Integrity in an Age of Irony

September 1 st 1999

To understand our work, we have to think about it in the context of the whole of our lives, and in the context of the times in which we live. Two recent books help us on our way toward understanding these two contexts.

When Jedediah Purdy mailed away the manuscript of his first book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today (Knopf, 1999), he lit the fuse on a firecracker that set off an avalanche of indignant criticism.

The New York Times castigated Purdy for peddling "crashingly obvious ideas." Harper's Magazine branded him a "cornpone prophet," and excoriated him for his "unctuous sentimentality."

A reviewer in The New York Observer wrote that he hopes "Purdy is no harbinger of things to come. If he is, get ready for a gassy, sanctimonious post-ironic age." This reviewer finds For Common Things "so bloated with bombast that one begins to wish that the gene for pomposity could be extirpated for the sake of future generations."

The web magazine Salon describes Purdy as "a fresh-faced 24-year-old with a prescription for a better America" who "is way, way out of his depth." According to this reviewer, "it is one of the advantages of a traditional education that children who suck up to adults too cravenly are methodically cornered and beaten by their peers. Perhaps because he never enjoyed this behavior modification [Purdy was homeschooled until the age of 13] Purdy seems to have internalized his parents' boilerplate unhindered. He has grown up to write a book of intellectual-fogy porn."

Avoiding naivete

What is this "fresh-faced 24-year-old" saying that his critics find so upsetting?

Purdy's writing is a little over the top. In the preface he describes For Common Things as "one young man's letter of love for the world's possibilities." In the final paragraph of the book he calls for "a kind of thought and action that is too little contemplated yet remains possible . . . a slow, unceasing work whose ground and aim is ecstasy." Ecstasy?!

It is not, however, Purdy's style that sends his reviewers into purple-faced paroxysms. It is his central claim that our culture has been made shallow and sad because of a pervasive stance of ironic detachment.

Purdy wrote For Common Things "as a response to an ironic time." He claims that "irony has become our marker of worldliness and maturity. The ironic individual practices a style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance of naivete—of naive devotion, belief, or hope."

The source of this culturally pervasive irony—"most pronounced among media-savvy young people"—is "a fear of betrayal, disappointment, and humiliation, and a suspicion that believing, hoping, or caring too much will open us to these."

Beyond this fear, the contemporary ironist "expresses a perception that the world has grown old, flat, and sterile, and that we are rightly weary of it. There is nothing to delight, move, inspire, or horrify us. Nothing will ever surprise us."

That such weariness of the world is not unique to our time, Purdy recognizes by using as the epigraph to his first chapter Ecclesiastes 1: 8-9: "All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun."

According to Purdy, "the point of irony is a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech—especially earnest speech":

We practice a form of irony insistently doubtful of the qualities that would make us take another person seriously: the integrity of personality, sincere motivation, the idea that opinions are more than symptoms of fear or desire. We are wary of hope, because we see little that can support it. Believing in nothing much, especially not in people, is a point of vague pride, and conviction can seem embarrassingly naive.

A spiritual anaesthetic

In a culture awash in irony, Christians find that commitment to deep relationships, sincerity of motives, and efforts to speak the truth in love are relentlessly subjected to corrosive ridicule. Even among Christians, the Great Commandment of the moment is "don't take yourself too seriously." Over time, such a stance makes it difficult for us to take ourselves—or one another—seriously at all.

In these circumstances, one of the greatest challenges facing (naively believing) Christian folk is that of sustaining integrity. Connecting what we believe with how we live. Every day. For a lifetime. Even if, as a result, we appear simpletons in the eyes of our sophisticated friends and workmates.

Sustaining integrity against irony is not impossible—but it is not easy. Underlying the presently fashionable irony in North American culture is a widespread relativism and pragmatism.

In combination, this relativism and pragmatism has the effect of a spiritual anaesthetic. It numbs the heart. Why bother taking anything seriously, when the best answer our culture can come up with to any of the Really Big Questions of Life is "Whatever"? And why even try to live a consistent life when the only widely accepted moral guideline is "So long as it works"?

Now, relativism does not make for a robust worldview, nor does pragmatism make for a coherent way of life. One would imagine that a more robust worldview and a more coherent way of life—say, that of Reformation Christianity—could easily withstand the corrosive force of irony. Not so.

Yes, reformation Christianity can (against relativism's "whatever") explain what life is for. And yes, reformation Christianity does (against pragmatism's "whatever works") provide a framework of norms we can live by. But in the present situation, where our biggest fear has become that of being duped, of being taken for a ride, of appearing to be naive rubes, irony trumps integrity.

