Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Riffing on David Brooks: Sociality, virtue, and vocation

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
David Brooks;
Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times
David Brooks intrigues me. He is considered a social and political conservative but he speaks in such a way as to set himself apart from most commentators of that ilk. He published a book this year - The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (also see his TED talk) - that uses contemporary neuroscience to make the case that humans are not primarily rational beings. We are thinking, feeling, yearning, and always-already social creatures. Promoting such a perspective puts him at odds with pretty much the entire post-Enlightenment Western world in its social-political manifestations, which all assume a very individualistic and overly rational view on human nature. (Encapsulated in Descarte's dictum, "I think, therefore I am.")

One of my favorite Christian thinkers - philosopher, James K.A. Smith - has taken note of Brooks' recent work, going so far as to defend Brooks from those who seem to be missing his point. Plus, Brooks' work comports well with Smith's own, especially his book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. One of Smith's biggest beefs with American evangelicals is that they've been duped into the individualist-rationalist view of human nature and so only seem to explicitly care about Christians' beliefs. To counter this Smith dusts off pre-modern, classical views of human nature and virtue that account for the whole being and restore a sense of work or vocation to the Christian life.

For Christian formation to do its work, it needs to operate on our (the Church's) entire personal and collective body as well as our in desiring the kingdom of God. Smith argues that we are shaped and pointed toward certain ends (such as the fulfillment of the kingdom) by liturgies - worship, work, or just simply practices. Smith contrasts sacred liturgies (Christian worship) and secular liturgies (eg. going to the mall). To not allow the former to operate in a holistic sense allows the latter to swoop in to fill in the gap, and eventually take over as the primary formational liturgy. So well-meaning evangelicals can (and do) become functional consumerist atheists with their bodies while purporting to be Christian in terms of their beliefs. Such split-being as we've inherited from the Enlightenment is ridiculous because, after all, the mind is part of the body and knowledge also exists outside the brain, even outside our corporeal bodies (eg. social consciousness).

[This post was subsequently picked up by the Mennonite Weekly Review blog: David Brooks, John Howard Yoder, and the sociality of virtue. Thanks again to Sheldon C. Good for his editorial work!]

Virtues for international development work
So all the above serves as a (probably too long) preface to why I thought Brooks' most recent op-ed piece in the New York Times - The Rugged Altruists - was interesting. In the piece, Brooks lays out three virtues for Americans to strive for and embody in their work in the developing world, illustrating each with stories from real people:
  1. Courage - "the willingness to go off to a strange place"
  2. Deference - "the willingness to listen and learn from the moral and intellectual storehouses of the people you are trying to help"
  3. Thanklessness - "the ability to keep serving even when there are no evident rewards — no fame, no admiration, no gratitude"
This short list seems good, especially the last two. To those last two I would simply add the complementary virtue of humility, which would undergird those two, developing an ethic of service-as-co-creation over against practices of service that are culturally insensitive and colonizing. It should be noted that these virtues would also serve well Americans who are doing development in America, lest we let ethnocentrism go unchecked, as if there aren't calamitous problems and soul-crushing poverty in the US that need to be addressed.

Virtues for Christians in whatever work
It's also important to note that Brooks is speaking explicitly to American citizens doing international work. To shift the audience to Christian citizens of God's Kingdom who happen to be American, I would challenge them to unlock themselves from the American social imaginary and look for ways in which the global, "small-c" catholic church can constitute a strong witness and faithfully engage in God's reconciling mission in the world, wherever and whenever that work is happening (always, everywhere). Christians taking Brooks' list of virtues - deference, thanklessness, and humility - seriously will do just that no matter where they are, if they seek to participate in the movements of Christ's Spirit. The virtues of hope and joy are also necessary for thankless, humble work, lest our life's work become just "one damn thing after another."

