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Acta Theologica

On-line version ISSN 2309-9089
Print version ISSN 1015-8758

Acta theol. vol.32 n.2 suppl. Bloemfontein Dec. 2012


Open-ended narrative and moral formation



John Klaasen

Faculty of Arts Ethics, Religion and Theology Department of Religion and Theology, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Private Bag X17, Bellville 7535, South Africa. E-mail:




A narrative approach for moral formation must take the shortcomings of abstract reason seriously. Two specific attempts to a narrative approach, narrative as a means to an end and the supra-narrative approach, do not address these shortcomings and are inadequate approaches for moral formation.

An open ended narrative approach considers reason as an important phenomenon for moral formation. The shortcomings of using abstract reason such as the neglect of tradition, community and the particular finds relevance in the way reason is used in an open ended narrative approach. Reason is not rejected, but it is used in a more holistic way that includes critical reflection.

Keywords: Narrative; Moral formation; Theology

Trefwoorde: Narratief; Morele vorming; Teologie




Moral judgments are embedded in modernity. Modernity is characterised by the use of reason, the understanding of the self as autonomous, and rules that can be applied universally. The problems of modernity include the reduction of the self into different parts, the neglect of the past, and the social nature of the self.

The weakness of modernity, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, is the compartmentalisation of the self. He claims that any attempt to view human life as a whole has social and philosophical problems:

The social obstacles derive from the way in which modernity partitions each human life into a variety of segments, each with its own norms and modes of behaviour ... The philosophical obstacles derive from two distinct tendencies, one chiefly, though not only, domesticated in analytical philosophy and one at home in both sociological theory and in existentialism. The former is the tendency to think atomistically about human action and to analyse complex actions and transactions in terms of simple components ... Equally the unity of a human life becomes invisible to us when a sharp separation is made either between the individual and the roles that he or she plays (Maclntyre 1981:204).

The second weakness relates to actions or decisions that are taken outside of the historical contexts in which the action has its origins or the decision its initiation. An action does not happen in absolute independence, but has a tradition in which the object and subject contribute to meaning. Any decision is a reaction to an action and leads to further reaction. A decision then involves the past and considers the future. The individual cannot cut him-/herself off from previous stages of his/her life. An action or decision in adulthood does not necessarily stand independent from early adulthood. An individual cannot be separated from the profession exercised or vocation lived out. There is not a different set of criteria for the individual and the individual in relation to the profession. For example, it cannot be acceptable for an accountant to misrepresent a financial situation while it is not acceptable for him/her to do so as a parent.

Furthermore, individuals do not make moral decisions without any relationship with other selves. The individual him-/herself is a social being whose very make-up is of a social nature. lndividuals are influenced by others and colonised by forces sometimes beyond their own control. Individuals are "turned into a chorus by our encounters with other selves" (Phelan 1989:58).

These weaknesses relate to modernity's use of reason. Reason was meant to solve all the moral and political problems of the world. Reason turned individuals into absolute autonomous beings. In other words, decisions are taken independently from anything outside of the self. Reason rejects history as an important phenomenon in morality and neglects the particular in favour of universality. Space and time have meaning in the present, and the past has little significance for decision-making or moral action.

This article argues for the use of open ended-narrative where reason is viewed as critical engagement with community and tradition. The story of a community in a particular space and time, with specific beliefs about itself and everything that is associated with it, takes an inductive approach to morality. The shortcomings of the use of reason in modernity are fundamentals of narrative. These include the historical context and the social nature of the self.



2.1 The use of narrative as a means to an end in the work of Everett

Everett illustrates how symbols and images such as journey or woodcraft foster moral formation. With regard to journey, he claims that

The effort to strike a new covenant of national reconciliation at Blood River in 1998 was a similar attempt to reconstruct the meaning of that destination of the Voortrekker's journey as the beginning of a new journey toward a just sharing of the land (Everett, 2003:170).

According to him, woodcraft can be regarded as a sacramental action that brings the creative power of God into tangible form

as a protest against our alienation and an earnest of the joyful creation yet to come (Everett, 2005:15).

