Adventures in Recovering the Telos

CatonsvilleBy Tommy Airey

It was a cool Tuesday night in mid-June, four hours north of Detroit and forty-five days after the death of Daniel Berrigan. Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann gathered an intergenerational group from among original members and friends of the Detroit Peace Community–so named by members of Jonah House back in 1980 during a week of civil disobedience at the Pentagon. This night’s topic was the Catonsville Nine action of 1968, the mid-day, non-violent storming of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board: they took 378 draft files and set them on fire with homemade napalm in the parking lot and then waited in prayer and song for the police to show up. It sparked hundreds of similar actions all over North America. After Bill’s introduction and historical context, we read The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a reworked transcript of the trial, put to poetry by Berrigan. I was struck by how coherently these nine spoke about the theological and spiritual motivations for their hit-and-stay action. They were all speaking the same compelling language.

Nearly fifty years after Catonsville, caught up in our own personal and political traumas, weighed down by alienation and addiction, we find ourselves confused by an onslaught of Babel: talking right past each other, in different frames and languages. We lack cohesive narratives. We are fragmented, clichéd and sound-bited, dehumanized and undignified by the nuggets of trivia mined from social media, playlists, TV and newspaper headlines–not to mention the roles, rules and legacies embedded in us from our families of origins: our patterned ways of relating that become like scripts performed without conscious thought.

A year before Catonsville, Rev. Martin Luther King proclaimed, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’” A viable Trump candidacy signals a culture ever so close to a total poisoning, unabashedly committed to an intersectionality of destructive ideologies famously articulated by bell hooks: imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Evo Morales, the first indigenous President of Bolivia (since 2006), recently said this about our global context:

The world is being hit by a world-wide multiple crisis that is manifested in a climate, financial, food, institutional, cultural, ethical and spiritual crisis. This crisis indicates to us that we are living in the final days of capitalism and unbridled consumerism; that is, of a model of society in which human beings claim to be superior to Mother Earth, converting nature into an object of their merciless predatory domination.

What now? A few months back, Michelle Alexander, posted to Facebook that we need to focus on “something we desperately need — a coherent philosophy regarding our ultimate goal, the world we aim to create”—what the old British philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre referred to as the telos (the Greek word for “goal” or “end”). MacIntyre proposed that people living in the wealthy, industrialized West, by and large, have lost any sense of personal and communal telos, stripped of a coherent goal which centers and roots our ideals and decisions. This is a relevant word for radical disciples—the word “radical” itself from the Latin meaning “rooted.” We find ourselves more rootless than ever, fifty years after Bob Dylan sang to our parents and grandparents, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.”

MacIntyre’s “virtue ethics” sought to recover the telos by being scripted into a cohesive narrative historically told by a faith or ethical tradition. Ultimately, this kind of moral transformation is galvanized by a commitment to practices that are congruent with the story we find ourselves in. Virtues (like honesty, humility and hospitality) are skills for living that allow communities to live out these practices in more compelling ways.

Nearly twenty years ago, working from MacIntyre’s analysis, theologian Jonathan Wilson wrote a beautifully accessible little book titled Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (1997) offering a serious solution: embrace monasticism. These “new monastic” communities had four foci:

  1. The recovery of the telos: the world is soaked in divine presence and cannot be divided into sacred and secular.
  2. The whole people of God: not religious/secular vocations, but all people serve and have a voice.
  3. A disciplined, “restricted space” to practice exhortation, correction, reconciliation.
  4. Deep theological reflection: providing means to recover a radical Christian witness in the world.

Radical Christian disciples are challenged to commit themselves to small communities with the primary goal of being transformed into prophetic characters of God’s Story, resisting and repenting from the counterfeit stories of our culture and families. It is important to remind ourselves, though, that none of this is new. We are in a long tradition of communities that have committed to hold prophetic space, to be a minority report of the Christian Story: the desert fathers/mothers, the Franciscans, the Waldensians, the Anabaptists, the Quakers, the American Civil Rights Movement, Catholic Workers, Plowshares Activists, Prophetic American Christianity (versus Constintinian Christianity), the North American Radical Discipleship Movement. Truly, we are not alone: there is a great cloud of witnesses.

