9.5 Theses on Virtue and Understanding

By Jeff Mallinson

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If we accept that we live in a postmodern quagmire, which means that we live in a time of abandonment (to borrow Ellul language), we must admit that our culture lacks any hope that we can recover a common sense of what is true, good, or beautiful. On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, the fourth part in a series where we trace the history of the Fall, we discuss potential ways out of our quagmire. Our guest is Dr. Dan Deen, a Concordia Irvine prof and 1517 Thinking Fellow, who specializes in the ethics of belief and the ways in which virtue epistemology might help us when it comes to intellectual conflicts between science and theology, especially when it comes to the philosophy of biology.

We’ve suggested before on the show that if the true (epistemology) is in crisis, perhaps the good (ethics) or the beautiful (aesthetics) might come to the rescue. We will discuss the second possibility next week with Daniel Siedell next week. This week, we discuss ways in which epistemic virtue (virtue applied to the theory of knowledge) might be a potent remedy for our intellectual sickness. As I was reflecting on that free-form conversation, some of my jagged colleagues on this site have stirred up a bit of controversy. Par for the course, I suppose. But it occurs to me that online tangles relate directly to what we were talking about this week. Are we really listening to each other? Do we even want to understand, or do we want only to catch people in their apparent error or impropriety, or excess of liberty?

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Permit me, therefore, to propose (as we approach Reformation Day) nine and a half theses on ways that we—whether as online theological conversation partners or members of society in general—might more effectively pursue faithfulness to truth.

We must learn to listen closely before we speak forcefully.

The virtue of humility helps us recognize that we might be wrong. The best old Lutheran dogmaticians recognized that even the most sublime human theology is theologia viatorum, the theology of the wayfarers or pilgrims.

The virtue of courage helps us to speak prophetically in culture, especially when to remain silent would be to fail in our duty to defend and protect the oppressed, the defenseless, and those who are being harmed by falsehood.

The virtue of faith helps us to be content with difficulty, anomalies, and perplexity within the theologia viatorum because our confidence is not in our ability directly to see God’s plan in all things, but rather in our confidence that God will be faithful to us, as he was faithful to our spiritual ancestors. As the psalmist writes: “For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers.” (Psalm 39:12)

The virtue of hope rejects the cynicism of a postmodern age that seems, at times, to have despaired of the very pursuit of truth. In hope, we press forward, trusting that despite the haziness of this life, we shall someday enjoy the beatific vision. As St. Paul writes: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12)

The virtue of love helps us to speak with the wellbeing of our audience—and also our adversaries—in mind. Therefore, our dialog ought to transcend a desire to trap or catch people in mistakes, whether real or perceived. Love reminds us that our primary business is to be focused on encouraging each other forward toward God. As St. Peter writes: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:8-9)

The virtuous thinker seeks not to be right, so that he or she can declare polemic victory; rather, the virtuous thinker seeks to stand shoulder with perplexed neighbors, and presses forward toward goodness, truth, and beauty. Therefore, the true purpose of debate must always be kept in mind: the wellbeing the world that comes through alignment with truth, and in spiritual terms, the freedom that comes when one unites with the One who is truth.

Robust dialog need not entail compromise, and we need not assume that there is some generic, secular, rational center point to all issues. It does benefit, however, from Christian charity and hospitality.

Through ethical conversation, we ought to welcome and cultivate an ethos of mutual criticism, for the purpose of arriving truth which is outside, beyond, and above all of us. As biblical wisdom reminds us: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17). Iron can also be a spike in the head (Judges 4:21), so care must be taken to use metal implements wisely.

9.5 The last line of Augustine’s Confessions is: “Let it be asked of Thee, sought in Thee, knocked for at Thee; so, so shall it be received, so shall it be found, so shall it be opened.” The last word is opened. We must encourage each other to keep pursuing understanding without becoming content that we have “tamed” the biblical texts or theology. Even when we don’t budge from our convictions, we owe it to the next generation of thinkers to explain carefully and hospitably how we got to those conclusions. We do this not lacking faith in orthodoxy, but confident in that the Word of the Lord will endure forever.

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In this penultimate life, therefore, we must seek genuine understanding; further up and further in, as Lewis described this. Or, as Luther describes the virtuous Christian ethos:

“…the good things we have from God should flow from one to the other and be common to all, so that everyone should “put on” his neighbor and so conduct himself toward him as if he himself were in the other’s place. From Christ the good things have flowed and are flowing into us. He has so “put on” us and acted for us as if he had been what we are. From us they flow on to those who have need of them so that I should lay before God my faith and my righteousness that they may cover and intercede for the sins of my neighbor which I take upon myself and so labor and serve in them as if they were my very own. That is what Christ did for us.” On Christian Liberty, p. 62.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping bourbon with a splash of Swedish bitters, between chapters of Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty.

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