Philosophical/Scriptural Anthropology: A Commentary on Kepnes’ “Adam/Eve”

Mark Ryan
University of Virginia

As I understand scriptural reasoning, the way into it is through faith, mediated by a community and tradition of faith.? As Chad Pecknold notes, faith is an important aspect of a scriptural anthropology and that faith signifies an activity as well as a gift?i.e. such a faith also works.

I would like however to draw attention to what I take to be another presupposition of coming to the table of Scriptural Reasoning, as it likewise constitutes what I would claim to be an important part of scriptural anthropology. I can perhaps get at what I am talking about through the term “formation.”

To explicate this term a bit, I will draw on some of the early work of Stanley Hauerwas and the kind of moral psychology he negotiates there. In an essay called “Toward an Ethics of Character,” [1] Hauerwas wrestles with the notion of “freedom”, as in “free agency”, and how it fits into the account of the moral agent. He uses the notion of “character” as a way to do justice to the place of freedom in our experience of ourselves as agents while at the same time making provision for the embodied nature of human action and identity. He wishes to avoid what he sees as an abstract and thin picture of the freedom of the will endemic to much modern moral theory. The puzzle about character displayed by Aristotle is that we say that one’s actions flow from it, and that what we do shapes and informs our character. Hauerwas, then, theorizes freedom as the ability to choose our characters; we have some choice regarding what we do, but we have to live out the consequences of our actions. Our freedom always leads to the formation of our character, which then plays a determining role in our actions. The implicit principle here is that our actions are always shaped in some way rather than another, and that our character is inseparable from our agency. [2]

In our semantic philosophical epoch we are particular aware of the linguistic quality of the intentions that inform our agency. Here a form is a particular description. The form of our intention in a given act comes from the particular description under which we take the object for which we act. Thus, Hauerwas considers our agential freedom in terms of the descriptions we are able to make of our actions. It is then a short step to considering how our individual actions fit into a larger narrative: the story of our life.

Perhaps the fact that our agency is a function of our ability to appropriate certain descriptions of our actions already calls attention to role of formation in our development as persons. For we know that language is basically public and political and that any descriptions for ourselves to which we have access come out of a common stockpile. Yet to recognize that the skills and powers necessary for agency come out of activities with others implies that any anthropology worth its salt ought to recognize that the human being has not just the ability but the need to be formed.

Our growth as persons of faith communities is no different. Here, as in the general case, we are involved in the business of becoming agents of a certain kind by appropriating a particular set of formative descriptions. In our faith communities, just as in the context of scriptural reasoning, we are dependent on others to develop the skills necessary to make a certain set of descriptions primary in shaping our selves. We need the example and the help of masters and friends in the context of our common life together. Faith itself is a matter of skills to be developed. This is what I mean by formation.

Perhaps Zornberg’s reading of Adam’s role in his own making speaks to this issue of how agency is something that must be learned, and therefore requires our own effort. We tend to think of creativity as something we perform after the material is given to us?e.g. a sculptor with her clay?but here it seems that even the given is a matter of responsible action: who we are is up to us. But what I believe a theological ethicist like Hauerwas does so well is remind us that our responsibility is bound up with our need for formation.

Of course this creativity is community dependent, but we may nevertheless find ourselves choosing between alternative descriptive accounts of the character of our actions. (I imagine that being a member of a faith community for many of us today represents this kind of choice between intentions: the choice of how to relate to the past in each of our lives.)

So why ought a group of Jewish, Muslim and Christian scriptural reasoners discussing anthropology be concerned with formation? As I understand it, the premise of Scriptural Reasoning is that individuals from different faith communities come together to share their own traditions and learn from one another. Yet, if we affirm the notion of agency that sees action in terms of embodying the descriptive forms of particular communities, then perhaps we are obliged to think about the formation presupposed by scriptural reasoning. Any scriptural anthropology should highlight the need the human being has for formation in learning to be an agent. And it would further seem that our anthropological inquiries ought especially to take account of the importance of formation. Perhaps insofar as our purpose in coming together is to learn and teach, we implicitly acknowledge the importance of our traditions of formation.? So, to be a scriptural reasoner presupposes a certain amount of formation. I cannot claim to be so confident in my own formation But my own unfinished formation in a faith tradition may be all the more reason to insist that an anthropology recognize the need in human beings for it.

