U is for Universalism (and Ultimate Concern)

I used to joke with people that you had to be careful attending churches that had a ‘U’ in them. United, Universal, Unitarian, Unity, etc. They seemed either to believe in almost everything or in not much of anything. U-Universalism

It was much funnier back then… but there is something to it.
Theological words are much the same. ‘U’ words tend to be big and sweeping in their scope. Much like the ‘I’ words seem to embody a certain period and concern, the ‘U’ words are large and consequential.

We will tackle Universalism first and then look at Ultimate Concern.

Grenz defines it this way – but pay attention to how he does so:

Universalism. Known historically as apokatastasis, the belief that all persons will be saved. Hence universalism involves the affirmation of universal *salvation and the denial of eternal punishment. Universalists believe that ultimately all humans are somehow in union with Christ and that in the fullness of time they will gain release from the penalty of sin and be restored to God. Twentieth-century universalism often rejects the deity of Jesus and explores the “universal” bases of all religions.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1325-1327). Kindle Edition.

Did you see it? By presenting the concept as a historical concept with some biblical precedent, there is put forward some credibility. Then modern versions are handled in one sentence and in a way that rejects the deity of Jesus.
This is not a mistake, nor is it an accident.

Universalism is an old idea. The version that emerged in the 20th century is a different animal. In a globalized context where religions, traditions and world-views bump up against each other everyday,  the conversation changes immensely.

There are really 2 distinct universalisms:

  • Classic christian universalism relates to the belief that salvation is for everyone. A couple of years ago Rob Bell’s Love Wins was accused of being universalist. Karl Rahner’s notion of ‘anonymous christians’ is another expression of this impulse.

If you think that the christian God loves everyone and that ultimately (another U word) God’s work is for everyone and that basically everyone will end up with God, that would be a type of universalism.

  • Contemporary universalism is more about world religions. It is a type of pluralism. Contemporary universalism is concerned with the validity of any – or all – approaches to religion. Many look to figures like John Hick or use the ‘many paths up the same mountain’ analogy.

Contemporary universalism is as different from classic universalism as lighting is from a lighting bug.

Classic universalism is concerned with with work of Christ for every-one [thus Grenz’s concern for Jesus’ divinity]. Contemporary universalism is not about Christ’s effectiveness so much as the inherent validity of traditions and religions.
Both of these notions are beautiful attempts at something grand but are warped deeply by the legacy of colonialism.

I could write (and have written) massive papers on contemporary approaches to universalism – specifically within the context of inter-religious dialogue and postmodern approaches to pluralism.

The globalized world of the 21st century means that religious conversations and convictions are perhaps the most important conversation happening in our lifetime. Unless Jesus’ return is soon, we are going to have to learn to live on this planet together.

Which leads us to another important U word.

Ultimate Concern: The idea arising from Paul Tillich that everyone has something that is of highest importance to him or her. Tillich suggested that persons’ ultimate concern, or “what concerns ultimately,” is their God. In this sense, everyone is inherently religious.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1318-1320). Kindle Edition.

Tillich presented several innovative concepts* that reframe the whole theological enterprise. This notion of Ultimate Concern is the perfect addition to the Classic/Contemporary address of Universalism and Pluralism.

 

Thoughts? Concerns? Questions?

 

Below is a short bibliography of resources I find helpful.
*If I were not in the field of Practical Theology, I would write on Tillich. His notion of correlation and his approach to ‘the ground of being’ fascinate me. If it were not for the linguist turn that happened in continental philosophy after his time, I think that he would have been the most significant theologian of the 20th century. Alas, the world changed.

McLaren’s christian take

Prothero’s innovative non-academic take

famous John Hick

Knitter’s Theologies of Religion

a christian take on multiple versions of ‘salvations’

Catherine Cornille on the impossibility of this whole thing

the best new work on the subject

classic work on Pluralism

the invention of world religions (a must read)

 

 

Process Is Poised For A Comeback

Three things have been rattling around in by cranium while I was away this Spring.

1. The cicada’s came back. Every 17 years the Periodical Cicada Brood II emerges to rollick in the Eastern half of the U.S. for a brief but frenzied round of sex and gluttony. We will not see them again for 17 years. It is a phenomenon that always garners it’s fair share of bewilderment and awe.

cicadas

It is appropriate that this baffles most of us. We are set to think in perennial terms and oddities like this don’t fit that narrative. Underneath the soil right now is a massive swarm that we will not hear a peep from until 2030.

2. I was listening to an episode of Smiley and West’s weekly radio show while I was fixing up my parent’s house. The guests were Maceo Parker and Bill Ayers (interesting mix eh?). It was pointed out that sometimes, things just take time. Ayers’ example: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. It was not until 1963 that the march in Birmingham took place.

Ayers points out that not everything happens in quick succession. He said this in reference to the Occupy flare-up last year and why it appears that not much has come out of them.

