Symposium Introduction

In Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation, Sarah Stewart-Kroeker devotes herself to following a single term, an image, throughout Augustine’s body of work. Peregrinatio encompasses “at once a journey to the homeland (a “pilgrimage”) and the condition of exile from the homeland” (1). It indicates “a journey, a sojourn,” and peregrini “are travelers, wanderers, resident aliens, foreigners, non-citizens” (11). And, most importantly for Stewart-Kroeker, “peregrinatio is…an image of the believer’s wandering in the world and journey to God” (14). As Stewart-Kroeker reads Augustine, she brings us a bishop and rhetorician who focalizes the long process of self- and communal formation that occurs through the mediation of the incarnate Christ who is both way and homeland.

Stewart-Kroeker’s exploration has a distinctively existential element that is, quite fittingly, captured in the epigraphs to the introduction and conclusion, both taken from Woody Guthrie’s catalogue: “I ain’t got no home in this world anymore” (1) and “And I’m a little butterfly one day old” (245).  The first full sentence of this volume, then, is a first-person singular claim about an experience of disjunction in both place and time – home is not got in this world, home is not got anymore. While the lyrics are grammatically in the first-person singular, their meaning inherently is not; we are meant to sing these lines, take them in as our own. They are lines that can be – and are — sung with many voices, in many different worlds and times, with a depth of truth and familiarity and newness. In these simple lines Stewart-Kroeker gives the reader a subtle indication of her poetic approach as she spins out a deeply attentive and analytical reading of soteriology, eschatology, moral psychology, theological aesthetics, ecclesiology and Christology in Augustine’s theological and pastoral reliance on image of peregrinatio.

At the beginning, Stewart-Kroeker tells the reader the end of her analysis:

The state of directionless wandering in which all human beings find themselves as a result of sin must shift to a purposive spiritual journey home, even as the earthly peregrinatio ends only in the eschaton (17).

She proceeds, in the first chapter, to explore Augustine’s reception of the Platonists, in particular, Plotinus. Through his study of the Platonists, Augustine comprehends that way and end are one. Yet, he concludes that the way and end that are one is the incarnate Christ. In the second chapter, she explores the human need of Christ as mediator within Augustine’s theology. Augustine’s discussion of Christ as both the way and the homeland is responsive to the significance of the Roman imperial road system that revolutionized travel. For Stewart-Kroeker, by describing Christ as a royal road, Augustine “draws on and subverts the association with imperial power” while also indicating that his way is “straight, protected, well maintained” (68). As both the way and the destination, Christ’s humanity and divinity reveal that “healing is embodied both on earth and in heaven” (69). To guide people on the path of and to healing, Christ humbly offers himself in the role of beautiful beloved.

Stewart-Kroeker turns our attention in chapter three to the cultivation of love and knowledge through “the purifying journey of moral formation in a human life [that] begins with attraction to beauty” (83). The journey is learning to rightly order one’s love; through following one’s longing and desire along the way of Christ, the believer is continuously refashioned. To open oneself to healing on such a journey requires trust, hope, and a willingness to tell the truth about oneself and God in confession (111). The humility required for truth telling is part of what humans find so beautiful in Christ. This inevitably requires risk, as Stewart-Kroeker discusses in chapter four. She engages the work of Alexander Nehemas, Elaine Scarry, and Iris Murdoch to discuss how the necessity of loving Christ for our own healing does not necessarily give way to tyranny and how the particular loves that are refashioned on our journey are distinctively shaped in each person’s distinctive relationships. By walking this way, humans learn how to use their own love of beauty in order to embrace goodness and truth in Christ.

Such a task cannot be undertaken alone. The fifth and sixth chapters focus on life in community – that is, in the church and then within a widening circle of recognition of our neighbors. The way of Christ is not only the mediator Christ but also Christ’s body, the church, in which participation in the sacraments shape pilgrims’ loves and experience of being loved. In turn, they draw nourishment, then, for loving neighbors with ever-increasing dexterity, neither instrumentalizing nor idolizing the neighbor.

Central to Stewart-Kroeker’s argument – and to this symposium — is her reconsideration of the terms usus (use) and fruitio (enjoyment) in Augustine’s moral framework. As our eternal home, only God might be said to be enjoyed. Use, meanwhile, is the relation one is to maintain with all created, temporal things. Usus and fruitio are often enlisted in contrast to one another in scholarship on Augustine’s theology. Stewart-Kroeker brilliantly resolves this tension by turning to Augustine’s Christology: “Christ as the ontological mediator bridges the divide between temporal mortal creature and eternal incorporeal Creator” and so allows an understanding of love that “encompasses the earthly realities of who human beings are as selves, neighbors, believers – that is, as pilgrims” (239). In a weary world, pilgrims undertake a journey together that transforms one self and one another as fellow travelers along the way that is humanity’s shared home together in Christ.

The volume is an achievement of academic, pastoral, and poetic acumen. In this symposium four wayfarers engage with different aspects of Stewart-Kroeker’s achievements in Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought: Jane Barter, Jennifer Herdt, Toni Alimi, and Joshua Nunziato.

Barter delves into the complex concept of the Beloved, drawing on Woody Guthrie’s traveling songs and Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on community to ask whether the neighbor can, after all, be loved precisely in, not in spite of, contingency and imperfection. Herdt focuses on Stewart-Kroeker’s approach to the usus/fruitio distinction to explore the relation between sacrifice, desctruction, and healing on the pilgrim’s journey to happiness. Alimi presses for more insight on how beauty might create a community of lovers without requiring universal assent regarding what is beautiful or desirable, and so give way to tyranny. Nunziato explores the element of time – and human maturation and growth across time – to better understand just how it could be that the way and the destination can be one and the same in Christ. How can humans ever come to comprehend such a claim?

