Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Christianity: Excellence or Effectiveness?

I hope that you don't mind a few nerdy posts on philosophical items that relate to faith.

At long last I am reading the follow-up to After Virtue, the instant classic of Notre Dame prof Alasdaire MacIntyre. This new(er) book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? intersects with skome themes of recent posts and helps flesh out some of his important insights in the earlier book.

First of all, his insight that we use the same words to mean different things depending on our conception of the good and the just has some relationship to my contention earlier that what we often trumpet as the "Truth" is in fact a culturally conditioned way of expressing the Truth and will not necessarily strike others as truth by the sheer force of its reasonableness.

MacIntyre develops the notion of a tradition in which one accepts certain standards of excellence. If we buy into this tradition and prove ourselves excellent in it, we might be able to alter the standards of excellence in it. I would point out that this is related to my contention that we must trust others in obtaining knowledge: becoming part of a tradition is just that. I trust my seniors in the monastery as those who can pass on the tradition. In addition, I trust St. Benedict, St. Basil, Cassian, St. Bernard and other monks who have lived the tradition. If I am to be a good monk, I must be first judged against their examples.

Against this, MacIntyre notes a different approach to 'goods' other than excellence. These would be the good of effectiveness. If I may be permitted a paraphrase and simplification of his very carefully reasoned argument, the goods of effectiveness are about defining the common good in such a way that the most people can get what they want.

My sense in reading this as a Christian and as a monk is that I as a monk and we as Christians are pursuing the goods of excellence and not of effectiveness. In fact, God's own ways are hardly "effective," in the sense that He gets what He wants and we get what we want. The basic assumption of this scheme is that our desires are opposed to one another and we must find effective means of obtaining these opposed goals. But the Church asserts that hidden behind the rough and tumble of daily life, the real truth is that what is good for me gives glory to God and serving others, being attentive to what is good for them, is also good for me.

We often act as if the Church were about being effective. Many criticisms of the bishops stem from a desire for effectiveness on their parts. The liturgical movement somewhere degenrated into a call for pastoral effectiveness in communicating the mysteries of the faith. Now MacIntyre doesn't say that a lack of effectiveness is a good thing, only that those who give pride of place to excellence must subordinate effectiveness and sometimes disregard it for the sake of doing what is right, period. Is this not the crux of the martyr, the one whose love for the excellence of virtue puts him at mortal odds with those who want results (e.g. those whose main preoccupation is for the stability of the state, etc)?

Tomorrow, I hope to bring you some less heavy material. To all who may read this, I wish you peace and many blessings in Jesus Christ!

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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