Symposium Introduction

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?

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Response

Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas

The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson

In his most recent book, The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson, Stanley Hauerwas offers a series of reflections on the virtues, expansively interpreted to include such qualities as joy and friendship, as well as more traditional virtues such as courage, humility, and justice. As the subtitle indicates, these reflections take the form of letters written to his godson, Laurie Wells, initially on the occasion of his baptism and each year thereafter on its anniversary. On the back jacket of the book, one of the comments reads that these letters provide a “model” for those who want to assist parents in the hard work of raising children. That is not quite accurate; as Hauerwas observes, he does not know how to write for small children, and these letters are really addressed to a mature Laurie, who is expected to read them when he is old enough to appreciate them (Character of Virtue, 60; all subsequent references are to this book). At the same time, Laurie is not the only intended audience for these letters, for we are told early in the sequence that they are intended for eventual publication (59–60). It would be interesting to know how closely the letters that we have before us correspond to the letters that Hauerwas originally wrote. Have they been edited retrospectively, perhaps with the aim of removing material deemed to be too personal? Have they been rewritten in the light of later events? We are not told, but at any rate, it is clear that we ourselves are, in part if not exclusively, the audience for this book. Hauerwas is making use of a venerable genre, the epistolary essay, as a vehicle for presenting his thoughts on virtue in a fresh and compelling way.

This turns out to be a good choice. The second person style of address allows Hauerwas to speak with an engaging simplicity and directness that would be hard to achieve in standard academic prose. Hauerwas draws us into his perspective as Laurie’s godfather, inviting us to see virtue in a new light as a desirable and liberating way to live. Along the way, he invites us to look more closely at the practices that form us in the virtues, the literary works that offer paradigms for virtuous living, and the sense of community and place that is so indispensable to a fully human life. He makes baseball compelling, which is no mean feat (93–95). He still loves Austen and Trollope, as well he might (140). Like every Texan who is no longer there, he is homesick for Texas, that “hard but wonderful world” where, as he says, he loved and was loved (90; I am a Texan myself, and I can never read Hauerwas without feeling a yearning for my first home). None of this will be new to those of us who are familiar with his writings, but these observations appear in a new light as Hauerwas addresses them to Laurie, and thorough him, to ourselves. At the same time, as Hauerwas speaks to Laurie and us about the virtuous life, he tells us something about himself, including personal details, some of them familiar—yes, he is a Texan—but many of them new, at least to me. He describes himself as an angry person, which surprised me (76). In the same context, he talks about how he learned patience through his early training as a bricklayer (77–78). Near the end of the book, he talks with great candor about his working-class background and his sense that, in spite of his undoubted success, he does not really belong in the academic world (154–55). And he keeps reminding Laurie, and us, and himself, that he is growing old, and he even expresses the worry that his age might be a barrier in his relationship with Laurie (67, 85–87, 164–66).

As I read through these letters, my initial reaction was that Hauerwas has mellowed over the years. This, after all, is someone who once wrote a book titled After Christendom: How the Church Is to Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas. He is still unsparing in his critiques of American pretensions to righteousness and power, but he also speaks warmly of the country that he claims as his own: “I am an American, and I love this country. More important, by critiquing it, I don’t want to avoid being an American. I love the beauty and variety of the American landscape, I love the diversity of her people, I love the spirit and energy of Americans, and I love our food. . . . I also love the American work ethic. America is constituted by great goods, but goods too often perverted by American pride and pretension” (64). He invites the English Laurie to be appreciative of the values of his adopted homeland. (Laurie and his family move from England to the United States when Laurie is about five, and move back about seven years later.) Nonetheless, Hauerwas’s fundamental commitments remain as firm as they ever were. He repeatedly warns Laurie against the illusion that it is possible to bring about genuine security or peace through violence, and even as he praises American greatness, he rebukes those who would try to turn the country’s power to good ends (62–65). Above all, Hauerwas remains convinced that the followers of Jesus cannot in any way condone, much less participate in, any form of violence: “As faithful followers of Christ in a world of war, we can’t imagine being anything other than nonviolent. Christian nonviolence may even make the world more violent because the world doesn’t want the appearance of order, what it will sometimes call ‘peace,’ exposed for what it is” (79–80).

This stance of principled nonviolence implies that the Christian community is necessarily a community set apart, separate from and to some degree at odds with the secular communities that we inhabit on our earthly journey. Yet Hauerwas’s remarks in these letters reveal that some of these secular communities are very dear to him. The style and tone of these letters softens the tension that emerges here between Christian commitments and earthly attachments, but there is a tension nonetheless. Hauerwas is aware, as very few other living theologians are, that we Christians have no lasting city here, that we are on the way to a homeland that we have yet to reach. The laws and mores of the earthly cities that we move through are at best indifferent, and very often at odds with the way of life that we try to live here, and hope to realize more fully hereafter. And yet, no other living theologian has such an acute sense of place and time, such an awareness of the ways in which we are shaped by our native communities, our families and neighbors, and the narratives that we inhabit. Virtue itself is deeply grounded in the stories we tell ourselves and others, and the practices we undertake, both of which are bound up with our specific communities. As these letters make clear, all these particular attachments are very dear to Hauerwas. Yet given his overall commitments, it is difficult to see how he can affirm such attachments in an unqualified way. I know Hauerwas has touched on the tension between our earthly loves and our Christian calling, but I came away from these essays wishing that he would revisit this topic. How is it possible to live in such a way as to affirm American, or English, or any other values, even as we acknowledge the deeply ambiguous quality of those values? And how can we follow the one who said that the cost of discipleship includes hating homeland and family, even as we celebrate and cherish both? That is one question that I would very much like to see Hauerwas explore in his next work.

I have another question that I would like to see Hauerwas address. I already mentioned that throughout these letters, he repeatedly reminds Laurie, and us, and perhaps himself, that he is old. These letters are addressed, first of all, to a growing child, but the presence that comes through most powerfully is that of an aging man, conscious of the losses that come with age, perhaps a little fearful that his age will separate him from those he loves. (This is something else I share with Hauerwas; as we say in Texas, I am no spring chicken myself.) It would be good to see him return to the topic of aging and its meaning for the Christian, but I am even more interested in a general question, which to my knowledge, he has never addressed. That is, what is the place of sorrow in the Christian life? Would Hauerwas accept the austere view that a true Christian should never experience sorrow, since we have nothing of value in this life anyway? (I don’t think he would.) Would he agree with Aquinas that a Christian may legitimately feel sorrow for his sins and the sins of others (Summa theologiae I–II 59.3; I suspect so)? Would he also agree with Aquinas that our natural inclinations toward life and well-being naturally generate some sorrow when these goods are threatened (ibid.)? If so, how would he envision the way in which this sorrow could be integrated into a faithful Christian life? In The Character of Virtue and elsewhere, Hauerwas has much to say about the place of joy and courage in the Christian life. My hope is that he will extend this line of thought to include some reflection on Christian sorrow—and while I am hoping, perhaps also Christian fear.

