Saturday, 26 January 2008

Human agency according to Augustine, Paul, and Lou Martyn

In his extraordinary book on the history of Christian spirituality, The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams describes Augustine’s understanding of human agency:

“Augustine is less concerned than almost any of the Greek Fathers with freedom…. The human subject is indeed a mystery; no one could be more painfully and eloquently aware of this than Augustine. But the mysteriousness and unpredictability have more to do with the forces that act on the subject…. Augustine’s undiminished appeal to a post-Freudian generation has much to do with this aspect of his thought. He confronts and accepts the unpalatable truth that rationality is not the most important factor in human experience, that the human subject is a point in a vast structure of forces whose operation is tantalisingly obscure to the reason. Human reality is acted upon at least as much as acting” (pp. 82-83).

This reminds me of a provocative SBL paper in November by the great Paul scholar, J. Louis Martyn (he was in a session with Douglas Campbell and Susan Eastman, with responses from Darrell Guder and Telford Work). Martyn presented Paul’s understanding of human agency along these lines: the human agent has no subjective autonomy and no moral competence to choose her own path. She is under the sway of inscrutable cosmic powers – and will remain so except for the militant, apocalyptic interruption of a divine agent who vanquishes the enslaving powers and creates a new moral subject.

Further, according to Martyn (much to the displeasure of his respondent, Telford Work!), Paul’s apocalyptic conception of human agency is a deliberate critique of the “classic moral drama” which underlies much of the Old Testament, e.g. in Deuteronomy, where “morally competent” agents are said to stand at a crossroad between two possible choices.

For Paul, there is no crossroad, no moral competence, no “choose this day.” To be sure, there is a real alternative: slavery or freedom! But this alternative doesn’t lie in our power or depend on our agency. This means that God’s action cannot be said to “help” us or “enable” us – the divine action is a unilateral liberation which constitutes us as new agents.

After his paper, Martyn was asked: “Why are you so uncomfortable with the word ‘enable’?” He replied: “I’m not uncomfortable with it. It’s just wrong.”

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