Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The inherent conflict between civic and communitarian moral ideals can, at the extreme, produce disaffection and alienation among the citizens of liberal democracies.
The capacity of the Christian community to unite Christian charity and communitarian solidarity into a creative synthesis hinges on the extraordinary status Christianity accords to biblical narrative.
If the collective life narrative of the civic community is the story of liberty, then the collective life narrative of the Christian community, whose basis lies in biblical narrative, is the story of salvation, the story of the attainment and full possession of the Christian good.
The narratives contained in the Bible offer Christians their only authoritative access to the narrative order willed by God, the Divine Plan, the “real story." The narratives of the Bible reveal, open a window upon, the story that is written into the very fabric of things.
The conception of history as a providential order whose narrative significance is determined by God alone, operates as a countervailing force in Christian life to prevent all disaffection from the narrative order and from the goals of particularistic desire.
A Christian community shaped by this analogy between the Christian good and the civic good, between the Christian love of neighbor and civic friendship, would provide immense support for the cultivation of civic virtue in the emerging postmodern era.
The inherent conflict between civic and communitarian moral ideals can, at the extreme, produce disaffection and alienation among the citizens of liberal democracies. Given the structural similarities between civic and Christian ideals of community life (see Essay 9), we might well expect the Christian love of neighbor to produce among Christians a similar sort of disaffection and alienation from bonds of communitarian solidarity.
But the chance of this happening is greatly reduced by the nature of the collective narrative that unites the Christian community. The collective narrative of the Christian community, the narrative into which every Christian incorporates his or her personal life narrative, is grounded in the narratives contained in the Bible. These narratives are accorded extraordinary status. This extraordinary status attributed to them gives the collective narrative of the Christian community its power to hold together Christian love of neighbor and communitarian solidarity in a mutually supportive and creative tension.
For Christians who are also citizens, this synthesis of charity and communitarian friendship made possible by biblical narrative could provide, in the context of a postmodern civic culture, a model for an analogous synthesis of civic friendship and communitarian solidarity. A clear articulation of this analogy by an explicitly civic Christian theology could perhaps have the effect of limiting, for Christians and for those citizens influenced by Christianity, the risks of nihilism and alienation endemic to libertarian and egalitarian civic friendship.
Given the fact that the great majority of citizens in North Atlantic liberal democracies are at least nominal Christians, such a civic theology could make a significant contribution to the creation of a viable postmodern civic culture. It would provide a resource for the motivation of civic virtue that could perhaps be developed in no other way. Let me briefly sketch here the outlines of a postmodern civic theology that might accomplish this.
The rhetorical function of biblical narrative
The capacity of the Christian community to unite Christian charity and communitarian solidarity into a creative synthesis hinges on the extraordinary status Christianity accords to biblical narrative. In the vocabulary of theology and faith, biblical narratives constitute revealed or divinely inspired truth. The import of this description is to affirm that the narratives contained in the Bible are not subject to the standards applied to stories told by human beings. In order to understand the rhetorical function of this extraordinary status accorded to biblical narrative by Christians, we must briefly consider once again the variety of rhetorical functions served by narratives in general.
As we have noted, stories told by human beings may be divided into two different kinds: closed-criterion narratives, i.e., stories whose narrative closure is fixed and predetermined, and open-criterion narratives, i.e., stories whose narrative closure is not fixed, stories whose narrative order is therefore always subject to revision. In any narrative, the order and significance of the events described are determined by their relationship to the end of the story. The end of the story, the narrative closure, serves as the criterion for determining narrative order and significance.
Stories told by human beings most typically are closed-criterion narratives. During a trial, for example, stories are told as part of the presentation of evidence. The criterion of relevance that determines the narrative order and significance assigned to events in these stories is the question, “Guilty or innocent?" On other occasions and with respect to other criteria of relevance, many different stories could be and always are constructed out of the very “same" events described in witness narratives. This, of course, does not mean that the narrative of a crime finally constructed by a jury when it arrives at its verdict is somehow fabricated or false. As long as there is consensus regarding the narrative criterion to be applied in constructing a story, there can be consensus about the order and narrative significance of the events described by the story.