Jane Barter


Pilgrimage and Self-Renunciation

Sarah Stewart-Kroeker’s book, Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought, is a reworking of her doctoral dissertation, but don’t let this fact fool you—this is a work of scholarly maturity and depth that one would ordinarily expect from a senior scholar. This book represents the sustained pursuit of a novel theme that helps to interpret the substantial oeuvre of Augustine. What is exactly right about this book is its ability to pursue a thesis without staking too aggressive and overdetermined a claim. Instead, Stewart-Kroeker offers a heuristic for reading through a vast range of Augustine’s corpus. Noting the abiding trope of pilgrimage (peregrinatio) as the dominant metaphor for the Christian life throughout Augustine’s work, Stewart-Kroeker avers that this metaphor helps us to think through the moral and aesthetic formation of the human creature. Thus, Stewart-Kroeker does not set out to systematize the way in which the peregrinatio imagery functions throughout Augustine’s writings; rather, she uses the peregrinatio image “to look at a particular set of interconnections central to the image but by no means exhaustive of its range: how pilgrims are formed morally and aesthetically in Christ for love of God and neighbor” (5). This book does more than offer a new reading of Augustine; it also makes a case for Augustine’s conception of peregrinatio as an abidingly helpful view for Christian moral and aesthetic formation today. In this review, I wish to focus on this latter claim and offer a few words of critical caution about using Augustine as our guide toward a reclaimed aesthetic and moral theology.

The heuristic use of peregrinatio—with its emphasis on moral and aesthetic formation—enables Stewart-Kroeker to examine other themes most fruitfully; namely, the role of Christ in moral formation, the relationship between the Good and the Beautiful, and the role of the church and sacraments in communicating Christ’s goodness and beauty. Seen through the lens of pilgrimage, Stewart-Kroeker is able to contextualize Christian conceptions of the Good and the Beautiful as ever partial in this world, but yet no less real and compelling. Stewart-Kroeker begins the book with an examination of the points of contact and departure between Augustine’s and Platonist—specifically Plotinian—perspectives on pilgrimage. As Augustine’s thought develops, he comes to see Christ as both the way (uia) and end (patria) of the Christian’s pilgrimage. Whereas the Platonists held only a shadowy vision of the homeland, Christians according to Augustine are provided a full view on account of the incarnation. The incarnation represents not merely a moral vision, but a guide along the way as Christ mediates the human’s pilgrimage.

The remainder of the book examines the distinctiveness of the Christian moral vision and the means by which this vision is realized. Christ mediates on behalf of the pilgrim by taking fallen humanity up into himself. Thus Christ heals humanity by “applying both similarity (temporal, incarnate humanity) and dissimilarity (eternal, divine sinlessness) to create the interlock between humanity and God” (80). This relationship between Christ and the creature is a highly intimate one. Goaded by the love of beauty, which is preveniently instilled in the soul by God, the Christian is drawn ever further into love of Christ. The elect are the ones who can perceive Christ’s beauty rightly: not stumbling upon the cross, but seeing it as it truly is, as the path to eternal beatitude. Perceiving the beloved aright, the Christian pilgrim is moved to love the one that the world has condemned. Thus drawn further into the desire for Christ, the Christian comes to perceive love through the tutelage of Christ’s own humility. No longer drawn to the arrogant or the proud, the lover meets in the humbled and humiliated one the true perception of the Beautiful and thus begins not only their aesthetic reformation, but their moral one as well.

The recognition of humility as the destination and modality of love requires not only a change in perception of the Beloved, but also of the self. The self longs to be humble as its Beloved is humble. The reorientation of perceptions of the beautiful from pride to humility has profound implications for the human creature’s self-regard. No longer fixated upon the defense of the self, the Christian is now enjoined to humiliate the self’s former sinful desires. By ordering the soul in harmony with the new aesthetic given in Jesus Christ, the Christian abjures the self in order to further identify with the beauty of the Beloved. Stewart-Kroeker identifies a key passage in Augustine:

But our soul, my brothers, is hideous because of iniquity; by loving God it is made beautiful. What kind of love is it that makes beautiful the [lover]? Now God is always beautiful, never misshapen, never changeable. He loved us first who is always beautiful. And what kind of person did he love except the hideous and misshapen to make [us] beautiful? How shall we be beautiful? By loving him who is always beautiful . . . (Tractate on the First Epistle of John, cited p. 103, emphasis mine)

The recognition of one’s hideous and misshapen nature is the natural extension of the desire that is ignited by the Beloved, but this also raises critical questions. Why does the igniting of desire by the beauty of Christ spur the disavowal of the self? Why is humility conceived of as a perception of the self as hideous and misshapen? Could not desire equally ignite a love of the self and of its own creaturely beauty?

Although this is not a work of positive theology per se, the author is staking a bold theological claim in her defense of Augustine. As Stewart-Kroeker beautifully concludes:

So pilgrims learn to sigh and groan with love, just as they sigh and groan with weariness. They learn to celebrate joyfully, to sing, to share meals, to catch one another’s enthusiasm, to admire the beauty of another’s righteousness, to let their own deeds shine. They also learn to bear one another’s burdens, to ease the load of the neighbor, to confess when they have done wrong, and to humbly ask forgiveness, to forgive one another as they have been forgiven, to care for the sick, the hungry and the naked. They learnt that this is part of their journey to God. And so they learn to take their refreshment with gratitude and delight yet remember that they are tent-travelers, that they are aliens and exiles in a faraway land, whose home is not of this world. So they become pilgrims on Christ’s road. (250–51)

This is a compelling moral vision—it is one that is based upon delight in the beauty of others and in the beauty of God as pilgrims are drawn ever more toward Christ, their true patria, their true homeland. Yet along the way for Augustine there is a good deal of renunciation—a renunciation that is alluded to here as the pilgrim confesses what they have done wrong. My first question, then, is whether Stewart-Kroeker adequately conveys the renunciatory aspects of Augustine’s thought, in which the tutelage of desire involves a hatred of the sinful self in ways that contemporary theologians—particularly feminist theologians—have longed criticized.

