At the end of Sources of the Self (1990), Charles Taylor argues that the modern West lacks the moral resources it needs to realize its own ideals of universal justice and benevolence. And so, in pursuit of those ideals, it often violates them. He called the latter the “dilemma of mutilation.” Redeeming the Enlightenment is Bruce Ward’s philosophical-theological reflection on that dilemma. Ward gives a nod to those who would pluralize the term “Enlightenment,” but he himself prefers to concentrate on a relatively unified modern project of critique aimed primarily at Western Christianity and extending well beyond the eighteenth century. Underlying various forms of Enlightenment is a moral orientation, a set of imperatives that include equality of dignity, the quest for authenticity, tolerance of difference, and compassion for victims. These are the “liberal virtues” of the subtitle. Ward sees an internal crisis in this Enlightenment orientation; he argues that its champions have offered no theoretical account of equality that responds to neo-Nietzschean critiques.

Ward, who teaches in the department of religious studies at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, reads the intellectual map of modern culture as a “three-cornered struggle.” In one corner is Jean Jacques Rousseau, “the personification of the Enlightenment” and the primordial “liberal humanist.” In another corner is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose taunt stalks liberal humanists through Ward’s pages: “They have got rid of the Christian God and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality.” Ward agrees with Nietzsche’s description of modernity as a kind of secularized Christianity—or, in Ward’s words, “a glittering parody of Christian moral ideas.” In the third corner is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Ward has spent the past three decades thinking about Prince Myshkin, Zosima, and the three Karamazov brothers, and it shows: Dostoyevsky is at the heart of this book. For Ward, he is the main spokesman for a humanism founded on Christ.

To understand the Enlightenment critique, one must first understand its target, Christianity. A Trinitarian understanding of the relationship between the transcendent and the immanent is at the heart of Christian theology. And at the origin of modernity, Ward argues, there was a misunderstanding of this relationship. Redeeming the Enlightenment, then, cannot simply be a salvage job. Ward uses the word “redeeming” to mean the spiritual and moral transformation of the Enlightenment’s best impulses into more durable and better-grounded virtues. He devotes one chapter to each of four liberal virtues: equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion. These four chapters all unfold according to a similar pattern. First, Ward uses Rousseau to introduce a liberal virtue. Then he elaborates on it, incorporating the work of later interpreters such as Kant, Locke, and Martha Nussbaum. Next, the author shows how Nietzsche lays bare the fault lines in a moral project historically derived from real attempts to purify Western Christianity but now without any theological warrant. Finally, Dostoyevsky offers a Christian humanist alternative. To Ward’s credit, he does not shrink from the difficulty of the case he wants to make. Proponents of an alternative account of the Enlightenment will have to deal with his careful readings and arguments. Above all, they must deal with Nietzsche’s clinical dissection of Christian morality and its modern heirs. Nietzsche’s own account of authenticity as self-assertion drives a wedge between it and the other liberal virtues.

The most difficult of the four liberal virtues Ward writes about is the last: compassion for the lowly, for their own sake, beyond sentimentality or disguised selfishness. Here Nietzsche’s critique, with its emphasis on the negative effects of compassion on those who receive it, is most devastating. Ward opposes Nietzsche’s view to Dostoyevsky’s belief in a self-emptying love. He wants to verify Nicholai Berdyaev’s claim that “Dostoyevsky knew everything Nietzsche knew...and more.” Recalling Nietzsche’s high regard for Dostoyevsky as “the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn,” Ward calls Nietzsche as witness against himself. He notes the impact of Dostoyevsky’s “underground man” in Notes from the Underground on Nietzsche’s analysis of compassion, as well as the centrality of The Idiot’s Prince Myshkin to Nietzsche’s portrayal of Christ in The Anti-Christ. Wherever Nietzsche went, Dostoyevsky had been there first.

In order to make his case, however, Ward must do more than historicize Nietzsche. He must also demonstrate Dostoyevsky’s success in imagining an active, transcendent, and self-dispossessing love in the midst of ordinary life. The book’s fifth chapter therefore presents a brilliant reading of Dostoyevsky as theologian. The Brothers Karamazov is both a hymn to, and a “dramatized icon” of, the Trinity, “one of the most significant expressions of Trinitarian thought to be found in any modern text.” The light from beyond, which Prince Myshkin reflects, testifies like an icon “to the capacity of the material to bear spirit.” Nietzsche thought the underground man’s rejection of compassion in the name of self-love wins out over Prince Myshkin’s selflessness. Ward disagrees. For him, Myshkin is, despite his eventual madness, Dostoyevsky’s most powerful evocation of the effective presence of eternal beauty in the world.

Ward cites Vladimir Soloviev’s claim that the church as a particular form of human order is the central subject of The Brothers Karamazov. In the conclusion of Redeeming the Enlightenment, Ward describes Dostoyevsky’s church as “an alternative society...acknowledging a higher world and preoccupied with realizing justice in this world.” He likens this idea to Stanley Hauerwas’s “church as polis.” The first job of the church so conceived is to form us in certain practices, so that we become the kind of people who can act as Jesus did. This idea has a lot going for it, not least in its insistence that politics is about more than the policy-making of the state. And this is of course quite consistent with the emphasis in Catholic social thought on mediating institutions. Hauerwas himself has little enthusiasm for a church that would save or redeem the liberal project. But Ward spends the first four chapters of his book claiming the Christian provenance of the liberal virtues, so he is in no position to dismiss liberal society and its politics. Instead, he exhorts the church to “re-translate” equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion into Christianity.

This last appeal is a disappointing end to an otherwise timely and compelling book. Because the church has been complicit in violent persecution, both Dostoyevsky and Ward are wary of “official” churches. But where, in that case, is the church that will do the re-translating that Ward wants? Can what he calls an “agapic network” really carry the burden of forming people who will make transcendent love actively present in the world? Christians repent every day of the ressentiment that sours whatever love they have managed to muster by the grace of God. “Dostoyevsky believed from love not fear,” said George Florovsky. But how many of us are this pure? I am reminded of the Act of Contrition, in which we say we’re sorry for our sins because we dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because God is all good and deserving of all our love. As we Christians move from terror in the face of God’s commands to an appreciation, and even a delight, in how those commands fit into the grammar of creation, “imperfect” and “perfect” contrition, fear and love, will both have a place in our souls. Along the way we need the support and correction of a real ecclesial community. Because we are not all already saints, those “agapic networks” will continue to depend on the church that occupies time and space. Ward does a fine job of presenting Dostoyevsky’s case for selfless love in imitation of Christ as the path to authentic humanness. But until we reach it, I’ll take my chances with the historical church, even as I am bound to mourn for and repent its sins.


Related: John Garvey reviews Rowan Williams's 'Dostoevsky'

William Portier is the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology at the University of Dayton. His latest book is Every Catholic An Apostle: A Life of Thomas A. Judge, C.M., 1868–1933.

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Published in the 2010-04-09 issue: View Contents
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