I do acknowledge my indebtedness to the Christian faith as a source of my agency. It is to this tradition of prayer and ritual and being together that I turn to refresh the deepest sources of my person. My story of becoming a Christian reflects, however imperfectly, the particular shape of a Christian character. In this light, and as a student of philosophical inquiry into anthropology, I enjoyed reading and thinking through the scriptural anthropology outlined in Steve Kepnes’ paper.

It seems to me that Kepnes’ scriptural account of agency bears resemblances to Hauerwas’. Both view responsible action as fundamental to being a human being, even to the point of a being a co-creator of one’s self. As Kepnes shows, the human being bears the image of God in being a creature whose nature is to be open. (Our likeness to God illumines how our responsibility goes “all the way down.”)? Hauerwas illumines this responsibility by speaking of the way our actions determine who we are through character. This general view about the structure of moral psychology naturally sits at the base of Hauerwas’ work as he goes on to describe the particular character to be embodied by following Jesus.

We might explore the connection between the need in scriptural reasoners for a formation and Adam’s piety. For I have said that the formation of our self-agency has to do with learning to appropriate to ourselves certain intentions, and this means coming to understand our actions in the light of certain descriptions rather than others. How would we execute such a formation except by the practices of prayer and liturgy and fellowship within a tradition? These agency shaping activities could be seen as the content of “piety”, and, once again invoking Hauerwas, in an age that wishes to separate faith from works and belief from practice?publicizing ethics and privatizing conviction?emphasis on the intenion-forming activities of prayer and worship may be particularly warranted.

Kepnes tells us that the rabbis associated piety with Adam whose pious life consisted in contemplation of God’s creation and praise. Yet we do not clearly see how this shapes Adam’s agency for he is seen to be passive, whereas Eve goes out into the world and acts. We may fill this picture in by reading them, as Kepnes teaches us, as forming a single agency (co-actors, if you will). (The text, at least to the eyes of rabbi, actually calls us to such a reading; Adam’s elusiveness cries out “interpret me.”)? Perhaps my appropriation of Hauerwas can be fruitfully applied here. As moral formation implies the building of character through choosing the descriptions that will inform our actions, we may note the necessity of responsible action in tandem with spiritual contemplation and praise. Hauerwas’ account of agency integrates contemplation and action through the notion of vision. In fact, on Hauerwas’ view the activity implied in learning to see the world as a person of good character?or, more to the point, learning to see the world as God’s creation?makes activity an integral part of piety (the knowledge of good and evil). Here, then, Eve’s active confrontation of the serpent and the tree of knowledge becomes a necessary component of Adam’s religious contemplation. [3]

While Rashi infers from the necessity to respond to the commandment that the “likeness” of God in man refers to cognitive abilities?for how else would Adam be able to understand the commandment??we may wonder whether it would be equally justifiable to infer that these abilities must be shaped and developed in a particular way. For in addition to presupposing the ability to grasp the same grammatical/logical structure as all commandments, this one also possesses the particular quality of being God’s will for the human being he has created. So “understanding” the commandment may also imply learning to respond as God desires, or learning to be like God.?


As students of philosophical anthropology the danger (or temptation) for us in emphasizing responsibility is that this responsibility might become fundamentally ungrounded. As free agency tends toward autonomy, the human will comes to be isolated from a world that would shape its own movements. Responsibility here becomes an end in itself.

Charles Taylor is a philosophical anthropologist who shares this basic concern, and we might fruitfully compare his strategy for coping with it to that of Kepnes. In considering Taylor’s anthropology, and noting where Kepnes’ account coincides with and differs from it, we may be able to discern a bit of what makes a scriptural anthropology distinctive.

Taylor follows in a line of moral philosophers beginning with the likes of GEM Anscombe, and enriched by the likes of Iris Murdoch, that ties moral theories and conceptions of practical reason back to a conception of the human agent. They ask questions like, “What kind of persons would we be if theories like Utilitarianism were illuminating?”? Such an anthropological question then becomes the strategy for critiquing many of the moral theories on offer.