I believe a Christian telos is to participate with God in the healing and redemption of the world (there are many ways to name this in compelling ways). That’s the point of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus and it is the goal for communities to claim his name. We think globally, but act locally, starting with the healing of our selves and our watersheds. However, we’ve been hoodwinked into not taking the Christian telos seriously enough. It competes, intermingles and is overwhelmed by a purpose-driven consumerism catering to institutional survival, a clinging to power and privilege, upward mobility, social respectability and a blend of success, comfort, convenience and legacy. As British biblical scholar N.T. Wright put it:

Christians, like everybody else, are often muddled, mistaken, foolish and wayward, and are probably trying to ride at least one other horse at the same time as the Christian one.

The Christian telos is rooted in a narrative about an ever-present God who is passionate, intimate, open-hearted and emotionally expressive, not triumphant, distant and transcendent. One of Rainer Maria Rilke’s prayers starts:

We must not portray you in king’s robes,
You drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

This God is the one Paul speaks of to the Athenians:

that we would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For “In God we live and move and have our being.”

Meister Eckhardt wrote about a vocation of playing hide and go seek with this God:

God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding and so gives himself away. God lies in wait for us with nothing so much as love.

But this God does take sides and expects us to do the same. As the 16th century Catholic priest (and advocate for the indigenous of “the new world”) Bartolome de las Casas proclaimed:

God is the one who always remembers those whom history has forgotten.

God woos and beckons us to join in on the adventure of putting the world back together again—to de-colonize and de-civilize it.

The telos and the narrative can only take us so far though. Practices put the goal on the ground. To participate with God in the healing and redemption of the world is to make a commitment to nonviolent communication and conflict resolution (both inside and outside our communities); to undoing white supremacy and patriarchy; to serving community potlucks; to the Benedictine lectio divina and the Ignatian examen; to planting gardens; to conducting watershed tours; to cultivating a culture of welcoming strangers; to mutual edification, empowerment and gratitude; to solidarity and advocacy for just policies; to liturgical direct action; to Bible Study and social analysis workshops; to writing and sharing spiritual autobiographies; to creative celebration of birthdays and earth days; to play; to resource sharing (cars, bikes, tools, food, money); to Sabbath and boundary keeping; to share positive gossip (“Did you hear what so-and-so did today?”). None of this just happens.

What if individuals, couples and families committed to disciplines that made it so that they could contribute more effectively to the cause? It will take real inner work to heal the trauma weighing down our souls: daily journaling on what is going on inside of us; centering prayer; therapy; family systems genogram work; 12-step recovery meetings; grief work; Enneagram and Myers Briggs personality typologies.

Along the way, members of the community cultivate virtues that magnify the power of practices: humility, noticing, authenticity, vulnerability, presence, welcoming, honesty, responsibility, dignity, simplicity. A cursory glance at the list reminds us that these skills for living are rare, not possessed by too many around us. Imagine a community specializing in them.

All of this is about the work of reconstructing what John Main called a serious Christian faith. There are trivial and solemn faith options all around us, adept at driving so many away from real spiritual healing into cul-de-sacs of narcissism, cynicism, apathy, indifference. A trivial faith dwells in denial; a solemn one in despair. A serious faith is about accountability, responsibility, commitment—dare we say covenant even? It is about learning to embrace the constant tension of love and lament, gratitude and grief, promise and peril. Truly, this must entail participation in a community that is intentional.

The late political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote:

I’m more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society, where one then runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death. In these circumstances, a sense of humor is a great help.

Fifty years after Catonsville, radical discipleship “communities of discontinuity” huddle on the fringes, carving safe spaces to repent from and resist empire. In the process of participating with God in the healing of the world, our stories and practices have the potential to transform us (and the world) in compelling ways. In the meantime, both our language and our laughter cultivate a sense of coherence, a rare ingredient for authentic community in these fragmented times.

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