Storytelling has many different rhetorical functions. Human beings tell stories to entertain, to inform, to explain, to warn, to give advice, to command, and so on. Whenever a story performs its rhetorical function successfully for a given audience, it is because the story was constructed artfully and in accordance with a narrative criterion acceptable to its audience. Literary or fictional narratives constitute one special class of closed-criterion narratives. An understanding of the way in which fictional narratives differ from “historical" narratives is important for an understanding of the extraordinary status accorded to biblical narrative in Christianity.
Fictional or literary narratives differ from “historical" narratives in that the events related by fictional narratives are invented. When a person constructs a story about events that actually occurred, i.e., that the person did not deliberately invent or imagine, he or she imposes a narrative order on those events that is only one possible narrative order among others. It is always possible to construct other stories about or to impose a different narrative order on those events for different purposes and different audiences.
Thus, historical events such as the Battle of Waterloo or the assassination of Lincoln can be woven into any number of different stories and given any number of different narrative interpretations. However, in the case of fictional or literary narratives, it makes no sense to incorporate the events described into different stories, to impose a new narrative order on them. The narrative order and significance of the events described in a fictional or literary narrative are fixed once and for all because they are a matter of decision for its author. The author determines the narrative closure to which all the events described refer. Once the end of the story is known to its audience, the events it relates are understood in their narrative order and significance with finality.
Keeping this difference between fictional/literary and historical narratives clearly in view, we must recall one further point before returning to the question of the extraordinary status of biblical narrative. Human life narratives, both personal and collective, differ from both historical and literary narratives. Human life narratives describe events that have actually occurred. In that respect, they are like any historical narrative. Many different stories can be constructed out of the events occurring during a particular person’s life. But human life narratives differ from historical narratives by virtue of their special rhetorical function.
Human life narratives serve to provide meaning and direction to human desire. To construct a life narrative is to construct a life. A person relates the story of his or her life to others (including self as other) in order to render intelligible and to assess the current status of desire with respect to its satisfaction. By virtue of having this function, human life narratives belong to the class of open-criterion narratives. In their function of providing meaning and direction to human desire, human life narratives are never finished. The order and significance of human life events always depend upon the future, i.e., depend upon events that have not yet occurred, and therefore are subject to nearly infinite reassessment and reinterpretation in terms of different possible narrative closures. Where the end of the story is always not yet finally determined, the narrative order and significance of events are also always not yet finally determined.
When persons do construct their own life narratives as if they were closed-criterion narratives, imposing a fixed narrative order and meaning on their lives, they often do this because their life narrative has become bound up with some malady of desire. To construct a human life narrative as if it were a closed-criterion narrative — as if the end of the story were fixed and the narrative significance of particular events were determined with finality — is to construct a human life as if it were a work of fiction.
The fictionalizing of human life narratives is always motivated in some way. For example, when persons have done or experienced something that would, if incorporated into their acknowledged life narrative, disrupt or threaten the narrative significance of their lives as a whole, then those events are either excluded from the narrative (i.e., “repressed") or arbitrarily given a significance that consists in a denial of the significance that they threaten to have. The function of psychoanalysis understood as a “talking cure" is the de-fictionalization of life narrative meaning. Only because such fictionalization is bound up with a malady of desire can the de-fictionalization of life narrative meaning constitute a cure for that malady.
To de-fictionalize a personal life narrative is to incorporate into that life narrative events excluded or denied because they were too disruptive of narrative coherence and significance. Such a cure always amounts to a restoration of the proper rhetorical function to human life narratives, the function of rendering intelligible and assessing the current status of desire with regard to its satisfaction. Persons who are cured of maladies of desire in this way can once again take up the construction of their own life narratives in freedom as open-criterion narratives, as narratives that are indefinitely revisable.
In view of these distinctions, we can perhaps now understand properly the rhetorical significance of the extraordinary status assigned by Christian faith to biblical narratives. To say that the narratives contained in the Bible are “revealed," “divinely inspired," or “literally meaningful or true" is to attribute to biblical narrative characteristics of all three types of narratives we have discussed.
First, it is to take biblical narratives as historical narratives in that they relate events that actually occurred, i.e., events that it makes sense to offer alternative stories about.
