Tag Archives: alisdair macintyre

Seven habits for highly affective Christians: Introduction

I’ve been thinking about formation lately — how I might become more like the person, specifically the Christian person, I believe I should be, but more importantly, how I might pass that on in an exemplary fashion to my kids (especially if the world wants to form them into something quite different), and to those I teach and pastor.

One of the challenges I face simultaneously as a parent and a pastor — and for myself in terms of my own life in the world — is, I think, not just convincing my kids (or people at church) to believe the story of Jesus is true but to feel like it is true. Not simply to have Christian beliefs but Christian affections. I haven’t found a huge library of resources in my own church tradition for this distinction, and I’m still stumbling my way around; it seems to me that we assume feelings have to be generated from belief, and if it comes the other way around we are suspicious that it’s manipulative.

At the same time, one of the challenges we face in the west — both in the church, and the world we live in — is that belief and feeling are almost subsumed into second place behind ‘working’ — being effective. Again, this is a challenge I personally face too — the benefits of having archives for my blog is you can dig back into past me and find a little pragmatist/utilitarian and watch the wheels fall off as my values shifted. It’s not that I’m anti-effectiveness, or excellence, or results. I’ve largely just changed metrics so that what I’m interested in is the cultivation of both belief and feeling alongside the cultivation of character. Character is the result — not success or productivity. Back when I was a ‘utilitarian’; I was calling myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; suggesting that the right thing to do was the thing that produced the most converts to true belief… the more I thought about ethics (and how hollow it was to make results the ‘end’ or purpose of action rather than goodness) the more I became interested in virtue ethics and the place of character; and the role of a ‘story’ in shaping character, but also of habitual action.

One of the things that shifted me from utilitarianism to a more character focused ethic was reading Augustine, and because of Augustine, reading Aristotle, who split intellectual virtue (reason) and moral virtue (ethics):

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

I’ve largely been shaped by a culture (both in and outside the church) that emphasises teaching rather than practices as the way we are formed as people. I say this because I’m not claiming to speak beyond my own experience here, yours might be different. It’s not that I haven’t also learned through practices; learning via practice is inevitable. It’s simply that I haven’t thought about my habits as the pathway to moral formation or the pursuit of what is good; I’ve thought of that as something to be pursued on the basis of what we believe to be right (and of helping other people believe right things). Interestingly, Aristotle doesn’t say that the habitual formation of virtue is in competition with being effective; he saw goodness in terms of being connected with the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ — a purpose fundamentally connected to the nature of an object.

We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

The question is who, or what, sets the parameters or definition of ‘what makes a (hu)man good’ and what work we should be doing. There’s a fundamental view of these questions at play in our education system; but when it comes to Christians we have a clear sense of what makes us good, and what defines our work. Our ‘end’; in terms of our ‘purpose’ is to image God — to glorify him in relationship with him, by reflecting the character of God as we live — we have a specific picture of what that looks like in the person of Jesus, and so Paul talks about us being ‘transformed into the image’ of Jesus. That’s what our fundamental purpose is (or our ‘chief end’); we do this by being ‘united with Christ’ or ‘in Christ’ as ‘the body of Christ’ and our work, then, becomes to be like Jesus, in partnership with other Christians. Or, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:

There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. — 1 Corinthians 12:6, 12-13

We’re to do ‘God’s work’ in co-operation with the body God has put us in (the church) — that’s ‘our own work’ — or as Paul says a little later in the letter (having discussed the ‘way of love’ as a habitual practice (1 Cor 12:31-14:1), imitating Paul as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11:1), “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

If we’re going to cultivate virtue our habits have to be aligned with becoming like Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. I suspect a pretty nice ‘proof text’ for this, if you wanted one, is Matthew 28:18-20, the ‘great commission’ — I’m struck by how much I’d read this in my utilitarian days as basically being about converting as many people as possible to an intellectual idea, rather than being about the harder work of re-forming re-created people so they don’t bear the image, or imprint, of whatever character their habits have formed as they’ve worshipped something other than Jesus, but instead are ‘disciples’ of Jesus; those disciplined towards practicing his teaching.