Among the many charms of this book is Stewart-Kroeker’s use of Woody Guthrie’s traveling songs to introduce the pilgrimage theme. These are the songs that sung hope into bands of migrants pushing their way through a desolate land in the middle of the Depression in hope a better life. They are an apt entrée into a book that dwells on the theme of peregrinatio—the difficult journey from a far-off land, the communal loss and the stubborn hope. But in one sense the folk songs exceed Augustine’s insights: for Guthrie sings of loss and wandering in a specific sense—within a world in which people wander desperately because of systems of exploitation. Stewart-Kroeker’s book is a masterful and beautiful analysis of the way in which pilgrimage was cast by the West’s foremost theologian. What it lacks at times is a critical eye toward his legacy. By foregrounding human sin he set in place or at least enabled the setting up of systems that would leverage self-renunciatory practices for ever-stronger disciplinary control, as Michel Foucault and feminist theologians have amply reminded us. One wonders, then, how Augustine’s notion of sin has systemically afflicted the Christian West and has itself expelled the pilgrim/pilgrim community to a far-off land.

Related to the question of renunciation is a second and related worry about Stewart-Kroeker’s project: Does the extolling of Christian forms of the Beautiful and the Good—offered in Christ, mediated by the church, nourished in the human soul—not veer toward an ideal that excludes forms of life that ought to be loved in themselves—the poor, the oppressed, the afflicted, the sinner? In other words, why must the end of love be cast as “inexhaustible”—as opposed to contingent and singular—beauty (242)? Why must love of neighbor exist only as love as uti? While it is true that such a love may well be contingent and imperfect, is there not something about the nature of human love that delights precisely in contingency and imperfection? As philosopher Giorgio Agamben puts it:

Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is. (Agamben, The Coming Community)

In short, my question for Stewart-Kroeker has to do with predicates, with the suchness of the human creature, including their sinfulness, and its role in aesthetic and moral formation. From my understanding of Augustine, it is precisely this suchness that I must leave behind in order to dwell in the beauty of the inexhaustible. For my own part, I think Woody Guthrie understands something about how, to use a cliché, the Christian journey is the destination. In all its ugliness and suffering and sin, it is here precisely—and not to another destination—that true love calls.

True love, true love

Tell me where

Will you go?

I’m gonna go

Where the cold winds blow

Gonna weep, gonna cry

Gonna sigh, gonna dance

In my good time clothes.


—Woody Guthrie, “True Love”

  • Sarah Stewart-Kroeker

    Sarah Stewart-Kroeker


    Response to Jane Barter

    I am deeply grateful to Jane Barter for her insightful responses and the elegance with which she articulates them. I am particularly glad for her pressing me on the points of renunciation, self-hatred, and the erasure of “suchness,” as these are all questions that trouble me in and beyond Augustine. I share a number of her worries (perhaps even more acutely now than at the time of the writing), and I’m glad to have the chance to think through them at her prompting.

    The first thing to be said is that this book is very much my account of what I see as the best Augustine has to offer, as regards a picture of moral and aesthetic formation. In the same way that I didn’t set out to give a systematic account of peregrinatio in Augustine’s work, I didn’t set out to give a comprehensive picture of the moral dimensions of Augustine’s picture of human selfhood. The emphases and omissions reflect, at least to some extent, what I find appealing (and not) in Augustine (although at the same time, it is certainly a book on Augustine, which is to say that I by no means simply endorse all of the aspects of his thought that I present!). There is a tension between accounting for a thinker’s texts and presenting an account of their thought in its most compelling and relevant dimensions—and so while the book is deeply engaged with Augustine’s texts, and attempts to convey some of the difficulties the texts present for a contemporary reader, it is also a constructive account that offers up a particular Augustine, an Augustine I found fruitful to engage on questions I thought mattered.

    Barter is right that I don’t emphasize or dwell on the renunciatory aspects of Augustine’s thought. The extent to which this is a question of adequacy depends on the expectations one has for the accounting and what is at stake. Is the worry that the renunciatory aspects are inextricable from Augustine’s account of the moral life, and so to underplay them does not adequately caution the reader about the dangers inherent to his account? I suppose one question is whether they are extricable, and if so, what that then entails for the writer attempting both to give an account of Augustine but also to give a particular account of Augustine, an Augustine particularized by my reading and by the ways in which I am drawing together a range of texts that is broad in one sense and highly selective in another. Part of the reason I don’t dwell on the renunciatory aspects is because I find a number of the ways in which Augustine pictures renunciation (violently—more on that below) unhelpful. But precisely for that reason, I think Barter is right that a more developed discussion of those problems would have been helpful—as well as to grapple explicitly with the task of extricability.

    I share Barter’s feminist worry about the tutelage of desire that involves a hatred of the sinful self. Given that sexism and misogyny continue to undermine the value of women (at least insofar as they do not conform to patriarchal valuations of women, which depend on their subordinacy and the occupation of the roles thus deemed suitable), is tutelage in hating sinfulness helpful or appropriate? Of course, the feminist objections to an emphasis on the primacy of the sin of pride and, correspondingly, the primacy of the virtue of humility, are well-known, and they certainly apply to Augustine. To the extent that sinfulness or deviancy are defined in ways that are designed to keep women in subordinate positions, tutelage in forms of “virtue” responsive to these definitions of “sin” are highly problematic (and are exponentially compounded when they intersect with other systems of subordination, such as race, class, and gender non-conformity). Again, I think Augustine is guilty as charged on this count, and I put virtue and sin in quotation marks to indicate that I think that on at least certain fronts the contents of his definitions of sins and virtues are false.

