Tuesday, November 22, 2016

God, Virtue Ethics, and Rhythm

by Caleb Ratzlaff

There are countless ways of understanding God’s nature. New atheists such as Daniel Dennett, for example, reject a variety of theisms that defines God as a supernatural agent who desires humanity’s worship. Peter Rollins, a self-identified emergent Christian defines God as “that which we cannot speak of [and] the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”* Rollins finds inspiration in Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, tending away from anthropocentric understandings of God like the one Dennett rejects. Like Dennett, Rollins aims to disturb conventional theism while, unlike Dennett, maintaining a semblance of orthodoxy. Jack Caputo, taking these ideas a step further, conceives of God as an “insistence” with little agency in the world other than the ability to disturb and haunt our actions.

Conceptions of God play a critical role in shaping our moral lives; some theists practise an escapism because their God shuns the world, while others become champions of social causes because that is what they believe God desires of them. This post will work backwards, so to speak, considering how our daily attempts to act ethically can shed light on God’s nature. To this end, I will employ virtue ethics’ approach to moral life, a school of ethics that emphasizes virtues, opposed to an emphasis on the need to follow rules (deontological) or an emphasis on the consequences of one’s actions (consequentialism).

In a nutshell, virtue ethics claims that we should always make decisions that encourage health. On a personal level, this means being concerned with one’s character, believing that if one engages in the daily practice of care, for example, one will be prepared to act caringly when a weighty ethical situation demands such action. Similarly, on a societal level, a subscription to virtue ethics would aim to develop life together in ways that encourage healthy relationships — for example, by building neighbourhood landscape that create opportunities to practice hospitality.

But what does this ethical school have to do with our conceptions of God?

Virtues such as love, justice, wisdom, and hospitality can be imagined as a movement, or a dance, with rhythm. There is an unconditional character of virtue — what we understand when the word “wisdom” is uttered (or read). Yet in life, we enact a contingent or concrete kind of virtue. When we try to act virtuous in daily life, we respond to the call of virtue. It moves from an ideal to an action. God could be understood as the movement between the ideal and the events that actually happen.

For a practical example, consider Bonhoeffer’s excellent chapter in Ethics titled “What is Meant by ‘Telling the Truth’?” Although Bonhoeffer’s conception of God might differ slightly from mine, I think those familiar with the work will see the resonance. Bonhoeffer discusses the situatedness of truth: what it means to tell the truth must reflect concrete situations and a serious reflection on them. Using the example of a parent-child relationship, Bonhoeffer explains that for a child what it means to tell the truth is far more straightforward than a parent who must consider a vast field of responsibilities. Telling the truth means something different depending on who you are and the types of situations you’re asked to confront. Yet, all are called to tell the truth, regardless of their present situation. The principle of truth is universal and unconditional, but how it appears in daily life needs to be conditioned by each unique circumstance in which it’s enacted.

Here’s another example, that illuminates the movement involved in scenarios characterized by justice. Sometimes my two-year-old son needs help doing things, such as safely navigating a treacherous flight of fourteen stairs. Justice calls me to help him with encouraging words or helping hands, but as time passes the answer to justice may change. I might reconsider intervening for the sake of my son’s self-confidence. Perhaps I have already been too helpful and spoiled his character. It is impossible to tell for sure. But I can’t ignore him, that would certainly not be just. Therefore, my actions are always accountable to the ideal of justice, meaning that each new response may be different than the last; and sometimes I must apologize and transform past action.

Similarly, Bonhoeffer points out that “the ethical cannot be detached from reality, and consequently, continual progress in learning to appreciate reality is a necessary ingredient in ethical action” (360). All actions, as we saw in our first example, are one-sided, originating from incomplete knowledge within a unique situation. Thus, actions that aim to make justice or truth actual must be held accountable to the ideals of justice and truth. The agent is a kind of bind, they must act, but to do so violates the unconditional nature of the ideal. The ethical, therefore, both demands that I act and calls me to hold these actions open to future events or revelations.

Following philosopher Jacques Derrida, Shannon Hoff articulates well the movement observed in the examples above: “In order to respond to a particular situation I must act, but in acting I interpret what the ideal requires for this situation and so assert my own authority in place of its authority; I take on the conditions that acting requires and thus fail to enact an unconditional ideal; I bring about another one-sided situation that may need to be transformed for the sake of the ideal of justice.” Virtue requires a continual movement between its ideal and its concrete expression. It is this productive tension, the dance between the ideal and the real, that plays a necessary role in animating our life together.

