Reading Through Narrative

by Tim McIntosh


Every Sunday afternoon in London’s Hyde Park, orators from every religion, ideology, and philosophy step on soapboxes at Speakers Corner to preach. My brother and I attended several years ago. We heard plenty of speakers that day, including a Black Muslim preaching about how the immoral West should turn to the Koran for guidance; a Zen-Buddhist advocating meditation as the way to inner peace; and a young Christian preaching about the “law of love” taught by Christ. My brother and I chatted and laughed while listening, but internally I grew troubled. My three-month hiking trip across Europe had awakened dormant doubts. I was from the Southeast where Christianity was culturally approved, but Europe was different. There, Christianity was just another option on the worldview buffet. Thrust into foreign territory, I felt lost.

Was Christianity any more reasonable than, say, Buddhism? Was my belief in the “law of love” any more logical than the Buddhist practice of meditation? Was it any more logical than placing my faith in the Koran?

These questions grew louder and louder. In the years after Speakers Corner, I plunged headlong into a search for answers. I attended lectures, devoured books, and asked questions. But the answers seemed unsatisfactory. For example: One Christian apologist told me that the law of non-contradiction (X cannot be both X and Y at the same time in the same sense) was all a person needed to know about the nature of God. He was an intelligent man, and he meant well, but I knew my Bible too well to believe him. The God of the Bible was far too peculiar to be discovered merely by following the law of non-contradiction.

So was logic of any help? If logic alone was insufficient even to explain Christianity, could it help me discover the truth among a buffet of rival worldviews? Yes, of course. Logic was necessary to think and speak about anything rationally, but it alone seemed insufficient for my search.

I kept reading and listening and asking, but after a couple of years, I still felt lost. As I saw it, I had two options:

  1. Fundamentalism: I could retreat back into Christianity, batten down the hatches, and “just believe.” I knew many Southerners like this. Christianity was, for them, a suit of armor that protected their inner doubts as they attacked anyone who threatened to pierce the armor. No, I could not be a Fundamentalist.
  2. Pragmatism: Since ultimate truth seemed beyond my reach, I could shrug and live pragmatically: I could adopt a position that “truth” was what worked. But, if I adopted this view, the best I could hope for was a healthy salary, some decent wine, and good friends. But I could not choose this option. No, I simply could not convince myself not to care.

Since neither of those options satisfied, I kept reading and wondering.

A few years after Speakers Corner, someone gave me a book by Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, and the lights turned on. MacIntyre, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, did not give me an answer, but he did give me a better way to think about my problem. He confirmed my hunch that logic alone was insufficient to pursue the “big question.” The trouble was that I had been born into an intellectual culture that rejected everything but reason.

How did our culture arrive at such a place? MacIntyre begins his story in the medieval world where tradition reigned as king. If someone asked, “Is the earth at the center of the universe?” a scholar would point to traditional sources (like Aristotle and Augustine) for an answer. But during the Enlightenment (roughly 1641 to 1914) tradition was rejected. All claims to truth had to be justified through reason and observation.

Looking back at European history, the Enlightenment seems to me a great improvement over the medieval mindset. MacIntyre points out, however, that something vital was lost when the Enlightenment rejected everything from the medieval mindset, especially the idea that humans have a telos (Greek for ‘purpose’).

Both the medievals and the ancients believed that human beings had a telos and that this telos shaped the way they reasoned. For them, reason did not operate by itself. It operated within a broader framework about the purpose of human life.

How did reason operate for an ancient? MacIntyre gives an example from an episode in Homer’s Iliad. How would an Athenian soldier decide whether to fight or flee when facing a daunting army on the battlefield? The soldier would not think like a modern American or European. He would not ask, “What is practical to do?” or “What would a reasonable person do?” No, first the soldier remembered his telos, his purpose—namely, to ensure the flourishing of Athens, the just and ordered society. Thus, thought the soldier, “I must stand and fight.”

The ancient soldier reasoned within his understanding of the purpose of life. So did the medievals. Imagine a medieval cobbler who had a bad night’s sleep and did not want to cobble shoes. The cobbler would likely remember his telos, which had two branches, one heavenly and one earthly. His heavenly telos was to be united with God; his earthly telos was to perfect his will and his appetites. Thus, even though he was tired, he would think, “My purpose is to perfect my will. So I will work hard even though I am tired.”

But, says MacIntyre, the Enlightenment rejected beliefs about human purpose. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the archetypal Enlightenment philosopher, said morality is built on a foundation of logic. To act rightly is to act logically.

Before reading MacIntyre, I tried to think like Kant. I tried to build a foundation of logic beneath me that I could eventually stand atop and then adjudicate between rival worldviews. But MacIntyre says this simply cannot be done because logic functions within a narrative, or paradigm, about the purpose of human life. The rules of logic (for example, the law of non-contradiction) are like the rules of a courtroom. Alone, the rules of a courtroom do not lead to justice in a disputed case. The rules are needed to keep the trial on track, but they are insufficient to arrive at justice in a disputed case. Something more is needed: A comprehensive narrative about the events and facts of the case. The party with the most comprehensive and reasonable narrative of the events and facts should win the case.

Like the comprehensive narrative necessary for justice in a court case, a worldview is a comprehensive interpretation of the disparate events, emotions, facts, and experiences that are part of human life.

Let me pause a moment. I have been using the words ‘narrative’ and ‘worldview’ and ‘paradigm’ interchangeably. It is worth noting that MacIntyre prefers the word ‘narrative’ to ‘paradigm’ or ‘worldview’ because, he says, narratives are the way human beings navigate their world. Yes, we also use diagrams, algebra, and maps. But our experience of the world is in time. We often craft our experience into a narrative (story) with a beginning, middle, and end.

