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?



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.

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      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.”



Beauty without Tyranny

Suppose Augustine and Alexander Nehamas were talking. I like to think that the discussion would turn quickly to beauty, a subject both care about deeply. The fourth chapter of Sarah Stewart-Kroeker’s book, Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought, provides glimpses of what that conversation might be like. As Stewart-Kroeker shows, Augustine and Nehamas would meaningfully disagree because they have so many meaningful agreements. For Augustine, Nehamas is an especially generative interlocutor because he embodies so many of the post-Kantian aesthetic commitments that Stewart-Kroeker uses Augustine to challenge. In this response I’d like to continue the imagined conversation that Stewart-Kroeker begins, inviting her to expand further on the Augustinian aesthetic she has so compellingly presented.

Nehamas and Augustine both agree with Plato that beauty and love go together. We love that which we judge beautiful; indeed, the judgment of beauty involves an excitement in the judge for “further and deeper engagement with the beloved object” (125–26). But they disagree on whether the appreciation of beauty is best described as an ascent. Like Plato, Augustine believed that there are better and worse objects of love; for him, the best and most beautiful is Christ. Nehamas sees the aesthetic journey as directed not up, but in and out. The beautiful object draws observers further into itself. It also directs observers to other objects, postulating them as candidates for aesthetic appreciation.

Stewart-Kroeker further shows us that Nehamas and Augustine agree that the beautiful object creates a community of lovers. Kant thought so, too, and believed that this community aspires to universality. He took our judgments of beauty to claim universal assent, though he recognized that such judgments are in fact never universal. Augustine, on Stewart-Kroeker’s reading, describes something similar. In the ideal case, Christ, “the beautiful beloved,” creates a universal community of lovers of Christ—a catholic, Christian church (86–90, 163ff.).

Nehamas, by contrast, thinks the community formed by the beautiful object must be social, not universal. If Augustine and Kant are right that “aesthetic judgment makes a claim to universal assent,” then “in a perfect world, we would all find beauty in the very same places.” This, Nehamas thinks, “is a nightmare,” a Huxleyan dystopia.1 Judgments of beauty are conditioned by “taste, sensibility, character, style.”2 These features individuate us. For our judgments of beauty to all be identical, we would all have to have the very same taste, sensibility, character, and style. That’s not a world that Nehamas wants to live in.

Nor do I, which is why I want to invite Professor Stewart-Kroeker to explain further how Augustine avoids this problem. Her initial response to Nehamas is that “there are innumerable good, beautiful things in the world,” and our attempts to pursue goodness (and beauty) are indexed to the particular contexts in which we are situated. Nonetheless, Nehamas’s question persists. A single objective ordering of all beauties seems to demand a single best constellation of taste, sensibility, character, and style. A single best constellation of these properties seems to demand a high level of uniformity, even if that uniformity is expressed differently in different contexts.

The differences between Augustine and Nehamas come to a head in Stewart-Kroeker’s description of erroneous aesthetic judgments. Stewart-Kroeker considers it an advantage of Augustine’s account that he can explain errors in aesthetic judgments. Our judgments of beauty can go wrong because of sin—aesthetic mistakes and moral failure go hand in hand (137–38).

Stewart-Kroeker argues that Nehamas implicitly commits himself to the possibility of real errors in aesthetic judgment when he says that we can love people who are “in fact ugly.”3 She takes this to mean that beauty (or ugliness) is a property of objects about which our judgments can be objectively right or wrong. I disagree with Stewart-Kroeker’s reading of Nehamas here. I take Nehamas to be saying that from his standpoint, there are ugly people in the world. Yet people love them. What they love in them is a perceived beauty, though not one that Nehamas perceives as beauty.

For Nehamas, then, aesthetic judgments are just as much about the subject as they are about the object. His analogy to friendship illuminates this. When two people don’t get along, it’s rarely solely due to one party. As a result, even people widely judged unlovable find love, and even the loveliest people aren’t loved universally. This needn’t be because of an aesthetic failure on the part of any lover. It can be explained by differences of taste.4 Differences in judgments of beauty work the same way. That you prefer Monk and I Mingus surely doesn’t mean that one of us has made an error.

Stewart-Kroeker’s Augustine might respond by directing Nehamas back to one of their shared commitments. “We agreed,” Augustine might say, “that the aesthetic is inextricable from love, since the beautiful is just that which we love. But love is unavoidably moral: some things are good to love, and other things are bad to love (98ff.). Moreover, we agree that we are shaped by what we love (126).” If Augustine is right, the aesthetic is inextricably moral: our judgments of beauty can be good or bad. Since we are shaped by what we love, in judging something good as beautiful we are shaped by good things. Mutatis mutandis for the bad.

To resist the argument, Nehamas denies that there are things which are objectively unworthy of love. To be sure, he concedes, some things are unworthy of love; however, an object’s unworthiness isn’t objective and universal. It’s not the case that everyone ought not to love some object because it lacks the objective property of beauty. Rather I ought not to love it because I judge that to do so would shape me in a way I do not want to be shaped. I would become someone that I don’t want to be. Not a bad or wicked person necessarily, but a person I’d nonetheless rather not be. There are many lives of moral excellence that I don’t want to live.

