Response to C. C. Pecknold: The Unity of Scriptural Reasoning

Martin Kavka
Florida State University

I’m grateful for the invitation to respond to C. C. Pecknold’s paper in the forum of the Journal for Scriptural Reasoning . I should say right off the bat that I am not an Augustine expert. Indeed, when it comes to Augustine, I’m barely even competent, and I have made no attempt to brush up on Augustine in writing my response, because others will have more cogent things to say in this regard. But there are other important issues in Pecknold’s paper besides that of Augustine’s performance of scriptural reasoning. In fact, I think these are more important issues, and these issues are extremely important, important not least for our performance of scriptural reasoning today.

Before we start to read scripture together, the problem which we bring to the text must be as clearly articulated as possible. The problem which Pecknold is trying to solve is that of whether there is anything that a diverse group of people hold together in common. The crux of the question as to whether the “glorious American experiment” is possible or rather falls just short of being a sham—what Pecknold delineates as the debate between Jeffrey Stout and Stanley Hauerwas—is the issue of whether unity is possible. But to inquire about this issue requires that we know what unity means, and here Pecknold begins with one position and ends with another. Luckily enough, the two senses of unity which Pecknold invokes are the same two senses that the theorist of cultural pluralism Horace Kallen invoked in several of his writings, but most succinctly in a brief essay from 1946 entitled “The Meanings of ‘Unity’ Among the Sciences, Once More.” In talking about the unity of the sciences in terms of “a rule of laisser faire , of a free and uncoordinated trade among the sciences,” Kallen cautions his audience from interpreting unity in what might be the most instinctive fashion.

A customary synonym for them [the unities of science] is integration , with its implication of numerical wholeness, of seamless, static totality without fissures, without movement, without conflict. The synonym I would prefer is orchestration , with its implication of diversities of instruments and parts, of movements and pauses, of dissonances and discords as well as harmonies, or sequences whose every new item suffuses without deindividualizing all that have gone before. [1]

The second sentence of Pecknold’s essay, which imagines America as centered around “the desire to unite multiple faiths in the one, true democratic faith,” is explicitly integrative. He writes of American democracy as uniting all faiths into one, melting them down into their pure essence. Yet in his last paragraph, it has become clear that the model of American democracy that is informed by religion is an orchestrative one, a performance of a “politics of multiple traditions committed to enriching, broadening, and deepening political discussion through their own authoritative sources and reasoning.” This is not even a uniting of multiple faiths around something, much less into something; Pecknold posits no overlap between multiple traditions. Indeed, the content of religious traditions is almost completely bracketed. Simply by virtue of referring to God as the ground of all immanence, and thereby of political orders, religious traditions can commingle in the public sphere so as to steer secularized democratic states away from the precipice of making the state into an idol. Or so Pecknold hypothesizes.

Augustine is supposed to be the prooftext that this hypothesis can be true. Nevertheless, the way that Pecknold reads Augustine, as teaching the glorious state of Rome that “glory finds its true reference only through the humility of Jesus Christ,” muddles the issue of unity again. Does Augustine’s askesis really have orchestrative results? Does it allow for the dissonance that is part of multiple traditions speaking in the public sphere? Does it posit that political culture has “multiple sources” (including various religious traditions) in the way that Pecknold envisages a truer democracy doing? I think not, at least if his reading of Augustine is correct. If glory has one and only one true reference, then the quest for orchestration is a sham.

However, let’s step back from the grand scheme of religion and public life for a moment. Let’s stick with the scene of scriptural reasoning in which most of the readers of this journal have participated. (If you haven’t, contact us!) The thought that scriptural reasoning could be centered around a semiotics in which something such as glory has one and only one true reference is, to my mind, an especially dispiriting one. If we all came to the text with such exclusive logics, scriptural reasoning would be nothing more than a series of members of one tradition explaining the truth of their texts to members of the other two traditions around the table. While this might represent some slight improvement over the perennialist stereotype of 1960s interfaith dialogue, it thankfully remains the case that scriptural reasoning is not like this. Members of the same tradition can get into heated debate about how a text refers. I, as a Jew, can be called up short by hearing a Muslim give a particularly insightful interpretation of a text. Scriptural reasoning works precisely because it is uncoordinated; the text ends up wherever the group of readers takes it. (Of course, there are limits. No one will convert in the middle of a scriptural-reasoning session. But the latitude for uncoordination is quite wide even without that prospect.) If scriptural reasoning has a curriculum, it is to teach us that sacred texts are, to invoke Pecknold’s citation of Sheldon Wolin, fugitive. They withdraw from us as we question them, they approach us in new shapes in the course of discussion, only to withdraw again. Even after spending several meetings on a group of texts, over a period of several months, we would hesitate to say that we had clarified the text. At the most, we might say that we had discovered in the texts some possible strategies for problem-solving, and that these strategies had only come along by virtue of the orchestrative harmonies (and dissonances!) of the readings around the scriptural-reasoning table. This is its own kind of askesis, which not only teaches humility, but also offers the hope of grace—the fugitive nature of our texts verifies the transcendence that is their content.