    But there are a number of things to unpack further here. First, I take it that Augustine’s account of what constitutes particular “sins” (specifically, and not just broadly speaking in terms of pride or will to domination) need not be mine or yours. I strenuously disagree with Augustine on various points about sex and marriage, for example, and what constitutes sin and sinfulness in these regards. Or to take another example, Augustine has no account of racism or sexism and the wrongs that may be done to people on the basis of these systemic biases, though he does have an account of the libido dominandi which characterizes human sociality. Barter’s reminder of Augustine’s legacy and the ways in which self-renunciatory practices are leveraged for disciplinary control—and disciplinary control that is embedded in systems of domination and exploitation, and thus differentially applied to different people and social groups—is well taken. Augustine’s notion of the libido dominandi may serve as a resource for critiques of systemic domination, but it is by no means adequate unto itself, limited as it is historically, contextually, and positionally. Barter is right that I don’t engage this piece of the problematic Augustinian legacy. I put political questions to the side in this project, knowing that the endeavor warranted its own project (which is in progress, and which takes feminist concerns about the affective therapy Augustine endorses seriously, particularly in its implications for political ethics).

    Returning to the point, the contents and contours of how sin is specified may differ widely. The question then is, to what extent the structure of Augustine’s account of responding to sin (however we may specify it) may be appropriate (or not). Should one hate one’s sins/sinfulness? Should one view one’s sins as hideous? I take it that there are sins or sinful dimensions of the self that are legitimately subject to censure and correction. But are Augustine’s terms too strong, too negative? Do they promote an overly severe moral response to wrongs and wrongdoing? Certainly Augustine uses language and imagery that I find highly objectionable—particularly the violence of some of his metaphors for correction (beating and whipping, for example). I take it, though, that it’s important for Barter’s critique that the attitude towards sin she finds problematic is not simply the targeting of specific sins (assuming that we are talking about harms or wrongs that she or I would indeed name as such), but a pervasive and encompassing attitude towards the self, tainted not just by sins but by sinfulness. The self doesn’t just sin, it is sinful. And if this leads to a generalized hatred of the self whose sinfulness overwhelms one’s view of it entirely, this is unquestionably problematic. Augustine varies in the kinds of discourse he uses, which makes it hard to categorize him consistently. At times, the kinds of attitudinal descriptions toward what appears as an encompassingly sinful self are indeed self-flagellating (and he uses explicit imagery of that kind). But at other times Augustine expresses the importance of love for the self and the appropriateness of delighting in human creaturely beauty. He endorses delighting in ourselves, others, and the world around us, though he thinks that delight is always in some way framed by the longing that is intrinsic to earthly transience (a little more on that later). So, Augustine does not promote a wholesale disavowal of the self or a one-note attitude toward the self.

    But Barter’s questioning here pushes farther than this—it isn’t just a matter of loving creaturely beauty and hating sins, but of loving the creature as such, in all of its imperfection. I think again to fully get into this question it would matter what we actually call imperfection, how we identify it. I would venture to say that imperfection, in the broad sense, would concern both “moral” and “mortal” imperfections: that is, sins (harms and wrongs that wound oneself and others) as well as features of our mortal existence (illnesses, debilitations, wounds both external and internal, and so on). These kinds of imperfections call for different responses, I think. We can regard mortal imperfections with compassion, tenderness, and care, and we can I think have genuine affection and love for a person in their imperfections—we can not only accept but embrace these imperfections and delight in the ways in which they contribute to who a person is, to the ways in which we know and love them as they are. In this regard, I part from Augustine—because at least as regards human bodies, Augustine has too narrow a conception of perfection that comes through in his account of restored resurrected bodies (City of God 22). I do think, however, that loving a mortal person in their mortal imperfections can be compatible with longing for the perfection of those imperfections in heaven (and again, where I part with Augustine is that the “perfection” of these imperfections need not mean in all cases their erasure, as he assumes with only two exceptions, but that they no longer constrain or cause pain).

    As regards loving imperfect creatures, I want to say something like, of course one should love the creature and this love must apply not just to particular features of the creature but to the creature as such in a holistic sense. At the same time, it is also I think right to say that there are particular features of an imperfect, sinning creature (the “moral” imperfections—the vices, failures, and deficiencies that cause harm) that we legitimately do not love in themselves, even if we do love the creature in a holistic sense. It seems important to say that I do not love the parts of myself that I know damage myself or others, that alienate me from myself or others, that hinder or undermine the good and wonderful things in the world. I can still say that as a creature, in my “suchness” and as whole, I am loveable and beloved (as are others). Love does not depend on expunging the contingencies and imperfections that are part of earthly selfhood—the beauty of the divine love that is offered in this unconditionality nevertheless invites and spurs the desire for the healing of those parts of myself that harm myself or others or that have suffered harm and as a result are wounded (and I think still retains room for contingencies that do no harm or cause no pain). I can love others in this same way too, loving them in their creaturely particularity and yet perceiving or experiencing the harms and wounds they may inflict or suffer as grievous, and longing for their healing just as I long for my own. And I think this gets at what is perhaps an even more fundamental concern for Augustine than the imperfection of the self as such (a noun, even if a dynamic one), which is the imperfection of human loving (the verb)—how imperfectly we love ourselves and others and God, wounded as we are. And how much we should long to give and receive a love like God’s, abundant and inexhaustible and so utterly, overwhelmingly delightful it defies articulation.

    The final thing I want to say is that our particularity has to do with our personal identity in all its facets. This includes our imperfections, but also our goodness and beauty, our strengths and lovelinesses. Particularity applies to personality, temperament, and habituated dispositions, to received and cultivated modes of verbal and physical expression, to physical appearance and to the ways in which we present and style ourselves outwardly, to the tenor of our affective lives, to our preferences and tastes. Particularity also applies to the ways in which we respond to adversity, the ways we carry the wounds we have suffered, the patterns of behavior that we have learned and acquired. Some of these particularities may be admirable, others may be deplorable in that they do harm and cause pain, many may be attractive to some and less to others. What I’m trying to get at is that we are particular through and through—imperfections (moral and mortal) do not do the work of particularizing a creature, even if they are, of course, part of embodied and enacted particularity in this earthly life. But because we are particular through and through, the healing for which Augustine longs does not imply the erasure of particularity (in fact, I suspect that much violence and harm towards creatures typically aims precisely at this erasure). I also think that it’s possible to long for healing such that at least a certain number of our imperfections will be perfected in ways that do not entail erasure. If one resists the idea that the particularity of the self is pervasively defined in some ineradicable way by its imperfections (and I would want to resist that), then the suchness of the creature remains inviolable, in heaven as on earth.

