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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 3) Saturdays with Scheler

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 13, 2019

Values or forms?

If my hunches are correct, then we will have to understand what Max Scheler meant by the difference between formal and value ethics if we are to have any hope of grounding conservative/libertarian thought on something deeper than its present eclectic ideology.  I hope to examine that ideology in a future post, but for now simply allow the compound “conservative/libertarian” vouch for its eclectic nature.  Now, in order to get a precise understanding of the difference between value ethics and formal ethics, we would have to delve into the dense jungle of philosophical and phenomenological investigation, the very prospect of which would cause any sane person to cry out for Divine deliverance!

Fortunately, Godly help has long since arrived, in the form of a Jewish teacher who walked our planet some two millennia ago, one Yeshua ben Yosef, better known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Fortunately (from the perspective of our own autonomy as persons) He was not a systematic philosopher or theologian, but a wonderful poet and parable maker, a man stamped with the legacy of David, His ancestor, both king and composer.  The sayings of Yeshua are frequently enigmatic nuggets, intended for careful unpacking over time.   There is always considerable danger when we try to interpret such dense teachings, especially what Peter Leithardt has called the danger of “eisegesis” i.e., imputing our own ideas to a text, rather than the “exegesis” of carefully unpacking the text to find its true meaning.  I happen to think that the royal road into value ethics runs though the teachings of Yeshua, but you would be justifiably suspicious that I am engaging in eisegesis unless we can locate an issue where His sayings are pointing us directly towards the contrast between value and form.

In fact, it is the teachings of the Messiah on the Sabbath which provide (for non-philosophers at least) the most accessible portal into the form/value distinction.  The church has tended to treat this issue as either secondary (in the sense that ethics is secondary to the doctrine of salvation) or to use the sayings of Yeshua as proof-texts licensing either a change in, or abolition of, the Sabbath.   I must make clear that my purpose in this essay is neither to advocate for or against Sabbath observance.  However it is in the context of this seemingly arcane and irrelevant issue that we can both elucidate the way the Messiah would have us think of forms and values, and apply them to contemporary social and political conditions.

The Test Case

In Matthew chapter 12 vv. 1-14 a sequence of events occur involving questions by 1st century (i.e.,Tannaic age) Jewish teachers and responses by Yeshua.  These responses highlight the circumstances under which the Messiah feels that it is permissible to perform actions which would normally be prohibited between sundown of Friday night and sundown of Saturday night.  It is doubtful that his auditors were open minded enough to profit from his teaching.  However we in the 21st century may profit in an unexpected way if these teachings point us towards the distinction between formal ethics and value ethics.  It is almost as if the Fourth Word (i.e., fourth commandment) together with the Messiah’s response, were inserted into scripture by the Almighty to start us thinking in new ways about the foundations of ethics.

Indeed, the fourth of the Ten Words (i.e., Decalogue), which mentions the Sabbath, is uniquely suited as a test case for critiquing the concept of a formal ethics.  The fifth through tenth words comport only too well with our common understanding of morality, to such an extent that Divine authorship seems almost superfluous.  Conversely, the first through third flatter us during our pious moods, and fill us with numinous terror at other times.   All of the Words, including the fourth, are conveyed as imperatives.  However only the Forth Word arouses our suspicion that it is an arbitrary and extra-moral formalism.  Readers of Matthew 12:1-14, unless they happen to be Talmudists, will instinctively side with the response of the Messiah as a mere reiteration of common sense.  However this facile assent preempts a deeper appreciation of both the Fourth Word and the Messiah’s emendations.

The thinking behind this near-automatic assent goes as follows.  Sabbath keeping is framed in the imperative, and to the extent that it applies (of course, this is a matter of dispute) must be complied with.   However, this rule of the Sabbath is subordinate to a higher rule, that which mandates the preservation of human life.  This subordination of the Sabbath is illustrated by the actions and sayings of the Messiah in two or three categories, 1) staving off hunger by gleaning from fields, 2) healing the sick, and possibly 3) animal rescue (actually a limiting case dealing with property).

We are now liable to jump to the conclusion that we have adequately understood the difference between formal and value ethics.   It is all too easy to make the Fourth Word a stereotype of any possible formal ethics.  After all, it is an imperative and sharply delimits the kind of behavior ( or absence of behavior) permissible within certain boundaries of time and space.   Superficially, the Fourth Word is not about a good, or any kind of pleasure, but about a duty to be performed.  It would  seem to follow that whatever is antithetical to the Fourth Word automatically counts as a value ethics.  Hence, violations of the Sabbath in the cause of preserving life clearly promote a good, arguably the highest good of all, the ultimate value of human life.  Thus we might see in the tension between the Fourth Word and the attitude of the Messiah, a contrast between formal ethics and value ethics.

However this understanding is premature.  If we sifted them through the sieve of Scheler’s analysis, we would find both alternatives fall entirely within the world of formal ethics.  First we are presented with the formal ethics of Divine imperatives, which we feel authorized to forsake in favor of an alternative formal ethics which invokes the sanctity of life.  In effect, we have replaced the God of the Bible with another god, “Life” on the basis of which we can construct an allegedly superior system of formal ethics.  This way of thinking (life-ethics) has considerable appeal (and in the political context, both among liberals and conservatives) because it seems to rest on a solid axiom out of which moral imperatives can be generated.   However there is a difficulty here for anyone who wishes to invoke the sayings of Yeshua ben Yosef in support of this second system of formal ethics, a system which rests on the imperatives of life.  As it happens, this is not what the Master is really teaching in Matthew 12.

How would Jesus think?

