrain is a great interpreter of his thought. He suggests that incarnation of the Word (in von Balthasar) is a key biblical theme in both old and new covenants: “When God reveals his Word, he confronts the finite human mind with a reality it cannot conceptually or speculatively master.” The prophetic tradition in Israel (for example, Deutero-Isaiah) can be read christologically as the site of an ever-increasing incarnation of God and God’s will in human hearts, opening people to a perpetual training, shaping and formation to become worthy bearers of the Word incarnate. The prophetic vocation was to mirror God’s goodness and truthfulness to the community of Israel, to encourage them to offer mercy and justice towards the poor, weak, the widow and the orphan, the outcast, the stranger. People were called to glorify God for his grace and holiness through ethical lives of covenant obedience. This was the direction of deep freedom and purpose, a means of flourishing in the world as a community related to God. The people often left this mandate for selfish pursuits and suffered for it, even experiencing exile under a foreign superpower.

Mongrain holds that the prophetic tradition reaches its zenith in Jesus Christ, uniting old and new covenants in this incarnational dynamic of the Word. Jesus reveals the inner life of the Trinity of love, a beautiful, high love (agape) which is open to human participation, opened to all races and nations, to the entire social strata. Going even further than what the prophets offered as the caretakers of the divine Logos, Jesus claimed for himself the divine authority to make a decision about the eschatological destiny of every person. That was new and it included an unprecedented power in Christ’s redemptive grace and compassionate concern for the marginalized (Sermon on the Mount). “The glory of God shines through the poor, powerless, obedient Word of God in the crucified and resurrected rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. He was not just a temporary vessel of the Word, unlike the prophets. He was the man in whose human existence God proceeded to his final act of self-utterance, his final speech-act. Stephen Long (2009, 177) writes: “Jesus Christ is the ‘way’ or ‘logic’ of our speaking of God, fo he is the Procession who takes on creatureliness without confusing it with divinity in the concretion of his one Person.” Jesus embodies the Logos, constitutes the fullest and most complete incarnation of the Word. He dwelt among humans, offering a full identification with the existential human dilemma. The new covenant thereby calculates as the recapitulation and fulfilment of the old covenant. He took physical reality and culture seriously.

The Incarnation is God’s Great Masterpiece in Creation

The Christian insistence on history is an insistence on the reality of the world, and so the action of God is a saving action, rather than one of dissolution. Religion for Israel, is in its relation with God. It is not a means by which the world is negated, nor is it the lens through which the light of a (Platonic) God is filtered. Rather, it is a relation with God in a covenant, a God who created the world and who wants the world to be lived in—according to his intention. It is not the world that must be overcome or negated, but rather it is a sinful alienation from the will of the Creator that is to be overcome by the saving action of God [in Jesus]. (Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence, 62) 

–Since the resurrection, the choice for man is ultimately one between myth and revelation.– The one who became flesh brought the fullness of heaven to earth and by so doing showed that the Unity of God need not be destroyed when expressed in the multiplicity of the world, including statements and concepts and images and judgments. The good news for Balthasar is the Evangelium of a God who speaks, a Trinitarian God of three persons, who wants to share his Being, who wants to engage in dialogue with others, with free beings, and who will communicate His speech in a Word which becomes flesh and in a Spirit which gathers together all the scattered syllables of creation to return them to the divine speech. (Raymond Granowski, Word & Silence, 134)–

Creation is the First Speech of God—Ignatius of Antioch

Scripture is His Word Written

Jesus is the Final/Ultimate Speech of God–Hans Urs von Balthasar

–The triune God is a living—and lively—relation of persons. My I is a Thou for God; I can only be an I because God wants to become my Thou. This is at the heart of Balthasar’s theology. Human and divine reality is dialogical. It is God’s calling of the individual that gives each one his unique worth.  One only becomes an I as awakened by the love of a Thou. The I-Thou of the Trinity finds its epiphany in the I-Thou between God and man. –– In the relation of God and man, it is the unlimited “I” of God that calls the limited “I’ of man into existence, and this is His Word: to be human means to be addressed by God in the word and to be so created in the image of God, that one can receive the word and answer the word. (Raymond Gawronski, Word & Silence, 142) This is where deep identity is located.

The Call of the Divine Word Made Flesh

–Jesus Christ addresses each human being individually: each must decide if he will bear the Name of Christ and accept the unique mission that God has for each one, within the mission of His Son. It is only by identifying with this mission that we become persons in the deepest, theological sense. (Gawronski, Word & Silence, 144)––. Person for Balthasar means uniqueness.  An eternal dignity is bestowed upon individual being, not to be dissolved. To dissolve the individual would be to remove the possibility of love. Therefore divine-human distance from the other is important. We are first sought by God, and then become seekers of God. In Christ, we have both immanence and transcendence, physical and spiritual, earth and heaven, human and divine together. Anthony Thiselton says that the mystery of the Incarnation is too profound for human discovery by reason alone. It requires divine revelation. But, the right posture and intellectual virtues can help us fathom the implications.

–God’s self-communication to man then develops  in a level of conscious address and response…. God’s speech in and through the prophets was a mission given to selected individuals which yet was different than the core of their beings: they performed a role, or bore tidings, but in no case was the role, or the news identical with their person. The words which they spoke bore witness to the Word in whose Spirit they spoke, and yet… they were not the Word.” (Gawronski, Word & Silence, 157-8)––.

Jesus is the Superword (Überwort), the Word above all words, the very speech of God, the full expression of God. Word means something like the full expression of abundance, the word abundantly expressing the abundance from which it is uttered, from the beginning of creation. The word is also deed; it is grace-imparting deed-word. All the fragments of reality, all the words, are drawn to him as metal shavings are to a magnet. He is the primordial Word before all words—the Urwort—who as sharing in the divine essence is also an Überwort, the alpha and omega…. In the flesh he speaks words, fragments themselves which are cast out like a net to gather the original fragments, turned away from their telos by misused human freedom, leading them not to destruction, but to fullness. (Gawronski, Word & Silence, 188).

I have argued that there is a different foundation for reality and thus a different kind of binding commitment symbolized most powerfully in the incarnation. The incarnation represents an alternative way by which word and world come together. It is in the incarnation and the particular way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ that we find the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution and difference. If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with  whom  we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate. When the Word of all flourishing—defined by the love of Christ—becomes flesh in us, in our relations with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our spheres of influence—absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. This is the heart of the theology of faithful presence. (James Davison Hunter, To Change the World)

Incarnation makes a whole world of difference in how we see ourselves and others.

Author of this article/free download: Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

The New Testament makes the amazing claim that Jesus is, in the flesh, the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Corinthians 1: 24), the nexus and integral relationship of faith and reason. As divine logos (John 1: 1-4), he is the transcendent word made flesh, the underwriter of all human thought and language. Truth is ultimately found embodied in a person, a presence, it is not a mere idea. Jesus is reason personified, the raison d’être of it all. He helps us make sense of life’s essence. We are still haunted by transcendence in our secular age. The narrative is clear and profound. He is and has the answer to our deepest questions:

Why are we here?

What is our calling or purpose? 

Quo Vadis: Where are we going?

Who are we working for?

What or whom do we love? 

God’s speech is embodied, full-blooded, not flat, lifeless or atomistic. The incarnation is a most powerful communicative action (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2009), so much more than mere letters, words or sentences. It contributes unusual levels of energy to human creativity and culture and affirms the physicality of our world and our bodies. It is loaded with spiritual vitality and meaning.

N.T. Wright on Incarnation

It rings with the poignancy of the poetic, prophetic, and pedagogical. Bonhoeffer scholar Jens Zimmermann’s stunning summary insight on this point represents a fresh re-articulation of incarnational reality—the opposite of ghostly Gnosticism. It shows that there is something deeply meaningful about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who is both Son of man and Son of God. God has acted vulnerably in and through the form of a human individual, by uniting the divine freedom of self-giving agape love with the agency of a free human being, acting in a community, within a historical-cultural context, within a tradition. In the Christ event, one is confronted with the intensely personal, which consequently has impact through forms of interpersonal communication and personal presence. Individuals are identified a loved, valued, nurtured, embraced and included. The incarnation has phenomenal explanatory range for late moderns.

Christ the creative wisdom of God, and God’s active Word in creation, is enfleshed in the temporal-historical dimension of our world as the concrete Jewish Messiah, Jesus the Christ…. This is the Word through whom all things were made, and the Word hid in the eternal bosom of God, the Word who spoke through the prophets, the Word whose mighty acts defined the history of Israel. In Jesus the Christ, this Word has become flesh, and the eternal has become temporal, but without ceasing to be eternal…. In Christ temporality and eternity are conjoined…. In the incarnation, creation, the world, time and history have been taken up into the God-man, who is the center of reality…. Faith and reason are inseparable because their unity is in Christ. (J. Zimmermann, 2012, 264-5)

This incarnational posture moves us from Gnostic self-assertion to humble servant leadership, mutuality, community and hospitality, into the virtuous society. It takes us away from pure self-interest and prideful, god-like superiority, and leads us toward a welcomed responsibility for others. Our mandate is to let God be God. We escape our isolation, aloofness and indifference, and re-enter courageously into embedded vulnerability and mutual trust. Goodness is embodied in Jesus Christ and his teaching. One sees God communicating and relating, not as a tyrannical, coercive, absolute sovereign, but as a vulnerable human individual, a humble suffering servant, as someone who was one of us and knows our pain.

[By] incarnation in the body of the crucified one implies that God’s freedom does not, after all, entail a transcendent aloofness from the world, but a form of involvement with it in which the divine being and freedom are staked. God subjects Godself to the risks, vulnerabilities and ambiguities of historical existence, including the risk of rejection, suffering and death, as well as of misinterpretation. God’s freedom and sovereignty must be of a radical kind: the freedom to give oneself in relation; to be with and in creation in ways that are costly to God, but which do not abrogate God’s sovereignty, freedom and transcendence. (A. McFadyen, 1995, 42)

It leads us out of our sensuality and sloth into an adventure that is grounded and hopeful. We have been rumbling with reality and we are not afraid, because we have discovered just how important the incarnation is for everyday life and discipleship. The worthwhile pursuit and practice of virtues builds a solid ground for freedom with depth, freedom in the long run, freedom informed by love, freedom connected to the good–moral freedom committed to the common good.

This series has helped us step back from the abyss of nihilistic despair and cynicism, the end game of Gnosticism. In the end, we are not hard-wired to be gods. We can discover in the incarnation a new transcendent-immanent horizon of vast meaning. God has invested deeply in this physical-spiritual world, this soulish-body which is his temple. We are deeply connected to this world and yet also deeply connected to the kingdom of heaven.

An incarnation posture helps us recover an empirically honest human anthropology, which is also more hopeful in its potential for individual and social change. This positioning of the individual self within community makes possible the ability to love self, the world, the other and God, and to recognize hopeful signs of progress, while recognizing corruption and the pain causes. It is a creative and joyful way of being present to others that creates space for more being, more potential in life. Individual identity is strengthened and thickened, becomes more resilient, through generosity, gratitude and mutuality. Incarnation is this and much more.


–Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation.

Gordon Carkner, The Great Escape from Nihilism, Chapter 10. “Transcending Nihilism: Incarnational Humanism Offers a Recovery of Our Passion.”

Warren Brown & Brad Strawn, The Physical Nature of the Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology and the Church.–

Jim Belcher (2009). Deep Church: a Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. IVP

Kevin Mongrain (2002). The Systematic Thought of Hans urs von Balthasar: an Irenaean Retrieval.– New York: Herder & Herder.

Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence: Hans ursvon Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West

Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience.

James Davison Hunter (2010). To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford University Press.

Jens Zimmermann (2012). Incarnational Humanism: a Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic

We recommend the Netflix movie Social Dilemma on a deep structure problem in today’s society worldwide, on the loss of freedom.

Posted by: gcarkner | September 17, 2020

Sy Garte @ UBC

GFCF  Special UBC Presentation

Thursday, October 1, @ 4:00 p.m., 2020 on Zoom

Sy Garte, Biochemist, Former Professor and Division Director National Institute of Health, Washington, DC

A Sense of Wonder: the Long Journey of a Scientist to Faith


Raised as an enthusiastic atheist and trained as a top biochemist, Dr. Garte began to question materialistic naturalism at one point in his career. This was sparked by his study of quantum physics and molecular biology: for example, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the observer effect, and quantum entanglement, the complexity of biochemical systems such as protein synthesis, photosynthesis and abiogenesis. These scientific findings made him question the pure materialism outlook: he began to wonder about the God question, and it was science itself that guided him forward. 


Sy (Seymour) Garte, PhD in biochemistry, has been a tenured professor at New York University, Rutgers University, and the University of Pittsburgh, Division Director at the Center for Scientific Review of the National Institutes of Health, and interim vice president for research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He has published over two hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers and four books. He has also published articles in Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith and is the editor-in-chief of God and Nature. His faith journey is published in The Works of His Hands (2019, Kregel).

Co-sponsored with Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation

Other Big Guns in Science & Faith, Science & Theology,

Science & Religion (hear some of their talks at

John Polkinghorne

Francis Collins

Denis Alexander

Alvin Plantinga

Tom McLeish

David Bentley Hart

Alister McGrath

William Newsome

Deborah Haarsma

Simon Conway Morris

Owen Gingerich

John Lennox

Katharine Hayhoe

See other UBC GFCF speakers on science & faith, science and theology, theology of science at

Posted by: gcarkner | September 9, 2020

Welcome to GCU at UBC

Dear Friends Old & New,

Greetings everyone. Thanks for showing interest in this community. Hope summer has been productive and that you are excited about a new fall term, however unique it might be in terms of needed adaptations. How are you doing with online teaching? Campus is still a bit of a ghost town in these unprecedented times. Our family has just moved to a new house which will be great for student and faculty gatherings someday soon we hope. I have just finished Blog Post 11 in the Quality of the Will summer series. It focuses on how we can carry the moral good in community, and how a larger, transcendent horizon for identity can make all the difference.

Our fall theme in GCU is The Fully Integrated Life: Reflective, Purposeful and Christ-centered. We want to encourage each other in our studies, effective engagement with colleagues and personal growth. Together perhaps we can map out some of the key points of discussion with colleagues from various persuasions as they seek meaning, significance and relational wholeness. We won’t have a fall reception this year for new students because of COVID, but we ask you to watch out for people in your department who might be interested in spiritual and philosophical community, connection and dialogue. Whether you are here at UBC or reading from afar, we welcome your input and questions. We have a robust sense that good ideas and relational network prospects are in the cards this academic year.

 Would you be interested in a regular FaceTime or Zoom Bible study? We want to start that in a couple weeks. Let us know soon.