Second, it is also to take biblical narrative as a species of fictional or literary narrative in that biblical narratives determine with finality the intrinsic narrative order and significance of the events they describe. The final and authoritative determination of the intrinsic narrative order and significance of events is possible only if the end of the story is infallibly known. This is possible in fictional/literary narratives because the end of the story is a matter of decision for the author. To attribute to biblical narratives, as historical narratives, this property of literary/fictional narratives is to attribute to the authors of these narratives an extraordinary status. Biblical narratives define the narrative significance of the events they describe in terms of a narrative framework that encompasses the totality of historical events. Biblical narratives describe the beginning of time and speak of the end of time. To assert that biblical narratives have this literary characteristic of determining with finality the intrinsic narrative order and significance of the particular range of events they cover is therefore to assert that those narratives were written by authors possessing a privileged understanding of the relevant narrative closure — in the case of biblical narratives, a privileged understanding of the end of time, the last things. Since only a divine author could possess such a privileged understanding, biblical narratives are thereby attributed to an authorship beyond that of the human beings who clothed the narratives in words.
Third, biblical narratives also have the character of life narratives — they together constitute the basis for the collective life narrative of the Christian community. Just as the civic community is united by a collective life narrative whose theme is the pursuit of civic freedom and civic justice, so also the Christian community is united by a collective life narrative whose beginnings and narrative foundations are offered in the Bible. If the collective life narrative of the civic community is the story of liberty, then the collective life narrative of the Christian community, whose basis lies in biblical narrative, is the story of salvation, the story of the attainment and full possession of the Christian good. Like all collective life narratives, the rhetorical function of the Christian collective life narrative is to give meaning and direction to a collective pursuit of the good.
But the Christian collective life narrative, by virtue of possessing characteristics of both historical and literary narratives, differs significantly from the collective life narratives of other communities. The collective life narrative of the civic community tells a story of the quest for political liberty. It begins with certain events — political reforms or revolution, for example — and tells a story of continuing struggle for civic freedom and civic justice that anticipates victory but includes also the possibility of failure. On the other hand, the Christian collective life narrative encompasses the whole of historical time and tells a story of the pursuit of a good whose final and perfect attainment can never be in doubt because the divine author of the story has already decided upon its narrative closure, i.e., the salvation of all those who accept this story in faith.
It is the blending of these three narrative properties that constitutes the extraordinary status accorded to biblical narrative by the Christian community. To say that the narratives of the Bible are divinely inspired or constitute revealed truth is to say that those narratives define with finality the narrative order and significance of the historical events they describe because they are “authored" by one who knows and who has decided upon the end of the story — the end of the story of salvation. God, as the ultimate author of scriptural narrative, knows the end of the story because God, in the biblical tradition, is defined as the ruler of history, the ultimate author who determines the narrative significance of all actually occurring events from the beginning of time until the end. God, as the ruler of history, as the inventor of the final narrative significance of all historical events, foresees and foreknows the end of story. In foreseeing the end, God provides narrative order and meaning to all historical events. The narrative order God provides constitutes the providential order — the story that describes the totality of historical events in their intrinsic narrative significance as a story whose narrative closure is the salvation of all particularistic desire.
History as a providential order: reconciling the conflict between "this worldly" and "other worldly" desire
Of course, even though the providential order encompasses all narratively representable events, this does not mean that Christians can claim to possess a privileged knowledge of the meaning of historical events beyond those described in the Bible. The narratives contained in the Bible offer Christians their only authoritative access to the narrative order willed by God, the Divine Plan, the “real story." The narratives of the Bible reveal, open a window upon, the story that is written into the very fabric of things. Beyond the events described in biblical narratives, however, the details of the Divine Plan, the final narrative significance of historical events, must remain forever hidden from those who live through them. The affirmation of the “revealed" or “divinely inspired" character of the biblical narratives, therefore, constitutes an affirmation that such a Divine Plan exists, that all events do in fact have a preordained and final narrative significance, even though Christians can have no final or authoritative knowledge of it.
Perhaps now, with these points in view, it is possible to understand how this conception of the providential order of history can ground a collective life narrative that enables the Christian community to reconcile the love of God, the desire for the eternal present, with an affirmation of particularistic desire and communitarian solidarity. The collective life narrative that unites Christians encompasses historical events in their entirety, i.e., encompasses the entire sphere of narrative representation. Christians who, in faith, accept the narratives of the Bible as a revelation of the Divine Plan affirm also that the Divine Plan encompasses their own lives as well. Even though Christians do not and cannot have any privileged insight into the final narrative significance of events occurring in their own lives, they can nevertheless affirm that there is indeed a Divine Plan working itself out in their own lives and that they are constructing a personal life narrative that has already been written into the universal story of salvation by the very author of that story.