3. Tony Jones had the response to Jack Caputo’s address at the Subverting the Norm conference. Point 2 of Tony’s 13 points was :

Process theology had its chance. If process theology couldn’t get traction in the American church under the auspices of John Cobb in the 1970s, I doubt that it will gain traction with his acolytes. Outside of Claremont (and Homebrewed Christianity), I hear little about process theology. I am not saying that popular theology = good theology; that would make Joel Osteen a theological genius. What I’m saying is that process theology did not capture the imagination of a critical mass of clergy and laypeople in its heyday, so I doubt that it will today. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cobb was ahead of his time, and the church is only now ready for process.

 

I know that Process thought will always be on the periphery. It will never be mainstream… and I am o.k. with that. Some things just work better as ‘catchers’ on the outside of the whirlwind.

Here is the thing: many Mainline, progressive or emergent church expressions don’t make that many converts. Some may even think that evangelism is wrong/trite/passé/ or coercive.

You know who does make a lot of converts? The evangelical-charismatic branch of the family. They do.

But not all of their kids or converts find the theological answer persuasive or satisfying after a while. So there is always a large supply of folks cycling out of the evangelical spin-cycle looking for better frameworks and answers … and it just so happens that Process thought can provide that.

 

Process thought interacts with both Biblical Scholarship and Science with flying colors.

Process even has a built-in interface for engaging other religions. It’s perfect for the pluralism that our world and time are calling for.

Yes – you have to learn some new words and it is admittedly clumsy to transition into from a classical approach. We all acknowledge that. But … and I can not overstate this … if your unhappy with the frameworks that you inherited, what have you got to lose?   Your faith?

If the alternatives are to either:

A) close your eyes and choke-down the medicine

or

B) walk away from the faith altogether

Then what is the harm is picking up some new vocabulary and concepts that allows you to navigate the tricky waters of the 21st century?

I mean, what else are you going to do for the next 17 years while we wait for the cicada’s return?

 

___

I have been enjoying 2 big books while I was away:

Modern Christian Thought (the twentieth century) and Essentials of Christian Theology – both have significant sections of Process influence.

 

Cicada Picture: H. Scott Hoffman/News & Record, via Associated Press

TNT: Bible Bash with Brueggemann and Fretheim

Bo and Tripp riff off of Terence Fretheim and Walter Brueggemann answering the same set of questions. These two legends of Biblical Theology give us their best take on passages to preach when controversial subjects come up.  Topics include:TNT Version3

  • Economy
  • Ecology
  • Homosexuality
  • Immigration
  • Other Religions
  • Bible Stories for Kids

You can hear the original HomeBrewed interviews for Fretheim and Brueggemann at these links.
Remember: Easter comes early this year so Lent starts on February 13. Bo will be blogging through the book Neighbors and Wisemen every weekday through the Lenten Journey.  Come and join the conversation!

Sign up for the Subverting the Norm Conference 2 in Springfield Missouri April 5th and 6th. Thanks to both Drury University and Phillips Theological Seminary for sponsoring the conference and making it the most affordable two-day event of the year.

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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After MacIntyre

This is part of an article I wrote a while ago. I am posting it as background to my blog post “Radical Orthodoxy’s Fatal Flaw”.  It is not written in blog format but for anyone who is interested, I wanted to put it out there. 

Introduction

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre puts forward a strong critique of moral philosophy and an even stronger proposal of a way forward by reclaiming the ancient Aristotelian formation proposed in the formation of virtue. MacIntyre says that we have “largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”[1] His critique of modern analytical philosophy surpasses, initially, any address of the ‘right’ or the ‘good’ or even ‘justice’, instead focusing on the meaningless of those terms in the current context of philosophical address.

MacIntyre illustrates the futility of such debates but outlining the problem on three levels: First is that we have no “rational way of weighing the claims of one (argument) against another”. [2] Second, the arguments “purport to be impersonal rational arguments” that complicate “moral excellence and argument”.[3] Third, each disagreement has its own historical situation and “cannot be resolved, because no moral disagreements of that kind in any age, past, present, or future, can be resolved.”[4] This triangle limits the possibility that modern western philosophy can address any moral discrepancy. As MacIntyre has pointed out earlier:

What we posses … are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts that now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality; we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.[5]

In response to this fragmented framework MacIntyre chooses instead to reclaim a notion of Aristotle’s approach to the formation of virtuous character within the context of community (polis).[6]  If within these communities character is formed by the “enacted narratives”[7] that allow the self to be formed and ones identity to emerge within the continuity (or discontinuity) of the self that is provided by a greater environment. According to MacIntyre “the self inhabits a character whose unity is given as the unity of a character.”[8] This happens within an embedded or situated environment in which a narrative may be lived out.

