Rallying the Really Human Things

A friend of mine, some five years ago now, introduced me to Vigen Guroian when he suggested I read Inheriting Paradise (Eerdmans, 1999), a short but immensely satisfying meditation on the relationship of theology to gardening. Earlier this year, I was pleased to find that Guroian had continued his ruminations on gardening in another meditative volume entitled, The Fragrance of God (Eerdmans, 2006). In these works, I met a man who enjoys the transcendent in what most of us understand to be mundane, relishing deeply spiritual realities among the plants, vegetables, and fruits of his garden. For Guroian it seems nature, and more particuarly gardening, bridge the "memory of Paradise...and a prophesy of the transfigured world" to quote Nicholas Berdyaev. And thus, with our hands in the compost of this world, we traverse from what we were meant to be to what we all long to become. Both works are a delight to read.

The vision of this present work, Rallying the Really Human Things (a title, by the way, lifted from the writings of G.K. Chesterton) is set forth in two distinct but interrelated themes: Christian humanism and the moral imagination.

Guroian believes that humanism has been held hostage by secularists for far too long, and though many conservative Christians have observed this and have often criticized the secularists' encroachment, little has been done to advance a constructive proposal for replacement.

In moving toward a solution, Guroian contends that appreciation for contributions in the recent past is enough to provide prophetic voices in a constructive vision for the advancement of Christian humanism. This is why the first section of the book is devoted to three modern voices: G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O'Conner, and Russell Kirk. Each of these profound writers express, in his or her own inimitable way, their personal understanding of the nature of Christian humanism.

Following this, Guroian defines and discusses the nature of the moral imagination, leaning heavily on the insights of the aforementioned writers. Believing the assumptions of modernity to have choked out the kind of narratives which properly nurture a moral imagination, Guroian insists that one of the most significant, if not the most urgent responsibilities of the Christian community today is to return to the stories, fantasies, and mythologies which train our sensibilities toward what T.S Eilot called the "permanent things."

Taking his cues from Edmund Burke, Guroian understands the moral imagination as "...the distinctively human power to conceive of men and women as moral beings, that is, as persons, not as things or animals whose value to us is their usefulness. It is the process by which the self makes metaphors out of images recorded by the senses and stored in memory, which then are employed to find and suppose moral correspondence in experience." (55)

The question then, according to Guroian, is not whether the imagination is waxing or waning, for the imagination is something innately human, a constituent part or aspect of an image bearer. Instead, the question centers on the kinds or types of metaphors, images, proofs, inferences, illustrations, etc. that shape our contemporary culture and thus our minds.

The present cultural transition away from the "Age of Discussion" toward an "Age of Sentiments" lies in the background of Guroian's proposal, and yet plays a significant role in the development. Guroian realizes that this change may appear to be a turn in the wrong direction, inviting untold and even unforeseeable opportunities for confusion and error (Kirk certainly thought so initially). But at second glance, this cultural shift actually provides unique opportunities for the advancement of Christian ideals, which, speaking generally, were probably not as clearly realized in the previous era.

Guroian contends, however, that even strong sentiments--those which carry a heavy dose of reason and commonsense--do not possess the perennial power to establish certain human freedoms nor save the dignity of human existence. Rather, we need the deep-seated impression of the religious and moral imagination to repair and rebuild what has been lost in secularization. In short, we need the transcendental attributes of a humanity created in the likeness of God, and the images, symbols, and stories that accompany the Christian tradition. It is in and through such stories, Guroian argues, that the imagination awakens toward what Augustine called ordo amoris, the training of the affections toward the virtuous.

One is reminded of the effect of George MacDonald's Phantastes on the young C.S. Lewis, and how MacDonald's prose performed a kind of "baptism" of Lewis' imagination--imparting through the narrative a taste for that which is good and even holy. It would be Lewis' very personal experience in reading that work which would later prompt his own argument for the moral imagination in the Abolition of Man. This, it seems, is similar to the sort of thing Guroian is advocating.

In the third section of the book, Guroian shifts away from theory and begins meandering through the postmodern landscape--picking up what he refers to as "...broken shards of our culture and civilization." He muses about our current cultural "wasteland," where the divine orders of childhood and family are shattered alongside the ideals of love, humility, service, and communion. Though certainly grief laden, Guroian's meandering is not aimless but an act of recovery. For in spite of the destruction and devastation wrought by the faithless worldviews of relativism and nihilism, divine goodness remains. For goodness, Guroian contends, is too deep, too real, and too permanent to obscure. Thus, it is that divine goodness which we must redeem in the here and now.

The book ends with four quite provocative essays on politics. In the first two of these essays, the subject of freedom takes center stage, particularly the nature and survival of freedom. Relying on Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Weaver, Guroian asserts that true freedom fails when vision lacks unity. Understanding that many present attempts at providing and maintaining freedom fall short in this regard, true freedom is born and kept alive from within the history, myths, and collected memory of the long narrative of political freedom. Thus, the moral imagination is not separate or even ancillary to the cause of freedom; it is the lifeblood.