If these reactions have a common theme, it would be this—the life of the Christian as Hauerwas depicts it is truly a happy life, precisely because it is a virtuous life, with deep roots in family and friendship and a way of life. Yet the Christian life also has elements of ambiguity, generated by the inevitable tensions between the particular loyalties that shape us, and the unqualified demand to follow Christ wherever he leads. Hauerwas has touched on this theme in many of his writings, and no one is in a better position to address it again now. And it is a sign of the value of these essays on virtue that they are not only rewarding in themselves, but leave us wanting to see still more from Hauerwas on the subjects that he treats so well.

  • Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas

    Reply

    Response to Jean Porter

    Introduction

    I did not know in the beginning that this would be a book. I am well aware that such a claim can be interpreted as a self-deceptive cover story. When has Stanley Hauerwas ever written anything he has not thought worthy of publication? Hauerwas learned early on from Paul Ramsey that if he wrote it someone needed to read it. Ramsey even claimed his middle name was “never waste a word.” But it is true when I began to write the first letters to my godson I did not do so thinking this would be a book. I thought they would be letters Laurie might enjoy when he was older.

    That I wrote these letters at all is his parents’ fault. They were kind enough to ask me to be a godparent. I was honored to be asked to have that role, but I also explained that I never know what it means to be godparent. How do you tell a young person that it is a good idea to take God seriously? Sam, who is never short on ideas, had a ready response to my worry. He gave me an assignment. I was to write to Laurie every year on the anniversary of his baptism commending a virtue. I thought that a terrific idea. The result is this book—a book that I did not intend to be a book.

    Yet it did not take long for me to think what I was doing could be a book. That recognition meant I had to acknowledge I was writing these letters to be read not only by Laurie but by anyone. But that presented a challenge because if the letters were to be what they were meant to be they had to be written to Laurie and not to anyone. I hoped, however, that the “anyone” who might read the letters would find them interesting because what I had to say to Laurie was what we need to say to one another as human beings.

    So I tried very hard to write these letters in a way that if and when Laurie reads the letters as he grows up he might recognize some aspects of his life. I also tried to say enough about my life that he might have some idea about who this strange man might be that his parents had unleashed in his life. Several of the respondents commented that I was unusually present in these letters. That may be because I felt it necessary to provide for Laurie a sense of whom I might be.

    I also wanted Laurie to have some sense of the developments in the world and in his life that might give him some idea of the historical context that may have made a difference in the virtue chosen for a particular anniversary. So I not only mentioned events in his own life such as returning to England but also developments in the world. I did so with the hope that The Character of Virtue might help him see how the virtues are not some abstract ideals but rather the dispositional habits we need not only to live well but even more to survive. Well-told stories depend on significant but selective details. Hopefully these letters have just enough gestures in that direction to sustain the reader’s interest.

    Of course I hope Laurie will someday want to read what is now a book. I wrote them assuming that the letters could be read by him or to him even when he was quite young. But my primary assumption was that if he ever read these letters it would be a good deal later. I have the impression that Jo began to read some of them as Laurie grew older. I know she loved the story of Dad Haggard and wanted to share that with Laurie but I have no idea how he understood why I was telling the Dad Haggard story. Nor do I have any idea as he grows older what he makes of these letters. What I know is it is important not to be anxious.

    But that is enough by way of introduction. I do need to say one more thing before responding to the individual responses to the book. I have the challenge of responding to reviews that are universally favorable. Why that should be a problem is very simple? It can leave me with saying in response “that is right” but that kind of response would help no one. I hope to show, however, that because my respondents are so sympathetic with the book they have raised subtle and deep issues that I cannot pretend to be able to adequately respond. But that is but a way of saying how grateful I am to my respondents.

    Reply to Jean Porter

    Jean Porter is a straightforward thinker so it is not surprising she asks the straightforward question about the status of the published letters in relation to the original letters I wrote to Laurie. The now published letters are the original letters I wrote to Laurie. I did not rewrite them or add content for publication. There was a very thorough editing process but the letters were not changed in terms of content or form. I assumed that should be the case given my conviction that the letters should be the actual letters I wrote to Laurie. As I noted above I did not begin assuming I would publish the letters.

    In as nonintrusive way as possible, Jean also asks some questions about me. She was surprised by my confession that I am an angry person and she wonders if I have mellowed as I have grown older. The latter may be connected with her deep question about what I might say about the role of sorrow in the life of Christians. I am somewhat surprised she wonders about my anger because she is, as she confesses, a fellow Texan. Indeed she is not just a fellow Texan. She is from West Texas, which is a place that turns out its particular form of the species, “Texan.” West Texans are not at all sure if those of us from North Texas are really Texan. In West Texas if you ask a Texan for something they will either give it to you or kill you. If you have to explain that remark you know the person needing explanation is not a Texan.

    Jean expresses surprise that I describe myself to Laurie as an angry person. What do I mean by that? I think I can explain it this way. I once had a graduate student, a very good graduate student, in response to a suggestion I made about some issue before the Methodist Church that he needed to fight, respond with great respect, that he would sit this one out because, as he put it to me, “I do not have a fire burning in my gut the way you do, Stanley.” No one had ever told me I have a fire in my gut, but as soon as he said that I knew he was on to something.

    Anger, at least the anger Aquinas defends, is but the other side of caring and loving someone or something. I should like to think I care deeply about the church, which is why I am such a perpetual critic of mainstream Christianity in America. Why can I not just leave it alone? I cannot leave it alone because I am a mainstream Protestant. I cannot leave it alone because I know we can do better. I suspect, moreover, that my anger has to do with class.

    Jean wonders if I have mellowed over the years. I do not trust my self-knowledge to know if I have mellowed or not. I hope I have not mellowed but rather I hope I have become less stupid and even made some strides toward being wise. I should like to think I am a person with a novelist’s eye, that is, I have developed insights about myself and others that are in an interesting manner at the heart of a focus on the virtues for displaying the moral life.

    I have become interested in the concept of insight. What makes some people capable of insight while others seem to have no insight at all? Insights, moreover, are so often about judgments of other people and ourselves. Such judgments require a self-knowledge that is hard to characterize. I suspect, moreover, that forms of life we call morality depend on the insights they make possible. Which is my way to say in the time I have left I want to think about what makes insights insightful.

    Jean raises the issue of the tension between Christian commitments and earthly attachments because she describes me as someone with an acute sense of place and time but who knows as Christians we have no home. I am tempted to say that of course she is right but does anything more really need to be said. More certainly has to be said than I said in the letters. But that is difficult because the journey we are on and the institutions to support the journey will differ from time and place. What we know, however, is Christians are a people of hope making it possible to love a homeland without that love becoming tyrannical. But for that to happen there must exist a people who have learned to say “No.”

