Whose Experience? Which Story?

experienceSince beginning this blog, I’ve had reason to note the character of online discussion, argument, and debate more carefully than I have in the past. One theme that I’ve wanted to give some attention to has been the increasingly normative place that is given to unique experiences as conferring authority to speak on certain moral matters. I was this close to writing a masterful piece discussing the issue, but then I found that, once again, Alastair Roberts already had.

In a wonderful article speaking into the issue of the recent “purity culture” debates, Roberts points to the root of this mode of argument as an “ethics of empathy”:

At the heart of this ethic is a concern for the feelings and sensitivities of persons and an acute attention to the internal character of people’s experience. The currency for this ethic is the personal narrative and the sharing of feelings. Truth emerges from the empathetic encounter, as people bravely and authentically articulate their stories, in a manner ‘true to themselves’. These stories and the feelings that they express should be honoured as sacred and we should be careful not to invalidate or judge either…

Expanding on this, he writes:

For many of those who place great weight upon personal experience as the locus of truth, the application of frameworks of judgment to contexts beyond our experience can be a cardinal sin. Moral judgments are illegitimate unless we have walked a mile in the other person’s shoes, seen what they have seen, and experienced what they have experienced. For instance, we have never been in the position of the terminally ill person in acute pain, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of euthanasia. We may never have been pregnant in poverty without a partner to support us, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of abortion. We may never have experienced what it is like be trapped in a loveless marriage, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of divorce. We may never have experienced the sexual frustration of living with a spouse who cannot fulfill our sexual needs, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of monogamy. We may never have experienced the hopelessness of the aging unmarried person, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of chastity…

I’m going to have to restrain myself from simply quoting the whole post, because that would just be pointless. I do encourage you to go read it, though.

Paraphrasing Alasdair MacIntyre, the question I’m always tempted to ask of those wielding the experience trump card is “Whose Experience? Which Story?” Why is your experience the valid one? Why is your story the compelling narrative to which my judgments on X moral subject must submit? Why not my experiences and story? Or what about those of my neighbor who disagrees with you? What about the experiences those long-dead? Or those with a different gender? Or those in other countries? Or…you get the point.

My point isn’t to rule out the place of story and personal experience in moral reflection, but to question the weight we currently give it. As Roberts observes, in our current climate, our stories and experiences seem to take on unquestionable moral status, especially if it is one of hurt, oppression, or pain; they are sacred and inviolable. Have you been oppressed by a pastor who was harshly disciplinarian and are now vehemently opposed to any sort of church discipline at all? Well, why is that experience the one that’s normative over against the person whose church was morally-destroyed because of pastoral unwillingness to exercise any discipline at all? We can find both experiences, and many in-between, so why ought we listen to one over the other? If we’re not going to simply lean on the cliched “It’s true for me, but not for you” mantra, we have to deal with the issue of how we judge or accommodate the interpretive pluralism of experience.

This is far from a complete treatment of the subject, but a few quick thoughts:

First, Roberts points out that Jesus and Paul, two unmarried, single men seem to have plenty to say about situations like marriage, parenting, etc. in which they’ve never participated. That’s not to say they hadn’t been around them or given them deep thought, but the Bible doesn’t seem to share the whole, “If you haven’t been in exactly my shoes, you can’t speak to me” philosophy. In fact, he goes on to point out that often-times what we need most is an outside observer who isn’t immediately involved in the situation to help us think things through a bit. While there are times that experience is precisely what gives us insight into a situation we might not have otherwise, in others it is precisely our non-involvement that enables us to judge rightly.

Second, I’d like to restate a point I’ve made in another piece: “while it’s true that your story is specifically your story, it’s also true that it’s a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, sin, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, and pains have quirks and twists peculiar to you, but they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden. You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences and it is only very human narcissism that tells us that our burdens are essentially unshareable, and our woes unredeemable.” It also means that we live in the same moral and theological world. We can talk to each other about right and wrong, sin and righteousness, grace and redemption even if our particulars are different.

Of course, this can only happen if we understand what we have in the Scriptures as a divinely-authorized set of interpretations of moral experience. We need to see that in the Bible we have THE normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story get the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited or sinfully twisted like ours. Only his judgments are pure and wholly true, because only he knows the end from the beginning, and the ends for which he began all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

The Gospel is a Story AND a set of Propositions

Alright, l’ve had it with the silly “The Gospel is not a set of propositions, it’s a story” meme that keeps getting thrown around in church conversations and books. It’s been beat down I don’t know how many times, but let’s just be clear: the Gospel is both a story AND a set of propositions. It includes both, it is both because stories involve propositions. What do I mean? A proposition is basically an affirmation, something asserted about the world, or a situation. “It is raining” or “Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States” are good examples of propositions. Now, when you take more than 2 seconds to think about it, you’ll realize that without propositions, you don’t have stories. Let me quickly illustrate my point:

Proposition 1: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch some water.
Proposition 2: Jack tripped and sustained a head injury
Proposition 3: Upon seeing his fall, Jill was frightened, tripped, and fell down after him.

Put this together and you have a short story. This is not hard stuff.

Now, let’s think about the basic Gospel announcement. Here’s the King Jesus, McKnightish/Wrightish version: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” That’s an assertion about what is the case. It’s a proposition about the Lordship of Christ. Or, try this more “Soterian”-sounding one: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:19 ) “God is reconciling the world to himself” is an assertion, a proposition that sums up the Gospel.

One more:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:1-18)

Take the first verse alone:

Prop 1: “In the beginning was the Word”
Prop 2: “The Word was with God”
Prop 3: “The Word was God”

The narrative of the Word coming into the world which rejected him and the salvation that came to those who did is a series of propositions that are connected to form a version of the basic Gospel story. Are we clear then? The Gospel is a story AND a set of propositions? Good.

Now, I get where this is coming from. People have reacted against presentations of the Gospel that are a series of de-historicized, de-narrativized, “4 spiritual laws” that takes all the drama and movement out of things. I get that. I’m not a fan of those presentations either. The Gospel is a rich, deep, and dramatic reality that shouldn’t be reduced down to a formula. Still, I’m not a fan of silly, misleading statements either. This is one of them. Stop using it, people.