"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Catching (Caught) Up On My 2011 Reading (Pts VIII & IX): MacIntyre, "After Virtue" (and Hauerwas, "God, Medicine, and Suffering")

This concludes my “catch-up” posts, as I just finished this book yesterday. I won't comment on God, Medicine, and Suffering by Stanley Hauerwas which I read just before After Virtue because I actually wrote a Hauerwas-inspired post a couple weeks back: Would You Want To Know the Hour?

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd Ed (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)

These two books are in a way linked: I actually discovered this book through Hauerwas, who frequently cites MacIntyre in his work. This was heavy material, and I’m still digesting it and probably need to revisit the chunks I highlighted to make sure I know what on earth I just read. It is a long, deep, philosophical and historical argument filled with several words that required use of a dictionary.

The (Relatively) Short, Simplified Version

1) Historically, morality has been connected to traditions and communities. A community learns what actions are right or wrong by understanding the purpose or “telos”(end/goal) of the individual life and of the community, and by living in line with that goal.

2) When one identifies with a tradition—the way a particular community has acted throughout its history—one discovers examples of how people have acted in various situations and challenges, thus learning what is moral.

3) In the modern and postmodern ages, traditions have been shunned and dismissed as stifling or unnecessarily binding; the modern man or woman is free to determine his or her own sense of right and wrong, and pretty much has; liberal individualism seems to demand this freedom.

4) People from Kant to Marx to Nietzsche tried to find ways of justifying morality, attempts which MacIntyre argues have failed. There are constantly conflicting opinions of what is good and right action, and there are no consistent, logical means of determining what is right. Moral confusion abounds.

5) The best way forward is to rediscover "virtue"—displaying "excellence" in one's behavior/actions in a way that benefits both the individual and the community.

6) This requires gaining a “narrative understanding” or our lives which dismisses the individualism and self-made attitude of our time and sees how our lives are parts of traditions and of stories and are themselves stories that have a purpose and progression and “telos” toward which we move.

7) The most fulfilling life for ourselves and for others comes from learning to develop these virtues in our lives alongside others; virtues find their meaning in the context of a community or tradition. In other words—you don’t just not cheat on your wife "just because," but because you understand how it is both harmful to yourself and harmful to the social network or larger community and shared history of which you are a part—it affects others, affects future generations, and does not fit the framework of right actions that help sustain and enrich communities and individual lives.

Okay…I think I got the gist of what he was saying. The book disappointed me in that it didn’t give the kind of clear-cut roadmap I expected. But that’s fine, because it at least was a starting point that I think I’d like to research and reflect upon more. But I think what MacIntyre implies but doesn't outright say is that the leaders of such a movement in our time should be the Church.

Possible Implications for the Church

Now I could be misunderstanding the nature of virtue theory and of what MacIntyre is arguing for, but I’ll give it a stab. The Church, in some respects, seems like it’s already doing what MacIntyre calls for. The Church is a long tradition of morality, giving its present members guidelines for right living that have been practiced for centuries.

Well, maybe. It’s certainly a tradition of beliefs and rituals: we rehearse the Lord’s Supper, we read the Scriptures, we sings songs, we recite creeds, and we meditate on the work of Christ. And we remind ourselves, in sermons and in Sunday School, of our core beliefs. “What should we think and believe?” is a key question asked and answered. And often “how should we live?” is asked too.

But you’ll hear many people, inside and outside of the Church, rant about how Christianity is about sin-management, about rule-keeping. It’s about don’ts. If you avoid these things, you’ll be fine. I don’t think this is an entirely fair criticism as there are a lot of Christian communities out there doing wonderful things by way of service, outreach, compassionate acts, volunteering, etc.

But it’s not wholly misguided. A segment of the Church expresses much of its attitudes through negatives: “don’t sleep with anyone besides your spouse. Don’t be gay. Don’t abort babies ever. Don’t swear. Don’t get drunk. Don’t not tithe.” Much of contemporary Christianity is not like this, though maybe you recognize what I'm talking about.

But the difference I see between morals and virtues is a differences of negation and action, of don’ts and do’s, of avoidance and disciplined obedience. Being moral tends to mean that you are not guilty of a variety of sins…doesn’t it? But being virtuous, on the other hand, I think is not about what you’re avoiding; it’s about having the kind character or being the kind of person that habitually does what is good and right.

