Some Unoriginal Notes on the Importance of Story for the Moral Life (With Help from MacIntyre, O’Donovan, and Machen)

aftervirtueAlasdair MacIntyre is widely credited with restoring the category of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ to the forefront of the discussion in meta-ethics. In his influential work After Virtue (1981) he set out his argument for the bankruptcy of most modern ethical theories such as utilarianism and Rawlsian contractarianism and the necessity of recovering an Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue-ethics set within a narrative framework. Among other things, MacIntyre argues that the virtues, those moral practices and habits that characterize the just person, only make sense within a narrative framework because all human action is essentially historical in character–it is historically-enacted and historically-motivated. That is an inescapable feature of human life–whether pagan, post-Enlightenment liberal, or orthodox Christian, we live out of the stories and narratives we tell ourselves. Even the most postmodern among us, suspicious of the various master narratives told to us by modernity, are still living in the sort of story that includes moderns trying to control us through master narratives. Indeed, it is commonly suggested that instead of the idea of the “worldview”, a narrative-identity is a more useful conception for understanding the comprehensive perspective through which we approach moral action in the world.

Now, none of this is all that new. Why bring it up? Simply to introduce a few loosely connected quotes and notes on the importance of narrative for Christian reflection on the moral life that ought to be kept in mind. One is cautionary, the other couple are complementary and, after thinking on them, can be classified under the rubric of Creation, Sin, and Redemption.

1. The Story is About Something (Creation) - First the caution. Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and the Moral Order alerts us against the sort of historicisms which take this emphasis on narrative and history to the point of forgetting that the story is about something. In essence, the denial of the category of ‘nature’ or creation as a relevant one for moral reflection:

We cannot object to the idea that history should be taken seriously. A Christian response to historicism will wish to make precisely the opposite point: when history is made the categorical matrix for all meaning and value, it cannot be then taken seriously as history. A story has to be a story about something; but when everything is a story there is nothing for the story to be about. The subject of a story must be something or someone of intrinsic value and worth; if it is not, the story loses all its interest and importance as a story. The story of what has happened in God’s good providence to the good world which God made is ‘history’ in the fullest sense. But when that world is itself dissolved into history…then history is left without a subject, so that we have no history any more, but only…’process’. And then again, the story of the world as Christians have told it has its turning-point in the saving act of God in Jesus Christ. Through that crisis it is uniquely determined towards its end. But when every determination to every end is understood equally as a determination to the end of history, the critical moment of the story is lost, the turning-point forgotten.

-Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, pg. 60

O’Donovan is getting at the point that creation, as a whole and in human natures as created, is the necessary pre-requisite for history as the stage of moral action–it is the set-up. Unless the human being is a certain sort of thing before the action, and the world is a certain kind of place, the things that happen within it lose their meaning. Without creation as the “theater of God’s glory”, to use Calvin’s phrase, there can be no drama of redemption.

2. You Are Not the Only, or Main, Author/Character (Sin) - Although it wasn’t likely his intention, a quote from MacIntyre himself sheds some light on the nature of sin:

I spoke earlier of the agent as not only an actor, but an author. Now I must emphasize that what the agent is able to do and say intelligibly as an actor is deeply affected by the fact that we are never more (and sometimes less) that the co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please. In life, as both Aristotle and Engels noted, we are always under certain constraints. We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves as part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others and each drama constrains the others. In my drama, perhaps, I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince, but to you I am only A Gentleman or at best Second Murderer, while you are my Polonius or my Gravedigger, but your own hero. Each of our dramas exerts constraints on each others’s making the whole different from the parts, but still dramatic.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2nd Ed.,  pg. 213

In drawing attention to the narrative shape of our lives, there comes the realization that, in some sense, we are not just agents but authors. In a theological context this comes with a serious qualification, though–given the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and God’s sustaining providence we are sub-authors at best. MacIntyre reinforces the point by calling our attention to the fact that at the merely human level my authorship is not total or complete. I am a sort of Mad-libber who inserts my responses at key points in the story that already has particular parameters beyond my control. This begins to expose the narcissistic madness we engage in when we claim credit for the blessings in our lives. Most of the good that comes our way is not in any way attributable to our own wonderful moral character, at least not by comparison to others. The fact that you’re reading this blog on a computer right now has more to do with the fact that you were born into a society in which computers are easily-accessed and not in the 5th Century China, than your own stellar work ethic. The resulting story of my life is, yes, something I’m responsible for, but at the same time, not something I can claim credit for. Paul asks, “What do you have which you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7) And yet, that’s precisely what sin is: claiming credit for someone else’s work. It is our willfully blind, ungrateful denial of the Author of our existence, who determines the times and the places in which we will play our parts in his story. (Acts 17:26)

