Alasdair MacIntyre's God, Philosophy, Universities
How does a small town Texan become “America’s Best Theologian”? Hauerwas poses this question at the beginning of his memoir, Hannah’s Child, and his answer comes in some three hundred pages of entertaining stories that fill us in on the characters and circumstances who influenced his thinking and writing. Hauerwas is “famous” because he discovered that the Christian life is “an unrelenting engagement with reality” (45) which makes it “so damned interesting” (208). He discovered that Christians “have nothing to lose,” so we “might as well tell the truth” (133) which led him to become a theologian who “makes the connections necessary to articulate clearly what it means to say that what we believe is true”(157). Hauerwas’s way of telling the truth has a characteristic “critical edge”(186) that is often “profoundly comic” (58).
His theology is unequivocally Christian, narrowly focused on the character of the individual Christian who is shaped by the socially marginal community of the church. For his provincial theological focus, James Gustafson, his doctoral dissertation advisor, labeled Hauerwas a “sectarian, fideistic, tribalist” (208) and Time, some years later, recognized his sweeping influence. The contrast is comic, but not nearly as comic as when Hauerwas notes that this honor celebrating his influence was announced in the 10 September 2001, issue of Time, ensuring that it would go essentially unnoticed.
Hauerwas’s road to success began when he became “Hannah’s child.” Hauerwas’s mother, long denied and desperately wanting to be pregnant, remembered the biblical story of Hannah praying to God for a son whom she promised to dedicate to God’s service. Being a pious woman, Hauerwas’s mother prayed Hannah’s prayer, made Hannah’s promises, but named her son Stanley not Samuel because, just before he was born, she saw the movie Stanley and Livingston. So it was that before Stanley was born he was destined to resist liberalism for, as he sees it, if praying and promising are real, autonomy is not. Liberalism’s assertion of autonomy as the core human virtue makes no sense because it cannot explain why anyone would keep a promise that proves costly to personal happiness. In the most touching reflection of the memoir, Hauerwas recalls the pain of his parents when they realized that due to their decision to dedicate their gifted son to God’s service, he would enter a world they could neither understand nor share. Nevertheless, Hauerwas recalls, “They let me go on; they let me enter a world foreign to them, because they thought I was serving God.” And again he notes, “my parents let me go” which was “a testimony to the truthfulness of their lives” (44). From his parents Hauerwas learned that freedom is not the autonomy to do as I will but the capacity to remain truthful especially when it is personally costly.
Formation in truthfulness continued for Hauerwas as a laborer on his father’s brick crew. By separating liberal learning from manual labor, classical philosophy failed to appreciate the truth Hauerwas’s father embodied; namely, “the superior good that comes to those whose lives are honed by a craft” (40). In Hauerwas’s insightful reflections on work, three aspects of the moral worth of work emerge. First, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, work teaches us that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. That is to say, if there is a job that needs doing, you get started and keep going rather than waiting for conducive conditions. Why is Hauerwas so prolific? Why did he work so long at holding together a marriage with a mentally unstable woman? Why is his conception of the Christian life so free of the paralysis that comes of pitting faith against works? One answer is that being a laborer taught him that “you have to get it done before it rains” (86). The lesson learned from manual labor was, in a more sophisticated way, repeated in his studies at Yale, with professors Hartt and Holmer, who showed Hauerwas “that theology was best done as a form of practical reason” (59). This means that we cannot be sure of the truthfulness (or falseness) in our theological theorizing and believing unless and until it becomes embodied in our lives. If nothing else, embodying our faith concretely reveals our propensity for failure and the need for grace.
The second theological insight gained from a craft is that anything worth doing badly is worth doing better. Before Hauerwas read about Aristotle’s insight that we become better by habit, he saw it embodied in his father who was “formed by years of ‘doing it right’” (37). Third, we become better, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, not by focusing on what we have done wrong but by knowing what to do next. Knowing what to do next, be it in masonry or morals, requires a shared conception of what it means to make progress. The edifice rescues the habitual laying of brick after brick from tedium and allows criticism of bad work to be edifying, even when it involves cursing.
Preaching, it was thought, would be Hannah’s child’s work, so Hauerwas prepared for his labor by reading widely, which led him to authors who caused him to wonder if “all this Christianity stuff was not all it was cracked up to be” and to think that he “might not want to be a Christian at all” (7). Hannah’s child, now an unbelieving undergraduate, went to Southwestern University, where he prepared for pastoral ministry under the tutelage of Professor John Score. Score, who understood that the liberal arts were the best preparation for pastoral work, started Hauerwas reading Plato, which gave theoretical support to the truth Hauerwas already had learned at home; namely that knowledge and virtue are intertwined so that being truthful “requires a lifelong transformation of the self.” Hauerwas’s experience of pastoral formation through liberal education ought to be normative. His life reflects an uncomplicated theory of education which is captured in the admission, “I cannot separate what I think from who I know” (196). The truth is, as Gilbert Meilaender points out, a good liberal arts education requires nothing more than the regular meeting of “a thoughtful teacher well schooled in his discipline,” with “a genuinely interested student,” around “important texts.” As for Score, when asked about his part in shaping Hauerwas’s character, he said, “How could you be a mentor to a volcano” (234)?