Our first lecture is on October 1, a livestream with Sy Garte, Biochemist, Former Professor and Division Director National Institute of Health, Washington, DC (co-sponsored with the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation)

Topic: A Sense of Wonder: the Long Journey of a Scientist to Faith See details here

We have found that practicing gratitude/thankfulness and noticing the signs of grace in our lives has been positive. Jesus gives us hope and purpose, clarity of thought and durability. He is our rock and foundation in shaky times, our light within and at the end of the tunnel. We sense a great need to pray for wisdom as we venture forward amidst all the uncertainties. I guess that is what faith is all about. We are crossing the desert of our times with a great God ahead of us.

“The will of God will not take you where the grace of God cannot sustain you.” (unknown author) 

All the Best, Gord & Ute Carkner

Email Gord at if you are new and would like to be added to our mailing list. We will also be posting talks and discussions on YouTube this year.

We are happy to meet for coffee safely to get to know you at a place convenient for you. If you have just arrived, perhaps we can help with orienting you to Vancouver.

Recommended Reflective Thought Talk by Neil Degrassi Tyson

Ask us about free books on Apologetics and Spiritual Formation

Posted by: gcarkner | August 24, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 11.

Key Sources of the Good: the Goodness of a Triune God

Can we carry the good as a society, a community, a communion with diversity? If we are to move towards a communal understanding of the good, we need strong sources outside ourselves, even outside culture, to make this work for us. We need inspiration, vision and empowerment to boost a positive identity with stronger meaning. We need the motivation to cross Kant’s great divide between knowing what is right and good (the moral law/communal trust) and doing/practicing it well. We need moral courage, not passivity or retreat. This Kantian gap is part of our existential struggle, the reason for current angst, shame, discouragement and cynicism. The lack of inspiration towards, imagination for the good, belief in the possibility of the good, is part of social deterioration and decline identified by French philosopher Chantal Delsol (Icarus Fallen).

But with George Steiner (Real Presences), we want to wager on transcendence of the good. Charles Taylor calls this motivation to pursue higher ideals the constitutive good (The Language Animal). He is not afraid to promote the good, even amidst the confusion of such ideologies as scientism within what he calls the “immanent frame.” The good, as he sees it, is a key aspect of what makes us human beings and what gives us meaning in life, energy for life and flow or momentum. Agape has pointed the way forward as we have seen in Post 10 of this series. But beyond a mere ideal or badge, the good is meant to be carried practically and lived out in community, incarnated. This is a direction of life-giving hope; it moves our lives to a new level. In this pursuit, we sense the need for a larger and more powerful moral horizon. This horizon takes us beyond even the hypergood, one that makes sense of the drive of the hypergood. We are looking for a way out of violence, exploitation, mere sensuality, despair and nihilism, towards a creative, constructive restoration of human moral agency, mutual trust and cultural transformation. In today’s world of hyper-debt and irresponsible leadership, we are a house needing renovation, an upgrade in our values. Many today are burnt out on atheism or agnosticism and starved for transcendence. The individual cannot do this alone, even the heroic superhero.

Along this line of inquiry, we explore a frame of personal trinitarian, transcendent goodness as a foundation for moral self-constitution and profound freedom. That’s a mouthful. Let me explain. This direction was suggested by Charles Taylor in his “Turn to Agapic Transcendence” late in Sources of the Self. In this pursuit of the deeper life, we mine the potential benefits of a Judeo-Christian epiphany or revelation regarding the moral self. The moral world, moral experience and action looks quite different from this perspective, this stance toward self, the other and the world.  Taylor strongly suggests that there is an alternative to the Dionysian “moral/spiritual lobotomy” adopted by Foucault and many other late modern thinkers.

We argue that transcendent trinitarian goodness operates as the condition for the very notion and possibility of human goodness, thereby expanding our moral horizon in significant ways. This is towards the expansion of the self. We discover in the process goodness-freedom. It is God in relation to human creatures, although it is rooted in the intense intimacy and perichoresis within the relationships of the Trinity. Self–constitution is rethought, under these conditions, according to the constitutive goodness of God. God is goodness as integrated trinitarian, communitarian being. The narrative and grammar of divine goodness rethinks morality as a relational kind of realism. There is so much more than the text of self, the individualistic interpretation of self.

For the purpose of our argument, it seems appropriate to provide a preliminary definition or short elaboration of transcendent trinitarian goodness before discussing its implications for the moral self, for meaning and identity, safety and security of the planet, hope and vision for the future of society. This provides the broader, richer, deeper moral horizon for self-constitution that seems urgent today for Millennials and others. We are definitely not on our own to survive in the world. That is the route of death. and death-dealing. We are talking about the power of presence as a radical added dimension to human life.

First, it will be helpful for clarity to begin by explaining this horizon in its negative aspect. Goodness is not an absolute principle like the rationally structured Good of Plato’s divine idea, or Oxford ethicist Iris Murdoch’s concept of the cosmic Good, an impersonal good, devoid of God—that is, a transcendent absolute value, or abstract norm to which we can aspire or admire. Goodness enters the world in agents: both divine and human. One must also go beyond, or at least elaborate Taylor’s less-developed definition of the transcendent good. For this purpose, brilliant theologians D. Stephen Long Christof Schwoebel and Alastair McFadyen provide helpful characterization of the divine good or goodness:

No being is co-eternal with God…. Only God is. Good, then, cannot be a function of a category called being more encompassing than God. Ethics cannot be the province of a philosophical discourse that brackets out theological consideration, unless philosophers assume a being greater than God giving access to goodness….We realize that any discourse about the good must also entail discourse about God. (D. S. Long, 2009, 300)

Importantly, the good is not an independent criterion by which one judges God. Instead, God is goodness at its highest, most intense and purest, the highest possible standard of the good. Many people today question whether God is good. The biblical books of Ecclesiastes and Job struggled intensely with this issue. Long replies frankly: “God is good in the most excellent way” (D. S. Long, 2009, 21). He is the ultimate gold standard of all goodness, and the ultimate position of critique for human claims to be good or to inherent goodness. There exists no more transcendent, transparent, no higher, no more secure standard of pure goodness. God’s goodness is infinite. This insight is deeply significant.

Therefore, the qualitative perfection of goodness is not the type that humans can control, manipulate or manufacture through personal effort. It is beyond us, transcendent, incommensurable, the goodness of the most excellent sort, an aspect of God’s infinite otherness from creation, his alterity. It is not inferred, contrived or derived from nature or the structure of the natural or social world, nor a mere human faculty. Rather, it is endemic to the very essence and character of God and thereby only the secure possession of God. The quality of goodness, at the end of the day, is only secure in God. God’s very being is his essence, an essential, superior goodness. Essence equals existence in the this case: God exists and God is good.

Humanly speaking, there is no such thing as a secure moral faculty apart from God. Goodness is firstly theological, rooted in the divine, and only secondarily or derivatively anthropological, a human possibility or potential. There is a massive qualitative distinction between human finite, and divine infinite goodness. It is human by gift and analogy only, a pale but important translation of divine goodness within the human theatre. We have a wonderful, exciting situation here: Goodness is discovered in God, not invented by humans. This is true no matter how much humans play the game of goodness in various ways, and sometime even manipulate/highjack the good for their own selfish or entitled purposes. We see this in narcissism. Leaders often want to look good to others to maintain their status in society, or to be liked, to keep their job, so they pay to have a company or individual put spin on their image and to cover up their hidden, sometimes corrupt behaviour. They want you to think/imagine they are the highest form of goodness and the future hope for society. No wonder we are so often disappointed. This is manufactured/fabricated goodness.

Participation in God is necessary for the good and for freedom. Evil arises when freedom is lost through turning towards one’s own autonomous resources for ethics. The fall does not result from people seeking to be more than they are capable of through pride but from their becoming less than they could be because they separate the knowledge of the good from its true end, God, and find themselves self-sufficient … Seeking the good through non-participation in God, through the “virtue of what was in themselves” makes disobedience possible. (D.S. Long, 2001,128)

This transcendent understanding of goodness is not conceived as an absolute value, an abstract norm, or an unreachable ideal, but as a personal goodness of the tri-personal God. It is a goodness that is ascribed to God on the basis of his actions, his engagement with the world through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We see its manifestation within creation and history. It is thoroughly endemic to the being of God, the intentions of God and the actions of God. God is good. God does the good. God celebrates the good in humans with integrity. Ecclesiastes and Job both conclude on this note after all the existential wresting with pain and suffering and human experience of failure, futility and angst. This entails a universal, relational goodness that is based in the universal creative agency of God and his will to show mercy to his creation, his grace. It is intentional and abundant. Long crisply calls it a character trait predicate of the triune God as three active Persons within a communion, actively engaged with the world in a multitude of self-giving, creative activities. His goodness has a strong interest in all aspects of human culture (including science), human identity, human meaning and purpose. In this sense, God is bullish on humans as we find in the Hebrew Psalms.

God’s inmost being is constituted by the radical mutuality of the three divine Persons, in which they both give and receive their individuality from one another. In their intersubjectivity, there is the creative intention and recognition of subjectivity, and therefore transcendence in form of the integrity of personal identity, in the giving of space to one another. This giving of space is an interpersonal event, and must not be thought of as analogous to the evacuation of physical space. It is not a form of absence, but a way of being present with others in creative recognition of their autonomy within the relationship. It is a letting-be, rather than a letting-go: a structuring of the relationship so that it includes space and time for personal discreteness and autonomous response. Thus the trinitarian life involves a circulation of the divine potentialities of being through the processes of self-giving, in the unity of which the three Persons receive their distinct personal identities. (A. McFadyen, 1995, 46-7)

This is a beautiful statement by theologian Alasdair McFadyen. Thus, this type of goodness is a relational attribute.  It is rooted in the very relational, inter-personal, mutually supportive, perichoretic relationship among the three Persons of the Trinity. It exists as immanent love and good will between members of the divine Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is goodness in communion, carried in divine community. Intense good will towards one another is of the fundamental spirit of intra-relations between the persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It exists as a super-abundant goodness and supportive mutuality rooted in love. Thus, it is not a static first principle, but an active dynamic relationship that is the precedent for, the forerunner of, human finite creaturely goodness. We are fortunate to capture even a glimpse of it in our lives. It is an infinite source of goodness, and inspiration/motivation to cross the Kantian divide from thinking to doing. Goodness is relational in that it starts with immanent agape love between divine Persons. Good will towards one another is part of the fundamental spirit of trinitarian life, and a major inspiration for building human culture and cleaning up the neighbourhood. If we can believe this, trust this claim, it changes everything. We don’t have to give up on humanity or civilization, because there is a powerful transcendent source of the good available to us corporately.

God’s love is one active contemporary source of the good, the love of which has empowered people to do the good and exemplify the good in their character, social life and politics. Taylor suggests that to avoid nihilism, we need a transcendent turn to avoid the extremes of self-hatred, guilt and shame; or alternatively the extremity of hating morality itself—spiritual lobotomy. The transcendent turn to agape becomes vital: “The only way to escape fully the draw toward violence”, Taylor writes, “lies somewhere in the turn to transcendence—that is, through the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” (C. Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?, 1999, 28).

The Incarnation of the divine Logos, Jesus of Nazareth, is a key revelation of this relationship (John 14-17). Jesus entered human space and time to provide a personal revelation of such goodness. In fact, God is the source of, and condition for, human or created goodness. God is the only guarantee of goodness, while humans discover it by grace, as a gift through a relationship with God. This is truly amazing. The goodness connection between heaven and earth is a transcendent relationship that God has with creation, transcendence in immanence: Jesus said, “I and my Father are one.” There is an important categorical and qualitative difference between the goodness of the infinite tri-personal God and the goodness of finite persons, but this does not make it unreachable or incommensurable. We can actually access this goodness in real time and embody it in human community. We can carry it forward, pay it forward. This creates a positive wake.

The goodness of God the creator would therefore have to be interpreted as the condition for the possibility of all created goodness. The self-disclosure of God in revelation would have to be seen as the condition of the possibility of finite knowledge of goodness, and the inspiration of the Spirit as the motivation for the realization of goodness by finite agents. (C. Schwoebel, 1995, 72)

Incarnationed/Embodied Goodness: This perspective helps us avoid much of the debilitating cynicism about the moral good and goodness in general. Of course, there is brokenness and moral failure in our world. But again, one does not judge goodness by human standards or presentations of the good, but by God as the gold standard. Otherwise, goodness could become merely tribal and self-righteous, a source of hatred for others. God remains the standard of goodness within creation. Moral currency is not secure without him. The goodness of God is also the ultimate critique of human claims to goodness, human positing of the good or written moral standards for society, such as codes or laws of the land. God establishes a standard of goodness in his relationship with creation, in the very act of creation, and in his covenant with creation (Steven Bouma-Prediger, 2001). This covenant offers a deep, built-in calling to humans.

Without God’s high standard of goodness, morality is vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation and thereby can become the source of much human inter-relational conflict and even violence (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind). This allows for better, more fruitful human dialogue about the good or goodness, and it allows for renewal and reform within societal institutions and government. Human standards of goodness are always insecure, transient, historically relative, subject to will to power, and self-interest, the so-called “conflict of interpretations”. Why else do the rich and powerful always keep getting richer? Big bank CEOs think they deserve a million dollar bonus even in the midst of a financial crisis like 2008. Late moderns are right on this point. They have shown the emperor’s nakedness. Foucault agrees that, following Nietzsche, if God is not in the equation, morality is contingent, fragile and a mere mobile metaphor, like floating currencies in the global economy.

Without the gold standard, we are very vulnerable indeed. A key assumption to this new paradigm/frame is that God is the Creator of the world in toto. Creation is the “ecosystem”, relational and natural, where God sets up the playing field or drama of morality, a secure order of moral relationships and moral possibilities. This makes moral realism viable, palpable and exciting, not at all stifling. We always have something higher than ourselves to appeal to, a Supreme Court of the universe.

Therefore, one’s concept of, and relationship to  God is key to one’s understanding of the dynamic, powerful play of morality. As Stephen Long writes so well, if one sets up a moral system or knowledge of good and evil outside of a relationship with God, it automatically creates dysfunction through rebellion against creation and creational intent. It flies in the face of covenant and there are dire consequences. It always trends towards corruption and self-dealing, moral insider trading. This would constitute humans asserting themselves as the origin of their own moral faculty and moral life (D.S. Long, 2001, 122-28). God the Holy Spirit is the source of empowerment, inspiration and accountability of human morality and moral self-constitution through his empowering love.  To use Charles Taylor’s language, God the Spirit is the ultimate source of the good, the richest source of the self. We learn about the good, about the creativity and wow of goodness by our participation with God. It is a spiritual journey into the heart of goodness, into the light.