Everett applies symbols associated with liberalism, or what I term the public story, to Christianity to show that Christianity can play a meaningful role in modern society if it reforms its symbols so that it fosters liberal values. This, he states, is possible when worship is transformed in such a way that it becomes the rehearsal of God's right order. Worship is defined as:

[S]ymbolic drama encompassing the whole argument of words, music, arts, movement, space, and dramatic sequence. The word worship, of course, indicates that this symbolic action points us to something that is worthy and especially what is worthy of our praise and devotion. That is, it lifts up this symbolic activity as an ethical action that vivifies and inculcates values to direct our lives. It is our paradigm of service. It rehearses the goals, powers, and patterns we are to serve in our lives (Everett 1999:32).

Two of the important characteristics of worship are, firstly, that worship is an enactment of what is already known and, secondly, that it is an activity that anticipates the final event. With regard to the former, Everett states that worship is the representation of memory in such a way that the familiar becomes perfect and the participants rehearse the story with authority (Everett 1999:34). The latter refers to the "eschaton". Participation is based on that which is yet to come:

It is a matter of story more than of idea, of narrative more than proposition, of creative action rather than imitation of an eternal form. Worship is always a preparatory activity in light of this coming fullness of God's creative work (Everett 1999:34).

2.1.1 Public as image of worship

In another attempt to show the connection between the two narratives, Everett claims that worship is best presented as public. "Public", for Everett, refers to assemblies gathered around a common desire to share life and common land. Persons are united by a sense of justice expressed in love and not loyalty to hierarchical authorities, which is evident in most established liturgies used in worship. Open argument among the members is common in order to gain a better understanding of commonalities and things not yet experienced (Everett 1999:55).

The public is also a collection of citizens with public virtues that are needed for the public life. These virtues include courage, temperance, prudence, justice, as well as the relationships with theological virtues such as love, hope and faith. However, the central value is equality among the participants (Everett 1999:56).

The image of a public has the theological concept of covenant as its partner. Covenant is a concept of relationship that is rooted in promise and not biological descent. It is relationship and not paternity. Everett states that:

While the abiding power of kingship almost swallowed up this principle of promise, Israel managed to steer away from a sense of kingship with the Divine. The people of Israel were not sons of Yahweh but servants or partners in promise. In anything, ... they were 'sons of the covenant'. They were not descended from God, but chosen and elected by the Holy One. They stood in a relation of political promise rather than biological necessity (Everett 1999:58).

2.1.2 Public and covenant

According to Everett, covenant forms the symbolic bridge between religious traditions of ethics and worship and current political language. As people seek to govern themselves in democratic worlds, this is fulfilled by constitutions. The constitution determines membership, power allocation, authority and the election of officials. Whereas the Torah plays a role in the covenant, law plays a similar role in democratic constitutions (Everett 1999:61).

This clearly demonstrates that Everett draws a close link between the two stories. The covenant and the constitution fulfil the same role. Everett links the stories so that they appear inseparable, even as a continuous whole. He demonstrates this further by pointing out the similarity of roles between the Torah in the covenant and the law in democratic constitutions (Everett 1999:61). He also attempts to show how two narratives can converge to point towards a new future. Journey narratives, he claims, "[are] the act of entering into each other's journeys in order to construct a common journey" (Everett 2003:175).

By indicating the role of law in covenant and constitution, Everett points out the limitations of traditional worship with regard to governance. Rituals such as kneeling, the clasping of hands, bowing and the laying on of hands are expressions of domination. Ordination and consecration are institutionalised personal rules. On the other hand, worship that is rehearsal of God's right order is under governance that is characterised by communication processes. Drawing on cybernetics and the tradition of Wisdom, Everett claims that the role of worship is to foster engagement, learning and collectivity so that the shared common culture, vision, set of values and a comprehensive orientation of the world and the larger historic drama are experienced (Everett 1999:66).

