Transformed Judgment: Toward a Trinitarian Account of the Moral Life
by L. Gregory Jones
University of Notre Dame Press, 189 pages, $22.95
The traditions Gregory Jones explores in Transformed Judgment are grand ones: Aristotelian virtue-centered moral philosophy; Thomism, especially as it elucidates the relation between the sacraments and friendship with God; Trinitarian thought; Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. One suspects that his remarkable facility for such explorations grows out of his involvement in certain “lesser” traditions. Jones’ father, S. Jameson Jones (to whose memory the book is dedicated), was the renowned editor of Motive magazine and a former Dean of the Divinity School at Duke University, where the younger Jones studied as a graduate student under such mentors as Stanley Hauerwas, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Kenneth Surin. Though strongly independent in thought and style, Jones’ work reverberates with the themes and preoccupations of the distinctive Duke conversation about theology, church, and ethics. Since joining the faculty at Loyola College in Baltimore, Jones has established himself as a major new theological voice.
The problem he begins with is one that has recently exercised the columnist William Raspberry. “What is the difference,” asks Raspberry, “between the phrase ‘female-headed family’ and ‘fatherless family’?” He answers that the latter carries a vastly different moral meaning, because the particular kind of struggle faced by the women is identified. It also (correctly, for Raspberry) suggests that such a family is in a deficient, non-normative condition. Separatist feminists will object, however, arguing that “female-headed” families should be celebrated. To them, “father-free” households offer a liberating, entirely normative option. A Census Bureau sociologist, for his part, might offer a more “value-neutral” description. Greg Jones’ first section, “Learning to Describe Actions, Persons, and the World: Social Contexts and Moral Judgments,” helps us understand what (and how very much) is at stake in this and other disputes over descriptive labels.
Following Julius Kovesi and Alasdair MacIntyre, Jones argues that when we describe, we do so as active agents whose intentions and moral character pervade our descriptions. Because we operate with words, our descriptions rely on the social histories that endow words with meanings. Ultimately, descriptions express our particular linguistic communities and their complex traditions of moral education. Thus, no realm of secure “facts” awaits discovery and “appraisal” by value-imposing observers. Rather, our linguistically formed intentions convey an already-valued world. In Jones’ words, “An agent’s description of her actions, if they are to be intelligible, will be situated in the context of her beliefs”beliefs drawn from the social contexts in which she lives and the traditions of which she is a part.” Since there are no tradition-free descriptions, the “neutral” sociologist in the example is also operating from a tradition, most likely positivism.
Accounts of the moral life thus require attention to traditions of moral formation that teach the agent to envision and describe the world. Such traditions spring from powerful narratives that impart intelligibility to action. Was Yukio Mishima’s famous self-inflicted death a “suicide”? William E. May points out that the prohibition against suicide in the West developed from a prior piety towards nature that meant “respect for the natural impulse of self-preservation.” In Jones’ terms, “suicide” takes its meaning from a tradition-engendering narrative. Provided that Mishima understood his action in the traditional Buddhist way—“as a preservation of honor in the face of imminent defeat and done in accordance with Buddhist scriptures”—the notion of suicide is simply inapplicable.
Reacting against what he sees as MacIntyre’s too free-floating conception of tradition in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Jones insists that traditions reside in particular historical and social settings. Living traditions are what therefore interest him, especially as these are embodied in “particular patterns of friendship, practices, and beliefs.” Conversation, critical argument, ritual behavior, interpretation and cultivation of the virtues, “an ongoing process of helping people learn to act, feel, and think well,” the formation of a specific moral character—these ingredients make up Jones’ concept of a tradition.
Theological claims (even when they are anti-theological) decisively shape all significant traditions, Jones asserts. He would thus reject the suggestion that particular memberships—e.g.. Mormon, Ethical Culture, Catholic—don’t matter so long as “good moral values” are taught. Indeed, the final two sections of the book try to show how “belief in the Triune God” produces particular sorts of persons, capable of giving practical utterance to the “most truthful and coherent account of the moral life and moral judgment.” Jones does not defend this claim about Christianity’s truth but rather spells out its communal and theological expression.
Jones thus offers extended accounts of how baptism, eucharist, forgiveness, and scriptural interpretation serve to shape the character and moral judgment of Christians. His guiding motif is that of God’s befriending humanity in the person of Jesus Christ: “I argue that the friendship and practices involved in becoming a ‘friend of God’ entail a (re)shaping of people so that they are enabled to perceive themselves and the world more accurately and are enabled to live more virtuously.” Baptism is seen as the means by which members are “entered into the narrative of the Christian tradition.” In eucharist, Christians “gather at the table in responsive friendship with God [and] extend that friendship by befriending others.” Scripture interrogates Christians’ lives; they are “formed in the kinds of moral judgment necessary for them to live faithfully as friends of God.”
Throughout this very “high Methodist” discussion of such practices, Jones is at pains to display their Trinitarian character. Baptism, he notes, is done in the name of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Eucharist always ends with an invocation of the Trinity, as in “To him, to you, and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever.” Whereas many Christians treat such prayers as mere formularies, Jones urges that in these and other practices Christian communities “receive their shape, their patterns of formation and transformation, and their processes of discernment.”
All good books leave the reader with questions, and Transformed Judgment is no exception. Jones skillfully elucidates the Trinitarian and ecclesial sources of Christian moral formation. But how does this result in distinctive moral perceptions and judgments? Jones hints that living in the mystery of the Triune God engenders an ability to tolerate complexity, a taste for “polyphonic dialogue,” critical reflective thought, and a willingness to submit one’s judgments to the fellowship of believers. “The perichoretic dance of discipleship”—Jones overuses this image from Nicholas Lash—involves living precariously in the tensions between Church and World.
But given his insistence on Christian particularity, is this substantial enough? Much more in the way of application is needed, something Jones himself recognizes when he states in his introduction that “I do not display here the substantive difference a Trinitarian perspective brings to various issues and often vexing problems.” That the book delivered too well on this promise is regrettable, though hardly catastrophic. Given the auspiciousness of this beginning, we have every reason to expect more fully realized works from Jones in the future.
Leslie E. Gerber teaches in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University.