This insight has profound implications for the church whose calling is to be a conduit, an incarnation, of God’s goodness in the world, to practice such presence.

The church’s vision—a journey towards the vision of the Triune God, a journey that still holds forth the possibility of the beatific vision. Goodness cannot be adequately thought outside this journey. To think goodness within this journey and vision is to think it as a gift. Goodness as a gift is difficult to think…. Goodness is not predicated upon any secure possession of the human subject. The good is a transcendental predicate of being, but being here does not describe a secure creaturely existence. Good is theological. It makes sense when we adhere to orthodox Christian claims that God creates ex nihilo and that God’s essence is God’s existence. A real distinction exists between God’s being and creaturely being such that goodness as a transcendental predicate of being says something first about God and only derivatively about us. Goodness is not first of all anthropological; it is theological. Then, because of God’s goodness, it can also be anthropological. We do not know it in its fullness. Only God is the full intensity of goodness. But because God is this, we know it analogically. (D. S. Long, 2001, 302)

If in fact Jesus is the wisdom of God and the power of God, the reason, the Logos of John 1:1-18, the telos or goal of everything (Colossians 1), it would be wrong to keep this a secret. If we are able to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ with respect to our studies, our engagement with society, and our relationships (Romans 8), that will begin to transform them and give us fresh motivation, creativity and energy. Hear what Christof Schwoebel says about such freedom and creativity.

The true measure of freedom is love as the relationship which makes the flourishing of the other the condition of self-fulfilment. Human freedom becomes the icon of divine freedom where the freedom of divine grace constitutes the grace of human freedom … That most poignant image of hope, the Kingdom of God, expresses the relation of free divine love and loving human freedom together in depicting the ultimate purpose of God’s action as the perfected community of love with his creation. The fulfilment of God’s reign and the salvation of creation are actualized together in the community of the love of God. (C. Schwöbel, 1995, 80-81)

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright pushes us to realize the possibility of our calling, to move beyond selfishness, narcissism, entitlement, self-pity and mediocrity. He sets out a new trajectory.

Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our full human role as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us. (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian)

What are the implications of the incarnation (God with us), one of the central doctrines of the Christian faith, for postgraduate students.  What of their identity, their posture and their voice on campus? Incarnation is “where God’s eternity and creation’s temporality meet” (D. Stephen Long, Speaking of God, 86). There is no simple answer, but it is great territory to explore, good soil to turn over in our minds. There is embedded here in this idea of carrying the good in community a whole language to recover and a new experience of self to be discovered. It is so relevant to our COVID-19 pandemic.

In speaking with a friend who is a UBC literature professor, he suggested that it is best that we let ourselves be known as a Christian believer among our colleagues right at the outset, that we believe that God Is. We should be graciously straight with professors and the students that we teach at the earliest possible opportunity. He is fully aware of some of the possible alienation worries. As a Christian academic in English, he confessed that he wants to know who the Christian students are in his classes. He also helps undergrads address any unacceptable prejudice or bias by professors who might be hostile to a Christian-oriented paper. The code of silence doesn’t work for the common good, and it causes the incognito Christian to feel unnecessary shame. The professor suggested that it is also pertinent for non-Christians to know who the Christian students are in their program. I discovered this in my first year at Queen’s University: while silent for the first month, I was miserable. Then I quickly discovered the joy of debate and dialogue about issues of meaning and philosophy very quickly once I revealed my faith. If I remained silent, who would these roommates or colleagues go to if they had a spiritual question? It is exhilarating to open the God conversation about morality, faith and sources of the good. Students of faith can help colleagues unpack some of their existential longings.

The Virtuous Community: Agape trumps Nihilism in the Halls of the Academy

What kind of people form a virtuous community on campus? Is it possible for a university, or part of it, to become such a community? Based on the discussion above and over the past ten blog posts, we posit that it can.

How do we locate ourselves with respect to the good, carry the good in community?

What do wisdom, courage and hope, benevolence and love have to do with good scholarship?

What do moderation, self-restraint and frugality, patience and gratitude have to do with academic excellence, business acumen or scientific brilliance?

What about truthfulness, integrity, trust, honesty and humility? Can we truly flourish if we live, work and love virtuously?

Can virtue inform our academic vision which in turn shapes our goals and actions in the real world?

Are virtuous people suckers for those who would exploit them or are they the real leaders of tomorrow (David Brooks, The Road to Character; The Second Mountain)?

Many of us know of virtue philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s landmark After Virtue which attempts to recover the cultural loss of this ancient language of virtue. There is a robust academic recovery of the discourse of virtue today (Cambridge Companion on Virtue). One UBC professor of philosophy was given a major grant to develop scholarship and research around virtue ethics. But in place of virtue, late moderns have often unfortunately substituted Weber’s (Nietzschean) language of values, a much weaker term, values which are invented and chosen/controlled by us. MacIntyre questions this move at a profound level. Virtue ethics has thankfully made a strong recent come back with many books on the topic.

We believe it is terribly relevant to today’s academic atmosphere and the purpose of higher education. Climbing the first mountain of career and financial success is not enough. There is also an important second mountain of character and virtue, writes David Brooks. It is a strong characteristic of a person or institution. Virtue disposes one to act in such a reasonable way to avoid extremes, to act in short as a sage (wise one) would act. Virtues are heuristic and creative: they teach us about new dimensions of life as we embrace them and embody them. It is a great gift to be trained and mentored in the virtues. We should seek out people who offer this. Environmental theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger (For the Beauty of the Earth) from Hope College in Michigan shared his concern for environmental stewardship virtues with the UBC community a few years ago. He articulates the language this way:

A virtue is a state of praiseworthy character—with the attendant desires, attitudes and emotions. Formed by choices over time, a virtue disposes us to act in certain excellent ways. Knowing which way is the truly excellent way involves avoiding the extremes of vice by looking to people of virtue as role models. As certain virtues shape our character they influence how we see the world. And the entire process of forming virtues is shaped by a particular narrative and community. The settled disposition to act well, which makes us who we are, is nurtured by the stories we imbibe and the communities of which we are a part. (S. Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth, 140)

Download my Free Book: The Great Escape from Nihilism.

There is an art, a finesse, a personal strength and creativity to virtue as an expression and exploration of divine goodness. It enhances one’s leadership resilience and emotional intelligence. Virtues orient us toward both individual and group flourishing and flourishing of the biosphere (creation care). It assumes trustworthy social relationships characteristic of a moral community–we relax because we know what to expect of each other. It takes into consideration an individual and common good. There are academic and research virtues (Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind) which help the university keep its integrity as a holistic knowledge center. Oxford’s famous philosopher Iris Murdoch (Murdoch, I. (1997). On ‘God’ and the ‘Good’. In P. Conradi (Ed.) Iris Murdoch on Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on philosophy and literature. London: Chatto & Windus) speaks to the issue. Although an agnostic, she had a high view of the transcendent moral good, influencing great thinkers such as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and many other emerging scholars in her day. She knew the cash out value of the classic virtues. She rejected cynicism and did not accept the end of ideals, simply to be replaced by human desires or appetites (our Dionysian drivers). Stephen Long has one final important insight here

Virtue epistemology is where knowledge is not a collection of propositions based primarily on justified beliefs; instead knowledge is the cultivation of the virtue of wisdom, which always entails a relationship between the intellectual and moral virtues. (S. J. Long, 2009, 216)

Turning Point in Status of Virtue

Early Modern European historian Brad Gregory of Notre Dame University in his brilliant tome The Unintended Reformation in a chapter called “Subjectivizing Morality” traces important changes in morality in the West over 500 years. He makes note of a time when the virtuous community was in fact a common social and political consciousness in Europe, part of people’s normal identity. Today, he claims that this has been exchanged for a self-interested, utilitarian language of rights. Gregory notes the following trend change: 

A transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium, in terms of theory, practice, laws and institutions. Moreover, there is a historical relationship between the creation of ethics of rights and the antecedent ethics of the good that it displaced, a shift that involves much more than the institutionalized triumph of putatively superior ethical and political ideas…. Once the metaphysical basis of an ethics of the good has been jettisoned, nothing remains in principle but the human will and its desires protected by the state…. An ethics of rights displaced and marginalized a substantive Christian ethics of the good even as it continued to draw on it, and thus fostered the subjectivization of morality. (B. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 2012, 184, 189)

Some scholars refer to modern secular Western culture as a cut flower society, dependent upon its Christian heritage but cut off from its sources of the good.

This chapter in Gregory’s overview of Western history is a profound insight into ‘how the West was lost’ from a moral perspective. At one time, rights were articulated within values of the communal good, within the discourse of the virtuous community. Now they have morphed into rights, a consumeristic commodity to fulfill my subjective desires, opinions, or consumer choices (an unchecked wish list of conflicting subjective wants). This is nihilism and it does not lead to greater personal fulfilment or freedom. Not to trash the value of human rights discourse at its best in the UN Charter on Human Rights. But, today, our individual good seems to be in tension with the common good (within a discourse of individualism, self-interest and personal entitlements). This is very true of the Millennial profile according to Reginald Bibby. As a result, we are struggling to find the social glue or the common purpose to hold society together. We have lost that center of high values like agape love, the vision for a virtuous community, and we are terribly divided (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen) at odds with one another. 

How do we recover/retrieve the power of virtues and the power of agape, the supreme virtue of caritas for the university and society? The apostle Paul believed that agape and the fruits of the Spirit were the hub from which all other virtues radiated. The imitation of Christ provides the standard for living a certain kind of life with accountable relationships within community, revealing the joy of taking responsibility for the one another. For late moderns, it seems not only possible but urgent and necessary for our future well-being within a civil, democratic society. Senior statesmen can still pass on these virtues to Millennials and Gen Z but it will need to be intentional (see James Houston, The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood) as some of our senior icons indicate.


With redeemed freedom, we are quite capable of carrying the good in community. It flourishes within a transcendent trinitarian horizon. It restores our confidence and trust once again. Trinitarian divine goodness proves to be a fruitful plausibility structure within which to think differently about freedom, agency and the moral good.  Trinitarian goodness-freedom answers some of the concerns in the late modern self and the angst of Millennials by providing a transcendent and relational horizon for identity. It reveals new opportunities for personal discovery, transformation and exploration of the good life. It also adds sophistication and meaning to some of Charles Taylor’s categories of the good and its sources. It is in the life of Jesus as a member of the Trinity that one can visualize this goodness-freedom dynamic most dramatically in play.

Theologian Christof Schwöbel (1995, 80) captures this prospect well:

 [It is in the] Image of Christ, where freedom is exercised as rooted in the will of the Father and mediated in the power of the Spirit that the true character of the image of God is disclosed to us, both as the divine freedom for grace and as the human freedom of obedience … Christ is … both the revelation of the divine freedom of grace and the disclosure of the human freedom of obedience, where obedience to the will of God the father is not the abrogation of human freedom but the form of its exercise.

In Jesus, it is never a contest between God the Father’s freedom and his own. It entails an intimate cooperation rooted in loving communion. Jesus reveals that freedom can be liberated from the weighty obligation to live self-reflexively out of one’s own power and resources. He also reveals a creative divine-human relationship filled with freedom, wisdom and grace. The life committed to this goodness-freedom can constitute a great, and yet accessible, work of art, a beautiful, a creative and free life. This is part of an ongoing debate and fruitful discussion that has many implications for Westerners and others worldwide as they engage late modern culture, and struggle to find answers and hope amidst our current global moral and economic crises–to discover a more solid grounding of self and society.

Gordon E. Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology, Mentor to UBC Graduate Students

See also GFCF Forum on The Future of Liberal Arts Education  


Bouma-Prediger, S. (2001). For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision of Creation Care. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Cloud, H. (2006).Integrity: the Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. Harper.

Gregory, B. (2012). The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Grenz, S.J. (2001). The Social God and the Relational Self: a Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Long, D. S. (2001). The Goodness of God: theology, the church and social formations. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Long, D.S. (2009). Speaking of God: theology, language and culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

McFadyen, A.I. (1995). Sins of Praise: the Assault on God’s Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.). God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology  (pp. 36-56). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom.  In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology  (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Wright, N.T. (2005). Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. Harper Collins.

Zagzebski, L. (1996). Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtues and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Zizioulas, J.D. (1997). Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Posted by: gcarkner | August 10, 2020

Democracy: What is it good for?

In Praise of the Preservation of Democracy  Democracy in Burma

  • Rule of Law
  • Human Rights and Fair Access to Trial and Good/Fair Representation
  • Accountability of Politicians
  • Freedom of the Press
  • Right to Protest and Assemble, Stimulate Public Debate on Key Issues
  • Concern for the Common Good: Strong Sense of Collective Community
  • Peace and Civility
  • Promote Unity Amidst Diversity
  • Moral Leadership Employing Wisdom
  • Fair Elections
  • Justice, Fair Court System, Truth-orientation
  • Economic Equal Opportunity
  • Mercy Towards the Weak and Vulnerable
  • Broader Power Sharing and Intentional Empowerment of Others, Especially the Marginal


Timothy P. Jackson (2017). Political Agape: Christian Love and Liberal Democracy. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Larry Siedentop, (2014). Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Penguin/Random House.

Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity: the prophetic stance.

Robert Putnam (1993). Making Democracy Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Miraslov Volf (1996). Exclusion and Embrace: a theological exploration of identity, otherness and reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon

Miraslov Volf (2015). Flourishing: why we need religion in a globalized world. Yale University Press.

Jonathan Haidt (2012). The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Vintage. 

J. Budziszewski (1986). The Resurrection of Nature: Political Theory and the Human Character. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Jim Wallis (2014). The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Joseph Stiglitz (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmat (2019). Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Understanding Liberal Democracy: essays in political philosophy.

Al Gore (2013). The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. Random House.

Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic.

Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.


Golden Triangle of Freedom

  • Freedom requires virtue
  • Virtue requires faith
  • Faith requires freedom

Spectator Article by Public Intellectual Sir Jonathan Sacks

All of the public and private virtues are terribly relevant to making a better world, a better society. Freedom will never be as healthy or robust without the good. This good must be sourced in the infinite goodness of a transcendent God, a God who is a champion of both love and justice.

Bruce Cockburn Call it Democracy

The Apostle Paul Contributes to a Moral Revolution, brainy quotes from brilliant Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014). A few powerful statements from the book speaks to the transforming power of agape love. It provides individuals with a whole new identity. Also see Gord Carkner’s comments on this topic below the quotes.

At the core of the ancient world, there is the assumption of inequality. Whether in the domestic sphere, in public life or when contemplating the cosmos, Greeks and Romans did not see anything like a level playing field. Rather, they instinctively saw a hierarchy or pyramid…. Reason or logos provided the key to both social and natural order. It was an aristocratic model, rule by the citizen class.

