Virtue, Anglican Style (Part 4)

By Fr. Matt Boulter

We turn now to a consideration of virtue as represented in the Anglican tradition, the representative in this case being Kenneth Kirk, who stands in direct succession with the moral tradition of virtue on at least two of the three features articulated above: the necessity of a pre-theoretical (note Aristotle’s use of theoretikos above) practice and an anthropological commitment to man as teleological by nature. (On the other of my three “marks” of the moral tradition of virtue – the priority of the social – Kirk is silent. We will forgive him for that, however, since he lived before this postmodern insight came to be appreciated, for example, by Michel Foucault among many others.)

Beati mundo corde, quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt.[1]   The history of these words, Kirk writes, is the history of Christian ethics itself,[2] for Christian ethics centers on the idea of, the possibility of, the experiential attainment of, the vision of God.  For Kirk, steeped as he is in the moral tradition of the Church (and that in more than a merely academic way), this vision of God is the chief end of man. Not unlike his contemporary Henri de Lubac, he articulates this position, however, by means of a panoply of historical voices, beginning with characters from (what Christians have traditionally and historically called) the Old Testament, progressing through “pagan” stages (both “classical” as well as from the so-called mystery religions) and neo-Platonic fathers of the Church, and finally culminating with medievals such as Thomas Aquinas and 15th century figures such as Ignatius of Loyola and Francis de Sales.

“They will see God.”

“They will see God.” Virtually all of the Christian thinkers enlisted by Kirk to represent the sweep of the tradition agree that man’s ultimate purpose is the vision or the contemplatio[3] of God, whatever inter-mural squabbles they might  have on the details of such an experience.[4] Thomas Aquinas, perhaps, is on what one might think of as the “conservative” extreme of the spectrum, in that he insists that the intuition of the divine essence – the sight of God “face to face”[5] – is sternly reserved for eternity.[6]

“…the end of life is the vision of God”

And yet, what all have in common in the conviction that the human life ought to be ordered around this telos of the direct experience of the divine. And what is this telos? Kirk is more explicit than many of his fellow participants in the tradition, certainly more concrete in elaboration of this telos than Alisdair MacIntyre, for example.[7] For Kirk identifies this telos for which humanity was made as worship:

The doctrine “the end of life is the vision of God” has … been interpreted by Christian thought at its best as implying in practice that the highest prerogative of the Christian, in this life as well as hereafter, is the activity of worship; and that nowhere except in this activity will he find the key to his ethical problems.[8]

Taking precedence over “codes of behavior,” it is worship which orients the ethical project, which orients the moral life of Christian (and human) persons. Appealing to Aristotle, Kirk writes:

“The highest branch of contemplation…is theology…”

Aristotle … explicitly invested the high pursuit of philosophic truth with a religious coloring.  The ‘highest branch of contemplation,’ he said, ‘is theology,’ and the philosophic ideal is the ‘worship and contemplation of God.’ Met V, I (1026a, 19).[9]

Such primacy of worship or praise could also be adduced from multiple Old Testament texts to which Kirk appeals: Jacob saw God face to face and lived (Gen 32:20) (The Hebrew Peniel here means “the face of God”). Similar insights are gleaned from Abraham and Moses in Gen 12:7; 18:1. Isaiah held the LORD high and lifted up in Isaiah 6. Amos & Micah report similar visions: Am 7:7; 9:1; Mic 1:1-3. Ezekiel saw God in his chariot; he saw the Shekinah glory.[10] Kirk supplies us with many more examples from history and tradition to show that, according to the moral tradition of virtue in which Kirk situates himself, worship is our ultimate purpose.

One primary way in which Kirk’s understanding of worship as man’s end is so fecund, however, is that for Kirk, while worship is an end or a purpose or a telos, it is also more than that: for it is also the way to the telos, as Kirk makes clear throughout his discussion of worship. One can see this discussion as implying a view of worship as (something like) both means and end. It is an end, but it is also the precondition to the achievement of that end. In this sense there is a deep resonance with Kirk’s understanding of worship and Aristotle’s understanding of eudaimonia, for, on Aristotle’s view, happiness is not merely a means to an end, pursued for the sake of something else, but nor is it nothing more than a telos in the sense of terminus, for it is also the way.[11]

For example, Aristotle’s understanding of happiness is not like the production of walls from bricks and mortar. The sole (or at least the overwealmingly primary) purpose of brick-laying is to produce a wall. The brick-laying is the means to that end which is the wall. But for Aristotle, eudaimonia is neither reducible down to brick-laying nor reducible down to the wall. It is both, and / or it is neither.[12] So also, on Kirk’s view, for worship. It is not merely a means, for worship is what we will be doing for all eternity, and is our highest possible way to commune with God. And yet it is a medium or a way which leads to something else, something more. But nor, on the other hand, is worship merely an end, for surely it is more true to say that our end is God himself, and worship is a means to that higher end. And yet, in saying this one must constantly remember that not true apprehension of God can ever take place outside of or independently of worship or praise, and so worship itself is ultimate, in that it is bound up with the ultimate end of man which is God Godself.

Join Fr. Matt Boulter next Thursday for the conclusion of, “The Moral Tradition of Virtue, Anglican Style.”

[1] Thus is Mt. 5:8 translated in the Latin Vulgate (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”)

[2] Kirk, Vision (abridged), 2.

[3] Contemplatio is the latin translation of the Greek phrase bios theoretikos. “life of seeing.” Kirk (unabridged) 33. My point here is that, from the very beginning of the tradition, there has been a deep ambiguity between sight and some kind intellectual activity.

[4] For example, it is easy to imagine St. Paul and St. Thomas sitting at a table discussing these matters. Thomas would insist that the vision of God is wholly in the future (Kirk [abridged], 157) whereas Paul would want to emphasize that it is something which in some senses has already occurred (1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 4:6).

[5] Even the term “face” is ambiguous, for in both Greek (pros) and in Hebrew (pen), this word can also mean “presence.”

[6] Kirk (abridged), 156.

[7] Hence John Milbank’s criticism of MacIntrye:

[8] Kirk (unabridged), ix – x.

[9] Kirk (unabridged), 37.

[10] Kirk (unabridged), 17-18.

[11] Hauerwas and Pinches, 13.

[12] Ibid.