After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre (3rd Ed)

Summary: More than 40 years ago, Alasdair MacIntyre gave us his version of why ethics and virtue are a problem in a post-enlightenment world. 

I am on a new quest in my reading. There are two parts to it. First, I am thinking about how to talk about and understand the idea of Christian discernment for individuals and groups in an age that mostly understands discernment as decision-making. Second, I am trying to understand the advocacy of virtue for Christians as a good in this life (not just the next) without turning it into an instrumental project. In other words, it is “easy” to encourage people to do something if they can see the positive result that will come about. Still, suppose they can only see the good because of how it positively impacts them. In that case, it becomes utilitarian or pragmatic, and virtues or moral stands will quickly melt away if the positive benefit is less clear.

This idea keeps coming up for me in the pragmatic advocacy of building relationships across boundaries. A typical example is that if you are a man, having cross-gender friendships will help you become a better man because you will have access to and learn from women who are not romantic partners and see that women can be fully human, not just a sexual object. While I think this is a real thing, and I would agree that this is a byproduct of cross-gender friendships, the instrumentalization of friendship means that the main focus becomes what you can get from the other person for your own sake, which inherently reduces the other to a benefit. Again, people with relationships across boundaries often gain insight into the role that boundary plays in the world, reducing the power of the boundary. However, the pragmatic argument is a problem because the expectation is for the good of the individual. When a relationship becomes more complex, as often happens at some point, the utilitarian will drop the relationship as not having independent value apart from what it can do to improve them as a person.

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Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life by Henri Nouwen edited by Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life cover imageSummary: Discernment is an essential part of Christian life. 

I am very mixed about posthumously completed books, especially those that are edited together. On the one hand, there are books like Dorothy Sayers’ Thrones, Dominations that was found years after her death and was edited and completed by Jill Paton Walsh and then continued on with books that were written only by Jill Paton Walsh, and I think that gave a new life to Peter Wimsey in a way I appreciate. But there are works that are not up to the author’s quality during their lifetime.

This is my third posthumous book by/with Nouwen; in this case, the editor/authors may not have waited long enough before publishing it. Nouwen passed away in 1996. There have been several revelations about his sexuality and other issues that were not discussed during his life. I plan on picking up a biography soon because while I have read several of Nouwen’s books, I only know his life from what he wrote in the books I have read, and I need more. (A post about the biography I read after this.)

For this book in particular, Nouwen spends a lot of time discussing the discernment about moving to L’Arche and the discernment of the people in leadership at L’Arche. All of that reads quite differently in light of the abuse that has been revealed over the past several years by Jean Vanier and others connected to him. Father Thomas Philippe was Vanier’s spiritual mentor and the head of a heterodox and spiritually abusive group. The Vatican investigated Philippe in the 1950s, and he was forbidden from exercising any priestly ministry or giving spiritual guidance because the Vatican found the abuse allegations credible. But he continued to lead his group through Vanier and was known as the cofounder of L’Arche. Nouwen specifically mentions Philippe as a holy man and his teaching of how God speaks through those around you as part of the discernment process. Philippe used abusive practices to spiritually manipulate women into sexual relationships with himself and others in the group.

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Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way by William Barry and Robert Doherty

Summary: A brief exploration of Jesuit spirituality 

No regular readers of my reviews will likely miss that I have spent the past couple of years studying to become a spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition. I intentionally chose a Catholic program because I have come to understand that I tend to learn in a dialectical approach. I want to have traditions in dialogue. My undergrad was at an evangelical college, my seminary was predominately a mainline protestant school, and my spiritual direction program was at a Jesuit college. Part of what is helpful about this approach is that I bring resources from outside the tradition for conversation with the tradition. What can be difficult is getting enough of an understanding of the new to understand it on its own terms and not as a caricature from previous experience.