This stands in contrast to the deontological approach of those who look to Kant as well as the utilitarian approach made famous by John Stuart Mills and followed by Max Weber (who will be addressed in greater depth later in this paper). MacIntyre posits a teleological approach that looks to Aristotle for its framework. Both the Kantian and the utilitarian approach were doomed in MacIntyre’s opinion because they utilized an Enlightenment conception of morality of the self and were duly incoherent in their use of such language.  The Kantian (deontological) perspective looks to the concept of duty and intrinsic values to determine those courses of action that satisfy the injunction to observe some set of external notion of good. The utilitarian approach focused on behaviors that brought about the desired ends and the necessary means to accomplish them. Both schools fall short of MacIntyre’s concern to bring about the formation of virtuous character within the individual within their situated community. As Stanley Hauerwas states it:

Aristotle provided MacIntyre with an account of why our actions require a conception of an end as well as the social and political conditions necessary to sustain a life formed by the virtues constitutive of that end that is simple lacking in modern moral practice and theory.[9]

It is this formation within community that provides MacIntyre’s Aristotelian move. We are to imagine a community where a set of precepts is conceptualized as the virtues without which the good and the common life of the community cannot manifest. The telos can be conceived of as a narrative framework that a community embraces and employs, not as an end or merely for the result, but which embodies its values and brings about the good insofar as the community lives into the narrative. This is compatible with Dewey’s view of democracy (to be handled later in the paper) as more than simple majority rule but instead a “mode of associated living”[10] where individuals share responsibility in “forming and directing the activities of the group”[11] as they are in “harmony with the interest and good”[12] which the group shares in common.  Talisse sees this as a requirement of members “to embody a certain set of habits which both reflect common interests and enable individuals to act for the sake of the common good.”[13] This expectation allows the members to both be formed by virtuous expectation and to participate in bringing about those values of which the community has cultivated. The competencies are brought about by conditions embraced by the community and within which the individual has been formed by to participate in.

In his prologue to the 3rd edition of After Virtue, written on the 25th anniversary of publication, MacIntyre (sounding like Dewey) says that it is within “acts of imagination and questioning”[14] that members or a group would be able to navigate the difficulties of a situation or decision where there is disagreement with another group. Since there are no “neutral standards” available by which to judge the adequacies of any claim to truth, a rational agent my be able to determine a course of action and bring about a resolution where there is no clear standard by which to evaluate the superiority of one tradition over another. An awareness of our cultural chaos is vital. Hauerwas points out that we live in a ‘precarious’ moment:

Life in a world of moral fragments is always on the edge of violence, since there are no means to ensure that moral arguments in itself cans resolve our moral conflicts.”[15]

He goes on to say that it is little wonder we “hunger for absolutes in such a world” [16] that robs us of sense of self or security that we have. The individual as a rational agent, the unencumbered self, and free actor are all illusions outside of a radically situated history and story of formation and participation.

 

Decline and Fall

The picture that has been painted thus far is at best tenuous and at worst dire.  It would be unwise to proceed without asking the question “are we indeed in as great a predicament as MacIntyre believes that we are?” Is the situation as dire as has been presented? Are we morally and ethically in as a deep a quagmire as MacIntyre believes us to be? One needs look no farther than Hipsters and the Occupy movement to see the depths that we are in.

Rawls acknowledged (as does Sandel) that there is not only conflict over the Big Questions (as Talisse states it) in our political discourse but a suspect configuration of the moral questions and issues of power as to call into question whether they “constitute a consistent set.”  In fact, Rawls goes as far as to say despite “our conscious attempt to reason with each other”[17], that agreement is allusive and may only be reached though “oppression.”[18] This fractured and contentious societal situation is inflamed by (at least) three cultural elements: consumerism, globalization, and pluralism. The first is the disposition of individuals within a society, the second impacts the proximity of different communities, and the third affects the posture when approaching a disparate series of relationship for communities.

Consumerism is hyperbolized in an examination of Hipster ‘culture’ by Douglas Haddow entitled “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization”.[19] Haddow provides a vicious critique when he says:

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.[20]

 

It this both the dislocation of generational continuity and the isolation of consumerist aesthetics that are troubling about the brand obsessed and all too self-aware ironic sensibilities that alert one to the incredible disenchantment and disassociation of the youth culture. It is these very same consumerist influences and institutions that give rise to their embodied expression and vague angst that manifests in such irresponsible yet elaborate demonstrations of the Hipster’s intentionally senseless displays.

Perhaps more appropriate is Simon Critchley’s recent address of the separation of the people (in politics) and power.  Critchley borrows a powerful metaphor from Anglo-Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman set in an abandoned airplane with nothing but a previously recorded message to calm passengers fears. Critchley looks to this as the source of our current societal anxiety. Inherently we know that “ no one is in control: no God, no glorious leader, no benevolent dictator, nothing and no one. It’s even worse than the fantasy behind the Wizard of Oz and the Emperor’s New Clothes. There’s no wizard and no emperor.”[21] This feeling of quicksand is the erosion of knowing where our power has gone, knowing how things work and feeling as if power was actually possible with the people for which so many platitudes were lifted. Critchley points to this separation of the people from power, or over the knowledge of such power and how it is invested in the institutions of authority, that lands us in our current cultural malaise and constitutional quagmire.[22]

The reality of the contemporary societal movement is one of escalating and nearly indecipherable chaos, incommensurable solutions and seemingly incoherent voices all competing with no organized framework or agreed upon arena for putting forward any meaningful resolutions or even compromises. We see this in the religious, philosophical, moral, educational, political and economic spheres. It does appear that MacIntyre’s concern is justified and his analysis is rational.