MacIntyre also begins to show us the way this false sense of authorship leads to conflict with our neighbors. At the end of the day, in our arrogance and pride we are convinced that we are both the author and the main character in the epic which everybody else plays a bit part or supporting role. Most conflict comes when you find out that the story doesn’t revolve around you, or when you clash with your neighbor because he’s trying to accomplish his own heroic ends at your expense, and not playing the bit role you’ve assigned him. What else should we expect when two sinners, who’ve rejected any acknowledgment of the true Author or story-line, begin to encounter the “constraints” imposed by the dramas of others?

3. The Power is in the Story (Redemption) – This one is for preachers and pastors. Nearly 60 years before MacIntyre wrote After Virtue, J. Gresham Machen was criticizing the Liberals of his day, among other things, for misunderstanding the nature of Christian moral exhortation. In denying or radically reducing the basic outlines of the gospel narrative into generalized moral principles, “a life”, they robbed it of its power to result in real moral change:

From the beginning Christianity was certainly a life. But how was the life produced? It might conceivably have been produced by exhortation. That method had often been tried in the ancient world; in the Hellenistic age there were many wandering preachers who told men how they ought to live. But such exhortation proved to be powerless. Although the ideals of the Cynic and Stoic preachers were high, these preachers never succeeded in transforming society. The strange thing about Christianity was that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event. It is no wonder that such a method seemed strange. Could anything be more impractical than the attempt to influence conduct by rehearsing events concerning the death of a religious teacher? That is what Paul called “the foolishness of the message.” It seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal preachers today. But the strange thing is that it works. The effects of it appear even in this world. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of an event succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.

- J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pg 42

The Christian call to repentance is not simply a challenge to live differently or adopt some new moral principles. It is fundamentally a call to embrace the drama of redemption that God has authored in Christ as a new story to live by–and that only happens as the Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel. Preaching aimed at real transformation can never degenerate into mere moral exhortation because at the end of the day, the power is in the story.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Christianity Individualistic or Collectivist? “Yes” – C.S. Lewis and J. Gresham Machen

Americans like feeling unique and special--being one innovator who sticks out from the crowd.

Americans like feeling unique and special–being one innovator who sticks out from the crowd.

People have often wondered whether Christianity was more of an individualistic religion, with an emphasis on the person, or collectivistic, with a emphasis on the whole race or community. At different points in history the church has emphasized one over the other and then had the pendulum swing turn back on them within a generation or two. In fact, we’ll probably see something like that happen in our own day as churches begin to realize they need to stop feeding into the rampant, modern individualism of our consumer culture. In any case, the answer, as usual, lies somewhere in-between, or rather, off the grid.

With characteristic clarity J. Gresham Machen and C.S. Lewis both answered the question for their own generations in ways that are still relevant to ours.

I offer you Machen’s answer first with an important note–the ‘liberalism’ he is speaking of is not the current, political liberalism, but rather the theological liberalism of the early 20th Century:

It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion, a secret place of meditation where a man can come alone into the presence of God. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God. In that sense, it is true that Christianity is individualistic and not social.

But though Christianity is individualistic, it is not only individualistic. It provides fully for the social needs of man.

In the first place, even the communion of the individual man with God is not really individualistic, but social. A man is not isolated when he is in communion with God; he can be regarded as isolated only by one who has forgotten the real existence of the supreme Person. Here again, as at many other places, the line of cleavage between liberalism and Christianity really reduces to a profound difference in the conception of God. Christianity is earnestly theistic; liberalism is at best but half-heartedly so. If a man once comes to believe in a personal God, then the wow ship of Him will not be regarded as selfish isolation, but as the chief end of man. That does not mean that on the Christian view the worship of God is ever to be carried on to the neglect of service rendered to one’s fellow-men − ”he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, is not able to love God whom he hath not seen” − but it does mean that the worship of God has a value of its own. Very different is the prevailing doctrine of modern liberalism. According to Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal Church, in practice if not in theory, God exists for the sake of man. But the social element in Christianity is found not only in communion between man and God, but also in communion between man and man. Such communion appears even in institutions which are not specifically Christian.