By incorporating their own personal life narratives into this collective life narrative of the Christian community, Christians are given cultural support for a twofold affirmation of the temporal order and of particularistic desire.
First, since every event that occurs belongs to the story of salvation willed by its author, no event can disrupt the final narrative coherence of human life and thereby threaten to strip human life of its narrative significance. Natural catastrophes, unemployment, illness, death — events that can threaten to disrupt and even destroy the narrative coherence of human life unsupported by the Christian collective life narrative — can be affirmed in their narrative significance by being written into the collective story of human salvation. In the vocabulary of faith, regardless of what events occur to threaten the desire for narrative significance, nothing occurs without God willing it as part of an overall Divine Plan for salvation, a Divine Plan that guarantees the narrative significance of all human life events.
Second, since the providential order embraces all historical events, even the most apparently insignificant, every event of a Christian’s life can be viewed as a manifestation of the Divine Plan. This means that the Christian can conform to the Divine Plan and thus affirm the narrative significance of events whatever may be his or her particular life circumstances. In the vocabulary of faith, God’s narrative will for particular persons is to be detected in the particular events and choices that are decisive for their lives.
This twofold affirmation of narrative significance and particularistic desire, when it is effective in a particular life, can mediate and reconcile the conflict between Christian love of neighbor and Christian communitarian solidarity. As noted above, the Christian love of God and neighbor can create a certain kind of disaffection from particularistic community life and from the goals sought by particularistic desire itself. Christian love of neighbor is an affirmation of an identity with the neighbor that lies beyond all differences of culture and personal traits. Christian love of God is a desire for the eternal present that stands essentially beyond all possibilities of narration.
In both of these ways, Christian love of God and neighbor tends to pull those persons governed by it away from the particular narratable circumstances of their lives. It can create an “otherworldliness" that seems to entail a generalized rejection of the sphere of narratively representable events, the realm of temporal affairs. But the collective life narrative of the Christian community, the conception of history as a providential order whose narrative significance is determined by God alone, operates as a countervailing force in Christian life to prevent all disaffection from the narrative order and from the goals of particularistic desire.
When Christians read their own personal life narratives into the narrative framework of the providential order of history, the temporal order and particularistic desire are saved in a special sense. Particularistic desire is saved most fundamentally by the transformation of desire by which human desire for desire becomes the desire for the eternal present. But particularistic desire is saved in this secondary sense by its narrative incorporation into the order of providence. God as the author of the story of salvation determines the narrative order and significance of events by reference to an end of the story — the end of time — that is already known.
Faith in God’s providence, faith in God’s knowledge of the narrative closure of all history mirrors within the realm of temporal affairs the closing of the circle of desire achieved through the unnarratable love of the eternal present. In this way, by the affirmation of God’s providential role in history, historical events themselves gain their meaning by reference to this eternal present. Particularistic desire is permitted to flourish in full confidence that no human aspiration is foreign to the love of God and that the love of God is most fully realized in the providentially directed service of human aspiration.
Christian belief as model for a synthesis of civic and communitarian virtue
Christians whose self-understanding has been shaped by this conception of the providential order of history could conceivably draw a parallel between this Christian conception of history and the liberal democratic collective life narrative. As noted above, the representation of history as the story of liberty also introduces a tension into the relationship between civic friendship and communitarian solidarity. The demands of citizenship too can create an alienation and disaffection from the pursuit of particularistic conceptions of the good.
However, the collective life narrative of the liberal democratic community offers no specific remedy for this. Left to the resources of the story of liberty alone, citizens seem faced with a choice between a commitment to libertarian and egalitarian civic values and commitment to the hierarchical values of communitarian solidarity. The civic affirmation of the equality of all particularistic desire seems to undermine the narrative intelligibility of desire itself. The civic affirmation of difference and otherness seems to call into question the validity of human goals and aspirations. The demand that citizens cultivate both civic friendship and communitarian solidarity thus makes liberal democratic civic culture continuously vulnerable to the threats of alienation and nihilism.