    Discussion of moral imperfections can become moralistic, which I think is a kind of wrong or harm in itself that dehumanizes the reality of mortal, fallen human life—but naming the harm moral imperfections cause need not drive us to such moralism. Nor need it prevent us from recognizing that there are imperfections that aren’t moral or moralized that still cause pain. I think Jim Wetzel beautifully expresses the poignancy of earthly love, which drives Augustine to press the point of its incompleteness so persistently, when he says that earthly love is haunted by loss. And this prospect and reality of loss and grief propels longing for love freed from this fear. This emphasis on the mortal gives us a less moralistic way of understanding the “imperfections” that inevitably mingle longing with love in this life. Augustine, of course, deals in both discourses of imperfection—the moral (and the moralistic) and the mortal. I wouldn’t want simply to de-moralize imperfection, because I do think that the ways in which we fail to love and actively wreak damage call for a moral discourse (though I certainly don’t follow Augustine’s wholesale, either in form or in content). I think the poignancy of longing for release from the pain imperfection may cause (in both moral and mortal senses) is a feature of Augustine’s writing (to which he is not always faithful, himself!) that gets precisely at the nature of loving particular, contingent, fragile and, yes, also wounded and wounding creatures in ways that should serve to resist a rigid, de-humanizing moralism.

    • Jane Barter

      Jane Barter


      Re-thinking Moral and Aesthetic Formation in the time of COVID-19

      I don’t think anybody could have predicted as we were preparing for this symposium that we would be facing a situation of such uncertainty that we would have to bring all our sources–Augustine included–to bear upon our moral and political lives. And though it is a risky thing to make moral and political prognostications in the midst of a crisis (I think of Giorgio Agamben’s _faux pas_ in late February in Italy, for example), I find it impossible not to think about how this book and its vision might train us politically for the challenges that we face today. Hence, I will be responding to Dr. Stewart-Kroeker’s response to me with that question of this political crisis and Augustine in mind. I hope that this line of inquiry does not impose too many strictures upon conversations.

      The renunciatory aspects of Augustine’s thought, I argued, are key to moral development in Augustine. And I worried that his moral vision would involve a kind of subsuming of our earthly particularity to a higher telos or perfection. One of the worries is that a kind of moralism might ensue, as Stewart-Kroeker points out, but the deeper worry is indeed political, which I cannot extrapolate from the moral. Because it is the political formation which we receive as subjects which shapes our understanding of sin or moral imperfection. What if our vices (like our virtues) are less perspicacious, to ourselves certainly–but also to the Christian ethicist–than we might wish?

      For example, I have been in a constant state of moral panic since this pandemic took hold that the various levels of government that are generally hostile to refugees, migrants, Indigenous peoples, women, and the elderly may be using this time of emergency to further restrict precarious lives. What to make, then, of the moral imperative (which I heed) that tells me that being a good and moral citizen is to allow and indeed welcome such governments’ increased power over all life? The question, then, is not “how sin … may be differentiated widely,” but how it is specified at all and by whom. And, to ask an old Nietzschean question to Augustine and to Sarah, but perhaps with special urgency at this time, whose interests might our conceptions of moral imperfections, the moral life, and their aim serve?

    • Sarah Stewart-Kroeker

      Sarah Stewart-Kroeker


      Reply to Jane Barter

      Thanks for this response Jane! Yes, I really like the way you put this, about vices (like virtues) being less perspicacious than we might wish. I agree.

      I see it mostly in terms of the perpetual difficulties of, and obstacles to, vision and of contestation. Norms (popular or theoretical) that define virtues or vices are always provisional, and should be open to contestation. But contestation is difficult and all too often invites censure or violence on those who contest established norms. Political and social power is often wielded to maintain the status quo and preserve the positions of those who wield it. I think these are worries that we can’t escape though: if we are inevitably embedded in normative frameworks (explicit or implicit) for virtue and vice, justice and injustice, then we’ll always be struggling with the limits of our own vision, including our own vicious blind spots. The epistemic problem is pervasive, and it calls for a profound humility (all too often lacking, including among Christian ethicists!). Yet it still seems essential to the fabric of our moral and political lives and communities both to praise what one sees as good (or just) and denounce what one sees as wrong (or unjust), knowing that one may be challenged or meet resistance, knowing that one may look back and see error where before was conviction, knowing that one may fail to effect the change for which one strives. Certainly, this is bound up with the problems of authority and power in any given moral or political community. I’m not sure what the alternative is, other than to keep looking and to do so with a posture of humility and generosity toward others, without giving up on the task of discernment in which our communal lives are entangled, without losing sight of the way that structures of authority and power inculcate a certain blindness that calls for perpetual questioning and critique.

      Politics is subject to all the same problems, defined both by the discernment of justice and injustice and, further, the boundaries of tolerance and intolerance, and characterized by particular structures of power and authority. As John Bowlin writes in his book *Tolerance Among the Virtues*, political communities invariably have their “lists” of the tolerable and the intolerable, which are also subject to contestation and change. The obstacles to contestation and change are embedded in our political lives and structures, and these contestations apply not only to the contents of any given “list” but to those in the positions of authority both in the drawing and in the enforcing of such lists. It seems to me that we live with the same problems, morally and politically: limits of vision in light of the fact that we are formed within given frameworks, and structures of power and authority that reinforce and incentivize conformity to established frameworks.

      So I think this is exactly the right question – how are imperfections (or lists of the tolerable and intolerable) specified, by whom, and in whose interests? What do we do but contest unjust specifications, unjust wielding of those specifications, and critical denunciation of the unjust interests such specifications may serve?

