"Fritz Oehlschlaeger’s postliberal approach offers a potential way beyond the impasse of the bifurcation of conservative and liberal in the cultural wars of contemporary literary criticism without asking participants to relinquish their deeply held ethical convictions."—Brian D. Ingraffia, author of Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology: Vanquishing God’s Shadow
Love and Good Reasons: Postliberal Approaches to Christian Ethics and Literatureby Fritz Oehlschlaeger
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Insisting on the vital, productive relationship between ethics and the study of literature, Love and Good Reasons demonstrates ways of reading novels and stories from a Christian perspective. Fritz Oehlschlaeger argues for the study of literature as a training ground for the kinds of thinking on which moral reasoning depends. He challenges methods of doing ethics that attempt to specify universally binding principles or rules and argues for the need to bring literature back into conversation with the most basic questions about how we should live.
Love and Good Reasons combines postliberal narrative theology—especially Stanley Hauerwas’s Christian ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre’s idea of traditional inquiry—with recent scholarship in literature and ethics including the work of Martha Nussbaum, J. Hillis Miller, Wayne Booth, Jeffrey Stout, and Richard Rorty. Oehlschlaeger offers detailed readings of literature by five major authors—Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, and Stephen Crane. He examines their works in light of biblical scripture and the grand narratives of Israel, Jesus, and the Church. Discussing the role of religion in contemporary higher education, Oehlschlaeger shares his own experiences of teaching literature from a religious perspective at a state university.
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Love and good reasonsPostliberal approaches to Christian ethics and literature
By Fritz Oehlschlaeger
Duke University Press
Chapter OneLITERARY CRITICISM AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS IN SERVICE TO ONE ANOTHER
The recent critique of liberal ethics, whether Kantian or utilitarian, has come from a variety of voices and viewpoints. After suggesting the chaotic and fragmented quality of contemporary moral language, Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that there can be no tradition-free account of practical rationality. Judgments about what is just or rational must take place within traditions dependent on narratives about the good life for human beings. Stanley Fish has claimed that references to "the realm of the ethical in general" are merely efforts to "pass off" some particular and "contestable set of values." "The ethicists are not the ethicists," according to Fish, if that word is used to denominate a group of experts operating in a value-free way to solve, as if by special technical competence, dilemmas that are beyond the rest of us. Rather, they are the "purveyors of a particular moral vision" that must make its way against competing moral visions.
Bernard Williams has emphasized the way demands for objectivity in moral deliberation cause agents to adopt a "mid-air stance" that alienates them from their projects and commitments. Divorced from what they care about, agents have difficulty answering the questionWhy be moral?-for to do so seems to depend on our having particular cares and commitments. Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out the problems inherent in picturing the moral life primarily as a matter of confronting quandaries or hard choices as if from the standpoint of anyone. Such an account of ethics severs our moral choices from our character, diminishes the importance of the virtues, and overlooks the way vision determines the kinds of quandaries we confront.
Several works of the past decade on ethics and literature, or the virtues in academic life, attempt to redress the separation of morality from the rest of life promoted by liberal ethics. At the forefront of this work are Martha Nussbaum's interdisciplinary studies of literature and philosophy, with their foregrounding of the Aristotelian "starting point," "How should one live?" Wayne Booth has similarly turned to Aristotle, specifically to the virtue of friendship, to work out an ethics of fiction. Historian Mark Schwehn has advocated the importance of the virtues for academic work, suggesting that the character of scholarship is, or ought to be, related to the character of the scholar. J. Hillis Miller has taken a somewhat different tack in proposing an ethics of reading that insists literature includes within it an "ethical moment" resistant to technique. Miller's work stands in ambiguous relationship to the liberalism of Kant, whose notion of respect Miller seems to want to preserve while simultaneously undermining the value of Kant's narrative exemplifications of the law.
The works of Schwehn, Booth, Miller, and Nussbaum offer important insights to one seeking ways to think about literature and ethics in relation to one another. I turn momentarily to examining the proposals of each, suggesting both their strengths and the ways a Christian ethics of literature will differ. Following my engagement with these theorists, I offer an exposition of Hauerwas's understanding of Christian ethics, showing how it specifically informs the larger arguments of this study. The penultimate section of the chapter suggests how the specific literary-ethical studies of the following chapters contribute to the overall conception. In the final section, I suggest the way literary study might flourish within MacIntyre's "university of constrained disagreement," and, at the same time, I acknowledge the reservations of theologian John Milbank about MacIntyre's paradigm of the virtues.