-J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pg. 137-138

And now C.S. Lewis on the twin errors of ‘Totalitarianism’ (Collectivism) and individualism:

The idea that the whole human race is, in a sense, one thing —one huge organism, like a tree—must not be confused with the idea that individual differences do not matter or that real people, Tom and Nobby and Kate, are somehow less important than collective things like classes, races, and so forth.

Indeed the two ideas are opposites. Things which are parts of a single organism may be very different from one another: things which are not, may be very alike. Six pennies are quite separate and very alike: my nose and my lungs are very different but they are only alive at all because they are parts of my body and share its common life. Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body—different from one another and each contributing what no other could. When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbours, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that. You and they are different organs, intended to do different things.

On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are “no business of yours,” remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you. If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist.

I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk. 4, 6

So, is Christianity collectivistic or individualistic? Machen and Lewis answer: Yes, and so much more.

Soli Deo Gloria

“I’m Actually a Better Follower of Jesus Than Most Christians…”

buddy Jesus

This is how most Americans imagine Jesus.

I get into conversations with non-traditional believers and skeptics on a decently regular basis and, given what I do for a living, almost inevitably the subject of  Jesus and Christianity comes up. (“So what do you do, Derek?” “Well since you asked…”)

Now depending on who I’m talking to the conversation goes in one or more of a few familiar directions. One fairly common one goes something like: “Well, even though I don’t go to church, or pray, or believe Christian dogma, or do anything particularly religious, I am actually a better follower of Jesus than most Christians because I try to follow more closely to Jesus’ teachings on love, grace, forgiveness, and caring about the poor than they do. So really, I’m like Jesus where it counts most.”

What should we think of this claim?

Well, at one level I’ve no doubt that for many this is true. Christianity teaches that all are created in the Image of God and so, even though the Image might be marred or distorted, I have no trouble recognizing that a good many non-Christians live lives filled with beauty, love, compassion, and decency that probably surpasses my own. Of course, if we’re being honest, I think a lot of the time this protest is made out of a deluded self-righteousness, or as an insecure self-justification. That being said, it’s pretty easy for me to think of a number of very decent, moral, courageous, non-Christian people whose lives may be imitated to great benefit by Christians in their attempt to follow Jesus.

At another level though, this statement is entirely misleading. Once again, J. Gresham Machen points out the main problem with this line of thought:

Jesus is an example, moreover, not merely for the relations of man to man but also for the relation of man to God; imitation of Him may extend and must extend to the sphere of religion as well as to that of ethics. Indeed religion and ethics in Him were never separated; no single element in His life can be understood without reference to His heavenly Father. Jesus was the most religious man who ever lived; He did nothing and said nothing and thought nothing without the thought of God. If His example means anything at all it means that a human life without the conscious presence of God − even though it be a life of humanitarian service outwardly like the ministry of Jesus − is a monstrous perversion. If we would follow truly in Jesus’ steps, we must obey the first commandment as well as the second that is like unto it; we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. -Christianity & Liberalism, pg. 84

See, leaving aside the fact that a great number of the things that Jesus tells us to do are those “religious” things like praying and worshiping with the community, the main problem with this line of thinking is that it rips out the heart of Jesus’ ethics. It focuses mainly on a select group of things that Jesus said to do, but it misses why he says to do them. Machen calls our attention to the fact that the heart of Jesus’ ethics was his religion, the perfect love of the Father, and a desire to glorify him in all things. (Matt 5:16, 48) You can’t read the Sermon on the Mount and escape the constant reference to “the Father” (Matt 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26. 32; 7:11, 21) and the theocentric nature of all of our righteousness. Jesus is remarkably clear that all of his ‘ethics’, his morality, flows from his relationship of loving trust of God; so if you’re truly going to “follow him”, then your obedience has to have a deep love for the Father at the center of it.

The upshot of all this is that simply doing moral things doesn’t mean you’re really following Jesus–his own words rule that out. This should be a sobering thought even for Christians. Far too many of us have God’s glory or God’s delight nowhere on our radar when considering our moral choices. In light of Jesus’ words, both the believer and the non-believer who claims to imitate Jesus, should stop and think, “If the glory of the Father, the love of the Father, is at the heart of what Jesus words and actions, why isn’t it at the heart of mine?”