Jennifer Herdt


The End of Sacrifice

A great deal of ink has been spilled over Augustine’s distinction between usus and fruitio, use and enjoyment. Does Augustine in effect claim that love of neighbor is a means to the Christian’s heavenly attainment of God, thus reducing the neighbor to a mere instrument for the individual’s heavenly happiness? Oliver O’Donovan sought to redeem Augustine by differentiating between an early form of the distinction, bound up with the pilgrimage through this world to the next, and a mature, ontological form of the distinction, in which various forms of love are appropriate to various sorts of objects, and the neighbor is thus not reduced to a means but is simply loved with a sort of love fitting humankind’s ontological status. Sarah Stewart-Kroeker’s rich examination of Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought takes a more radical tack, redeeming the pilgrimage motif itself, and with it the usus/fruitio distinction. The moral-aesthetic power of sacrifice turns out to play a key role here. What, though, is good and beautiful, well-formed and properly-ordered sacrifice? Here I seek to articulate an account that remains largely implicit in her text—a critical task if we are to refrain from glorifying suffering and destruction, and also, it so happens, if we are rightly to grasp Augustine’s reconfiguration of classical eudaimonism, and what it is to be called to happiness.

One of Stewart-Kroeker’s most suggestive claims is that the evils of instrumentalization and of idolatry are intimately linked. Augustine worried about the human tendency to idolatrous loves; we today tend to worry more about instrumentalizing loves. Stewart-Kroeker seeks to show that the peregrinatio image, when properly understood, corrects both idolatry and instrumentalization, displaying the continuity between earthly and eschatological love of God, self, and neighbor, as neighbor and self are loved towards fellowship with God. This allows us to see, in turn, that there was no need for Augustine to set aside the uti-frui distinction in favor of speaking of properly ordered loves (227). We love our fellow creatures well when we love them on account of, in relation to, God and God’s providential ordering of all things. It is, however, critical that Augustine affirms that other persons are to be not just used but also enjoyed in God (232). The end is essentially communal, as is the pilgrimage to that end; we are being formed for companionship with one another in God (233).

Building on Moshe Halbertal’s discussion of self-sacrifice as a form of misguided self-transcendence, Stewart-Kroeker argues that it involves not just idolatry but also instrumentalization of the inherent moral-aesthetic power of sacrifice: “it therefore warps self-sacrifice from an act of surrender into a self-aggrandizing form of heroism” (217). Now, it is not clear that this involves the direct instrumentalization of other persons, but it does involve a kind of manipulation of them, of their response to the symbolic power of sacrifice. This raises the question of when and how the symbolic power of sacrifice may be appropriately rather than wrongly employed. Stewart-Kroeker clearly believes that it can. Sacrifice, including self-sacrifice, can be good and beautiful. Indeed, “Christ’s beauty consists in his self-sacrifice” (6). How, though, are good and beautiful sacrifice to be differentiated from narcissistic, idolatrous, instrumentalizing, and otherwise vicious sacrifice?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sacrifice as “primarily, the slaughter of an animal (often including the subsequent consumption of it by fire) as an offering to God or a deity. Hence, in wider sense, anything (material or immaterial) offered to God or a deity as an act of propitiation or homage.” More broadly, it adds, sacrifice is “destruction or surrender of something valued or desired for the sake of something having, or regarded as having, a higher or a more pressing claim.”1 For Stewart-Kroeker, the exemplary act of sacrifice is Christ’s death on the cross. But while Stewart-Kroeker, following Augustine, regards Christ’s sacrifice as a form of expiation and purification, she does not regard it as an act of propitiation of appeasement of divine wrath (74). Further, Christ’s sacrifice is exemplary for human beings not insofar as it is an act of expiation and purification, since “Christ’s sacrifice offers all the expiation humanity needs” (74; cf. 185). Rather, Christ’s sacrifice is exemplary precisely as self-offering, as self-gift to God; “human beings must offer the true sacrifice of their hearts” (74; cf. 188). This self-offering is part and parcel of what is involved in loving God, self, and others according to their ontological status in relation to God; it is not something other than or additional to this. But what of the association of sacrifice with destruction and death? While Stewart-Kroeker praises self-sacrifice, she in no way elevates self-destruction. God has, to be sure, a “higher or more pressing claim” than the self, but this claim is not honored by way of self-harm or self-annihilation. God “desires the self’s sacrifice in order to return the self to itself” (243), or, better, in order to bring the self into communion, shared life with God and neighbor.

If sacrifice is thus to be understood essentially as offering rather than as destruction, destruction is nevertheless still bound up with sacrifice, and this in two ways. First, insofar as the improperly ordered loves of the self must be given up and transformed. One must not regard either oneself or other created persons or things as independent sources of value, of beauty, goodness, or truth, and hence as ultimate sources of joy or happiness. Things and attachments that hinder the pilgrimage must be given up and transformed. This may feel like destruction of the self, but in fact it is healing of the self.

Second, violence and destruction remain intimately connected with sacrifice insofar as followers of Christ’s exemplary sacrifice must “make themselves vulnerable to death in imitation of Christ” (74). Stewart-Kroeker is sensitive to concerns raised by feminist and womanist thinkers about idealizing sacrifice, and insists in response that “Christ’s sacrifice, and its beauty, cannot rightly be used to support regimes of exploitation and subordination in any form” (167), insofar as it serves to empower human agency and affirm the goodness of embodiment. Christ’s death does not glorify violence, let alone masochistic violence, but rather “reveals the violence inflicted precisely as sinful” (168). This is correct, but Stewart-Kroeker could go farther. The cross is the shape that radical self-offering takes in the face of a sinful world. To stand with Christ is to become vulnerable to this kind of destruction. Not only do such acts of solidarity with the cross not support regimes of exploitation and subordination, they challenge regimes of exploitation and subordination, insofar as they serve to reveal their true character. As James Cone insisted, “When one resists evil, suffering is an inevitable consequence of that resistance.”2 This sort of suffering can be redemptive, empowering, a source of hope for the oppressed, not a glorification of their subordination and powerlessness. Jeffrey Stout, reflecting more recently on the ethics of exemplarity, emphasizes how voluntary sacrifices function powerfully to convey to witnesses what one stands for and inspire them to similarly steadfast commitments.3 Without sacrifice, he argues, there can be no great social transformation.4 This is sacrifice’s symbolic power, of which Halbertal speaks.

