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Saturday, June 25, 2005

An Ethics of Campbellian Ritual Life in a Vaguely MacIntyrean Mold

This essay finds me even more entrenched in the Stone-Campbell establishment--I was elected Deacon at Bogart Christian Church, and I'll be ordained by laying on of hands this Sunday, July 10. I never was ordained as minister, so this is my first official entry into things of that sort. Jewels and John have been muy busy of late, so in the interest of keeping the old ball rolling, here's my latest doodle:

An Ethics of Campbellian Ritual Life in a Vaguely MacIntyrean Mold


If postmodernism is allowed to be something other than Foucauldian or Derridean, I suppose I could call myself a MacIntyrean postmodernist. Alasdair MacIntyre, a Catholic ethical philosopher, has proposed Aristotle as an antidote for Nietzsche and communities as the real loci of moral life. Although he faces criticism both from Nietzscheans and from Radical Orthodox theologians, his bringings-to-bear of the classical era as a source for ethical reflection deserve respect, and I think that a careful consideration of some of his philosophy could do a great service to Stone-Campbell churches. Although MacIntyre would not necessarily endorse my use of him here, I progress boldly, suggesting that the "present reformation," operating in manners understood roughly inside his categories, stands to serve the Church Universal because of the shape of our ritual life.

One of MacIntyre's many important contributions to moral philosophy is his emphasis on practices and their relationships to the virtues. His mouthful of a definition has become a sort of classic in its own right:
By a practice I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (After Virtue 187)

To give an example, the game of baseball might be considered a practice. The excellence pursued by a shortstop might involve agility, quick thinking and accuracy when assessing incoming ground balls, patience at the plate, and other virtues appropriate to the game of baseball and definitive of a good shortstop. Such goods may well translate out of baseball into other practices (such as police work) or from other practices (such as football, American or otherwise) into baseball, but nonetheless they stand as genuinely good human traits, and pursuit of good shortstoppery is the avenue by which one attains them. Other examples that MacIntyre discusses are chess, law, politics, and architecture, all coherent and complex human activities. Human goods such as patience, courage, intelligence, justice, and mercy all rise from such practices as mathematics or politics or warfare or plastic arts, and thus all human moral good in general arises from some sort of complex human activity and its place within the larger human community's life in some place and some time. To paraphrase one of his characteristic conclusions, every ethics presupposes a sociology.

The problem with our talk about morality, MacIntyre contends, is that our ethical vocabulary has become divorced from the ways of life within which it originated; since we cannot imagine what it would mean to live in Athens as a polis, we misconstrue what certain features of Aristotle's ethics (courage, justice, reason) mean within his context and what practices produce those goods. Likewise, since we do not think of ourselves as aristocratic warriors, we miss what Homer might have meant by arete. Thus with a hodgepodge of words that emerge out of German princedoms, Athenian city-states, and Scottish universities, we fool ourselves into thinking that we can choose one outlook of many, ignoring that the very idea of "choosing an outlook" stems from a consumerism that has rendered the pursuits of the good life and of wisdom two more shopping trips (the practices that define our own late-capitalist moral lives).

The connection with the so-called "Restoration plea" is that practices and virtues often stand forgotten when we Christians discuss the character of the unity and faithfulness to which we are called. Although we claim to look to Scriptures for our rule of faith and practice, often we ignore the contexts within which Scriptural sentences made sense and the process of analogy by means of which we might bring that sense to bear on our common life as Christians in 2005.

Both proponents and critics of the Christian churches' projects tend to focus on our hermeneutics, our somewhat naive epistemology, and our dislike of creeds. In the place of such epistemological unpleasantries, alternative schema are sometimes proposed as simple supermarket-style choices that will fit into whatever common life happens to be there or happens to spring up, and the assumption stands that making better selections would lead to a better form of life. My contention is that the practices that make up Christian churches' ritual lives already stand as sources for good common life and as epistemological cues if only we will take seriously the implications of what we already do.

Ritual Life and Moral Goods

But every ethics assumes a sociology, and the goods that we seek as a Christian community must emerge out of practices. My discussion of communion and baptism, two distinctively but not by any means uniquely Christian churches practices, will blend the descriptive and the prescriptive, trying to set forth a vision of what Christian church common life could be without assuming that we already practice them fully or that such practices would have to originate somewhere other than our current ways of living together.

