Donald MacKinnon on the very stuff of human existence

In the midst of some fruitful discussion generated by the recent posts on Rowan Williams by Chris Green and Joel Daniels, a friend of mine (who also happens to be an outstanding MacKinnon scholar) shared these words with me. I’ve been meditating on them all week, and thought that they were worth sharing here not only for what they tell us about MacKinnon’s mind (and perhaps too about Williams’), but also for what they tell us about ourselves and about our being overcome, and – here playing the risk of presumptuousness – of the depths that such overcoming involves:

At its heart there lies the recognition that historical self-consciousness belongs to the very stuff of human existence, that freedom in the sense of a true autonomy is at once the foundation of our every effort to make sense of our inheritance; but that it is a freedom menaced all the time by forces, many but not all of which lie outside our control, facing us by the pressure of their ugly insistence upon our purposings with a sense of overmastering futility, defeat, even besetting cruelty. The threat is of something much more profound than that of Cartesian malin génie, it is the menace of a backlash somehow built into the heart of things that will lay our sanity itself in ruins. We are face to face not with a grisly theodicy that allows historical greatness to provide its own moral order (there are more than hints of this in Hegel) but with a cussedness which seems totally recalcitrant to the logos of any justification of the ways of God to man. And here the last word is with the cry of redemption.

– Donald M. MacKinnon, ‘Finality in Metaphysics, Ethics and Theology’ in Explorations in Theology, Volume 5 (London: SCM Press, 1979), 105–06.


  1. Fr. Robert, it should be recognized that the quote produced above is from the first section of MacKinnon’s article, the section on finality in metaphysics, and reflects characteristic themes which are given fullest expression in his 1974 work, The Problem of Metaphysics, namely that finality here is located in a set of questions. If you were to read the 3rd section of this paper which deals with finality in theology you would find presented there much that was under discussion with regard to RW’s theology in the previous posts. There is a rather wonderful patch on the relation between the claim of the Christian faith to truth and the interrogative impact upon us of the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. The article ends on the note of ‘birth pangs’, the rebirth of faith and claims that the finality of theology is to be found in Christ.


  2. Timothy: I am actually a year older than RW, and I have been reading MacKinnon myself for a long time also. But, I confess that I always seek to return to the simplicity of final theological equations or equivalence. Thanks.


  3. To support Timothy’s comment: the paper ends, “If there is finality in metaphysics and ethics, it is found in different analogous and related ways in the besetting constancy of a set of questions. In the world of Christian faith, the finality is found in Jesus Christ… And this as we live ‘in statu viatorum’, yet not without foretaste of the vision we pray may be ours hereafter.”

    The rub, of course, is that the finality that is revealed in Jesus Christ is the deus absconditus. Hence the hope in the “hereafter” that exists alongside the cussedness.


  4. Joel,

    Unless I misunderstand the point, I’m just not able to agree that ‘the finality that is revealed in Jesus Christ is the deus absconditus’. Can you say more about what you mean, exactly?

    The ‘foretaste’ DM refers to is I think exactly that: a proleptic ‘taste’ of the very real, and rightly desired eschatological banquet that is the beatific vision. Is not _this_ eternally self-revealing God the ground of finality?


  5. Hmmm, I’d have to be convinced that there is in D.MacK. (my new nickname for him) an unambiguous and untrammeled beatific vision that is available, in heaven or on earth. In fact, I’m starting to think that he gets really close to the Manicheans, about whom he says “the questions which that heresy raised…have never been fully answered.” He doesn’t say this, but it seems to me that the fact that Jesus’ resurrected hands are still marked by the nails leaves the mystery intact, eternally. Like Gregory of Nyssa’s Moses: you climb and climb the mountain, and when you get to the top, you’re enveloped in darkness. I’m really not sure that, for DMacK, even resurrected life avoids ambiguity; the conception otherwise might be the “facile teleology” that he talks about.

    Any idea if/where he talks about eschatology? This is really interesting.


  6. Joel, you are welcome to the nickname, quite necessary to distinguish DMacK in the shorthand of notes from AMac (Alisdair MacIntyre), especially in the contest where the former is writing of the latter!


  7. Joel, DMacK does in fact refer to the ‘beatific vision’ (unfortunately, I can’t locate the reference off the top of my head) but it is something surely that awaits us, something that is granted to us and not something that we attain to ourselves. But I wonder if DMacK ever moved away from his ‘borderlands perspective’, operative in his self-understanding as a philosopher of religion, aptly summed up as follows: “The philosopher is not an apologist; apologetic concern, as Karl Barth (the one living theologian of unquestionable genius) has rightly insisted, is the death of serious theologizing, and I would add, equally of serious work in the philosophy of religion. But because the philosopher must always be a man of the borderlands, he may perhaps feel a peculiar kinship with those who, from similarly situated territory, make protesting raids upon the theologians’ cherished homeland.” (BT, 54). There is finality in theology – in the mysterium Christi (Incarnation: birth, life and ministry, death, and yes, resurrection) as DMacK affirms again and again but it is a finality which sets in motion a whole range of questions, including the conditions of intelligibility of the discourse in which such questions are asked and answered. He was not a dogmatician in the sense that Barth was and it is interesting that Barth in a passing reference once referred to MacKinnon as ‘the philosopher Donald MacKinnon’. And yet DMacK insists that these questions put to us by the finality of Christ himself must continue to be asked and answered, not only in Christology but also in the doctrine of the Trinity itself. There is a teleology, DMacK argues; just not a ‘facile’ one (cf. “Metaphor in Theology” in Themes in Theology, 74-75).