As we become sensitive to the call of truth, we begin to feel its rhythm, learn its dance steps, and allow ourselves to be swept up by its dynamism. And, a focus on a single melody dials in the full orchestra of virtues that accompany it. Perhaps, God is the movement.

Conceptualising God in this way is helpful for many reasons, but especially because it avoids the temptation to escape the concrete world by locating God either in some supernatural realm of ideals or to limit God to subjective experience. The realm of ideal and the arena of action are both important, but only in so far as they find meaning in the dynamic relation that binds them in productive tension.

What about Christ? Perhaps Christ masters the dance life, but he doesn’t show us all the steps our daily life will require. However, just as the “work music” of African American culture inspired the Blues and as the Blues passed the rhythm on to Rock and Soul, so is Christ a preserver and a giver of the rhythm of life.

Caleb Ratzlaff attends Westview Christian Fellowship in St. Catharines Ontario and is a member of Westview Centre 4 Women’s board of directors. He spends the majority of each day raising two toddlers. And when he’s not chasing his boys around the neighborhood, he might be blogging at calebratzlaff.wordpress.com.

Photo from wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons License.


  1. Dear Caleb,

    Thank you for your gracious response. I think you're absolutely right that the term is more accessible than deconstruction and it is a sort of pleasant, familiar idea. So, I guess it depends on who your audience is. If you're just trying to evoke an image that's fine and a lot of people use the term in this way. It just drives me a little crazy as a scholar of rhythm :)

    However, I am now confused as to why deconstruction is your alternative to rhythm here. It seems to me that you're using rhythm as a stand-in for oscillation or dialectic, rather than deconstruction, but perhaps I have misunderstood. But if I'm right, then even just explicitly making that connection would help (e.g. you're suggesting that virtue ethics is inherently rhythmic because it always includes this oscillation between ideal and real and this oscillation over time creates a type of pattern, and this is why you are arguing that it is rhythmic). So, I think you could make it work, I just think it needs to be defined and argued for, rather than assumed since the term is part of your title.

    I have a book coming out in a couple years on rhythm as a theological category, but in the meantime feel free to take a look at my research blog https://rhythmictheologyproject.com/ if you would like more on the subject, particularly posts "what is rhythm?" "why rhythm?" and "why rhythm is indispensable for theology that takes human experience seriously."

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    2. Challenging my carelessness with the rhythm metaphor has been quite helpful for me. In my metaphorical flourish, I lose sight of an idea that I had wanted to communicate. I had wanted to say that becoming sensitive to virtue is similar to the way you might become sensitive to a particular rhythm in music: learning a rhythm allows you to hear it where you couldn’t before. In the post, as you point out, the rhythm metaphor also relates to the co-dependence of the ideal and the actual. My point was that it’s a mistake to think of these two things as isolated from one another. Justice, for example, is best thought of as a movement that takes places between the two. You might be right in saying that this movement oscillates between the ideal and the actual. In lived experience, however, it seems like both are constantly present. You don’t jump from the actual to the ideal; they are found side by side in productive tension. The metaphor kind of breaks down but perhaps you could say that the dynamism of this tension is similar to the way rhythm (with lots of improvisation) moves through a song. And, when listening to music, most will tap their foot absentmindedly. My brother, who’s a drummer and likes jazz, can provide a more elaborate accompaniment that also happens almost automatically.

      I hesitate to talk about deconstruction. If you’re really interested in how it relates, maybe you could say a bit more about why you don’t think the dynamic between the ideal and the actual is an attempt (perhaps a feeble one) to talk about deconstruction.

  2. At a World Congress of Philosophy in Boston in the late 80’s or early 90’s a young man, perhaps a student, read a paper on the likelihood of God’s ability to ride a bicycle. The room was full. Why, I don’t know. One elderly lady in the front row got frustrated and asked loudly: Who the hell is interested in whether God can ride a bicycle? Some attendants obviously were. Did they hope to find out how God might do in the tour de France? Did they expect to hear whether or not God favoured special bike lanes in big cities? I think Lambert Zuidervaart and Ron Kuipers were there as well. Were they interested in the possibility that the young man might have an inside track that could make God as a participant in ICS attractive to student recruiters? But as I said, I don’t know why the room was full nor why most people stayed till the end to hear all of this, to my mind, incredibly boring paper. One thing, however, seemed clear to me. No one seemed to question that we all knew the identity of the potential bicycle rider.