When we eat together the Lord's Supper every week, and when we take that symbolic action seriously, the practice of communion develops in us the state of being the New Testament calls koinonia, common life or the less elegant having-all-things-in-common. As we share our wealth and share our meals (even if the meals are only a bit of tough communion bread and some grape juice), the strong lines between "mine" and "yours" and "theirs" ought to be melting away, being replaced in ritual action by common goods, hopefully translating eventually into a life that stands in redemptive contrast to the Scroogish clutching after possessions and privacy that threatens to become the norm around and within us. The epistemology follows from the practice, and how we know what wealth is flows from the practices that we take most seriously: if our paycheck-generating weekly activity is the most real "work" that we do, it will determine what we "see" when we look at our bank statements. If gathering around the Lord's table is most real, we will "see" different things when we look around at so-called "economic" realities.

Beyond the sharing of food as a type of sharing posessions, the practice of shared eating, even in the ritualized and stylized forms that we've inherited, harks back to Jesus' own practice of sharing table-fellowship with those who were supposed to be outside of God's people. Though simple love for those who are strange is important, we must not lose sight of the radical character of such actions: by eating with sinners, Jesus was redefining what Israel looks like over against the Pharisees' and the Essenes' ideas, and by eating with tax collectors, Jesus was redefining the struggle of God against paganism over against the zealots' militarism. Whereas God's invited guests wanted no part of this banquet, God was, in the person of Jesus, and is, in the continued, Spirit-led practice of eucharist, inviting the blind and the lame, the sinner and the traitor, to sit at the table and to announce that God's yet-to-come reign had broken into the world right here, right now. If there is any time during which we announce the unity of Christ's body, the radical redrawing of Israel's borders, the love for God even for the prodigal, the sharing of Christ's ultimate supper is the time. Once again, if our pledging allegiance to a certain flag is more real than our gathering together with all Christians with Jesus around the table, what we "see" in the news will be quite different than what a serious partaker of the Lord's Supper sees, and our treatment of our sisters and brothers who happen to live inside other boundaries will follow. Every ethics assumes a sociology.

Baptizing adults, while controversial in ecumenical discussion, stands to enact and develop the other side of the Reign of God's virtue, the Way of heavenly citizenship. Paul's words in Romans 6 are appropriate:
3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (NRSV)
Death is the event that severs our obligation to the powers of this world: though they might levy a tax on the possessions that we leave behind (and they should--there's no reason to keep an aristocratic class wealthy, but that's not the subject of this essay), they cannot threaten us with imprisonment or death, cannot order us to kill on their behalf, cannot expect us to contribute to their quests for self-preservation. So it is with baptism; when we emerge, the services we do for corporations or governments or political factions are no longer for the sake of their power but for the sake of the proclamation of Christ's gospel. So if they order us into unfaithfulness, they have no authority, as we are dead to them. And if we do our employers good, it's not because they stand as a threat but because we love them as Christ loves them. And if they want the goods that come from God's virtuous people to bear on their enterprises, their ways will have to bend in order to get out of God's way, not vice versa, because our new obligations and our new citizenship is in Heaven.

In the context of occupied Palestine and of the Christian communities within the empire, baptism was not by any means limited to private matters but was a public pronouncement that one was dead to the gods, most notably Caesar, and alive in God. When John baptized at the Jordan river, he invoked the parallel Jordan-crossing in the book of Joshua, a crossing that symbolized Israel's death to Pharaoh and her claiming of the promises of YHWH (and their immanent claims on the land that YHWH promised). The Jordan is where people started if they wanted to claim land as YHWH's and not kings'. And by baptizing "for the remission of sins," he was also taking away the Roman-controlled Jerusalem Temple's monopoly on community-restoring rituals and proclaiming that God was making a new chosen people in the wilderness, as God had done so long ago in Moses' generation. When Jesus became baptized, he undertook a carrying-on and radical revision of that proclamation of promise, expanding the vision of the promised land to the whole earth and the new/renewed Israel to all nations. and the Temple to any body of water. And whenever a person took to those waters in the book of Acts, that person entered symbolically into the promised land, delivered from the clutches of the rebellious powers and entering into the free life, subject only to YHWH and a sister or brother to all, emperor and slave alike.

