Whose Jesus? Which Tradition?

Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre

Ever since Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, tradition has been a central concern for many ethical, political, and religious thinkers. According to MacIntyre, contemporary ethical theories are fragmented and incoherent because communities today are working with ethical concepts that have been rendered unintelligible by temporal distance. As a result, MacIntyre posits that no one can provide real reasons for choosing the moral positions and values that they do. This “fragmented” condition fosters endless ethical debates, unable as we are to demonstrate why our own convictions are true (and others false). Indeed, even appeals to objectivity, rationality, and the like prove unpersuasive as the content of such terminology ironically varies from person to person and place to place.

For MacIntyre, tradition–in this case, the tradition of Aristotelian virtue ethics–provides an alternative to modernity and liberalism (two cultural forces that have bolstered the moral “fragmentation” of our world). While the narrative of progress/capitalism reinforces the individualism of society, tradition inherently reinforces the sharedness of political life–the former (progress/capitalism) transforms pluralistic societies into ideological shopping malls, while the latter (tradition) requires that one’s convictions be received. Likewise, instead of entering into the contractual agreements of liberalism to protect atomistic individuals from harming each other, traditions are constituted by practices that must be learned from our neighbors for the betterment of our communities.

Of course, this “new traditionalism” has been adopted by some of the most important theologians of our time–George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, and Hans Frei (to name a few)–and they’ve been considerably influential. As Jeffrey Stout has noted, seminaries are places where “the term ‘liberal’ is nowadays as unlikely to be used in praise of someone as it is in the arena of presidential politics.”[1] Moreover, it seems that new traditionalists have successfully shifted the attention of ethical discourse from “me” to “us,” and from “justice” to “Jesus,” in an attempt to recover the particularity and content of Christian ethical convictions. Such efforts have proved especially effective given the freedom that the church has been granted to claim its materiality in a post-Christendom world.

Nevertheless, I often wonder if “tradition” hasn’t become just an intermediary term useful for distracting us from the interpretation that is involved in the process of identifying, claiming, and living into the practices of the past. Put bluntly: I have  a hunch that “tradition” has become the new “rationality.”

In Gerog-Hans Gadamer’s magnum opus Truth and Method, Gadamer introduces the idea of a “horizon of meaning”–that is, a framework for interpretation. According to Gadamer, this framework is made up of assumptions, prejudices, and presuppositions that both enable us to understand the world and limit our capacity to see it according to our historical situatedness. A horizon of meaning, then, is the perspective of an individual according to the various ways that they have been shaped to interpret reality. Indeed, it is observations like this one that have led us to understand the post-modern cliches regarding the impossibility of objectivity.[2]

But if nothing exists outside context, then tradition is also subject to interpretation. While MacIntyre is careful to note the ways in which traditions can correct themselves and change, some new traditionalists have treated their inheritance with an authority and fixedness that echoes the intellectual habits of modernity by presupposing the immediacy of tradition. In making this presupposition, however

one simply ignores temporality and the historical distance that separates one from the past, and more importantly from Gadamer’s point of view, one ignores the wealth of historical events, associations, and relationships that have affected its meaning. The result is that once again, one allows one’s own prejudices to prevail unchecked–in this instance, not because one remains wedded to one’s own projects and ideas without recognizing their thickness or historicity but rather because one simply takes one’s thick prejudices for the original meaning of the text [tradition] itself.[3]

I admit that this observation–if it is correct–could potentially put the church in a relativistic pickle/spiral (and I have no clue how to resolve that concern). Christians as just-warriors and as pacifists, as particularistic and as universalist, as liberal and as post-liberal have supposedly received the same story–but we’ve interpreted it, too. As such, those who appeal to tradition as an alternative philosophical framework that is free from the modern trappings of “rationality” should take care to ensure that they aren’t perpetuating outmoded hermeneutical assumptions. We might even start with some familiar questions: namely, Whose Jesus? Which tradition?

1. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, p. 119
2. For example, Derrida’s claim that there is “nothing outside the text.”
3. Georgia Warnke, The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, p. 92

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