Mark Schwehn makes the case for virtue in academia in Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. Schwehn traces the academic calling, as understood in American research universities, to Max Weber. For Weber, the academic life required Puritan asceticism and renunciation even though the academic pursued his calling in a rationalized, secular world. Pursuing his "impersonal and solitary undertaking," the Weberian scholar "wait[ed] alone, in disciplined attention, for the chance infusion of mundane grace that would lead him to a temporary salvation through his making a correct conjecture in his manuscript." Noting the turn to interpretive communities and the communal epistemologies of antifoundationalism, Schwehn calls for a changed conception of the academic vocation, one that would emphasize the virtues-specifically humility, charity, faith, and gratitude-and simultaneously move teaching to the center of the academic calling. There is much to commend in Schwehn's argument. An infusion of these virtues into contemporary academics would likely promote a more communal, less competitive approach to disciplinary knowledge. Placing teaching at the center of the academic's life would diminish the isolation of the scholar, giving him or her an increased sense of the life and values of communities larger than the university. That kind of change ought, in turn, to change the nature of research, making it less specialized, more available to wider publics.
Schwehn writes as a Christian but wants to make his case for humility, charity, faith, and gratitude without reference to theological warrants. He acknowledges that there is a "historical connection between religious beliefs and these virtues," and he insists on "an epistemological connection between the exercise of these virtues and the communal quest for knowledge and truth." He vigorously insists, however, on "nowhere argu[ing] that there is some sort of absolute and necessary connection between religious belief and the virtues of humility, faith, self-sacrifice, and charity" (53). Obviously, Schwehn does not want to be in the position of arguing that only professing theists can be humble, self-sacrificial, or charitable. He repeatedly uses the work of the "pious and genuinely virtuous secularist" Jeffrey Stout to illustrate the virtues he commends in those without theistic convictions. Schwehn's use of Stout, however, is a bit curious, as he quotes Stout to the effect that his secular piety is "analogous to and even ... indebted to a central theme from the Reformed tradition." Moreover, Schwehn invokes an argument that is a favorite of cultural conservatives: that liberal secular culture lives off a moral inheritance from the past that it simultaneously undermines. He worries that "our present-day academies as well as many academicians like Jeffrey Stout might be living off a kind of borrowed fund of moral capital," a fund they may not be able either to "replenish" or "transmit" to the next generation (53).
Schwehn seems a bit condescending in his need to argue that professed nontheists can be "genuinely virtuous." Of course there are humble, sacrificing, charitable nontheists. A more productive line of inquiry might work out the ways theists and nontheists understand these virtues. One might also ask whether these virtues are indeed vital to scholarship in academic communities of discourse and whether some accounts of truth are more likely than others to foster them. To further discussion along these lines, let me take up the conversation with Schwehn on two virtues in particular: humility and charity.
Schwehn's fullest account of humility does not avoid invoking theological warrants. He argues that what frequently passes for lack of motivation among today's students "really involves a lack of humility, stemming in part from a lack of piety or respect for that aspect of God's ongoing creation that manifests itself in works of genius" (48). He cites an example of his students' unwillingness to do the cognitive work to understand Augustine's discussion of friendship and loss, confesses that no doubt part of the failing is his own, but insists that the problem stems also from a lack of student humility, the kind of humility that would lead to "the presumption of wisdom and authority in the author"-any author, Kant, Aristotle, and Tolstoy as well as Augustine (48). Schwehn has nicely posed the problem of student dismissiveness here, but it cannot be addressed by simply urging the "practice of humility" (49). We must notice the way Schwehn's theological understanding of Creation underwrites the "presumption" of authority in his classic writers. God's creation is "ongoing" and "manifest[ing] itself" in the works of these geniuses, each of whom discovers some aspect of a truth available to all.
Now, for contrast, consider Richard Rorty's urging students "to see moral progress as a history of making rather than finding, of poetic achievement by 'radically situated' individuals and communities, rather than as the gradual unveiling, through the use of 'reason,' of 'principles' or 'rights' or 'values.'" If moral progress or truth is understood to be a social construction, the product of relatively local acts of making by radically situated individuals, then why should the student bother to work through the nuances of Augustine's discussion of friendship and loss? Rorty's description undercuts any sense that Augustine and the student are engaged in a continuous process of discovery about the most important matters. Moreover, it seems to me that Rorty's pragmatic understanding of truth is much less likely to foster humility than one that insists the truth to be "something other and something more than warranted assertibility." Individuals constructing reality, making moral progress, and articulating truth seem less likely to develop humility than those who think of themselves as seeking, discovering, and learning to love the truth. As Josef Pieper says of Thomas Aquinas's sense of humility, "The ground of humility is man's estimation of himself according to truth. And that is almost all there is to it." The way to overcome the Christian student's dismissiveness of Augustine is to reaffirm the community between the student and the saint. The source of the presumed authority Schwehn wants the student to grant Augustine lies in their sharing commitment to the same central Truth and the Church's acknowledgment and validation of Augustine's teaching. I suggest a shift in the nature of the question implicitly raised, though not directly addressed, by Schwehn. Rather than pondering how to encourage students and academics to practice the virtues, we ought to think about changing the nature of learning communities in ways that will foster the virtues. One thing this means is bringing Christian students and instructors together more intentionally as seekers after a proper "estimation" of themselves "according to truth."
