Postmodernism, Morality…and Eschatology?

Recently I’ve been reading McIntyre (and if you haven’t, read After Virtue as it should be on a very short list of must reads) and discussing it at Geek Squad each week.  (As an aside, Geek Squad is exactly what it sounds like–a group of self-admitted geeks sitting around talking about things we realize make most others roll their eyes and/or yawn.  It’s our space to debate the small print as loudly and for as long as we want.)  It’s been a while since I’ve kicked philosophy around in my head, so I’m processing slowly and trying to remove the cobwebs off of all those names and books I used to remember.  What I do remember is that I felt After Virtue was a great conversation partner in the work of  ecclesiology, though McIntyre certainly didn’t intend to write a book about the purpose of the church.  As it turns out, the content and conversation is just as applicable and timely now as it was years ago.   A friend of mine referenced this New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks about relativism and extreme individualism, and Brooks may as well have been recording part of our discussion last Thursday at the pub.

Basically, we were discussing our growing inability to think ethically or morally about issues.  I’m not even asking for us to agree on the issues, although that would be a welcome relief from time to time.  I’m just asking for the ability to discuss the concept of morality as a thing itself.  The notion of the virtuous life, however defined, is simply not something people talk about much anymore–at least not well.  I should clarify:  People talk plenty about “values” but in such a way that values are nothing more than commodities, like cans you pick off the shelf, with everyone’s basket looking a little different.  Values are not items.  They are not individually chosen.  They are not self-selected a la carte menu items you put together on a whim.  To stretch the metaphor, to attempt a virtuous life with such an approach is like trying to eat food without a plate.  Something has to hold those values, and they have to be held in concert with other values so as to create an actual meal that will sustain you and help you grow.  I find myself nodding my head vigorously (again) with McIntyre’s assessment that virtue is impossible to create when a society is based solely or even primarily upon the feeling of the individual.

On a slightly tangential note, I feel the need to argue, for the record, that the kind of flippant “Who am I to judge?” attitude evidenced by the young people in Brooks’ article is the laziest and sloppiest form of postmodern philosophy one could ever attempt to create.  I’m sure people will read that article and say, “See, that’s what we’ve been saying all along, that postmodernism will lead us to this kind of wishy-washy culture where no one knows right from wrong.”  Whether it does that or not is moot; Enlightenment rationality shattered the dinner plate of virtue way before Derrida came along.  So please don’t equate sloppy thinking with the postmodern critique.  “Who am I to judge?” has as much to do with stress and overload in a rapidly diversifying culture without sufficient tools to help us cope with this new world as it does an adherence to moral relativism.

McIntyre’s argument is that societies based on extreme individualism and emotivism are severely broken. They are incapable of virtue, because they hold no framework.  Without a recognized and shared end-goal, virtue becomes canned values, stale and without nutrients.  And nobody cares whether they stick around or go, because they do absolutely nothing for the palate, or for the meal itself.

This is how a discussion of virtue ended up in my reaffirmation of the importance of eschatology.  When moral inquiry lacks an end-goal, there is no food but limp green beans…splattered on the floor, plate-less, no less.  What kind of eschatology is another matter for another day, but without a recognition of who-I-am-now contrasted with who-I-ought-to-be, without a shared and cohesive sense of where we all should be headed and where we all are trying to go, virtue is sure to wind up on the endangered species list.

I can only imagine this teleological discussion will come up often this year, as it seems the tensions  between those who want to make theology and those who want to keep dismantling it continues to rise.

So here are the questions I’m pondering these days:  what do we do to enliven an American framework of virtue?  (CAN we? The task itself is quite problematic…which virtue???  But the alternative–not having a framework of virtue, even civil virtue–will likely be our end.)  In what ways is the C/church called to embody a virtuous framework of shared life? CAN we?

 

9 Comments

  1. Your two final questions, Danielle, have some thought and some answers.

    American framework of virtue? When Jack in the Box use a fireman, a construction worker, and a police officer as men that turn into strippers for a party of middle aged women. We are definitely a post-Christian society.