Such worship that takes law and wisdom seriously constitutes the participants as citizens in God's republic. Similarly, as Yahweh was present in the assembly of the Israelites around the reciting of the Torah, so Christians know that God is present in the rehearsal of God's narrative. Dialogue, conferring and counselling take place in such worship (Everett 1999:67).

To overcome the limitations of traditional worship and to make it an interaction among and between the participants and the broader society, it should have the following principles. Firstly, the participants or citizens should be actively involved and not passive listeners. Worship must be structured in such a way that it is inviting, persuasive and eliciting greater publicity. The ecclesia or God's republic becomes a "proto-public" for the broader society. Active participation nourishes the citizens for the wider publicity and in this way the church makes a meaningful contribution to culture and politics (Everett 1999:74).

Secondly, worship is a renewal of the covenant God made with the Israelites. From the travelling ark to the temple in Jerusalem traces the history of God's continual act of redemption, and this covenant is expressed in acts of worship, whether it is baptism, marriage, harvesting or health. Such worship builds trust, hope, care and peace among the citizens.

Thirdly, worship is not only remembering and re-enacting the past, but also anticipating the future. The self-sacrifice of Jesus, as shown in the Eucharist, is a celebration of the past order and the inauguration of the new order that is yet to be fulfilled. In this feast the acts of persuasion, moral judgment, healing and public proclamation are remembered in anticipation of the perfection of the public life (Everett 1999:76).

Fourthly, active participation in rituals, symbols, songs and sermons affirms the patterns of public life and ensures critical engagement with distorted forms of moral life (Everett 1999:77). This moral conversation is demonstrated in the symbol of the Passion Week. During the holy week and including Good Friday, the governance is characterised by reversal, betrayal and death. From Easter to Pentecost, the model is reconstructed from the assumptions of liberation to communication, sharing and mutual care (Everett 1999:79).

Fifthly, unlike the monarchical model of governance in traditional worship, democratic models relate our innermost psychological depth with the broadest relationships of God's creation. Instead of self-control and self-knowledge that leads to destruction forms such as hierarchy and patriarchy, contemporary worship builds relationships on trust, negotiation and the promotion of conciliar approaches to decisions (Everett 1999:80-81).

Sixthly, in worship our sensors are involved in critiquing and legitimating the public ones (Everett, 1999: 83). Finally, worship undergoes a holistic transformation and not changes in words or phrases. The political paradigm in which the words find their origins must be transformed (Everett 1999:85).

Such worship provides important tools for critical engagement, especially with regard to the principles of participatory assembly and critical cultural engagement. The Christian narrative provides a supra-empirical motivation for cultural values and norms which makes it easier to accept such values and norms.

When worship is characterised by such principles, it, together with covenant publicity and its four main features of participation, commonality, persuasion and worldliness, becomes the Christian narrative for moral formation. The four features can easily be correlated with the four principles of the Public story1.

Everett's main weakness is his coercion of the Christian narrative in the Public narrative that is caused by the transformation of worship. The Christian narrative has no or little significance other than to form the morals of the Public story. This is evident in the symbol "God's Federal Republic" for contemporary worship. Such a republic or worship must have two characteristics, namely the fostering of democratic values and the reflection of these values in the transformed symbols. With regard to the latter, he suggests that the symbol Jesus as King must become President Jesus. This approach to narrative makes Everett guilty of arbitrariness. Even when the value is immoral, the Christian narrative provides a basis for making it acceptable.

Although Everett's transformation of worship encourages participation and dialogue, it does so with a sense of coercion and not collegiality. In other words, even dialogue and participation are directed towards the predetermined end, namely the values of democracy. Such dialogue can only take place when reason is applied as abstract because the tradition is not allowed to critically engage with current values and norms.



Hauerwas's narrative approach is closely aligned to communitarianism. To illustrate his use of narrative, I will relate narrative and community to the moral value of freedom.

3.1 Narrative

Hauerwas uses the Christian narrative as the norm for Christian ethics. The Christian narrative applies to both Christians and non-Christians. Whereas Everett claims that the Christian story only has significance as far as it forms the values of the Public story, Hauerwas claims that the Christian story forms the values far beyond the Christian community.

