This book is unlike other books by Stanley Hauerwas. The Character of Virtue is a collection of letters to his godson, Laurie, starting on the date of his baptism and running fourteen years thereafter. It triangulates another human being toward God while also relating to another human being as human qua human being. Each letter adopts a virtue as its theme—such as justice, courage, hope, and faith or along the less beaten path of simplicity and constancy. As a whole, the book guides you through the lively world of the virtues in introductory fashion, authored by one of the key figures in the revival of virtue in theological ethics, which began with Vision and Virtue (1974) and Character and the Christian Life (1975). Hauerwas uses this book to articulate, modify, and nuance themes from his work in the intervening four decades, such as the formation of habits, the unity of the virtues, and the relationship between the church and world. Each individual letter has a concrete setting, giving display to Hauerwas’s conviction that virtues are not abstracted ideals but find home in a particular sociohistorical context. They begin with the dawn of the Iraq war and run through the economic downturn to present day. It takes some mental gymnastics to do the gestalt shifts for each new year’s attending political, economic, and moral configurations.
This book is special because it invites readers to witness a new facet of the perhaps now familiar figure of Stanley Hauerwas himself. The confluence of matter, form, and author draws readers in. He is open and vulnerable in a way that is often found in intimate familiar, even familial, relationships. Contrast this to Hannah’s Child (2010), Hauerwas’s memoir and intellectual autobiography. Memoirs assume a direct relationship between author and audience, taking the matter as what is being communicated—a face-to-face relationship. Reading letters directed to someone else is distinct because we are overhearing communication directed to another. The author’s relation to the audience is indirect, and the letters are focused on the subject matter of the virtues—a side-by-side relationship. As we slip into this side-by-side perspective in The Character of Virtue, we get a novel perspective on Hauerwas. I don’t want to determine what you might see—see for yourself. I am willing to venture that Hauerwas uses less of the apparatus of the modern university in not being beholden to explain a “position” (he doesn’t even like the word “explain,” which elsewhere would inherit reasons why and be endowed with a rich set of footnotes), but they are also less self-conscious in their self-presentation. If you think you understand “Hauerwas” . . . this book will prompt you to think again.
Our five contributors are familiar with Hauerwas’s oeuvre, and precisely because they are, they do us a service in reading this newest work with great care. They identify the hallmark Hauerwasian themes (e.g., Christocentric nonviolence, concerns about worship and idolatry, formation and habituation, bricklaying as a practice) and also identify distinct themes of the “later Hauerwas” (e.g., the significance of growing old and time, attention to nonhuman creatures). I am asked to give you a glimpse into the collective territory that our contributors will cover in the forum.
In her own work, Jean Porter develops the connection between the passions and virtues, and in her contribution here, she engages Hauerwas’s relationship to both anger and sorrow. She highlights the tension traced throughout Character of Virtue between Christian commitments and earthly attachments—Hauerwas affirms both—pressing the question of whether both can be celebrated and cherished.
Jennifer Herdt identifies a saving thread in Character of Virtue as “theology of creation,” centered on the virtues as natural, which accord with our created being. She thinks alongside Hauerwas about what it is, in Christ, to become “more human—not more than human” (147), that is, in Herdt’s own trajectory, the fulfillment of creaturely finitude.
James Keenan pens a series of lively letters in response to Hauerwas’s own epistolary collection. Keenan questions whether the virtues that Hauerwas highlights—constancy, fidelity, honesty, kindness, patience, courage, joy, simplicity, temperance, generosity—are aimed at building up the individual or the community. He reflects on how virtues name specific ways that we are related to lovers, family, friends, and colleagues.
Vincent Lloyd registers a compelling challenge to Hauerwas’s vision of the virtues that critics from the confessional left will be sympathetic to. He articulates a concern for the corrupt systems of domination where Hauerwas’s virtues find their original home. Lloyd points to those at the margins, who feel domination most brutally, and who, like Christ, struggle and serve as authorities in the virtues.
Alice Crary presses this line in a related direction by asking about the extent to which Hauerwas offers his reflections to individuals whose identities are formed outside confessional Christian practice. From her perspective as a moral philosopher, Crary teases out the inner logic of faith, prompting Hauerwas to address the project of translation, tradition, practices, and narrative.
It was a delight to have such willing contributors who all responded with charity to Hauerwas’s Character of Virtue. Any writing about the virtues, to be credible, also requires performance of its subject. Readers familiar with the history of Catholic moral theology understand the significance and import of Porter and Keenan’s responses to Hauerwas. Herdt is a towering figure in Christian ethics. Lloyd and Crary are critical dialogue partners for Hauerwas, not just marks of characteristic intellectual gregariousness, but partners who expand his intellectual repertoire beyond the familiar worn paths. Might this forum itself signal new hope for the virtues—in the academy and beyond?