As a first-year professor at Augustana College, Hauerwas discovered that “Lutheran identity” had a useful plasticity. By teaching students that they were “in some generalized way Lutheran, which meant in some vague way that they thought they were Christian,” their parents could be assured “that by sending their daughters to Augustana they would not lose the virginity they had already lost in high school” (77). For Hauerwas general and vague theology is boring. Theology becomes interesting when it considers the things that make “no sense if the one true God is not fully present in Jesus Christ” (283). If what Scripture says about God is true, Christians will recognize that “our lives are contingent… (and) out of our control,” and will conclude that if, at any time we think we “rule the world,” it is a sure sign we are “in the grip of a deep delusion” (231). Hauerwas gives examples of prosperous and politically connected Christians being reminded (by him) that their wealth and influence are theologically uninteresting because Jesus’ death and resurrection are not needed to explain why people are attracted to money or power.
Truthfulness requires residence in a community where “Bullshit (is) not allowed”(45). For Hauerwas, these communities have been the bourgeois family, the church, and the university. Hauerwas has been mostly critical of the bourgeois family; however, to be truthful, he had to acknowledge his debt to the stability of his parent’s marriage and the benefits of growing up in a home ordered to faith and work. His rich relationship with his son is something every father would desire, and he shows how his struggles to keep a troubled marriage together now fuel his deep satisfaction in his second marriage. While Hauerwas’s writings have given us “a fresh way to think about the church” (250), his particular church experiences have little importance in his memoir. This seems to be less the hazard of being, in his words, a high–church Mennonite, and more reflective of the importance of the university in his life and especially the conflicts which have helped him better understand what it means for a university community to be truthful and how the university and church relate.
As I noted, Hauerwas’s educational ideal is summarized in his admission, “I cannot separate what I think from who I know” (196). What liberal learning requires is not the impersonal or disembodied dissemination of information. At its best, liberal learning approximates an apprenticeship in thinking—the kind Hauerwas had with John Score—which involves conversation between master and pupil over important texts. But Hauerwas’s idea of the university is rivaled by the practicality of bureaucratic managers, disguised in academic garb. The chief villain is Dennis Campbell, the former Dean of the Duke Divinity School, whom, notes Hauerwas, lacked the academic credentials to attain a faculty position but had the “one great skill” of knowing “how to live among powerful and important people”(192). And, admits Hauerwas, when his vision of the university came up against bureaucratic methods, Campbell always was able to “outmaneuver people like me.”
I’ll not spoil the fun by disclosing any more of these interesting conflict passages. Rather, I mention the bureaucratic manager because it resonates with the not–so–faint overtones of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work. One of MacIntyre’s main achievements, accomplished over the span of a decade, was to map out how communities which are not ordered by truth must be ordered by some or another form of power. Three of his books, After Virtue (1981), Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (1988), and Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (1990), constitute a complex argument that arrives at the deceptively simple conclusion; we have come to a moral impasse and must choose to follow Aquinas’s conception of the truth or accept Nietzsche’s claim that only power matters. Nietzsche thought that accepting power meant being ruled by a class of supermen. MacIntyre shows that what it means is being ruled by super managers who promise results.
Reading Hauerwas’s memoir was a sweet and sad reminder of how much time has passed since Hauerwas, interpreting MacIntyre, gave many of us, “a fresh way to think about the church” (250). When we first read MacIntyre’s reference to Christians at the time of the fall of Rome forming communities of virtue and his appeal for a new St. Benedict, we thought he was talking about the church. He wasn’t, but Hauerwas was, and eventually MacIntyre would be too. So much time has passed and so little has changed for either the church or the university. What has changed for some is that we can now better appreciate the church’s dependence on the liberal arts, and, as MacIntyre demonstrates in his recent book, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, how liberal learning depends upon Christian theology.
MacIntyre’s argument, presented as a history, shows how the debate between revealed theological truth and natural philosophical truth has shaped the conception of rationality that has been crucial to our understanding of the university. At least it was until around 1700, when a key momentum shift called modernity, enlightenment, or secularism happened and thinkers began to take “the truth of atheism for granted” (147). More and more religion was thought to lack “rational justification” (76), and so one was either rational or religious. Religion maintained a marginal place in the university so long as it echoed other academic disciplines, but, on the whole, it was relegated to the personal and private. Then, sometime at the end of the twentieth century, another momentum shift happened, this time toward something called post–modernity in which every claim of truth and rationality was considered a disguise of power. There is no such thing as truth, which means the best we can strive for are results. It has taken several centuries for this part of the story to play out, but now we can see that by accepting the “modern” truth of atheism we swerved into the old mistake of choosing to be successful over choosing to be good. (Who’s to say what goodness is?)
