moral (in)formation

The obsession with information in our culture has left us with a situation in which we each choose our own elders and role models.

Previously, your parents, your extended family, or your community would pass lessons on to you about the meaning of life and the proper way to exist in the world. One went through years of an “apprenticeship” watching one’s parents interact with all sorts of people, work in the field or the pasture, distinct from the vocational institution.

These days, we throw kids in front of a television, give them a library card, and put them on the Internet. The flow of information is relentless, and formative. We learn as we grow, but there are so many voices. Out of the cacophony one voice strikes a particular chord, or one piece of advice is particularly poignant. And for the moment, that voice, that advice is our pole star. We may be utterly disconnected from its author, but if it rubs us the right way we take the information to be revelation, and we are prepared to live for the idea.

This leads to the situation where our cultural “wisdom” consists of the patchwork quilts each of us assemble from the endless flow of “good ideas” we come across.

On the one hand it is a relief to think that we haven’t lost the practice of mentorship and eldership altogether. We still pass on wisdom. It’s still important to learn how to live. On the other hand it is disturbing that the whole process is so disconnected – and so individually selective. We listen to the voices that we want to hear and shape our behavior accordingly. Nothing compromises our personal sovereignty. Truth is what I want to hear – what sounds good to me.

2 Replies to “moral (in)formation”

  1. Eric,

    Wadd-up Bro? Great to see that you have yet to succumb to the cognitive rot infecting the culture at large–still doggedly counter-cultural I can see.

    But what is the real problem with an intellectual formation that is disembodied and trans-sapiential? It seems to me that something Edward Said said in the concluding chapter of his work “Culture and Imperialism,” quoting a Medieval Christian, to the effect that the most perfect intellectual stance as a human-in-this-world is that stance that remains essentially disconnected from the world and its traditions. The whole notion that only good ideas proceed from good characters is certainly flawed…it confuses the dual reality that is humanity–both good and bad at one and the same time. Communitarianism is flawed in precisely this respect–it relies too heavily on natural law theory and teleology, and thus cannot cope, finally, with this very basic dialectic in the soul of man.

    Anyway, we have Protestantism, finally, to thank for this state of affairs (a la Weber). Individualism and Protestantism are integrally related…as is Protestantism and secularism. By the way, I am reading a fascinating book at the moment by H.J. Nersoyan called Andre Gide: The Theism of an Atheist. Someone told me recently that I think like Gide, only backwards. Mine is an atheism of a theist. It squares very well with what I have read of the later Bonhoffer and his “religionless Christianity,” which of course is Bonhoffer’s attempt to salvage Christianity from tradition. I toyed with communitarianism for years–Alistair MacItyre was an idol for awhile–but ultimately found his Christian ghettoism unappealing.

    Anyway…I am, as usual, tangent man. Write back brother…and call if you get the chance after your frolick through the woods 805-xxx-xxxx. Would love to hear from you.

    In his Face,

    Graham

  2. Graham,

    Thank you so much for your provocations, excellent thoughts, and I’ve been starved for some dialogue with you – it’s been years. I hope to give you a call in the next little bit… I’m sure that you are enjoying the fresh air. ☺

    At any rate, I would take issue with our Medieval Christian friend on a few points:

    MC: “The most perfect intellectual stance as a human-in-this-world is that stance that remains essentially disconnected from the world and its traditions.”

    EDM: “Hello, Medieval Christian, sweet sackcloth!… now about this perfect intellectual stance, I’m not sure just how you square that with the very historical, particular aspects of our faith. If we expect to find truth by detaching from the world to inspect it from an “appropriate” distance, don’t we run the risk of overlooking our savior as he appears in the world. He shows up in unexpected places, as you know. If our truth-seeking methodology ignores our own particular context, what truth will we find, and how will we use it? If we look to find God outside the world, don’t we miss him if he’s already here looking for us?

    MC: “The whole notion that only good ideas proceed from good characters is certainly flawed…”

    EDM: “Certainly… but so is the notion that personal character is irrelevant to thought and that reason lacks a moral aspect. We can all agree with Solzhenitsyn that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. No human is categorically good or evil – we all engage in good and evil behavior, we have good and evil thoughts, and we may work toward good or evil ends, but the final judgment is God’s not ours. We should not be to hasty to deal out justification and reprobation. Nevertheless, only at great peril to ourselves and others do we ignore the fact that certain character traits are bound to express themselves in destructive or constructive directions, and we are responsible to God and one another to cultivate good character within ourselves.

    And that’s why living within a tradition of wisdom seems so important to me. As detached as all of us are from any coherent sense of continuity, we are left picking and choosing our own influences. Should we be surprised that our culture prizes immediate gratification, self-realization, and personal happiness over all else? Left to our own devices, “truth” is what we want to hear. But a truth that pliable can hardly stand to critique our aberrations.

    “Trans-sapiential” intellectual formation is precisely what I hope for – training in careful but open-minded thought. Meeting other minds and understanding their perspective on the world.

    “Disembodied” intellectual formation is impossible – and any effort to attain it is destructive of the actual reality in which we live. We do not encounter “mind” without physical mediation. Even encountering Augustine’s thought (or Said’s for that matter) is “embodied” in at least two senses: First, you cannot put his thoughts before you except via matter, whether it is printed on a tree, displayed on a screen, or recorded and played audially. Second, it takes a body to deliver Augustine’s thoughts to your mind. Thought may be immaterial, but thoughts don’t make themselves known outside thinkers, and thinkers are emphatically material. From the firing neurons, to the sensory equipment that delivers raw “data” to our brains, the whole process is inextricably linked with the physical.

    Flipping back through earlier posts here will lead you to more than one diatribe against the “spirituality of escape” to which (I’m convinced) we are culturally prone. I think that there is a parallel temptation among intellectuals to escape into abstraction, unaccountable to reality.

    I’d love to hear more about the “atheism of a theist.” Certainly an intriguing way of putting it! We’ll have to talk soon to get a better notion of our respective journeys over the last few years. So far as Bonhoeffer goes, he’s been misread on the “religionless Christianity” bits more often than he’s been read well. I don’t think that you can really understand his intention apart from his comments about the “disciplina arcani” (also in Letters and Papers) and similar comments about the sacraments.

    At any rate, thanks so much for the comment – great to hear from you. Has my reply blown right past your intentions? Have I misunderstood you?

    God’s peace,
    Eric

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