What's at stake for literary interpretation in the cultivation of the virtues and reformation of communities might be seen by contrasting my account of the way a Christian student would read Augustine with a comment of Annette Kolodny's on reading the classics: "The only 'perennial feature' to which our ability to read and reread texts written in previous centuries testifies is our inventiveness-in the sense that all of literary history is a fiction which we daily re-create as we reread it." It is not my purpose to lament the diminishing cultural status of the classics. Attempts to restore teaching of the classics without the reformation of learning communities seem to me largely wrongheaded. Neither do I think that any such teaching will suddenly result in the quotient of civic virtue needed by a society of ordered liberty. But I do insist that there is a "perennial feature," for Christians, to Augustine's treatment of friendship and loss. Readers of Book 4 of the Confessions will remember how the mourning Augustine feels that the loss of his friend leaves him "with only half a soul" and how he comes to dread death himself because his own death would mean the abandonment of his friend to utter extinction: "I felt that our two souls had been as one, living in two bodies, and life to me was fearful because I did not want to live with only half a soul. Perhaps this, too, is why I shrank from death, for fear that one whom I had loved so well might then be wholly dead." Eventually, Augustine comes to see this grief itself as a type of prideful unfaith, and he moves toward the recognition that he must love the lost friend, and other friends, in God. Now, I did not "invent" this interpretation of Augustine: I recognize the pattern in Book 4, in part because it is like the movement of Augustine's thought in many places and, in part, because I recognize in his experience something that describes my own. Augustine's recognitions and mine derive from our shared faith in the Trinitarian God, Whose revelation in the history of Israel, Jesus, and the Church has given us the very language, the descriptive skills, with which we understand ourselves and make sense of our experience.
Kolodny's and my sense of what we are doing when we read differs because of the kinds of communities in which we find ourselves. Kolodny's understanding of interpretation is that of the autonomous self inventing itself from moment to moment by inventing different versions of a past that point toward a culmination in the present. The Christian, on the other hand, understands himself or herself as a creature formed and sustained by God and as a participant in a living historical community, whose linguistic resources give him or her the ability to understand what it means to be a "self." The Christian looks toward the culmination of history in God's definitive future while at the same time knowing that an anticipation of that future has already been given in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. History does not point to the individual Christian but to the Kingdom, a foretaste of which is manifest in Jesus. For Kolodny, when we read, "we appropriate meaning from a text according to what we need (or desire), or in other words, according to the critical assumptions or predispositions (conscious or not) that we bring to it" (280). I'm not sure that "critical assumptions or predispositions," presumably the learned behaviors of a disciplinary community, are quite the same as "what we need (or desire)." But Christians-and Kantians as well-will be troubled by the suggestion that we "appropriate meaning" according to our wishes and desires. To Kantians this will suggest violating the categorical imperative, using the author as a means rather than an end in himself or herself. Constructing a literary history to account for oneself will seem, to the Christian, like an attempt at self-justification, the process from which one has been freed by God's justification in Christ. Christians will be moved to "appropriate" meanings from literary or historical texts in accord with their "needs or desires," but their training in the dispossession of self and respect for the other ought to act as checks on this interpretive sinfulness. When Christian interpreters are tempted to construe a text in a self-justifying way, they should be restrained from doing so by fundamental notions, and disciplined habits, of fidelity, justice, and charity. In short, any account of an interpretive community should also include an account of the virtues it fosters-for the virtues it fosters are surely relevant to the interpretations it will produce.
Excerpted from Love and good reasons by Fritz Oehlschlaeger Excerpted by permission.
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Fritz Oehlschlaeger is Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is coeditor of Toward the Making of Thoreau’s Modern Reputation, coauthor of Articulating the Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick and His Interpreters, and editor of Old Southwest Humor from the Saint Louis Reveille, 1844–1850.
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