    The instant I started reading Caleb’s blog this all came back to me, as he wrote: “There are countless ways of understanding God’s nature.” I asked: Does God have a nature? Is that a good idea? Or might we prefer one without? And does having a nature provide an immediate link to “defining" God as that surfaces in the examples of Dennett and Rollins? And, a bit further on, does Caputo “conceive" of God to avoid defining? Caleb seems unattracted. He prefers to “work backwards” in the expectation of thus shedding “light on God’s nature,” likely because he sees a connection between ethics and "our conceptions of God.” That leads him to suggest God might be understood as the movement between ideals and events. Or in Dooyeweerdian language: God might be the dynamic relation between law and subject. And Christ inspires us not to put new wine into old skins.

    I like the spirit of this blog and its refreshing modulation of God-talk. And I wonder how Caleb’s intentions might be even more suitable to dancing if he found new language for God, nature, definition, and similar vocabulary from another world. When he says “God” does he then share a same (semantic, conceptual) world with Dennett, Rollins, Eckhart, Caputo, Bonhoeffer, Derrida and Hoff? Does Caputo’s world know natures? Does Derrida honour a defined God? Sometimes we have to use words that don’t really suit what we intend to say, but we use them anyway to begin to be heard. Paul apparently had no overriding objections to adding his creator of heaven and earth to the existing pantheon when in the process he accentuated the uneasy fit. I find myself hitting walls more often than finding windows or doors.

    So Caleb, as someone who likes to dance with God, do you have some suggestions about discarding or replacing language that favours immutability more than movement? Can you help me out?

    1. Your comment was thought provoking and a pleasure to read. I found your post from the archive that encouraged readers to think beyond God’s personhood to be helpful. My post here originated out of an attempt to explain my conception of God to someone who is very committed to the personal relationship model.

      Your right to question the assumption that God has a nature and that it's desirable to define it. The movement that I’m trying to describe isn’t a nature or a definition, or anything the exists really. So to start the post off by talking about God’s nature is a bit misleading.

      Derrida’s concept of deconstruction attempts to name an important aspect of experience that doesn’t exist, strictly speaking. This is partly why, for example, he maintains that deconstruction isn’t a method and it's also partly why he stretches language (différance). The co-dependence of the ideal and the actual is an attempt to think about deconstruction and what it might reveal about God. In the process of writing this post, I realized that there are some general parallels between deconstruction and virtue ethics. It would be interesting to think more clearly about these parallels, but that would take a lot more work.

      For myself, I’ve found the world of phenomenology to be very fertile ground for these types of explorations. I enjoy the way it illuminates daily life by examining experience. In this post, I wondered how a virtue ethic explanation of certain experiences sheds light on what is commonly referred to as an experience of God.

      I'm not really answering your question directly, but I hope it’s a start.

    2. At the very end of your reply (thank you) you express the hope that not answering my question could be a start. Who knows, you may well be right. For my "question" tried to address the perplexity of saying, writing, explaining, using "God." Do you, or I, or anyone enfolded in this perplexity have any sense of "God?" Are Deus, Theos, Dieu, God, Gott, Allah the same single "divine reality" or are they irreducibly different? The young man who explored whether God could ride a bike, as well as (I assume) his audience, assumed that whatever “God” referred to was clear and shared. Maybe not in every respect, though minimally in some significant way. But “God” has not escaped globalization and the perplexity of making references to “God” has increased to the extent that whenever someone says “God” and is understood, it is likely that the reference has become trivialized or tribalized. This likely remains so even if we limit all speakers and hearers to Christians.

      If what I am saying faithfully reflects a reality, then how would or could you answer my “question.” Indeed, not answering me could be a start. Not a start of answering perhaps, but a start of avoiding the perplexity by no longer speaking of “God” when we come face to face with a source of blessing, redemption, salvation or other manifestation of a way for us to walk. Maybe it reminds you and me of how we can be moved along by Jesus's experience as father. Maybe there are ways to speak of this without saying “God.” Maybe you could open up the meaning of experiencing the movement in that space between what beckons us and how we are shaped by it. That meaning could perhaps enfold us in the newness of being loved without limit, which is how mystics of all times and places experience becoming one with the beginning and end of all that is.

    3. Thanks for engaging me here Henk (in this post, but also through the archive series), it's been very helpful. As I dive back into Church life, I find myself often challenging others to explain themselves without reference to God -- sometimes they are speechless, other times we're both surprised by the meaningfulness of what we learn.

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