Narrative Formation: Alasdair MacIntyre and the Need for a Narratively Grounded Christian Ethic

Narrative Formation:

Alasdair McIntyre and the Need for a Narratively Grounded Christian Ethic

Those who attempt to think carefully about the role of narrative in character formation almost inevitably find it necessary to deal somehow with After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal work in moral theory.  The book begins with an exercise in imagination.  MacIntyre has his readers picture a scenario in which a series of environmental disasters are blamed on scientists.  Riots occur.  Labs are destroyed.  Equipment is smashed.  New laws are enacted which ban science education, and those scientists who survived the violent rioting are arrested and executed.  And now suppose that a later generation, realizing that something of great value has been lost, seeks to restore scientific thinking.  All they have, though, are fragments of information: broken instruments whose purpose is now unclear, charred remnants of textbooks, single pages from longer articles.  Dutifully, the hopeful restorers of science encourage children to memorize the remaining parts of the periodic table.  Fragments of Euclid’s theorems are recited as incantations.  People begin to use scientific vocabulary again–“atomic weight, mass, neutrino”—but the framework of belief and the methodology that gave them meaning are lost.  Men and women openly honor science, make use of scientific terms and perhaps even consider themselves “scientists,” but they are not, in the end, capable of genuine scientific thought.

MacIntyre’s proposal is that in our own world, the language of morality has suffered much the same fate as the language of science has in this imagined scenario.  “What we possess,” he writes, “are fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack the context from which their significance derived…..We continue to use many of the key expressions.  But we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”[1] It is MacIntyre’s stance that the moral structures that were advanced by the Enlightenment and post-Enlightment philosophers have failed, and, moreover, that they were doomed to failure from the start, because the language of morality had been divorced from its medieval grounding in Aristotelianism, particularly Aristotelian teleology.  Medieval ethics was made up of three things: (1) a belief that human life begins with untutored, undisciplined natures, yet (2) the assumption that human life has a proper (virtuous) end, and therefore (3) an ethical code.  Ethics was the science that enabled humans to transition from what they happened to be to what they could be if they realized their potential of their essential nature, their telos.[2]

During the Enlightenment project, the teleological vision that drove ancient and medieval ethics was lost.  The other two poles of moral theory remained, but it was the human telos that had served as the essential context to link two otherwise disparate things: an assumption of untutored human nature and a list of ethical rules.  Without a proper end to aim toward, codes of virtuous conduct become context-free “to do” lists—things that humans would do if they were virtuous, which we know they aren’t, and which we have no particular hope of them becoming.  Since the Enlightenment philosophers could no long start with a shared understanding of the proper ending and reason backward to construct the ethical rules that would result in such a state. They instead had to derive a system of ethics from only their understanding of basic human nature.  This is the project that MacIntyre says was untenable.  There is no way to rationally derive an ethical system that has no particular end in view. Absent the teleological claim, moral judgments had become a kind of linguistic anachronism.

MacIntyre puts it in simple terms: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”[3] It is essential, therefore, to be embedded within a tradition that provides a coherent narrative that frames the beginning of our story and moves us toward the ending.  For MacIntyre, there is no such thing as a universal, objective morality outside of human experience.  Moral goods “can only be discovered by entering into those relationships which constitute communities whose central bond is a shared vision of and understanding of goods.”[4] He writes elsewhere that “epistemological progress consists in the construction and reconstruction of more adequate narratives….”[5] Accordingly, the second half of After Virtue is itself a reconstructed narrative of the Aristotelian moral tradition.

In the closing image of the book, MacIntyre points back to a period in the history of the West when people of good will realized that the preservation of moral society could not be achieved through continued attempts to shore up the old Roman imperium, and instead began to create new models of community life that could preserve moral society during the barbarism of the medieval period.  Positing that the contemporary world is approaching a similar moment, he concludes:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us….We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.[6]

Because of MacIntyre’s high regard for the place of tradition and community in moral formation, it is no surprise that After Virtue has been appreciated and appropriated by theologians. It has an important place in the ongoing Christian conversation about morality, community, and narrative.

One particularly helpful Christian response to After Virtue is found in an article by Gregory Jones.  In his view, MacIntyre’s falls short of providing the strong account of community that his claims require.[7] In his words, “the kind of communities for which After Virtue awaits are most likely to be found in the communities who share commitments similar to the original Benedict.”[8] What After Virtue doesn’t fully appreciate is that Benedict was not merely creating local communities within the milieu of the political world of the empire; he was creating an alternative community that lived out a story which contrasted sharply with the prevailing narrative of his age.  While it is true that monasteries were likely to provide the sort of “character-friendships” that Aristotle valued, one can’t overlook the significance of the fact that monks were not only close friends aiming for a virtuous life, but fellow disciples of Jesus.  The monastery was a community of friends who strove to live out the divine narrative.  MacIntyre values the form of the monastery, but underplays its animating spirit.  As Jones writes, “it is certainly true that there is a narrative quality to human life that is morally significant.  But that is not the primary claim Christians are concerned to make.  It is rather that the Biblical narrative seeks to incorporate all people into God’s narrative.”[9] What is truly needed cannot be found in the secular polis, but only in the community of the redeemed, the church.

