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6: Stories We Live By

June 25, 2009

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously stated in his book After Virtue that he suspected we were on the verge of a new dark ages, and moreover, that the barbarians are already at the gates. MacIntyre has been much critiqued for being overly pessimistic about modern society. But I suspect that he is quite on to something. He insists that all our notions of identity and ethics are mere fragments of what were once communally-based narratives. These narratives or stories gave us a sense of purpose. And without some clear sense of end or function or goal, Aristotle taught us, we cannot assess the goodness or badness of anything.

The problem with modernity, says MacIntyre, is that it has sought to strip us of any shared human purpose or goal. Modernity, in its attempt to come up with some ethic that everyone can supposedly agree on, has insisted that we need not concern ourselves with the goal or aim of humanity. MacIntyre, on the other hand, has insisted that we cannot know what we out to do until we know of what story or stories we find ourselves a part. This is the instinctive wisdom of parents or grandparents when they will simply tell a child or grandchild, “remember who you are.” In other words, you might learn more about yourself and your community by paying attention to the sorts of stories we or they tell, than by simply asking them to tell us what abstract ideas or rules or doctrines they believe to be true.

We might discover, for example, that though we say we believe in a God revealed in the midst of our brokenness and bondage, that we may actually believe more in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Or we may say we believe in a God who does the impossible by resurrecting the dead, while in self-pity we construct notions that neither our enemies nor we ourselves can ever change. Or we may say we believe in a God who calls us to live a life of trust, but we would rather trust our own chariots, horses, and human progress.

So tonight we reflect upon some of the stories we tell ourselves, the poetry we fashion, the songs we sing. And in the midst of various and sundry songs and stories, we hope to find some Tokens of the story of a God who works in and through suffering love, always in and through gift, and in the hope of something like resurrection even in the face of all the offspring of Death.