April 2008 - Vol. 18


On Being a Bulwark:

A Philosophical Perspective

By Joshua Birk

A “living bulwark”
I was once told that as a member of the Sword of the Spirit I am a part of a “living bulwark”. When I first heard this curious phrase I was completely lost. What was a bulwark, I thought to myself, and what did it mean for it to be alive? Furthermore, how exactly was I a part of this thing? A few hours later, and with the help of a dictionary, I had it all figured out. Or so I thought. 

My investigation informed me that a bulwark is a defensive wall, a protection against external danger. If I was a part of this wall, then I was helping to protect something or someone inside the wall from some sort of danger. In constituting part of the wall, along with others in the Sword of the Spirit, I helped give it the property of being alive or “living”. This is not to say that Christians outside of the community do not serve the same role. It merely means that the Sword of the Spirit feels that God has called us in particular to be a “living bulwark”. Hence the name of this publication. 

Although I had been told that being a “living bulwark” was central to our purpose as a people, I basically ignored that idea. I think that was due in part to what I perceived to be a certain vagueness surrounding it. Who or what were we protecting? What was the danger? Were we alone in being a bulwark or was the wall bigger than I might think? 

I gave little thought to the subject for some time until I stumbled across a book with a provocative idea that not only helped clear away the ambiguity surrounding that odd phrase, it also changed my views about Christian community. The book, After Virtue, is written by a philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre. 

The state of contemporary moral discourse
MacIntyre starts the book by drawing a picture of a society once enlightened by science. After a fierce reaction against it, the vast majority of knowledge regarding scientific principles and theory is severely damaged. Only fragments of the formerly scientifically advanced society remain. Eventually, the hostility ebbs away and the society revives its interest in the sciences. However, the surviving fragments which they possess lack a context for interpretation as the basic language and theory of science has been severely damaged. Attempts to relearn and interpret their scant knowledge result in incoherence and subjectivity. Such is the state of contemporary moral discourse. MacIntyre writes:

The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, 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. 
Emotivism – a killer virus
MacIntyre’s image of modern morality is indeed a dark one. It is common in orthodox Christian circles today to attribute many of societies’ moral failings to relativism. But what MacIntyre speaks of is not relativism. If incommensurable moral debate is the symptom, MacIntyre points to philosophical emotivism as the virus. And a deadly virus it is. 

Emotivism is a philosophy which regards morally declarative utterances as merely statements of one’s feelings. For an emotivist, the phrase “Killing children is wrong”, would be an expression of my emotions about killing children. As such, it could not be evaluated in terms of truth or falsehood for feelings cannot be true or false. Furthermore, that statement would not just serve the purpose of expressing my own emotions. In saying it, I would be seeking to draw out similar feelings in others, trying to win them over to my felt morality.

Our moral dialogue is rife with objective moral language, but, as MacIntyre points out at length, the Enlightenment era took out the legs from underneath objective dialogue. Emotivism has subverted Aristotelian virtue centered ethics and has therefore “undermined the possibility of securing a rational justification” in our debates.

Can intellectual and moral life be sustained in the new dark ages?
Dan Keating, a professor of philosophy at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan and a member of the Servants of the Word, writes, 

It is important to recognize here the full repercussions of MacIntyre's thesis. He is not merely arguing for one ethical theory over another, modified Aristotelianism over emotivism. He digs far deeper than this, overturning the soil, roots and all, of the entire foundation for contemporary moral theory and practice. His claim is that the rejection of a teleological view of human life as embodied in Aristotelianism and as characterized by the virtues has led modern society onto a path of an increasing moral blindness that cannot be cured from within, but requires the very elements which it previously rejected to rescue it from ongoing incommensurability. MacIntyre's own belief is that the change he is calling for will not likely take place soon on any broad scale. He concludes After Virtue by recommending ‘the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.’
If MacIntyre is mainly correct in his assessment, and I think he is, the gravity of our undertaking should not be underestimated. Our forming Christian community is a dangerous thing. The walls protecting a common Christian culture and more broadly a basic belief in, and practice of, virtue centered ethics have been and are being severely damaged or completely destroyed. If we are to be a living bulwark, part of this new wall, we will be the first to be attacked. 

A few years ago, during the University Christian Outreach Winter Conference held in the United States, I had a vision that I shared with the group. It was of a city surrounded by an army. The story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho initially came to mind. But the picture I saw was not the bright and strong image of God showing his power to the Israelites as at Jericho. It was a sick and bleak inversion of that story. Those inside the city were on God’s side and those on the outside were barbarians. I felt the Lord calling us to resist the enemy on the outside instead of hiding in fear. Then, I thought that might mean leaving the safe confines of the city walls to engage the enemy. Now, I realize that might just mean becoming a part of the wall, taking my place as a part of a living bulwark.

If you have questions or would like to dialogue with the author, you can contact Joshua Birk by email at his address: birkjoshua@gmail.com

[Joshua Birk majored in philosophy at the University of Michigan, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, where he was involved in University Christian Outreach (UCO).  He currently works for YouthWorks – Detroit.] 

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