The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.
(Stanley Hauerwas, “Sanctify Them in the Truth,” 197-198.)
I’ve got to read some Hauerwas, as he was mentor, and continues powerfully to influence, Fr. Stephen Freeman, who so far has blogged twice on this block quote.
Lest you think that Hauerwas is making things up, check out these examples from the opening paragraph of The Dangerous Idea that Life is a Story:
- “Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’. This narrative is us.” (Oliver Sacks)
- “Self is a perpetually rewritten story. In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.” (American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner)
- “We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.” (American psychologist Dan P McAdams)
- “We invent ourselves … but we really are the characters we invent.” (American moral philosopher J David Velleman)
- “We are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour … and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.” (Daniel Dennett)
Know ye that the Lord, He is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Fr. Stephen’s second blog particularly “got me,” echoing as it does the old observation, now apparently thought as extinct as the Dodo, that we are who we are at least partly by “status, not contract.” By missing that, the narrativists miss as much or more than anyone so clueless as to deny that we (moderns?) do tend to tell self-narratives.
Autonomy, being “self-ruled,” is the heart of our contemporary delusion. We have seen this taken to extremes in the recent past. Fundamental givens in life, such as gender and race, are now seen by some as subject to choice. Self-definition (“how I identify”) has become the latest demand in the Modern Project.
This is an extreme example of Hauerwas’ statement that modernity wants to produce people “who believe they should have no story.” Everyone is his own author, writing the tale of his life in living free verse. It also means that modern people are always on the edge of meaninglessness …
Givenness is both at the heart of reality and at the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith. It is at the heart of reality: we do not bring ourselves into existence. Just as our life is a gift, our body is a gift, so our meaning and place in the world are a gift. In none of these things are we self-created.
It is at the heart of our faith: the spiritual expression of embracing the givenness of life is thanksgiving. All that we have, we have received as a gift. The right response to a gift is to give thanks. Everything else is a hardening of the heart.
I suspect that “self-narrative” may be part of the logismoi the Holy Fathers warned against. It certainly seems to partake of nominalism versus Christian realism.
Let’s throw in If It Makes You Happy, too:
In 1998, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church. I had served as an Episcopal clergyman for 18 years prior to that. I left a large parish with a wonderful staff and tremendous programs. I took up the work of starting an Orthodox mission. Of course, such a life-change creates awkward moments for your friends, colleagues, and former parishioners. What do you say to someone who just chucked a career to start a mission in a warehouse? Perhaps the common expression, typically American, was, “I’m glad you’re doing what makes you happy.” It would have also been beyond awkward had I responded by telling the truth: “Actually, it makes me miserable.” And the difference between their thoughts and mine, their actions and mine, is all the difference in the world. It was a difference that was at the heart of my conversion and it separates Orthodoxy from the modern world …
[Y]ou do such a thing if you believe it is the truth and that choosing such a path sets your feet on the road to salvation. You do such a thing if you believe that other paths are the way of destruction and that, no matter how much pleasure they might bring, they are to be abandoned sooner rather than later …
To be a Jew in a room full of Nazis who are free to choose is not good news. America’s founding fathers were closer to classical Christian civilization than we are. A number of them knew that democracy was never any safer than the character of the people it served. If the people become vicious (governed by vice), then the Republic will become a vicious state. However, their experiment in creating a new civilization failed to institutionalize the making of virtue. In time, the laissez faire approach to character has proven itself to be a failure.
The same approach has come to be adopted within modern Christianity. Faith is now seen as a choice to believe, made by free persons. The assumption is that, given sufficient and accurate information, people will choose well and rightly. A primary sacrament of this flawed theology is adult-only baptism. Infants are not able to choose and are therefore disqualified from Baptism. The presumption is that somehow, a person will become an adult and freely choose to follow the right way. No other civilization in history has made such a foolish gamble with their children ….
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Theosis goes far beyond the simple restoration of people to their state before the Fall. Because Christ united the human and divine natures in his person, it is now possible for us to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden. Some Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)