Guroian believes that this same principle holds true of formerly communist countries like Armenia from where he traces his ancestry. In such a context, freedom will not be derived, he contends, from political maneuvering and formulas but "...from larger visions of the human good that unapologetically embrace the conviction that God, not man, is the source and fountain of freedom, justice, peace, prosperity, and love..." (p. 208).

Guroian closes this volume with two essays on the relationship (or lack of one) between the theory of human rights and consistent Orthodox Faith, that is, the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Guroian takes much of Western civilization to task when he argues that the notion of "human rights" is incompatible with Orthodoxy's view of Christology and redemption. He traces this, interestingly, to the leeriness of the Orthodox to make the kind of sharp, abstract distinctions that were made at the Council of Chalcedon regarding the ousia and hypostasis of Christ. Different from the conclusions of Chalcedon, Orthodoxy insists on a theonomous view of humanity, consistent with Cyril's monophysitism. By consequence, any view of the human person that fails to cohere with the way Eastern Orthodoxy understands the Incarnation and, consequently, redemption must be rejected. It is Guroian's view that human rights proposals, though often sharing a similar intent with Orthodoxy, actually undermine the cause by loosing human freedom and dignity from biblical anthropology and the second person of the Trinity.

In his final essay, Guroian actually moves a step further to suggest that human rights' proposals ("Christian" or otherwise) are essentially atheistic due to their secular nature. Eager not to be misunderstood, Guroian affirms the fact that many religious people have embraced the notion of human rights and adopted such language to defend it, but have failed to realize that belief and language do not necessarily make something what it is not by nature.

In his own words, "If the gospel is proclaimed by the prophet, preached by the church, and developed in every sector of life...it will do far more to preserve human dignity than all the lists of human rights enshrined in our modern documents. This is so because the kingdom of God is more real than any theory of justice formulated by human beings at any given moment in history, including the modern concept of human rights." (p. 230-231)

And so, with that less than innocuous ending, Guroian draws the volume to a close. Now, a few comments:

First, Guroian does us a favor by adding his voice to the litany of voices now proposing a return to a robust religious and moral imagination. He sees, rightly, that one of the chief ways to nurture moral consciousness is through symbols, images, and stories that cultivate moral awareness and thus supply encouragement toward living wisely. Not unlike Jonathan Edwards, Guroian understands the creative power of the imagination as central to giving people an affection for that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (cf. Phil.4:8).

Second, Guroian does a good job in pointing out where the imagination can and has gone wrong. The sins of the imagination, whether idyllic or diabolical, are many and never too far away from any of us. We are reminded that the imagination is not virtuous in itself, as if somehow skirting the effect of the fall. No, we must persistently examine and ask questions of ourselves regarding our use of the imagination and the content we introduce our imaginations to. Questions like: How is the imagination being used; what images and metaphors are we filling our imaginations with; are these images and metaphors encouraging us toward holy living? These questions and others are great examples of the kinds of things we ought to be asking and seriously reflecting on.

On a more negative front, the book is at times quite disjunctive, a point the author himself notes in the second paragraph of the introduction. This is particularly true of essays in the third and fourth section of the book where applications of the moral imagination are front and center. What is clear is that the distortion of the imagination has contributed to the loss of what it means to be human. But what is not always clear is how the cause and effect worked specifically. More attention could be given here.

Also, several of the essays lean heavily on the philosophical assumptions and doctrinal distinctives peculiar to Eastern Orthodoxy. Consequently, Protestant readers who are unfamiliar with the Eastern tradition might find sections of the book difficult to wade through if not thoroughly confusing.

On more than one occasion, Reformed Christians will find themselves in agreement with Guroian's conclusions, while fervently disagreeing with the route taken to get there. For instance, Guroian disagrees with any proposal for gay marriage, but he does so based on his Orthodox commitment to marriage as a sacrament. In similar fashion, Guroian believes in the essential freedom of humanity, but he bases this belief on a heterodox view of the person of Christ, namely monophysitism.

You may desire, as I often do, to apply Western theological categories to the latent and not so latent problems in Guroian's theology. But, as is quite typical of the Orthodox, he will avoid your insistence on fine distinction and "abstraction." This resolve, as you might imagine, will have a tendency to curl the Protestant reader's hair, so...consider yourself warned!

Nevertheless, the discerning reader will find much to applaud in Guroian's work and will consider the time spent in reading this volume as beneficial and deserving of serious consideration. The proposal and its implications are far reaching, much further I suspect than many realize. It is my hope that what Guroian proposes in this book will become vernacular, both in tongue and in life for all of us. Eastern Orthodox and Protestant alike.

By Vigen Gurorian - Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006
Review by Nate Shurden