One answer that might be available to Stewart-Kroeker’s Augustine is found in the concept of vocation. In Finite and Infinite Goods, Robert Adams puts it like this: “A vocation is a call from God, a command, or perhaps an invitation, addressed to a particular individual, to act and live in a certain way.”5 Vocation is closely related to morality—for example, vocations give us responsibilities. There is one sense in which they are universal: everyone has a vocation. But there is another sense in which they are not: people are called to different, individualizing vocations, and each person’s vocation gives their life a distinctive shape.6 Adams’s ethical framework is broadly Augustinian; perhaps Stewart-Kroeker can tell us whether Augustine would be amenable to Adams’s intervention on this question. If he would be, and if this solution were generalized, then we might describe Augustine as having a particularist morality. Indeed, one important fruit of Stewart-Kroeker’s discussion of Augustine’s aesthetics and morality together is her demonstration that for Augustine, aesthetics is far more central and morality far less rigid, than is often thought.

Still, I wonder whether aesthetic and moral judgments work in precisely the same way. Do we start off with similar levels of entitlement to our moral and aesthetic judgments? Do challenges to both kinds of commitments work in the same way? Do our moral and aesthetic claims bind other people in similar ways? Are aesthetic and moral judgments justified under similar conditions? Are they true under similar conditions?

For Nehamas, the answers to these questions are “no.” Morality and aesthetics perform radically different functions within the context of a good life. He might press Augustine: if the answers to these questions are “yes,” then there are two options. Neither is appealing. Either aesthetics is as universal and rigid as morality, or morality is as particular and individual as aesthetics. Given the former, beauty becomes a tyrant, imposing uniformity of taste and style upon everyone.

On the other hand, if morality is as particular as aesthetics, then our moral judgments cease to function in the ways we need and expect. We need and expect that people will be responsible for their moral commitments. This means they will be responsible to everyone else. For example, they will refrain from treating others merely as a means and from hurting others. If they do so, we demand reasons. We typically require these reasons to be especially persuasive. Indeed, we often judge that some actions could never be justified. We certainly do not say, “there’s no accounting for taste” in response to differing moral commitments.

Thus, Nehamas might say, if aesthetic judgments are too much like moral judgments, we end up universalizing that which ought to be particular. If moral judgments are too much like aesthetic judgments, we end up particularizing that which ought to be universal. Since you can’t have it both ways, it’s helpful to carve the ethical up into the moral and the non-moral. That which concerns the universal, which depends on real or hoped-for similarities, which is impartial—that’s the moral. That which concerns the particular, which encourages difference, which is partial—that’s the non-moral. The aesthetic is a part of the non-moral. Whatever the shared ground between the aesthetic and the moral, we must always keep these differences in mind.7

Suppose Augustine replied like this: begin with a picture of the life one might hope to lead. There are some general commitments that would be worth holding if one were to set about trying to live a good human life. Some of these commitments might even be prerequisites for acting humanly. In this respect, they are universal. As one went on in the world, one would need to take on narrower commitments. Some of these would specify one’s general commitments. Others would force the revision of one or more general commitments. Some of the narrower commitments would need revision in light of one’s general commitments. There would, therefore, be a dialectical process of forming and revising one’s general and specific commitments in light of all the others. That’s what the ethical life is like; unending movements between the “universal” and the “particular.” That’s what our moral life is like. The moral isn’t “universal” if this is meant to exclude particulars. The moral life is always already both universal and particular. And, crucially, our aesthetic lives work the same way.

I find this picture beautiful. I hope that it was Augustine’s. I am attracted to its holism across moral and aesthetic value and its vindication of the necessity of both for a happy life.

If this is Augustine’s picture, or Stewart-Kroeker’s, or both, then the following theoretical tasks would be to tell us what some of the general aesthetic commitments might be, in virtue of what they are universally, and to say something about how they could be revised in light of particulars. That might be the start of a realist account of beauty without tyranny.

  1. Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness, 83.

  2. Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness, 85.

  3. Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness, 62.

  4. Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness, 80–81.

  5. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 301.

  6. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 303–4.

  7. Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness, 137.

  • Sarah Stewart-Kroeker

    Sarah Stewart-Kroeker


    Response to Toni Alimi

    I’m very happy that Toni Alimi has focused on chapter 4 of the book, which places Augustine in conversation with contemporary philosophical aesthetics. I’m also grateful that he raised questions tied to the central “hinge” of the book developed in chapters 3 and 4 (the intertwining of moral and aesthetic formation). The questions Alimi poses continue to preoccupy thinkers in aesthetics, theological and otherwise, about the relationship between particularity and universality, taste and standards of judgment. He also asks whether and how ethics and aesthetics intersect—why we might think they do or should, and why we might be wary of such intersections. These are complex questions, and I very much appreciate Alimi’s probing engagement on this front, as they are critical to the account I want to give.