*Jesus followers very soon perceived his crucifixion as a moral earthquake. And the aftershocks of that earthquake continue into our own time. Followers of Jesus began to claim that his sacrificial life and death amounted to a dramatic intervention in history, a new revolution of God’s will. Understanding that revelation would, in due course, provide crucial underpinning for what we understand as the nature and claims of the individual. It provided the individual with a hold on reality. (58)

Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality…. Paul spoke of the Christ as offering salvation to all humanity. ‘The Christ’ stood for the presence of God in the world…. Paul felt he had discovered something crucial—the supreme moral fact about humans—which provided the basis for reconstructing human identity, opening the way to what he called ‘a new creation’…. In Paul’s eyes, the Christ reveals God acting through human agency and redeeming it. (58-9)

Through an act of faith in the Christ, human agency can become the medium of God’s love–which Paul sometimes calls ‘faith acting through love’. The faith accepting that love amounted to an inner crucifixion, from which could emerge a transformed will, embodied in the person of Jesus. For Paul it was a personal transaction, the creation of another, better self…. It is an invitation to see a deeper self, an inner union with God. It offers to give reason itself a new depth. Rationality loses its aristocratic connotations. It is associated not with status and pride but with a humility which liberates.  (59, 60)

Paul wagers on human equality. It is a wager that turns on transparency, that we can and should see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves. It reveals the universal availability of a God-given foundation for human action, the free action of love…. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus amounted to the discovery of human freedom–of a moral agency potentially available to each individual. (60)

Paul grafts a new abstractness onto Jewish thought. It is an abstractness that would foster Christian understanding of community as the free association of the wills of morally equal agents,… the ‘body of Christ’. The metaphor conjures up a mystical union which moralizes individual wills by relating them to the source of their being. (61)

What Paul did, in effect, was to combine the abstracting potential of later Hellenistic philosophy—its speculations about a universal or ‘human’ nature—with Judaism’s preoccupation with conformity with a higher or divine will. In order to do so, Paul ceases to think of that will as an external, coercive agency. For him, the death of Christ provides the symbol and the means of an inner crucifixion, of leaving behind the life of ‘the flesh’ for the life of ‘the spirit’, that is, leaving behind inclinations and desires that will die with the flesh…. Paul overturns the assumption of natural inequality by creating an inner link between the divine will and human agency…. That fusion marks the birth of a ‘truly’ individual will, through the creation of conscience. (61)

Paul claims to have found this standard and force for individual agency. Now the identity of individuals is no longer exhausted by the social roles they happen to occupy. The gap marks the advent of the new freedom, freedom of conscience. But it also introduces moral obligations that follow from recognizing that all humans are children of God…. Paul creates a new basis for human association, a voluntary basis—joining humans through loving wills guided by an equal belief. In his eyes, the motivating power of love is the touch of divinity within each of us…. Love creates what Paul calls the mystical union in the body of Christ. (62)

Paul thus attaches to the historical figure of Jesus a crucial moment in the development of human self-consciousness…. Paul’s Christ carries a revolutionary moral message. The Christ is a God-given challenge to humans to transform their concept of themselves and reach for moral universality. Through faith, they can achieve a moral rebirth…. It provided an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’, through the promise that humans have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group…. The self can and must be reconstructed…. It called for human relationships in which charity overcomes all other motives. (63)

Since the time of Paul, Christian thought had been directed to the status and claims of humans as such, quite apart from the roles that they might occupy in a particular society. It is hardly too much to say that Paul’s conception of deity provided the individual with a freehold in reality. It laid a normative foundation for individual conscience and its claims. (152)

Dr. Gordon Carkner’s Comments, GFCF Committee: Professor Siedentop, an Oxford scholar of note, shows how liberal democracy finds its roots in the ancient world with the Apostle Paul’s revolutionary concept of agape love. I recommend his book, Inventing the Individual. It is important in our day to remember the roots of our identity both as Christians and Westerners who believe in the dignity of the individual. Another political philosopher Glenn Tinder, whose comments on this point went viral in the Atlantic Monthly, writes:

Agape is a prophetic love. It refuses to equate anyone with his immediate observable being. A human being is not deeply and essentially the same as the one who is visible to the employer, neighbour, salesman, policeman, judge, friend or spouse. A human being is destined to live in eternity and is fully known only to God.  Agape is about the spiritual destiny of the individual; destiny is a spiritual drama. My destiny is my own selfhood given by God, but given not as an established reality, like a rock or a hill, but as a task lying under divine imperative…. Agape is simply the affirmation of this paradox and of this destiny underlying it. Agape looks beyond all marks of fallenness, all traits by which people are judged and ranked, and acknowledges the glory each person—as envisioned in Christian faith—gains from the creative mercy of God. It sets aside the most astute worldly judgment in behalf of destiny. (Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity, p. 25, 28)

What does agape mean for the search for home, identity and purpose among Millennials? Can such a love show us the path to the heart and depth of meaning, an exit from despair, an entrance to a whole new stance towards self and the world, through a turn towards strong transcendence? Could this be a light at the end of a tunnel that we humans have been seeking for a thousand years, the Holy Grail, the pearl of great price, a key part of the powerful troika: faith, hope and love? Yes, love surpasses all other values, includes all the best goods. Loyola Philosophy Professor Paul Moser thinks and writes profoundly on the subject: “God’s agape love directed at the human conscience is a deep invitational call to an existential depth.” Can such love wrestle our fears, anxieties and insecurities to the ground? Can fear be banished by love? Is this the space in which we can discover the truth, overcome alienation from the truth, address the root of our restlessness, and discover a resolution to our current crisis of identity? Is agape the hub of all virtues and values, the preeminent virtue in our hierarchy of values? How does gift love, agape, fit within a whole economy of God’s grace? Can it heal our broken relationships and meet us existentially at the centre of our pain, the heart of our angst?

James K. A. Smith writes that “we are what we love/desire”. We posit that love, agape love is a solution to a major crisis, a dilemma in the West: we are torn between self-hatred and spiritual lobotomy. We cannot seem to affirm both self and the world at the same time, because the world is so broken. It is called the crisis of affirmation, a demon that haunts us to this day and generation. Two choices seem open to us: a. We can blame the world for evil and suffering and tragedy, in order to preserve love of self—try to keep ourselves pure, blameless and above the fray. This posture leads to hatred, terrorism and violence; or b. We can open ourselves to grace. Because we accept a God of love, we can love self and the world despite its problems. And we can accept that we are also part of the problem of the world. But that is not the end of the story. There is forgiveness and possibility of transformation that makes the world better. Our moral choices, our spirituality and our identity are intertwined; thus the consequences of our stance are substantive. Philosopher/Apologist Peter Kreeft captures it:

One day everything will be made of agape. All those things that you made of agape in this world will last…; but nothing else. In fact, the only thing that will not be burned up in the Last Judgment is the one thing stronger than the fire of destruction: the fire of creation. For love is the fire of creation; God created sheerly out of love. Just as the only way to control a passion is by a stronger passion; just as the only way to conquer evil is by a stronger good love; so the only way to endure the world’s final fires is not by any water that tries to put it out, but by the only fire that is stronger still: agape, the very fire of God’s being. Only love is stronger than death. (Dr. Peter Kreeft, Philosophy Professor, Boston College)

Biblically, the theme of love traverses the entire narrative, from Genesis to Revelation: from the fire of creation, to covenant love of Abraham in shaping a community of love, to the prophetic love that turns straying people back to God’s care, to the exultation of God’s love in the Psalms (139), to the incarnate unparalleled love of Jesus of Nazareth (John 14: 16-18), to Paul’s teaching on love in his letters to young churches (I Corinthians 13; Romans 8: 31-39), to the promise of the new creation to come where our work on developing the language of love really pays off in eternity, face to face with Love Himself. Agape(Ahavrah in Hebrew) is the lingua franque of heaven. We have evidence from millennia of human history to prove its veracity. Agape creates infinite value in life, as the heart and soul, the hub of all values and virtues. It speaks of excellence. It is the end game, the ultimate purpose, of all life’s struggles and endeavours. It has big impact, enduring power, transforming society as well as the individual self. Practice agape; turn into love; open yourself to God’s love. It adds so much quality to life, containing within its purview the path to joy. Jamie Smith articulates the trajectory of love: “We all live and long for a social vision of what we think society should look like: some vision of the good life, some picture of flourishing. Our most fundamental orientation to the world is love. We adopt ways of life that are indexed to such visions—it captures our imagination. This is the weight of our love.”

Posted by: gcarkner | July 14, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 10.

Investigating the Power of Agape Love: a Wager on Deep Meaning

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Can Millennials expand their horizon beyond the above markers of their generation discussed in Reginald Bibby et al, The Millennial Mosaic? Where will they find the wisdom and inspiration to navigate the contemporary world of COVID-19 and economic stressors, to take up their place and role of leadership? Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg writes: “Wisdom is involved when practical intelligence is applied to maximizing not just one’s own or someone else’s self-interest, but rather a balance of various self-interests (intrapersonal) with the interests of others (interpersonal) and of other aspects of the context in which one lives (extrapersonal), such as one’s city or country or environment or even God.” Wisdom is the foundational virtue, a commitment to grow in insight and character throughout one’s whole life journey. It is a core virtue concept, a posture, which entails management of other virtues. It entails the full picture, the natural and purposeful end, of our moral and physical capacities, intentions, towards the fully functioning and flourishing human life. It requires a vision of what is possible in a good life, in good lives forming community. (James 3: 15-18)

There are five key components to wisdom according to the Berlin Wisdom Project (Mark McMinn, The Science of Virtue). They are worthy of our attention and reflection.

  • Factual and scientific knowledge
  • Procedural knowledge
  • Life-span contextualism (sensitive to past, present and future span of things)
  • Values relativism or tensions (recognizes competing values/convictions at work in a situation)
  • Managing uncertainty and complexity: not all things go according to plan or principle. Wisdom implies competency with respect to the complexity of life.

Wisdom helps one in ‘postformal thought’—the ability to think about complex issues in flexible ways—for example, to learn through dialogue. It requires nuances and understanding of motivational complexity when dealing with others. Charles Taylor calls this the ‘palette’ of assumptions, motives and sensibilities. Humans are indeed complex beings. Wisdom is a key marker in this discussion. It becomes part of our emotional intelligence which is so critical to a successful, stable life, the thick self. Tristan Harris, Silcon Valley renegade, former Google employee notes a concern: “At the same time we have been upgrading our machines, we have been downgrading our humans.” In this post, we want to talk about how to upgrade our humans through a poignant discussion of wisdom and the agape impact. Wisdom increases from ages 13 to 25. It remains roughly the same after 30 without dramatic intervention. This is the same time of major brain rewiring to the frontal cortex, according to current neuroscience (Frances E. Jensen, MD and Amy Ellis Nutt, The Teenage Brain.)

We ended the last post, in our series, Quality of the Will, with a suggestion of the potential for agape to become such an anchoring hypergood for one’s identity, a stabilizing force that can inspire for the long run. We argue that it is the gold standard of virtues/goods. Below, we posit that it can also help to mitigate a current existential identity crisis in Millennials. Love entails deep structure wisdom in one’s life. It proves to be foundational.

Love is gentle and patient. Love is kind. It does not brag or judge or remember wrongs done. It forgives, heals, promotes unity. It perseveres. It understands human weakness and draws out potential. It is committed to the truth, not lies, spin or deception. Love is unusually resilient.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of a potential transcendent turn to agape in both Sources of the Self and A Secular Age. This could address a major crisis in Western identity called the Crisis of Affirmation, discussed below. Love is part of what he calls constitutive language. He makes a bold claim to be discussed.

Constitutive language can open new spaces for human meanings and identity: new terms, new expressions, enactments, new fields of articulacy and how to recognize and bring to expression new domains of meaning. The disciplined languages of objective description suitable for science are comparatively late achievements of human culture.  In light of all this, it is clear that the regimented, scientific zone can only be a suburb of the vast, sprawling city of language, and could never be the metropolis itself.  (C. Taylor, The Language Animal)

Can such a love show us the path to the heart and depth of meaning, provide an exit from despair, an entrance to a whole new stance towards self and the world, through strong transcendence?

Could there be some light at the end of the tunnel that we humans have been seeking for a thousand years, the Holy Grail, or the pearl of great price? What is the hermeneutical key to life as we know it? Love surpasses all other values, includes all the best goods and rearranges them in a new order as we allow ourselves to come under its influence.

Can such love pin our fears, anxieties and insecurities to the mat, reduce out daily stress? Can fear and hatred be transformed to confidence and compassion by love? First, we must believe that we ourselves are loved, despite our unworthiness and failures, in order to love ourselves and others.

Is this the space, the frame, within which we can discover the truth, overcome alienation from the truth, stop the weaponized lies, challenge the propaganda lines?

Some claim that agape is the hub of all virtues and values, the preeminent virtue in our hierarchy of values? Who are these people? Thomas Merton, Paul K. Moser, Glenn Tinder, Malcolm Guite, James K. A. Smith, Oliver O’Donavan, Larry Siedentop, Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Taylor and many other top scholars and leaders.

How does such gift love fit within a whole economy of God’s grace and with his best intentions for humanity? How does the logos of John 1 fit into this economy?

Can it heal our broken relationships, melt our hatred, promote forgiveness and peace-making, bring into play our humility and self-honesty?


A virtue is a state of praiseworthy character—with the attendant desires, attitudes and emotions. Formed by choices over time, a virtue disposes us to act in certain excellent ways. Knowing which way is the truly excellent way involves avoiding the extremes of vice by looking to people of virtue as role models. As certain virtues shape our character they influence how we see the world. And the entire process of forming virtues is shaped by a particular narrative and community. The settled disposition to act well, which makes us who we are, is nurtured by the stories we imbibe and the communities of which we are a part. (II Peter 1: 3-9; Philippians 4: 8, 9)

~Steven Bouma-Prediger (For the Beauty of the Earth, 140), Creation Philosopher-Theologian.

I Corinthians 13: Love is the Greatest.

James K. A. Smith writes that “we are what we love/desire”. We posit that love, agape, is a solution to a major crisis or horns of a dilemma in the West. Today we are torn between self-hatred and spiritual lobotomy. We cannot seem to affirm both self and the world at the same time, because the world is so broken and we don’t want to admit our complicity in this brokenness. It is called the crisis of affirmation, a demon or dark angel that haunts us. Two choices seem open to us says Charles Taylor following his reading of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski:

a. We can blame the world for evil and suffering and tragedy, in order to preserve love of self–try to keep ourselves pure, blameless and above the fray. This is the route of self-righteousness and the powerful vice of pride. This posture leads to arrogance, hatred, terrorism and violence. We self-justify in this posture, thinking that we are different than the masses, the less-valuable Other.

b. We can open ourselves to grace. Because we accept a God of love, we can love both ourself and the world despite its problems. And we can accept that we are also part of the problem of the world (equally unworthy of such love). Love does not wager on background or pedigree. But that is not the end of the story. There is forgiveness and possibility of transformation that makes us better people, and the world a better, less violent place. Our moral choices, our spirituality and our identity are intertwined in this dilemma. That is why it is so challenging to discern–it requires deep honesty as in an addiction recovery group. Thus, the consequences of our stance are substantial. We must choose between meaning and nihilism at this late modern fork in the road of Western culture, and worldwide culture.

