Morality and community

Two factors render nearly all popular moral discourse meaningless and hopeless.

First, modernity and postmodernity assume the primacy of the individual and only then understand how individuals interact with one another. The community is more basic than the individual, thus any understanding of individuality is necessarily built upon the communal identity one holds or rejects. To start with the individual is to make any judgment of morality meaningless because the very categories of thought into which moral judgment can be placed are only possible within community. To start with community is to rest any judgment of morality upon the coherence and development of a community or the incoherence and destruction of a prior community.

Second, to build out a moral theory based on community requires us to understand traditions and the ways in which we are always participating in multiple competing traditions that define the narrative of our lives. Human lives will always be somewhat incoherent within multiple and competing traditions. The only way to find wholeness is not by defining right and wrong per se, but by understanding our part in the most determinative story and the most determinative community in which we belong.

Experience and Interpretation

I read an interesting blog post by Peter Enns that got me thinking. The first three sentences of the post are as follows: “God reveals. The biblical writers interpret God’s revelation. Those interpretations eventually become the Bible.” He goes on to illustrate what this means in terms of Passover laws. I appreciate much of what Enns has to say in his attempts to give normal people (especially from an evangelical background) a way to gain a new understanding and appreciation of scripture. This is not so much a disagreement with his post, but a challenge to the notion that humans and/or language could ever do anything other than provide an interpretive lens of ANY experience or ANY revelation, from God or otherwise. The same dynamic Enns argues for in the Passover laws is part of the process of ALL human experience, interpretation, language, and relationship.

To experience an event necessarily requires that the human mind run that experience through the structures of the brain that have developed over the life of the person. What any experience means to an individual (whether that experience is in the form of language or other apparent external action) is necessarily different from what that experience could possibly mean to any other individual. At the same time, the contingency of individuality means that the experience also cannot be wholly other than what another person would have experienced. Present experience is, therefore, always a dynamic interplay between the community that formed the individual and the uniqueness of that individual’s formation.

To then convert the stored memory of that experience back into words is necessarily to add another layer of interpretive shaping. And to hear/read those words is a at least a third layer of shaping. Interestingly, neuroscience even suggests that every time an individual remembers a past experience, that memory is re-recorded in a slightly different way. It would seem that even speaking what we believe to be accurate necessarily adds a layer of interpretation within our own brain as well.

It is, therefore, useless and atheistic to assume the Bible means anything without the presence and activity of God’s grace that opens our eyes and ears.

Partisan Grace

A friend recently asked why there was no room for the Christian notion of grace in conservative politics these days. Conservative policies seemed to him unnecessarily harsh to those without power and wealth. Whether or not that is an accurate criticism of conservative policies, I actually think he got the question backwards. Grace’s place and meaning in a liberal or conservative ideology obviously depends on how exactly you define grace, but for a working definition I’ll assume something like ‘unmerited favor’ or perhaps more generally the kindness to offer something not earned.

The project of modern liberalism carries within it the rejection of community defining expectations that are required in order to form the kind of relationships in which grace is a possibility. Put differently, the presence of grace is only possible in a community in which expectations of one another are concrete enough to go unmet; liberalism rejects any such expectations other than, perhaps, that a live person stay alive. You can still offer to give to one another out of pity or obligation or duty or whatever other motivation, but when there is no such thing as merit in the first place, the gift can’t be unmerited.

Conservatism carries with it expectations, some implicit and others explicit, that there is some concrete and measurable standard for what life ought to be and thereby what an individual life ought to look like or contribute to the common good. When the expectations of what an individual ought to have contributed are not met, giving anything to the person who does not merit the gift is an act of grace.

In this way, it is liberalism and not conservatism that has no room for grace. However, there are two realities that must be made explicit so that naming the problem and seeking a remedy do not simply deepen the ideological divide.

1) Liberalism as we know it is a response to the kind of conservatism we know. Liberalism’s rejection of community defining standards is actually a rejection of the lack of grace found in conservatism for many different kinds of people who don’t fit the model of what life ought to be (not that conservatives all agree on the specifics, but there is at least a tacit agreement that there should be things about life we take for granted). Liberalism as a theoretical project strips meaning from grace; but liberals as they actually exist are in many ways the embodiment of the grace that is seen to be lacking in conservative practice.

2) No one is entirely liberal or conservative and our lives make no sense without the presence of both. We always inherit a world of expectations and assumptions that we did not create and that we spend our whole lives working through, accepting and rejecting various parts at different times. Without a brand of conservatism to reject, liberalism means nothing. Without the force of liberalism, conservatism cannot respond to the inevitability of new experiences, technologies, and relationships in the dynamic world in which we actually exist.

