Review: Redeeming the Enlightenment: Christianity and the Liberal Virtues

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2012

Publication Title

Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics




In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Bruce Ward has written a remarkably rich intellectual history whose theological diagnosis yields refreshing interpretations of ethical norms. Each chapter treats one of liberalism’s cherished virtues (equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion) and argues for the Christian roots of each in order to show how Christianity is “the fulfillment of what the Enlightenment, at its best, sought” (196).

Ward uses the Christian humanism of Dostoevsky to redeem the equality espoused by Rousseau and Kant in light of Nietzsche’s attacks. Equality is grounded neither in a human capacity nor in obedience to a principle, but in the imago Dei. While hardly original, this foundation with attention to immanence can create an enlivened perception of others in their richness while being transformed by love from “the other world.” Ward redeems authenticity with agapic self-dispossession rather than self-assertion, which liberates it from individualism and opens it to the “call of God.” Liberal compassion finds its fulfillment in the love of particular, suffering humans, which requires discernment, respect, and effective action. Such compassion is rooted in and revelatory of divine love.

Ward’s most compelling chapter, on tolerance, begins by noting how this ideal often inhibits moral judgment or promotes indifference. Ward is a student of neither Mill’s nor Nussbaum’s libertarian versions of tolerance. Instead, Ward draws upon René Girard to argue that tolerance must account for the perpetrator’s demonization of social outcasts that leads to the victim’s resentment. Victims must lead the way in exposing and then exiting this cycle. Dostoevsky recommends a practice of taking responsibility for all persecution (“all are guilty for all”) as an expression of active love. Such a practice forges points of human contact between groups in conflict, even if prejudices are slow to change. In response to intolerant religions, Christians should assume such universal responsibility rather than rely on the “restrained” violence of the liberal state. Although Ward derides multicultural versions of tolerance that “celebrate difference,” he observes that the universal human of Enlightenment ontology cannot exist except through the particularity of a lived story—precisely multiculturalism’s insight.

The deep lament motivating this book is that an inadequate Christian theology lost its power to explain the world. The resulting defense of humanism by Enlightenment philosophes was deeply shaped by Christian ideals, but they were unable to articulate a foundation for moral norms, which made Nietzschean nihilists appear sane. Both groups are ill equipped to respond to current religious terrorism. As Charles Taylor explores in The Secular Age, the third contenders are those who affirm a good beyond this world. Ward differs from Taylor by arguing that the problem is not a lack of transcendent grounding for norms but an inadequate conceptualization of immanence and transcendence. Ward uses the Trinitarian approach of Dostoevsky to reorder transcendence and immanence, which avoids translating “Christianity into liberalism” or injecting transcendence into secularism.

Ward’s project succeeds if one accepts Nietzsche as the major critic of the Enlightenment. Readers who have accepted as legitimate other criticisms of the philosophes may be disappointed. His discussion of compassion lacks Catholic interlocutors such as Edward Vacek who argue that agape avoids the polarity between self-love and compassion; feminists who critique Enlightenment dichotomies between savage and civilized or reason and emotion; and Marxists who argue that capitalism denies human equality, thus making Ward’s “capitalist liberal humanism” sound naive. It is not clear how Ward would redeem the Enlightenment from such criticisms.

Nevertheless, Ward’s rereading of the Enlightenment is majestic in its sweep, compelling in its close textual analysis, and brimming with fresh insights. The text assumes much familiarity with the philosophes; its pedagogical use is recommended for graduate students and scholars.