MacIntyre and McCandless :: the end of the wild

“What is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequences of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitzyn has understood so well, both ways of life are in the long run intolerable. Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.” [1]

This quote of MacIntyre could be the launching point for any number of fruitful conversations, but I’d like to set it alongside the film that Carolyn and I went to see on Friday night. Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless, a restless college graduate trying to exercise the demons in his family (or at least their hold on him) by throwing himself into solitude, adventure, and unbridled exploration of creation’s wonders. If ever there were a model for someone seeking truth in “the free and arbitrary choices” of a sovereign self, McCandless (or the cinematic reconstruction of him) is that figure.

[Spoiler Warning—from here on, I discuss the plot a bit]

The story is tragic, there is no doubt. But it is powerful because it draws on an instinct present in many of us, the drive for purity, for truth, McCandless launches himself on a quest for truth, convinced that deep within himself—if only he puts himself deep enough into the wild—there lies a spark of divine truth that will emerge to outshine all the pain and corruption he has discovered in his short life. He follows the instinct for purity to its utter end; he will allow no corrupting attachments or relationships in his quest for natural/divine truth. Yet, in seeking to overcome the pain his parents caused him, McCandless leaves a sea of tears in the eyes of people who come to love a reckless wanderer. But, truth, for McCandless is a force more powerful than love.

In the end, when McCandless comes face to face with “nature,” that naked spark of truth he sought all along, it becomes for him a mirror. The realization that his own face is empty, nameless, sends him back to the relationships he abandoned. It is of course, too late, but his dying act reaches out from beyond his own death, calling out to his family by re-claiming their name.

McCandless is a tragic figure because he sought freedom apart from service to others; because he sought truth apart from love; because he sought knowledge in nature apart from any wisdom; because he sought healing apart from forgiveness; because he sought new life without facing the death that was already at his core. He lived out, to the extreme, character traits that we all value, and he died all at once the death that we subject ourselves to little by little.

MacIntyre notes that both bureaucratic scripts and individual quests for meaning are ultimately intolerable. The truth, it seems to me, lies neither in bureaucracy for its own sake—collectivist order to which individual lives are sacrificed; nor in the escape from every hindrance, beholden only to the voice within. There is a bureaucracy whose structure is upside down, whose Head washes the feet, whose last are first. A bureaucracy in which freedom is measured by service and in which control is first turned inward, to be expressed more fully in love for others. It is likely that McCandless never met that good news, or never recognized it if he did, so rare is its presence. May God grant his church the courage to live in its calling.

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[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 35. 

words matter :: physicality and meaning

We think of words as non-physical things, unattached and uncommitted to location or time. Words are transient, the same word may pop up on a dozen different tongues and refer to a dozen different things.

Our common-sense way of thinking about words misses out on an important aspect of word-iness. There is no such thing as a pure word without physical mediation.

Think about it, we never meet words except where we meet them in the context of meeting something (or someone) physical. Whether that mediation comes in the form of a computer screen, a sheet of paper, a friend’s face, or a loudspeaker, words are always intrinsically rooted in tangible encounters. Spoken words rely on the vibration of molecules, written words rely on their arrangement in some opaque surface, and even the words in your mind are inseparable from the firing of little neurons in complex networks. Where there is no matter, there are no words. Continue reading “words matter :: physicality and meaning”

Auden and Bonhoeffer :: scientists and theologians

Art is compatible with polytheism and with Christianity, but not with philosophical materialism; science is compatible with philosophical materialism and with Chritianity, but not with polythesim. No artist or scientist, however, can feel comfortable as a Christian; every artist who happens also to be a Christian wishes he could be a polytheist; every scientist in the same position what he could be a philosophical materialist. And with good reason. In a polytheist society, the artists are its theologians; in a materialist society, its theologians are the scientists. To a Christian, unfortunately, both art and science are secular activities, that is to say, small beer.
— W.H. Auden

Continue reading “Auden and Bonhoeffer :: scientists and theologians”

studying theology :: life and death

What follows is a short article that I submitted to the Regent newsletter:

The reasons to study theology are probably as numerous as the students at Regent. One of my peculiar driving motivations to study theology is a (growing) conviction that bad theology kills people. One example is that of my favorite author of fiction. As a seven year-old, his pastor cornered him in a hospital hallway and told him that if he prayed “hard enough” his dying brother would recover. He did; his brother did not, and he has never since been able to take any church seriously as a place to meet God in the world.

Another example: As I study Dietrich Bonhoeffer this semester, I meet the German church of the 1930’s, who (all but a fraction) lacked the conviction to stand against the theological aberrations of Hitler’s Third Reich, and the horrendous injustice perpetrated under it. The picture of a swastika adorning an altar, coupled with the silence of the church on Kristallnacht (and afterward) bring a powerful urge to study theology hard, to be careful to get it right, and to be willing to speak out where it is needed. Continue reading “studying theology :: life and death”