Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Notes on Conversion of Life

I promised a while back to present some thoughts on the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre and how his insights offer some material for contemplation in the area of conversion of life, which ought to be dear to Christians.

MacIntyre, today considered a 'traditionalist' Thomist Catholic, underwent a 'conversion' experience around 1972. After having cut his teeth on Marxism and Freudianism, he came to what seemed like a dead-end in his inquiries into moral philosophy. In a recent collection of essays, The Tasks of Philosophy, he writes in the introduction that the problems he was facing in, "were bound to remain intractable so long as they were understood in the terms dictated by those larger assumptions which I shared with many of my contemporaries [x.]."

This led M to embrace the Aristotelian synthesis, especially as handed on to posterity by St. Thomas Aquinas, as a vantage point from which to make sense of the apparently intractable problems of modern philosophy. This in turn culminated with the publication of his best-known book, After Virtue, already considered a classic a few years after its appearance in 1981. He famously ends After Virtue with a call for a 'new Saint Benedict', which has endeared him to some members of my Order.

Underlying this waiting for a new Benedict is a consideration of the importance of culture in any kind of systematic thinking. Philosophers are not the only ones who need this; all of us think systematically when we speak, make plans for the future, and arrange our days. We undertake these activities as members of one or more cultures that provides us certain foundations that we take for granted. In the essay Epistemological crises, dramatic narrative, and the philosophy of science, M points out that when Descartes attempted to doubt everything, he was not able to go without the Latin language in order to pronounce, "Cogito ergo sum," and that writing in Latin already assumes a huge amount of cultural baggage. Experts on Descartes can point out how much of his language is indebted, for example, to St. Augustine, including the famed 'cogito' itself.

So M sets out to critique modern liberalism (and by 'liberalism' I don't mean what is usually meant in political journalism, but rather the enthroning of 'autonomy' that I have been posting on for the past two weeks), by stepping outside of this culture, embracing the cultural assumptions of Aristotle and Aquinas, and then offering his own view of modernism. I find his writing scintillating to say the least. One might immediately object that we can't go back to Paris of 1222, much less Athens of 370 B.C. MacIntyre is no simpleton about such objections, and lacking the means to defend his thesis in the cramped medium of the weblog, I will leave it to readers to discover for themselves how he reasons his way through this dilemma.

What I hope to post on over the coming week or so is this idea of 'conversion'. As M sees it, this requires not merely adapting new information into an existing system (which is what most of us do most days), but opting to be changed by moving into a totally different system, a new system that requires us to re-think the the meaning of the whole of our past, in new terms.

I gave as an example last week the idea that Christians ought to be converted away from 'autonomy' toward 'Christian freedom'. This constitutes no less than a total 'renewal of our minds [Romans 12: 1]', for so much that we take for granted in modern times assumes that autonomy and personal authenticity is a greater good than, say, the salvation of our souls by living the virtuous life. Certainly, entering a monastery ought to provoke some sort of conversion this way: the fact that we do not watch television, that a higher value is placed on mopping the floor according to customary practice than on 'self-expression', that we spend hours a day reciting words of long-dead Hebrew poets; these assume a world-view very much at odds with what exists outside the cloister.

This however does not mean that my life experience before I entered the cloister in meaningless. MacIntyre writes that he was inspired by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to see that the whole 'paradigm', world-view or cultural stance needs to be questioned in order to move forward at times in systematic inquiry. However, he is also highly critical of the either/or implications of Kuhn's thinking; that embracing a new paradigm necessarily makes the old one completely obsolete. Rather, M wants to show how a coherent human life requires a coherent story or narrative, and that a conversion, in order to be coherent, must not only account for the world according to a new paradigm or world-view, but must also explain how the person could have reasonably held the previous world-view.

My sense is that today, 'conversions' are often suspect because we assume that the person who undergoes one has to repudiate what had gone before, rather than explain it. The Fathers of the Church were less certain of this--they expressed a variety of opinions, but I would point out that the view that was eventually embraced as something of a default, at least in the West, was the Benedictine view, one that integrates what is best in the cultures converted by the gospel. Jean LeClerq, in The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, demonstrates that the Benedictine way of life, while professing to leave the world behind, in fact was able to purify 'worldly' knowledge and rhetoric by placing it at the service of a comprehensive Christian worldview.

I will end this post today by addressing a comment made by Ascending Incense two weeks ago (and let me insert here that I repent of my infelicitous language that claimed that infants are 'infected' by Original Sin--perhaps I could change this to 'subject to' so as to assert their innocence before God). He noted that Karol Berger located the beginnings of modernism with Rousseau, whereas he thought that Descartes was more normally given that dubious distinction. Berger is operating within a very specific frame of reference, and Rousseau mirrors the changing sensibilities in musical composition in mid-Eighteenth century that separate Bach from Mozart. I agree that Descartes is more typically seen as the breaking point. However, my own personal point of view is that the break begins with Nominalism, the late scholastic philosophy that claims that the objects we encounter in the physical universe do not tell us anything meaningful about the nature of things. Thus, we would not be able to abstract a concept called 'human nature' from observing individual human beings. This sets up what I have long called a 'disjunctive universe', in which things are not related to one another, except in the minds of those who decide to call different things by the same name (hence 'nominalism'--it's all about naming things).

The effects of Nominalism have taken a long time to play out, but I would venture to say that they have reached a certain maximization today. How often are we scolded for trying to generalize about the world by those who wish to be left alone to make their own generalizations, to 'define the mystery of life' according to their own lights rather than by things-as-they-really-are? Postmodernism is defined by just this sort of disjunction, leading people to assert that there is no truth, or at the very least that any claims to truth are ideological and therefore violent and out-of-bounds (we normally say 'offensive' or 'insensitive').

The Thomistic view, which I take to be the Catholic one, rather exercises discretion to 'baptize' pagan cultures, adopting what is good, while defining, explaining and excluding what is bad. Thus there is an emphasis on the fundamental continuity of persons and cultures, even through a conversion experience. On this, MacIntyre interestingly takes issue with Burke's criticism of the French Revolution (note for political junkies).

So I locate the wellsprings of modernism with Scotus and William of Occam, which seems about right for a monk. It happens to coincide with the claims of so-called Radical Orthodoxy, though for somewhat different reasons. At the same time, both Descartes and Rousseau are owed a certain credit/blame for advancing the cause.

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