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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Ethics & Religion

On the Side of the Angels: Ethics and Post-Holocaust Spirituality by Marie L. Baird (Studies in Spirituality: Supplement 7: Peeters) discusses how the Holocaust demands a rethinking of spirituality, both human and Christian. The author, Marie L. Baird, lived as a young person in Europe where she listened to the testimony of Holocaust survivors and that experience led her to write of this book. Traditional definitions of spirituality that focus on the human capacity for self-transcendence in relation to an ultimate horizon of meaning, whether or not that ultimate horizon is called ‘God’, are inadequate after the Holocaust to the degree that they make ethical responsibility a secondary consideration. Because the unthinkable has, in fact, happened, a contemporary spirituality must locate ethical responsibility for the Other at the heart of human subjectivity and self-transcendence. The extreme suffering of the incarcerated and murdered, as well as the ethical engagement of the rescuers cry out for a newly articulated spirituality that defines self-transcendence primarily as ethical responsibility.

On the Side of the Angels also contributes to a contemporary discussion situated at the intersection of philosophy and spirituality. This discussion seeks to characterize spirituality by using terms other than the traditional categories of being. Such an approach may reveal the contours and dynamics of a spirituality springing from the ethical consideration of the Other. This study defines spirituality as fundamentally self-transcending ethical engagement in which the subject ‘enacts’ himself or herself into the fullness of his or her humanity. This new perspective stresses ethical engagement over the onto­logically-based conceptual categories found in traditional philosophical or theological anthropologies.

Chapter 1 is a general survey of current practices and definitions of spirituality from both a general human and more specifically Christian perspective. It shows that the traditional understanding of spirituality as personal self-transcendence in light of an ultimate horizon of meaning relegates the Other – and hence the importance of ethical engagement – to a secondary and thus subordinate position. It also dis­cusses the potential dangers of dualism and individualism that arise when spirituality is understood to occur primarily within the narrow context of the human person’s one-on-one encounter with this ultimate horizon. Finally, it takes up the question of the Other and our responsibility to that Other as understood from both an individ­ual and communal perspective.

Chapter 2 points out the dangers attendant upon the reduction of the unique and irreplaceable Other to the universality of the concept, as happens when individuals fall prey to the totalizing vision of any system, be it philosophical, theological, or political. Baird illustrates this chapter with an analysis of life in ex­tremity and its aftereffects as a way of justifying her claim that the Holocaust forces us to think spirituality anew in ethical, as well as ontological, terms. The destitution of the incarcerated demands this of the rest of us. In this light, she also discusses Holocaust survivors’ concern to tell their stories as a form of ethical responsibility that eschews systems in favor of the primacy of subjects.

Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of responsibility is the chief focus of Chapter 3. Baird discusses the ethical encounter as the locus of human subjectivity in the sense that we become human when we are always already responsible for the Other (before being for ourselves). The chapter also focuses on Levinas’s analysis of the ethical rela­tion as the passing of God’s ‘trace’ in and through the face of the Other. It shows that the ethical subject encounters the trace of God incommensurable to the present time of intentional consciousness in his or her responsibility for the Other. A spirituality inspired by Levinas’s thought posits a relation to God that is oblique rather than straightforward, occurring in the enactment of ethical responsibility. It is also a rela­tion that is unavailable, in the first instance, to conscious representation and hence to theological interpretation. This chapter also evaluates John Caputo’s ‘poetics of obligation’ and James Olthuis’s ‘ethics of mutuality” as to the viability of their critical responses to Levinas’s thought.

Chapter 4 takes up the complex issue of whether, and if so how, Levinas’s ethics may be applied directly to actual events ‘befall[ing] an existent subject’. Although any direct applicability may be problematic and perhaps even impossible, Baird argues that some rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust may in fact approach the Levinasian ideal. That ideal is described in terms of ‘being otherwise’ rather than ‘otherwise than being.’ She characterizes such ‘being otherwise’ as an ‘attentive affectivity’ that orients some rescuers toward the Other in a self-transcending man­ner. Far from constituting a ‘poetics of obligation’ or an ‘ethics of mutuality’, their decisive intervention between the Other and harm’s way may approach Levinas’s ethics of responsibility if we understand his ethics to be best illustrated empirically by an encounter taking place in conditions of crisis. This discussion shows that Levinas’s ethics need not be as ‘Utopian’ as is commonly charged. Baird also invokes Eric Voegelin’s philosophy of history as a valuable dialogue partner in her attempt to find historical application of Levinas’s ethics, and illustrates the chapter with the findings of several theories of rescue. The stories of Etty Hillesum and Primo Levi’s rescuer Lorenzo figure prominently in this discussion.

