Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives. — Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition
One of the movements I am tracing in this conversation between Queer Theology and Spiritual Formation is the loss of telos. This Greek word refers to the purpose, end, the state of flourishing any being is meant to exemplify. The telos of a watch is generally to tell time accurately; it may be digital or analog, clad in gold or plastic, but if it at a glance it supplies you the hour and minute and even second, then it is a good example of its kind. (In some situations the telos of a watch, however, may be status, so that the gold band and precision of the gear works are inseparable from its function in context.) If you wish to see the telos of a dog I point you to the example of Arete, my German Shepherd-yellow lab mix, who lives up to her name (virtue).
Telos seems essential from the reference of spiritual formation; for, if we think there is a character being shaped within us, we must have an idea of what shape would be good to take on, a telos for humanity. But this is just what Queer Theory would push back against, citing the ways these norms become oppressive and diminish our awareness of the flux and instability of human experience and expression. Indeed, telos is out of vogue for most modern and postmodern philosophy, and theology is running along to catch up.
One of the threads I would trace in this development is the movement of narrative in moral discernment. For, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue, those moral theories which take telos into account always lean on a wider narrative structure for practical reasoning. One can’t just make general rules or principles; to discern the good, one must take into account one’s situation, context, supply a narrative (who am I, what would goodness mean for one in my role, what kinds of obstacles or challenges are at play, what tensions in need of resolution) in order to make specific applications.
But narrative, too, has become suspect, with postmodern theorists like Derrida and Foucault emphasizing the way grand meta-narratives — stories providing context and meaning to all of human life and action — are usually a cloak that obscure power dynamics.
I would trace a general movement in Western culture, from narrative to meta-narrative, to incredulity toward meta-narrative, in broad terms as follows:
- In early moral reasoning, humans have narratival identity, but this is extremely local. We have our gods, other groups have their gods, and the two don’t come into “comparison” but have different spheres of operation. That being said, we may regard other groups as inferior, sub-human. This continues into the Greek mindset straight through Aristotle, where one must be formed by a city-state, best of all Athens, to count as a moral agent. Others are “barbarians” who fall outside the bounds of the narrative structure of human moral life. So narrative is essential, but limited in scope.
- Developments from the prophetic tradition of Israel, straight up through Jesus and the following Christian movement, increasingly posit a universal narrative. We have narratival identity in a universal story (Christendom) — there is only One God over all creation; others are benighted and do not have a true alternative narrative, and ideally should be brought within our narrative. This stance is still local in the sense that one must belong to, be formed by, the Church in order to participate in the narrative. But it is universal in ambition in a way that the Greek city-state was not, for it imagines the possibility (even if not the likelihood) of all humanity included in One Catholic Church.
- Through the Reformation and Enlightenment, Western Christendom moves from narrative to moral principles (this shift is traced by Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self and A Secular Age). We become so sure our Western narrative is in fact universal that we cease to see it as narrative at all, and see it as rational, human, obvious to anyone who will look at the situation properly. There is a shift here which leads Christendom toward Colonialism. Western European horizons fail to seem like “horizons,” the horizons are wiped away (Nietzsche will pick up on this later), so anyone who does not share our stance is sub-human, irrational, in a way that enables the West to subjugate and enslave them. “Story” disappears, is re-christened “Reason” and permits of no alternatives.
- After some time we begin see the cracks in universality and the way it promotes, in the name of Freedom and Reason and Fraternity, the subjugation and oppression of alternative voices. Foucault is particularly powerful in tracing this in works like Discipline and Punish and The History of Madness, as monolithic Reason (itself a gargantuan, all-encompassing meta-narrative about human persons) aims to bring all persons under its sway without exception. The birth of the surveillance and police state is one expression of this, as is the self-disciplining materialism of capitalism. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Derrida, Camus are only a few of those who make much of showing how our “Reason” is only a story which in the telling makes us unable to see it as a story.
- Now we are reluctant to allow that there is any story, any “essence” of human persons, in order to maintain freedom of individuals and to resist the disciplinary modes of state and culture. Queer theology is a direct expression of this hermeneutic of suspicion. There are only local “stories” again — but the difference from stage 1 is, none of these stories can claim to be “true” in anything like the naive sense that an ancient human would claim. Our uncovering of power dynamics and the failure of the claims of universal human reason make us deeply uncomfortable with any narrative that suggests itself as true in any absolute sense — these views we label “fundamentalist” and eye nervously. There can no longer be good reasons provided for having one story rather than another; this is seen as entirely preferential or situational, and there is no way to arbitrate between local stories. For who can stand outside of their story to act as judge? Who can have the view from nowhere?
What I will want to argue is that stages 4 and 5 are entirely correct to reject the monolithic attempts at Universal Reason of stage 3, and that we should indeed again embrace the nature of our stories as local and contextual, rather than universal. But what I will also want to suggest is that this does not prevent us from having and providing good reasons for holding that our story in some way describes reality accurately, to the best of our ability as limited human agents. The conversation between alternative stories turns out to be essential to having good reasons for holding our particular story as true. I will also want to suggest that it is best for Queer, oppressed and marginal voices for us to have a means of moral discernment between competing narratives, because only then can their voices truly count in shifting horizons toward a more adequate and more nuanced conception of human telos.