    Also, as to the last question, the Church will always operate in some pretty strong vice.

  2. You state, “Whether it does that or not is moot.” When you should say,” it does do that,” then state why it is invalid (it seems that is what Brook’s article is pointing to).

    After years and years of deconstructing, is it now that you want to construct? Framework implies structure. Emergent, or I forgot what Jones wants to refer to himself as now? Incarnational?

    We can take this out of the far abstract and put it into more concrete thought. I remember emergent conferences needing elections and committees, but not wanting to call them that, because it was in essence what they had been attaching for years. But when it comes time to form relationships that can actually do something, then structures of voting and committees seem to be needed. I don’t know what ever happened with this, but you may just use a different word to describe it.

    It seems to me that there is a tone change in your writing from years ago. But I see core, basic building blocks (structures or frameworks) not upheld by many of your ministerial associates. Deconstruction has taken place so long, and the basic structures of the Bible don’t seem to be upheld or dealt, and you now want to set out for a framework for some kind of virtue that isn’t wishy washy?

  3. Danielle ShroyerOctober 10, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Lock,

    To your first post, I am not sure you responded to the questions I posited. Although I would agree we are in a post-Christian society, my question was how we go about constructing a cultural framework of virtue from where we currently stand. It’s a tough one, but that’s the question facing us. To your second response, am I to suppose that you have given up on the C/church altogether?

    Regarding your second comment, I am not sure how to respond. You seem to infer that you know me somehow, but I cannot say whether this is true as you have chosen to remain anonymous. I am not sure what you mean about my writing changing, or about my having “years and years of deconstructing.” I would likely disagree on both. (I’m not a recovering Evangelical. I never was one in the first place, so I didn’t have much to deconstruct.)

    As for the paragraph about Emergent events, I do not understand what events you mean, but I cannot recall (or imagine) any such thing ever happening.(Elections and committees for what?) I’m even less clear about what it has to do with my post.

    It seems you are either rejecting or rebutting my discussing a framework of ethics based on your critique of postmodern deconstruction? There’s too much to say about that in a comment response, but the one thing I’ll pass along that may be helpful is that McIntyre’s view of virtue requires relationship (and in a sense, incarnation) at its very core. It’s not Enlightenment foundationalism he’s arguing for. Although, as a Catholic, he is far more tied to ecclesial structures than I am, and I diverge from him strongly there. Perhaps that makes things more clear.

  4. You have been writing on the Internet for a while, Danielle.

    I seem to remember difficulty forming leadership structures and transfer of power at emergent events broadcasted over at the Emergent Village site. Your name was one of the national reps, or leaders – I am not going to go look, so I remove this statement from being accurate.

    Your history of your church (that is on the Web) has you coming out of an Evangelical church? How is it that you were never an Evangelical? “The staff and leadership of Gaston Oaks Baptist Church, in concert with a small leadership team and founding pastor Scott Gornto, envisioned a place in Dallas “

  5. I think you meant to discuss Emergent Village as an organization and did not mean to refer to conferences. Regardless, I’m not sure that applies to McIntyre, but thanks for the clarification.

    Journey did start out of Gaston Oaks, but I didn’t. My ecclesiastical history is far more complicated. :) I am not and never have called myself an evangelical.

  6. Danielle ShroyerOctober 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    I suppose that’s a question you should ask him. I don’t like to assign labels without knowing the person would concur. I am not sure, however, what that has to do with my post on McIntyre? Perhaps if you have questions about Journey or my ecclesial history, this is a conversation better taken off-line?

  7. The post is about structure and virtue. There is structure to thought. Emergent seems to play off the deconstruction of evangelicalism. But it seems as Brooks article points out, that morals, theological belief, is just a matter of personal choice. What a person chooses is dictated by themselves and doesn’t matter.

    End of my posting for this thread.

  8. That alone wwas an egregious oversight on thheir own part, since kdggdaddcbdb

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