Il n’y a pas de hors-texte – No, this isn’t a French version of Sola Scriptura. Or is it? Maybe Sola Scripturis (plural from the Latin ablative)?
Leadership. Especially leadership in global context(s) is an undertaking fraught with complexity and it promises pitfalls to all who enter the process (great learning and joys too, but I’ll leave that for the moment for another time).
Yet, the setbacks need not happen as often as might have been and the dilemmas need not be as life and earth-shattering as they might have been each time they happen (though at times they still might well be fairly daunting) with recognition of some background schemas and understandings.
Setting the stage with awareness for a variety of contexts is what Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener are fully about discussing in their text, The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context.
Nullens and Michener take readers through a broad (arguably, vast) overview of philosophical/theological ethical inquiry spanning the ages. I happen to really like this kind of stuff, but for people who don’t…there’s good news. First, they really deliver a ton of information reasonably succinctly in 244 pages. Considering the amount of concepts they cover, 244 pages is ironically, but truly, on the slim side. Second, they break conceptualizations down into really manageable categories; for example: premodern, modern, and postmodern. If you believe that you’ll have trouble remembering some categories like the ones just listed above, now is a rational time to begin to exhibit some concern J (I’m actually only half-kidding).
Being a person who values persons as a primary principle (note: this is not meant to suggest a complete and/or wanton disregard of other ethical considerations) and one who seeks to follow Christ in our current era, I find myself highly resonating with the approach of the text. I understand the authors as having both maintained a “high regard for the Biblical text” (of course this phrase needs to be clarified as many understand it differently – I’m leaving you to read the text for a full sense of the authors perspective on this) and also recognized the inherent need for hermeneutic/interpretive application.
I appreciate texts that both offer an overview, but also tip the authors’ proverbial hat(s) as to their orientation. I find this honest and helpful. We all hail from various places and positions. Such hailing allows us to enter conversations from a nuanced vantage, add something particular in the midst of rescribing the general and, therefore, better contribute to conversation overall. In this case, as I read it, the authors of this text lean toward a postmodern (as they define it) appropriation of ethical inquiry and toward a Personalism/Value Ethics orientation stemming from a Theocentric worldview. However, the previous noted, the authors expend significant effort to note that they recognize the overlapping and participatory aspects of all of the orientations about which they write. Essentially, they suggest that in all of the approaches offered there is a difference in emphasis rather than a dramatic difference in kind. For instance, while they might affirm the Value Ethics approach, they also recognize the ‘progressional’ (yep, I like the combination of progress, process, processional, progressive here) tendencies from values to character to duties to consequences – a sequence comprising four classic methodological approaches in ethics.
Something I particularly appreciated encountering in this text and that has been a significant piece of my ethical/theological formation over the past almost two decades is discussion of Jacques Derrida’s work related to deconstruction and interaction with many of those who also engaged with Derrida on this subject matter. Some of the related figures who either influenced Derrida, were influenced by him, or for whom the influence was reciprocal to certain extents that are mentioned in this text include: John Caputo, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Zygmunt Bauman, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heiddeger, Soren Kierkegaard, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, James K.A. Smith, Karl Marx, Franz Rosenzweig, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others.
Of course, it should be noted that listing all of these rather well-known figures in this way of starting out with the lens of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction situates them in a particular way within a particular discourse when of course they may well be taken many other ways as well. Really, in a nutshell, this is a significant overall point of The Matrix of Christian Ethics text we are considering. As we go about doing and thinking ethics we are situated beings and cannot rise outside of such situatedness – as Derrida renders such an understanding, Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. We can move from one perspective of situatedness to another, but we can never remove ourselves from such constraints. The text suggests what it considers healthier and unhealthier ways in which to grapple with this situatedness and to live more ethically in the midst of the ambiguities of our non-foundational understanding, but our authors share the recognition of situated finitude.
For me, the discussion of ethics as relayed through the understanding of deconstruction – a process well aware of its situated finitude – allows for a justly engaged ethics. It is a humble ethics that recognizes the plurality of interpretive possibilities and yet, in its listening for multiple possibilities actually takes the person who is sharing into consideration to far greater extent than an ethics smug in its own knowledge which listens with only half an ear; just enough to figure out into which known legal principle or cultural norm it can pigeon-hole the conversation.