Grace in the Christian life is about finding the creative tension whereby we can do both at the same time. We have to become a) a strongly defined, tight knit family of God in which we drive each other, through encouragement and accountability, toward meeting the high expectations of the new life Christ offers; and b) humble and open servants who exist precisely for the sake of those who are not yet inside that family; who never think ourselves so smart or clever as to think we know the exact size and shape of new life in Christ; and who see that we too receive every good gift not because we have earned anything but through the action of God’s grace. Put more simply, we have to a) conserve our identity in Christ and b) seek liberation from everything except the love of God and what that love entails.

Christians have to be conservative enough not to replace ‘the traditions and peoples in which we come to know God’ with ‘human rationality,’ but liberal enough not to think we have a complete definition of what life in Christ looks like. Christian grace only makes sense at the intersection of this tension.

4 Stories

Truth is not truth except in the context of the story in which that truth finds expression.
Consider 4 very brief stories and ask 3 questions of each – What is the first thing you think about the main character? How would you respond if you were the owner of the flower(s) in each story? How does each story make you feel?

  1. Alan got the bad news he feared his doctor would tell him. Alan’s heart was in bad shape and if he did not start to adjust his lifestyle with significant changes to his diet and exercise habits, he would not have long to live. Alan took a walk that afternoon and somehow found a profound sense of peace come upon him. He knew that he not only could, but would make the necessary changes and turn his life around. As he walked, he came across a beautiful flower that reminded him of his parent’s garden from childhood. Alan walked over and picked the most beautiful flower to remember this day when he turned his life around.
  2. Bill had a feud with his neighbor. They made each other angry all the time. From yard maintenance, to late night noise, to clogging the street with parties – they were polar opposites and made the Hatfields and Mccoys look like amateurs at feuding. Bill’s neighbor had a garden that was his most prized possession in the world. Bill wanted to hurt his neighbor more than anything else in the world. So, one day, he found the chance, walked over to the garden, grabbed the stalk of the most prized plant with both hands, and he broke it in half with a rush of joy going through his body and a smug smile upon his face.
  3. Charlie was a romantic at heart, but had grown apart from his wife recently. They were empty nesters and hadn’t been adjusting well to life without kids at home. Charlie knew something had to changed and wanted to make a big romantic gesture to show he was trying. Chocolates or jewelery wouldn’t do – his wife was way too sentimental and loved unique things way too much for something mass produced to mean much. One day he found the perfect rose, it was gorgeous in color, but ever so slightly imperfect on one of the outer petals. The only other time he had noticed a rose just like this was the day he met his wife. He brought that single rose on their blind date and he even joked about how it was imperfect, just like him – if she could accept an imperfect rose, maybe she could accept an imperfect guy. As Charlie picked up the rose, he knew he found the perfect symbol of his commitment to rekindle their relationship.
  4. Dan always seemed like a robot to his neighbor across the street. Dan just came and went to work, same time every day, like clockwork. The neighbor across the street never knew anything about him beyond the methodical schedule he kept. One day, the neighbor watched as Dan walked up to his next door neighbor’s house, grab a flower out of the neighbor’s garden and walk back to his house.

What do you think of Alan, Bill, Charlie, and Dan? What would you do if you were the owner of the flower(s)? How does each story make you feel? There are no right or wrong answers here. But I’m willing to bet you’d answer each of the questions a little different for each of the 4 stories. The trick, as you may have already guessed, is that all four takes could be true of the same person at the same time. A workaholic romantic-at-heart guy gets revenge on his neighbor; by doing something nice for his wife, during the exercise his doctor ordered, while a neighbor looks on with no idea about any of the backstory. Alan, Bill, Charlie, and Dan could very well be the exact same person doing what looks for all the world like the same exact thing. 

How you view what is happening depends entirely upon which details you know about the life of the main character; what you prioritize and value in your own life; your own prior experiences with neighbors, a spouse, gardening, etc; how much detail you know about the particulars of the story; and a whole host of other practical and unconscious factors about your expectations and the reality of the people in the story.

My point is not to zero in and judge any particular take on the stories above – my point is that we are all, always living out multiple competing stories and, at the same time, witnessing a tiny fraction of the near infinite stories that are going on around us. Factors like “where we draw the lines around what stories we are willing to consider” and “how our past has shaped us to value one story over another” are not neutral options that all lead to the same truth; they are the primary drivers in determining what we will deem true enough to be the “real” story. These factors do more to influence our answer to any questions about what ‘really’ happened than any supposedly objective account of events.