It’d be easy to turn this discipline thing into following a bunch of rules — and then being judgmental of ourselves and others when we inevitably fall short of the standard of perfection; but the Romans  8 picture of the Christian life is one where our transformation is an ongoing process that doesn’t seem to finish until the story finishes and we are ‘glorified’ (Romans 8:28-30). But in the meantime, rather than rules shaping our lives, I’m interested in the idea that we are more shaped by story.

Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was really helpful for me both in how it framed the alternative worldly ethical system to virtue, particularly a sense that we’re all part of some big system which has to be managed via bureaucratic processes (or economic ones — so that, for example, we don’t form children as people but as economic cogs), and more than that, in making this connection between virtue and story:

“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” — MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’m also convinced (in part due to James K.A Smith) that we are affectionate creatures before we are intellectual creatures, and that we cultivate our affections by habitual actions directed towards an ‘end’ by a story that we participate in; and by philosopher Iris Murdoch who suggested that a fundamental ‘virtuous’ habit is to give ‘loving attention’ to others and the world as a habitual orientation.

“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair…  Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.” — Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

There are a few convictions underpinning the following habits… I’m convinced that my formation as a person, the formation of my children and my pastoring of a church, should involve helping people habitually live in the story of Jesus, so that we are shaped by our telos to do the work God has called us to do (and that by habitually living in this story we are doing the Great Commission work, which involves our purpose; namely, to ‘glorify God’). I’m convinced this is about forming people who love God and believe we are loved by God; that it isn’t just about intellectual virtue but about our affections (and that the contest in this world is a contest about who or what we worship and the end we are living for). I want my kids to love God more than they love sex, money, or the pleasures of this world — I want to love God more than I love sex and money and the pleasures of this world. I’m convinced that one of the things that has happened as our view of world has become ‘disenchanted’ is that our imaginations have been stunted; that when Paul says ‘do not be conformed to the patterns of this world’ but ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2) part of this is about idolatry, but part of it too, is about what idolatry does to our thinking and imagining (Romans 1), and that Colossians 3 (where many of these habits are derived from) encourages us to re-imagine the world by changing how we see it, and our place in it, and this is part of what Paul is saying when he says “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).

I’ve been reading a bunch of books around practices and habits (largely because though I love Smith’s You Are What You Love, I found the practices, which I’d describe as ‘medieval’, left me wanting something else, see my series on ‘the Worship Wars’ for more on this). I particularly enjoyed Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, and David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Practices That Shape The Church For Mission. These books are chock full of habits and practices and ideas for cultivating a new way of seeing and being in the world. I’d like to do lots of them, but I felt like some of them required some sort of ‘ground clearing’ exercise first — that I couldn’t jump from zero to 100… and some of them seem, frankly, beyond my modernist-influenced-propositional-logic shaped rational brain; I feel like I have to become a more affective person before I could effectively adopt them.

The next seven posts will explore some of how I’m thinking about these in the categories of myself, parenting, and pastoring. It might take me a while to unpack them, so here’s the list.

1. The habit of story (telling, listening, and playing)
2. The habit of singing, reading and listening to poetry (starting with the Bible)
3. The habit of silence and space (including digital silence, and working less)
4. The habit of giving
5. The habit of ‘gathering’ with the body (including feasting together)
6. The habit of presence and encouragement
7. The habit of prayer

If you’ve thought about practices/habits, and especially about cultivating your affections — I’d love ideas for what could bump any of these off the list.

Of slippery slopes, stairs, and stepping machines: how to be hopeful when the world is moving

The official ‘no’ campaign made their public presence about everything but marriage; they made it about the ‘slippery slope’ — particularly same sex parenting (robbing kids of a mum or dad), and a ‘radical gender ideology’ where ‘genderless marriage’ is the first step towards a marxist/queer agenda that is represented by Roz Ward’s Safe Schools. That is; they created a slippery slope.