    Jean’s calling attention to the tension between particular loyalties and the unqualified demand to follow Christ as a subject I need to address before I die is a welcome one that I hope others more biblical than me will take up. For I really do think that tension is best treated through scriptural display. I am, moreover, convinced that the surest way to get a hold on that central question is by attending to actual lives that have provided exemplification of how the tension between time and eternity is to be lived out. What MacIntyre did in the last chapters of Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity is what I think we need.

    By way of conclusion let me say how much I appreciate Jean’s suggestion about the importance of attention to sadness and it’s compatibility with a life well lived. I certainly agree with Aquinas that a Christian may feel sorrow for their sins as well as the sins of others. (ST, I-II 59, 3) But I also think the place of sorrow needs to be treated in terms of a general recovery of the importance of Aquinas’s account of the passions. Robert Miner has made a good start in that regard with his Thomas Aquinas on the Passions. Miner quite rightly observes that for Aquinas sorrow is a natural passion that can deepen the soul and prepare us for receiving the gift of true humility. I take as an indication of Aquinas’s wisdom about such matters his suggestion that often when besieged by sorrow a good warm bath can help relieve that condition (ST,I-II, 38, 5). Aquinas never forgets we do not just have bodies, but that we are bodies.

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Response

The Fulfillment of Creaturely Finitude

What fascinates me the most about Stanley Hauerwas’s luminous letters to his godson is the theology of creation they embody. While this is just one of many strands of reflection woven through these letters, it is one that has received increased emphasis in Hauerwas’s contributions in recent years, such as “Bearing Reality,” his 2014 presidential address to the Society of Christian Ethics. I see this theology of creation as a response to the many critics over the years who have voiced concern over Hauerwas’s ecclesiocentrism and sharp church-world distinction. At the same time, and perhaps just as importantly, it represents an angle of vision that seems to have become particularly salient for Hauerwas as he looks back over his life and contemplates his own finitude.

Over against those who insist that any merely natural virtue is but glittering vice, and who therefore focus their attention on infused, supernatural virtues that direct human persons to a supernatural end, Hauerwas depicts the virtues as natural, in accord with our created being. “Our gentle God,” he writes, “created our kind to be kind by making it impossible for us to exist without caring for those both like and unlike us” (40–41). The virtue of kindness is here described not simply as essential for human flourishing but even as in some (presumably, imperfect, fragmentary?) sense necessary for existence. And not just this; he depicts these virtues as something discovered retrospectively far more than they are acquired or cultivated. “It would be a mistake for me to ‘urge you to develop’ a virtue that may be missing in your life. For as I will indicate, my task is not so much to recommend but to help you name the virtues that already possess your life” (39). Rather than exhorting his godson to be kind, Hauerwas suggests that “as you grow up, you’ll discover that you are kind. Oddly, we usually don’t become virtuous by trying to be virtuous. The virtues ride on the back of forms of life we discover along the way” (41). If what we discover are not our virtues but our vices, what we need the most are new forms of life: “Once the habits of cruelty are learned, we can’t change them by simply trying to will our way free of them. Instead, we must be offered a new way of life that can come in small steps” (46).

What are these forms of life? Here the focus is not on the life of the church, not on ecclesial or liturgical practices, as a reader of Hauerwas might expect. Rather, it is on the shared practices of ordinary life, and primarily on the intimate familial setting that constitutes the horizon of a young child. I do not think, however, that this is the only reason that Hauerwas focuses primarily here on ordinary life. For one thing, these are not letters written for a child to read, even if they are meditations that make some effort to empathize with a child’s realm of experience, lifting that realm up into adult theological reflection. Nor does this focus on the ordinary rather than the ecclesial mean that Hauerwas has lost his concern for the church, and for whether it has lost its power to form the lives even of the baptized, or, as he very simply puts it here, “even of those who want to be Christian” (32). As he confesses at the outset, “I want you to find being Christian a wonderful, life-giving way of life” (32). Rather, what Hauerwas underscores here is that being formed as a Christian, far from focusing our attention on some transcendent “beyond,” illuminates the ordinary by enabling Christians to grasp it (however distorted and fallen) as creation and therefore as good.

Being Christian, that is, offers persons an avenue of access to naming the goodness of creation and to the life abundant that comes with grasping that goodness. Rather frequently in these pages, this theme is bound up with reflecting on nonhuman creation, in particular on those nonhuman creatures with whom we share our daily lives. Our fellow animals remind us of our creaturely status: “To be a Christian is to be invited to be part of God’s creation, so that a Texas mockingbird and a loving dog (and cat) may fill us with joy” (38). Our interactions with fellow creatures have the capacity to teach us the goodness of fellowship, of shared life, in its simplest and purest forms. And these relationships can be sites for the formation of virtue such as kindness. “I suspect,” writes Hauerwas, “you’ll find that kindness has already found its way into your life in the simple joy you receive from the pleasure Connie [the cat] displays when you pet her. The virtues are, so to speak, pulled out of us by our loves. That’s why it’s natural for us to be kind—because we were created to be so” (41). Our loves, that is, form us in habits of caring; we want to be kind because we have already experienced the joy that comes from having given another joy. Communion with our fellow creatures can form us, too, for the virtue of hospitality: “Never forget that you also are an animal, and that befriending Connie has taught you something important about how a stranger may become a friend” (69–70). There are echoes here of Iris Murdoch (long one of Hauerwas’s muses), and her ability to convey how the natural world can draw us out of our habitual self-absorption. “Generosity,” Hauerwas notes, “is the virtue that puts us out of control just long enough that we are open to the lives of others. And some of those ‘others’ will be dogs and cats” (172).