Hauerwas makes three important claims with regard to narrative. Firstly, narrative shows the self and the world as creatures - as contingent beings. In other words, narratives are "epistemical", fundamental for our knowledge of God and ourselves, since we know ourselves only in the broader understanding of life in relation to God. Secondly, narrative is the characteristic form of our awareness as historical beings that give an account of the relation between temporary discrete realities. Selves exist in relation with other selves in a living tradition. Consistent with the dominant African philosophy2 of community, the self is subordinate to the community. Thirdly, God's revelation is best understood narratively in the history of Israel and the life of Jesus Christ. Scripture tells the story of the history of Israel in the covenant relationship between God and the people and the relationship between Jesus Christ and the church.

3.1.1 Narrative and freedom

Whereas the Public story describes freedom in relation to laws and commandments, Hauerwas claims that freedom is best understood in relation to the world and how one views the world3.

The world is important for freedom, because it determines one's actions. A distorted view of the world, one that is formed by our unchanged story, will result in a distorted morality. To act upon such a distortion results, in turn, in a distortion of one's own nature.

One must learn to view one's world properly in order to respond to the world as creation of God. This creation is part of the narrative of God which forms the narrative of the selves who view the world as part of God's unfolding narrative. In addition, to view the world means to speak the language of God's kingdom, a language that requires transformation of the self, in order for the self to be truthful.

Freedom does not mean obeying the laws or enjoying rights, but it means being able to perceive that one is a sinner if one interprets the world through one's own story. Hauerwas claims that the narrative provides the

skills to help me locate my sin as fundamentally infidelity and rebellion. As a creature I have been created for loyalty - loyalty to truth, to the love that moves the sun and the stars and yet is found on a cross - but I find myself serving any powers but the true one in the hope of being my own lord (Hauerwas 1983:31).

To do something about the sin, the self acknowledges that to be part of God's narrative means to be a disciple. This means placing the self in the history of God and taking on the life made possible by God's redemptive acts on the cross.

3.2 Community

Hauerwas is a communitarian ethicist who was influenced by classical figures such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Calvin and Wesley as well as by contemporary scholars such as Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Paul Ramsey, James Gustafson and Fred Carney. John Howard Yoder and Alasdair MacIntyre have a significant influence on his writing. With regard to MacIntyre, Hauerwas affirms his critique of contemporary philosophical ethics and the alternative that shows the importance of community with regard to both methodological and social ethical questions. The work of Yoder helped Hauerwas to theologise the work of MacIntyre. Yoder's influence is especially noticeable in the critique of the historical approach of philosophical ethics. In response to a critique from Stout about his use of democracy, Hauerwas draws on Yoder to state that "the church is an alternative politics" (Hauerwas, 2007:151). Hauerwas claims that:

As Christians we believe we not only need a community, but a community of a particular kind to live well morally. We need a people who are capable of being faithful to a way of life, even when that way of life may be in conflict with what passes as 'morality' in the larger society. Christians are a people who have learned that belief in God requires that we learn to look upon ourselves as creatures rather than creators. This necessarily creates division between us and others who persist in the pretentious assumption that we can and should be morally autonomous. Of course Christians are as prone to such pretensions as non-Christians are. What distinguishes them is a willingness to belong to a community, which embodies the stories, the rituals, and others committed to worshipping God. Such a community, we believe, must challenge our prideful pretensions as well as provide the skills for the humility necessary for becoming not just good, but holy (Hauerwas 1983:35).

Hauerwas's precise community draws a sharp contrast between the church and the world. The community, also known as the church community, is formulated by its involvement in the narrative of God. The world or liberal communities are formed through ideas and systems, and assumes that right belief shapes right action or right choices. Whereas the liberal communities are formed by "what we think", the church community is formed by "what is shaping our desires, our bodies".

The church community also differs from liberal communities in the tasks it performs. The task of the church is to be the church so that the world may know that it too is a creation of God. The church does this by its distinct practices and language. By contrast, the task of the world is to embrace the church's narrative through the formation of the church's habits and character. This assumption is summed up in Hauerwas's claim that Jesus has entrusted the salvation of the world to the church and not the world (Hauerwas 1996:53).