    Alimi makes a couple of contrasts that I want to soften regarding Augustine’s aesthetics: the first, between an aesthetic journey characterized by ascent (“up”), for Plato and Augustine, and one that moves “in and out” for Nehamas. In my account of Augustine, the aesthetic journey certainly does involve ascent, but it also involves movements “in and out.” (I take issue with the conflict between “ascensional” and “incarnational” accounts of Augustine’s aesthetics on pp. 228–30). We are legitimately drawn in—moved to seek greater understanding and intimacy—by things we find beautiful, which we then take into ourselves in a certain way. This is a central spur in Augustine’s account of love. The important question, for Augustine (and distinction from Nehamas), is that if the movement “in” is not also a movement “up” it becomes a glue that constrains (conf. 4.15 cited on p. 43; trin. 10.7 cited on p. 128) rather than a lively flame that ignites others, spreading throughout a community (a movement “out,” en. Ps. 121.2 cited on p. 210), and that propels the lover upward to the heavenly Jerusalem (conf. 13.9.10). The movement out, though, is not just an important feature of the sociality of delight but also of the way in which the movement “up” must always be accompanied by a movement “out” in the world. This is captured by what I call the “Christological Dialectic” (234–39), which creates “an interlocking momentum of ascent and descent in the span of the believer’s life—drawing them upwards by grounding them and grounding them by drawing them upwards” (235). Descent, because it indicates the incarnation, is a movement out into the world.

    The second contrast I want to soften is the one between universality and sociality in the community of lovers, which takes us into Nehamas’s (and Alimi’s) concern about uniformity and particularity. The first point is that for there to be an ultimate object and source of beauty (God) does not imply a uniform objective ordering of beauties in the world. Universality, in Augustine’s sense, indicates that God is the source of all things—not that God homogenizes human responses to particular things in the world. So universality, in this sense, does not imply identity in responsiveness because the universality applies to God—not to things in the world. Because there is a Creator/creation distinction at play for Augustine, these operate on different planes. Alimi writes, “A single objective ordering of all beauties seems to demand a single best constellation of taste, sensibility, character, and style.” But a unity on the divine plane (a highest good) does not imply a single objective ordering on the created plane—and I very much resist this inference. Unity on the divine plane does not imply uniformity on the created plane.

    Certainly, Augustine does think that right responses to things in the world should involve the recognition that they find their ultimate source in God—this does mean, then, that there is a kind of structure to “rightly ordered” responsiveness to beauty that is universal in that right ordering for Augustine always involves referral to God. But this is a formal point—it by no means implies that there is a single best constellation of objects regarding taste, preference, style, and so on. There is a point about content, which is that for Augustine, God is not just the source of all beauty but is Beauty itself—and part of the mediation of Creator and creation that Christ accomplishes in the incarnation is to become a beautiful creature in the world, whom to love is also to meet Beauty itself. So there is a point about content that meets the formal point, which is that any right ordering of responsiveness to beauty situates not only God as the ultimate source but Christ as the paradigmatic “beautiful beloved.” But again, this special place for Christ in responsiveness to beauty by no means establishes a uniform hierarchy for responses to beauty in the world—precisely because Christ joins two planes, Christ occupies a unique role in this economy of loves.

    Before getting to the question of the Nehamas passage, let me spell this out regarding the Monk/Mingus example Alimi raises. I agree that there is no question of error in aesthetic judgment here. To claim that it’s possible to judge oneself (or someone else) to have made an error in aesthetic judgment certainly does not imply that every difference in aesthetic judgment must mean one party is wrong. Part of Alimi’s point here, I take it, is that if we index aesthetic judgments to moral ones, we would be bound by just such implications. But I don’t think so (I would add that in the way in which I’m using the term “morality” here—that is, not using it to mean universally binding rules—not all morally relevant differences entail that one party is wrong, either. But since our topic here is the intersection of aesthetic and moral judgments, I will leave that for another time!). The Monk/Mingus difference is not a case of either aesthetic or moral error. Differences in aesthetic taste do not necessarily have direct moral relevance in the sense that they always involve adjudication relative to a rigid hierarchy of beauties-to-goods. Aesthetic differences or preferences certainly can be morally relevant in such a way that allows for judgments of better and worse and that allows for wrongly ordered responses to beauty, on Augustinian terms, but they are not necessarily. That aesthetic formation is wrapped up with moral formation does not imply that every aesthetic response can be adjudicated as morally better or worse relative to some alternative. That aesthetic judgments are ethically relevant in the broadly formative sense does not entail the claim that all aesthetic judgments are morally differentiated.

