Monday, September 26, 2011

macintyre & quakers

I've just started reading Alasdair MacIntyre's philosophical work After Virtue. We're reading it in the women's theology discussion group of which I'm a part (check out my post about it here). I'm not exactly clear on why we chose it because usually we read feminist texts, or ones of interest regarding women in ministry, and this is not a text of either of those sorts (although it's not anti-feminist). At any rate, it's very interesting and I'm enjoying thinking about what he's presenting, especially as it relates to Quakerism. (I have read one other book by MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, but I am by no means an expert on his theories, or how they relate to Quakerism! For that you'll have to visit my f/Friend Wess's blog, because he's doing his dissertation with a large emphasis on MacIntyre, but I haven't gotten to talk to him much about MacIntyre yet because I just started reading this book.)

So far, I've read the prologue, preface and chapter 1. For this group I think we're just going to read a few more chapters. MacIntyre is an Aristotelian through the lens of Thomas Aquinas (who, he says, is a better Aristotelian than Aristotle). MacIntyre's basic point, from what I can gather so far, is that the way we're attempting to think about morality right now is flawed due to our insistence on being objective, our blind spots due to assumptions because of our particular time and place without recognizing these assumptions, and the fact that we are using language about morality that was birthed in a context we no longer understand. As an example he asks us to imagine a world where all scientific knowledge and anything (and anyone) pertaining to the natural sciences was systematically destroyed, and then a number of years later people realized that was a mistake but had no way of bringing back everything that had been destroyed. He thinks this is, in some ways, what has happened to ideas around morality, although on a much slower scale and without conscious intention. Each generation uses these terms that refer to morality and have been handed down through the canon of literature, history, philosophy, etc., but the context out of which those terms arose is mainly forgotten, so although people say they are being objective when they speak about a certain aspect of morality, all they can do is subjectively posit their own thoughts and their own cultural biases onto something they cannot understand.

Are you with me so far?

OK, so what I remember of Aristotle's philosophy as pertains to this is his idea of the Forms. Basically he says that our ideals can never be reached in this world (beauty, love, truth, etc.), so what we have is this ideal sense of what that would look like even though we've never seen it and can never see it. These ideals are the Forms. We can never draw a perfect circle, and yet we have this notion of what a perfect circle would be like. We can even describe it in a mathematical equation. But it's never going to happen in reality.

I assume this is where MacIntyre is going with his thoughts. He's been talking about how each generation goes by and attempts to describe morality, but has forgotten the context. me this sounds like kind of a biblical perspective--there was this time of perfection and now it's lost to us, but we still remember pieces of what that perfection was like, and we strive to live it out even now. It's like the proverbial Garden of Eden--a time when morality had a pure context. I don't think MacIntyre is trying to say there actually was an historical time when people understood morality completely and lived it out, but it does seem like he's trying to say that there is some ultimate Truth that can be gotten at. I don't know if he'll give suggestions about how to get to it, but based on his opening metaphor about losing science, I would say it would be through scrapping all these theories based on faulty "knowledge" and an incomplete picture, and start again with experimenting ourselves to find out the Truth.

This is where my mind brings together MacIntyre's thought and Quakerism (or at least my hypothesis about MacIntyre's direction of thought). Friends since our denominational inception have held this idea of Truth that comes from internal experience, not from a creed, dogma or text. This is utterly terrifying to many of any denomination or faith (and even to me sometimes, quite frankly!) because it sounds so out-of-control. There's no way to test it.

But maybe there are. With the scientific method there are ways to test whether something is good science or not. Are there ways to test whether something is Truth or not? Friends consistently answer this in the affirmative. We can test (read: discern) whether something is Truth, and therefore of God/Spirit/the Inner Light/whatever you call it, by holding it up to our internal sense of what is True, the Aristotelian Form of Truth. This is an ability all people have, although we can develop it more and more keenly if we try. Some people are probably better at it than others, too, just like some are better at sports or music or science. But what is there to base morality off of if there's no ultimate Truth?

This is what postmodernism (the cultural phenomenon, not the philosophical era) is asking. Is there ultimate Truth? Who gets to say what it is? I think postmoderns want there to be an ultimate Truth--they (we) are seeking for it. Postmoderns make a choice: either a) they are not willing to be fooled by shallow answers and supposedly all-knowing texts or dogma that have nothing to do with their current lives, or b) they swallow their questions and become fundamentalists--hence the rise in adherence to fundamentalist traditions in the US and around the world. This second choice feels safer for many rather than groping in the dark. Just taking someone's word for it that they've found the truth already seems so much easier!

But if postmoderns choose option a, I think Quakerism has something to offer. We (at our best) refuse to be based simply on a book or a list of traditions, and instead we listen for the Truth that speaks deep inside us. We respond to the Truth that we find in others we meet, and in sacred and secular texts both contemporary and historic. We "answer that of God in everyone," because as we hold up our conception of what Truth looks like, we can recognize it in others, find others to journey with through the dark toward a half-perceived, half-remembered Light. We'll never know or find the whole Truth in this life, but we know the Form of it, and we seek it together.

Friday, September 23, 2011

summer (fiction) reading list

Well, I'm not the President, but I did spend a good portion of my summer relaxing with some fairly decent novels. I'm glad Obama spends some of his time reading fiction, by the way! I sometimes get into a mode where I don't allow myself to read fiction because I want to be more efficient with my time--not waste it. But I don't think relaxing is wasting time, always. And I think fiction helps us think about things we wouldn't think of otherwise. All of these books were given to me, so I didn't really choose them besides just picking a book off my shelf. I'll write a short summary of each of them, and then some thoughts at the end about how they interact with each other in my brain and what it means to me. So, without further ado, my summer (fiction) reading list, in order of when I read them:

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (1989)
This book was made into a movie, but the movie is really nothing like the book. The book is, of course, much better. It's told by a man looking back on his growing-up years in New England in the 1960s and '70s, and focuses on his friendship with Owen Meany as a way to tell about his own coming of age and coming toward faith. This book is loooong and it took me a while to really get into it, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. The story just builds and builds, and the character development is excellent. Much of the story deals with faith an ddoubt, certainty, the supernatural, truth and questioning the truth, as well as the true nature of friendship, love and loss. I can't tell you much about the story because it would ruin it for you...