Biblically, the theme of love runs throughout the entire narrative spanning centuries, from Genesis to Revelation. The span includes a journey from the fire of creation, to the covenant call to love of Abraham in shaping a community of love, to the prophetic love that turns straying people back to God’s love and care, to the exultations about God’s love in the Psalms (139), to the incarnate unparalleled love of Jesus of Nazareth (John 14: 16-18), to Paul’s teaching on love in his letters to young churches (I Corinthians 13; Romans 8: 31-39; 12: 9-21), to the promise of the new creation to come in Revelation, where our work on developing the language and culture of love really pays off, for eternity. Agape (Ahavrah in Hebrew) forms the lingua franque of heaven. We have evidence from thousands of years of history to test and prove its veracity (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions).

Agape creates infinite value in everyday life, as the heart and soul of all values/virtues. It speaks of excellence of character. It is the end game, the ultimate purpose, of all life’s struggles and endeavours. We must let love win in the end; the alternative is death-dealing destruction. It has big impact, enduring power, transforming society as well as the late modern self. Practice agape. Turn into love. Live large in love. Open yourself to God’s love. It is a solid place to stand, to be accepted and understood. It adds such quality to your life as the path to joy. Let it it be your first priority. Loyola philosophy professor Paul K. Moser thinks and writes profoundly on the subject: “God’s agape love directed at the human conscience is a deep invitational call to an existential depth.” (Paul Moser on Christ-Shaped Philosophy

There is cultural and personal momentum in love. Hear what retired University of Massachusetts political scientist Glenn Tinder has to say in his brilliant The Political Meaning of Christianity on how agape shapes a political culture in the West, and bolsters human rights at their best. Timothy Jackson’s Political Agape: Christian Love and Liberal Democracy, demonstrates how love can shape a whole culture. See also Larry Siedentop, The Invention of the Individual.

Agape is a prophetic love. It refuses to equate anyone with his immediate observable being. A human being is not deeply and essentially the same as the one who is visible to the employer, neighbour, salesman, policeman, judge, friend or spouse. A human being is destined to live in eternity and is fully known only to God.  Agape is about the spiritual destiny of the individual; destiny is a spiritual drama. My destiny is my own selfhood given by God, but given not as an established reality, like a rock or a hill, but as a task lying under divine imperative…. Agape is simply the affirmation of this paradox and of this destiny underlying it. Agape looks beyond all marks of fallenness, all traits by which people are judged and ranked, and acknowledges the glory each person—as envisioned in Christian faith—gains from the creative mercy of God. It sets aside the most astute worldly judgment in behalf of destiny. (Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity, 25, 28)

See also Glenn Tinder(1999). The Fabric of Hope: An Essay. Eerdmans (42-52). “God, Community and Self”

Hospitality to the Stranger/Outsider: a Wager on Transcendent Agape

~inspired by Richard Kearney, author of Anatheism: Returning to God after God.

What does agape look like when implemented in practical ways? Hospitality bears witness to the meeting of grace with nature, and eternity with time. In Jesus, God demonstrates what  humans are like when they are truly and fully alive. He is the great gift of self-giving compassion to the least of these (Matthew 25), the bread from heaven broken for us, the cup of self-sacrifice showing the way through Gethsemane. It may come as a stark realization that we mere humans are created to be hosts of the divine in this world, living out the calling  of Creation Day 7. In this light, we host the Son in every act of service, love and care towards other human beings. Through such profound hosting, we make him present to our friends and neighbours in a special way. This is part of the incarnation.

If Millennials reject the common quest for power, entitlement and self-interest, reject the pride of ego, triumphalism and radical individualism, along with the fear of lacking more wealth and power, they too will entertain angels (I Corinthians 13). The cross itself offers a meta-critique of contemporary power-interests, an alternative vision of ‘power through weakness’, the humble fruits of the Holy Spirit. Biblical Christianity promotes a renunciation of privilege and entitlement in favor of servanthood, gratitude and generosity. Instead of self-assertive power, we identify our weaknesses, only to realize that God the Father by his grace loves to work through such honest and fragile vessels (II Corinthians 12: 9) who have identified with his Son. This recapitulates the ancient ways of wisdom (James 3: 17-18), promoting righteousness and justice to facilitate the empowerment of others: the poor, vulnerable, sick, homeless, have-nots and broken. This is the essential message of the Good Samaritan story and the willingness to go the extra mile. In poetic brilliance, the book of Proverbs  reverberates with the song of this outlook–the way of wisdom.

But God’s love is one active contemporary source of the good, the love of which has empowered people to do the good and exemplify the good in their character, social life and politics. He suggests that we need a transcendent turn to avoid the extremes of self-hatred, guilt and shame or alternatively the extremity of hating morality itself—spiritual lobotomy. The transcendent turn to agape becomes vital to solve this problem. “The only way to escape fully the draw toward violence”, he writes, “lies somewhere in the turn to transcendence—that is, through the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” (C. Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?, 1999, 28).

This intentional will-to-life celebrates a dynamic, vibrant economy of grace, the transcendent in the immanent, the divine Word in human flesh, the cup of cold water for the thirsty soul. We gladly purge ourselves of the illusions of power and greed, in order to recognize our responsibility/obligation/call in the face of the other (Emmanuel Lévinas), in relation to the biosphere of God’s beloved creation. This posture leads us into an experience of epiphany, a breakthrough illumination. It can even issue in a divine encounter. We see the world through refreshed eyes, accept a change in the calculus of life, and deepen our identity by caring for the distant stranger, the outsider, the immigrant, the other, the alien, the different.

It is a true conversion/reconfiguration/redirection of self and its passions. As we learn this art of hosting, the sacred shows up dramatically within the context of the secular, kairos within chronos, as we commit to self-giving agape in the name of our trinitarian God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Paul writes about Christ in Philippians 2, we must first go down (self-empty; self-offer) in order to go up. The hermeneutic of this posture in life is superabundant grace all the way down. Within this economy, this stance, we naturally become the resistance to radical evil: by becoming whole, complete human beings, building our capacity to love, honoring the sacred in the everyday, casting off the mask of the false self, building bridges across difference. This is the pinnacle of human existence and the solution to the angst/despair/inequality/desperateness/alienation/tribalism of our age.

Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. Today God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honouring God’s name by honouring his image, humankind. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name)

IMAGINE (a sonnet from Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis)

Imagine a new natural philosophy;
I hardly know what I am asking for;
Far-off echoes, that primeval sense,
With blood and sap, Man’s pre-historic piety,
Continually conscious and continually…
Alive, alive and growing like a tree
And trees as dryads, or as beautiful,
The bleeding trees in Virgil and in Spenser
The tree of knowledge and the tree of life
Growing together, that great ritual
Pattern of nature, beauties branching out
The cosmic order, ceremonial,
Regenerate science, seeing from within…

To participate is to be truly human.

Love is all About Building the Unity of Mankind–Thomas Merton

(riveting quotes from New Seeds of Contemplation)

As long as we are not purified by the love of God and transformed into him in the union of pure sanctity, we will remain apart from one another, opposed to one another, and union among us will be a precarious and painful thing, full of labour and sorrow and without lasting cohesion. (70-71)

All over the face of the earth the avarice and lust of men breed unceasing divisions among them, and the wounds that tear men from union with one another widen and open into huge wars. Murder, massacres, revolution, hatred, the slaughter and torture of the bodies and souls of men, the destruction of cities by fire, the starvation of millions, the annihilation of populations and finally the cosmic inhumanity of nuclear war: Christ is massacred in his members; God is murdered in men, (71)

As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a body of bones…. Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and sorrow that are the price of resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion…. Hatred is the sign and the expression of loneliness, of unworthiness, of insufficiency. (72)

From blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God who delivered himself to the cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of his own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death he opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death. (73)

To serve the God of love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbour. It is the rankling, tormenting sense of unworthiness that lies at the root of all hate.(74)

The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God. The faith that one is loved by God although unworthy–or, rather, irrespective of one’s worth! (75)

Hatred tries to cure disunion by annihilating those who are not united with us. It seeks peace by elimination of everybody else but ourselves. But love, by acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds. (75-76)

We should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves…. But I cannot treat the men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least as much compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer…. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires…. For Christianity is not merely a doctrine or system of beliefs, it is Christ living in us and uniting men to one another in his own life and unity. (76-77)

Agape takes the side of the victims as René Girard articulates so well (Violence and the Sacred; Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World). It is against, it refuses violence, especially vengeance and retaliation, promoting peaceableness through patience and self-giving. It is a stance of gratitude.

To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything he has given, and he has given us everything. Every breath we draw is gift of his love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from him. Gratitude takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference. ~ Thomas Merton

Matthew 5: 1-20 Jesus’ Love Sermon on the Hill

Jesus uses agape love to divide selfishness from self, sin from the sinner. Using critical wisdom, Jesus challenged many of the religious systems of wisdom in place in his time. In the Sermon on the Mount, he messes with people’s understanding of virtuous living. His wisdom is often countercultural, always discerning, sometimes mysterious, involving a metaphoric social grenade periodically. Remember the story of the highly moral young prince who lacked the ability to self-empty and love his fellow humans. His wealth was his Achilles heal. This is thinking outside of the box, with a high commitment to justice and goodness. Fear the Lord and forsake evil. Found in Matthew 5-7, the teaching lays out the tenants of life in the kingdom of God. It is a prophetic statement on what we need to internalize God’s will, God’s posture toward the world. The most radical statement is his challenge to his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5: 43-48) as God himself does, to refuse to take revenge. This is the direction of full integrity, completeness.

Will we choose Nietzsche or Jesus?

God is love from first to last. He is fully invested in love and he believes that it the best thing for human beings. The sermon deals with the deep things of the inner person and shows how love internalized can transform us from greed to radical generosity, from pride to deep humility, from violence to peacemakers, from narcissists to servanthood people. It claims a whole new posture of radical freedom in Christ, freedom to love beyond one’s imagination. Only with a radical change in outlook and motivation can it be possible.

The Sermon sets the tone for the entire teaching ministry of Jesus. He welcomes marginalized players to the game of life: the poor, weak, meek, downtrodden, addicted, broken, wounded, hurting. It is a counter-cultural stance compared to the brutal Roman Empire, which is all about power and control, dominance, enslavement, crushing the weak, expanding superpower territory, exploitation, currency devaluation. This is his disciples’ best new opportunity, a way to become whole, more fully human and alive to all of life.

This strong version of transcendence means that, while such love comes from outside human culture, it offers transforming dynamics within the economies of the full range of culture spheres: in science, the arts, ethics and religion. Charles Taylor believes that the epiphanic discovery of agape love can act as a hypergood, in that it influences a rearrangement of the hierarchy of one’s moral goods or values, bringing into play both a transfiguration and transvaluation within the horizon/frame of the moral self. This enables self-transcendence and motivation for embracing the good, sacrificing for the other, facing pain, mitigating evil and personal challenges.

You are to be congratulated (blessed), says Jesus: I want you to be my people, my friends, my co-conspirators for bringing heaven to earth, in real time, in the here and now. It’s a live option, a calling. The kingdom of God is yours, here and now! Come join my new world order, a new paradigm or way of seeing everything, a new way of being human, of dealing with power, the freedom of self-giving, sacrificial love. Jesus shows incredible kindness and warmth to the disadvantaged, even as he expresses outrage at the injustice of calcified religion (just like Kierkegaard). He stands against treachery, systemic greed and oppression. John 1: 14 captures it: he is full of grace and truth. You will be called the children of God, not human refuse, not untouchables. You are a new wave, a phenomenal turn-around story. Jesus offers a restoring, rectifying, healing of relationships, a new narrative, a re-ordering of power and wealth and status. It is positively revolutionary.

Jesus, the perfect image of God, is the master of critical wisdom. He didn’t come to abolish the traditional wisdom but to enliven it, to flesh out the greatest commandments of loving God and loving neighbour as self, to remind us of life’s deep mystery, to call us back to fear and awe of God. We so easily settle for a religion composed of cognitive beliefs and behavioural lists that make us feel holier than others. (Mark McMinn, The Science of Virtue, 26)

You are welcomed, included, celebrated in your giftedness and I want you to know that you are the very epicentre of God’s interest. You have a high purpose, a new identity with cosmic significance. It is very good, very meaningful at a deep level. Allow God to make you into beatitude people, beautiful people, salty people, spicy people, light and life-giving people. You are being offered friendship, communion with the Lord of the Universe, the God who is love. He wants to bless you as you are transformed into the image of Christ. What the world needs is people just like you, citizens of the kingdom of heaven here on earth, ambassadors of his grace. Are you willing to bet your life on this? Can you throw your weight into it? What are the potential losses if you do not?

The “incarnation” has no meaning, therefore except as “the beginning,” the foundation of the Church, a new sort of community of charity and forgiveness, a space for the possibility of this offering. For Augustine, it is the Church that is the adequate sacrifice to God; in other words the perfect realization of community. The centrality of incarnation and the cross in no way contradicts the truth that the central aspect of salvation is the creation of perfect community. Christianity is primarily about the hope for community…. The Christian claim is that narratives about Christ show what love–a difficult and demanding practice requiring more subtlety, style and correct idiom than mere “well-meaning”–is. Here is the Logos, the lost harmonic pattern of genuine human life. (Professor John Milbank)

Love is the perfect foundation and motivation for ethics and positive freedom, empowering moral choice in startling ways. In the Old Testament Psalms and Proverbs, love is featured extravagantly–to the lengths and widths, depths and heights of the human condition, the full expanse of the complex human story. Our relationship to this love is the key. Do we lean into it or move away from it? Human relations at their best are rooted, they flourish in the nurturing agar of God’s love. The more we root our identity in grace and gift love, the more fun, creative, surprising and rich life becomes. It is the ultimate hypergood that changes all the dynamics of our existence, all our goals and purposes. That bodes well for cultural progress and personal mature identity (Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual; Tom Holland, Dominion).