  8. Joel,

    I’m not well read enough in D.MacK. (I’m committed to this, now!) to know what he makes of the beatific vision, but I do believe that what a theologian says—ahem, _attempts_ to say—about the beatific vision is, at least in some respects, decisive for the overall project. This is why I so much appreciate Jenson, btw.

    If Timothy is right, and he certainly seems to be, then I’m just not quite satisfied with D.MacK’s program, although of course I don’t want to admit anything ‘facile’ in teleology or epistemology, etc. At the end of the day (and that phrasing is purposefully chosen), there either is or isn’t a reality that undergirds all our attempts to speak of ‘god’ and if there is such a reality, then that reality either does or doesn’t correspond to the ‘god of the gospel’ we proclaim and worship.


  9. What does D.MacK. say of prayer? And specifically of _intercessory_ prayer? (This is one of the strengths of RW’s work, I believe.)


  10. Hi again, Joel. Thanks for your persistence on this. it would be a stark misreading of MacKinnon, at least in my estimation, to suggest that he denies that there is a reality that undergirds all our attempts to speak of God or that that God does not correspond to the God of the gospel. It is basic to his whole project that there is finality in theology because there is finality in the self-revelation of the God who comes to us in and as Jesus the Christ. There is always the matter of his ‘realism’ to be reckoned with. But there is always and everywhere the equal insistence that it is God we are talking about and that we are human and that all our knowing is a coming to know of that which is coming to be known (true), i.e. a historically-situated and conditioned knowing. That DMacK calls us to look to Christ again and again surely means that there is in Christ something to be seen. (I hope that I have not misunderstood you!)


  11. 1. Chris, MacKinnon’s essay ‘Prayer, Worship and Life’ (really the second part of one long essay, the first entitled ‘Christian and Marxist Dialectic’), in MacKinnon (ed.), Christian Faith and Communist Faith (London: Macmillan, 1953), might be worth looking at.

    2. Given the nature of the conversation so far, it would be interesting to look at MacKinnon’s essay on Henry Scott Holland, written around the same time as his involvement in the group that produced the book just mentioned, and which originally appeared under the heading: ‘Christian Optimism: Scott Holland and Contemporary Needs’ (it was later republished in Borderlands of Theology without the words ‘Christian Optimism’ in the title – although the substance of the essay remained the same),

    3. Perhaps one way of continuing the above conversation would be by way of an engagement with MacKinnon’s The Problem of Metaphysics (CUP, 1974). This might also help, Joel, in answering a question you raised earlier about the relationship between a certain kind of metaphysical agnosticism that you find in both MacKinnon and Williams, and which is dependent upon a particular version of realism, and a confidence in the ‘ultimacy’ of the moral order. What MacKinnon has to say about the complex relationship between Kant’s first critique and the Grundlegung is enormously important here, as is his earlier discussion of Kant and Butler in A Study in Ethical Theory (1957).


  12. These comments are enormously helpful; thank you.

    One of the things I’m unclear on is how there is beatific vision that doesn’t minimize or overlook the reality of great suffering. On the one hand, I see the new reality that is reflected in the resurrection, where tears are wiped away, death and presumably suffering are defeated, no sorrow or sighing, a finality that is a time of beatific joy, given by grace. Like Chris said, the cross *and resurrection!* is the foundation of reality.

    On the other hand, the nail-marked hands of the resurrected Jesus, which he presumably still has in heaven, as well as a desire not to forget suffering as suffering – not to subsume it into something like “it’s part of God’s plan” – seems to draw even that into the resurrection life. I am committed to there not being any justification for suffering in principle, and I fear that that entails there being no redemption of it either.

    I simply don’t know how to reconcile these two things. My only thought is that they exist, alongside each other, somehow mysteriously, even in the world to come. (A Hegelian heaven?) But that seems contrary to the Good News. So I remain flummoxed. (I realize that I haven’t even mentioned D.MacK, pending my reading of the essays Andre kindly referenced. It should be obvious that this is an issue I struggle with.)


  13. Thankfully in heaven, all human, (Hegelian) ideas will melt away in the very Glory of God Himself! (1 Cor. 2:9 / Isa. 64: 4 ; 65:17) Even now the “Spirit” Himself “searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10) Perhaps now, the best “word” we can express is “existential”, but even this fails, for God is much more than in our own existent being! Thank God the word “mystery” (Musterion, Gk) is in the Bible, but again even here the idea is “dispensation” and “economy” in God! GOD Himself is His own Revelation! Even “theology” presses us back into the poetic convention toward God. Note, here too Aristotle’s own treatise on poetic drama.


  14. Chris,
    “Christian and Marxist Dialectic” is now re-published in the J. C. McDowell (ed), Philosophy and the Burden of Theological Honesty: A Donald MacKinnon Reader (T & T Clark/Continuum, 2011), 45-54.

    “Prayer, Worship and Life”, 55-66 in the same volume.

    We are all awaiting the publication of the completed intellectual biography which will be the extension and completion of Andre Muller’s Otago doctoral dissertation. And for what it is worth, you can see my own The Kenotic Trajectory of the Church in Donald MacKinnon’s Theology (T & T Clark/Continuum, 2011) – shameless plug, I know.


  15. Chris,
    In addition to the pieces that Andre has singled out and in relation to your question about the reality that undergirds our attempts to speak of God, etc., I would recommend MacKinnon’s “The Problem of the ‘System of Projection’ Appropriate to Christian Theological Statements”, 70-89 in Explorations in Theology 5.


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