Reconciling Stories

When somebody asks me who I am, I tell my story. I narrate the life that I have lived, while the other listens to or reads my narrative. My identity is fundamentally narrative in character. The same is true for the identity of my community. My family has a story that it lives and tells. So does my place of employment, my church, my city and country. Every group, organization, and institution of which I am a part has a narrative identity, a story to tell and retell, to construct and reconstruct.

Despite my love of stories, I too often neglect to listen to others, to their stories. Sometimes I forget that another person or a group has a story to tell. And while I try not to take over the telling of another's story, to construct another's narrative against their telling, I have on occasion done just that. When I narrative the course of a war and provide my interpretation and judgment, I sometimes fail to consider the stories of all those who fight that war or are closely affected by it and how their stories might intertwine with mine and my narration with theirs. When I vent about someone's annoying me, I might entertain not a single thought to what has happened to him during his day. When I attempt to strike a mortal blow during a debate in the blogosphere, I may care less about who it is that I am debating, where that person has come from and where he is going. I separate myself from others by not listening to their stories or caring about who they are.

When I seek to be reconciled with another, however, I must tell my story and listen as the other tells his. If our identities are narrative in character, then to identify with another, our stories must cross. Not in violence, but in love. This crossing of stories occurs within the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation: the penitent tells the story of his sins and his hope for salvation; the priest listens and places the penitent's story in the greater narrative of salvation history. He tells the hopeful penitent the story of God's mercy, love, and forgiveness, and the penitent is able to re-narrative his identity in the light of that story. The philosopher Richard Kearney, whose ideas on stories have shaped much of what I've said here, sees hope for the reconciliation of nations in the sharing of stories. He writes that "the solution to many national conflicts may well reside in the willingness of both disputants -- for example Arab and Israeli, Nationalist and Unionist, Serb and Croat, Tutsi and Hutu -- to exchange narrative memories. For such mutual translation of competing stories might eventually enable the adversaries to see each other through alternative eyes. If warring nations were able to acknowledge their own and the other's narrative identities they might then be able to reimagine themselves in new ways."

The Jester and the King

Comedian Jon Stewart has continued to play his role of challenging those in power and helping reveal their absurdity, falsity, and corruption even though those who currently wield political power are generally closer to his political philosophy than those who ruled in the previous administration. Below is a clip from his show yesterday in which he shows how President Obama has not only continued President Bush's wartime powers, but enhanced and increased them, despite Obama's regularly scheduled speeches about following the rule of law, closing Guantanamo, ending rendition, and granting habeas corpus. As I've mentioned before, Obama has gone further than Bush by claiming the authority to assassinate an American citizen away from any battlefield.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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God bless the jesters!

The Tea Party and Metaphysical Anger

J.M. Bernstein takes a philosophical approach to understanding the anger of the Tea Party movement. His hypothesis is intriguing, but his conclusions are less than convincing. He writes:
My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.

The implicit bargain that many Americans struck with the state institutions supporting modern life is that they would be politically acceptable only to the degree to which they remained invisible, and that for all intents and purposes each citizen could continue to believe that she was sovereign over her life; she would, of course, pay taxes, use the roads and schools, receive Medicare and Social Security, but only so long as these could be perceived not as radical dependencies, but simply as the conditions for leading an autonomous and self-sufficient life. Recent events have left that bargain in tatters.
He continues:
Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions. The opposing metaphysical claim, the one I take to be true, is that the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state. Each of these social arrangements articulate and express the value and the authority of the individual; they give to the individual a standing she would not have without them.
Against Descartes' metaphysical claims about the self, Bernstein argues for Hegel's thesis that "human subjectivity only emerges through intersubjective relations," and hence "practices of independence, of freedom and autonomy, are held in place and made possible by complementary structures of dependence." He compares the anger of the Tea Party to the anger of a lover directed at a beloved who reveals to him that he finite, dependent, and vulnerable.

I haven't studied the Tea Party sufficiently to assess the accuracy of Bernstein's analysis, but I'm skeptical given that he doesn't provide sufficient concrete evidence that members of the Tea Party think and feel as he says they do. Moreover, the movement seems much too diverse to claim, as Bernstein does, that it wants nothing, that its members are nihilists. Some of them may speak almost entirely in ideological abstractions about liberty and tyranny, or fail to communicate precisely how government should function, or lack a clear understanding of the words they use, but these hardly equal nihilism. Seems to me they desire a particular relationship between government and individual. For some the relationship may be very vague; for others, very specific. And even if what they desire is a fiction, a fiction is still something, not nothing.