In spite of that significant shortcoming, there is much that the church can learn from MacIntyre.  In my view, there is little doubt that we, too, have experienced a crisis of moral formation.  Four years ago, Ronald Sider’s Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience demonstrated that when it comes to divorce, racism, domestic abuse, greed, and sexual promiscuity, there is no significant difference between Christian behavior and that of our secular peers.[10] Part of my interest in MacIntyre stems from real world experience working alongside Christians who retain the vocabulary of our ethical traditions but lack the narrative framework and teleological vision that brought meaning to our codes of conduct.  To the extent that we have been affected by the problem MacIntyre has identified, we may also benefit from his proposals. There are at least two important and related implications for Christian society from his analysis. First, it is vital that we regain a teleological vision. Second, we must orient our church members to the full story of which they are a part.

Doing Ethics with the End in View: The Recovery of an Eschatological Vision

Aristotle has a term for the ultimate good of our species: eudaimonia.  Now, it is important to remember that he had not fallen prey to the modern cult of individualism.  Aristotle’s most famous line is that “man is a political animal”—a creature of the polis.  When he writes about the telos of humanity, he is thinking of human society as a whole.  His aim is to develop an ethic that is rooted in the polis.  In MacIntyre’s description, eudaimonia is the state of “being well and doing well in being well, of a man’s being well-favored in himself and in relation to the divine.” A harmonious relationship with his fellow humans is essential in this teleology.  Aristotle therefore highly regards virtues like friendship and phronesis, which is the intellectual virtue of being able to make good judgments in specific situations.[11] His conception of eudaimonia determines the virtues he emphasizes.

Aristotle’s ethical vision is quite different from that of the New Testament.  He shows no interest in, for example, the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.  But like Aristotle, the New Testament virtues make sense in light of their presumed teleology.  Paul explicitly draws upon teleology to make an ethical claim when he writes in Colossians 3:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.

Our old nature has died with Christ, we have now been raised with him, and therefore we should live in a way that is congruent with our ultimate destiny—to appear with him in glory.  While aren’t the virtues that Aristotle emphasized, but he would probably recognize the structure of Paul’s argument.  He starts with the telos and works backward to the ethical code.  Implicit in this move is Paul’s understanding of the content of our heavenly nature.  As in the Aristotelian model, ethics are designed to move us from how we are now closer to how we will be.

There are other scriptural resources for teleology, of course.  An ethic rooted in Matthew 25 will emphasize the virtues of compassion and hospitality, for the proper telos of humanity is be those who bless Jesus by blessing the least among us.  An ethic rooted in Revelation 12 will emphasize self-sacrifice, for our proper telos is to be those who overcome Satan because “we did not love our own lives so much as to shrink from death.”

This is a robust, Christian, and biblical approach to ethics.  There is a power in placing virtues within the framework of the teleological vision that cannot be equaled by contextless virtue lists.  It isn’t even enough to present our ethics as rooted in the example of Jesus unless we make the explicit link that we will be like him someday.

And yet—as essential as teleology is, we must also recapture a complementary eschatological vision.  It is both remarkable and distressing to realize the extent to which the contemporary evangelical church has lost a theology of bodily resurrection and renewal of creation.  Too many of our congregations implicitly share the goal made explicit by one church in my former hometown, whose motto was “helping souls get to heaven.”  If we think the divine narrative will end with a collection of wispy souls in an immaterial heaven, it will be difficult to construct an ethical system that moves us toward that goal.  We can’t really imagine an existence without a body, and we can’t picture a reality that exists outside of time and space.  In my view, one of the reasons that we struggle with moral formation is that the popular picture of our eventual existence has no correspondence whatsoever to our present life.  There is no way to get there from here, and so the de facto goal of Christian formation has often been to make certain that when the time comes for the unimaginable transformation to noncorporeal life, your name will be on the list of those slated to become happy spirits in heaven, rather than tormented shades in hell.  In that scheme, there is little or nothing that I can do now to prepare for the shape of my existence to come.