Taylor’s anthropology holds that the self is constituted in relation to the good. A completely free and arbitrary agency is impossible for humans insofar as action is only possible within some ontological framework that manifests a distinction between higher and lower (worthy and base). This fact about human life seems closely connected in Taylor’s account to our nature as social and linguistic beings. As much as behavioristic approaches to the explanation of behavior set out with a hypothesis to the contrary, there are choices we make and actions we perform that can only be made sense of in light of some grasp of what is qualitatively higher for us. This “strong evaluation” comes to light when we are asked to articulate our reasons for making certain moves in our lives. Our conception of the good (the “incomparably higher”) in turn constitutes our own self-understandings, and becomes an integral part of who we are. This fact that the self is always an “interpreted” self is used by Taylor to argue against versions of agency that emphasize disengagement and mechanism, as well as the view that freedom means having no criteria above the self to direct one’s actions. The responsibility of the human agent cannot be an end in itself or ungrounded in something outside itself because the social and linguistic aspects of the self tie it to a moral ontology that serves as an authoritative framework for agency.

One can appreciate Taylor’s effort here to construct a picture of responsible human agency without falling into an irresponsible subjectivism. We may ask, however, whether his account may fall short either by attributing to the individual too much, or too little, responsibility. To start with the latter, how could Taylor’s self bear too little responsibility? What I want to highlight in Taylor’s account is how the good that directs the agent is built into the very structure of agency. Human beings are defined as social and linguistic animals capable of articulating qualitative distinctions between higher and lower. This (moral) capacity is expressed in our self-understanding and action, our institutions and artistic works. To say that the good is “constitutive” of the human agent, or provides a transcendental condition for the same, is in some sense to leave out the possibility of being irresponsible. What we seem to lose here is what Hauerwas is after when he describes being in the position of choosing the intentions that will then shape your character. Taylor does leave room for striving insofar as there is a gap between what human activity expresses or articulates and what truly is. Yet when the question is posed this way, where the subject of expression consists in human activity and institutions as such, the responsibility of the individual agent seems to get swallowed up into a larger and impersonal Agent. There is [at least] a trace of Hegelianism here.

We might compare Taylor’s assertion that the good is constitutive of human agency to the neo-Kantians mentioned by Kepnes and their claim that the moral law remains outside of the human agent as a direction for striving. However much she tries to internalize it?and perhaps this striving represents a healthy piety?full autonomy is out of reach. Even the self that strives toward the moral law has a special status. The tradition Kepnes cites here distinguishes this “spiritual and moral self,” characterized? by its making itself new in every moment, from the empirical self characterized by more permanent traits. The heteronomous law provides a guide-post for this responsible self, which is placed in a triadic web of relations whose subjects are itself, others and God. [4] The use of “heteronomous” here provides a nice contrast to Kant’s noumenal self, or pure will, which is defined by its autonomy.

On the other hand, I mentioned the possibility that Taylor’s account attributes too much responsibility to the agent. Here I point to the account Taylor gives of “practical reason,” or the deliberation that leads into action. Taylor ties practical reason closely to the ability to articulate our sense of the good. Rather than a form of reasoning that uses (supposedly) universally accepted criteria for the adequacy of a conclusion, practical reason is comparative and depends on lived transitions from one set of beliefs to a different set. Autobiography is a typical genre of such reasoning. Again while one can appreciate Taylor’s turn here from the models of inquiry typified by the natural sciences to a form akin to narrative, I am concerned about the ability of human beings to execute the task of practical reasoning as outlined here. For a great deal of weight is placed on the [ability of the individual] practical reasoner to re-articulate with ever greater clarity her moral framework in response to the problems she encounters. For example, Taylor seeks an account of practical reasoning robust enough to overcome the doubt caused by the recognition that different cultures and societies have diverse moral frameworks. These differences, it is claimed, may be engaged through reasoned conversation and debate. This emphasis on articulacy and clarity, albeit in the form of an unfinished task for humankind, has led critics of Taylor to charge that his account of identity leans heavily on the “ideal.” This may accurately reflect a certain Platonic tendency in Taylor, though a Platonism transposed by the subjective turn.

So, depending on what or who we finally take the agent or subject to be in Taylor, questions may be raised about whether he attributes too much, or too little, responsibility to the human agent. The trouble with an account that puts too much responsibility on the shoulders of the agent is the tendency to degenerate into an overly optimistic, and ultimately irresponsible, humanism.