Jedediah Purdy writes poignantly:

These are the conflicting moods of the time. We are skeptical, ironic, and inclined to an impoverished self-reliance. At the same time, we want to give up the ironist's jaded independence and believe that we are not alone, that we can find moral communities, clear obligations, and even miracles. We doubt the possibility of being at home in the world, yet we desire that home above all else. We are certain only of ourselves—if in a somewhat precarious way—and we work toward the certainty of something larger. We are fragmentary, even masters of fragmentation, and we hunger for wholeness.

Where can we find moral communities? How can we discern our obligations with clarity? How do we overcome our fragmentation—and its symptomatic irony—and find wholeness? Is it possible to be at home in the world?

Acid rain of adult responsibility

If Steven Garber's The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief & Behavior During the University Years (IVP, 1996) was subject to the same reviewers as Purdy's For Common Things, he would probably have had some strips of his skin ripped off too. But books like these do not in our time appear on the cultural radar of the New York Times, the New York Observer, Harper's Magazine, or www.Salon.com—which is a measure of the present poverty of North American culture.

Garber writes that

many students, perhaps most, emerge from their university experience ready to take on the world; the idealism of youth, we call it. But then somewhere along the way the reality of life in the fast lane of adult responsibility hits—sometimes like a ton of bricks, sometimes like acid rain. In a thousand ways they see how hard it is to be faithful to family, at work, in politics. Day in and day out they experience disappointments in every part of life—every part of life—and see how hard it is to be hopeful (and therefore responsible) actors in human history as they try to be neighbors to those next door and to those around the world.

Having "explored the challenge of facing up to modernity," having "looked at a variety of factors that bear down on the formation of moral meaning in the modern world," Garber concluded that "the end of it all . . . for 'ordinary people living ordinary lives', is a profound loss of coherence."

And so he began to investigate this central issue: sustainable integrity. Why do some people make the connection between faith and life, between worldview and way of life, while others do not? Why do some people make the connection, but then, over time, find their lives becoming increasingly incoherent?

Garber's investigation required much reading. It also meant finding people who lived lives of sustained integrity:

I also began interviewing people who had developed into the kind of people I always wanted my students to become: folk who were intentional about connecting what they believed with how they lived, across the spectrum of their responsibilities as human beings, personally as well as publicly. The criteria that I set were these: (1) they needed to be twenty or more years beyond their university experience, as less time would not allow for habits of heart to be substantially established, and (2) they needed to be people who consciously cared about making the connection between belief and behavior. And they must not have given up on the effort to do so, even amidst the tremendous pressures—from the world, the flesh and the devil—to stop trying.

Somehow, Garber found, some people not only survive in the midst of this "profound loss of coherence," they thrive. To return to Purdy, some people do not succumb to the small comforts of irony in the midst of overwhelming fragmentation, but find wholeness, and find themselves to be at home in the world.

"In contrast to every expectation," writes Garber, there are people who, after twenty or more years of adult life, "still believe in the vision of a coherent life—personally as well as publically—having made choices about the meaning of their lives which have sustained them in the more complex responsibilities of adulthood."

Tenacious connectors

How did these tenacious connectors survive the wear and tear of everyday life? What were the means of protection that safeguarded them from the common fate of lost integrity? Garber's findings are not spectacular, but they ring true:

Over the course of hours of listening to people who still believe in the vision of a coherent faith, one that meaningfully connects personal disciplines with public duties, again and again I saw that they were people (1) who had formed a worldview sufficient for the challenges of the modern world, (2) who had found a teacher who incarnated that worldview and (3) who had forged friendships with folk whose common life was embedded in that worldview. There were no exceptions.

If we want to connect what we believe with how we live and work, then, three beginning guidelines will get and keep us going in the right direction.

  • Acquire a worldview—a coherent set of convictions—that gives meaningful, true answers to the Really Big Questions of Life, answers sufficient for a lifetime of enduring the acid rain of irony.

  • Find more experienced Christian folk whose lives and character serve as evidence for the possibility of sustained integrity, and who will serve us as mentors—and if you happen to be one of those more experienced Christian folk, serve younger Christians as a mentor.

  • Forge friendships with mutually committed peers, building a community whose common life journey, embedded in a coherent worldview, offers a matrix of prompts and supports in which we can personally, practically connect what we believe with how we live.

Convictions, character, and community. These are the non-negotiables, necessary to sustain a life of integrity in an age of irony.

 

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.

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