In my view, we are greatly indebted to N.T. Wright for doing the hard work of reconstructing a biblical eschatology, particularly in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, and its popular-level companion, Surprised By Hope. Wright has brought Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 20-22 back into our view, and has argued persuasively that the eschatological vision of the New Testament is a resurrected humanity dwelling harmoniously on a renewed Earth which will be interlocked with the new Heaven.  God will not, in the end, give up on material creation.  He will renew and restore it.

This is a vision that carries the power to animate ethics, and, again, we see examples of this kind of moral reasoning in the New Testament. Take 1 Corinthians 6:14-15 as an example.  Paul writes:

By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!

Why avoid sexual immorality?  Because it isn’t in keeping with the telos of human existence: bodily resurrection and unity with Jesus.  My body is destined for something better, and I should take care that what I do with my body now is congruent with that end.  Paul again starts with the eschaton and works backward.  Even though this vision still involves a transforming work of God that gives us new life, the life to come is not too different from my current life for me to imagine.  It’s made of the same components: physical beings living in community with each other and Christ.  And although our bodies will be transformed, they are still, clearly, our bodies.  Our history will be carried into the future.  In Wright’s words: “The continuity between the present bodily life and the future bodily resurrection means that what Christians do with their bodies now matters, matters eschatologically.”[12]

Christian virtues can and should be grounded in a vigorous theology of resurrection and renewal.  We know—or should know—God’s eventual purposes for the cosmos, and we live in light of that vision.

Grounded Theologies:  Drawing on the Community Narrative for Ethical Vision

MacIntyre has shown that ethics are the work of a formative community.  It is necessary that I be grounded in an ongoing tradition that orients me to a narrative large enough that I can subsume my own story within it.  There are two things that the local congregation can do to provide this framework.  First, it can set as a goal of its preaching and teaching program a clear articulation of the grand canonical narrative.  The need for presenting the divine story has become widely accepted in recent years, and there are plentiful resources to help church leaders do that.  David Langford has presented an excellent model during his presentation.  I will not belabor the point.  The second thing we need congregations to do has received somewhat less attention.  I believe that we must orient people to the stories of our own communities.

Free-church traditions sometimes struggle with how to articulate their own story. At times the Stone-Campbell tradition has actively denied that it even has a story, insisting that it jettisoned flawed human history and restored a timeless and static Christianity that made the church again just as it was when it sprang into existence in AD 33.  That misguided ecclesiology is rapidly fading away, although it is still unknown what shape a new consensus will take.  It is my observation that, at the moment, many congregations are confused about how to appropriate their own story, and sometimes even confused about whether they should do so.  Having once been opposed to human tradition, some congregations find themselves opposed to their traditional opposition to tradition. We may have rejected the anti-tradition elements of our tradition, but doing so in itself does not provide a vibrant new tradition, it only continues the deconstruction of the past.  For many people, our story is still unclear.

The problem is compounded because during the decades that we were denying that Christian history had any relevance for us, a shorthand version of that history gained currency in the Western world.  Diana Butler Bass tells it this way:

Jesus came to earth to save us, but he founded the church instead. That church suffered under Roman persecution until the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. With its new status, the Christian religion spread throughout Europe, where popes and kings formed a society called Christendom, which was run by the Catholic Church and was constantly threatened by Muslims, witches and heretics. There were wars and inquisitions. When people had had enough, they rebelled and became Protestants, their main leader being John Calvin, who was a great theologian but a killjoy.  Eventually Calvin’s heirs, the Puritans, left Europe to set up a Christian society in the New World. The United States of America then became the most important Christian nation on the world, a beacon of faith and democracy.[13]

Butler traces this story back at least as far as Cotton Mather, but in our society it is ubiquitous.  Atheists tell the story of Christianity this way, and so do televangelists.  They act in opposition to or in support of the church on the basis of this narrative.

To help the church construct a better story, Butler has written a book entitled The People’s History of Christianity. Her primary claim in writing the book is this: “lived Christianity…is best experienced as a community that remembers the ways in which Christian people have enacted the Great Command in different times and places.  This history is less a magisterial narrative and more like a collection of campfire tales—discrete stories that embody Christian character, virtue, suffering, and commitment.”[14]

In part, I disagree with Bass.  We do need a community narrative, something that is more than just a collection of campfire tales.  But I think she is most of the way toward constructing that narrative herself.  She is framing Christian history in terms of responses to the Great Command (to love God and others).  By viewing our past through that lens, she is allowing different incidents to rise to the surface.  Events aren’t judged by the splash they made in the newspapers of the time, but by whether they moved the church closer to or further from a lived ethic of love.  That is, I think, a perfectly legitimate and healthy theological move.

