Virtues of Powerlessness? Faith, Love and Hope in a Secular World – 15 & 16 June 2018


Our 2018 end of year conference, ‘Virtues of Powerlessness? Faith, Love and Hope in a Secular World’ took place at Senate House, London on Friday and Saturday 15th and 16th of June, 2018.

In Christian thought, empowerment and powerlessness are not simply opposed: they are two sides of the same coin. Specifically, empowerment comes through the exercise of the so-called theological virtues: faith, hope and love (caritas). These are thought to afford human beings spiritual empowerment by expressing a proper acknowledgement of our temporal vulnerability and powerlessness, before God. The theological virtues are in this sense ‘virtues of powerlessness’.

In this conference, we asked: is this paradoxical structure essentially religious? Does it require a robust notion of transcendence? Can we make sense of virtues of powerlessness without relying on theological commitments? While leaving open to investigation the question of the extent to which ours is a secular world, we ask: are faith, love and hope, in particular, available to us as virtues of powerlessness in a secular world?


  • Havi Carel (University of Bristol)
  • Taylor Carman (Colombia University)
  • John Cottingham (University of Reading)
  • Ken Gemes (Birkbeck, University of London)
  • Discussant – Adrian Moore (University of Oxford)
  • Geoff Morgan (North Middlesex NHS Trust)
  • Andrew Pinsent (University of Oxford)
  • Mark Wrathall (University of Oxford)


Day 1 – Friday 15 June 2018

09.00:                   Registration

09.20:                   Welcome

09.30 – 11.00:    Andrew Pinsent: The Challenge to Second-Person Relatedness in a Secular World.

11.00 – 11.15:      Break

11.15 – 12.45:      John Cottingham: Strength made perfect in weakness’: Aristotelian versus Christian conceptions of the good life

12.45 – 13.45:     Lunch break (lunch not provided)

13.45 – 15.15:      Geoff Morgan: Faith in powerlessness: explorations in positivity & spiritual care with independent advocates, service users and chaplains.

15.15 – 15.30:      Break

15.30 – 17.00:     Ken Gemes: Powerlessness as the Most Uncanny Expression of the Will to Power


Day 2 – Saturday 16 June 2018

09.15:                    Registration

09.30 – 10.30:   Mark Wrathall: Religion and the Transformation of Existence.

10.30 – 10.40:    Short Break

10.40 – 11.00:     Adrian Moore responds to Mark Wrathall

11.00 – 12.00:     Q & A

12.00 – 13.00:    Lunch Break (lunch not provided)

13.00 – 14.30:    Taylor Carman: Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith

14.30 – 14.45:     Break

14.45 – 16.15:      Havi Carel: Virtue without excellence; excellence without health.


Havi Carel

Havi Carel is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol, where she also teaches medical students. She is currently a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator, leading a five year project, the Life of Breath ( Her third monograph was published by Oxford University Press in 2016, entitled Phenomenology of Illness. Havi is the author of Illness (2008, 2013), shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and of Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger (2006). She previously published on the embodied experience of illness, epistemic injustice, wellbeing within illness and on the experience of respiratory illness.

Taylor Carman

Taylor Carman is professor of philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of Heidegger’s Analytic (2002) and Merleau-Ponty (2008) and coeditor of The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty (2005)

John Cottingham

John Cottingham is Professor Emeritus at Reading University, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Roehampton University London, and an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College Oxford. He is the author of numerous publications on the history of philosophy (especially Descartes), moral philosophy, and philosophy of religion. His recent books include On the Meaning of Life (Routledge), Cartesian Reflections (OUP), The Spiritual Dimension (CUP), Philosophy of Religion: Towards a More Humane Approach (CUP), and How to Believe (Bloomsbury).

Ken Gemes

Ken Gemes is a Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has published on the notion of logical content, confirmation theory, the will to truth, and sublimation, among other topics.

Geoff Morgan

Geoff Morgan is Head of Spiritual Care – Chaplaincy at North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust, north London and Team Chaplain at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Previously he was employed as an Independent Mental Capacity Advocate (IMCA practitioner) across south London (2007-2011), and a chaplain and service manager at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust (2011–2016). Geoff is a licensed Anglican priest in London and Oxford dioceses and has published in the areas of healthcare advocacy and post-colonial studies. A practitioner-researcher, he obtained his doctorate from King’s College London (2014) and the monograph, Independent Advocacy and Spiritual Care, Insights from Service Users, Advocates, Healthcare Professionals and Chaplains (Palgrave MacMillan) was published in January 2017.

Adrian Moore

A.W. Moore is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, Vice-Principal of St Hugh’s College Oxford, and joint editor of MIND.  His publications include The Infinite; Points of View; Noble in Reason, Infinite in Faculty: Themes and Variations in Kant’s Moral and Religious Philosophy; and The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things.

Andrew Pinsent

Andrew Pinsent is Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University. Formerly a particle physicist on the DELPHI experiment at CERN, he has degrees in philosophy and theology and a second doctorate in philosophy. A major theme of his current research is second-person (I-you) relatedness in science, philosophy, and theology. His publications include work in virtue ethics, neurotheology, science and religion, the philosophy of the person, insight, divine action, and the nature of evil.

Mark Wrathall

Mark Wrathall is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a Tutor and Fellow at Corpus Christi College.  He works in the phenomenological tradition of philosophy, and is interested in issues surrounding selfhood, responsibility, authenticity, temporality, and the phenomenology of religious life. He is the author of Heidegger and Unconcealment: Truth, Language, and History (Cambridge UP) and How to Read Heidegger (W.W. Norton). He has edited a number of volumes, including Religion after Metaphysics (Cambridge UP) and The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time (Cambridge UP) and The Cambridge Heidegger Lexicon (forthcoming).