    But let me say a little more about judgments and wrongly ordered responses, because these need to be distinguished too. So, I think it’s fair to say that on this Augustinian account I have developed, one may claim that Monk and Mingus have more to offer a richly textured aesthetic and moral life than, say, the Bee Gees (to borrow a contrast from Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 265). This isn’t to say that listening to the Bee Gees is necessarily morally wrong, but just that there is an aesthetically and morally relevant distinction to be made between what these artists and their music offers. There might be musical examples that would yield a contrast in which more serious moral matters would be at stake, although I think for that to be the case it would necessarily bear on the question of response and not just the music in question as such. That is, the question of the moral quality of one’s response to a particular thing has to do with the way in which one receives it, how one is shaped by it, and what kind of place one gives it in one’s life relative to other goods. One may have a disordered response to a genuinely good and beautiful thing (as Augustine describes in relation to his unnamed friend). So while there are certainly debates to be had about standards of aesthetic judgment relative to ethical criteria, the question of making judgments about moral-aesthetic formation necessarily conjoins questions about the nature of things (gladiatorial games are one kind of thing, and friends, shadows, spiders, and hares another—to invoke a few other objects of Augustine’s musings on aestheticized attention) with questions about the nature of one’s response to them. While I suspect that Augustine thinks that revulsion and dismay are the only appropriate moral responses to gladiatorial spectacles, responses to the other class of things mentioned open up more nuanced questions about the quality of one’s attention. So while there are basic questions about what we love (for Augustine, there are some things that are bad to love—like gladiatorial spectacles—but I think these are relatively few), it is far more importantly a matter of how we love the many things in the world that are not bad to love as such but that may be loved badly.

    To the interpretive question regarding Nehamas about loving people who “are in fact ugly,” my point is not to claim that beauty is an intrinsic property of objects about which we can make objective judgments, but rather that for both Augustine and Nehamas there are measures to which we appeal when making claims that extend beyond our immediate responses. For Nehamas, too, we assess judgments—others’ and also our own. For Nehamas, this applies both to disagreements one might have with others (I find this person or thing to be ugly, but you find it/them beautiful), but it also applies to our own standards of judgment. The possibility of being wrong doesn’t have to do primarily with judgments about the objectively (un)loveable properties of objects (though for Augustine, it is possible to be wrong in this way, though as I’ve indicated I think these occurrences are relatively few), which are then measured against some universal and objective hierarchy of goodness and beauty. For Augustine, the possibility of being wrong in some morally significant way has much more to do with the quality of our loves in their ordering (and ordering for Augustine has to do with the measure in which our loves are framed by or referred to love for God). And assessing the quality of our loves in this way is largely the kind of reflective enterprise Augustine undertakes in the Confessions—and for that reason, it is tied up with temporality.

    I appeal here to James Wetzel’s emphasis on the temporality of our earthly loves. Divisions in the will are “symptoms of temporal dislocation” in the habituated patterns of our wills more than some kind of cognitive dissonance in judgments about the good and the right (Augustine and the Limits of Virtue, 138). The possibility of being wrong, therefore, and our ability to articulate it, is anchored in our temporally-conditioned perception of how we loved the things we loved. I take it that Augustine doesn’t think his unnamed friend was “bad to love”—not at all—but that looking back on the way he loved him, he sees a warp in his loving. For Nehamas, the possibility of being wrong about our own loves is also wrapped up in these temporal dislocations—his TV-watching example indicates as much. In the book, Nehamas describes how he shifts, over time, from considering TV-watching as a base and vacuous activity to one that enriches his life and is worthy of his engagement. This entails a shift in his standards of judgment, and he admits that there is a fundamental epistemic uncertainty that applies to assessing such shifts (“How can I tell [if I am better or worse off], since, along with a taste for television, I have also developed standards of judgment that, from the point of view of my earlier self, are depraved and corrupt? By my earlier standards, I am now debased and miserable although I don’t know that I am. . . . Which standards are right?” Only a Promise of Happiness, 130).

    For Nehamas, of course, the assessments we make of our loves and the standards of judgment according to which we make them (or which our loves entail) involve no orientation to God. This is the difference between Augustine and Nehamas, and it does entail that for Augustine there is at least one aesthetic judgment (regarding Christ) that commands universal assent. But for Nehamas, we can observe gaps between what we love and what another loves, or what we loved then and what we love now, that indicate not just differences in immediate responses but in standards of judgment. The judgments a person makes reflect or interact with both their subjective responses and standards that guide them. And standards of judgment are measures that have a kind of externality to them: they lay claim to a reality that may be perceived by more than one person, even if not a reality one deems “objective” in the sense that it is universally accessible such as to command universal agreement (even over the course of one’s own lifetime). Whatever reality the “in fact” in Nehamas’s formulation names is always indexed to one’s own perceptions and mediated by them, but that formulation makes a claim to which we may seek others’ assent—and that may be subject to our own reassessments, as the guiding referents of our standards shift with time and experience.

    As to whether moral and aesthetic judgments work in precisely the same way—no, I think not, and I don’t take this to be a claim of my account of moral and aesthetic formation as mutually implicated processes. But I have also specified what I mean by “morality” (which I do not distinguish from “ethics” in any meaningful way, see 136n57), which is not the same as what Nehamas means by morality. I don’t use the term morality to indicate a rigid and universal objective set of norms or rules for conduct. So I’m not sure that the problem regarding aesthetics and morality (as I define it) really presents itself in the way Alimi has presented it, as a choice between making aesthetic judgments universal or moral ones particular. As I indicate above, that moral and aesthetic formation are intertwined does not imply that all aesthetic judgments or preferences are morally differentiated.