Yeshua ha Moshiach (a.k.a. Jesus) actually gives two complementary justifications for “working” on the Sabbath, justifications which seem, according to the modern mind, congenial to life-ethics, but which in fact are based on radically different premises.  The first justification returns us to the original theme of these essays, the primacy of the person, and in this case the primacy of a Person.  If we resort to the insights of Scheler and certain other philosophers, we will note that they draw an important distinction between the concept of an “individual” and a “person.”  Granted in American usage we tend to talk about individuals in a robust way that conflates this analysis, as in “she is a colorful individual.”  However Scheler restricts the meaning of individual to the legal individual who stands as one unit within a democratic society.  In contrast to individuals, persons are not only unique, but morally asymmetrical in their relations among themselves.  Drawing on the test-case of the Sabbath for his illustrations. Yeshua, who as Messiah is authorized to speak on his own behalf, becomes the expositor of the Biblical system of ethics where a supreme Person is sovereign over all formal ethics.  From this initial, and supremely asymmetrical relation, we are ushered into a world where persons at large possess sovereignty over forms.  This because, while qua God, Yeshua is unique, qua human, he is the first born among the benei Elohim (sons of God).  It is this sovereignty over forms which was subsequently epitomized (by Paul and countless others) in the slogan “Christian freedom” a notion which should never be confused with the supposed abrogation of the Torah, which is at most an illustration or a test-case of a much broader issue.

The above, personalist, justification of Sabbath “work” can (in my opinion) be unpacked from verse 8, “The Son of Man is Lord of Shabbat.”  However Matthew 12 contains an important, correlative justification of Sabbath “work.”  This correlative justification is actually more interesting and foundational, even though it dwells on a level further down on the hierarchy of persons.  The Messiah gives the illustrative case in vv. 11-12.

He said to them, “What man among you will not grab his sheep and lift it out, if it falls into a pit on Shabbat?  How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!  Therefore it is permitted to do good on Shabbat.”

Again, the modern temptation is to assimilate this illustration to an ethics of life.  Parenthetically, it is not entirely clear (as per modern animal advocates) if the merely organic life of an individual sheep is of any less worth than that of individual of the homo sapiens species.  Never the less, I feel it best to depart from this line of thought in order to concentrate on the way the passage as a whole discloses the foundations of value-ethics, and in particular the way in which an objective value-ethics can be distinguished from the subjective valuation of objects.  I am grateful that the TLV passage actually uses “valuable” for the word which is translated “worth” in the Authorized version (KJV).

Now it should be obvious that “value” here does not refer to the subjective exchange cost of the man and the sheep.  Not that one couldn’t find some scholars who might be willing to follow that particular rabbit hole to its logical, and dreary, conclusion.  Thus, supposing we could find out what the average rent value of a laborer’s time or the purchase value of a slave was in the Levant during the 1st century of the Common Era, and then express such values as ratios against the price of a single head of sheep during the same period, we could no doubt test whether the assertion “the man was more valuable than the sheep” was true historically.  We could attempt such a historical investigation because “the man was more valuable than the sheep” is a meaningful assertion which is susceptible to testing.

However this is not the meaning which the Messiah gives the the assertion about “value.”  The word here is a conjugation of diapheroo which can mean any number of things, including “value” or “worth.”   However from the context alone it is clear that Yeshua is not speaking of subjective exchange value, but of what might be called an ordo amoris (i.e., an “order of the heart”) a phrase coined by Blaise Pascal but given closer treatment by Scheler.  The man is loved and the sheep is loved, but the loves are not equal in value.  If there is an underlying ordo amoris then the human being would stand higher in valuation even if the market price for a slave were lower than that of a sheep.  This is because, according to the kind of personalism which Pascal and Scheler advocate, there is an objective order of values which is independent of era, place, or economic calculation.  In the illustration provided by the Messiah, it is implied that there are sacred and intellectual values which bode forth through the thoughts and actions of the human being which are inaccessible to the sheep.  It is urgent to save the sheep, but it is even more urgent to save the man.  Both the necessity of saving the sheep and the man supersede compliance with formal ethics, as here represented by observance of (rabbinical) Sabbath regulations.

No right thinking person (even among the Talmudists!) actually disputes the response given by Yeshua to the Sabbath dilemma.  None the less, sloppy and casual treatment of the case has often led to either generalized and trivial conclusions or hair-splitting and divisive historicism.  For example, one might say, religious customs should not stand in the way of protecting life.  That is certainly true, but if we condemn formal ethics in the name of an ad hoc and indiscriminate category called “life” we are taking the first step towards materialism and utilitarianism.  Eventually we will have to sacrifice not only formal ethics but mind and the spirit as well.  Embracing value ethics saves both life and the Sabbath, in so far as it gives consideration both to the creatures and the ultimate Person, God Himself. It is the universal asymmetry of objective values which give them substance, in comparison with which both rules regulating time and protecting life stand as abstract generalizations.

It is only to be expected that historicists, relativists, materialists, positivists, modernists and post-modernists would all reject the idea of an objective order of values.  It is more tragic that those who oppose these main stream schools, i.e., paleoconservatives, paleolibertarians, traditionalists et al, are not in one accord with regard to the trans-historical objectivity of values.   This is a matter for further discussion, but hopefully Matthew 12 has epitomized the issues in question .  My contention has been that viewing the Sabbath controversy within the framework of formal vs. value ethics, brings out a broader meaning than that of either life-ethics or the Torah/anti-Torah diatribes, and (hopefully and prayerfully) is closer to the meaning intended by the Messiah Himself.  If that is so, then the dilemma of the Sabbath can be transformed into a two way street, with ethics illuminating religious practice and Scripture illuminating what we mean by value ethics.

 

 

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