Aristotle is named dozens of times in The Character of Virtue, Barth not at all. And yet I want to suggest that what Hauerwas offers in these pages is finally a recognizably Barthian understanding of the virtues. The distinction between natural and supernatural virtues, or natural and theological virtues, is problematic, Hauerwas writes, because “the virtues name the habits we need to be the creatures we were created by God to be” (92). Our vocation is emphatically creaturely; it is not a vocation to become something we are not. In conforming our lives to Christ “we become more human—not more than human” (147). It is for this reason that Aristotle can at times be a more helpful resource for Christians than Aquinas: “One of the attractive aspects of Aristotle’s ethics is his recognition that we’re human beings and we shouldn’t try to be more than human” (147). This is not a denial of the activity of divine grace, for “he who sees is able to do so only by the gift that has been given him by grace” (147). Nor is it a denial of eschatological consummation; as Gerald McKenny puts it, articulating a similarly Barthian ethic, “It is as creatures with this nature that God willed for us to enjoy life with God, which is to be realized by the work of grace, and whatever our eschatological fulfillment consists in, it will be the fulfillment of this creature with this nature.”1 The point is that what grace enables is not transcendence of our humanity, of our creaturely finitude, but its embrace. Of course, it is not the fact that this way of thinking is Barthian, or Aristotelian, or what have you, that finally recommends it to us, but rather its intrinsic merits. As Robert Song argues, “One of the central tasks of Christian anthropology must be to seek to make intelligible human vulnerability as the work of God’s love, whilst also seeing redemption as the fulfilment of human creatureliness, not the denial of it.”2 In The Character of Virtue, Hauerwas has given us an anthropology and a theology of creation that shoulders this task, illuminating “the very act of creation [as] an act of generosity that brings into existence each person, and each with the vocation to participate in the love that sustains all that is” (172–73). Hauerwas summons his godson to hear this vocation, and in so doing, summons us all.

 


  1. Gerald McKenny, Biotechnology, Human Nature, and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 188.

  2. Robert Song, “Technological Immortalization and Original Mortality: Karl Barth on the Celebration of Finitude,” in Philip Ziegler, ed., Eternal God, Eternal Life: Theological Investigations into the Concept of Immortality (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 187–209.

  • Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas

    Reply

    Response to Jennifer Hertdt

    Jennifer Herdt does not waste words. She cuts right to the chase by recognizing that though I wanted these letters to be accessible to a wide readership I used them to exhibit theological and philosophical commitments that have shaped my work. Herdt develops this observation by suggesting that what fascinates her is the theology of creation I seem to presume in the depiction of the different virtues. She rightly observes this is not a new theme for me, but it is one that many have thought missing due to what is regarded as my over-determined church/world dualism.

    Herdt is certainly right to suggest that the virtues in the Character of Virtue have their home in the body—they are after all habits. On reflection I probably did not say enough about habits in the book though I hope the examples I employed to identify the various virtues suggested how the virtues become habitual. But the important point Herdt makes is that the virtues I identify, while ecclesial, are necessary for Christian and non-Christian alike to live well. In short they are “natural.”

    Herdt knows well that “natural” is a concept I have only used sparingly in my work. I did think hard about whether we needed an account of the natural but decided the category of the natural is necessary because without a concept of nature Christian thought will always border on pantheism. I developed these thoughts in a very important chapter, at least important for me, entitled “The Truth about God: The Decalogue as Condition for Truthful Speech,” in Sanctify Them in the Truth. There I argued nature names all that is by God’s grace that is not God. As far as I know no one has been particularly attentive to what I tried to do in that chapter.

    Herdt, however, gets it right when she observes that I have always tried to avoid distinctions between the natural and supernatural virtues. I have distrusted those concepts as abstractions that do not do justice to the character of our bodily existence. I am a historicist all the way down. I worry about so describing myself because it is not clear we have ever had a satisfactory account of what historicism may be or entail. But for me historicism is the philosophical expression of the eschatological character of creation.

    Herdt is quite right that the Character of Virtue is meant to express what it means to be a creature, but creation names an eschatological reality. Eschatology is the theological reality that makes possible the narration of existence itself which of course includes us. The church/world duality is an invitation to spell out the narratives that constitute our lives. (For my attempt to develop this point, see my chapter “The End Is in the Beginning: Creation and Apocalyptic,” in my Approaching the End.)

    Herdt insightfully suggests my emphasis on the ordinary is one way I have tried to make concrete my understanding of “natural” morality. She also quite rightly notes that the emphasis on the ordinary qualifies my ecclesial focus. That is certainly true though I would prefer to avoid that contrast altogether. There is nothing more “ordinary” than the worship of God. I was not kidding in With the Grain of the Universe—Karl Barth really is the great natural theologian of the Gifford Lectures.

    Herdt calls attention to my reflection on nonhuman creation and creatures. (By the way, Connie is a dog.) She is certainly right to do so. In response to an earlier Syndicate review of Crary’s Inside Ethics, I made clear my contention that the fundamental anthropological division between humans is that between dog people and cat people. I am clearly a cat person. I was created to be such. I cannot imagine Herdt would disagree.

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Response

Letters, Virtues, and Relationality

Dear Stan,

I loved your book of letters to Laurie, your Godson. I am writing to tell you about why I liked your letters, what I learned, and to propose a new pivot for the virtues.

I.

I have read very few collections of letters. I remember reading in my novitiate The Screwtape Letters; I thought they were clever and witty, but just that.

During my studies in Rome, I decided to read literature as I read theology. I thought by reading great novels I would learn more about humanity; through Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter, Kristin Lavransdatter, and others, I found myself more and more engaged.

At the end of my first year of studies I returned to New York for the summer, and a friend, knowing about my reading, gave me The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor to take back to Rome.

Your collection is like Flannery’s. I had read some of her short stories, but the letters were another experience. Her letters to multiple friends weren’t intended for publication, but after her death, her dear friend Sally Fitzgerald decided to edit and publish them. In them, we learn about her gardens, visitors, writings, critics, lupus, faith, and how she understands each of them. She discloses to her friends, in the haphazard ways that friends do disclose themselves, who she thinks herself to be. Like your letters, we never hear back from the recipients of her letters but in her own interest in their well-being, we also begin to know them better and see how they are doing, much as we learn from you about Laurie’s comings and goings.

What I liked about your letters and hers, was that I learned how you each revealed yourselves, from your concerns for beloved animals to the ongoing unresolved, intimate struggles. Flannery had her peacocks and you, your cats. Like her letters, as your correspondence grows, so does the transparency of the letters. You begin by telling Laurie about kindness (a wonderful, surprising start, you got me hooked with that one), and then about truthfulness (you reminded me of one of my two mentors, Klaus Demmer, whose work, Living the Truth I edited). Ideas rather than selves are conveyed at the beginning. So, even in your fourth letter on friendship, instead of talking about friends, you dedicate most of the letter to a critique of America! Only at the end of it, do you mention to Laurie that you are friends with his father, Sam.

Still, that’s the nature of correspondence: letter writing depends on the relationship; as it develops, so does the letter. As you get to know Laurie and as he becomes more knowable, you share more of yourself, not only your ideas like kindness, but also your very self. Your letters become transparent, disclosive, eye-opening. I learn more about virtue as I see how you wrestle with their emergence (or not) in you. Thus when we get to humility, it is there, I think, that the book climaxes: you are retiring (144), “growing old” (145), and “I’m told that I am a humble person. I don’t know if that is true or not” (154). Explaining your distrust of those in “the higher knowledgeable classes,” you first tell us you come from “the working classes” but add you have resentment and “probably don’t belong in the world I’ve inhabited for most of my life” (155). I thought of your letters on generosity and faith as belonging to a profound denouement in light of the confessions in humility.