The politicians responsible for orchestrating the postal survey and the proposed changes to marriage insisted this was a single issue vote, about one particular thing, the definition of marriage. Now. It’s not wrong to ask questions about trajectories and ramifications, and I do think handling it as a single issue was perhaps naive when it comes to understanding how integrated faith and practice is for religious people, but if you’re looking for the architects of the slippery slope; it’s us; if the no case is correct, there’s now a political mandate for the government to rapidly slide the whole way down the rainbow without each step being checked, weighed, and balanced.

It might feel like this is a slippery slope if we want to feign ignorance (or actually be ignorant) of the campaign for gay rights in Australia; but what if we take a longer term view of things around, for example, one of the key players in the push for same sex marriage. And what if we see this not as the start of a slope, or the edge of a precipice, but rather a next step. And what if there’s actually a legitimate case to be made that at least some of those steps where steps up.

One of the faces of the push for marriage equality was Tasmania’s Rodney Croome. He’s one of the architects of this path (whether slope or steps), and here’s my case that this isn’t a slippery slope — or if it is that it’s an incredibly slow slope with ample opportunity to change course or even stand up… Croome was an activist for gay rights in 1994 (and before that). In 1994, Croome and his partner presented themselves to the police, in Hobart, to be charged with the crime of being homosexual. Now. Maybe that was the start of an inevitable slope that leads to Safe Schools, or maybe it was just one step towards getting rid of some laws that are actually unjust restrictions of conscience that are coupled with a profound and legal right to truly discriminate against somebody for a choice about their identity and community of practice… The longer view makes something like a campaign for same sex marriage seem more like a further step in a journey than like one of those scenes in a movie where the floor drops out from under the protaganist and they endure a rapid descent (hopefully into a pile of freshly made laundry, or a rubbish bin, rather than flames or snakes).

Perhaps if we had this perspective we’d be able to better hear and understand why these LGBTIQ+ activists aren’t content with marriage equality and are moving on to the next thing on their list; the next ‘step’ towards the Australia they want to live in. Perhaps we should see more of an analogy between how they are pursuing their trajectory and the argument we’re making for religious freedom.

The Australian Presbyterian magazine ran a piece about the threats to religious freedom wrapped up in marriage equality. It included this piece. I’d love you to flip the logic and the actors around; picture Croome and his partner before they were eventually successful in decriminalising homosexuality in Tasmania.

“It will intimidate religious leaders (and their insurers) with the relentless threat of anti-discrimination lawsuits; traditional moral teaching will become something to be whispered in private. There ain’t room in this village for both state-enforced homosexual orthodoxy and Christian moral orthodoxy”

Let me rewrite it the way I see it… for a bit more context, Croome’s decision to front the police was because the Federal Government brought in (in keeping with the UN) a right to sexual privacy that had not previously existed and Croome wanted to test that this law did, in fact, invalidate Tasmania’s laws (the UN had also specifically ruled against Tasmania’s laws).

“It’s hard to get insurance (or legal recognitions) for our relationship with the law actually declaring our relationship illegal; homosexual relationships are something we only whisper about in private. This village state-enforces Christian moral orthodoxy against homosexual orthodoxy.”

The incline on that slippery slope is pretty steep; so it’s been hard for the LGBTIQ+ community to climb to this point.

I’ve had some pushback in the last couple of days about my commitment to a generous pluralism; here’s a failure of pluralism right here — where it was not offered to the gay community. This is why they are marching (literally at Mardi Gras) towards a particular victorious outcome. Because we weren’t generous or pluralistic. Now that the boot is, perhaps, on the other foot, and coming down on us, we have the opportunity to take our lumps and learn our lesson.