Incarnational thinking involves a moral conversion, including the development of moral language skill and proper categories. We can learn how to make wiser moral judgments, using the capacity of our intelligence and reasoning skills in the service of moral and affective orientation (our loves). Gnostics are radically dis-oriented, with a twisted, artificial view of the world. Love (I Corinthians 13) is a foundation for ethics, bringing hope, liberating the individual to see virtues as transcendent of desires. Love opposes revenge and promotes forgiveness and reconciliation, collaboration, tolerance and patience with the imperfections (and differences) of others.

Here we find Milbank answering the question why there is something rather than nothing. The answer is ‘gift’. The gift of Christ to redeem us is the plenitude that allows us to ‘glimpse’ the Fall and thereby Creation. The answer is to assume that love is basic to our existence as reason, which is something Balthasar endeavoured to show. We do not understand reason well if it is unrelated to love. We can only know what we love and love what we know. Love is the perfection against which Creations and reason appear…. Only on the basis of an ontology of love can gift be understood. Because love, and not pure reason, is the basic structure of being, the failure of human reason to achieve its infinite desires is not negative but positive…. Gift, another name for the Holy Spirit, is the fullness of being, the perfection that surrounds us with an inevitable desire for truth, beauty and goodness. It illuminates our lives. (D.S. Long, 2009, 158-59)

Love goes beyond the Golden Rule, taking risks in its initiatives, listening to the stories and engaging the needs of others. Jesus is the law of love, the divine-human example to inspire us. Psalm 119 reveals the richness of the language of our relationship, within covenant love, with God’s statutes, principles, duties, rights and obligations. It also articulates his moral excellence of goodness and authority, his power and desire to help us live the honorable life and avoid evil. We are capacitated to indwell this poem (as with other scripture) and grow from it. It offers a worship experience that changes our outlook. Love has that transforming effect people.

We can always do better, think better, behave more honestly, honorably and authentically. As we have seen earlier in this series, philosopher Charles Taylor helps us recover the whole discourse of the moral good in the first part of his landmark tome Sources of the Self (1989). It is a powerful platform for dialogue on morality, filled with deep insights about what we value and why. Duff McDonald (2017) shows why this arena is important in today’s world through his gripping critique of the moral failure of our business community (The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite). Should we not research and experiment in our institutions concerning the powers of good character and the virtues, build out our creative work in this critical space? Pastors also would do well to seek training in ethics so that they can fruitfully integrate moral themes into regular teaching. This is where people live and struggle, need wise guidance.

A note on the church:

The church is not a self-contained society, nor is the church a mystical communion with no relations to social or political formations. Both understandings of the church remove it from its relationships to other social formations, which is where we discover the church’s truth. The church is non-necessary formation grounded in charity. It exists within kinship systems, nation-state and other political systems, and market exchanges, but it is not defined by any of those systems. It defines them. The reason is that charity is the basis for our existence. No institution or social formation can do without it; even the most corrupt form of social formation will eventually have to bear witness to the primacy of charity over power, will, and coercion. Only the church can explain why this is so. (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God, 304)

In Conclusion

The pursuit of mature happiness, rich freedom, human flourishing, resilient identity and substantive meaning, amidst the suffering and tragedy of a broken world, is a powerful, existential quest. It is the heartbeat of the field of Positive Psychology. The West is not without a response to the crisis of affirmation from its own philosophical, cultural, and spiritual tradition. Agape love posits a stance towards self and the world that is morally courageous and life-affirming. Yes, it is even heroic and prophetic, enhancing the common good and promoting the wellbeing of the community.

We can indeed love and accept self and the world, despite the brokenness, disappointments and failures, without resentment. Agape offers to reduce violence, promote justice and improve an individual’s mature response to circumstances. It follows in line with a happiness that is virtue-, character- and principle-driven (David Brooks, The Road to Character). It offers the motivation to do the good that we know to be part of our better self, our truest self. It addresses our desire to bridge the troubling moral gap between what we know to be the good, true and beautiful and the motivation to accomplish such things. Taylor suggests that the prime question of ethics and identity is “Who or what do we love?” We think he is on the right track; we tend to love what we think is good, what we admire. But it leads us into an awesome and terrible responsibility for the other (Lévinas). To participate in such love is to be truly, deeply human (Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism).

What the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose. (Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference)

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology, Meta-Educator with UBC Graduate Students

Next: We will venture into how the incarnation impacts ethics.

Bibby, R. W., Thiessen, J., Bailey, M. (2019). The Millennial Mosaic: how pluralism and choice are shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada. Toronto, ON: Dundurn.

Bouma-Prediger (2001). For the Beauty of the Earth: a Christian Vision for Creation Care. Grad Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Edwards, J. Charity and Its Fruits.

Goff, B. (2012). Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Goff, B. (2018). Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Houston, J.M. and Zimmermann, J. (eds). (2018). Sources of the Christian Self: a cultural history of Christian identity. Grand Raids, MI: Eerdmans.

Long, D. S. (2008). The Goodness of God: theology, the church and social formations.

Long, D.S. (2009). Speaking of God: theology, language and culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

McMinn, M. (2017). The Science of Virtue: why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Merton, T. (2007). New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Books.

Sacks, J. (2003). The Dignity of Difference: how to avoid the clash of civilizations.

Sacks, J. (2017). Not in God’s Name: confronting religious violence.

Siedentop, L. (). Inventing the Individual: the origins of Western Liberalism. Belnap Press.

Smith, J.K.A. (2016). You Are What You Love: the spiritual power of habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos

Taylor, C. (1978). Language and Human Nature. Plaunt Memorial Lecture, Carleton University, 1978

Taylor, C. (1979). Hegel and Modern Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1985a). What’s Wrong With Negative Freedom? In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1985b). Foucault on Freedom and Truth. In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [also in Political Theory 12, 2 1984.]

Taylor, C. (1985c). Connolly, Foucault, and Truth. Political Theory 13  377-85

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989b). Taylor and Foucault on Power and Freedom: a reply.  Political Studies 37  277-81.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, ON: Anansi.

Taylor, C. (1994). Charles Taylor Replies. In J. Tully (Ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (pp. 213-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1999).   In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity?  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2017). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Language Animal: the full shape of the human language capacity. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Tinder, G. (1991). The Political Meaning of Christianity: the prophetic stance.

Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion and Embrace: a theological exploration of Identity, otherness, and reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Zimmermann, J. (2012). Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church in the world. Downers Give, IL: IVP Academic

Research on Love’s Impact on Culture

If you are not aware of it already would like to draw your attention to The Kenarchy Journal,, a new online academic resource launched this summer embracing a wide and interdisciplinary perspective relevant to the politics and theology of love. Its purpose is to advance applied research, and it includes a forum that we very much hope will provide the opportunity for thinkers and activists beyond academia to engage with the online material.

Volume 1, Starting Points, deals particularly with the theology of Incarnation, Trinity and Lament and then focuses on reinstating the feminine, advocating for the poor and reintegrating humanity and the creation. Volume 2, Spring 2021, will continue to explore Starting Points focusing on the remaining themes central to kenarchy, namely the priority of children, welcome for strangers, justice for prisoners, and health for the sick.

We are currently inviting submissions exploring the theology of the child, immigrants and asylum seekers, restorative justice, and health and wellbeing. Please encourage students and colleagues or fellow researchers to consider submitting an abstract for an article relevant to these themes via the website, or to let us have sight of an unpublished article they may have already prepared on one of these themes. We would of course, be delighted to have a submission from you!

In peace and love,


Roger Haydon Mitchell PhD

Honorary Researcher, Lancaster University Centre for Alternatives to Social and Economic Inequalities

Political Theologian with the Westminster Theological Centre

Co-director, 2MT

Lead Editor, The Kenarchy Journal     


Afterthoughts from N.T. Wight’s Gifford Lectures

  • Love is the most complete form of knowing and the resurrection is the most complete form of love. Ludwig Wittgenstein notes: “It is love that believes the resurrection.”
  • A new creation people, a new moral order, a new future in the present, emerges through the cross and resurrection: Jubilee
  • Jesus’ resurrection, by unveiling the creator’s love for the world, opens up the space and time for a holistic mode of knowing, a knowing which includes historical knowledge of the real world by framing it within the loving gratitude which answers the creator’s own sovereign love.
  • Knowing is a whole person, communal, here-and-now activity that is redeemed by love.

Ten Ways to Improve Your Life from Dr. Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto (paraphrased). He can be blunt while offering some practical wisdom.

  1. Stop doing the wrong and stupid things. You know what I mean. Walk away from evil and malevolence.
  2. Make a schedule and stick to it—one that works for you. It’s not a prison; you can adjust it later.
  3. Clarify your thoughts. Get the cobwebs out of your brain. Journal about them. Read a lot of good books–they become your friends.
  4. Take the meaningful path involving courage and integrity, versus the pathological way of anger, resentment, nihilism, and self-righteousness. Put meaning ahead of expedience/short cuts.
  5. Analyze your past to see what went right, what went wrong, face your pain and failures, and then specify your goals for a future as if you cared about yourself. Fix yourself first before you try to change the world; you’ll be amazed at the difference this makes. Have self-compassion as well as self-discipline. Be diligent and industrious. Step up to life and its challenges. Engage the world. Face your fears head on. Take courage, my friend. Act in good faith.
  6. Stop saying things that make you weak, which includes all those white lies and deceptions you pretend are OK—they represent your false self, turn you into a coward and cause you debilitating shame. Say things that align with the truth, the good and the core of your being (Parker Palmer). These things make you resilient.
  7. Adopt the mode of authentic being (Kierkegaard). Speak and act with integrity. Orient yourself to the truth as best you can discern it right now. Just stop lying to yourself and to others. This makes you weak, guilty and ashamed, hating yourself, resenting others. It can also cause you to hate the world. Honesty is the better way.
  8. Learn from your failures, errors and mistakes. Don’t let them freeze your moral will. Say you’re sorry to the ones you hurt. Reset your relationships accordingly. Ask for forgiveness to make things right in relationships. Make your life a bit better today, and then a bit better still tomorrow. This will build your confidence.
  9. Have a heart-to-heart conversation with yourself. Get real. Take time to reflect on your life and your highest ideals or values, the greatest good that you can come up with and admire. Don’t be afraid of ideals and virtues in our cynical age. Step out from the crowd of sceptics and cynics. This can be very enlightening. Make a covenant with your future self, love your future self, and step into life robustly. Let that pull you forward into the good life, one well worth living–the moral high road.
  10. Aim really high at good goals. Why not shoot for the stars, the higher moral road of growth, order and maturity, personal responsibility. Don’t let your life slide into laziness, mediocrity, and chaos, or the evil forces of arrogance, narcissism, entitlement, deceit and resentment will eat you alive. This will also result in hurting a lot of people associated with you. Don’t settle for being a slacker, and become your own worst enemy. Hang out with people that make you better, that challenge you to your better self. You have no idea what you can accomplish with passion and perseverance (Angela Duckworth). Ask for help when you need it, be brave and see a counsellor, join an AA group, and generously give help to others. Talk with a pastor or priest. I highly recommend you study the biblical stories for realism and inspiration; they inform the whole background of Western civilization and they will wake you up as a person.

A creed that tells us that we are no more than selfish genes, with nothing in principle to separate us from the animals, in a society whose strongest motivators are money and success, in a universe that came into existence for no reason whatsoever and for no reason will one day cease to be, will never speak as strongly to the human spirit as one that tells us we are in the image and likeness of God in a universe he created in love. (Jonathan Sacks)

Posted by: gcarkner | July 10, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 9

The Hypergood, a Moral Culture Driver

Within one’s moral horizon, the domain of the moral includes many different goods that repeatedly vie for our attention. This is quite positive, but it can be frustrating and confusing as well. There is often competition and even conflict between these goods, especially in society at large, but also within the individual self. Charles Taylor (via positiva) wants to strongly affirm these goods for the benefit of all, and in their full plurality, believing that they can empower. He wants to recover or retrieve many lost goods from our cultural history. He does not want to stifle their potential just because they come into conflict–a late twentieth century tendency. But how do we sort out which good to pay attention to at any given moment? How do we stay focused and sort out the weight we give each one? Below we examine the important role of the hypergood as a manager-supervisor of the lesser goods in our lives and our conscience. It is a fascinating concept of the highest good, essential to the use of power at all levels.

The Examined, Reflective, Purposeful Life is  Well Worth Living

We continue our force de résistance against the idea that unsituated freedom can be reduced to a mere matter of the naked, individual will–sovereign free choice alone. See our blog series on Freedom, Identity and the Good: William Connoly captures the concern at hand in reflecting on Charles Taylor’s posture on freedom of the individual in context.

Taylor seeks to transcend the illusion of the sovereign self in command of the world by situating it in a world both larger than it and partly constitutive of it. He does this by striving to articulate for us those elements in the self and its circumstances that come closest to expressing what we are at our best. The most expressive articulations are not simply the creations of subjects, nor do they represent what is true in itself independently of human articulation: “They rather have the power to move us because they manifest our expressive power itself and our relation to our world. In this kind of expression we are responding to the way things are, rather than just exteriorizing our feelings.” (C. Taylor, 1978) 

According to Taylor, the potential resolution of this dilemma of the plurality of goods, the tension between goods, comes by way of a highest good among the strongly-valued goods. Within the moral framework, this is called the ‘hypergood’ (C. Taylor, 1989, 63-73, 100-102, 104-106). “Let me call higher-order goods of this kind ‘hypergoods’, i.e. goods which are incomparably more important than the others, but provide the standpoint from which these [other goods] must be weighed, judged, decided about.” (C. Taylor, 1989, 63) The hypergood has hierarchical priority and dominance. It has a significant shaping power within the moral framework. It is the good that the individual is most conscious of, most passionate about, a good that rests at the very core of one’s identity. Jesus of Nazareth once said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Some things are inherently true and good in themselves and they are good for us both as people and as moral agents, and finally good for society as a whole. These goods resonate with us.

How Dose the Hypergood Work?

The hypergood helps us keep focus, amidst the tensions, by effectively orchestrating the arrangement and hierarchy of other goods within one’s moral horizon or frame. It positions us in the world. It interprets their priority and their moral play. It can raise or lower their priority, promote or demote them, or even eliminate certain goods from moral play altogether. When one is engaging a particular problem, some goods are more important than others for solving that problem. The hypergood has a vital role and real power in organizing one’s inner resources. We would do well to pay close attention to this moral driver in individuals and groups. It tells us a lot about what is vital to the individual. We should listen hard for the heartbeat of the hypergood in a friend or colleague. A person seeking full personhood should be well-positioned with respect to this particular good. This pre-eminent good grounds and directs one’s overall moral beliefs, goals, and aspirations. We believe in it strongly, viscerally. It works to define and give important shape to our entire moral outlook. It helps us avoid a meltdown into nihilism, sociopathy and narcissism, which constitute the implosion of identity, creativity and personality . There’s much more to morality than negative freedom, freedom from oppression.