Paul too discloses most of what we know of him through his letters. After all, letters are in themselves the most relational of literary forms. I am glad you chose that form to help Laurie understand the story he has entered by his baptism, so that he can be shaped by it through the virtues.

II.

I had read a good deal of you in Rome. I remember in my first year of studies finding your A Community of Character in a bookstore right in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. That book was unlike any other I had during my first year of courses in Rome.

At the same time, I had begun reading Thomas Aquinas, particularly the Summa Theologiae, and I remember well finding Aquinas making a helpful distinction between a human action (from deliberate reason) and any other act of a human.[1] Later Thomas asks whether any human action can be morally indifferent and answers that “every human action that proceeds from deliberate reason, if it be considered in the agent, must be good or bad.”[2] He uses as an example, the simple decision to go to bed.[3]

I found it compelling, that every human action was a moral one and I began thinking of ethics as not primarily about the then Catholic neuralgic issues of birth control, abortion, and homosexuality, but rather ordinary, daily actions that could shape us as either more or less virtuous. Your character-based ethics gave me the space to think of Aquinas’s virtues as being for moral formation.

I first met you at the first Society of Christian Ethics conference that I attended, I think, in January 1989. I had been teaching for eighteen months at Fordham, and John Langan was concerned that I had become too Romanized and that I needed a good jolt of ecumenical Christian ethics. He therefore took me to the SCE.

At the end of one paper on Aquinas, someone sitting on the floor took issue with the presentation and began fairly aggressively disputing with the young presenter who was no match for the hard charger. I was not satisfied with either’s position and decided to engage the latter; there were about three or four brief and specific exchanges from each side and you decided to end the debate by staring up in the air. Later, Ed Vacek asked whether I realized I was sparring with Stanley Hauerwas. I hadn’t.

I was convinced (and disappointed) that you read Aquinas wrongly. What I learned, much later, was that you read him differently, and I began to appreciate that in reading Aquinas there were numerous schools of interpretation.

Differences aside, I find today, many years later, in your letters a good deal that I over the years have similarly espoused: that a virtue never stands alone (47–48) or that “we seldom become virtuous by trying to acquire virtues. Instead the virtues ride on the back of compelling activities” (118). Those activities I have called, following Avicenna and Aquinas, “exercises,” a fairly athletic term that again resonates with your basketball and baseball analogies. I think we both realize that virtues are formed as we “train” our passions (77) or our hopes (103).

Moreover, what harkened me back to your Community of Character was your use of the story in the letters: your encouragement of Laurie to learn from the “story-teller, God” (95) and to learn “to live into the story into which you were baptized” (117). But you also use story in order to convey our relationality, particularly when you write that friendship “is the discovery that I don’t want to tell my story—can’t tell my story—without your story” (71).

I like that relationality in your writings, but today I find in this book that your virtues are much more oriented to the up-building of the personal self rather than of the social relationships themselves.

I like many of your virtues; I call constancy fidelity, and I think of your truth as honesty, and in the same way as you describe it. But I found in this book your virtues were more focused on the personal; you were training Laurie and the individual reader to practice exercises for personal growth, like kindness, truthfulness, patience, courage, joy, simplicity, temperance, and generosity.

Moreover, I wondered why you omitted charity (not a virtue? you think it’s grace?) and prudence (you think it’s irredeemable?). I was also looking for mercy but found something like “merciful accompaniment,” briefly, when you talked about how to be with rather than do for those who suffer (107). But, I didn’t see anything about families, communities, or nations becoming more just, merciful, or hospitable. And there are my primary interests.

In short, at least in this book, you seem to think of virtues as more for personal formation and I think that they are more for forming the relationships we have. And so, I would like to close proposing that virtues work less in developing particular personal qualities that I have but more in developing particular ways in which we are relational.

III.

I have returned to Rome, where I am teaching at my alma mater a course called virtue ethics. And, yes, I am again reading Hauerwas in Rome!

While teaching I find among my European students a reluctance to work with the virtues. The regimes of fascism and the Reich became so familiar with the language of virtue that even today there’s a discomfort among ethicists to use its language. Virtues were also used far too easily to promote insipid spiritualities. It is good to teach here, then, where I get some good critical feedback and skepticism. They don’t mind when I talk about virtues personally, but they get anxious when I talk about them socially.

Still, while here, I am travelling around Europe to see friends. In January, I visited two mutual friends, Enda McDonagh and Linda Hogan. I attach a photo of the three of us;

Enda has had hip surgery but lost a good amount of weight and looks great. I take him to be the Irish priest to whom you refer (150) and that you named your eighteen-year-old recently-deceased cat after him (180).

I bring up Enda because many times I have heard him say that he thinks of himself less as a self and more as a web of relationships and that he thinks of his dying as not the passing of a self but more the changing of that web.

Those insights inspired me years ago to think of the virtues as realizing ways that we are related.[4] For instance, I think that justice calls us to give each their due, but that justice works socially, training not just me but us to be more just. While I think we can focus on what training I need to do, we should primarily think of what exercises we need to do to become more just. Certainly we can see great justice in some societies, and a notable lack in others, just as some societies are more hospitable or not than others.

But virtues also develop particular relationships between lovers, family, friends, and colleagues and I think the exercises among those members strengthen the virtues among us and not primarily in one of the partners. I learn in my family to be more generous by the generosity that is invoked in all by all of us. Similarly constancy is not primarily learned on one’s own, but rather in and through the relationship.

Of course, you were writing to Laurie personal letters and as his Godfather you were interested in his own formation. But I think the very inter-relational form of your letters, the socially embracing impact of your stories, the vigor of your baseball and basketball team metaphors, and the profoundly inter-relational and humble way that you actually interact suggest to me that pivoting the instruction, the attendant exercises, and the reflexive agency to the second personal plural, rather than singular, is but a slight, yet inevitable shift. Teaching him with others the social virtues so as to participate in our formation of inter-relational responsibilities and incorporation strikes me as being among the first lessons for Christian discipleship.

Buona Pasqua

Jim

 

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I. II. 6.

[2] Ibid., 18. 9c.

[3] Ibid., 18. 9. ad3.

[4] James F. Keenan, “Proposing Cardinal Virtues,” Theological Studies 56.4 (1995) 709–29; “Virtue Ethics and Sexual Ethics,” Louvain Studies 30.3 (2005) 183–203.

  • Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas

    Reply

    Response to James Keenan

    I confess I am a bit embarrassed by Keenan’s thoughtful response. As he and Porter point out, I am old. I am not just growing older, but somehow without noticing how it happened, I will soon be seventy-nine. The only thing remarkable about that for this exchange is to be reminded of things I did in the earlier incarnations of myself—i.e., the exchange with Keenan at the Society of Christian Ethics. I have no memory of that event, but it sounds like I acted as an insufferable know-it-all. It is testimony to Keenan’s kindness that he has not held it against me. He has taken me seriously, even in Rome. It turns out that Jesuits can be Christians.