It may be possible for Christians who are also citizens to neutralize these threats, at least among Christians, and thus to close this gap between civic and communitarian virtue by appeal to elements of the Christian collective life narrative. In such an appeal, an explicit parallel would be drawn between the Christian love of neighbor and civic friendship. The libertarian and egalitarian nature of the Christian love of neighbor would be articulated in its analogy to the libertarian and egalitarian nature of civic friendship. The practice of civic friendship by Christians would then be viewed as not only consistent with, but even demanded by Christian charity.
In the same way, this parallel would inform the practice of civic friendship, keeping clearly in focus those attributes of civic friendship that liken it to the Christian love of neighbor. Once this analogy has been recognized, the cultural resources offered by the Christian collective life narrative could then support, at least for Christians, an overcoming of the tensions between civic friendship and communitarian solidarity in the same way that they support an overcoming of the tensions between Christian charity and communitarian solidarity.
The Christian collective life narrative supports both the unnarratable love of God and neighbor and the commitment to the narrative significance of participation in the life of particularistic cultural communities. It accomplishes this synthesis by its affirmation of the temporal order, the order of narrative representation, as the providential order, an order in which the narrative significance of events is determined finally by the will of God. Thus, (as noted in Essay 8) Christian faith requires an abandonment of the standpoint of particularistic desire for the sake of the salvation of particularistic desire.
The Christian affirmation of the temporal order as the providential order in effect transforms the Christian abandonment of the standpoint of particularistic desire into a commitment to and affirmation of all human aspiration. In faith and guided by the love of God, the desire for the eternal present, Christians submit to God’s providential or narrative will for them by serving human aspiration in the particularistic communities and in the particular historical circumstances where God has placed them. In this way, the most perfect liberation of desire from the logic of narrative representation becomes identified with the most perfect service of narratable human aspiration.
For Christians, this conception of the providential order could also provide the cultural basis for a synthesis of civic and communitarian virtue. The pursuit of the civic good also requires a certain abandonment of the standpoint of particularistic desire for the sake of the liberation of particularistic desire. It is this requirement that introduces tension into the relationship between civic friendship and communitarian solidarity. For Christians guided by a recognition of the parallels between Christian love of neighbor and civic friendship, however, these tensions between civic friendship and communitarian solidarity can come to be viewed simply as a special case of the tensions produced by the intersection of the eternal and the temporal orders of human desire.
Christians as Christians understand their eternal destiny to be bound up with the providentially assigned historical circumstances of their lives. Christians as citizens can understand in the same way that the practice of civic virtue and civic friendship is to be identified not merely with active participation in the political sphere, but also with active participation in the life of particularistic cultural communities.
Christians as Christians understand that the love of God, the desire for the eternal present, is to be achieved most perfectly not through a withdrawal from temporal affairs, but rather through an abandonment to the providential will of God realized in service to others at a particular time and place. Christians as citizens can understand in the same way that love of civic freedom and civic justice can be fully exercised not only in the political sphere, but also through the progressive “civilization" — i.e., the progressive realization of the civic values of liberty and equality — within particularistic hierarchical and exclusive cultural communities.
A Christian community shaped by this analogy between the Christian good and the civic good, between the Christian love of neighbor and civic friendship, would provide immense support for the cultivation of civic virtue in the emerging postmodern era. Given the numbers and the influence of Christian communities in Western liberal democracies, it is in fact difficult to imagine a viable and effective postmodern civic culture without this support. In order to shape an explicitly civic form of Christianity, a new civic theology is required, a theology dedicated to the persuasive articulation of the parallels between the love of civic justice and the love of God. But a Christian community shaped by such a theology could also serve as the model for all other cultural communities party to the overlapping consensus required to support liberal political institutions.
All the particularistic cultural communities that comprise particular liberal democracies stand under a similar civic obligation. Each such community must identify within its own cultural traditions resources that encourage its members to cultivate capacities for civic freedom and civic justice. Communities without such a commitment will effectively exclude their members from participation in liberal democratic political life. Every such community that refuses or fails in this commitment will with all certainty contribute to the failure of the institutions of liberty bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment.
Page last edited: February 23, 2002
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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