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.


C. Wess Daniels said...

I'm glad you're wrestling with this text. There's a lot in here worth discussing. I think you'll be surprised where this ends up (in a good way). I look forward to joining your group to talk about the book.

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling that the forms was Plato...

Am very interested to hear how you get on. I read MacIntyre's History of Ethics a while back.

cherice said... may be right, John...there goes that post! :) Oh well. I've been reading more of MacIntyre so I'll try to do another post soon.