In his letter to Christians in first century Rome (Rom. 8), Paul speaks words of comfort and hope to those experiencing suffering and persecution, circumstances that can - like thankless work - often grind us down and break our bodies+spirit. But the hope for (and faith in) God's liberation of this fallen world pushes us onward. For "if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently" (8:25; cf. also 5:1-5; patience also being a virtue).

See how all these hang together and are of a piece?! Why does speaking of virtue get so complicated? Here's my take...

The sociality of virtue
Back to Brooks: How do the virtues of which he speaks relate to his work in The Social Animal? This is as good a time as any to use my all-time favorite John Howard Yoder quote, from Nevertheless:
(V)irtue is narrative: it has length. The present is embedded in a past which has made me who I am and reaches toward a hope which is already present to faith. Virtue as well has breadth: it is communal. [I have] neighbors, persons who count on me, persons far and near,and groups, with whom I am bound by reciprocal promises and role expectations. Virtue also has depth: it implies and celebrates understandings about the nature of  person, the nature of God, the goodness and fallenness of creation, the inwardness and transparency of self, the miracles of redemptive transformation.
(Emphasis mine. I also use this quote in my recent paper on teaching conflict transformation in Ethiopia.)
The pre-modern - particularly Aristotelian - views on virtue have, in the last 30 years, staged a comeback of sorts. You can see Yoder using them above but Alisdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas have also made significant contributions which are now working their way through a second (and third?) generation of scholars following these three. James K.A. Smith is one such scholar.

Now, were I speaking with my colleagues in the largely secularized peacebuilding program in which I'm studying, this would be a different conversation. Virtue language is foreign in disciplines that have been highly secularized in various ways, such as the social sciences which largely inform conflict transformation education as I've been taught. One legacy of secularity in the West is a suspicion toward things "religious." In my peacebuilding program - which purports to be interdisciplinary - the discipline of theology is seen as suspect at best, usually ambivalent, or inherently violent at worst. So the exciting work of recovering virtue theory that has taken place in theological disciplines gets obfuscated to my colleagues in peacebuilding, to their detriment. (To be fair, my peacebuilding program has built into it a high degree of cross-cultural sensitivity in very non-Western ways - which I praise here - but at other levels still operates with the fairly common Western/secular view of religion-as-suspect.)

Connectors and/or dividers? (A conclusion of sorts)
What might bring these two disciplines - theology and peacebuilding - together? David Brooks' The Social Animal might be a good conversation-starter. Earlier this year, all of Eastern Mennonite University was involved in a large on-campus conference called, Conversations on Attachment: Integrating the science of love and spirituality (I was never a fan of that subtitle). Proponents of attachment theory have partnered with scholars in the field of neuroscience, and their work supports each other. Some of this is the same research on which Brooks is drawing and that Smith is drawing attention to and relating it to his own theologically philosophical work on Christian character/desire formation.

Is there a fruitful conversation to be had here for peacebuilders, theologians, and theological peacebuilders such as myself? Perhaps. If there is, I would also want to draw attention to philosophical work on secularity, on which I recently reflected (and on which Smith has helped me ponder), as well as the theopolitical work of William T. Cavanaugh, John Milbank, et al, as it relates to the relatively recent phenomenon of the modern nation-state and its grip on our imaginations.

In closing, I have to close. This post started out rather straightforward but then went 40 different directions. But this is pretty indicative of the fact that I sit in the gap of way too many intellectual disciplines at any given moment. It points to the near-daily frustration I've had over the past three years trying to build bridges between my two graduate programs/disciplines (theology and peacebuilding) and how I've had to go elsewhere for intellectual support (philosophy and history). God help me finish this last year of school, so I can either 1) continue working at these questions explicitly or 2) get a "real" job and let this stuff sink below the surface and inform my work in creative (and probably still-frustrating) ways. Whatever direction I head, the virtues of courage, deference, thanklessness, humility, patience, hope, and joy will hopefully (get it?!) follow. Hallelujah, amen.

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