Friday, June 29, 2012

After Virtue...I'm exhausted

If anyone has spent any time paying attention to Stanley Hauerwas, you're accustomed to frequently seeing two names referenced: John Howard Yoder and Alasdair MacIntyre. Having just graduated from a Mennonite seminary whose theology professor - Mark Thiessen Nation - is steeped in the work of all three men, I felt it was my duty as a budding intellectual  to at some point read MacIntyre's landmark work of moral philosophy, After Virtue. So in my final semester this past spring, in a seminary practicum, I assigned myself the book.

It only took me five months, but I finally completed it the other day, mere minutes before our plane from the UK landed in D.C. Despite its age (first published in the early 80s) this book is terribly important for today's world and has all kinds of far-reaching implications, including for contemporary Christian discipleship. So in what follows I will attempt the impossible task of briefly summarizing this tome, and then offer some implications to Christian discipleship in the church.

Line crosser

It should first be said that this book is hard to read. MacIntyre blurs a number of lines in his writing. One way to describe this book is as a work of philosophical history whose sweep ranges from ancient heroic Greek societies to the late modern world, and MacIntyre moves backwards and forwards through this history in stages throughout the book. This historical work is done to support both his critical and constructive arguments, so that's sometimes hard to keep track of as you read.

The second line that is blurred is already apparent: history and philosophy are being done simultaneously. Scholars used to tidy disciplinary boundaries could (and have been) frustrated by this line-crossing, but MacIntyre (to his credit) insists that history and philosophy are finally inextricable because the practice of philosophizing is always contingent, that is historically situated in particular times and places, and written by particular people whose social realities are not incidental to their work and thought.

With attention to historical-intellectual developments across Western societies, MacIntyre makes the provocative assessment that such societies in modernity have been morally bankrupted by their intellectual ancestors, those identifiable in the Enlightenment. We (that is anyone who stands indebted to Western thought and institutions, which nowadays - given globalization - is a vast swath of the globe) have no capacity left for moral reasoning for the common good. This is due to the emergence of a new construct in modernity: the individual. Under individualism the common good becomes necessarily a battle of competing individuals or ideological groups, and social institutions (political, legal, economic) arise to be mere arbiters of such battles. The common good, then, becomes a mirage and moral reasoning a cacophonous mess. (Writing this one day after the US Supreme Court's decision to uphold "Obamacare" and hearing the simultaneous collective howls of both adulation and horror from respective ideological camps.)

Amidst the moral morass we find ourselves in today, MacIntyre holds up the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues - with his own modifications - as "the best theory so far" for moral reasoning and practice. Virtues here are understood as "excellence" that is experienced by the exercise of practices within a particular tradition. The goods experienced by such virtuous practices are, rather than the possession of any particular individual, goods for the whole group (and even beyond the group).

To use an example from the Christian tradition, consider the virtue of humility experienced in the practice of washing feet. Here's Jesus' moral reasoning for washing feet, found in John 13:
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, 'Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.' (emphasis mine; cf. Matthew 20:24-28)
Sure it's good for the person doing the washing of feet, but done as a community it inculcates the virtue in and for everyone. It's worth noting here that both the virtue and the practice are somewhat particularly intertwined. Humility in other traditions will be inculcated by different practices, while still other traditions (and there are plenty) wouldn't even consider humility virtuous. Many Enlightenment thinkers, for instance, who were actively dismantling the Aristotelian tradition, didn't have much use for humility or other "monkish virtues."

MacIntyre ends with the somewhat gloomy conclusion that contemporary Western societies are by design incapable of providing resources for a life well-lived at a societal level. And he's aware that his own constructive argument - the virtues - are not even thinkable much less practical at such levels. So his suggestion is that if folks find both sides of his argument compelling (and I do) then the only realistic expectation is for small, local expressions of communities of virtuous practice to be cultivated.


What does this mean for the body of Christ, the Church, in such circumstances? For one thing, it depends on your understanding of the church. But if you're like me and warm to non-bureaucratic and more organic metaphors for church, MacIntyre's suggestion fits nicely but requires more theological work. If the church is understood to be the one global body of Christ with countless local expressions, then the virtues of that body need to be experienced in local communities of practice (congregations).

In his "Cultural Liturgies" series, James K.A. Smith has used MacIntyre's thought (among others') to help Christians develop capacity for seeing and understanding more clearly the difference between what he calls "sacred" and "secular liturgies." Smith's contention is that there really is something substantively different happening to your body (personal and collective) when you, for instance, submit yourself to the traditioned practices of the mall, versus the traditioned practices of the church. It's why he's nervous (and I share this) about the popularity of slick Hollywood-style production in Christian worship services. When the practices and assumptions of such incommensurable traditions are mixed in a congregational worship setting, the tendency will be for the tradition more culturally dominant (Hollywood) to enjoy the primary formational influence on that particular community. So a congregation can easily become - without their knowing it - worshipers of a moral-therapeutic deity of entertainment and consumption, rather than worshiping the living God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, present to us in his body by his Spirit, who calls us to a life of sacrifice and service.

Smith has been a most helpful voice in articulating the implications to the church from MacIntyre's critical and positive work in moral philosophy. I stand indebted to folks like Hauerwas and Smith for having led me to this philosophical well. Their work has helped me check my expectations for what cultural institutions in late modern societies are capable of providing for a life well lived (not much), and reassured me (with additional theological resources) of what should already be the case for disciples of the Christian faith: that it is the church, not the modern state, which bears the primary weight of God's reconciling work in creation. But this responsibility is not a possession of the church to lord over "the world" (again cf. Mt 20), but rather entails a disciplined life of sacrificial practice in real communities for the sake of that world which God so loved and is already actively transforming. The virtues of the church/fruits of the Spirit, properly experienced in Christian practices, are occasions for God's grace and reconciliation to shine through brilliantly, offering glimpses of a coming peaceable kingdom not of this world.

[Coincidentally, I have a post up today at the Theology Studio on virtuous theological discourse in the digital age, making use of MacIntyre: Whose retweet? Which “like”?]

No comments:

Post a Comment