At this point, I fear that I have implied that scriptural reasoning is a particularly un-Christian kind of activity. I don’t believe it is (although not being a Christian, I cannot testify to this one way or another). Indeed, I think that the uncoordination of scriptural reasoning is embodied in the very verses from Paul’s epistle to the Philippians that Pecknold describes as underlying Augustinian politics. Let’s cite most of them again:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. (Philippians 2:5-10)

The kenosis or self-emptying of God the Father is magnificent in part because it muddies the entire metaphysical map. The transcendent God does not simply transform God’s self into immanent form, but retains transcendence in immanence, and this is for Christians the most conclusive evidence for transcendence. The strangest word for me in these verses is the “therefore” that begins Philippians 2:9. Transcendence transcends because it is immanent. What could possibly be more uncoordinated and more radical? (Indeed, the entire oeuvre of Thomas J. J. Altizer is committed to unraveling the philosophical stakes of this central Christian claim.) But what is at stake in this claim is that transcendence means nothing without immanence, because transcendence in the Christian narrative refers to immanence. Because “Christ” refers to, among other syntagms, “the one who was crucified,” the boundary between transcendence and immanence is anything but stable. And because Good Friday always recurs in the Christian liturgical calendar, a Christian cannot say that the boundary is permanently re-ordered on Easter Sunday; if it is, this ordering lasts only through the Eastertide season, and then a Christian liturgically returns to ordinary time.

To return to the Augustinian atlas—but not the Augustinian politics—that Pecknold has introduced into the issue of religion and public life, I suggest that Philippians 2 can be read as indicating that Jerusalem means nothing without Babylon. Jerusalem only transcends because Christ has commingled with another city that is deprived of the fullness of God (i.e. it works with another referential system that make no mention of Jesus as Christ). Pecknold has correctly claimed that Rome is not totally other than Jerusalem. But Philippians may very well go farther than Augustine does, in suggesting that we cannot say in advance that Babylon is not totally other than Jerusalem. Because of the Roman cross, which, because of the ‘lust of rule’ that the institution of crucifixion represents, never ceases to be Babylonian, therefore Christ is exalted.

So if there is to be “a conversation between political cultures that have access to deep sources” as Pecknold imagines, this need not be a unidirectional conversation in which Christians steer America toward Jerusalem and away from Babylon, a conversation in which America only utters the short sentences of Socrates’ victims in the early Platonic dialogues.Christians can be humbled not only by the judgment of God, but also by “the judgment of the other,” by multiple representatives of other cities that have their own analogues to the Christian system of reference. Pecknold acknowledges this all too briefly in the penultimate paragraph of his paper, but without emphasizing this aspect of politics, his eschatological vision of democracy threatens to become a fugitive that leaves no tracks for us to pursue.

Finally, I want to address Pecknold’s belief that both Stout and Hauerwas are correct on the issue of the relationship between religion and the public life. I have to confess that I am absolutely puzzled by his claim here. If one were to choose both democracy and a robust ecclesia, the logic would work as follows. Insofar as one of Stout’s heroes in Democracy and Tradition , Walt Whitman, wrote of the poet of democracy that “he sees eternity in men and women” [2] , he (Whitman) also implicitly knew of the complex relationship between Jerusalem and Babylon to which Philippians 2 attests. So there is no reason why the choice for Stout cannot be a choice for the Christian ecclesia.On the other hand, the logic of Philippians suggests that the ecclesia has no fixed boundaries; it is not necessarily any different, in content or in forms of reasoning, than the “secular” culture in which it finds itself. So there is no reason why the choice for the ecclesia cannot be a choice for Stout. But notice that I did not say that there is no reason why the choice for Hauerwasian ecclesiology cannot be a choice for Stout. It is Hauerwas who insists on the firmness of the boundary between an unfragmented Christian narrative and a fragmented culture. So the choice is not between Stout and Hauerwas. The choice is rather between Stout, scriptural reasoning, and a reading of Philippians 2 on one side—all of which are expressions of a glorious uncoordinated trade between voices—and Hauerwas on the other. To conceptualize the choice in any other way is to be distracted from the matter at hand.

Now I admit that there may be better internal textual reasons to read Philippians 2 in another way. I even readily admit that I omitted any reference to Phil. 2:11 (“and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”) in order to avoid problems, simply because I’m not sure whether reading that verse eschatologically is valid. That would require Pecknold and I to sit down together with the Greek and talk, or at least have an intense email conversation. I do hope we do this, not only to deepen our friendship, but also because I dearly hope that I can read the Philippians text in the manner that I have briefly articulated above. If not, then the activity of scriptural reasoning becomes evidence only for a particularly uninteresting kind of unity—the unity of its participants’ own nerdy love of complex texts—and not for the unity that attests to a fugitive transcendence that can give confidence to eschatological hopes. And if that is the case, then the knot of religion and public life will only grow tighter as various voices of integration seek to amass more and more power. It threatens to choke us all.


[1] Horace M. Kallen, “The Meanings of ‘Unity’ Among The Sciences, Once More,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 6:4 (June 1946), 495-96.

[2] Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 41.