    I’m a little perplexed by the schemas of the ethical as moral and non-moral on the one hand, and then the shift to the moral as universal and particular. It had seemed to me that Alimi’s point in distinguishing the moral from the ethical was to specify the moral as the universal, and the ethical as encompassing the particularities of context, personality, and vocation. But setting this aside, I hope I have made clear that my account of Augustine does entail that there are certain features of both our moral and aesthetic commitments that, to the extent that our loves are rightly ordered, are universal for Augustine. Principally, that means that they are ordered to love of God and neighbor. And this implies, for Augustine, that there are certain contours to such a right ordering that are necessarily included or excluded: finding the self-giving love that the crucified Christ displays beautiful precisely in its love and not its bloodied limbs condemns spectacles of human killing for sport, both morally and aesthetically. And for Augustine, a right ordering of both our moral and aesthetic lives will have God at its center. But this center interacts with a vast range of innumerable particularities. The central contours for Augustine are integrally important, but they are also relatively minimalist in terms of how they determine the particular shape of our moral-aesthetic lives: they set up the formative structure, and they establish a center that will inflect the whole, but the specificities that define our moral and aesthetic lives are as variable as the innumerable beautiful things in the world with which we interact and to which we respond by virtue of our temperaments, contexts, vocations, and the standards of judgment we develop to account for the ways in which we value and love the things we do.

Joshua Nunziato


“Are We There Yet?”

A Response to Sarah Stewart-Kroeker’s Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought

Having discussed an earlier iteration of Dr. Sarah Stewart-Kroeker’s book with friends and colleagues at High Point University some five years ago, it’s a pleasure to return to the published form of her work to continue the dialogue. As Augustine knew—and as Stewart-Kroeker canvasses—sharing a trip with friends who help one grow through their good company and conversation is one of life’s abiding joys. I’m grateful for the chance to share more friendly conversation with Stewart-Kroeker and our professional colleagues, especially those who have contributed to this colloquium. I offer what follows in the hope that it will provide some fodder for the next stage of the journey.

Stewart-Kroeker’s beautiful book is all about a road trip (of sorts): the journey of life, taken together. This trip raises a number of philosophical and religious questions, which I’ll focus on in what follows. Is the journey of a life lived by faith (as Augustine would put it) one that takes us to a destination we spend the whole trip waiting to arrive at? Or is it a journey that teaches us to recognize our place in the homeland that we’ve never left? Which is to say: is it a trip that returns us to a home from which we never actually departed? If the latter, what even gives the appearance of displacement—Augustine will call it distentio: that stretching, wrenching, sometimes ecstatic experience of temporality—to each mood and moment of human life?

Let’s start with the image of a road trip. The company you have along the way determines, to a large extent, your experience of the trip—and perhaps also your own capacity for changing along the way. In my experience, taking a road trip with a toddler provides a very specific kind of (shall we say) moral and aesthetic formation. Caring for someone who is prone to be impatient, restless, and distracting along the way tends to quickly dissipate whatever romance a trip on the open highway with more mature friends might hold. Indeed, there can be something quite disorienting about the insistent, repeated question: “Are we there yet?” But there is also something quite revealing about travelling in such company: revealing, perhaps, about what it means to grow up and what it means to take care of the child in each of us.

In my experience, toddlers like getting to places. They don’t much care for the journey. Yet, as we grow up and become adults, we (sometimes at least, perhaps in our better moments) become less attached to any destination distinct from the journey, more available to the present moment, more centered in the destination that accompanies us in all of our travels. Indeed, it may be that, as we grow up, we become capable of caring more capably for those who are restless, dissatisfied, and impatient en route with us. And perhaps we gain this ability precisely insofar as we are not disquieted by the journey ourselves. We offer our less mature traveling companions a slow initiation into a different way of moving through the world. This instruction is often unromantic. But it can be a quiet offering of a life in transit: a journey T. S. Eliot describes as “a lifetime’s death in love, / Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender” (“Dry Salvages,” 5).

I wonder about these two ways of experiencing a road trip: the way of the child and the way of the adult. Can one really revel in everything the journey has to offer, its beauty, sadness, pathos, goodness, vacancy—can one experience it fully, with a grown-up gaze—if one is constantly asking how much longer remains before one is no longer journeying? If one imagines that one is always not home yet? Can one make oneself fully available to both the delights and the frustrations of life if you (or the voice in the back of your head) are constantly asking: “Are we there yet?” Such an attitude of longing, desire, dissatisfaction can—in one who has yet to grow up—become a condition of profound alienation: a paradoxical attachment to the very state one is trying to leave behind in favor of something better. At its worst, the upshot of this craving for escape (what Hegel will memorably describe as the “unhappy consciousness”) leaves one feeling anaesthetized to the beauty and goodness of the world in which we are, precisely as it is.

This sense of eschatological displacement, of not being at home in this world and longing for another one elsewhere, has disquieted many of Augustine’s readers (including Hannah Arendt). It has provoked them to accuse Augustine of a moribund perfectionism: fruitless discontentment with the world as it is and feckless striving for another world that (even were it to exist) would mean nothing for this imperfect one as it now stands. Such provocative disquiet defines Stewart-Kroeker’s point of departure (1–2). She wants to resist such a reading of Augustine by holding together two insights, which Augustine’s eschatological critics would prise apart: both a conviction that the world is an uncanny place of displacement for human beings and the insistence that the best way of dwelling in such a space is to relish its beauty and delights. Here. Now. In the company of others who are being transformed through dwelling in this liminal distentio. By doing so, Stewart-Kroeker argues, we are transfigured into people ready to enjoy the destination of life’s journey, which—she suggests—we’ll never be able to fully experience before arriving at its end.

