Shalom and the Ethics of Belief

Nicholas Wolterstoff's Theory of Situated Rationality

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Nathan D. Shannon
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    James Clarke & Company Ltd
    , October
     2015.
     216 pages.
     £15.25.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780227175514.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

An edited form of Nathan D. Shannon’s doctoral dissertation at the Free University of Amsterdam, Shalom and the Ethics of Belief: Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Theory of Situated Rationality provides a unifying thesis for Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work, particularly in the areas of epistemology and ethics. Shannon argues that there is an intimate connection between Wolterstorff’s scriptural notion of the shalom which is the foundation for his ethics and his situated rationality. In this way, Shannon provides cohesion to two distinct fields in Wolterstorff’s thought which are unified under his neo-Calvinistic worldview, coining Wolterstorff’s theory of rationality as “shalom doxastic deontology” (188). Beyond any remarks I contribute here, it is important for the reader to know that Wolterstorff himself writes positively of Shannon’s work in the foreword.

This book is split into six chapters. In chapter 1 Shannon provides a condensed biography of Wolterstorff’s life and academic career, in particular highlighting the Dutch Reformed neo-Calvinist background which he inherited and embraced. This tradition holds to an epistemological foundation of worldview presuppositions: that the Christian worldview is amongst a plurality of worldviews, but supreme in that it provides coherence to reality. In addition, Shannon outlines the argument of his book, providing a framework for the reader.

In chapters 2 and 3 Shannon tackles Wolterstorff’s situated rationality as practical situation and deontological, duty based ethics:In the former, this takes the shape of a critique of the Western epistemological tradition as not capturing the dynamic reality which we inhabit and specifically, its lack of attention to how we learn. Shannon also sets forth in this chapter Wolterstorff’s utilization of Thomas Reid’s “notions of belief-forming dispositions and a more dynamic and life-like doxastic subject” (55). Giving us a fuller understanding of Wolterstorff’s doxastic anthropology as being situational, practical, and deontological, Shannon then contrasts it with Plantinga’s doxastic anthropology to close the chapter. In the latter, Shannon tackles the other half of Wolterstorff’s situated rationality, the “practices of inquiry.” Wolterstorff understands a certain rational normativity to the doxastic life which allows it to escape the charge of relativism, and offers a personally, and socially defined situationality which Shannon deems a “socially constituted ethico-doxastic situation” (23).

 Having posited shalom as foundational to understanding Wolterstorff’s situated rationality in chapter 4, Shannon defines shalom as an ethically responsible calling in which all God’s creatures love one another in a teleological-oriented human flourishing as God’s cause in the world. planting it amongst its biblical, theological and neo-Calvinist Kuyperian background, although with his own nuances. Furthermore, Shannon displays Wolterstorff’s desire to cement this shalom-driven act as organically connected to worship and liturgy, demonstrating that shalom is the background for situated rationality. In chapter 5, we receive a detailed analysis of the practical implications of shalom. Shannon reveals that Wolterstorff’s theory of situated reality is a shalom-constituted thing; in other words ,“the conduct of the mind, like all of life, is accountable to shalom” (156). It is in this chapter that Shannon unifies the two distinct fields of ethics and epistemology under shalom.

In the final chapter, Shannon further connects the concepts in chapters 1 through 5 by focusing on the epistemic status of Christian belief, as it is the underlying entitled belief in both Wolterstorff’s ethics and his epistemology. With Wolterstorff himself approving of the work, I have no critique to offer outside of Shannon’s own critique of his work: as Wolterstorff is not explicit about this unity, so it is possible that Shannon is finding a coherence in Wolterstorff's thoughts,which isn’t actually there (182).

Shannon has done a great service to scholars in unifying the thoughts of Wolterstorff as well as making his work readily accessible. The footnotes alone provide a wealth of information that make this book a valuable resource for study on Wolterstorff. Furthermore, Shannon’s thoughts on neo-Calvinist ethics, while not his main focus, are balanced and provide a good entry into Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck’s ethics. This is a must read for those interested in the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gregory Parker, Jr. is a graduate student at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nathan D. Shannon (PhD, VU Amsterdam) is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology, Torch Trinity Graduate University, Seoul, Korea.

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