    I much appreciated Jim’s reflections on the genre of letters and, in particular, his observations about how letters provide a way of self-revelation that may avoid narcissism. Like Keenan, I am a devotee of O’Connor’s The Habit of Being, though I would hesitate to compare my letter writing to her ability to turn a phrase. But I take what is important about Jim’s discussion of O’Connor is how letters depend on relationships, and it may be in my letters to Laurie I have not made clear the social character of the virtues.

    I take the reference to our mutual friend and mentor Enda McDonagh (Enda is actually older than me) to be the development of the emphasis on relationships for formation in the virtues. Keenan’s point that Enda thinks of himself less as a self but rather as a web of relationships is quite interesting and no doubt true. That is, it is true that Enda thinks of himself in that manner. “Self” is as tricky a concept as “soul,” but I think we cannot do without either. That is particularly true if we are to make sense of the duration of the virtues through time. I think I was wrestling with some of these problems in my letter on friendship. I do not pretend, however, to have thought through how to conceive of the virtuous formation of a relationship.

    I do not know why I did not explicitly commend charity in one of the letters. At least one reason is my long-held worry that love, which is not necessarily charity, is over determined in recent accounts of what makes Christian morality Christian. It is so hard to write about charity without engaging in sentimentality. But I think Jim is right to ask me about charity because like him I think Aquinas is right to make charity the form of the virtues. I hope that presumption may have come through in my discussion of the individual virtues.

    However, by not discussing charity directly I may have not done justice to the most fundamental commitment that should be central to any recommendation of the virtues—namely, all the virtues depend on, or perhaps better enact, a relationship with God. I hope Jennifer is right that this book has finally shown what a Barthian virtue theory might look like, but I am not sure I was successful in that project.

    The question Jim raises about charity entails the question of why I chose the virtues I did. I readily concede that there is a kind of arbitrary character to the list of virtues that make up the book. But then I have always thought MacIntyre is right in After Virtue to argue that the virtues are contingent on time and place. New virtues will be discovered—Jane Austen’s constancy is Alasdair’s example—and some of the standard list may no longer be compelling. How the virtues are correlative to the stories that make them intelligible is a subject that is begging for study.

Vincent Lloyd

Response

Virtue Against Domination

Pitcairn is an island halfway between Chile and New Zealand with a population of around fifty. Its inhabitants are descendants of Polynesians and the British sailors who mutinied on the Bounty in 1790. Early Pitcairners had used the Bounty’s Bible as inspiration for their social arrangements, and nineteenth-century missionaries brought the majority of the island’s population to Seventh-day Adventist faith. The small society was celebrated over the decades for its deep sense of morality, and the apparent happiness of the population.

Then, in 2004, seven men from the island were put on trial, charged by the British colonial government with sexual offenses against children. Men and women of the island protested to the government and media that this was simply a cultural misunderstanding: in Pitcairn involuntary sex with preteen girls was part of their way of life. Reporters who asked follow-up questions found that women on Pitcairn, while accepting that this was part of their culture, acknowledged the violence it entailed. There was something deeply rotten just below the surface of Pitcairn’s society.

Now imagine that a man living on Pitcairn wrote a book on the virtues. Imagine this man had, in whatever way, abstained from participating in child rape. He describes the various habits of Pitcairn inhabitants that, to tourists and in the society’s self-representation, exemplify good character and the goodness of Pitcairn society as a whole. It is possible that this book could be quite compelling, offering powerful descriptions that seem to express broadly held intuitions about the moral life (or, perhaps, the Christian moral life). But it would be compelling in the same way that a Pitcairn mathematician could achieve excellence in that field: reasoning in the realm of abstractions. The problem with the Pitcairn moralist is that he purports to be writing not about abstractions but about the habits of actual human beings, when in fact the virtues he commends rest upon, and conceal, horrendous evil.

The problem with the Pitcairn moralist is the problem with moral philosophy and theology in general, as it is done from positions of privilege—which is to say, where it is done as part of an academic discipline. Certainly it is true that the moral philosopher or theologian may not commit morally egregious offenses, but the culture she lives in and speaks to does. She lives in and speaks to a culture that keeps more than two million human beings locked in cages, that perpetuates anti-black and anti-indigenous racism resulting in the ongoing suffering and premature death of millions, that steals the labor and wealth of billions in the global South for the comfort of wealthy North Americans and Europeans, that degrades and violates women and queer folks, and that is committing such violence to the earth every day that the planet’s fever will soon become irreparable devastation of the land and death to millions of plants, animals, and people. Not to mention histories of colonial and racist genocide and enslavement no more than a few generations removed from the present. These offenses may not be as blunt and self-evidently evil as child rape, but then to the inhabitants of Pitcairn child rape was not self-evidently evil (even for those who, on reflection, found it problematic).

There is much beauty in abstraction, whether it be in mathematics or abstractions of human life (including those abstractions that disclaim abstraction, that emphasize vulnerability and complexity and tragedy). There is nothing wrong with admiring such beauty. The problem comes with the moralizing register: when it is presented as lessons on how to live. To the Pitcairn moralist waxing elegant about the courage, temperance, liberality, and friendship found among the best of Pitcairn society, we rightly want to say: that’s all fine and good, but first we need to stop the child rape. If the Pitcairn moralist replies that some people on Pitcairn simply don’t live up to the virtues found partially manifest in the best of Pitcairn society, and the proper response to child rape is to better explicate and commend those modes of excellence, we still rightly want to say: no, we must first focus on ending child rape, and that probably will entail upending many habits characteristic of the culture. In the case of the bourgeois North American moralist: we ought to say, first, uproot the systems of domination that devastate so many: racism, patriarchy, economic exploitation, and environmental destruction. Whatever beautiful system of moral rules or virtues one might put forward, save that for once your world is not infused with evil. The beloved community may be an animating vision, but it must be placed at an eschatological horizon, articulated in genres like poetry and science fiction suited to that horizon, so long as the world is fallen.

It may sound as if I am commending politics in lieu of morality, or, worse, intervention by the powerful to fix the problems of the weak as a prerequisite to morality. To the contrary, speaking to the virtues strikes me as absolutely essential, but we must account for (and practice) the virtues against domination, in our fallen world, not in a world of abstraction where domination is an afterthought, where we wallow in privilege and blind ourselves to the pervasiveness of evil. When we consider the task of uprooting systems of domination, of overthrowing the slaveholder, in discrete, purely secular, political terms, it will inevitably lead to new, more insidious forms of domination. This is where the Christian narrative is particularly helpful. To live in a fallen world is to live in a world composed of interlocking layer upon layer of systems of domination—and yet domination does not have the last word. We do not know precisely when or how, but Christian story and practice interrupt domination and motivate us to join with others in seeing the world otherwise, and acting otherwise. Because systems of domination so distort how we see the world and act in the world, the actions that follow from Christian story and practice are not seeing and acting rightly but working together to negate the negation, to challenge idolatry, to overthrow worldly masters. And that takes virtue.