I’m deeply sympathetic to Stewart-Kroeker’s desire to hold these two things together. However, can we do so while still imagining that the pathway of our journey is different from its end? How seriously is Stewart-Kroeker (how seriously are any of us) ready to take Augustine’s confessional claim that Christ is both the human destination and the divine path to that destination? How do we acknowledge both this identity and this difference? If, in some mysterious way, Christ is both means and end, then humans are always at the destination of their journey en route. We are never not home. We already enjoy—not partially or provisionally—but fully and completely, human life beatified. This, in fact, may be precisely what it means to be en route. Perhaps the goal of the human journey is not to get somewhere else (from Christ as the means, say, to Christ as the end, say—as if Christ were two, not one). But rather, perhaps, it is to grow up into the acknowledgment that the place we have always been is the place we’ve always been going. I wonder if what changes along the way is our capacity for recognition, care, and acknowledgment: not what we recognize, care for, or acknowledge.

Indeed, it is precisely the image of Christ as both the way and the end of the human journey that leads Stewart-Kroeker to see a growing distance between Augustine and his intellectual travelling companion, Plotinus (20). According to Stewart-Kroeker, as Augustine grapples more deeply with the linkage between Christ, the way to God, and Christ, the divine goal, Augustine’s earlier assertion that the Platonists recognized the divine goal of human life but not its incarnational way slips into eclipse. If Platonists like Plotinus do not recognize the way—and if the way is one with the end—how could they possibly have seen even the end (cf. 41–54)?

I wonder, though, if this dialectic fails to acknowledge the way in which our very understanding of what it means to be a way and what it means to be an end must be altered if we would try to imagine one Christ as both. If Christ is really both means and end, then the journey is not separate from its end. The journey is the end, and the end is the journey. But if this is so, I’m inclined to think that the dialectic Stewart-Kroeker sees playing out between Augustine and the Platonists actually runs in reverse. Precisely because Augustine recognized that the Platonists knew God, it must also follow that the Platonists knew the way to God: Christ the end and Christ the means, but incognito: not as members of Augustine’s visible ecclesial community. To her credit, Stewart-Kroeker acknowledges at least this possibility, if not its actuality (179). Augustine, I think, implies that Plotinus knew more than he knew how to acknowledge about life’s incarnational journey and its divine destination. The two of them were closer traveling buddies than they typically appear.

How does beauty form us ethically for this journey of life? Stewart-Kroeker suggests that beauty, reflected in the communal face of Christ, teaches us to love it, hope for it, and trust it. Such, perhaps, is what is means to live ex fide (133). But I think we’re prone to misunderstand the so-called “theological virtues” if we imagine that they point us toward a future that is not yet. Perhaps, instead, they teach us to dwell in the unmoving eye of time. I think again of Eliot: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without / love / For love would be love of the wrong thing; / there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting” (“East Coker,” 3). Maybe beauty teaches us to wait until we can love and hope and trust the unconditional goodness of a life offered in the waiting. This discipline I would link (as does Eliot himself) to the ancient pagan injunction of the Bhagavad-Gita: that the central task of human ethical formation is learning to act without attachment to the fruit of one’s action—to treat each moment as the occasion of offering sacrifice.

Stewart-Kroeker, thinking with Augustine, invites us to see life as a pilgrimage. It is a journey with a destination. And that journey leaves us displaced: seeking a place that’s home, while recognizing that we aren’t there yet. Stewart-Kroeker pays close attention to the texture of human life on the move, across the secular spaces that make up the backdrop of our lives. She describes how the journey can shape us as people. It forms us in goodness and beauty—in goodness through beauty. Her careful attention to how this happens is, to my mind, the book’s most important contribution. She invites us to see that only after we have been made beautiful and good—like our destination (and, somehow, also by it) can we arrive and know where we’ve come. But I wonder: have we come anywhere new? Is the goal to arrive at a destination different from the road?

My suspicion: the journey of a life on pilgrimage teaches us to acknowledge, for the first time, where we have always been. It does not translate us from a place of dissatisfaction to one of fulfillment. It does not bring us home when we are away. We have always been here. At home. Where we belong. At rest. Centered. The journey lets us recognize the place we’ve never not been. Perhaps the grown-up answer to the child’s question, “Are we there yet?” on the journey of life is always: “Yes. But are you ready yet to see where there is?”


Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. “The Dry Salvages.” In Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, 1971.

———. “East Coker.” In Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, 1971.

  • Sarah Stewart-Kroeker

    Sarah Stewart-Kroeker


    Response to Josh Nunziato

    Josh Nunziato raises what I take to be a fundamental question tied to the structure of Augustine’s thought: that it is oriented by eschatological longing. I’m deeply appreciative of Nunziato’s probing on this point, as the unease he expresses is characteristic of much of the criticism of Augustine’s ethics and aesthetics in the last century or so. Nunziato’s response resonates with Jane Barter’s questions about whether we can embrace the contingency and “suchness” of the human creature—which leads to her concluding thought that “the Christian journey is the destination.” Love calls us here, to the present moment, Barter writes. Nunziato’s response brings us full circle in this sense, back to the relationship between present immediacy and a forward-looking longing.