 

No Culture is an Island

 

In chapter 9 of After Virtue, MacIntyre goes after the relatively unintelligible vocabulary in our modern situation that is nothing more than a series of remnants and fractured remainders from past systems and moral frameworks.

A key part of my thesis has been that modern moral utterance and practice can only be understood as a series of fragmented survivals from an older past and that the insoluble problems which they have generated for modern moral theorists will remain insoluble until this is well understood. What we need here is not only a philosophical acuteness but also the kind of vision which anthropologists at their best bring to the observation of other cultures, enabling them to identify survivals and unintelligibilities unperceived by those who inhabit those cultures.[23]

 

MacIntyre reinforces this foreignness motif by relaying a story from Captain Cook’s third voyage where he and his men landed on the Hawaiian Islands where they observed both sexual practices they found objectionable and gender segregation that they found perplexing. When they inquired as to why women did not eat the men, it was explained that this was taboo. The native word can also be translated ‘forbidden’. The perplexing development was when the Hawaiians could not explain why this practice was forbidden. MacIntyre points to this as an example of using a word that they did not understand that propped up practice they could not explain which was a remnant of a bygone era and was only held to in a fragmented system of cultural norms.  This would explain why King Kamehameha II was able to abolish the taboo laws just forty years later (1819) and “the lack of social consequences when he did.” [24]

MacIntyre then turns his attention to the problems in our modern moral context and points to the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche who he refers to as the Kamehameha of the European tradition. This is based on Nietzsche’s ability to expose “what purported to be appeals to objectivity were in fact expressions of subjective will” and the difficulties that these proposed for the moral philosophers.

My hesitation with this analogy is tempered by my acceptance of its results. The hesitation, however, is that this may be a case of comparing philosophical apples to proverbial oranges. The Hawaiians were fine to participate in these social norms and to dutifully observe the taboos as there were handed down through tradition. The occasion of Cook’s arrival introduced an alien paradigm that examined the structures behind the taboo laws and found them wanting. It was the introduction of this foreign element that exposed ultimate lack of coherence, which predicated the dissembling of the taboo laws. Nietzsche, however, is not a foreigner to the intellectual atmosphere that he is exposing and his thinking is not the introduction of alien elements. In this sense, there is a hesitancy to allow this comparison to go uncontested – though ultimately the effect is much the same. The difference, however, is that Nietzsche is a both a result of the existing tradition as well as a critic of it. That seems significant for ultimately resolving the incongruence of the very forms and structures that were under review.

My hesitancy is, in the end, minor when compared to the overall result that comes from the analogy. My thinking is helped by those such as Hauerwas who agree with the diagnosis by saying  “our problem is that we live amid fragments of past moralities each, with good reason. Competing for our loyalty.” [25] We are, however, not simply post-modern islanders participating in and existing within an isolated inheritance. We are more like floating communities tied together by threads from our respective pasts and under constant exposure to new investigations by foreign expeditions.[26] Our era of inter-national, multi-cultural and trans-cultural global connectivity has resulted in a multiplicity where no tradition or community exists in the kind of isolation that allows for stability and continuity. It is within this context that our formation of virtuous agents must conceive of frameworks and embodied practices must be incubated.  That is no easy task.

The critique of Nietzsche, in this environment, has great merit then.  Nietzsche’s “Ubermensh – the man who transcends, finds his good nowhere in the social world to date” but only within himself and the law that he dictates and “his own new table of virtues.”[27] As one trapped within a society devoid of intrinsic meaning, he goes it alone and is responsible to make something out of it. The past means little to the great man who morality of society is from an archaic age – often disguising the real motive of power and a false claim to objectivity. In this landscape, his descendants would participate in political reform as merely a “final attempt to escape from its own consequences.” [28] This is a bleak picture and to what Hauerwas alludes when he picks up the critique:

“Modern moral philosophy become part of the problem, for its stress on autonomy, like its corresponding attempt to free ethics from history, produces people incapable of living lives that have narrative coherence.” [29]

MacIntyre (and those who follow him) are looking for a different approach that does not ignore either the formulations of the past nor the real awareness of the situated embeddeness of any proposed expression. This is why MacIntyre pits Nietzsche and the tradition of liberal individualism against the Aristotelian tradition.[30]

 

St. Benedict

MacIntyre closes his book with St. Benedict. This figure in referenced only one other time in After Virtue (p. 185) where he is paired with the likes of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa along with Engels, Marx and Trotsky as “exemplars of certain of the virtues as I understand them”. [31] It is not in this list that my contention comes but in the final sentence of the book where MacIntyre says that we are waiting for another – albeit different kind – of St. Benedict.