MacIntyre’s narrow audience, the Catholic/Christian university, must come to realize that there has been yet another—though very modest—momentum shift that began with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and gained its most public exposure in the assertion of John Paul II’s papal encyclical, Fides et Ratio (1998), that reason and faith are not exclusive, but, says MacIntyre, that “Reason… needs Christian faith, if it is to do its own work well” (152). Who could have imagined one or two generations ago that the most important defenders of the humanities curriculum would be the two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? It comes as no surprise to MacIntyre who persuasively shows that the energy fueling the humanities has always come from an ongoing argument between the truths of revealed theology and natural philosophy.
This connection was most clearly articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman in The Idea of the University (1854). Here he stated that “The aim of a university education is not to fit students for this or that particular profession or career… but to cultivate “the perfection or virtue of intellect.” To be human means to pursue the truth, which, in turn requires that we “engage fruitfully in conversation and debate…” in order to obtain “insights and arguments from a variety of disciplines to bear on particular complex issues.” A university education cannot make us truthful. It can, however, teach students that to be open to the truth we need the virtues of humility and patience and the linguistic skills necessary for thinking. Having virtue and skill, we can enter into the discussion focused on the “complex relationships between the myriad of particular facts,” trusting that truth is discovered on the far side of disagreement. This article of religious faith, grounded in the unity of the rational creation, is nowhere more clearly expressed than when scholars express themselves with the kind of clarity and coherence that makes their truth claims “maximally vulnerable to refutation.”
The university that arose in the thirteenth century was the result of an ongoing debate that began with Augustine, who concluded that divine illumination was needed to preserve the thinker from skepticism. This question was taken up by the philosopher Boethius whose conception of the liberal arts was adopted by the medieval university and who refused to judge between Plato, who believed that universal truth and ultimate reality existed in forms apart from the physical world, and Aristotle, who found truth within the world as we experience it. Boethius’s unwillingness to take sides on this question ensured that the Hellenistic debate over the relationship of ideas to the concrete world would be crucial to the way Christian thinkers puzzle over what it means to be human in light of God’s relationship to the world as Creator and Redeemer. From the perspective of the Christian intellectual tradition, our thinking about what it means to be human is defective unless it is open to the truths of both natural philosophy and revealed theology. So, notes MacIntyre, it is “the task of philosophy… to examine the nature of finite beings and things, consider their causes, which rendered natural knowledge of God.” And again, it is “the task of theology… to see how God related to finite things and beings” (74). The conversation between natural and revealed truth, involving characters like Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, and Pascal and conversations with Islamic and Jewish thinkers, enables “us to identify accurately where the line between faith and reason is to be drawn, something that cannot be done from the standpoint of reason, but only from that of faith. Reason therefore needs Christian faith, if it is to do its own work well” (152).
If Scripture reveals truths we cannot know by other means, the separation of faith from learning must result in confusion, particularly the confusion over the “relationship of language to the world” (160). Elsewhere MacIntyre quotes Nietzsche’s aphorism, “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar.” Nietzsche rightly recognized that “belief in God is covertly present” in “the structure of language.” The corollary is unavoidable; by accepting the truth of atheism, it was inevitable that language studies (rhetoric, logic, dialectic), the core of the humanities, would eventually come to seem unimportant. To be sure, the philosophical prejudices of materialism and naturalism in the university ably sustain the scientific and technological disciplines that yield such impressive results. Moreover, there is no tension between this prejudice and the professional programs that make the plausible claim that a good education results in a good job. Nothing in MacIntyre’s argument suggests that the restoration of the liberal arts requires the diminishment of scientific or professional education. His argument is more subtle and more disturbing. Failing to sustain a vibrant debate between revealed and natural truth, Christian/Catholic universities will have succumbed to the old and bad bargain of gaining the whole world and losing their soul. MacIntyre has made it less easy for us to ignore the truth of how decisions made today will either restore or destroy the soul of tomorrow’s Christian university (63).
MacIntyre’s story shows how the debate between theology and philosophy, that once defined and energized the medieval university, can repeat its soul restoring work today. To take this story seriously however means that we must recognize that merely adding a patchwork of classes in ethics and sacred theology is insufficient to save the soul of the Christian university. Two hundred years of eliminating the transcendent dimension of faith from our intellectual habits is not overcome by theological patches put on materialistic wineskins (63). Our hope, maybe our only hope, is for the Christian family, church and university to create and cultivate more Hannah’s children. Together, Hauerwas’s memoir and MacIntyre’s history show what it means to both the church and university when Christians recognize that we “have nothing to lose,” and so we “might as well tell the truth”(133) in whatever academic discipline we work in.
David K. Weber is Lecturer in Theology at Valparaiso University.