This dialectical approach fits well with the focus on Contemplatives In Action. Barry and Doherty focus on the tensions that they suggest form Jesuit spirituality, the both/and that inherently leads to tensions that some always will want to calm. The title takes on the first tension, the tradition of Catholic orders to be either contemplative or action-oriented. Ignatius and later Jesuits strongly resisted the call to pray through the hours as almost all other orders did. Ignatius thought that long hours of prayer, while helpful, would keep the Jesuits from their work with the people, which was their primary focus. But the tension with that action orientation is that Jesuits are most known for giving the Spiritual Exercises (a highly contemplative approach to spiritual direction) and Christian education.

Other tensions include attention to personal experience and emotion with what Ignatius calls dispassion. In Ignatius’ use, this is not dispassion as in uncaring or negligence, but in getting to the point where you are willing to accept any of the multiple options that God may be calling you toward. Jesuits have a reputation for being overly analytic and dispassionate in the first negative sense, but that is contrary to Ignatius’ intent. “Jesuit spirituality is distinguished from other spiritualities by this personal attention to feelings, desires, dreams, hopes, and thoughts.” Only through that attention can the “defining characteristic of Jesuit spirituality,” Ignatius’ Discernment of the Spirits, be practiced.

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Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits by Timothy Gallagher

Summary: A discussion of the second set of “Rules of Discernment” by Ignatius.

In Ignatius’ classic Spiritual Exercises, a guide for spiritual directors to give a 30-day retreat, Ignatius has a number of annotations or suggestions for spiritual directors. Some of the most helpful and discussed are his Rules of Discernment. These rules guide understanding whether something is from God or satan (or at least a distraction from God.) Ignatius’ rules are split into two groups. The first group is discussed in Gallagher’s earlier book The Discernment of Spirits. Spiritual Consolation discusses the second set of rules.

The second set of rules primarily focuses on spiritual consolation and desolation and how the more mature believer may be tempted by satan differently than a less mature believer might. The central insight in my mind is that generally, satan seems to tempt less mature Christians by desolation, making them question God or their path. But in this second set of rules, Ignatius focuses on the idea that satan tempts more mature Christians by placing additional good opportunities or ideas in their path to distract them from the better option.

One example in the book is a deacon who has come to a new parish, helping it clean up its finances, become more focused in ministry, do fundraising, etc. But as he is there for a while, he realizes that the youth programs are inadequate, and no one takes a genuine interest in youth and their discipleship. So, he considers whether to stop his work with administration and finance and refocus his time on youth. It is not that either is wrong. Both may be what God is calling him to. Either adding too much onto your plate so you cannot do well or working on both, but losing time and energy for personal devotion and prayer is a bad long-term result.

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God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to God’s Will by Mark Thibodeaux

Summary: An exploration of Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment primarily focused on exploring decision-making.

As I have said before, I am exploring the concept of discernment, especially around Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment this year. Like What’s Your Decision, God’s Voice Within is an introduction to the Rules of Discernment focused on decision-making. God’s Voice Within is a bit broader in approach than What’s Your Decision, but they are different enough that I think they can be companion books, at least to compare how the two attempt to present Ignatian decision-making.

Two quotes to set the stage:

“Discernment would be simple if we could identify the five, or twelve, or twenty-five fail-proof steps to making good choices. But choices are not the result of mere rational exercise; choices come out of who we are as well as out of what we think. That is why discernment is not a system but a process, and it’s a process we must learn, and apply, and then learn some more.” p1


“Ignatian discernment, then, isn’t so much about what to do but about who to be. It’s about becoming a person in tune with the movements that lead toward God. The doing will flow from the being.” p6

Thibodeaux is not talking about a system of decision-making; he is more focused on a lifestyle or process of continually seeking after God, which leads to an orientation of seeking after God’s will in all areas of our life.

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What’s Your Decision?: How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity: An Ignatian Approach to Decision Making

Summary: An exploration of decision-making using Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment as a guide.

Part of what I have wanted to explore this year is Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment. I have asked around to get book recommendations, and What’s your Decision is one that was recommended.