There is no possibility of a coherent account of what happened that does not already do half the work toward shaping how we respond to what happened. One of our greatest challenges as finite and limited human beings is that we can never step outside of our lived experiences and knowledge base to assess how much of the ‘full’ story we are resting our judgment upon. That we sometimes live in echo chambers and see the world through different eyes should be self evident when we see the way partisan blinders are able to shape and spin the same set of facts in dramatically different ways. I am arguing that such shaping is the necessary form of all historical and practical knowledge.

This argument may seem to render all attempts at speaking the truth about our lives and our world as an impossibly relativistic endeavor. That’s because our assumptions about the way rationality and logic work are fundamentally backwards. We assume that we see facts and use those facts to tell a story. The opposite is the case – we tell ourselves a story given what we think we know at the time and we find a way to fit the facts into that story. We are fundamentally storytelling creatures that are rarely able to see outside of ourselves enough to jump from one story to another.

We learn to tell the stories that write us in the context of relationship. Many of these stories are set in place long before we have the conscious ability to respond or challenge the ways we are being shaped to see the world. Most moral thought and logical argument fails to take seriously the extent to which thought is shaped by the story of relationship and only possible in the soil of emotion. Truthful rationality is quite often misunderstood as an attempt to control the way we relate to the world. It is better employed as a means of putting words to the healing and wholeness that comes when our lives become one with the truth of who we are.

Lest this claim seem like a mere academic exercise, it is a 4 part story in scripture that conveys the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Matthew’s new Moses. Mark’s messianic revolutionary. Luke’s gentile savior. John’s Passover lamb. Each Gospel clearly means to tell the story of the same historical figure, but each has a very unique perspective, focus, and shape for how the story is told. Any single perspective is inadequate to convey the full truth of the identity of Jesus. That multiple competing and complementary narratives are necessary is not a shortcoming in the bible – it is a profoundly important recognition of the way words and story only convey truth in the context of relationship.

Free will and determinism are only meaningful and separable if we deny the reality of human existence. That we are community before we are individuals necessitates that the raw materials through which there becomes an “I” are determined long before we exert influence over our lives or surroundings. That there is an “I” to exert influence necessitates the existence of a will that is free precisely to the extent that it is coherent to speak of existence or experience as meaningful terms.

Theology as Relationship – Take 2

[This post is far less accessible and far more opaque than my previous way of describing theology as relationship. Nevertheless, it is an attempt to put into words some of what leads me to think more and more that theology is relationship, theology is meaningless outside the context of relationship, and relationship is the only context in which theology is capable of truth.]

Here’s the most controversial thing I think I think – relationship comes before individuality. If what I think I think implies what I think it does, nearly every conversation we have about truth and fact is fundamentally flawed. Story and community are more basic realities than fact and fiction. In other words, the relationship(s) in which truth and falsity are possible come before the words to express what may be true or false. If what I think I think is correct, there will be no way to prove it is true because such concepts as truth can only ever be expressed within the contingent words of my own time and place and given understanding and meaning by the relationships that form and are formed by me. When my words are no longer in this time and place, they will no longer mean what they once meant.

To make this claim is not to deny truth and falsity to the world, but to deny the kind of rationality and agency that would be necessary to objectively ground the meaning of words or facts apart from community and relationship. The more important questions to ask are not about truth, falsity, and the possibility of moral action that follows, but about relationship, agency, and both the type of community that created the person capable of speaking and acting in ways that can be evaluated as true or false and moral or not, as well as the type of community that is capable of doing the evaluation.

The fundamental error in epistemological endeavours is the notion that there is an agent to have an epistemology apart from the community that gave the categories of thought and the presuppositions that form the agency of the individual. To assume that we are community before we are individual is to render any epistemological program incoherent to the extent that such a program seeks after an objective grounding that does not rely on a tradition of rationality to arrive at the point where the epistemology makes the sense that it makes.

Assent to this argument does not render “truth” or “meaning” relativistic in such a way that we can pretend that there is no ‘real’ world outside the mind of a thinking agent. The point is, rather, that whatever truth or reality there is to the world, our experience, understanding, and explanation of it come to us through the traditions that have been passed along and are shaped by us as we pass it along to the next generation. To make this claim is to argue that an accessible, objective, and eternal rationality is an incoherent notion altogether. In aiming for rationality or truthfulness, the best we can knowingly attain is coherence and consistency within the stories and communities that we have accepted, rejected, and transformed. In other words, that truth is only possible in the context of relationship is not a bug, it’s a feature.