From this perspective, the success of struggle against domination is not determined by whether domination ends. Rather, struggle builds character. It is a school of the virtues. This is the proper Christian response to Aristotle: not that Aristotle missed the sinfulness of humans in his account of virtues but that Aristotle missed the fallenness of the world, the way the world is choke-full of systems of domination. So Christian ethicists cannot be satisfied tweaking Aristotle’s framework, they must turn it upside down. It is those at the margins, those who feel domination on their bodies the most brutally, who must be treated as authorities in the virtues. Their wisdom cannot be encapsulated in rules, principles, or even stories of life lived well. It is transmitted in the heat of struggle against systemic evil, and in stories of struggle. But to be capable of learning virtue from those struggling at the margins—which includes, it should be noted, Jesus—one must first renounce one’s own moral authority (regardless of one’s own relative privilege). Morally authoritative practices and concepts come from those immersed in struggle, those wise from years of struggle, those saints of struggle, which is simply to say, saints.

I very much enjoy reading Stanley Hauerwas. I enjoy reading The Character of Virtue today as I enjoyed reading Hannah’s Child a decade ago and Dispatches from the Front two decades ago, as an undergraduate. I love how Hauerwas negates the negation, exposing the lie of secularism and of secularism disguised as liberal Christianity. I love how Hauerwas directs our attention to how what is called virtuous by many is often, actually, vicious. And I love how Hauerwas invites us to imagine otherwise than the world, giving life to the Christian story, to Church. In his characteristic style in targeted, essayistic intervention, this works wonderfully: he negates the negation, in culture and overly enculturated theology, and he gestures beyond. I worry when readers of Hauerwas flatten the essential asymmetry between negative and positive moves: the theologian rightly speaks with supreme confidence when negating the negation, when denouncing idolatry, but necessarily speaks allusively, in gestures, when sketching a positive vision of Christian life.

Maintaining this asymmetry is particularly difficult when the genre is letters of moral counsel, as in The Character of Virtue. The genre forces Hauerwas himself to flatten the distinction between confident attacks on idolatry and tentative constructive claims. Hauerwas is writing to a growing child, charged with explaining what virtue looks like. He performs this by offering guidance about both what a particular virtue is not and what it is. The genre also forces him into the office of moral authority, as much as he expresses discomfort with occupying this office. And all of this is happening in the context of the English and American upper middle class. The Character of Virtue moralizes about acknowledging vulnerability in a context of underlying comfort and privilege—which rest just above horrendous evil. For Hauerwas here, virtues must be built up against personal weaknesses, until one obtains a state of godly simplicity and peace with oneself and in one’s world. But the obstacle to virtue is not personal weakness, it is interlocking systems of domination which prevent us from seeing ourselves and our world rightly and so lead us to habitual wrong action. And the simplicity and peace Hauerwas commends may be hoped for in the world, but it ought not to be planned for: to offer a plan for obtaining simplicity and peace is a symptom of optimism, a rejection of the world’s fallenness.

Hauerwas’s memoir, Hannah’s Child, which I count among the more influential books on my own personal life, succeeded because it allowed Hauerwas to focus on the negation of the negation, on how he saw himself and his world wrongly and acted wrongly, and came to realize those wrongs. The genre did not force Hauerwas into filling out a complementary positive vision of Christian life; the positive vision remained largely implicit. By its nature as memoir, and by the particular circumstances of Hauerwas’s life, Hannah’s Child was a story of struggle, and of virtue glimpsed obliquely through struggle. Coming of age is struggle, and for Hauerwas that struggle was doubled by his working-class origins. Too often, we think of childhood and particularly adolescence as an interlude of struggle as we move from our place with our parents to finding our place in the world. But this assumes we can be at peace in the world, that the world is a place of peace. We ought, rather, to think of childhood and adolescence as an apprenticeship in struggle. Parents and grown-ups dominate, and are tempted to imagine themselves as gods. They are rightly challenged. Through such challenges, virtues are cultivated. The difference between adolescence and adulthood ought not to be a sense of ease in the world, but a broader capacity and vision for struggle against domination: beyond proximate forms of domination, like parents and teachers, to systems of domination like racism, patriarchy, and environmental destruction.

If there is a task for the moralizer, it is to point to the struggles of those marginalized. If philosophers and theologians in positions of comfort and privilege want to share lessons in the virtues with children, why not annotate letters from their godchildren (or from victims of sexual abuse), taking those as sources of moral authority?

  • Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas

    Reply

    Response to Vincent Lloyd

    Lloyd has written a subtle and powerful response to The Character of Virtue. I had never heard of Pitcairn Island or the story of child abuse that happened on the island until I read Lloyd’s report about the island. It is a telling and powerful story that makes you think twice. Part of the power of Lloyd’s telling of the story is he does not use the story to suggest that I am the imaginary person who writes a book on the virtues without first recognizing or challenging the evil of child rape. He does something more challenging, that is, his telling of the story is an invitation for me to imagine if I have done something not unlike the imaginary writer on Pitcairn who has written a book on the virtues.

    When confronted by that question the temptation is to take a defensive position. That is particularly the case if you are as I am a white male who has grown old in that most privileged world called the university. I have no doubt that I am guilty of not sufficiently addressing the wrongs Lloyd lists in the fourth paragraph of his response. I have spent a life trying to help us recover as Christians to be a people capable, as Lloyd puts it, of negating negation. I confess that I am not unhappy with much I have tried to do to recover the practical character of theology though that agenda may have resulted in my failure to challenge the systems of domination to which Lloyd calls attention.

    I cannot deny that I am an academic. Lloyd may be right that moral philosophy and theology fail to challenge obvious injustice because they are academic disciplines. But theology is clearly a bottom-feeder in the current university, which means as a theologian I have assumed I have nothing to lose so I might as well go ahead and challenge the status quo. That is even more the case if I think of myself as a member of that field that is the orphaned sister of theology called Christian ethics. When all is said and done Christian ethics is not all that impressive a discipline.

    But I have worked hard to do theology in a manner that makes clear to Christian and non-Christian alike that truth matters. I should like to think that to do theology as if it mattered is a challenge to the public/private relegation of Christianity to the “personal.” I may well be self-deceived but I hope that the way I have tried to do theological ethics is to prepare Christians to challenge the presumptions that result in two million human beings being locked in cages. Indeed I should hope Christians might offer an alternative set of practices regarding punishment.