Freedom means "the presence of the other". The needs of other people render self-absorption irrelevant and place the other as important for the discovery of the self. The task and responsibility of Christians is to tell and live the story of God (Hauerwas 1996:44). Unlike the liberalist claim of absolute independence of the individual, a narrative takes the interdependent relationship of selves seriously. Hauerwas, for example, qualifies his critique of feminism by raising his objection to the use of liberal individualism: "My primary worry about certain forms of feminism is their idiom, an idiom determined by liberal individualism" (Hauerwas 2012:302).

The interdependence of selves is not about "natural affinities" as, for example, in the biological establishment of the bond between parent and child. Such bonds would reduce the connection established by adoption to merely a "paradigmatic form of parent/child relation". From a theological point of view baptism makes us all adoptive parents (Hauerwas 2012:300).

While Hauerwas makes a strong case for narrative without falling into fideism (faith without reason), arbitrariness (according to the divine command theory) and the rejection of nature (Catholic natural law ethics), his theory has serious weaknesses.

Whereas Everett gives a one-dimensional/limited role to the Christian narrative for moral formation, Hauerwas goes to the other extreme. He makes the Christian narrative normative or at least the supra-narrative.

Hauerwas's narrative approach to Christian ethics has been accused of sectarianism and his use of community in ethics as unrealistic. In the later writings of Hauerwas, his community becomes far removed from the world. In Resident aliens he mentions that:

[l]ife in the colony is not a settled affair. Subject to constant attacks upon and sedition against its most cherished virtues, which in the name of freedom and equality subjugates everyone . the Christian colony can be appreciated by its members as a challenge (Hauerwas 1989:51).

To equate the church community with that of a colony and its inhabitants with aliens in the world suggests that the church is very different and separated from the world.

Hauerwas's overemphasis on the Christian community is evident in his rejection of the work of Richard H. Niebuhr which he uses extensively in his earlier writings. One can conclude that he rejects diversity or reciprocity in favour of similarity. Niebuhr's idea of history as both internal and external suggests that the narratives of the society or the world are important for the Christian community.

When narrative is normative in the way in which he uses it, there is no mutual exchange of ideas and knowledge, and the church becomes alien, because of its retreat into itself instead of engaging critically with other traditions. For example, a particular stand on cloning will be moral in this tradition without the possibility of testing it against other traditions.

Reason as abstract or reason as it functions in the Kantian categorical imperative has no or a very limited role in Hauerwas's approach. Reason is not the foundation of morality, but narrative is. This does not mean that Hauerwas rejects reason completely. This is evident in his defence against fideism, the complete rejection of human knowledge. He argues though that human knowledge is not sufficient for Christian ethics.



Open-ended narrative uses reason as critical engagement of community, particular and history. Reason is not used as an abstract phenomenon, but as both an independent and a dependent variable. In other words, by its very nature, reason forms and is informed. Reason is a process that happens in, and influences specific circumstances and contexts, yet it is also influenced.

With regard to community, I refer to the formation of the individual self in relationships. The self is never in isolation, but as a social being develops through interaction. The self is neither above the community nor suppressed to subordination or coerced into an identity that is alien to the self. The self becomes in relation to other selves and chooses the good as the self in relationship with other selves.

If reason is used as an intellectual activity that is abstract, then individuals is abstract atomic. Reason should not be as sharply contrasted to narrative as Hauerwas does, for he too uses reason in his engagement with regard to values. Reason and narrative form part of a more holistic approach, of which critical engagement is the foundation.

Tradition refers to:

... the furniture of the mind that is shared by the community and which makes their conversation possible. That is to say, tradition is the shared language that makes communication possible, or more accurately, it is the shared understanding of language that makes communication possible. Because words take their meaning from context and from the way they are used historically, a particular tradition can be understood then as the shared cultural understanding that binds a community together (Lucie-Smith 2007:4).

