Eye Glasses

Virtue, Anglican Style (Part 5)

By Fr. Matt Boulter

In showing that worship is humanity’s true end, two voices which Kirk enlists are those of Psalm 24 (“Those with clean hands and a pure heart … will seek the face of the God of Jacob”) and Psalm 27 (“One thing have I asked of the LORD, and that will I seek: to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple”). These two ancient Hebrew poems, separated by only a few strophai in the Hebrew Bible, are among the most provocative of all the voices Kirk brings to bear upon this issue of worship as both (or neither) the way to our ultimate telos and part and (or nor) parcel of that same telos. Consider Psalm 27, which conflates worship and the experience of beholding God, as if they are the same thing. Indeed these two things, says the Psalmist, are the “one thing” that he seeks. Worship and the vision of God are bound up in unity. And yet, worship is also a preparation for that “one thing:” worship purifies us (cf Isa 6,where Isaiah is penitentially “purified” by a burning coal from God’s altar) such that we are able to worship and to see God, as implied in Psalm 24. Kirk therefore shows that worship is not just (wo)man’s ultimate end but also our way of preparation unto that end.

“the mind, unless it is pure and holy, cannot see God.”

In other words, “they will see God,” indeed. But who is “they?” Only the pure in heart, says Jesus in Matthew 5 and the tradition which follows his lead. There thus develops in the tradition, an emphasis on the pre-theoretical preparation for such a vision. The entire (neo)Platonic tradition, of course, heavily emphasizes such preparation, often in the form of purification, an emphasis nicely summarized by Seneca’s[1] dictum that “the mind, unless it is pure and holy, cannot see God.”[2]

Kirk receives this emphasis on preparation for the divine vision and reads (Christian) worship as its fulfillment, for such purity must involve first and foremost a sense of disinterestedness, which “Christian ethics must advocate.”[3] “Worship [alone],” Kirk argues, “lifts the soul out of preoccupation with self and its activities, and centers its aspirations entirely upon God.”[4]

“Worship [alone],” Kirk argues, “lifts the soul out of preoccupation with self and its activities, and centers its aspirations entirely upon God.”

Where, then, Kirk invites us to ask, is the place for service and self-discipline? By showing that “both of these are antecedents and the consequences of worship” Kirk argues for an approach to ethics which does in fact begin and end with worship but is fruitful for the life of the world:

When once it is recognized that worship is the key to disinterestedness, the effort to conform to codes and standards falls into its proper place. it is, on the one hand, an effort which the worshipping soul finds itself compelled to undertake, so that its worship may flow more freely; on the other, an invariable outcome of all true worship, insofar as it the latter invariably strives to render its environment more harmonious with the Idea of which it has caught glimpses.[5]

Here we see that for Kirk, ethics begins with worship and ends with worship (of God, finally in the beatific vision). However, the value of this approach for (what I think of as) “the streets of the real world,” consistent with the best of the virtue tradition of Christian moral philosophy, is that worship (together with the worshipping community) is a “glimpse” (to borrow Kirk’s own term) or an icon of the world’s true nature, reality, design, and goal.

            This actually underscores, and does not diminish, the importance of service and self-discipline, for Christian practices such as alms-giving, fasting, meditation, and service to neighbor flow in and out of worship – concretely in the Eucharist – as its “wings.”[6] Worship is a means to our final end, as are (and for that reason) Christian self-discipline and service.[7]

We have considered, as two modern advocates of what can be thought of as a deeply traditional (though not without real critique and certain innovations) moral tradition of virtue. I would like to suggest in closing, however, that without Kirk, MacIntyre would be incomplete. For as John Milbank has argued,[8] MacIntyre’s articulation of the tradition, despite all its philosophic erudition, despite all its historical context, despite all its grasp of the real issues, is at the end of the day, insufficient in its affirmation of real, concrete content.[9]

What is the concrete content of moral thought, to which the tradition of virtue, from Homer to the present, in its best and truest moments, has pointed (even if at times obscurely)? Surely it is, as Kirk argues, that man’s moral life begins, ends, and flows forth, from the worship of God, who will be seen by the pure in heart.

Join Fr. Matt Boulter next Thursday for a new essay.


[1] Note that Seneca is roughly contemporary with Christ.

[2] Kirk (abridged), 36.

[3] Kirk (unabridged), xii.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kirk (unabridged), xiii.

[6] I am building here on a class lecture given by Nathan Jennings, in which he said that fasting & almsgiving are, in the context of Christian monasticism, the wings of prayer.

[7] Kirk insightfully notes that when the early monks made prayer the primary activity of the Christian life, “Christian ethics took a divergent road from that of moralism pure and simple…. The self-forgetfulness of prayer (and action can also be self-forgetful but its object is always lower than God, the ‘object’ of prayer) is sustained “by the thought of God – the most enduring, most inexhaustible, thought of which the mind is capable.” Kirk (abridged), 92.

[8] Milbank, John. Theology and Secular Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 327ff.

[9] I am speaking here of After Virtue and to some extent Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P., 1990). On his subsequent work I am not commenting.