The final chapter weaves the discussions of the foregoing chapters into a provi­sional description of a post-Holocaust spirituality. It takes up the Other as the new, irreducible point of departure to such a spirituality and locates him or her within a ‘community of others’ such as that hinted at in Levinas’s discussion of ‘the third party’ and as described by Zygmunt Bauman’s postmodern ethics. It dis­cusses the implications for a post-Holocaust spirituality of Bauman’s ‘moral spacing’ that defies the anonymity of the public realm ‘beyond community.’ The chapter also takes up some concerns that are addressed specifically to Christian belief: Levinas’s ‘trace’ of God in the context of Christian faith, the status of good works, the problem of dualism. It reconfigures the notion of self-transcendence by locating it within an ethical responsibility that may function, for believers, as the very hands of God. Finally, On the Side of the Angels considers survivors’ and rescuers’ legacy to the reader.

The Ethics of Community by Frank G. Kirkpatrick (New Dimensions to Religious Ethics: Blackwell) The exploration of the essential community character of Christian ethics means a affirmation to one of the most basic themes in Christian ethics: the relation between love and justice. Kirkpatrick updates that relation by reference to some of the most recent and influential work in political philosophy.

An adequate Christian ethics of community must have at least the following: an understanding of human nature, an awareness of the historical development of human beings enacting community in a variety of ways, a grounding in a biblical construal of nature and history, and a coherent understanding of the complexities of the relationship between community and society.

Kirkpatrick provides a preliminary distinction between community and society. Community is the locus of ultimate personal fulfillment: communion, fellowship, mutuality, and intimacy. The relationships that constitute a Christian communion are between human persons and between them and the divine Person. Personal relations in the community are generally direct, intimate, loving, and mutual. Friendship or fellowship among equals characterizes such gatherings. Wheras society is the locus for the impersonal distribution of power among large groups of people for attaining political and economic ends according to principles of justice. In the western liberal traditions these normally aim at greater equality of power and equal access to economic resources and political decision‑making. The relationships that constitute a society are normally indirect, impersonal, and determined primarily by law and contractual obligations.
Culture tends to straddle the two forms of association. Societies can reflect culture but so, at a more intimate level, can communities. And culture is necessary for both. Kirkpatrick’s communial ethics is an important contribution to religious social ethics.

Author Summary: In chapter 1, "Foundations," I will develop and then build on the foundation of a Christian moral ontology that informs an ethics of community. That ontology will be informed by a reading of the biblical material, focusing primarily on the earliest forms of Christian community, or koinonia. These will be rooted in earlier Hebraic notions of what God was up to in the world in the calling of Israel to be God's people. The tension between a community as inclusive as the nation of Israel and the much narrower confines of the Christian koinonia will be explored.

In chapter 2, I want to look at some salient historical experiments in the building of Christian community as they occurred in European and American history. If history is the locus of human beings working out their construal of God's intention for history, then there are lessons that can be drawn from the success or failure of various communal and societal endeavors and their interrelationship. Their successes and failures can help to inform contemporary efforts at community, both as more narrowly intentional as well as more broadly societal. History cannot foreclose future options, but a purely abstract study of the philosophy of community runs the risk of foreclosing the insights and possibilities for community found in the myriad attempts to work out an ethics of community in practice over the course of the last 2000 years. There is much more in western history that gives credibility to community building than many traditional historical studies have acknowledged.

I will then turn to a philosophical grounding of community in the nature of human persons. If the moral ontology on which I am basing my ethics of community is correct, then, given God's intention and creative acts, there is some commonality and "essence" to human nature that can find fulfillment only in community. Drawing upon the work of the twentieth-century philosopher John Macmurray, I will develop a "philosophy of the personal." The philosophy of Macmurray provides essential and comprehensive metaphysical principles for establishing both a Christian concept of community and a secular (natural) understanding of society without segregating them from each other. The philosophy of community just established will then guide us as we work our way through recent philosophical and political visions, centering on liberalism and communitarianism, of what a good society and a fulfilling community ought to be, and what their relationship to each other might be today.

A theological caution against losing the authenticity of the church community in indiscriminate engagement with the secular world will also be explored. I will be attempting to build an argument that such engagement is theologically legitimate, even imperative, even though it ought not to lead to the loss of the distinctive contributions church communities can make.

It will then be time to explore the problematic and dangers of community. I want to balance the appeal of community with the need for individual "space" and rights protected from the overweening intrusions of too much community. This is the problem, in part, of respecting individual "otherness" or diversity and how to preserve it within community without either subsuming it into a homogenous controlling ethos or de­stroying the bonds of community in order to protect it.