The author looks to the time when virtues were able to survive the dark ages and laments that in our time, however, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” [32] It is here that my hope in the project fades. As persuasive as MacIntyre’s appeal has been and as comprehensive as his grasp and address of historical figures is, it is the assessment of both our postmodern landscape and the resulting needed move that comes up wanting. Benedict and his Orders existed within framework of Christendom that spanned time periods both before and after his influence. We stand at a precipice of a different kind of boundary that does not share the continuity that Benedict’s did. Thus, even if a new “very different”[33] Benedict figure were to emerge it would be unimaginable that such a figure’s work would be formulated or transmitted in any way that would be recognizable for the comparison. In fairness, MacIntyre somewhat addressed this concern in 2007 with the 25th anniversary of After Virtue in a new prologue for the 3rd edition. He explains:

Benedict’s greatness lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish, in a period of social and cultural darkness.[34]

The appeal of such a character would indeed be spectacular and, for the reasons stated, their work would be somewhat unprecedented. Outside of the existing continuity experienced by the original Benedict, this new set of rules would bridge gaps unimaginable to the original.

Pluralism

Whereas Benedict was embedded within a tradition and reformulated the practices of a tradition, the new pluralistic Benedict would necessarily be inter-traditional at best or non-traditional at worst and would thus be no sort of Benedict due simply to the radical disparity of the environment from which she emerged and the absence of a institutional mechanism that Benedict employed. A new Benedict within any tradition would therefore not being comparable to the original for the need and the application would be so radically disparate. If a new thinker/leader/organizer were to emerge from our modern context the program would be, one would have to imagine, outside of a historical tradition/expression and would necessarily manifest as a new school of religion altogether. If one was to employ a comparable rule to the Benedictine in our pluralistic age, it would exist either within an established institutional framework and thus not provide the same role as the original or would be appropriately pluralistic and thus not similar at all in function to the original within its (and subsequent) era.  At that point, it would be providing a very different service to the formation of virtuous beings that existed outside of established institutional silos of belief.

Here is where John Dewey and the Communitarian critics prove valuable. To put their approach in perspective, it is valuable to consider MacIntyre’s engagement of Max Weber. In chapter 6 and 7 of After Virtue, the author addresses the ideas of efficiency and bureaucracy in the work of Weber. The virtue must be more that simply the outcomes desired in any given moment or organization. Those “short-term results”[35] can be manipulated to bring about any desired ends and it is here that both the expert and the notion of effectiveness fall short.  The bureaucracy of Weber’s theory “adjusts means to ends”[36] and justifies the activity of the bureaucrat by their ability to employ a body of knowledge as an expert in bringing about greater efficiency. MacIntyre sees this as both the inheritance and the inherent virus of the enlightenment virus.

The notion of virtuous person is not to simply  ‘do as you are told’ but to be an individual embedded within a community who has been formed in such a way as to embody that virtue which is intrinsic to one’s orientation. To default to a notion of an omnipotent manager/knower is a devolution from that notion of a responsible actor so prized by MacIntyre. The Aristotelian conception of an agent acting within and formed by a collection (polis) is not found in deferring to the expertise of a bureaucratic manager focused on utilitarian efficiency. The gap, as MacIntyre points out, between “the generalized notion of effectiveness and the actual behavior [sic] that is open to managers”[37] is not what it is purported to be. What if, he asks, this quality widely imputed was largely lacking outside of its imputation?

MacIntyre’s questioning of the notion of ‘expertise’ brings to mind an insight that Slovoj Zizek recently brought in his appearance at the LA Library (ALOUD) event for his book Living in the End Times. Zizek questions the role of the modern university to form thinkers by telling a story about a forum he was invited to where an administrator at a prominent University lamented the lack of useful wisdom coming from these institutions.   The utilitarian administrator said that in moments of crisis, such as riots and civil emergencies, they needed ‘experts’ to tell them how to manage the crowd, control this, and handle that. Zizek bristled and said that what the University was responsible for was those who know how to question the questions that had delivered us into the mess originally. We don’t need experts to tell us how to ‘handle’ the situation as much as people who are formed by an ability to question the present answers as well as the initial questions themselves.  

With this in mind, I want to turn to the notion of democracy that John Dewey and those who inherited his concepts put forward. This understanding of “democracy as a ‘great community’ of shared values” conceptualizes politics as a “project of continually re-creating the public”.[1] This understanding is predicated on a conception of the democratic process in which citizens participate in a “shared cooperative undertaking of self-government as all levels of social association”.[2] This shared understanding requires citizens to participate in inquiry into collective problems as a ‘way of life’. This entails more than voting as it looks to participants to extend their participation in every engagement that is collective – the home, the neighborhood, and the workplace, etc. The rub, as Talisse articulates it, comes in the engagement of pluralism as both a vocabulary word and a concept. While, the author admits, that Deweyan notions of democracy may be fond of the word pluralism, the concept is somewhat untenable for those who hold to a Deweyan concept of democracy or, as outlined in this paper, a notion of virtue as articulated by MacIntyre.

