You may have seen a post-apocalyptic movie, where some disaster has taken place and society is left to sort out the rusting metal junkyard that remains. They have bits and pieces of history, science, and technology, but they never have the whole. They stumble upon a piece of technology or a page out of a book and try to understand it, but because the world that made sense of the device or text is gone, they can only toy with their discovery. Often they misuse it.
In his book, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre asks us to consider the possibility that this is the world we currently live in today in terms of morality. We use words like “right,” “wrong,” or “justice,” but they are only fragments of a previous world now lost. Somewhere in the murky past, human society lost its way by losing the story that made sense of right and wrong. Modernism ran toward the cliff, and by and large Postmodernism has only managed to enjoy the fall. Neither have recaptured a substantial footing on which to talk about ethics or morality. As MacIntyre states:
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 of 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, or morality.1
Is this possible? If so, what was the great catastrophe that sent us spiraling out of control? How could it be that such a thing has taken place and we do not remember it?
If it is even possible that MacIntyre’s world is reality, then we owe it to ourselves to go back and look for a world that makes sense out of morality. One possibility is that the detour took place long ago when Western civilization decided it could accomplish the work of ethics without the support of God, of the Church, or of the Scriptures. When right and wrong are discussed without the support of the theological foundation that gives to these terms their meaning, the words hang limply in the air, destined to fall. Without God, what can we ever truly know about what is “good”?
Is there any hope then? Are we lost in the darkness? After a two hundred and sixty plus page treatment of the problem, MacIntyre still may not have the solution, but he offers a little light at the end of the tunnel:
What matters at this stage is 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. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.2
Why Benedict? MacIntyre does not really explain, but a look at the prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict might help:
Listen carefully, my child,
to your master’s precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father’s advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
The enemy is within, and the night is dark. But MacIntyre and Benedict point to a solution that will surely be a visitation of the past. We must remember what we have forgotten. We must remember He Whom we have forgotten — He Who alone is both God and Good.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)