Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue), has presented perhaps the most cogent account of our modern cultural landscape. It is not an account of how one set of ideas gave way to another set of ideas, but how a once-upon-a-time consensus gave way to our current collection of competing truth-claims and world-views. Indeed, he demonstrates (Whose Justice, Which Rationality) that our present confusion is not primarily represented by competing groups and sub-groups, but within most individuals. A person, in the course of a single argument, will likely cite any number of disparate and mutually-contradicting propositions. This is not simply the plight of the uneducated – it is a pattern that MacIntyre demonstrates occurs even in the most carefully crafted statements, such as a Supreme Court decision. This lack of consensus is perhaps the greatest hallmark of our age.
We disagree. In truth, we not only disagree about conclusions, we disagree about the facts, about how the facts are to be considered, what, indeed, constitutes a fact, what constitutes considering, and so on. We are a fragmented society whose fragmentation is becoming a major spiritual force in the lives of its people.
We do not want to disagree. Despite the fact that we do it so often, even constantly, we find it exhausting and unpleasant. This fact heightens the importance of affinity groups in our culture. We want people around us with whom we share a common vocabulary and enough general agreement that we can find rest from the constant social warfare. Of course, this does not mean that we find groups of people who have abandoned the mutually contradictory inner world of MacIntyre’s description. We rather find people who share an affinity for the same contradictions.
This situation is not normal within the span of human history. Most cultures have shared a broad consensus of the most basic assumptions about the world. A common narrative, common values, common perspective are only to be expected. Our own society is a successor to such a culture of consensus. The sacramental world of the Middle Ages in the West, is the foundation of pretty much all modern thought. It has not disappeared, but as multiple narratives and critiques began to take their place beside it, the consensus has eroded. However, none of the positions we find in our culture can be rightly understood without seeing in them an argument with what came before. Cultures are not created out of whole cloth.
The darker side of our fragmentation can be seen in the many varieties of attempts to assert some form of control. Whether it is political correctness on a college campus (or workplace), or simply trolling and bullying on social media, sheer assertion of the will is substituted for reason, conversation and persuasion. The last form of consensus that remains in a culture is the agreement that gives way to violence. The loudest, meanest, most legal, etc., assert their will over others as a means of silencing them, and in the forced silence, declare victory.
Christianity has, at certain points in time, been a form of consensus within cultures. At the healthiest of those moments, it has been a true consensus (con-sensus, a common mind). St. Paul urges us:
Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:5-6)
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1Co 1:10)
Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2Co 13:11)
…so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, (Phi 1:27)
…fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phi 2:2)
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, (Phi 2:5)
Being of “one mind” (consensus) is clearly considered normative in the life of the Church. To a fairly large extent, it has been historically true as well. The fragmentation of the modern mind (even within itself) is just that – modern. Of course, a new consensus has been suggested: that we all agree that not agreeing is normal. Stanley Hauerwas places this at the very heart of the meaning of modernity:
By modernity, I mean the project to create social orders that would make it possible for each person living in such orders “to have no story except the story they choose when they have no story.” Wilderness Wanderings, 26
This is proving to be the most destructive aspect of the modern world. “To have a story” requires that someone else consent to the story – we do not live alone (even when we pretend that is our story). The only means of generating a consensus that has no basis other than “the story I choose,” is coercion. The social cohesion of consensus is being replaced by various versions of coerced agreement. We are angry.
This is not a game Christians can win, nor is it a game Christians should want to play. The Christian witness is not to a story we choose. Our witness is to things as they truly are. We truly were created out of nothing. We truly are sustained in our very existence by God Himself. Christ truly is God-made-man. He was truly crucified for our sake and truly rose from the dead. None of this is a story that we have chosen. It is the true story we have received (1 Cor. 15:3).
The fundamental orientation of our spiritual life is towards tradition (that which we have received). It is not towards what we choose. The world is not our own creation – it has been given to us. The reality of creation and God’s action within it is our strong argument. Even in our silence the eloquence of that reality speaks unhindered by the false stories of our voluntary modernism. More than this, we live among fellow human beings who, regardless of false choices, are created the same as ourselves and share the same reality whether they acknowledge it or not. It is madness of a sort to live in one reality and yet seek to coerce another. God does not coerce – He woos.
The Christian faith is apocalyptic. It reveals that which is hidden. The Church is the revelation of reality (or it is nothing). To live its life is to live as a revelation of that which is. All of creation agrees with that revelation and utters its yearning “Amen.” If the Church were silent, the rocks themselves would speak their agreement.
You cannot create consensus – it is the gift of God. The Christian vocation is to receive the gift and to live in a gifted existence. This restores us to sanity and unites us with the God who is the only ground of reality – the “author of our being and our God.”