Finally, I want to suggest some directions for communities as they confront the structures of contemporary society around specific flashpoints of social injustice. I will focus this discussion around the issue of economic justice. What negotiations with society are required from within a Chris­tian ethic of community in addressing this issue will be explored. What political philosophies of society are more congruent with that ethic will be developed.

The thread that holds all this material together is the notion of the intention of God, working with and through human beings, to bring God's vision of community to fruition. God's intention, according to the ontology I lay out, is reflected in the creation of human beings such that they, too, want community and will only be fulfilled by it. But it is also an intention that works itself out historically. It weaves in and out of smaller intentional groups and larger formal institutions and societal structures. It holds in tension justice and love, community and the nation‑state, the dynamics of mutuality and the realities of power politics. But it will not let go of the overarching commitment to the building of a community that is intentionally if not always in practice universal and inclusive. This is what is meant, I believe, by the last verses of the Christian canon in the Book of Revelation when the writer declares "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth .... and I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . Behold, the dwelling of God is with men" (Rev. 21:1‑3).


Conscience and Its Problems: An Introduction to Casuistry by Kenneth E. Kirk (Library of Theological Ethics: Westminster John Knox Press) originally published in 1927, has proven to be one of the most important and influential books in the field of ethics in the twentieth century. It remains a pertinent original, and insightful work‑--a landmark statement of modern casuistry. Kirk's combination of moral seriousness and renunciation of dogmatism, his respect for the diverse consciences of serious Christians, and his sense of responsibility as someone speaking not just for himself but for a community of fallible human beings remain powerfully instructive.

Casuistry, most broadly understood, is a process of reasoning that focuses upon specific cases or moral problems, as opposed to a general study of ethical theories or concepts. The root of the English word is the Latin casus or case. In this sense, almost every serious moralist has been a casuist, in at least part of his or her writing. Thus, casuistry is a perennial element in the study of ethics or moral theology.

But in more precise attempts to differentiate among writers on Christian ethics, casuistry has a narrower denotation. Most narrowly it refers to the work of a group of moralists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who had heirs within Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican traditions. And it has been given a new, not necessarily religious formulation in the late twentieth century in the work of Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, John Arras, Richard B. Miller and others .

Conscience and Its Problems remains one of the landmark statements of twentieth‑century casuistry. It remains a pertinent, original, and insightful essay. Kirk addressed issues of the rationale for moral thought, the role of the church as a moral community, and of the handling of problematical moral situations in ways that remain helpful and current at the end of the century. His appreciation for the role of loyalty in the moral life complements the work of American writers such as Josiah Royce, H. R. Niebuhr, and Paul Ramsey. A later generation has been more self‑conscious about the differences between the demands of the Gospel and those of any given culture, but Kirk's' combination of moral seriousness and renunciation of dogmatism, his respect for the diverse consciences of serious Christians, and his sense of responsibility as someone speaking not just for himself but for a group or community of fallible human beings remain powerfully instructive.

Crossing Boundaries: Ethics in the History of Mysticism edited by G. William Barnard, and Jeffrey Kripal (Seven Bridges Press) The contemporary study of religion has witnessed a consistent interest in and concern about the relationship between the unitive, ascetic, and ecstatic tendencies of mystical traditions and the more mundane but ethically pressing realms of society, custom, and civilized life. The present volume explores such issues anew through a series of original essays on the mystical traditions themselves (from Kabbalah to Chinese religion) and on some of the most pressing theoretical issues and theorists (from Bergson to Schuon) of the twentieth-century study of religion. [Review pending]

Contents 1. Jeffrey J. Kripal: Debating the Mystical as the Ethical 2. G. William Barnard: Debating the Mystical as the Ethical: A Response 3. Elliot R. Wolfson: Beyond Good and Evil 4. Richard Woods: Above the Law 5. Michael Sells: Sufi Love Mysticism and the Infinity of Desire 6. Jeffrey J. Kripal: Seeing Inside and Outside
the Goddess 7. David R. Loy: The Lack of Ethics and the Ethics of Lack in Buddhism 8. Livia Kohn: The Sage in the World, the Perfected without Feelings 9. G. William Barnard: Vital Institutions 10. Jonathan Shear: Ethics and the Experience of Happiness 11. Michael Stoeber: Amoral-Trickster or Mystic-Saint?  12. Hugh B. Urban: A Dance of Masks 13. Jeffrey J. Kripal: Afterword


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