Complete freedom would be a void in which nothing would be worth doing, nothing would deserve to count for anything. The self which has arrived at freedom by setting aside all external obstacles and impingements is characterless, and hence without defined purpose. (C. Taylor, 1979, 157) 

Examples of the hypergood (1989, p. 65) given by Taylor are: happiness, equal respect, family, universal justice, divine will/agape love, self-respect and self-fulfilment. There can also be conflict between these hypergoods as there are between persons who hold them. If one is negotiating a contract or peace treaty, it is vital that we see where we are with respect to each other at this scale of commitment. One easily sees the conflict among the three major hypergoods in Western culture:

a. universal justice and reduction of human suffering (the humanist concern for the victim),

b. self-determining freedom (radical individualism and self-expression), a postmodern phenomenon,

c. the hypergood of affirmation of everyday life or equal respect (an ethics of the common person).

More about these later, but this can really help us understand one another better.

The Dionysian Danger

In this light, Taylor writes of the Dionysian danger, life without a hypergood, without meaning, in the following way:

If free activity cannot be defined in opposition to our nature and situation, on pain of vacuity, it cannot simply be identified with following our strongest, or most persistent, or most all-embracing desire either. That would make it impossible to say that our freedom was ever thwarted by our own compulsions, fears, or obsessions. One needs to be able to separate compulsions, fears, addictions from higher more authentic aspirations. (C. Taylor, 1979, 157)  

Critical thought indeed. There is a dark side to this release of the passions and appetites, on a trajectory of pleasures without end in late modernity. The sadistic, or narcissistic self can gain pleasure from causing other people pain. One ought to be able to distinguish between base compulsions and the ability to hold those compulsions in check for a higher purpose, for example, to save the life of a child, or help someone being victimized, to aid the homeless. The moral advance accomplished by Michel Foucault’s self in the pursuit of justice as a release of the captive self from repression is one side of freedom, for sure–negative freedom. But we cannot miss the darker possibilities of the desires of the moral self toward a possible addiction to the anti-human, irrational hatred, or racism as it troubles the uncensored Internet. This is what Taylor (1979, 158) cautions: “We have to be able to distinguish between compulsions, fears, addictions from those aspirations which we endorse with our whole soul.” It is a key point that absolute freedom misses the point about the distortions of inauthentic (suspect) and malevolent desires, and how they can lead to a life of mediocrity, self-indulgence, self-destruction and hurt towards others. The end point is prison and unfreedom or slavery.

The hypergood, on the other hand, avoids this danger. It has a major influence on how one’s individual moral horizon gets articulated, the hierarchy of life goods and how one is generally oriented in moral life in the real world. The hypergood is independent/transcendent of the individual self and choice. In fact, it shapes one’s actual desires and choices. It is not merely an ideal or the mere object of a high contemplation (the poetic side). The hypergood can be quite demanding, set a strong course in life, and often requires great personal sacrifice. It is a driver on many ways. Think of Doctors Without Borders and the hypergood of reducing suffering and curing disease in vulnerable areas of the world–involving risk and personal cost or sacrifice. The image also comes to mind of young students laying down their bodies in front of logging trucks and risking arrest to save old growth forests on Vancouver Island. Or facing tear gas, water canons and arrest in the protest for democracy and human rights, against oppression, in various parts of the world. To capture an awareness of my hypergood is to capture a sense of myself at a deeper level.

What is this vital role of the hypergood in self-constitution and personal growth? What is one’s possible relationship to this good? How does it impact one’s identity? According to Taylor, a self with the requisite depth and complexity to have an identity (a thick self), must be defined in terms of such a good, and is literally interwoven with it. This good becomes one’s main moral driver or motivation. One’s whole identity is essentially defined by one’s orientation to such a hypergood. It is deeply personal and can even be troubling. Taylor (1989, 63) notes that, “It is orientation to this which comes closest to defining my identity, and therefore my direction to this good is of unique importance to me.” It is also a core concept at the centre of one’s sense of calling in life. It provides the point against which the individual measures her direction and progress in life.

Finally, the hypergood is something which one grows towards and into, producing maturity of identity over time. It provides emotional and spiritual infrastructure and conflict resolution. Taylor (1989, 73) says significantly, “Our acceptance of any hypergood is connected in a complex way with our being moved by it.” The hypergood has a major impact on one’s moral stance in life. His strong claim is that this is not only a phenomenological account of some selves, but an exploration of the very limits of the conceivable in the reflective, healthy human life, an anthropological given.

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I try to decide from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done or what I endorse or oppose … It is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand … It is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary. (Taylor 1989, 27, 28)

Brilliant. With philosophical leverage, Taylor provocatively suggests that the hypergood that shapes the moral self could include the fulfilment of one’s duties and obligations (responsibility) to others. It has a social dimension as well. “Responsibility for the Other transports the self beyond the sphere of self-interest. Other-responsibility could also be seen as the greatest form of self-realization, featuring as the highest vocation of human subjectivity” (Taylor, 1989, 112). As a hypergood, Other-responsibility is integrated into the structure of selfhood without compromising the exteriority of the claims of the Other. In this line of thought, he posits the possibility that agape love could be such a hypergood to empower the moral self and bring purposeful unity amidst the plurality of goods. More coming on this in a future post.

Can agape love be such a hypergood?

Taylor puts it this way.

God’s love is one active contemporary source of the good, the love of which has empowered people to do the good and exemplify the good in their character, social life and politics. Taylor suggests that to avoid nihilism, we need a transcendent turn to avoid the extremes of self-hatred, guilt and shame; or alternatively the extremity of hating morality itself—spiritual lobotomy. The transcendent turn to agape becomes vital: “The only way to escape fully the draw toward violence”, he writes, “lies somewhere in the turn to transcendence—that is, through the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” (Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?, 1999, 28).

Theologian Christof Schwöbel (1995) articulates the trajectory of this conclusion regarding the good and freedom.

The redemption of freedom is liberation from freedom for freedom, from the destructive consequences of absolute self-constituted freedom and for the exercise of redeemed and created human freedom which is called to find fulfilment in communion with God … Redeemed freedom is … essentially finite, relative freedom, freedom which is dependent on finding its orientation in the disclosure of the truth of the gospel … freedom as created, as the freedom of creatures whose freedom is not constituted by them but for them. (78)   

Three Conclusions from my PhD on Freedom and the Moral Good: a dialogue between Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor

Proposition One: Redeemed freedom means that one refuses freedom as an ontological ground of ethics, and embraces a new definition of freedom within an ontology of the moral good. Taylor’s horizon of the good is offered as an alternative to Foucault’s horizon of aesthetic-freedom.

Proposition Two: Redeemed freedom by definition takes on a distinctively communal character; it is contextualized within a discussion and relationships between fellow interlocutors, against the backdrop of a larger narrative which makes sense of self. Individual freedom gives up ground to community and makes space for the Other in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of radical autonomy and provide for a richer moral experience.

Proposition Three: Redeemed freedom flourishes within a transcendent trinitarian horizon. Trinitarian divine goodness proves to be a fruitful plausibility structure within which to think differently about freedom and the moral self.  Trinitarian goodness-freedom answers some of the concerns in the Foucauldian self and reveals new opportunities for identity, discovery, transformation and exploration. It also adds sophistication and meaning to some of Taylor’s categories without offering the final answer on the discussion. It is in the life of Jesus as a member of the Trinity that one can visualize this goodness-freedom dynamic most dramatically.

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology, Meta-Educator with Postgrad Students at UBC

See also, Tools for the Spiritual Journey in this Blog.

Schwöbel, C. (1992). God’s Goodness and Human Morality. In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos. 

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom.  In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology  (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Taylor, C. (1978). Language and Human Nature. Plaunt Memorial Lecture, Carleton University, 1978

Taylor, C. (1979). Hegel and Modern Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1985a). What’s Wrong With Negative Freedom? In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1985b). Foucault on Freedom and Truth. In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [also in Political Theory 12, 2 1984.]

Taylor, C. (1985c). Connolly, Foucault, and Truth. Political Theory 13  377-85

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989b). Taylor and Foucault on Power and Freedom: a reply.  Political Studies 37  277-81.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, ON: Anansi.

Taylor, C. (1994). Charles Taylor Replies. In J. Tully (Ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (pp. 213-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1999).   In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity?  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2017). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Language Animal: the full shape of the human language capacity. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Posted by: gcarkner | June 9, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 8.

Science of Ethics, Science and Ethics, Ethics of Science

To continue our theme on human flourishing through finding a coherent frame for ethics and meaning, we now visit the important subject of the relationship between science and morality, science and ethics. In this blog series, we have been pushing to increase the gain as we go, to ramp up our knowledge of the power and fecundity of morality. Morality has muscle, it delivers impact, it is like gold relationally. It increases social capital and builds trust. There are some tensions and confusions in this topic as depicted wisely and critically by renowned University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter and philosopher Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good. People’s moral vision can and has come into conflict over the years. We do rub against each other given our different sacred values. We need a way to discern between them. Sometimes these conflicts are intense, even dangerous. But can science solve this problem, demonstrate what morality is and how we should live? Can it help us avoid radical evil? Can it serve a pluralistic world with a common foundation for ethics and promote harmony? People such as Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) believe passionately that it can. Hunter and Nedelisky are more skeptical about some of the claims made about a science of morality.

This process of searching for coherence within ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to a healthy, robust identity. It is essential to our own integrity, our ability to like and live with ourselves and overcome shame. In this post, we explore the long-standing question of the relationship between science and ethics, science and morality, which is at the heart of some current tensions. Some have thought that science makes ethics irrelevant, especially the ideology of scientism. What are the similarities and difference between scientific language and moral language? This issue is highlighted in the compelling critique by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. Hunter wryly notes: “To be human is to be an active agent within a moral universe.” The field of positive psychology makes claim to a science of virtue (Mark McMinn). Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values.) is one of the most outspoken advocates for a scientific foundation for ethics. He and others believe they can employ science and technology to build a new alternative foundation to morality, one to avoid the disagreements between religions or the pluralism of cultural traditions. He is bullish on science and feels that it has the real hard answers to our current dilemmas and disagreements. He is keen to avoid dreaded moral relativism, which he believes will be the downfall of Western civilization. Indeed, without a moral compass, societies and culture are headed for the abyss of nihilism, more division, violence, riots and self-destruction. Then, there is the Moral Foundation Theory of popular NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He applies his science to right and left wing US politics. Thus, powerful minds are at work on this all-important subject. While there has emerged new insights about the building blocks of moral decision making, what Hunter finds is that, “The new synthesis have provided no clear empirical support for any moral theory, let alone for any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, or how we should live.” (117)

This process of searching for coherence within ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to a healthy, robust identity and substantial meaning in our lives. It is also essential to our inner-direction, integrity, our ability to like and live with ourselves, overcome shame, narcissism and nihilism (even psychopathy and sociopathy). In this post, we explore the long-standing question of the relationship between science and ethics, science and the moral good, an issue at the heart of some current tensions. In modernity, some positivists like A. J. Ayer have thought that science makes ethics irrelevant, especially within the frame of the philosophy (ideology) of scientism. Harris is the opposite, believing that we can apply science to ethics. What are the similarities and differences between scientific language and moral language? This issue is highlighted in the compelling critique by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. Hunter wryly, yet profoundly, notes: “To be human is to be an active agent within a moral universe.” Humans are hard-wired as moral and social animals, they cannot escape it. There is no morally neutral space on this planet.

The field of positive psychology (new since 2000, invented by Martin Seligman) makes claim to a science of virtue (for example, Mark McMinn’s work). We see some real value in this approach–a creative and capacious discourse involving a large eclectic contingent of scholars and psychologists. Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values) is one of the most outspoken advocates for a scientific foundation for ethics. He and many others believe they can employ science and technology to build a new alternative foundation to morality (replacing religion and philosophy). It is thought to be one that avoids the disagreements between religions or the pluralism of cultural, political and family traditions. A bold claim, it is an attempt to simplify ethics and get rid of the messiness of the variety of moral convictions and the many different moral goods on offer. Harris is bullish on science and feels that it has hard answers to our current moral dilemmas and disagreements. He is especially keen to avoid dreaded moral relativism, which he believes will be the downfall of Western civilization if we allow it to remain unchecked. His longing for a comprehensive, common ethics is admirable. We need ideas that unite us–a common good between us. Without a moral compass, societies and culture are headed for the abyss of trivialization, division, racism, oppression, violence, riots and prideful self-destruction.

Then, there is the Moral Foundation Theory of articulate and popular NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He applies his psychological science of morality to deciphering right and left wing US politics in The Righteous Mind: Many powerful minds are at work on this all-important subject and we need all the wisdom we can gather at the table. But while new insights have emerged about the building blocks of moral decision-making, what Hunter and Nedelisky reveal is that, “The new synthesis has provided no clear empirical support for any moral theory, let alone for any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, or how we should live.” (J.D. Hunter and P. Nedelisky, 2018, 117) They note how Harris attempts to use the scientific culture sphere to dominate the ethical culture sphere inappropriately. In this ledger, ethics must be interpreted in terms of science, another version of scientism. Science and ethics must encounter and engage each other in dialogue, even dialectic or tension, but not in domination. That leads to dysfunctional abuse.

“Harris’ defense is that values are intrinsically tied to science from the outset, … but in the end, what [Harris] is proposing is not scientific determination of values, but that science can show us how to promote something we’ve already assumed is valuable, independent from science. So what he presents isn’t really science but is rather science-plus-a-value-assumption, where the value-assumption cannot be demonstrated empirically.” (J.D. Hunter and P. Nedelisky, 2018, 158)


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.  ~Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

The Dickens quote above indicates the confusion, ambivalence and disenchantment of our age of uncertainty, as it did the age of the French Revolution in the 18th century. What will give us more moral clarity, more certainty, more hope, more vision? What is it that constitutes and animates the good life, the good society, and the good world? Heavy weight Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor weighs in on this topic in his most recent tome, The Language Animal. It is a truly brilliant piece of work that took thirty years to write. He is that kind of several-decades-thinker, building out from core ideas, recovering what is good from the past, in dialogue with a vast array of thinkers. I have followed his work closely over three of his great books. A big sky thinker, he explores the breadth of the full human linguistic capacity—including the oft-missing constitutive-expressive elements. He examines the nature of scientific (designative) versus moral (constitutive) language. These he claims are two distinct semantic logics, but they can complement one another, and in fact need each other. He demonstrates clearly that humans need much more than empirical-scientific language alone to flourish. Constitutive language (CS) can open up whole new worlds for Millennials and other generations in their quest for identity, purpose and significance, offering reasons why we should take each other much more seriously. For example, contemplative Thomas Merton notes that to work out one’s identity in God, which the Bible calls “working out your salvation,” is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears (T. Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 32). Sometimes it requires a new vocabulary. Simon Sinek Seeking to Understand and Support Millennials

CS can also provide a space for healing, personal creativity and social change or reform, which Millennials often desire (for example, the Black Lives Matter movement). CS offers new tools, a new expansive skill set that is essential for human empowerment and imagination. This zone is the site where we can open new gates for identity. Millennials currently experience accelerated diversity due to immigration, education, technology, and globalization. Greater diversity is associated with unprecedented choices and a rise of radical individualism and a philosophy of self-interest. Access to the current tsunami of information is indeed unprecedented in history. This can be a challenge to one’s discernment, to centring one’s life and finding one’s calling. Eugene Peterson is quite articulate in the use of CS language about identity in Christ in Practice Resurrection. He decries reductionism (dumbing down) of human persons when he writes: “In our identity-confused society, too many of us have settled for a pastiche identity composed of social security number, medical records, academic degrees, job history, and whatever fragments of genealogy we can salvage.” But there is so much more to being human. Now, we take a closer look at these two types of language, or linguistic traditions.