However, Derrida’s work is not about relativism at its core (as some maintain), but instead about freeing people from the tyranny, the oppression of non-personalized, rigid, structural objectification. As the authors share about Derrida and deconstruction,
Interpretation is an inevitable part of being human. Everything we encounter inescapably demands interpretation. In saying this, however, he [Derrida] was not denying truth, reality, or the possibility of good or bad interpretations. Derrida’s deconstruction was not about free-for-all-relativism for interpretations and denial of reality. Instead, it was affirming the ubiquity of interpretation. All human understanding is filtered through interpretive schemes, biases, cultures and backgrounds. Deconstruction seeks to bring these issues to light, to help recognize the latent prejudices causing the suppression of ideas and, often, the oppression of people and the prevention of justice.
So, ethics. Should we have and practice them? Yes. Is it an area that is contestable, will be and should be contested? Yes. Is that healthy? Yes. Are there better and worse processes/ways to go about all of this? Yes. What are some of these processes/ways? Read the book.
 Patrick Nullens and Ronald T. Michener, The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Publishing, 2010), 37-45, 55-56, 61-64.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 43.
2 responses to “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte – No, this isn’t a French version of Sola Scriptura. Or is it? Maybe Sola Scripturis (plural from the Latin ablative)?”
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Thanks for your post. Personally, I liked your post better than I liked the book since I am not as fond of this kind of reading as you are.
You say, “All human understanding is filtered through interpretive schemes, biases, cultures and backgrounds.” I so agree. Probably everyone I know would agree with this statement. And that itself is a problem with modern humanity’s interpretation of “doing ethics.” Why should they do it? If it’s right in my mind I do it; if it’s not I don’t. Doing ethics takes a big person, one who is willing to separate himself or herself from the prejudices held so strongly within. To do right is a big deal. But it is best done by those who are willing to think objectively and openly.
As always, thanks for making me think, Clint.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this.
As I think you know, I so appreciate your overall approach of engaging others with compassion and integrity.
I also believe that I mostly understand and concur with what you offer here.
However, let me offer a bit of further thought that might be conceptually helpful.
First, I don’t think it solely comes down to a “individualist” decision-making process. For me, we are Beings-in-Community. So, there is always a dialectic at play between our “Self” and that which surrounds us. I don’t think that we get complete autonomy to do whatever we want whenever we want without consequences. So, yes, to some extent, to your above statement of “If it’s right in my mind I do it; if it’s not I don’t,” but for me to a much greater extent, there are networks of communality always at play that never allow the individualist position to be a “pure” position. For instance, even considering the bare minimal sense that we “learn” communal orientation before we actually have volitional consciousness to “make” a decision one way or the other quickly leads us to recognizing the illusory nature of our “individuality.”
So, I think that we have tend to have communities of understanding more so than we tend to have individualized understandings even though we tend to emphasize personal volition/thinking. Thinking is typically far more constrained that we tend to suggest. The colloquial, we all want to be “different in the same manner” and the like.
I also think the consciousness of the subjectivism of community can lead to practices of humility when it is paired with the awareness of not just one’s own community (the singular tends to lead to the inordinate prejudices you note), but communities plural (of course, “fear” is psychological factor that still needs to be navigated).
Overall, I don’t think “objectively” and “openly” pair well together. At least from a largely significant perspective, if one thinks that one is thinking “objectively” then one can — far too quickly and detrimentally to my liking — think one is right/correct over-and-against. This position leads to a lack of listening and empathy and a general “objectifying” rather than personalizing of persons. It makes it a lot easier to hold positions rather than seek to embody principles that are enacted differently based on variation in context. I find that “openness” fits well with the sense of finitude and mystery that comes with and understanding of personal subjectivism that is based in a larger communit(y/ies)-based subjectivism.
Okay…I’m writing this quickly and there are certainly lots of nuances left out, but I believe this offers a reasonable representation of some of my thinking on this.
Again, thanks for a response here. 🙂