Religious Differences

Stephen Colbert interviews author Stephen Prothero, whose book God is not One presents his argument that the differences between the major world religions matter a great deal, that each is not merely a unique path to the same end, but rather offers a unique solution to a separate problem. Funny and fascinating.

Through Shakespeare's Eyes

I review Joseph Pearce's latest book here.

Morality and the Limit of Social Contracts

My co-blogger Morning's Minion rightly criticizes the reduction of human relations to social contracts. This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract--when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don't care about torturing terrorists because they're not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country's laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn't be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights. The reduction of moral obligation to the limits of the social contract chokes morality and kills the moral life. It severs me from my obligations to others. It makes morality relative to those who are the same as me: anything goes when I encounter the other. The river has no contractual relationship with me, so I may engineer it and pollute it as I deem necessary for my designs. The cow never signed a contract with me, so I may treat it with cruelty as I prepare it for my feasting. Those people living on land I claim as my own make no legal claim upon the land themselves, so I may remove them as I see fit. Clearly this contractual morality sins against those others with whom I have no contract, but it also inclines me toward viciousness. I cannot grow in virtue and turn my soul to the good when I consider myself obligated only to some and never to others. Even if I strive always to respond morally to my contractual obligations, I develop villainous habits when I divorce myself from my obligations to everyone and everything else.

National Narratives

"Historical communities are constituted by the stories they recount to themselves and to others," writes Richard Kearney. By telling and retelling stories, communities, like individual people, narrate their identities. Indeed, my own personal identity is in part formed by the community in which I live: its origin, history, narratives and mythology contribute to and shape my story. Who I am is not a matter of mere fact, but a matter of storytelling, the telling of multiple and sometimes conflicting stories by myself and by others. My nation is likewise a no mere historical and social entity; it is also a product of competing and conflicting narratives. Some of these stories reveal great achievements. Others conceal, dissimulate, and produce false consciousness. The same story may both reveal and conceal.

The telling of grand national narratives and modest tales of personal sacrifice accompanied this past Memorial Day, a holy day recognized by our national community that serves as an occasion for telling stories that define ourselves, our families, and our country. We related our memories of heroism by those we love and honor. We praised them for what they did and why they died. We remembered and expressed our thanks, our gratitude, our appreciation. The stories we told helped define not only those we remember, but also the causes and community for which they sacrificed. On Memorial Day, we speak not only of the dearly departed, but also of the country and its larger narrative. It is here at the meeting of the personal and the national that we are perhaps most tempted to conceal, dissimulate, and produce false consciousness regarding our national identity.

In honoring the fallen, we often want to believe that they died (or killed) for a righteous cause, and so we may be inclined to narrate our memories in the best possible light. We say they gave their lives in the service of freedom, or some such ideal, because we wouldn't wish to say (or think) they died for the expansion of land, for pursuits of power, or for corporate profits. Of course, those we remember may well have died in the service of freedom, perhaps at least in the particular circumstance in which they gave the greatest gift, but not all those who gave their lives in war were sent to war because freedom was at stake. Yet when we remember all the fallen as having died in the service of freedom, we speak as if freedom really was contingent upon their sacrifices. In speaking thus, we perpetuate a grand narrative about our nation: that it fights always for the good, always for freedom, never unjustly. And this grand narrative, if we believe it, clouds our moral sense. We become disposed to believe a false myth about our country and ourselves, and therefore we become inclined to avoid moral criticism of its and our actions. We legitimize State violence itself and place it beyond the realm of criticism.

None of this is to say that we should not have national days of remembrance. It is to say, however, that we would do well to be mindful of the stories we tell, how our stories define ourselves and our communities, and what the consequences our narrated identities have for ourselves and for our world.

Speaking of the Poor

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist."

- Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara

"The attack on social justice is the tack of those who wish to ignore the concerns the poor and ignore the social structures that foster poverty. It's not hard to see why people are tempted to do so. How much easier it would be if we didn't have to worry about the poor!

But ignoring the poor, and ignoring what keeps them poor, is, quite simply, unchristian. For the poor are the church in many ways. When St. Lawrence, in the fourth century, was ordered by the prefect of Rome to turn over the wealth of the church, he presented to him the poor."

- Rev. James Martin, S.J.

Defining Philosophy

Brian Leiter submits his definition. His readers offer their own definitions here. I like this one attributed to David Hills:
"Philosophy: the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers."