A. Designative/Instrumental (Hobbes-Locke-Condillac): the language of science, statistics, biology (Chapter 6 of The Language Animal, 252-63). Language is taken strictly as an instrument, a pointer to objects in the world.  The object exists first, then we name it. Designative language is inherently restrictive and reductive. In its roots, it was never meant to provide the full scope of human language, the full meaning of us. It is clearly insufficient for robust, wholistic human self-understanding. HLC is not fully adequate for the discourse of Canadian multiculturalism, for example. We have to do much better than statistically log the various ethnic groups in our communities.

B. Constitutive/Expressive (Hamann-Herder-Humboldt): This tradition is important to meta-biological (human) meaning, and such things as purpose, call, identity, moral understanding, spiritual direction and higher aspirations to connect with the transcendent. Language impacts what we see and how we experience the world–it is hermeneutical, interpretive in force. It evolves as we invent new terms, new expressions, even whole new fields of articulacy, as we employ new symbols and metaphors. We recognize and creatively bring to expression new domains of meaning through such language: words help us to create world. Taylor notes an antiphonal relationship between such language and enactments or practice.

Taylor speaks on his work in The Language Animal

Homo sapiens is the animal with logos (the one possessing language), writes Aristotle. Human meanings, metabiological meanings, require constitutive use of language. “The emergence of language seems to have introduced much greater flexibility [into the species], a capacity to change, even to transform ourselves, which has no parallel among other animals.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 339). Taylor contrasts the scientific type of language as designative/instrumental—naming the objects in the world amidst cause-effect relations. Language is an important entity between people, a basis for communion, conversation, covenant, an attentiveness that we share. It shapes us as interlocutors and helps us see better, know where we stand with respect to each other. Dialogue is an essential human cultural phenomenon, we know how dialogue shapes us in the academy. In a tangible sense, morality is a dialogue about appropriate behaviour and attitudes, protocols, commitments and obligations, personal character and virtue. Language is a key part of human moral agency, and the way we position ourselves in and towards the world, including our stance towards the good and others, or the transcendent. It has vitality, it helps us find ways of dealing with the existential challenges of our lives. But also, it has burdened us with the charge to consider the meaning and calling of our existence, i.e. those elements that take us beyond mere physiological survival, the poetry of life. It is very much to our advantage to discover and learn about all the various linguistic tools available to us no matter what field in which we are employed. University should enhance our linguistic capacity substantially, this is a big take-away of a college degree.

Constitutive language can open new spaces for human meanings and identity: new terms, new expressions, enactments, new fields of articulacy. It reveals how to recognize and bring to expression new domains of meaning. Such language is wonderful and imaginative, life-giving. The disciplined languages of objective description suitable for science are comparatively late achievements of human culture. Taylor concludes: “In light of all this, it is clear that the regimented, scientific zone can only be a suburb of the vast, sprawling city of language, and could never be the metropolis itself”  (C. Taylor, 2016, 263). It is never appropriate for science to claim that it has all truth or insight. Why then do so many see the designative tradition as the most important if not the only theory of language? Why all the rage against metaphors? Taylor challenges us to ask: What are we humans like at our best (Arête), at our fullest, richest linguistic capacity? How can we access and employ that abundance and beauty in our life and work?

Discourse: Taylor also uses the term footings here in Chapter 7 of The Language Animal, (264-288). Language is also a shared consciousness of the world. We are particular voices in an ongoing conversation that cuts across mind/body, dialogical/monological, arbitrary/iconic speech. Such is the language of a national covenant or constitution. More, not less, language is desired for adjudicating life, to deal with morality and the whole person, its relationships, rights and responsibilities. We can ill-afford to let power, wealth, greed, strength and violence be the determinant factor in the right way to live or govern. But Taylor in his other tome, A Secular Age, notices a significant problem in our contemporary conversation. How can we empower and enrich our language once again?

“Our language has lost its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us, but their deeper meaning (the background in which they exist), the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher reality. Our language, our vision and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity.” (C. Taylor, 2007, 761)

Taylor’s Hermeneutic Approach:

  1. Ethical stances or footings start in human culture as inarticulate intimations called a habitus. Footings involves a cultural discourse or conversation that carries the weight of our values and commitments. This is the first rung of the three-part ladder of meaning. These have to be given some shape, some interpretation—definition and clarification. The tacit experience (social imaginary) must be made explicit for us to talk about it, critique and engage it. Articulate speech is essential power, the second rung of the ladder. We start here and begin to make sense of it all. It is a wonderful experience to gain an articulate grasp of an issue, a value, or a wrong.
  2. The third rung is interpretation or hermeneutics. These meanings are interpreted and articulated differently by different people within different cultures, which inevitably results in debates, disagreements and conflict. This is a healthy process overall. They can also result in mutual learning and collaboration from a position of difference, one with understanding of the other, and hospitality. Conflict is possible, but not inevitable, where attempts are made to reach out and listen to others, to difference. For example, we have made great leaps forward in discerning a universal code of human rights globally amidst a vast diversity of cultures and histories. Charles Malik, President of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, was quite involved in shaping this vital charter.
  3. These meanings are defined, not singly and separately, but in skeins of constellations, where meanings of individual terms are defined in terms of each other. There are various forms of visual and oral gestalt/take or sense of the whole: for example, the good life or a life worth living. Hermeneutics indicates that the parts are only fully understood in terms of the whole. “Whatever meaning we attribute to the part has to make sense within the whole, whose meaning it also helps to determine” (C. Taylor, 2016, 218). Such is the beauty and complexity of meanings. Hermeneutics (interpretation), the third rung of the ladder, helps us make sense of human actions and reactions, responses and attitudes, behavioural causes and effects. This kind of reflection makes these humanly understandable, graspable, palpable or real for us. We can engage them, examine and question them. Such interpretation of self happens against the backdrop of a whole “landscape of meaning” within which an agent operates. This includes a whole constellation of motives, norms and virtues. Such packages of interpretation are rooted in an overall philosophical anthropology. So it is clear that philosophy is important to shaping ethics. This process of searching for coherence within ourselves (to re-frame), within our moral map, is essential to a healthy, robust identity. Reginald Bibby speaks to such dialogue for the health of Millennials:

Moving beyond tolerating each other to talking to each other gets us a junior high certificate. Enjoying each other and learning from each other results in a high school diploma. Incorporating into our lives the best features of our respective cultures and lifestyles—along with feelings of inclusion, belonging, engagement, and citizenship—gets us a university degree.   (R. Bibby et al, The Millennial Mosaic, 242)

A Dialogue on What Makes Us More Human

4. Ethical meanings involve a sense of call, one which can be either transcendent or immanent, to which someone can respond, and which brings about a counter response (guided by a sense of rightness). Taylor writes: “Language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life…. Language is the domain of right and wrong motives” (C. Taylor, 2016, 261). Meanings call us to live up to what is important, as we get it more clearly in focus, strive for a higher, fuller, truer form of human life as individuals, as societies, and as humanity in general. This invokes the concept of human excellence (arête) as a trajectory for life—a greater good. This is really important today amidst the weaponized lies and spin. There is, of course, the challenge of praxis of such high views, but the call is crucial, a motivating concept. In John 15, Jesus invites his disciples to step up, to lean into his love, to “abide in the vine.” This brilliant insight offers hope for change, for grasping afresh one’s evolving identity, as ones sheds triviality and selfish motives. Language has an important influence on developing both character and culture—it has constructive capacity.

Bernard Lonergan’s Four Wise Principles of Self-Transcendence

  • Be Attentive: pay attention
  • Be Intelligent: examine your assumptions, self-criticize 
  • Be Reasonable: speak carefully and listen to others
  • Be Responsible: own your part in the greater scheme

5. Narrative Progress: Moral growth (C. Taylor, 2016, 222) also entails growth in ethical insight or knowledge. This involves a tweaking of our present position, “getting better through seeing better,” as Taylor puts it. Articulation, reflection and self-critique are involved. A healthy hermeneutical circle is active, a back and forth between enactment/praxis, coming up with new language and interpretation—with a view to improving/refining and getting it more correct. This dynamic process is essential to human freedom, maturity and healthy agency. Openness here allows us to understand others better, reduces interpersonal conflict, and continually improves our moral applications/implementations. This includes a recognition and respect for difference that others embody as their “take” on moral meaning or the good.

In summary, the three rungs in Taylor’s ladder of moral meaning involves the following: a. pre-articulate enactment/embodiment/performativity (existential habits, covenants and commitments); b. verbal articulation/naming of a norm with its crucial features (for example, a code, principles to live by, virtues to emulate). This can also be done as a work of art or music, symbol, metaphor  or a meaningful novel or story such as Les Misérables; c. fuller hermeneutical account of its overall role in our lives (rationale for the code). Thereby, suggests Taylor, human rationality gainfully engages human morality. We don’t throw up or hands at moral challenges, we have more of an articulate grasp of the moral landscape and our place within it. We can examine our motives, our assumptions or even our presumptions–through a process of transformation. This is a critical thinking approach to morality-meaning-identity. The idea of moral growth has implications for the meaning of one’s personal unfolding story (Bildungsromans). Moral growth is a key reason for our existence, especially when it involves suffering? Good suffering can be a path to moral growth and self-understanding.

6. Ritual is also a form of constitutive enactment or portrayal that can provide restoration and healing with respect to a bigger story or myth, the social whole. This is how a worship service operates in a church or concert. It can help reconnect the individual with the cosmos and with other selves (re-enchantment), help one see how things relate to each other within a whole. Poetry was key for Post-Romantics here—also connecting people to meaningful lived time. Without discernment of such connections, we feel anguish or angst. Music offers a form of meaning, as many Post-Romantics like Schopenhauer understood, expressing a subject’s feeling and/or take on the world. These powerful works of art provide epiphanies or sources of identity, sources of the good, sources of the self: Sources refers to “the realities contemplation of which, or contact with which, strengthens our commitment to or élan [momentum] towards the good, or God, or Nature, the good society, or a force that lies beyond us.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 249). Thereby, the artist or poet can be impacted by her own art, which has a voice speaking back to her, giving her insight into life–here creation meets discovery. This is that feedback loop between expressive experience and articulation. This aspect of Taylor’s discourse on meaning is quite enlightening and profound. In this register, transcendence and theology can break through in the quest for re-enchantment of the world, and the opening up of one’s identity to the divine. Humanists like Jens Zimmermann (Incarnational Humanism) can help shape this linguistic bridge.

Ethics of Science & Technology

A further discussion on science and ethics would be how ethics asks science and technology for accountability. How can science be used for the common good? In his recently published Technology and the Human Future, Dr. Craig Gay of Regent College opened up one of the most critical conversations of our day: How do we manage the current technological revolution and mitigate its ill effects? How do we handle the exponential growth in machine learning and artificial intelligence that intersect with our lives and shape our world, without becoming disembodied machines ourselves, the victims of mechanism? He provides a lucid and chilling overview of what we all know, but often find it hard to talk about coherently: the more that technology, especially automation, our devices, and the internet, makes our life easier, the less that increasingly disembodied life seems to flourish. Dr Gay issues a call to a discerning stewardship of modern technological development, a perspicacious contribution to cultural self-reflection. UBC has several strong technological development programs, but they can also benefit from some social and moral reflection on their work.

Craig welcomed all the benefits of technology (he owns a smart phone), but asks his readers to think critically about what he calls the machine mindset, an ideology which can lead us into some unhealthy directions. Like the great French philosopher Jacques Ellul and American philosopher Albert Borgmann before him, Dr. Gay lays out four key contemporary concerns about our technological age. He also encourages us to think theologically and philosophically about technology, employing the hermeneutical themes of creation, incarnation, and resurrection. As he put it in his Christian critique, “When the trajectory of modern technological development loses touch with ordinary embodied existence, it is at odds with God’s purposes for his world.” The book offers a robust and lively exchange of ideas and insights, relevant to everyone living in our technological age, both boosters and critics. The book leaves us with several important issues to ponder. When Einstein realized that his breakthroughs in physics could lead to a nuclear bomb, he knew that science was not morally neutral, that the fact/value dichotomy was inadequate. See also Jaron Lanier below in this space about social media. See also this article on values & science:

Jaron Lanier

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Philosophical theology, meta-educator with postgrad students.

Bibby, R., Thiessen, J., Bailey, M. (2019). The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice Are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada. Toronto, ON: Dundurn.

Gay, C.M. (2018). Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage.

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values. New York: Free Press.

Hunter, J.D. and Nedelisky, P. (2018). Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. New Haven, NJ: Yale Press

Merton, T. (1961). New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Publishing.

McMinn, M. (2017). The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church.

Pannenberg, W. (1976). Theology and the Philosophy of Science.

Taylor,C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Language Animal: the full shape of the human language capacity. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Posted by: gcarkner | June 1, 2020

Summer Reading 2020

Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.

Kristie Anyabwile (ed.), His Testimonies, My Heritage: Women of Color on the Word of God.

Jim Proser, Savage Messiah: How Jordan Peterson is Saving Western Civilisation.

Anthony Doer, All the Light We Cannot See.

David Lyle Jeffrey & Gregory Maillet, Christianity & Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice.

Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Jesus: a Theography.

Dennis Danielson, Milton and the Search for Meaning.

Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World.

Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic.

Michael Massing, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind.

John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future.

David Bentley Hart,  The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? 

James K. A. Smith, On the Road with St. Augustine.

Paul S. Williams, Exiles on Mission: how Christian can thrive in a post-Christian World.

Charles E. Cotherman, To Think Christianly: a history of L’Abri, Regent College and the Christian Study Center Movement.

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