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Sweeney’s Booknotes: A Pastoral-Theological Perspective on Edwards and Virtue

Phil C. Zylla, Virtue as Consent to Being: A Pastoral-Theological Perspective on Jonathan Edwards’s Construct of Virtue, McMaster Ministry Studies Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011)

This unusual, creative, and thought-provoking book represents a fine effort in pastoral theology. It will prove to be most helpful to unusually thoughtful clergy who are working in the trenches (but will go above the heads of most others in the parish). It “seeks to modify and advance Jonathan Edwards’s concept of virtue as ‘consent to being’ by offering the pastoral theological notion of virtue as a relational dynamic of ‘suffering with’” (p. 1). After offering reflections on Edwards’ pastoral life and work (chapter one), surveying Edwards’ ethics (chapter two), and discussing what the author calls “the language of moral vision” (chapter three), Zylla constructs a proposal regarding the use of Edwards’ ethics in pastoral care.

Zylla begins, though, with a commendation of “virtue ethics” to readers, who are more accustomed today to “divine command” morality, the duty-based ethics of Kant’s more secular but pietistic ethical imperatives (“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,” to quote his famous categorical imperative), and the consequentialist reasoning of pragmatic, utilitarian, and scientific ethics. Virtue ethics, by contrast, emphasizes the importance of building character in community and, in Christian virtue ethics, making choices that are consonant with God’s design for robust human flourishing. Edwards himself defined “true virtue” in his Nature of True Virtue (1765) as “benevolence to Being in general. Or perhaps to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, that is immediately exercised in a general good will.” Being in general, he explained, is both God (the highest Being) as well as the whole system of being God created for God’s glory. A truly virtuous individual is one who lives for that glory, according to God’s design. Most others exhibit benevolence to members of their family, to those they find attractive and to those with something to give them. But the truly virtuous person exhibits good will to all. She loves others in the service of God and the world.

Zylla finds much to recommend in Edwards’ moral thought. He argues (correctly) that Edwards failed to flesh it out consistently. He was withdrawn and legalistic at times, despite his own teaching. He devoted little attention to the suffering of his people. Nonetheless, Zylla builds upon the virtue theory of Edwards, drawing out its implications for “a more dynamic conception of virtue for pastoral theology,” one that is “expanded to include the experience of suffering and the pastoral response of compassion” (p. 2). Emphasizing the significance of suffering with one’s people–much as Christ, the good shepherd, laid His life down for His sheep—and stressing the usefulness of story, parable, poetry, and lament in demonstrating vulnerability and, further, solidarity with the weaknesses of others, he develops an Edwardsean virtue ethics of pastoral care that will challenge even those who disagree with its details. “Moral vision,” he concludes, “is finally the capacity to enter into the suffering of others with the radical protest of hope. . . . Can there be any greater or deeper consent to being than this? . . . Somehow, in the mystery of God’s active presence in a broken world, a shepherd dares to embrace the suffering of another in a willed act of solidarity that witnesses to an unshakeable hope in God. This is consent to being, the very epitome—and depth—of virtue” (p. 128).

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS