Once-Familiar Terrain

President Obama has a “narrative” problem, writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “He has not tied all his programs into a single narrative.” If this is confusing, let’s bump up the bewilderment—the solution is “teleological.” Teleology is Greek for purpose or ends—familiar terrain for faith communities. That’s why Harvard’s Michael Sandel says finding a single narrative in politics means taking spiritual questions seriously.

“Mr. Obama was elected because a majority of Americans fear that we’re becoming a declining great power,” Friedman writes. “Everything from our schools to our energy and transportation systems are falling apart and in need of reinvention and reinvigoration.”1 Change was Obama’s narrative as a candidate. As president, he has not yet tied his programs into a single story showing the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education and foreign policies. According to Friedman, the narrative is “nation-building at home. It is nation-building in America.”

But Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel believes this raises the teleological question: What is politics for? Sandel is the author of the new best seller Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? “These days we don’t think of politics as having some particular, substantive end, but as being open to the various ends that citizens espouse,” he writes. “We view politics as a procedure that allows persons to choose ends for themselves.”2 But Aristotle would differ, says Sandel. For Aristotle, politics was about something higher. It was about learning to live a good life. This was the telos for politics.

The good life required holding in tension two virtues: community obligations and free choice. On the one hand, we are made to be free individuals. But as Sandel points out, nation-building cannot occur if only individuals decide what is right. “I do not think that freedom of choice—even freedom of choice under fair conditions—is an adequate basis for a just society. If we understand ourselves as independent selves, we can’t make sense of a range of moral and political obligations.”

On the other hand, politics means community obligations. But again Sandel points out that nation-building cannot occur if only particular communities or special-interest groups define right and wrong. “Communal encumbrances can be oppressive.”

“So how is it possible to acknowledge the moral weight of community while still giving hope to human freedom?” Sandel turns to Alasdair MacIntyre—a man of Christian faith. In 1984, MacIntyre wrote After Virtue, an account of the way we, as moral agents arrive at our purpose and ends. He suggested that individual preferences or special-interest communities do not help us locate our telos. Human beings are instead storytelling beings. “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

Finding this story does not mean that life has a “fixed purpose or end laid down by some external authority,” Sandel notes. But it does mean that the single narrative comes from an external authority. The purpose of politics is not found in my particular preferences, political inclinations, or personality cults. It comes from a transcendent order that is spiritual and moral in nature. This means the “challenge is to imagine a politics that takes moral and spiritual questions seriously.”4

Of course, this requires a faith that takes political questions seriously. It means faith communities taking seriously “loving their neighbors,” shalom. Shalom is seeking the wellbeing of others, not just within the community of faith, but to all. It is promoting the flourishing of political institutions in the wider world. It is promoting the common good.

This also requires a gospel holding in tension two virtues: community obligations and free choice. In the Cultural Mandate (Gen. 1:26-28), the Trinitarian God made Adam and Eve as individuals in his image. This is an intrinsic tension—we are made to acknowledge the moral weight of community while still giving hope to human freedom. The gospel is not “my personal relationship with Jesus,” nor is it “all about community.”

My hunch is that President Obama does not have a “narrative” problem any more than most Americans or Europeans do. Western civilization is distinctive primarily because of its Jewish and Christian roots, but our elites “no longer feel comfortable expressing reality in religious language,” Michael Novak notes.5 Our political culture is drawn from a single narrative promoting the rights endowed in all humans by their Creator; liberty of conscience; a regulative idea of truth; and historical consciousness. “These are horizon-shaping concepts which frame the way we look at reality.” It’s sad that the telos of politics was once familiar terrain for the wider world. Today, leaders are reticent to root politics in religion. That’s why Novak urges faith communities to learn how to express these originally religious concepts in non-religious ways.

“You can’t get nation-building without shared sacrifice, and you cannot inspire shared sacrifice without a narrative that appeals to the common good,” Sandel concludes, “—a narrative that challenges us to be citizens engaged in a common endeavor.” That narrative was once the Bible. “The Bible tells a story that is the story, the story of which our human life is a part,” Lesslie Newbigin writes. “It is not that stories are part of human life, but that human life is part of a story.”6 Until faith communities translate this narrative so that it becomes familiar terrain, Americans and Europeans are going to continue having a “narrative” problem.

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1 Thomas Friedman, “More Poetry, Please,” The New York Times, November 1, 2009.
2 Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009), pp. 192-93.
3 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University if Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 201.
4 Sandel, Justice, p. 262.
5 North Atlantic Community, European Community: Divergent paths and common values in Old Europe and the United States,” a speech delivered by Michael Novak for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003.
6 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, Revised Edition, 1995), p. 82.

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4 Comments

  1. It is certainly true that it is stories that move us. Was it you, Mike, that noted that even when we are watching a blatantly fictional movie like “E.T.,” we can still be moved to tears.

    This can’t be because of reality. But because of how we’re wired to respond to story, our selves have a response.

    You rightly say that it is the church that should be leading in this discipline – and responsibility – of story telling.

  2. Certainly it is necessary to translate the story such that reality is seen in it, and adoption and change result. Who is up to this task in the present environment?

    Amidst the church where one might think translation would be less of a problem, the relevance and grasp of the story seems lacking (e.g., Barna’s typical statistics on belief among Christians).

    Can you cite some good examples?

  3. In the present environment, I can think of what Dennis Bakke is doing with Imagine Education, and what he formerly accomplished at AES. Read about his ups and downs at AES in his book “Joy at Work.”

  4. Thanks for changing the comments font! And thanks for the essay.

    When I saw Friedman’s column, I completely agreed that Obama needs a “narrative.” He needs to tie together all his grandiose government activities. I think that it is hard for Obama to tie together a narrative, when his intellectual tradition has set aside so many of the founding concepts of the country in favor of a much more relativistic view that is too incoherent to fit into a single “narrative.”

    I was happy to see that Friedman pointed out the lack of a single foundation for Obama’s initiatives, but was hoping he would go one step further and point out that Obama’s version of a “narrative” (whatever seems right to him at the time) is no more capable of being the undergirding foundation of an entire society than it is able to even support the thinking of one single individual. But, alas, that is too great a step for Mr. Friedman, otherwise he would not be qualified to keep his job at the Times. They already have a designated conservative.

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