In this sense, tradition includes dialogue with the authorities of the past, engagement with present experiences and discerning possibilities of progress. It is not merely acceptance of universal and timeless truths, but engaging in order to bring greater clarity through rational conversation. On the one hand, tradition is about shared history with events, persons and periods and, on the other, bringing deeper meanings to these aspects that form part of tradition through reason.

Tradition does not use language as a set of disembodied rules or segments of the whole. By contrast, it takes seriously the symbolic and metaphorical nature of language. Symbolic language expresses reality as a whole and is not restricted by empirical analysis and universal rules. Symbolic language has meaning in the community and opens up new possibilities that are not restricted to the particular community.

A narrative approach to morality should take particularity as an important consideration for moral formation. Liberalists apply universal principles to morality, politics and philosophy. By universal principles is meant principles that are applied across cultural and social barriers. It goes across time and space and is applied in an abstract way. In other words, the same principles are applied in different contexts. This also means that moral norms do not depend on the consequences or circumstances for their meaning. If an act cannot have meaning independent of consequence and circumstance, then the act cannot be applied universally and has no validity as a moral act.

A narrative approach considers the specific context and treats each context in its particular time and space. This does not mean that principles can only be intelligently applied to specific selves or communities and not across different communities. Neither does it mean that principles are applied to every context in an abstract way. It means that the application of principles takes the specific context as meaningful. It has meaning even beyond the borders of a community. The principles applied in one context can be applied in others with the consideration that an act has validity based on the particular circumstances of the community, including other communities that share common goals and aims or whose circumstances and consequences are common.

Community, tradition and the particular form an integral part of my way of using narrative. Community, tradition and the particular do not necessarily stand as opposites of liberalism, but differ in the way in which reason is used for moral formation. In the narrative approach that I suggest, reason is not meant to solve all the problems of the modern or postmodern world. Instead of using individualism, universal principles and law as absolutes, an open-ended narrative approach suggests reason as critical engagement with community, tradition and the particular.

In my idea of an open-ended narrative in which morality is formed, law and principles cannot be rejected for moral formation. I do agree with some virtue ethicists that law and principles or individual rationality on its own are not sufficient for moral formation, especially in pluralistic societies. In this regard, Gill states:

Pointing out the importance of moral communities in fashioning and sustaining values in our society need not become an excuse for irrationality. It is rather a claim that individual, isolated rationality is quite simply, in it, an insufficient resource for a profound morality. Moral communities without the critique of rationality can become tyrannical, arbitrary and perhaps even demonic. But atomized rationality without moral communities seems incapable (despite attempts) of fashioning and sustaining goodness beyond self- interest (Gill 1989:64-65).

Rationality manifests itself through encounter and confrontation with rivals. Differences need to be tolerated and settled in dialogue. What is required for the progress of rationality is peaceful co-existence of the rivalries which debate and argue fundamental differences in a non-threatening manner.

Open-ended narrative allows for interplay between narratives. There is a crossing over from the one to the other as well as continuation. In such an understanding of narrative, the one does not dominate the other, but two narratives engage critically to form morality. In such an approach to moral formation, narrative has the following characteristics:

  • It must be critical in its reflection on moral formation. Because the story is open-ended or in continuation, continuous reflection keeps the narrative truthful, consistent and relevant.
  • It must seek commonalities with other narratives of the set society. Commonalities are important for norms which provide a framework within which formation takes place.
  • Symbols and symbolic language are important to link two narratives into a "functional whole".



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1 The four features of covenant publicity and the four characteristics of democracy are discussed in some detail in my doctoral thesis entitled "The interplay between the Christian story and the Public story: In search of commonalities for moral formation under democratic rule" (2008:44-51).
2 By the dominant African philosophy, I refer to prominent philosophers such as Mbiti, J.S., Pbobee, J.S. and Idowu, E.B. whose definition of community coerces the self into being a subordinate entity. On the other hand, Augustine Shutte and Desmond Tutu define the community as selves developing in their interaction with other selves.
3 In The peaceable kingdom Hauerwas (1983) discusses this in more detail under A qualified ethics: The narrative character of Christian ethics.

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