Monday, September 17, 2007

'3:10 to Yuma' and the World's Last Whimper

“…[Alasdair] MacIntyre writes, ‘At the beginning of modern moral philosophy- which I date in the 1780s- the moral agent as traditionally understood almost, if not quite, disappeared from view. The moral agent’s character, the structure of his desires and dispositions, became at best a peripheral rather than a central topic for moral philosophy, thus losing the place assigned to it by the vast majority of moral philosophers from Plato to Hume.’ Choice- conceived by Kant and Reid as deciding between desire and the requirements of morality and later by Sartre as the condition of an individual’s authenticity- replaced character as crucial for moral agency. And the rest, as the story goes, is history.” – Stanley Hauerwas, “The Virtues of Alasdair MacIntyre”, First Things, October 2007, p. 37.

What is said above by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas in summary of the philosopher and Catholic Christian Alasdair MacIntyre’s view of moral philosophy of modernty is interesting to me. When I discovered many years ago in an obscure nook in my dad’s library a copy of a book with the intriguing title, Celebration of Discipline, which resonated for me as one adrift in a slouchy milieu, I was quickly swept into its challenging and serious depth. It was especially through Richard Foster that talked of the “spiritual disciplines” began to revive at least in the populist Christian culture in which I was growing like a weed. Foster’s book issued a challenge that still resonates with me over the years. It was a book that was the fruit of prayer and listening. He opens his book: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths.” –Celebration of Discipline, p. 1.

A few pages later he writes, “We are accustomed to thinking of sin as individual acts of disobedience to God. That is true enough as far as it goes, but Scripture goes much farther. In Romans the apostle Paul frequently referred to sin as a condition that plagues the human race (i.e., Rom, 3:9-1. Sin as a condition works its way out through the ‘bodily members’; that is, the ingrained habits of the body (Rom. 7:5ff.). And there is no slavery that can compare to the slavery of ingrained habits of sin. In Isaiah 57:20 we are told, ‘The wicked are like the tossing of the sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt.’ The sea does not need to do anything secial to produce mire and dirt; that is the result of its natural motions. That is also true of us when we are under the condition of sin. The natural motions of our lives produce mire and dirt. Sin is part of the internal structure of our lives. No special effort is needed. No wonder we feel trapped. Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack. We rely on willpower and determination… Willpower will never succeed in dealing with ingrained habits of sin…The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us…Law-bound Disciplines breathe death…” p. 3-4, 6, 7.

My mind has often returned to this book and its pregnant words on “spiritual disciplines” such as fasting and study and prayer and service. I heartily commend the book but can tell you some criticisms of it too that I am aware of but which do little to my mind to deface some of the rich veins that can be found in it. I bring it up because what is said of modern moral philosophy, and MacIntyre’s revitalizing critique of it, and work in it, parallels what Foster observed. Richard Foster’s book, if it is taken like a self-help book with maxims for the go-getter to hyper drive the will-to-power-it into the megadeath, bezerker-rage blackout and destruction, becomes of miserably little use. However, as a call to deeper Christian living, to Christian vision in Christian community that calls us to walk with God (not whim with God in a flash-fire of energetic, violent, ineffectualness), to depth as people of God who, no bones about it, know God, who know the Shepherd’s voice and come, it impresses me as on the mark.

Freshly from seeing the film “3:10 to Yuma”, I am still struck by what I take to be the abject poverty of the moral vision, the moral philosophy, expressed in the movie. It seems in some ways to me a popular expression of the long trend in the impoverishment of “the Western world” in its moral philosophy which MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Foster and so many others have noted, and in their way, done their best to counteract. In this movie the character played by Russell Crowe is a Satanic figure who quotes the Bible and accuses others for crimes he himself does. The bizarre thing is how the character seems to be held up to emulate when nothing consequential in the movie is done to establish any redeeming virtue in his character, it seems to me. He points out that a bounty hunter he knows, though being an outwardly pious man, has participated in genocidal acts against Indians in retaliation for attacking trains. Yet, his character also participated in genocidal acts, killing families. The death throes of the moral philosophy in this film seem to me so weak that hardly the slightest movement can be detected. The film is interesting at times in its degree of accuracy of depiction of evil but then it merely becomes an embrace of evil and a lionization of a fool. There is at the end a bizarre feint at a ‘redemptive moment”, so to speak, where the violent and senseless killer is beguiled by the thought of joining in league with the father of a boy in order to create a show, a legend to write on the heart of the boy of nobleness with purpose that does not actually exist. Both the father and Crowe’s character want to appear good instead of be good and they hope that a story instead of the truth will have a benign effect on the boy. The miserable poverty of this view evokes a pity. (People (me above all) need the Lord!)

What in the end appears to me a whim, a very violent whim, is supposedly the redemptive moment. This is the weak climax of the decline of moral philosophy. This is the whimper that T.S. Eliot refers to when he asks how the world ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper. That Crowe’s character has not made a substantive change seems clear to me in the end in that once the story he wishes to paint seems securely imprinted on the boy, he is ready to go back to what he was before the moment. Nothing has changed. It was merely catharsis instead of grace. His character has not changed. He has merely had a self-delusional, self-help moment, in his case involving the death of a lot of others, for a cathartic “choice”. The story of moral action, according to this view, is a mere story we construct- a captive truth, like the ark born away by the Philistines. Crowe’s character bears away the ark, the symbol of the Lord’s presence, as a story he cherishes like an aesthetic bauble, something he does not comprehend. Moral action has become merely an aesthetic notion, a “glinting transiency”. (Nietzschean aesthetic materialism, anyone?)

The character is similar in some ways to the main character played by Tom Cruise in Collateral, another violent movie which lionizes a character who is a fool, a Social Darwinist Nietzschean materialist, who like Wade, mentors others to sieze life by embracing his ethos of moral fog, “beyond good and evil” mentality, like a beast, a wolf, freeing itself to live at bottom by the fundamental truth of its assumed biological nature, a sham authenticity from which springs a fountain of evil. (In that movie the character invokes Darwin’s name as justification for his nihilism).

Contrast that with what Hauerwas says of Alasdair MacIntyre’s lifework: “If I am right about the trajectory of MacIntyre’s work, the central contention in After Virtue is his remark that ‘the concept of an intelligible action is a more fundamental concept than that of an action”. If I understand right, this means, applied to moral philosophy and to “3:10 to Yuma” that the choices have become almost unintelligible and absurd, mummified returns of the dead, because they are removed from the context of character in community upheld by the grace and provision of God. As the sociologist/philosopher Charles Taylor says, the moral sources have been occulted. The assumptions of modernity are driving one to it. It is better to seek a respite from the object lessons God gives in such cases by prayer and fasting and humbling ourselves before the Lord and listening to the deep call to our depths rather than giving way to the pretentious mystique of the Satanic.

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