Theology and Public Philosophy: Four Conversations

By Hunt, Robert P. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Theology and Public Philosophy: Four Conversations


Hunt, Robert P., Journal of Markets & Morality


Theology and Public Philosophy: Four Conversations

Kenneth L. Grasso and Cecilia Rodriguez Castillo (Editors)

Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012 (187 pages)

Theology and Public Philosophy is an immeasurably valuable contribution to the ongoing contemporary debate on the role that theology can play in the development of an authentic public philosophy, especially given the theoretical and practical weaknesses of the liberal intellectual tradition and the models of social and political life that flow from within it.

The editors of the volume have organized the collection of sixteen essays--not including a fine editorial introduction by Kenneth Grasso and an epilogue by Jean Bethke Elshtain--into a series of four conversations, each centering on a major issue raised by a primary essayist (i.e., Charles Taylor, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Robin Lovin, and Jean Porter) and three briefer commentaries on or critiques of each of the primary essays. Neither the primary essayists nor the vast majority of the respondents disappoint the reader in terms of the significance of the issues raised and the quality of the discussion. The issues range, as Elshtain points out, from "how we order our moral lives within the framework of modernity" to "the nature of our moral traditions and whether they are grounded in the ephemeral or the enduring" (179).

For example, the question of how we order our moral lives is at the heart of Charles Taylor's essay (chapter 1), an extended critique of what Taylor calls "nomolotry." Taylor believes that the Christian way of life is deformed and eviscerated by those theologians and philosophers who would reduce to mere codes of conduct the possibilities and complexities of moral and political life. He traces this increasing code-fetishism to various sources, including certain elements of Latin Christendom during the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In his response to Taylor, Kenneth Grasso (chapter 2) wonders whether Taylor's opposition to such moral and spiritual reductionism--not an incredibly controverted position taken by itself--refects a deeper criticism of the moral norms on which Christians depend for sustenance. Grasso traces the deformation of the Christian intellectual tradition and the possible seeds of nomolotry not to the Counter-Reformation but to the nominalism and voluntarism of fourteenth-century philosophy, and he contends that those seeds have borne bitter fruit in liberal modernity's reification of the autonomous self.

In the second primary essay (chapter 5), Protestant philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff contends that a purely secularist account of the foundations of political authority is insufficient and argues that a "divine delegation" concept of the nature and limits of authority might succeed in providing a better foundation for limited constitutional government than Calvin's own "divine deputization" theory. J. Budziszewski (chapter 6) and Jeanne Heffernan Schindler (chapter 7) agree with Wolterstorff that a secular humanist account of the nature of political authority is inadequate but wonder whether Wolterstorff's own argument might not be improved upon by reuniting a legitimately biblical account of authority with the Thomistic concept of natural law (Budziszewski) or by moving beyond a theory of politics that traces the origins of political authority solely to human deficiency toward one that sees it as an essential aspect of human flourishing (Heffernan Schindler). …

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