    The claim that Christ is both the way and the end does indeed imply that we are, in a sense, home while en route. The paradoxical identity of these two distinct terms—journey and destination, way and end—fits the whole set of distinct terms joined in Christ (human and divine, temporal and eternal). I agree with Nunziato that a critical piece of formation in Christ involves recognizing that the fulfillment of one’s longings is, in a sense, already accomplished—that we are “never not home” if we are in Christ. But the “in a sense” that I have inserted, here, is what it seems to me Nunziato wants to resist—the partiality, the provisionality, of earthly home-dwelling. And yes, for Augustine, to the extent that Christ dwells in us, we are already at home. At the same time, there is an interplay between presence and absence that characterizes Augustine’s account of the human relationship to the risen Christ: Christ walks with us and even makes himself the very ground on which we walk, and yet he is also the absent bridegroom. There is always a tension between the “already/not yet.”

    I take it that Nunziato wants a stronger identity between way and end, an identity that eliminates any sense of displacement and deferral. “We already enjoy—not partially or provisionally—but fully and completely, human life beatified,” Nunziato writes. But this, I think, obscures the sense in which earthly life is haunted by loss, by truncation, and by horrors. Is longing for restoration and release not an appropriate response to the grievous hurts human beings suffer, the painful absences, the cruelty and violence? It seems to me that acknowledging the grief and horror of earthly life necessarily qualifies the claim that human life could be fully and completely beatified here and now. But this depends on the nature of the theological claims one holds regarding the resurrection, the new creation, and the eschatological fulfillment of divine promise—and thus the nature of beatitude. I wonder if the implication of Nunziato’s resistance is a denial of eschatology, full stop? I’m not sure what place Nunziato accords to these features of Augustine’s (and more broadly Christian) theology—I would be curious to hear more on this point, as the answer would significantly inflect my response. At any rate, for a thoroughly biblical theologian like Augustine, there is no question that his moral theology will be shaped by the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and the interplay between continuous presence (in the ecclesial body) and an absence (the ascended body) that points to a fulfillment of desired unity and companionship yet to come. But I think the more interesting question that Nunziato’s response raises is whether an eschatologically oriented ethics—or even more broadly, an ethics oriented to an “end” beyond the immediate present—is problematic in some sense that should prompt a rethinking of this structure (and perhaps, as a result, the place of eschatology in Christian theology and ethics). In response, I’ll try to say something more about how I think eschatology, affectivity, and moral motivation relate to each other.

    I point to the affective dimension as the tie that binds eschatology and ethics because I think that this is fundamentally at issue when we’re talking about how we relate to time, especially in Augustinian terms. I write about this in my article, “‘Scattered in Times’: An Augustinian Meditation on Temporal Fragmentation, Imagination, and Climate Change,”1 and as I note there, Augustine assimilates the passage of time with the affections. What am I measuring when I measure times? Nothing but “the affection, which times passing makes in you [the mind]” (conf. 11.27.36, translation from James Wetzel, “Time after Augustine,” Religious Studies 31.3 (September 1995) 341–57, 347). The toddler who repeatedly asks “Are we there yet?” expresses impatience, boredom, or perhaps most importantly, uncertainty, bewilderment, and a desire to understand the experiences over which, as a toddler, they are subject by their adult caregivers. The measure of time, for a toddler, reflects these affective responses to an experience for which the scales are yet elusive (as they remain for grown-ups, I would add, though we have devised systems of time-keeping that often shift the focus from the elasticity of temporal-affective experience to chronometrics).

    Earthly life is a passage of a sort, regardless of one’s eschatological commitments, and it is a passage marked not only by action and event but perhaps more fundamentally still by the affections—for whatever significance we assign to actions and events is determined by the affections, which themselves shift and change in uia. The same happening may at different times be regarded in radically different ways, and this is inextricable, it seems to me, from the affections that attend temporal perception. For Augustine, we cannot attend meaningfully to the present (which is itself a “vanishing point” between memory and expectation) without a sense of time’s passage distended in the mind, and the imaginative functions that allow us to suspend the present in a continuous flow. More importantly, though, our perception of this passage (temporal and affective) is shaped by the guiding references that define the temporal imagination. Recollecting and looking ahead are oriented by intention, desire, and love—what we intend, desire, and love will shape the ways we perceive the transit of happening in time.