Addressing the ‘nature of disagreement over Big Questions’, Talisse states that:

Pluralism is the thesis that at least some, and perhaps many, of these disagreements are inevitable, irresolvable, non-contingent, and, in a word, permanent… endemic to the human condition.[3]

These are irreconcilable conflicts and are not merely surface or apparent differences of opinion or perspective.   So while those who promote a Deweyan version of democracy may use the word ‘pluralism’ they are more likely to be expressing a brand of inclusive motives that seek to involve an openness to other views “within a framework of democratic community”.[4]  This is not exactly pluralism in Talisse’s view. It is the posture of inclusion toward those who have conceded the initial aims of the collective project but who hold to deferring avenues of address.

Deweyan democrats typically mean the prima facie commitments to the inclusion of all voices and viewpoints in the fallibilist, experimentalist project of democratic self-government through melioristic social intelligence. [5]

This is not pluralism in the common conception of the term – and certainly not as the term was utilized above. Those who hold a Deweyan notion of democracy require, at some level, an agreement to the basic of tenets of inquiry and participation in addressing difficulties. Deweyan, in this sense, cannot accommodate those who hold to pre-conceived convictions dogmatically, those who refuse to participate in the process and those who see no need to inquire at all. These go against the basic tenets of fallibility and experimentalism that are “at the heart of the inquiry”.[6]  As Talisse points out, these commitments are rooted in the particular notion of public education and the role of citizens and intellectuals in that public life.

MacIntyre, while not addressing pluralism directly (which might be an anachronistic expectation) does address the “falsity of relativism” that is manifest in our modern inability to come to some sort of resolution of difficulties and challenges that our societies face. Distancing himself from the liberalism versus communitarian debate, MacIntyre – who does not see himself as a communitarian – says that he sees no value in community as such, pointing out that some types of community have been nastily oppressive.[7] He points out that conservative views and the liberal positions that they purport to oppose so vehemently are both foreign to the project of After Virtue.  What he is interested in instead is a tradition that regenerates the virtues “in everyday life” by plain people in a “variety of practices”[8] that allows them to “question the dominant modes of moral and social discourse and the institutions that find their expression in those modes.” [9] It is precisely this expectation which holds so much promise for the project specifically within the modern morass that created such a moral quagmire and the inability to, in the end, resolve in any meaningful way the disparate views that result in the deep political divides and culture gulfs between camps. In fact, the lack of some agreed upon framework prevents even meaningful dialogue to be possible on the issues.

In the prologue to the 3rd edition, MacIntyre address several changes that his later work accounted for in the response (objection) to the initial work. The first was an appeal to Aristotelian virtues with an account of Aristotle’s metaphysical biology.[10] By accounting for his Aquinas awakening he was able to address this in a new way (noting the changes that would be required since Aristotle’s biology is not wholly acceptable) by stating:

It is only because human beings have an end towards which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions and the like are able to function as they do. [11]

The second adjustment was not only metaphysical but also biological – even if it was not an Aristotelian one.[12] He admits that we are “inescapably inhabitants” of advanced modernity and bear its “social and cultural marks”.[13] This kind of inquiry he is proposing in only possible after the development of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This is an important admission because of the inescapable historical “situatedness of all enquiry”. [14]  There are no impersonal standards or uncontestable values that one might appeal to in order to resolve moral disagreements rationally. It is here that MacIntyre holds to the original claim that it is only in an approach “whose beliefs and presuppositions were articulated in their classical form by Aristotle” that we may mediate the moral dilemmas that we are faced with in late modernity.

 

Conclusion

MacIntyre’s address of the modern philosophical situation is astute. He outlines the utter corruption of emotive individualism and its resulting paralysis for societal institutions and cultural interactions. While I have registered my minor hesitancies associated with utilizing historical characters like King Kamehameha II or St. Benedict, one must acknowledge that his assessment is thorough and that his proposal is substantive. I have placed them in conversation with two thinkers on education and formation in order to flesh out the possibilities of MacIntyre’s project for both congregational and educational needs. While the scope of this paper did not call for (or allow) an experimental curriculum to be developed, one can easily imagine the fledgling framework for such an endeavor. Pairing the reclaimed Aristotelian notion of virtues with a Deweyan approach to democracy or a Post-Liberal conception of community formation, as outlined in George Lindbeck’s The Nature Of Doctrine, opens the door to possibilities for communities of formation.

While the focus of this engagement has been largely conceptual and societal, it opens the door to examine both the existing structures of institutional frameworks (that may be deontological or utilitarian in orientation) and their philosophical underpinnings – that may be stated or not. Within a liberal democracy, whether conservative or liberal by label, the epistemology and the inherent individualism are unavoidable. Pair that with an unquestioned capitalist–consumerist paradigm then add in an increasingly pluralist perspective and MacIntyre’s project looks formidable for consideration.

The danger, of course, is that ‘community’ will be defined too narrowly as individual congregations, which will predictably retreat into ecclesiastical silos who play Wittgensteinian word games within their own walls. Community, then, must be defined within its societal framework as an integrated part of the whole – hopefully incorporated in an integral way that includes both political (public) and educational realities. The Aristotelian notion did and MacIntyre is not being merely sentimental in his attempt to reclaim it. Nor is he being romantic when looks to Aquinas or Benedict for inspiration and clarification. Admittedly, our pluralistic and post-modern era puts forward new challenges and unique obstacles for MacIntyre’s project but his assessment of the situation is sound and his proposal is substantive. There is real possibility for MacIntyre’s desire to reclaim the Aristotelian notion of virtue formation within embedded communities that are appropriately and historically situated.