I’ll grant, what I think I think is not controversial in the click bait sense, but it is the least coherent claim I can offer into the intellectual world I inhabit. Why all of this matters to me is because of what it says about the enterprise of theology. Theology is literally the God-words that we speak and, by extension, the lens through which we view life and faith. If what I think I think is correct, the distinction between a more ‘academic’ theology and a ‘practical’ or ‘contextual’ or ‘lived’ theology is impossible to make. Such a critique is made plenty from the direction of minority theologians – namely that ‘theology proper’ is no less contextual or specific than ‘liberation’ or ‘womanist’ or whatever other theology one could offer. Theology proper is simply the contextual theology of those in positions of power and authority.

I could not agree more with the notion that ‘theology proper’ is no less contextual, but arguing that ‘proper’ theology is contextual in the current intellectual landscape leaves open the possibility that there is a coherent sense of truth and objectivity toward which each ‘contextual theology’ is pointing that is meaningful apart from the lived relationships through which the words of theology became capable of meaning what they now mean. It is precisely that notion of truth, meaning, or objectivity outside the context of relationship(s) that I am rejecting.

The capacity to speak objective truth is only possible within the communities that give shape to the agent who attempts to offer God-words. Truth and falsity are not impossible in theology, but our relationship with God and one another forms us in such a fundamental way that speaking of any words on a page as true or false apart from the community in which they are offered is an incoherent and impossible project. The act of doing theology is the attempt to express the reality of God in words that are both handed down to us and transformed by us within the context of the multiple, often competing communities that constitute human life.

In the process of creating God-words, we have the potential to name and deepen our relationship with God and one another or to distort and tear those relationships down. True theology deepens relationship. False theology creates brokenness. Or in more traditional terms – love God, love neighbor; on these two commandments hangs everything else.

Rights ARE Responsibilities

The notion of rights as a substantive determination for how a human is to be treated is only effective in so much as those in power recognize their responsibility toward those without power. It is the responsibility to raise up those without power that forms the foundation upon which rights can serve as a meaningful imperative toward action. Responsibility to another is, therefore, more basic than rights. And the reversal of this reality in modern America is in no small part a driving force toward the vapidity of rights as a theory that can be constitutive of decision making.

Rights, seen as basic, are inherently violent because they pit the desert of one human being against that of another and coercion is the only way to resolve an inevitable conflict. Responsibilities, embodied fully, are inherently self sacrificial because they force each person to consider what of their deserts might be outweighed by that which they owe to another. Neither rights nor responsibilities are sufficient to ensure a just society, but the latter can at least give the language to speak of justice in terms that recognize a victory for one as loss for another. Viewed through the lens of rights, a victory may seem to only be the manifestation of a justice that was previously hidden, but already existed and only waited to be found. But that view cannot do anything to address the real feeling of loss for the party responsible for giving up what they believed to be theirs.

For instance, if I own land that is later found to have been stolen by the person from whom I purchased it, it may be that my responsibility is to give the land back to the ‘rightful’ owner, but that doesn’t make the loss of land by me any less significant than the fact that someone else may have the legal right to its ownership. Focusing only on rights implies that my sense of loss is invalid because I never had the right to the land in the first place. Saying I have a responsibility to justice at least gives the framework in which my real sense of loss is given expression and value. Rights are a zero sum game in which one or the other prevails. Responsibilities open the possibility for each participant to submit to the notion that human flourishing is often greater than the sum of its parts.

I believe my deepest qualm with rights as practiced in America is that it now operates from the wrong direction. It is understandable that as a minority group who felt persecuted, the founders of our country would start with what they believed to be their rights in opposition to the forces that held them down. However, now that rights are being discussed and put in place by the majority in power, the problems with rights are exposed. To be consistent with what it meant to claim rights as an oppressed minority, the government now ought to speak from the perspective of our responsibilities to one another. The outcome may be somewhat the same in principle, but the execution, as explored above, makes all the difference if you see rights or responsibilities as the more basic reality. The violence of rights can become problematic, but it is easily suppressed if embodied by one without power; the self sacrifice of responsibility is necessary, but hardly discussed when wielded by those in power.

To be sure, responsibilities can easily become an assertion of power just as problematic as oppositional rights. To assume that those without power need whatever it is that those with power want to give is to do no less violence to human flourishing than to pit the rights of one individual against those of another. I do, however, believe the distinction is worth making because there is, within the language of responsibilities far more so than rights, the possibility of a constructive notion of mutually beneficial community, even when the needs/desires of one member conflict deeply with the needs/desires of another. Perhaps the first responsibility of us all is to take the time and effort to simply listen and deeply hear the stories of the men and women who do not look and think and act like us – especially those with less power and influence than us.