And look, I like religious freedom, I’d like us to use our religious freedom to be religious rather than secular; and I think we get it by better explaining that there is no secular sacred divide for Christians (and we probably need to explain this to Christians as well). I think generous pluralism is actually, short of state controlled monotheism, the only system that will allow religious freedom in a properly secular democracy. It’s also the answer to the potentially new state-controlled monotheism if the doomsday prophets are right.

My favourite book I read this year was Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics, at the End of the World. They make two points that are important for this post. First, that pluralism is the hopeful and virtuous way forward, even if we fail, even if we’re on a slippery slope, or over a precipice. They reject responding to change with fear.

“The better answer to the fear that accompanies a Secular age is to refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities. There is no turning the clock back to pre-apocalypse times. There is only identifying and building a renewed consensus. This is what Taylor describes as a project worthy of any society deserving of the name “secular.” He argues that we need a radical redefinition of the secular. What should be called secular, he says, is not the inverse of the religious, but the (proper) response of the political community (the state) to diversity…

… It calls for more, not less, pluralism in the public sphere. It calls for that understanding and those practices to be tested in dialogue to find areas of overlapping concern and agreement.”

Wilkinson and Joustra quote Alisdair MacIntyre (author of After Virtue) to suggest this dialogue requires “constructive disagreement” where we speak frankly and honestly (and publicly) about “the places people won’t agree, the places we might agree, and the places that will be resolutely ruled out of bounds,” and then we figure out how to negotiate that into how the law works and how public space is stewarded. They quote political scientist Daniel Philpott, who says this sort of rationale requires us to both hear and speak “full rationales — untruncated, unsanitized, unfiltered,” dialoguing towards” mutual understanding with those different views.” I’m not seeing that from either pole in the culture wars, or the fallout of the changes to the Marriage Act, we certainly, as Presbyterians, didn’t practice this seeking understanding in our contributions to the postal survey debate (or participation in the Coalition for Marriage).

Second, and most importantly for the slippery slope v steps debate… Wilkinson and Joustra argue that in the scheme of human history, and also in the divine story of cyclical judgment and restoration, or exile and return, we can be sure that no changes before the new creation are permanent and that monolithic societies are incredibly difficult to maintain (especially in the west with a bent towards individualism). Or, as they express it in a mantra throughout the book:

“Society moves in all directions. It’s not “one thing,” which is to say that it’s not just monolithic “society,” and it’s not headed purely up or down at any moment.”

We’re not on a slippery slope; or stairs; as a society we’re on a step machine… moving upwards and downwards… and perhaps in less binary directions — left and right.

So what do we do with this?

If it isn’t just a slippery slope to our doom; or the air over a precipice where we wait for God to blow us back on to solid ground…

If society is an elliptical machine that gives us reason for hope, rather than despair, so long as we as a community of people bound together by a story and a common practice (being the church) have a vision for where we’re going and how that might be pursued for not just our good but the good of our neighbours.

“In Between Babel and Beast, the theologian Peter Leithart argues that there is both good news and bad news for this new politics. First, the good news — we need not abandon the city. The public work of realizing the best of the motivating ideals of our age is work for religious people, Christians and others alike, that can bear and even has borne real fruit. The battle moves in all directions.

But the bad news: Babylon, into which we may pour our energies here, in our lifetime, will never be the New Jerusalem. We don’t build it, any more than we are the point or end of the story, the lodestar of authenticity. We can sing the Lord’s song, but we don’t build the Lord’s city.

Like Daniel, we must make compromises. That means we must temper our expectations and not become defeated when everything is not perfect, yet. But some compromises are better, and others are worse. Wisdom is knowing the difference. Our popular culture is already very busy trying to discern that. Taylor writes, “As Pascal said about human beings, modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge.”

We might look to someone like Croome as an example; patiently working towards the good and freedom of our community (and surely the removal of unjust laws have been for the good of us all) while working towards the good of his community within that community (and there’s no doubt that the change to the marriage laws and other future agenda items are seen by this community as the path towards their good).

What would it look like for us to do this as people marinated in and formed by the Gospel?

That’s what we have to figure out.