The Rules of Discernment are not only about decision making, but that is how they tend to be used from what I have seen. So What is Your Decision is a good practical guide on the use of the rules of discernment. It is filled with stories and examples, which makes the somewhat vague and abstract rules tangible.

I like that it keeps the decision-making focused on spiritual reality while not over-spiritualizing everything. In an era where we tend to think of decision-making as an individual activity, Ignatius and the authors of this book remind us that we live in community, and not only are decisions made better by outside input, those decisions impact those around us, and we should both hear from those around us and take into account the impact of our decisions on others.

These are three brief quotes that I highlighted that I think give a sense of the discussion. (I have 14 highlights on my Goodreads page if you want to see more.)

“The evil spirit wants us to forget that we are fallible, limited beings; sharing our decisions with another person will keep us grounded in reality.” (p 96)

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The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Timothy Gallagher

Summary: An overview of the first 14 ‘rules’ of discernment. 

Regular readers will know that I am working on a training program to become a spiritual director. I intentionally choose a Catholic program because while the Evangelical and broader Protestant world has been rediscovering Spiritual Direction over the past 10 to 20 years, the Catholic stream of Christianity has never lost access to this discipleship tool. Ignatius (late 15th and early 16th century) wrote the Spiritual Exercises to guide spiritual directors to give a 30-day retreat.

That guide included two sets of ‘rules’ for discernment. These rules (guides) to help people in their discernment are split into ‘first’ and ‘second’ week rules, or the types of rules that were most helpful for people early in their retreat or people later in their retreat. You can roughly think of these as a type of spiritual maturity. However, Ignatius would not have assumed straight-line growth (in other words, once you are in the second week, you will not always be in the second week.)

Gallagher only talks about the first set of 14 rules in this book. It took a while for me to start to make sense of the rules of discernment. I started by listening to the book, which gave me an overview. I then read the book a second time, mostly in print, but with a little bit of listening. But just as important is that toward the end of my second reading. I downloaded a PDF of the rules and made it a part of my morning reading. For a week, I read them every morning and highlighted or made notes about how they related to one another or rewrote some of them in my own language. I am far from an expert and do not think of them as the ‘be all, end all’ of discernment. But the process of getting them deeper into my brain by reading them regularly (I think I still need to probably read them about once a week for the next couple of months). Thinking about how they relate to one another and trying to use them in my own life does matter.

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The Discerning Heart: Discovering a Personal God by Maureen Conroy

Summary: A book for those training to be spiritual directors focusing on developing discernment and using case studies to guide spiritual direction training.

The Discerning Heart is a book that was hard to track down. It is out of print, and when I finally found a copy for my classes, I was sent (and charged) for two. I am ambivalent about the book. I would rate it 3.5 stars if I were rating it. Some sections were very helpful. But the case studies got repetitive and didn’t feel like real conversations.

Where she was helpful was a good discussion on consolation and desolation (Ignatian technical terms) and their relationship to discernment. Conroy, on page 13, says, “The experience of consolation and desolation is the foundation of discernment,” but that base-level assumption is simply outside the realm of understanding for most Evangelicals that I know. One of the central areas that Evangelicals will need to be convinced to participate in Ignatian Spiritual Direction is that emotions are not contrary to spiritual reality. There are those working in this area, like Pete Scazzero’s work in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Jonathan Walton’s derivative work in Emotionally Healthy Activism, and Richard Foster and the late Dallas Willard’s work in discipleship through the organization Renovare. But those are not mainstream movements at this point.

I started reading this as I read Jesus and John Wayne, a history of the past 75 years of how Evangelicals conceived of the implications of leadership, gender roles, authority, and discipleship. The book’s final chapter pulls out many of the players that were discussed earlier in the book. Those leaders had consensual affairs, raped employees or church members, covered up rape or child abuse of others, abused their organizational power or authority, misused funds, destroyed their or other’s families, demeaned the name of other Christians (or non-Christians) falsely, or other sins. Cases where pastors called out a particular sin but then engaged in it or allowed it when convenient were common. Not every person mentioned in the book advocating “militant masculine Christianity” engaged in the above list, but a very high percentage did.