Unfortunately, the practice of baptism within our traditions has become connected almost exclusively to the afterlife fate of the baptized. Because we've lost a sense of the context of John's and later Jesus' and later the apostles' baptism, and because we've linked it to a view of the soul that fears for a lack of a singular, saving, decisive ritual, we gadfiles among the Campbellites rightly object to its status as the deciding factor in one's afterlife. We rightly critique emphasizing this ritual because its use in some churches presumes to know more than we humans know, even given that God has revealed God's self. Besides, such a view of baptism has little to do with life here and now beyond the fear that one's evangelical vices (smokin', drinkin', chewin', and screwin') might interfere with one's "church life" or cancel out the power of the "magic water." Frustrated post-Campbellites and frustrated Campbellites alike likely grit our teeth when an old-timer insists on an answer to the question, "Is baptism essential for salvation?"

Inside a vaguely Macintyrean frame, however, one can engage that question once again, perhaps more fruitfully. Remembering one's baptism might stand as a starting point for reflection upon one's new place in God's created but fallen world, and taking the act as analogous in political and social power to its first-century ancestors, our baptism ought to be the most radical act that one could undertake, a taking up of a cross, an entry into a faithfulness that is the conviction of things unseen. Connected to the sociology within which "salvation" means something concrete, the ethics of baptism might indeed represent the essence of salvation. But it's not your run-of-the-mill American salvation!

Humility as Signature Virtue

Heavenly citizenship and koinonia arise from rituals that have been around since there have been Christians. In our particularly Stone-Campbell context, our claim that (c'mon, folks--say it with me) we are "not the only Christians, but Christians only" stands as a starting point for discussing humility, a virtue that should flow particularly from Stone-Campbell contexts. Because we know our role as a corrective to certain vices common to Christians, we do not need to claim Christian virtue as our own property but can live humbly, demonstrating both the virtues that the rituals produce and those coming from our practice of fellowship. So the virtues that flow from baptism and eucharist live not only in us but also our sisters and brothers who strive to live faithfully to the radical gospel of an invisible God and God's yet-to-come-but-here-already reign. At the same time, we can claim, over against the practices of consumer capitalism, that those virtues are better than the character generated by the rituals of Christmas shopping and pledging to flags. Our heritage as a unity movement allows us to consider our practices as generative not only of their own internal goods but also of humility.

Thomas Aquinas defines humility as twofold, keeping the human soul both from despair and from ambition:
Now it has been stated above that for those appetitive movements which are a kind of impulse towards an object, there is need of a moderating and restraining moral virtue, while for those which are a kind of recoil, there is need, on the part of the appetite, of a moral virtue to strengthen it and urge it on. Wherefore a twofold virtue is necessary with regard to the difficult good: one, to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately; and this belongs to the virtue of humility: and another to strengthen the mind against despair, and urge it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason; and this is magnanimity. Therefore it is evident that humility is a virtue. (Link)
Our Campbellite slogan is not nearly as elegant or as thorough as Aquinas's consideration of humility, but the two extremes are there blocked: on the one hand, we're not overreachers who claim a sectarian superiority to all those outside (remember, I'm being prescriptive as well as descriptive here). On the other, we don't begin our inquiry with epistemological despair but with divine self-revelation, confidently naming our life together "Christian."

If we Campbellites have one particular thing that we can offer to the Church Universal, it's this Thomist brand of humility, a life that grows out of awareness of our place in God's creation. Neither self-aggrandizing nor falsely self-deprecating, we Christians can live boldly as God's servants without presuming to be God's managers. And it begins with the ways we live together. And at least part of that common life is the ways in which we ritually worship. By insisting upon the enactment of the gospel in our two signature rituals, while at the same recognizing that not every difference in ritual is a sinful departure, we can add humility to heavenly citizenship and koinonia, embodying three virtues that are Christian for the sake of our fellow Christians and alongside those Christians.

And thus a vaguely MacIntyrean Campbellite might just be a good friend for and better member of the Church.

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