[1] Gary Dorrien, “Obama’s Communitarianism,” Huffington Post, March 4, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-dorrien/obama-community-organizing_b_1319946.html.

[2] Talisse, “Can Democracy Be a Way of Life? Deweyan Democracy and the Problem of Pluralism (Robert Talisse) – Academia.edu,” 1.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xiv.

[8] Among which he names “families, households, schools, clinics, and local forms of political community.

[9] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xv.

[10] Terry Eagleton has a fascinating take on the essential component of biology “To say that morality is basically a biological affair is to say that, like everything else about us, it is rooted ultimately in the body. As Alasdair Maclntyre observes, `Human identity is primarily, even if not only, bodily and therefore animal identity’. It is the mortal, fragile, suffering, ecstatic, needy, dependent, desirous, compassionate body which furnishes the basis of all moral thought. Moral thought puts the body back into our discourse.” Terry Eagleton, After Theory (Basic Books, 2004), Kindle Locations 1668–1671.

[11] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xi.

[12] Dewey had similar concerns about some aspects of the antiquated worldview that Aristotle inhabited. The classification of slaves and designations of  ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ as well others should not been seen as a wholesale permission to disregard Aristotelian notions altogether. John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (Macmillan, 1916), 296–297.

[13] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xi.

[14] Ibid., xii.



[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, “After Virtue”, Third ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 2.

[2] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 8.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xi.

[7] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 202.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stanley Hauerwas, “The Virtues of Alasdair MacIntrye”, October 2007, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/09/004-the-virtues-of-alasdair-macintyre-6.

[10] John Dewey, Jo Ann Boydston, and Sidney Hook, The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 9, 1899-1924: Democracy and Education, 1916 (SIU Press, 2008), 93.

[11] John Dewey, Jo Ann Boydston, and James Gouinlock, The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 2, 1925 – 1953: 1925-1927, Essays, Reviews, Miscellany, and The Public and Its Problems (SIU Press, 2008), 327.

[12] Ibid., 328.

[13] Robert B. Talisse, “Can Democracy Be a Way of Life? Deweyan Democracy and the Problem of Pluralism (Robert Talisse) – Academia.edu”, n.d., 8, http://vanderbilt.academia.edu/RobertTalisse/Papers/664461/Can_democracy_be_a_way_of_life_Deweyan_democracy_and_the_problem_of_pluralism.

[14] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xiii.

[15] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (SCM Press, 2003), 5.

[16] Ibid., 6.

[17] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 2005), 55.

[18] Ibid., 37.

[19] The subtitle of this article says “We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum. So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality. “

[20] Douglas Haddow, “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization | Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters”, n.d., http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html.

[21] Simon Critchley, “Occupy’s Perfect Storm | Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters”, n.d., http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/101/occupy-perfect-storm.html.

[22] Critchley goes on to say that “the Occupy movement is fascinating from the standpoint of the separation of politics and power and is particularly fascinating to the student of Athenian democracy, with its focus on the ekklesia, the general assembly, and the boule or council”. – Tying in the Aristotelian virtue that is the subject of this paper.

[23] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 105.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 4.

[26] The objection may seem insignificant on the surface, but as one exploring post-colonial critiques, it seems noteworthy that Neitzche is a native born son to western philosophical thought and his examination is its native tongue. The language and the thought employed is inherently western philosophical making it an examination from within and not a foreign introduction of questioning from without.

[27] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 239.

[28] Ibid., 259.

[29] Hauerwas, “The Virtues of Alasdair MacIntrye.”

[30] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 243.

[31] Ibid., 185.

[32] Ibid., 245.

[33] Ibid.

[34] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xvi.

[35] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 72.

[36] Ibid., 82.

[37] Ibid., 72.

Radical Orthodoxy’s Fatal Flaw

It does not take long, when listening to John Milbank, to discover the fatal flaw.

 Milbank says “The only choice in our time is between religion and nihilism”.

Into a plural, multiple, diverse 21st century, RO comes marching in with a old-school binary!  From sentence one, as a listener, you start thinking “yeah, that thing you said might be true … IF there is only an either-or option. But if there are layers, any nuance, multiple factors, complexity or any number of other variations … then your argument breaks down pretty quickly. Your proposal only stands up IF your initial simplistic framing of the issue is adopted. ” [like when Milbank calls all of post-modernism a footnote to Nietzsche

When Milbank says that a purely secular society is untenable… it’s a no-brainer! Of course that would be true. Duh. Only … that’s not exactly the reality we are dealing with.

Of course, the sentence takes on wholly new meaning inside RO’s binary.

I could say the same sentence – but would mean that secular society it is integrated, infused, marbled, or mixed with religion and expired religious forms so thoroughly that it forms a multiplicity of bricolage pluralities or something like that. 