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When Faith Becomes Sight: Opening Your Eyes to God’s Presence All Around You by Beth and David Booram

Summary: Beth and David Booram present spiritual direction as a method of discipleship to an Evangelical audience. 

I am halfway through a program to become a spiritual director. It is a program rooted in Ignatian theory, as is the Boorams. As I have been in my program, I have been intentionally seeking out Protestant or Evangelical books with similar content to the (Catholic) Ignatian perspectives to help me often understand subtle differences in language or approach that I am blind to. When Faith Becomes Sight, I think, is the best overview of Ignatian spiritual direction that I have read for an Evangelical audience.

The rough structure of When Faith Becomes Sight is to start first by recognizing the signs of God that are already around us. This approach begins with the assumption that God seeks to communicate with you personally (not individually, but personally.) Signs of God are often subtle, and in a loud world with little silence, we need to develop skills to see and listen. Once we start seeing the signs of God around us, we need to develop skills of discernment, which requires examining our conscious and unconscious understanding of God. The book’s final section is more directly about the tools of spiritual direction and the lifelong process of discipleship.

When Faith Becomes Sight uses their work as spiritual directors (and their personal history) as examples of what discipleship looks like. As I glanced through some reviews, I saw that some people objected to their retelling of scripture. Retelling or immersion in scripture is part of the Ignatian practice of absorbing scripture and then retelling it in ways that the scripture speaks to you. That does not mean that the retellings are the same as scripture; we are always limited in our perspective, and often, in trying to make a point, we can distort a passage. That is not a reason to not deeply explore scripture, but instead, it is a reason to develop discernment about how we read scripture and theologically approach the world. And for those still skeptical, sermons explicate scripture, not merely read the scripture and sit down. Retelling scripture in your own words is very similar in purpose.

Part of the assumption of Ignatian spiritual direction is that a God will speak, and we can understand. Not necessarily in vocal words, but it may be vocal. The point is that Ignatius and many other streams of spiritual direction assume that the Holy Spirit can and will communicate his direction to us. And while we may not be perfect in understanding, with help, we can make a reasonable attempt at discerning God from our desires, sins, and satanic interruption.

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Care of Mind/Care of Spirit by Gerald May

Summary: A psychiatrist explores spiritual direction. 

This is another assigned book from my spiritual direction class. The focus of this semester’s class was spiritual direction and psychology. So assigning Care of Mind/Care of Spirit makes a lot of sense. Gerald May was a psychiatrist who became disillusioned with psychology and became a spiritual director.

My reading of Care of Mind/Care of Spirit was tainted by having his Addiction and Grace book assigned the same semester. I really did not like Addiction and Grace. My problem was mainly with his messy definition of addiction. However, my frustration with May in the Addiction and Grace book did not give me a lot of charity in reading Care of Mind/Care of Spirit.

There is value here. Because he was a psychiatrist, he understood that spiritual direction and psychology are different. There is a temptation for spiritual directors without much training in psychology to over-psychologize the spiritual direction.

…all of life’s experiences can appear legitimately in spiritual direction, but they need to be seen in the light of spiritual concern, and at all costs they should not be allowed to eclipse that light.

He also cautions the spiritual directors to understand their role. They are a facilitator of the work of the spirit; they are not the ones doing the work.

In spiritual direction however, the true healer, nurturer, sustainer, and liberator is the Lord, and the director and directee are seen as hopeful channels, beneficiaries, or expressions of grace for each other. This is a radical difference, and one that cannot be overemphasized.

One of the points that are most helpful is his distinguishing between psychology, which diagnoses a patient, and spiritual direction, which assists a person in discernment.

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