What alternative does Kepnes offer to Taylor’s moral ontology of the self?? We alluded above to Kepnes’ reference to the tradition from Cohen to Buber that posits a spiritual and moral self above the empirical one. While acknowledging the merit possessed by this anthropology of having a reference point beyond the self, and while relating to this tradition as an outsider, I would like to raise a question about such an approach. Could not the positing of a spiritual self over and above the empirical one risk isolating human responsibility from its world? It seems to me that there is a connection between those accounts of responsibility that isolate the will from the world and those whose moral anthropology is disembodied. Someone immersed in Hauerwas’ work like me can be expected to wonder, “Is such a self historical?” This question of course betrays my continuing interest in formation and [my] suspicion regarding anthropologies that locate our agency and freedom in a category untouched by the day to day. Of course, it would be misleading as well to view formation as opposed to the need for our agency to be rejuvenated and re-made from time to time. A desideratum for a proper account of responsibility is a balance between continuity with one’s past and freedom toward the present and future.?

Kepnes offers a second account of the moral self when he comments on the rabbinic postulate that each person contains two contradictory moral impulses?the good impulse and the evil impulse. While the possession of these two impulses, together with cognition, would seem to account for the human’s capacity for responsible action, the upshot seems to be closer to a condition of paralysis; the good and evil yetzers stand off against one another. Yet, the rabbis add, God did not only “give” the two contradictory inclinations to the human being, but also “the Torah as an antidote.” Here we see that the law is viewed as “gift” and “given” so that it becomes an integral part of the human being. The fact that the law assumes the human’s cognitive capacity to comprehend it further suggests that the law is integral to her creation. True agency is restored only by an anthropology that transforms this dyad of the two impulses into a triad. And it is not coincidental that a part of that triad is God’s help. The Torah as the third part is not an add on, but woven into our created being.

This too is something like faith working. The restoration of our autonomy by the gift of the Law does not erase the primacy of responsibility, for this gift brings us a limited possession of ourselves only through our response to it. The rabbis quoted by Kepnes here seem to envision the human response as a kind of piety: “As long as you preoccupy yourself with the Torah (the evil inclination) will have no dominion over you.” In Hauerwas’ terms, the agent needs to make the law into her own intentions and thus shape her character through it.

This scriptural anthropology outlined by Kepnes distinguishes itself from Taylor’s philosophical anthropology by weaving God’s responsibility into that of the human being, or, perhaps better, weaving hers into God’s.


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue , (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp.48-67.

[2] As I read him, Hauerwas believes that calling attention to the place of formation in our human agency is important because to do so confronts what seems to him (and to many others) an inadequate conception of agency that is typical of modernity. On this view, action is purely a function of the will, pictured as kind of independent first cause, that erupts freely into a world to which it is ultimately indifferent. Such a ‘punctual’ view of agency requires no tie between what I do and what I am, and thus no historical connection between my actions. Hauerwas’ point, then, is that notion of formation is necessary for a realistic anthropology.

[3] Hauerwas has recently been criticized (cf. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition ) for talking about character and community in a way that neglects the larger world of the democratic nation to which he belongs. Stout argues that Hauerwas develops the virtues in a way that places all the emphasis on what goes on within particular communities, and neglects the issue of how members of such communities are to interpret and participate in the broader contexts that deeply affect, and are deeply affected by, them.? Perhaps moral formation in a community, however important, is not enough to account for the anthropological task. Does not God call us to respond to those beyond the boundaries of our shared understandings?

Here Kepnes’ discussion of Adam and Eve may help us understand the necessity for the responsible self to move out beyond her comfort zone, in addition to providing a more effective response to Stout. While Adam is contemplating Eden, in a way that parallels SR scholars conversing within their shared discourse, Eve is engaging the broken world. While it is contrasted with piety, we may press on ourselves the question of how to describe the virtues Eve displays. What kind of formation does this virtue entail?

One interesting question for members of SR may be whether these are “intellectual virtues”, referring to the ways we engage intellectually with members of distinct faith traditions, or virtues of a more basic, practical, hands in the mud, sort. One perhaps suggestive observation is that Kepnes speaks of intellectual virtues in terms of small communities, like SR, while Stout has the nation’s public debates in mind when he speaks of intellectual virtues. Is there something to be learned from this inversion of intellectual versus practical virtues? ? Does Kepnes’ approach, in arguing for intellectual engagement in a particular, small community of scholars, bespeak an intellectual responsibility that retains a richer sense of the particularity and embodiment Hauerwas envisions? Are there ways, then, of going out into the word and muddying the hands that do better at preserving the piety of smaller communities?

[4] I would like to understand better how the tradition Kepnes draws on here conceptualizes this “moral and spiritual self” and its relation to the ego and to the structure of its striving to be ruled by the heteronomous law.

Title Page | Archive
© 2004, Society for Scriptural Reasoning