I knew at the top that defenders of RO will say this is too easy a dismissal. One sentence in and I’m already shaking my head in disagreement.  I would counter however that – whether you use a foundational analogy or DNA one – when something is predicated on bad material,  you don’t have to explore too long to see that it is corrupted or warped – and functionally unusable.

                               The First Problem Leads to a Second

Once the initial binary is adopted, a consequential effect is offered as a solution. RO thinks that the answer is to go back. Back to Aquinas – to the middle ages when theology was ‘queen of the sciences’. It doesn’t stop there!  Going back to Aquinas necessarily means going back Aristotle when greek society was organized into communities called polis.

Many within RO want to see the church re-claim that polis identity. One of RO’s favorite thinkers is Alasdair MacIntyre (famous for his book After Virtue). MacIntyre chooses to reclaim a notion of Aristotle’s approach to the formation of virtuous character within the context of community (polis).  Within these communities character is formed by the “enacted narratives” that allows the self to be formed and ones identity to emerge within the continuity (or discontinuity) of the self that is provided by a greater environment. This happens within an embedded or situated environment in which a narrative may be lived out.

I love MacIntyre. I have used his notion of character formation within community and I am rocked by his assessment of our contemporary moral morass. MacIntyre’s concern is justified and his analysis is right on.

In fact, there is only one thing I don’t agree with MacIntyre on – his solution.

MacIntyre closes his book with the character of St. Benedict. who is earlier paired with the likes of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa along with Engels, Marx and Trotsky as “exemplars of certain of  the virtues as I understand them”.  In the final sentence of the book MacIntyre says that we are waiting for another – albeit different kind – of St. Benedict.

The author looks to the time when virtues were able to survive the dark ages and laments that in our time, however,

“the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”

It is here that my hope in the project fades. Benedict and his Orders existed within framework of Christendom that spanned time periods both before and after his influence. We stand at a precipice of a different kind of boundary that does not share the continuity that Benedict’s did. Thus, even if a new “very different” Benedict figure were to emerge it would be unimaginable that such a figure’s work would be formulated or transmitted in any way that would be recognizable for the very comparison.

Whereas Benedict was embedded within a tradition and reformulated the practices of a tradition, the new pluralistic Benedict would necessarily be inter-traditional at best or non-traditional at worst and would thus be no sort of Benedict due simply to the radical disparity of the environment from which she emerged and the absence of an institutional mechanism that Benedict employed.

A new Benedict within any tradition would therefore not being comparable to the original for the need and the application would be so radically disparate. If a new thinker/leader/organizer were to emerge from our modern context the program would be, one would have to imagine, outside of a historical tradition/expression and would necessarily manifest as a new school of religion altogether.

If one was to employ a comparable rule to the Benedictine in our pluralistic age, it would exist either within an established institutional framework and thus not provide the same role as the original or would be appropriately pluralistic and thus not similar at all in function to the original within its (and subsequent) era.  At that point, it would be providing a very different service to the formation of virtuous beings that existed outside of established institutional silos of belief.

 I say it all the time: Christianity’s future is not to be found in Europe’s past.

Now I will go further and say that it only appears that going back is a solution – or even a possibility – if one accepts the simple binary initially.  RO’s proposal is fatally flawed from the outset.

__________________

If you are interested HERE is a link to part of an article I wrote about MacIntyre. I will not post it on the main page. This will be the only link to it.

_________________

Post-Script: I chose to not provide references for the quotes in order to avoid the easy ‘anecdotal’ dismissal from RO defenders.

*  In fairness, MacIntyre somewhat addressed this concern in 2007 with the 25th anniversary of After Virtue in a new prologue for the 3rd edition. He explains:

Benedict’s greatness lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish, in a period of social and cultural darkness.

“The appeal of such a character would indeed be spectacular and, for the reasons stated, their work would be somewhat unprecedented. Outside of the existing continuity experienced by the original Benedict, this new set of rules would bridge gaps unimaginable to the original.”  

 

The John 14:6 Challenge Edition!!! [TNT 39]

Over 50 different HBC Deacons have answered the call.  They responded to the John 14:6 Challenge & now Bo and I get to Nerd Out with some of your calls!  It was a ton of fun to interact with you all and we will be looking forward to more interactive fun in the near future.

The release of Brian McLaren’s new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World  and our subsequent live event with him at Wild Goose West (audio here) got the ball rolling.  Then when Brian’s new publisher Jericho Books who hooked us up with some promotional copies we decided to open the mic up to y’all.

Bo has been blogging as we received the calls.  First he proposed an alternative reading to John 14:6 & now he is trying to get rid of Salvation altogether (sarcasm!).

At the conclusion of the podcast Bo started talking Christological smack so soon and very soon I will be leading Bo high up the Christological mountain where the divine Logos & Sophia make sweet eternal symmetry.

This episode is sponsored by Slave Free Earth – they are asking the deacons to join them in ending human trafficking and specifically sex slavery. Go to SlaveFreeEarth.com and join the 7 Community. Pledge to:

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