Not only do we relate experience through narratives (“Honey, guess what happened to me today?”), but we also navigate the unknown through narratives. Imagine meeting a stranger at a bus stop (this is MacIntyre’s example) who walks up to you and says, “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” What is this person talking about? To make sense of it, you would construct a series of possible narratives to interpret the situation: Perhaps the man recently escaped from an asylum. Perhaps he mistook you for his friend, and he is continuing a previous discussion about the common duck. Perhaps he just came from an appointment with a psychotherapist who urged him to break down his shyness by talking to strangers. Thus MacIntyre prefers ‘narrative’ over worldview or paradigm (though any of these words are probably adequate to understand his philosophy).

Let’s return to my experience at Speakers Corner. Even if I accept MacIntyre’s view that logic operates within a broader narrative, have I made any progress? Could one narrative show itself more reasonable than another?

MacIntyre says yes. But he does not do it by defending a particular narrative. He does not offer a defense of Christianity (though he did convert to Catholicism after writing his 1979 book Marxism and Christianity). No, his answer is different from that of an apologist like Josh MacDowell or Ravi Zacharias. MacIntyre’s answer is to posit a methodology (narrative-bound rationality) that will allow rivals to debate rationally. He believes that rival narratives (say, Buddhism and Christianity) cannot only argue reasonably, but one narrative can emerge as superior. But how?

MacIntyre offers a few strategies. First strategy: By exposing itself to debate, one narrative might fail “by its own standards.” MacIntyre cites the failure of Paul de Man’s worldview as an example of this. Paul de Man (1919-1983) was a deconstructionist who taught at Yale. De Man believed that, because experience is inherently fragmented, personal identity is inherently fragmented; no one is a unified self; we simply wear different masks—one with our family, another at work, another with our wife, and another with our friends. Each mask denotes a different “self” that conforms to a different set of moral expectations. Absent a unified self, there can be no such thing as personal integrity.

De Man’s own integrity was at stake in 1987 when a Belgium student discovered that de Man had made pro-Nazi statements earlier in his career. De Man’s supporters rushed to his defense, arguing that de Man’s later writings repudiated his earlier pro-Nazi remarks. De Man had matured, they argued, and his later writings had shown intellectual honesty.

But something’s crooked here, says MacIntyre. If a person shows maturity, that means his earlier self and his later self are unified (a concept de Man rejected). Honesty is only meaningful if moral integrity (another rejected concept) is meaningful. Since these two concepts, the unity of the self and moral integrity, were disavowed by de Man, his view should be considered a failure because it does not abide by its own standards.

This strategy is helpful, I thought. But wait. Does that mean internal consistency is the test for truth? De Man’s view was internally inconsistent. But other views are internally consistent. For example, the medieval view of the cosmos (with the earth at the center) was internally consistent. But that did not make it true, right?

So, if internal consistency cannot be the sole criteria for truth, how might one critique a worldview that is internally consistent? To this MacIntyre suggests a second strategy: A narrative that synthesizes competing views (and corrects their weaknesses in the process) should be considered superior.

MacIntyre gives an example. During the Middle Ages, both Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Augustine (354-430 AD) were recognized as authorities. If anyone had a question about whether or not the world was eternal, or how the universe was arranged, he would consult these two titans. Trouble came in 1272 when scholars found more books by Aristotle. Previously, the medieval world had only scraps of Aristotle, and these scraps could be reconciled with Augustine. The full works of Aristotle revealed that Aristotle and Augustine disagreed about all sorts of questions. Was the world eternal? (Augustine said no. Aristotle said yes.) What causes error? (Augustine said moral defect. Aristotle said improper exercise of our minds.) Because these two titans disagreed, the medieval world erupted into chaos. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) solved the crisis by synthesizing Augustine and Aristotle. As a citizen of both their conceptual worlds, Aquinas took these incompatible views and synthesized them into a single view using the strengths of each to resolve the weaknesses in the other. Thus, says MacIntyre, did Aquinas’s view show itself superior to its rivals. (This was obviously a complex process and well beyond the reach of this essay.)

But what if two narratives cannot be synthesized? What if the two narratives are so radically different that they cannot be joined? MacIntyre offers a third strategy: Narrative A can show itself superior to Narrative B if it better explains B’s weaknesses through its own narrative.

Let me give an example. A young economist I knew (let’s call him ‘John’) believed both capitalism and Marxism were dead; both economic theories had failed. So John secluded himself in a cabin to write the Western world’s next great economic theory. On the left side of his cabin desk, he stacked his economic texts; on the right, the Bible. He had never read the Bible, but he knew that it was formative for the Western world. When he began, he read the Bible through his economic narrative. When he read about Adam and Eve he thought, “Ah, a two-person economy.” But, after several weeks in the cabin, the Bible, which began for John as a sub-story of economics, began to overwhelm his economic view, his economic narrative. The Bible explained more, matched reality better, was more comprehensive. John became convinced that the Bible’s explanation of life was better than his economic narrative. This, MacIntyre would say, is an example of one narrative subsuming another and showing itself to be more reasonable.

In the end, this third strategy is what also helped me answer the questions that troubled me at Speakers Corner. I found that the gospel story made more sense than its chief rival (which, for me, was a Westernized form of Buddhism). Christianity was more comprehensive; it better explained what happened inside me and outside me.

Of course, this is not the complete explanation for why I became a Christian. Any merely rational account of Christianity cannot explain the mysterious workings of God. But the mysterious workings of God are beyond the scope of this essay (and perhaps any essay).

Copyright April 2010 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Tim McIntosh