Sacrifice, then, is good in itself only insofar as it is offering or self-gift, not insofar as it involves destruction and suffering. Yet sacrifice can indeed involve destruction, insofar as learning to love well requires painful transformation of the self, and insofar as standing against unjust, distorted relationships and for the good elicits violent resistance from forces that benefit from an unjust status quo. It is critical, moreover, that these two forms of destruction be held together. For the paradox associated with the sacrifices that attend resistance to evil in standing for the good is that these are acts that empower the agent in direct proportion to the destruction and suffering inflicted on the agent. And this empowerment can in turn feed the idolatry of narcissistic self-sacrifice, in which, in Stewart-Kroeker’s terms, one “makes an idol out of self-transcendence and its illusion of moral purity” (243), even as we also use others’ admiration of our example to feed our own glorification. We are all too prone to forget that the end of sacrifice is not self-transcendence, not powerful demonstration of one’s capacity to stand for the good, but rather the receiving of oneself, of one’s life and meaning, from God. It is finally because God wills our common participation in the fellowship of the divine life that it is good for us to make this our end, not because we desire it. Neither self-gratification nor self-destruction is an end in itself. But because God wills that we find our rest and happiness here, it is good that we do. We are called not to give up but to receive our happiness, together with our neighbors.

  1. OED Online, s.v. “sacrifice, n.,” December 2018,

  2. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), xviii.

  3. Stout, “How to Stand for Something,” Journal of Religious Ethics, forthcoming.

  4. Stout, Gifford Lectures 2017, On sacrifice and exemplarity, see also Gustavo Maya, “Cesar Chavez and Exemplarity,” and Kyle Lambelet, “Mourning the Dead, Following the Living,” Journal of Religious Ethics, forthcoming.

  • Sarah Stewart-Kroeker

    Sarah Stewart-Kroeker


    Response to Jennifer Herdt

    In her attention to sacrifice and its risks and transformative possibilities, Jennifer Herdt has picked up on a thread that runs through the book, appearing at key points, but largely an undercurrent. Herdt has articulated this piece of the account with characteristic acuity and perceptiveness. It is a privilege to have her as a reader, and I’m grateful to her for her rendering of this aspect of the book.

    I have continued to think quite a bit about sacrifice since the writing of this book. I have been thinking particularly about sacrifice and martyrdom in relation to environmental ethics and politics, and I have been pondering Augustine’s evocative suggestion in City of God 22.19 that the martyrs, like Christ, may retain their wounds and/or the marks of their wounds on their resurrected bodies (a suggestion that has implications far greater than I think he realized when he made the brief aside). I have pieces in progress on both of these topics, and they also intersect in my current book project

    As Herdt notes, sacrifice “is good in itself only insofar as it is offering or self-gift, not insofar as it involves destruction and suffering. Yet sacrifice can indeed involve destruction, insofar as learning to love well requires painful transformation of the self, and insofar as standing against unjust, distorted relationships and for the good elicits violent resistance from forces that benefit from an unjust status quo.” Herdt writes that “the cross is the shape that radical self-offering takes in the face of a sinful world. To stand with Christ is to become vulnerable to this kind of destruction.” Self-offering in the face of injustice, violence, regimes of exploitation and subordination, challenges those regimes and makes one vulnerable to suffering and destruction. I entirely agree with Herdt on this, and as I say on p. 130, “Following Christ will require resistance in some form to worldly systems, values, and ideals. In Christ’s case, this led to condemnation by religious authorities and crucifixion by political ones. . . . In this life, following Christ entails the prospect of similar loss, suffering, and sacrifice as one allows oneself to be shaped by the form of his love and its beauty.”

    Sacrificial offering may empower the agent, and it may spur narcissistic and masochistic instances of such acts. It may inspire others, and it may also lead to troubling cults of authority, it may inculcate domineering attitudes toward those in whom one has inspired a response. These are some of the tensions and risks that are involved in an account of sacrifice. I will return to the ambivalences that apply specifically to sacrificial exemplarity, in order to get at some distinctions internal to an account of sacrifice that avoids the ethical pitfalls of glorifying suffering or spiritualizing virtues of endurance that maintain, rather than resist, structures of domination.

    I’ve come to define sacrifice as an act that involves three components: an act in which (i) one surrenders a good and (ii) in so doing suffers its loss (iii) in order to make an offering. This is descriptive, and encompasses a range of sacrificial acts—it does not yet offer criteria for discriminating between them. Already, however, it distinguishes sacrifice from surrendering a good and suffering its loss under coercive pressure, because in such a case one does not surrender a good and suffer its loss in order to make an offering. It also distinguishes sacrifice from the surrendering of a thing to destruction that one does not value (or value adequately, commensurately) as a good (and thus the loss of which one does not properly or adequately suffer either). It also distinguishes sacrifice from forms of gift-giving that do not involve suffering loss (I think sacrifice can coincide with gift-giving, because both involve offering, and some offerings that we also rightly call gifts may involve suffering loss—but suffering loss is not intrinsic to gift-giving, as it is to sacrifice). But further normative specifications need to apply to sacrifices in order to actually provide evaluative criteria for discerning the moral quality of different acts that may fall under this description. So, what good is being surrendered and is it one I am entitled to surrender or justified in surrendering? What losses may and should one suffer? To whom or for what am I making an offering, and does it warrant that response?

