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‘Religion Unbound’: Jeffrey Stout on Emersonian Democracy

This post is written in response to Jeffrey Stout’s fifth Gifford lecture for 2017, entitled ‘Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God.’ It is part of his larger series, Religion Unbound: Powers and Ideals from Cicero to King that has just been delivered at the University of Edinburgh (May 1-11, 2017). My colleague Andrew Johnson is hosting the Giffords blog, where he has posted summaries of the lectures as well as links to the lecture videos. 

Professor Jeffrey Stout has offered a compelling account of Emerson’s importance for the pursuit of ‘ethical religion’. Emerson’s worthy provocations include an incisive critique, later adopted by Nietzsche, of slavishness and the herd mentality. He therefore seeks to evoke others’ ‘self-reliance’, characterised by the expression of ‘unauthorised thoughts’. In Stout’s convincing portrayal, Emerson is not thereby calling for atomised self-assertion; rather, non-conformity is the necessary condition for a ‘sociality of reason’ (in Terry Pinkard’s phrase) that can alone support democracy.…
 
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A Cleaving Mind: Hegel and Bonhoeffer on the Fall Into Knowledge

The following excerpt is taken from my recent article in Modern Theology 32.4 (October 2016), in which I explore how Genesis 3 affects our ethical thinking. The essay also draws on a chapter of my Ph.D. thesis–the current task that’s kept me from posting on this site more frequently!

Tob and ra [good and evil] are concepts that express what is in every respect the deepest divide in human life. The essential point about them is that they appear as a pair, that in being split apart they belong inseparably together.  – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall

Introduction

Dietrich Bonhoeffer delivered his lectures on Genesis 1-3 at the University of Berlin under the title Schöpfung und Sünde. The course was one of several treatments of Jewish scripture in order to rethink ethical life under the emerging Third Reich, an exegetical habit that led to fines and publication bans in subsequent years. He delivered the lectures in winter semester 1932-33, during which time Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. A day after that momentous event, Bonhoeffer recounted the irreducible ambiguity of the Fall, which he cast in the ‘twilight’ while reminding students that the name Lucifer means ‘Light-bearer.’

Along with thinly-veiled reference to contemporary events, the term ‘Light-bearer’ is one of several echoes of Hegel’s lecture on the same passage, also delivered at the University of Berlin a century earlier. Bonhoeffer had the three volumes of his predecessor’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion at hand, newly edited by Georg Lasson. They contain Hegel’s most explicit and sustained work with biblical text, which is likely why this section is one of the most heavily marked in Bonhoeffer’s set. Along with providing a key secondary text for his Genesis lectures, the volumes serve Bonhoeffer’s preparation for a summer 1933 seminar focused on these texts.…
 
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Beginning with Epiphany

Scripture is taken from Matthew 1:25 – 2:18, english standard version, and rendered in italics.

Luke narrates the nativity as a fringe event. Although the action is compelled by Caesar’s decree, the angels appear to blue-collar workers who find their way to a darkened stable. The obscurity is captured well with Chesterton’s line ‘God in the cave’, although he shows that it does not end there.

Matthew, in contrast, begins with radiance. The nativity scene is passed over in a single verse at the end of chapter one, embedded between the observation that Joseph ‘knew Mary not’ and the naming of the child. The narrator’s focus is on a celestial event and the charged political negotiation it provokes.…
 
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© David Robinson, 2017