Titles and Abstracts

Virtue without excellence; excellence without health

Havi Carel

In this talk I respond to Edward Harcourt’s suggestion that human excellences are structured in a way that allows us to see the multiplicity of life forms that can be instantiated by different groups of excellences. I accept this layered (as he calls it) model, but suggest that Harcourt’s proposal is not pluralistic enough, and offer three critical points. First, true pluralism would need to take a life-cycle view, thus taking into account plurality within, as well as between, lives. Second, Harcourt’s pluralism still posits physical health as a requirement for excellence, whereas I claim that the challenges of illness give more, not less, opportunity for excellence. Third, I make a more general claim that in certain salient cases (illness being one of them) it is precisely the absence of excellence that can facilitate virtue.

Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith

Taylor Carman

Kierkegaard’s name will forever be associated with the “leap of faith” that figured prominently in Jacobi’s conversations with the dying Lessing. That association puts the emphasis firmly on agency. Jacobi insisted on the necessity of a leap of faith as a matter of ethical and metaphysical principle, but it was Lessing who had the deeper insight into the “awful wide ditch” we actually face in contemplating such a jump. Like Lessing, Kierkegaard does not conceive of faith wholly in terms of spontaneity. Instead, with Luther, he defines it as trust, which can be only partly voluntarily. Faith is indeed a kind of commitment, but one that necessarily involves receptivity: it is, he says, passionate commitment. In this paper I take issue with several recent readings of Kierkegaard that miss this point and so fail to grasp the nature and import of his existential interpretation of faith.

 ‘Strength made perfect in weakness’: Aristotelian versus Christian conceptions of the good life.

John Cottingham

The picture of a good human life found in classical Aristotelian ethics looks very different from the Christian picture, and their respective conceptions of virtue are correspondingly different. Aristotle’s virtues, excellences of character acquired by a good upbringing, are geared to success, pre-eminence and flourishing as a respected member of the community. This schema finds no place for Christian virtues like humility, nor can it readily accommodate the ‘theological’ virtues of faith, hope and love. This paper will explore these contrasts, and will suggest, without begging any questions as to the truth or otherwise of theism, that the Christian conception exposes certain flaws in the Aristotelian conception of virtue. By accommodating and affirming our human weakness and dependency, rather than treating it as something to be ignored or regretted, it may offer a psychologically richer and more insightful conception of what it is to lead good human life, and one that may serve to challenge some of the underlying assumptions of contemporary philosophical ethics.

Powerlessness as the most Uncanny Expression of the Will to Power

Ken Gemes

Nietzsche argues that the modern secular outlook is not in opposition to the Christian outlook but is rather its most sublime manifestation. Secular atheists who value truth and compassion above all else have merely dropped Christian ontology to perfect the moral core of Christianity. On this view, and counter enlightenment propaganda, the decisive historical break in the west is not between the modern world of science, objectivity and truth and the medieval world of religious superstition and faith.  Rather the decisive break is the transition from the pagan world with its ethical code of honour, and its concomitant valorisation of power, to the Judeo-Christian world which takes compassion, love of one’s neighbour, and its concomitant value of humility, to be core moral values.  The Christian valorisation of powerless on this view serves two purposes; first, it allowed the weak to make sense of their otherwise meaningless suffering, and second, it became a tool for the subjugation of the strong.

Faith in powerlessness: explorations in positivity & spiritual care with independent advocates, service users and chaplains

Geoff Morgan

The Mental Capacity Act (2005) and the amendments to the Mental Health Act (1983) in 2007 made it a statutory duty for the NHS and local authorities to refer to advocacy services. These came into effect in 2007 and 2009 respectively in England and Wales and were further expanded under the Health and Social Care Act 2012 which was part of a steady growth in advocacy which coincided arguably with an increase in literature on mental health and spirituality. Independent advocates are specialists who support the powerless and the vulnerable; and spiritual care coordinators (or chaplains) provide expressions of advocacy. For Independent Mental Capacity Advocates (IMCAs), social, cultural and spiritual factors are influential. For these advocates, emergent theological categories of ‘faith, hope and love’ may be able to provide wider secular and ethical valence for their thinking, practice and training. Background research involved a literature review of the history of advocacy, some comparisons with its forms in other European contexts, interviews with 40 advocates, chaplains and service users; this issued in subsequent empirical analysis via case study methodology. The attested ‘rediscovery of the spiritual dimension in health and social care’ highlighted both issues in the professionalisation of advocacy in relation to culture and spirituality; and advantages in conversation between faith and advocacy practitioners. Models of understanding arise, and conclusions are drawn which illustrate a cross-fertilisation between theory and practice in the diverse fields of the occupation as experienced both as a professional and as a service user.

The Challenge to Second-Person Relatedness in a Secular World

Andrew Pinsent

The transition from the classical to the Christian world introduced second-person relatedness, with the embryonic form of caritas, as the form of all virtues, especially the theological virtues. These dispositions in turn shaped the treatment of those powerless to help themselves, especially in healthcare. But one concomitant of a secularising society has been a comparative loss of the second person to a narcissistic first-person or objectifying third-person perspective. In this presentation I consider the implications of this trend and prospects for reversing it or at least ameliorating its undesirable consequences.

Religion and the Transformation of Existence

Mark Wrathall

I will explore the thought, shared by philosophers like Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Buber, and Heidegger, that religion can only be understood as a specific type of existential transformation rather than as a noetic structure.  If this is right, then the challenge that secularism poses to religion is to be located in the practices and existential forms of secular life.  I conclude by considering specific ways in which the theological virtues, understood as modes of religious existence, conflict with secular practices.