    The dangers tied to sacrifice’s symbolic power, and thus to the structures of exemplarity in which it may be embedded, raise further questions. First, sacrifice’s symbolic power is tied to its power of signification. Sacrifice has revelatory possibilities: it may reveal the depth of one’s love for a good and commitment to a cause, and it may, as Herdt notes, reveal the “true character” of “regimes of exploitation and subordination.” I’m inclined to say that all of our actions have a signifying or revelatory capacity in some sense, though some may be relatively uninteresting (the act of eating reveals that I’m hungry). But the significance of actions may be opaque to others, and perhaps even to myself (perhaps I’m not actually hungry but I want to participate in the social sharing of a meal, or I seek the comfort food can provide, or I’m mindlessly adhering to routine). I’ll come back to the question of opacity, but I want to elaborate the signification aspect first.

    Sacrifice isn’t unique in having a signifying power but it has a particularly powerful signification because it responds to situations of duress, of varying degrees, that involve surrender of something important. A sacrifice only comes into play when the goods at stake (both the goods surrendered and the goods in the name of which one offers them) are of significant importance. This means that one is facing either a tension between important competing goods or a violence toward goods one values that demand a response—and in either case, there are fraught, demanding, and perhaps tragic choices to be made. So the conditions that may prompt sacrifices are high stakes, often violent, often tragic. No matter what, they involve suffering loss. Sacrifice, then, is one of the hallmarks of human action in a fallen world subject to tragic losses, fraught decisions between competing goods, and violent destruction. And for this reason, sacrifice’s significance is also symbolically potent. When a sign is or becomes also a symbol, it means that the sign is taken not just to signify the particular conditions in which it is deployed by a particular agent, but also encapsulates a deeper and broader meaning whose reach extends beyond that particular combination of conditions and agent(s). Take the example of Rosa Parks’s refusal to relinquish her seat to a white bus rider at the driver’s demand. Her act, which is a sign of her own resistance to an unjust regime of bus segregation as well as the unjust practices of demanding that African American riders give up their seats for white riders, becomes a symbol of resistance to the regime of racialized inequality, exploitation, and violent subjugation. Its symbolic power extends beyond the particular circumstances in which the act takes place and becomes one among many powerful symbols associated with the civil rights movement.

    Note that this is an act of resistance that is sacrificial—because Parks makes herself vulnerable to white anger, punishment, or violence—that also involves refusing to give something up. But her refusal to renounce her claim to her seat surrenders the good of the relative security compliance affords her (for compliance is, of course, no guarantee of security), she suffers the loss of that security (and is arrested) and offers her contention of an unjust norm to the struggle for civil rights. Sacrificial acts that respond to regimes of exploitation or subordination or injustice often involve a refusal. That is, sacrifices are not total capitulation. Sacrificial acts often involve surrender of one good precisely in the refusal to agree to having another be taken or destroyed. For example, one may surrender one’s own bodily security in refusing to surrender one’s dignity, one’s integrity, or perhaps the integrity of some good with which one’s life is intertwined (environmental land defenders, for example, make sacrificial stands for the sake of the integrity of the ecological systems and territories for which they care). Christ’s sacrifice follows this pattern, too: he refuses to relinquish his claim to his proclaimed identity, while surrendering his body to the authorities demanding the concession. The symbols of Christ’s sacrificial death that remain at the heart of Christianity (the cross, the Eucharistic elements) signify not only the particular event Jesus willingly suffered (dying a criminal death at the hands of the Roman imperial authorities) but they symbolize the realities Christians believe these acts accomplish—the self-giving love that heals, transforms, and redeems humanity.

    So, signifying acts may become symbols when they are taken to have deeper and broader significance that extend beyond the particular conditions of their performance and encapsulate something fundamental about a particular reality (redemption by Christ, the struggle for justice, and so on). And this mobility between signification and symbolization is tied to the capacity for such acts to inspire others. As Herdt notes, citing Jeffrey Stout, such sacrifices may powerfully “convey to witnesses what one stands for and inspire them to similarly steadfast commitments.” I think this—and the transformative power this entails—is exactly right. But this brings us back to the problem of opacity: in the same way that a relatively banal act’s motivations may be opaque to an observer, and thus may not in fact signify what it is taken to indicate, so too with symbolically potent sacrificial actions. Opacity is not necessarily a problem, insofar as the (presumably good) values one takes to be conveyed inspire actions that genuinely cohere with those goods. But human actions are complex, and insofar as not just actions but people (who are more complex still) may become exemplars and so are taken in a kind of holistic sense to be worthy of emulation, the work of discernment becomes critical: discerning not only the character of an exemplar and their exemplary actions (including the range of motivations that may be at play and their implications, some of which one may wish not to take on for oneself) but also the ways in which one seeks to practice the values one sees in them and in their actions in one’s own life, which will be distinct in important ways due to the particularities of temperament, vocation, and circumstance. An act that may appear laudably self-sacrificial may, upon inspection or over time, reveal itself to have less admirable motivations and to have had consequences that may be destructive in ways one does not initially perceive. This doesn’t necessarily evacuate the act of positive significance or influence, but it should alert us to the difficulties that are always involved in human exemplarity (indeed, this is why Augustine always qualifies the practices of human emulation and exemplarity in the church with the reference to Christ, whose exemplarity is sure and secure in a way human exemplarity is not, as I discuss in chapter 5).

    So if opacity applies to the elementary level of sign and signification, it is compounded when signs have symbolic power, because a symbol can travel quite a distance from its original signification (just think of the highly commercialized image of Che Guevara). This makes signs with symbolic power particularly manipulable, and it makes such manipulations particularly dangerous because signs become symbols because they are potent, they “speak” powerfully to important concerns, enthusiasms, longings. The risks of opacity and manipulability then apply to the structures of exemplarity in which sacrificial acts may be embedded or may inspire in others. As Herdt notes, and I think these are perfect words with which to conclude my own reflections in response to hers, we are “all too prone” to “feed our own glorification,” and “to forget that the end of sacrifice is not self-transcendence, not powerful demonstration of one’s capacity to stand for the good, but rather the receiving of oneself, of one’s life and meaning, from God.”

Toni Alimi


April 7, 2020, 1:00 am

Joshua Nunziato


April 14, 2020, 1:00 am