Remythologizing Sinbad and Hercules

I doubt many Christians look upon Hollywood as a friend to their religion. However, two cartoon movies my son never tires of watching take non-Christian stories and re-imagine them in a way indebted to the Christian imagination. Sinbad by Dreamworks and Hercules by Disney receive a retelling in which their central theme of heroism is informed by the Christian narrative. Sinbad and Hercules here prove their heroism not by successful voyages or accomplished feats, but by their willingness to give their lives for a beloved.

Writer John Logan and directors Patrick Gilmore and Tim Johnson transplant Sinbad from a setting during the Abbasid Caliphate to one in ancient Syracuse. Obviously Sinbad is not a Muslim in this retelling, a fact that in some ways is unfortunate, but in other ways opens up new possibilities for the character. Their story opens with the Eris, the goddess of discord, plotting mischief and chaos by intervening in Sinbad's attempt to steal a protective magical book from Proteus, the prince of Sicily, who happens to be Sinbad's childhood friend. Because of Eris's meddling, Sinbad fails to obtain the book, but later finds himself charged with stealing it after Eris frames him. Sinbad is sentenced to die, but Proteus offers himself in Sinbad's place on the condition that Sinbad steal the book back from Eris. Sinbad succeeds at finding Eris's home, but he fails to reclaim the book, leaving him with a choice: escape a free man or return to Syracuse to die. Eris believes Sinbad is a heartless thief likes she is. Proteus believes otherwise and trusts in their childhood friendship. Sinbad ultimately proves his heroism by returning to die for a crime he didn't commit. In relation to the crime, both Sinbad and Proteus are innocent men willing to die so that the other will live.

The influence of the Christian myth and symbols is even more pronounced in Hercules. Filmmakers Ron Clements and John Musker generally maintain the story of Hercules in its pagan Greek setting, though we see some exceptions. They present the Muses, for example, as gospel singers. These clearly modern Muses narrate a Christian story within a pagan setting. As in the Greek myth, Hercules seeks to become immortal. He fights monsters and saves masses and does all manner of heroic deeds, but Zeus tells him that all of this just isn't good enough. More is needed, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively. Hercules ultimately finds his divinity by offering to Hades his life in place of his beloved Meg, whose life he wasn't able to save through his heroic exploits of superhuman strength. In Hercules, to be godlike is to be truly heroic, and to be truly heroic is to make, out of love, the ultimate sacrifice.

Whatever the religious beliefs, if any, of the creators of Sinbad and Hercules, the Christian myth most certainly informed their imagination. While we can find examples of heroic self-sacrifice in non-Christian and pre-Christian stories, in our Western culture, the image of the innocent person dying in place of a beloved and the association of heroism with loving self-sacrifice typically have their origin in the myth of Christ. The Christian myth and its symbols inform our cultural imagination. This myth and its symbols give rise to thought, as Paul Ricoeur says, and thought gives rise to imaginative creations and re-creations.

To Commit to a Myth?

"Can we live in all those mythical universes at the same time? Shall we, then, we children of criticism, we men with immense memories, be the Don Juans of the myth? Shall we court them all in turn?"

- Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil

Are Some Virtues Bad for Society?

That seems to be the implication of Tom Hoffman's theory of virtue. Hoffman laments what he calls the feminization of men: too many men today, he says, no longer celebrate the values of "rugged individualism, risk-taking, courage, bravery, loyalty, and reverence for tradition" and are no longer committed to fighting "the bad guy." Instead, "warfare is demonized as violence and negotiation is raised to an art."

Hoffman isn't content to defend the "manly" virtues; he demeans what he calls the "womanly" virtues: "Caring, compassion, sensitivity, and understanding are virtues meant to blur the distinction between good and evil and drown out the call of manly conscience to 'do the right thing,'" he writes. He continues: "All reference to the service of a higher calling — to God and country — has been replaced by the call to community service with the emphasis on care and compassion for the downtrodden."

In Hoffman's strange virtue ethics, men should extol one set of virtues that he associates with manliness, while avoiding another set that he associates with womanliness. Hoffman's ideal man of virtue would be a psychopath. Why? Because his concept of virtue is grossly disordered. He also mistakes virtues and vices. Virtues are habitual dispositions to do the good. Having one doesn’t prohibit having another. One can be and should be both magnanimous and humble, courageous and prudent, loyal and wise. One should seek them all. Seeking only some and running away from others, Hoffman's manly man is less than what a human being ought to be. He's a rugged warrior without care, compassion, sensitivity, or understanding.