Soli Deo Gloria

The Jesus Who Quotes Himself

Jesus SpeakingBack in the day, liberal theologians liked to say Jesus never claimed any particularly extraordinary authority for himself; not to be the Messiah, the Son of God, or any of it, and that all of the church’s later teaching on it was an unjustified addition and corruption of Jesus’ originally pure, moral message about God’s Fatherhood, and the universal brotherhood of man. Usually this claim was advanced in order to forward a less doctrinally-”rigid” Christianity, more in keeping with the modern spirit, picturing Jesus as a teacher of universal moral truths and general wisdom suited to their post-Victorian sensibilities.

Actually, this kind of move still gets made today only we don’t use the “sexist” and gendered language of the “Fatherhood of God”, or the “brotherhood of man.” Typically we replace that with some talk about justice, equality, the end of oppression and such things. Don’t get me wrong, justice and ending oppression are good, biblical things. Still, it’s not uncommon to hear sentiments like, “If only we could forget all this business about Christ being ‘Lord’, or those abstruse Trinitarian controversies, or his atoning death with all of the silly theological disputes that go along with it, we could get down to the real business Jesus was about–you know, all that stuff in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount! That’s the real Jesus. That’s the Jesus we should be listening to, considering, and putting what he preaches into practice. The Sermon on the Mount is where you find what Jesus was really all about–not all of this silly dogma about him that mainstream Christianity has gotten hi-jacked with.”

MachenBasically, if we could get Jesus’ ethics, his moral teachings, without all the doctrine, then we’d be good.  When J. Gresham Machen encountered this line of thinking back in his own day he pointed out the flaw, at least from the New Testament standpoint, with it:

Even those parts of the Gospels which have been regarded as most purely ethical are found to be based altogether upon Jesus’ lofty claims….But even in the Sermon on the Mount there is far more than some men suppose. Men say that it contains no theology) in reality it contains theology of the most stupendous kind. In particular, it contains the loftiest possible presentation of Jesus’ own Person. That presentation appears in the strange note of authority which pervades the whole discourse; it appears in the recurrent words, “But I say unto you.” Jesus plainly puts His own words on an equality with what He certainly regarded as the divine words of Scripture; He claimed the right to legislate for the Kingdom of God. Let it not be objected that this note of authority involves merely a prophetic consciousness in  Jesus, a mere right to speak in God’s name as God’s Spirit might lead. For what prophet ever spoke in this way? The prophets said, “Thus saith the Lord,” but Jesus said, “I say.” We have no mere prophet here, no mere humble exponent of the will of God; but a stupendous Person speaking in a manner which for any other person would be abominable and absurd. -Christianity and Liberalism, pg. 31-32

In essence he said, “Fine, let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s see what kind of Jesus we find there: the Jesus who quotes himself.” What’s significant about that? Well, I mean, even in our modern context if you find a guy walking around quoting himself, you know he’s got a high opinion of himself. In the Bible this was a slightly bigger deal. See, a prophet of God would say, “Thus says the Lord”, but Jesus goes ahead and basically says, “Here’s what I say”–essentially elevating his word alongside the word of Lord. Actually, Machen goes on to point out that Jesus explicitly does that:

The same thing appears in the passage Matt. vii. 21-23: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many shall say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name cast out demons, and in thy name done many mighty works? And then I shall confess to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work lawlessness.”’ This passage is in some respects a favorite with modern liberal teachers; for it is interpreted − falsely, it is true, yet plausibly − as meaning that all that a man needs to attain standing with God is an approximately right performance of his duties to his fellow-men, and not any assent to a creed or even any direct relation to Jesus. But have those who quote the passage triumphantly in this way ever stopped to reflect upon the other side of the picture − upon the stupendous fact that in this same passage the eternal destinies of men are made dependent upon the word of Jesus?

Jesus here represents Himself as seated on the judgment-seat of all the earth, separating whom He will forever from the bliss that is involved in being present with Him. Could anything be further removed than such a Jesus from the humble teacher of righteousness appealed to by modern liberalism? Clearly it is impossible to escape from theology, even in the chosen precincts of the Sermon on the Mount. A stupendous theology, with Jesus’ own Person at the center of it, is the presupposition of the whole teaching. -ibid., pg 32

Basically, if you want the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, you can’t get away from that Jesus of “doctrine”. Inevitably Jesus himself points you to the Jesus of the creeds–the Messiah, dead, buried, risen, ascended, the ruling and reigning Lord, equal with the Father, and coming to judge the quick and the dead. There is no ethical Jesus without the doctrinal Jesus; eventually you have to deal with the Jesus who quotes himself.

Soli Deo Gloria