Being a person of virtue means you’re driven by whatever it is your community or tradition defines as virtuous: maybe courage, justice, honesty, maybe faith, hope and love, maybe temperance and prudence, maybe humility or charity, to name some of the classic virtues.

Why Be Virtuous?

I think a lot of people, those like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Phyllis Tickle, and many others who—as MacIntyre hints at—are encouraging something like Benedictine spirituality that aims at the fostering of virtues and the development of character in the context of a supportive community that encourages and gives an outlet for such actions.

I know some do react to these movements, and say that this is a sort of works-righteousness, an effort to save ourselves rather than let God save us. But I don’t think the point of virtuous living is the salvation of one’s soul from damnation. I can at the moment think of three incentives to “train” and “discipline” oneself to become the kind of person that “does justly and loves mercy and walks humbly with thy God.”

One, God calls us to it...to act like Jesus, a man who seems to have succeeded at being a pretty “good” guy. We don’t just praise the man Jesus because of the sins and temptations he avoided, though he did; we admire him for his courage, compassion, prudence, and justice, and how these virtues were evident in all his interactions. He, either by divine intervention or by rigorous spiritual training (or a mix), had the kind of character that lead to right and “moral” actions.

Two, I believe being an ambassador of the mission of God, of God’s Kingdom, of God’s will, means not just announcing that God is love and that God saves, but living a life that points to such love and salvation working itself out in my own life. And three, I can imagine that a life in which I was more filled with love, with humility, with courage, with wisdom, etc., would be more rewarding and fulfilling for me and for other people.

The task of “virtue training” in the church is not something I really know much about, nor can I imagine the practical outworking of it very well…but it intrigues me.

Discerning Morality as a Community

There’s one more thing in all this that interests me. Not only is this about virtuous actions by individuals; it’s about communities learning to make judgments together on what is good and right in a given situation. From a more moral standpoint, the Christian tradition, at least that of which I’ve been a part, has usually answered moral challenges with the response, “well, what does the Bible say?”

Many are not content with such a response, however. A lot of folks writing today talk about the need to see the Bible not as a “constitution” but as a “library.” What they mean is that the Bible should not be seen as a hard-fast rulebook in which rules from that time can simply be transposed to the present, without alteration (constitution).

Instead, they say, the Bible should be seen as a library, a wealth of resources to which we can turn to examine how people faithful to God in the past have lived virtuous lives, good lives, and have made choices and developed rules for their communities—be it ancient Israel or the early Church—that allowed them to live in the kind of peace and loving community and fulfilling life that is pleasing to both humans and to God.

So…when a community is determining right actions by virtues, I think the questions they ask become different, and sometimes the conclusions as well. Example: sex before marriage. The “moral approach” is simple: don’t do it, the Bible says so.

The “virtue approach”—as I understand it or at least as I’ve “extended” it here as I’ve interpreted its implications—might say something more like, “let’s look at how those in our religious tradition have tended to deal with this, from the Bible through the various eras of the Church to now; and let’s also consider your (our) intentions and motivations, what will most benefit the person involved, and what will most benefit others; then we can as a group of people dialogue about what right action might look like.”

Maybe it seems a complicated way to decide something. Maybe the conclusions will be the same as the moral approach: don’t have sex before marriage. But maybe there are a whole other host of issues that we might look at differently when considered from the standpoint of virtue theory (gay marriage comes to mind) or issues where perhaps actions depend on context (lying, for example).

The Gist (You Should Have Just Scrolled Down To This Part)

So it seems “recovering virtues” as MacIntyre tries to do, involves both individual and communal components: fostering character traits that transcend situations but inform how you act in a given situation (courage, love, justice); and fostering communities that discern together how to act “morally” or rightly or godly in a given situation, based on those transcendent virtues believed to be virtues either because the tradition or community decided they were, or because God has revealed to humans what qualities are virtuous, through prophets, messengers, inspired writers, and in Jesus himself.

So…there it is. Probably don’t read the book, unless you’re a nerd like me and into that kind of torture, I mean, fun. But it might be worth looking into how religious communities are exploring this topic of virtue today.

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