Susan Stuber has studied the function of narrative in a Roman Catholic religious community.[15] There are a wide range of religious orders within Catholicism, each with a carefully constructed founding narrative.  That narrative serves to distinguish each order from the others, and it provides the foundation for the particular values of the community.  Stuber conducted a series of interviews in which she asked the nuns to recount the story of the founding of their order, and then asked them to tell their own life stories.  She discovered that the sisters tell their own stories in a way that is deeply congruent with the stories of their order’s founders, stories that they know very well.  Stuber considered the possibility that these women were drawn to their particular convent because the founding narrative held such appeal for them, but she found that in almost every case, these nuns who are now deeply committed to living their lives within the plotline of their order had been completely unaware of the founding narrative until the time of their novitiate.  The came to the convent for other reasons, but then found there a story that gave their life meaning.  It’s obvious that the lives of the founders served as the beginning of a community narrative, but they also served as an end, a visible telos: the community goal is to become more and more the kind of moral exemplars that the founders were.  A deep investment in the specific story of their tradition gives the nuns and entry point into fuller engagement with the canonical narrative.  They follow the founder’s example as he, in turn, follow the example of Christ.

We who dwell outside of the cloister are going to have a different form of community—in many ways, a less intense form.  But our need to be part of a specific tradition that incarnates crucial aspects of the Christ story no less.  Indeed, we all are already part of a tradition, with our own exemplars, our own founders, and our own plot line.  Could we benefit by telling and retelling the stories of Campbell and Stone, or Lipscomb and Harding, and bringing into living memory those aspects of their story that will enrich and invigorate our ministries today.  Should we orient new church members into the narrative of our particular congregation?  Who were the first families to meet together for worship?  What was their vision?  What has the congregation learned over the years?  Where is it headed?  How does its story fit into the ongoing story of God?  As a minister, I want the powerful narratives available to give meaning to lives of our members, and to my own.

Jerry Stone writes that the reason Benedict was so important is that the Benedictine order was the embodiment of a “new community story which integrated the canonical story and [the] life stories of the monks.”[16] I may not be able to see how what I am doing fits in to what God is doing, but if I am a member of a community with a story that I can claim as my own, and if that community, in turn, has a clear sense of its place in story of God, then I, too, am woven into God’s story.

“I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”[17] We learned in elementary school that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Ours does.  It begins with God’s initiative in the history of our world, it continues through the ups and downs of the church, and it concludes with resurrection and perfection.  A comprehensive approach to moral formation requires the entire story.

Bass, Diana Butler. A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Jones, L Gregory. “Alasdair MacIntyre on Narrative, Community, and the Moral Life..” Modern Theology 4, no. 1 (October 1987): 53-69.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 3rd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

———. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narratives and The Philosophy of Science.” The Monist 60 (1977): 453-472.

Sider, Ronald J. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005.

Stone, Jerry H. “Narrative Theology and Religious Education.” In Theologies of Religious Education, edited by Randolph Crump Miller, 255-285. Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1995.

Stuber, Susan Carpenter. “The Interposition of Personal Life Stories and Community Narratives in a Roman Catholic Religious Community..” Journal of Community Psychology 28, no. 5 (2000): 507-515.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 2.

[2] Ibid., 51-61.

[3] Ibid., 216.

[4] Ibid., 258.

[5] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narratives and The Philosophy of Science,” The Monist 60 (1977): 456.

[6] MacIntyre, After Virtue , 261.

[7] L Gregory Jones, “Alasdair MacIntyre on Narrative, Community, and the Moral Life.,” Modern Theology 4, no. 1 (October 1987): 60.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Ibid., 67.

[10] Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005).

[11] MacIntyre, After Virtue , 154

[12] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003), 290.

[13] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 4

[14] Ibid., 12

[15] Susan Carpenter Stuber, “The Interposition of Personal Life Stories and Community Narratives in a Roman Catholic Religious Community.,” Journal of Community Psychology 28, no. 5 (2000): 507-515.

[16] Jerry H. Stone, “Narrative Theology and Religious Education,” in Theologies of Religious Education, ed. Randolph Crump Miller (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1995), 267

[17] MacIntyre, After Virtue , 216.

3 responses to “Narrative Formation: Alasdair MacIntyre and the Need for a Narratively Grounded Christian Ethic

  1. I have just chewed my way (appreciatively) through After Virtue. You’ve insightfully integrated truth from MacIntyre with the truth of Christ. Your biblically-based comments about restoring a teleological perspective to our ethics, and an eschatological perspective to our ecclesiology, brought out a “Yes–that’s IT!” from me.

  2. Joel Batts


    This is a rather remarkable analysis of McIntyre as well as good instruction for the Church. If you haven’t done so already, consider submitting this for publication.


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