    Humans are both forward- and backward-looking creatures, and our ability to suspend ourselves in an immediate present with the kind of affective attunement to what is given depends on this distention between memory and expectation, past and future. I’m not sure we can operate the kind of availability to the present Nunziato describes without functions of memory and expectation that structure our very perception of time at all. This is to say, though, that I don’t think that the claim that our perception of ourselves as “in passage” or “on the road” implies a constant flight from presence—a perpetual “Are we there yet?” Perhaps it’s important to reiterate here that whatever eschatological vision entails, it does not fit into earthly categories of futurity or spatial displacement. There is something “futural” to our forward-looking, as we are creatures living in time and experiencing it sequentially. And there is something spatial to an expectation of a heavenly homecoming, as we are creatures who experience in our earthly bodies the constraint that being in one place means not being in another. And so, we necessarily experience something both “futural” and “destinating” in relation to eschatological expectation. But these features are similar to Augustine’s analogies for the Trinity. All of Augustine’s analogies for the Trinity finally fail, and yet in both their closeness and distance reveal something both about who we are, human creatures loving a triune God, and about the triune God whom we love. In the same way, temporal and spatial ways of talking about the heavenly end finally fail, and yet at the same time they say something about who we are and about the God and neighbors whom we yearn to love with inexhaustible bodies that allow for untruncated praise and delight. So too, though, the temporal and spatial terms fail—because to touch or glimpse the eschatological end (as Augustine describes at points, as in the vision at Ostia) is to leap not to a “future place” but to another plane of presence.

    In a wonderful lecture titled “Peregrinationes in Psalmos,” Catherine Conybeare describes how Augustine, working against the grammatical limits of Latin, makes a distinction between the continuous present (the tense for human action in time) and the simple present (the tense for divine eternal being). Because eschatological longing longs precisely for this eternal union with God and the company of neighbors, it is a longing to join this plane of presence. Even if we experience that longing as in some sense both future- and destination-oriented, to the extent that we experience the limits of our earthly bodies and the world in which we live, it is more truly a longing for a plane of presence characterized precisely by a fullness of presence and availability—to God, to others, and to ourselves.

    To come back to longing, though, it seems to me that the eschatological longing that characterizes Augustine’s ethics is both a longing for release from suffering and horror as well as a longing for a fullness that is only possible in a plane of presence beyond time. Of course, Augustine fills out the substance of this longing in various ways. For example, he uses a range of metaphors for ecstatic union with God and neighbors. The metaphors reflect those communal and sensual aspects of joy and delight that speak to certain pleasures we experience on earth. He uses feasting and banquet metaphors (the pleasure of eating and drinking together), he uses treasure metaphors (the pleasure taken in beautiful objects), he uses erotic metaphors (the pleasure of sex and touch). He also, in City of God 22, develops an extended speculative eschatological reflection about the nature of resurrected bodies. Now the former metaphors (feasting, treasures, erotics) obviously point to a kind of abundance of delight evoked through familiar sources of earthly delight. The point is (and Augustine often makes this explicit) not about picturing heavenly life in some kind of predictive sense, but to use a set of familiar delights to point to its supreme bliss. The second set of speculations are often received as more puzzling, because they seem to specify a set of principles for bodily restoration that are not only extrabiblical but seem superfluously (and misguidedly) detailed: how old will our bodies be? Answer: the age Christ was at death. If my body is fully restored, does that mean I’ll have all the hair and fingernails I ever grew in my life? Answer: no. The two most significant affirmations Augustine makes in City of God 22 are, to my mind, the affirmation that the resurrected body has sexual organs and the throwaway line that the martyrs may, like Christ, retain their wounds. But it’s worth asking: why go on about this at all? Does it offer anything to the way we live our earthly lives?

    Eschatological imagining works in two directions: it reflects back to us what we desire and it also shapes what we desire. This is what makes it powerful, and therefore both dangerous and significant. If we think about eschatological imagining as fundamentally a matter of desire, this brings us back to the importance of affectivity as the connecting point between eschatology and ethics. For Augustine, love and desire are the fundamental motions that propel human life and action. Love or desire is a kind of basic expression of will, and will directs the broader emotional life in all its range. Emotions are inward “motions,” they move (or perturb) us (I’ve written about this in more detail in two articles on Augustine on emotions of world-weariness and jubilation). For Augustine, affective formation is central to ethics. Eschatology, then, is a potent site of affective formation because it distills fundamental “motions” of will: what we love and desire, what we long for, what we hope for. The desire for the most intimate, knowing, harmonious union with God and neighbors crystallizes in eschatological images of inexhaustible praise and joy. Eschatological imagining is shaped in part by what we find grievous and difficult on earth and what we love and delight in on earth. It also both expresses and shapes a vision of the perfection of what is most true and good in human creatureliness, life, action, and relations to God and neighbor. In this sense, eschatological imagining can be powerfully life affirming. It can help to attune us to the things that matter most deeply; it can help to orient us to the things in this life to which we want to make ourselves present. Eschatological imagining, then, may be one way in which we cultivate discernment of and appreciation for goodness and beauty in this world. It can serve as a kind of guide, precisely in the ways in which—in the ordering of loves by God that takes places in time—it distills the things that are so good, so desirable, so beautiful, so integral to what it means to be ourselves in God and with others, that when we imagine the inexhaustible joy of heavenly life beyond imagining, we cannot but imagine these things speak to that joy and will be rediscovered in some transfigured form. Not because we are caught up in “pagan dreams of good times after death” (as Barth put it) but because they express the experience of frui, the true enjoyment of all things in God.

    1. Sarah Stewart‐Kroeker, “‘Scattered In Times,’” Journal of Religious Ethics 48, no. 1 (2020): 45–73,