Wide Open, by Nicola Barker (1998)
Set in the UK, this novel follows several strange characters as their lives intertwine and are pried "wide open" in ways that mostly show their messy, unlovable, unappealing interiors. There may be some pearls in there somewhere, but the reader is hard-pressed to find them. I didn't really like any of the characters, and yet I felt compelled to keep reading. It was strange. I could hardly put the book down.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (2008)
This Pulitzer-prize winning novel is set in New England and follows a cast of characters in a small town. Each chapter is almost a short story in itself, although they weave together to create a broader story. I found the style of writing creative because for the first several chapters, you wouldn't know Olive Kitteridge is very important to the story, except that you pay attention when her name is mentioned since it's the title of the book. The story is really one of dealing with the transition into old age, wondering about the choices that have led you to where you are, trying to learn to love yourself and love others where you are now regardless of past choices. It was a good read.

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave (2009)
This was probably my favorite book of all these, perhaps excepting Owen Meany. It tells a story from two perspectives: one, a refugee girl from Nigeria; and another, a successful working mom from England. This book was difficult in its subject matter, but at the same time edifying. I like books with a purpose, I guess. I think most of the other books (besides Owen Meany) have really sad, negative characters looking for meaning and not really finding any--or finding meaning in small, personal matters that seem to me fairly self-absorbed. In this book, the English woman is brought face-to-face with the pettiness of the things in her life to which she's given meaning. She remembers her idealism, and although she can't change the world completely, she can make choices that aren't just edifying for herself.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Ann Tyler (1996)
This book again wove together chapters from the voices of several characters to make a complete story. In this book, each character is a member of a family--not a particularly happy family, but one that recognizes family is all they have, so they stick together to a large degree. When the children are grown, one son attempts to bring the family together around his passion: amazing, home-style food at his restaurant--but the family can't ever seem to get along long enough to sit through an entire meal. I enjoyed reading the story, but it was fairly sad (as, perhaps, the title suggests).

Looking back on my summer reading, I'm struck by how many of the stories feature really sad people--many of them probably clinically depressed. They struggle for meaning at various stages in their lives. It seems like modern literature is really grappling with the topic of meaninglessness. I don't know, I suppose that's true of all literature--but it seems like literature from previous centuries and decades usually had some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. You don't have to look far to see that "happily ever after" stories just aren't true, so maybe this is a good thing: our stories are more realistic, and we don't have to wonder, "Why didn't MY life turn out like a fairy tale?" At the same time, many of the characters in these stories are so disillusioned one wonders why they even go on. Is it enough to live for oneself, to live for a tenuous love between oneself and one's family? Most of these books don't even have a hint of suggestion that there's something bigger out there to believe in and to live for.

I guess that's why Little Bee and A Prayer for Owen Meany were my favorites of this bunch. The others seemed so ethnocentric, so focused on the meaninglessness of Western culture and living life for oneself, but without a vision of any alternative. Little Bee and A Prayer for Owen Meany both exhibited a profound knowledge of meaninglessness and of the individual's inability to change the world, but they were more hopeful: perhaps one can't change the world, but one can live in a way that is hope-filled, that refuses to live in a depressive bubble of materialism and nihilism, that stubbornly and joyfully faces into the world's evils and says, "I will not cooperate." The characters realize they have a part to play and at least a tiny influence, and they choose to use it for others. That's what I hope my life focuses on as well.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

new preaching style experiment

I've been experimenting the last couple times I've "preached" with a more interactive format. I'm not sure my preaching profs would have counted it as preaching, but it fills the preaching slot on Sunday morning at our programmed Friends meeting. To hear these experiments you can listen to the podcasts for the time in June and the one in August. My father-in-law is good at this style of preaching and I learned a lot from him, although I think I do things a little differently because I'm a different person. I like this way of bringing the message, because basically it's just bringing fodder to open up a conversation. I think about a topic for a while and do some research, I make a plan as far as what I want to say to explain the direction I'm going, and I ask questions and wait for people to answer. Then I hold it loosely, not sure exactly where it's going to go from there. It's been fun so far, because people have really opened up and been vulnerable with their answers, and answered in a way that gets deeper--not just surface answers, but getting to the heart of things. I think if I preached every Sunday I would probably not do this style every week, because not a lot of content is conveyed. I'm not completely sure if that is a bad thing, because maybe content isn't what people really need...but I think different people need different things, so I would probably try to do a variety of different styles to hit as many learning styles as possible. That's kind of what we're doing at our meeting right now by having a number of different people in the preaching rotation, and it's been really fun. We have the advantage of hearing from different voices in our congregation (and sometimes from outside our congregation) so that we don't just hear one person's perspective or get too focused on one person's pet projects or favorite passages. In true Quaker fashion, we believe God can speak through any of us, so we open it up to hear voices other than the released ministers'. That's what I like about this new experimental way of preaching, too--we hear the voices of many who would never think of bringing the message in a formal way, but they have good things to say and God is at work in their lives. When I've preached in this interactive style I've been humbled to hear people's stories and insights that express a message from God in a way that I never would have been able to. It's like a guided unprogrammed worship, because it's not totally planned, and space is open for people to share, it just happens to be around a certain topic--kind of like having a query to ponder during unprogrammed worship.