    There is no question that much of my work may seem to be what Lloyd identifies as “reasoning in the realm of abstraction.” By that phrase I take Lloyd to be challenging the presumption so often characteristic of disciplines in the university that refuse to take responsibility for the material conditions that make them possible. I am sympathetic with that criticism, particularly to the extent the struggle that should characterize the attempt to say what is true is absent. The abstractions I have employed, abstractions such as “the virtues,” are meant to be resources necessary to sustain the struggle.

    The virtues I identify and discuss in The Character of Virtue hopefully reflect the longstanding friendship I have had with Sam and Jo Wells. In that sense they are anything but abstractions. Rather the virtues I identify reflect our common engagement and understanding of what it means to be knitted together in Christ. In that respect Laurie Wells and I share a common story about the way things are. I tried to make that story articulate throughout the book in the hope my godson would later in life recognize the character of those that had made him who he is.

    Abstractions, abstractions such as “ethics,” are necessary but dangerous. As someone who taught ethics for many years I sometimes wonder what in the world did I think I was doing. I certainly did not think I was making students “ethical” by teaching ethics. Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out some time ago in response to the suggestion more courses in ethics should be taught that such a proposal flounders on the fact that there is no correlation between those that teach ethics and the ethical quality of their lives. That is why I have often observed that if a student needs a course in ethics to be ethical it is too late.

    I hope, however, I helped students own the theological convictions that would make possible, as Lloyd puts it, for them to see themselves and the world rightly so they might avoid habitual wrong actions. I tried to help students feel the challenge of being a Christian that gives hope in a fallen world. I should like to think some of that sense of adventure is in The Character of Virtue. Lloyd is certainly right to remind me that we live in a fallen world beset by unjust forms of domination and that is why, as he suggests, the virtues are so desperately needed to sustain us in the struggle against the assumed givens.

    I am not unsympathetic with Lloyd’s suggestion that it is from the margins we will find authorities in the virtues. But it is not always easy to discover where the margins are. Moreover being “marginalized” does not insure those so oppressed will be virtuous. I learned long ago from Iris Murdoch, who had learned from Simone Weil, that those who suffer oppression often turn out to be oppressors. The parents Lloyd identifies as dominating their children were once children.

    That said I think Lloyd’s suggestion that we attend to such basic practices as raising children is extremely important. For if I am not mistaken, the intuition that shapes that suggestion is that dramatic modes of domination come from somewhere. The relation between parents and children is not a bad place to start. If we are to learn anything from Pitcairn Island we surely must learn that.

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Response

The Character of Whose Virtue?

The current setting is a symposium on Stanley Hauerwas’s thoughtful and elegantly written new book The Character of Virtue (hereafter TCV), and I will ultimately have a fair bit to say about the book’s themes. But I am not going to try to offer any sort of standard review or commentary. Instead, I want to use the occasion to pick up the thread of an ongoing and, on my side, very welcome exchange with Hauerwas—begun in this forum—about convergences and divergences between our respective visions of ethical life.1 At issue is an exchange in which I contribute first and foremost as a moral philosopher, and Hauerwas contributes first and foremost as a Christian theologian. Our different points of departure notwithstanding, there are notable overlaps between our core moral and political ideals and between the families of thinkers we regard as important influences. There is hence room for exploration of the extent to which we—and, by the same token, individuals with analogous philosophical and theological commitments—do, or can, agree with each other. As things stand, I owe Hauerwas a response to a comment he made when he last wrote. I will use the occasion of responding to discuss one basic question that TCV raises for me.

In his last contribution to our exchange, Hauerwas invited me to expand on a remark that I had made about how I sympathize with fundamental features of his conception of the logic of faith. I made my remark in the context of commenting on a well-known passage from Iris Murdoch’s Sovereignty of Good in which, while presenting herself as a nonbeliever, she insists on the importance for ethics of preserving aspects of the idea of God. In his subsequent reply to me, Hauerwas said he would also be interested to hear me follow up on some related issues of Murdoch exegesis, but, much as I would like to oblige, I am not going to discuss Murdoch’s work further at the present sitting. I don’t want to allow any merely interpretative issues to distract from the line of inquiry I wish to pursue. I would like to ask how the philosophical and theological commitments that are expressed in the image of a life of faith that Hauerwas develops in TCV and elsewhere—commitments that I have confessed to finding in substantial part congenial—are connected to an aspect of the book that I want to better understand.

This new, slim volume of Hauerwas’s is composed of his letters he wrote to his godson annually, for fourteen years, on the boy’s birthday. Hauerwas reports that he was complying with the wishes of the child’s parents, who had requested, in Hauerwas’s words, that he write every year “about a virtue that’s important for living the Christian life” (TCV, 33). Hauerwas repeatedly notes that his general understanding of the individual virtues he discusses, and of their relation to each other (see, e.g., TCV, 47 and 81), is strongly marked by inheritance from Aristotle’s ethics. At the same time, he regularly emphasizes that the specific accounts of the virtues that interest him are distinctively Christian and, as such, involve an element or dimension beyond what “Aristotle had the means to imagine” (TCV, 161; see also 67, 70 and 146). Additionally, in a number of passages of TCV, he appears to suggest that his epistolary lessons are addressed to his godson specifically insofar as his godson is a participant in practices within the church (see, e.g., TCV, 181–85). These are the gestures of Hauerwas’s that I want to interrogate. I want to ask whether, or to what extent, he is offering his reflections on virtue in TCV also to individuals whose identities are formed, and whose lives are lived, outside the self-avowed communities of Christian practice and belief that are the core focus of his work. My interest in this question is sincere and personal. As I read TCV, and as I encountered its references to specifically Christian renderings of the virtues, I found myself wondering whether I—a non-Christian—was a fitting reader of the book. Since the book is made up of letters to a child, my thoughts flew in this connection to non-Christian children, my own and those of others. Are these young people excluded from the envisioned readership of Hauerwas’s monograph? Or is there perhaps a story to be told about how his book is more inclusive than it might in some respects appear?

I am aware that, in raising this question, I am touching on issues that have been thoughtfully, extensively, and, at times, quite intensely debated by theologians with knowledge of Hauerwas’s work that goes far beyond my own dilettantish acquaintance with several of his books and a handful of his papers. A key accent of Hauerwas’s work as a Christian thinker has been ecclesiological; he has been concerned to describe, and to capture the doxastic significance of, Christian practices and traditions and, above all, to do so in a manner that captures what he sees as the distinctness of those practices and traditions (see, e.g., Hauerwas 2015, 4–5). His tendency to start not from doctrine but from practices and traditions has inspired a range of partly conflicting concerns. At least one outspoken critic has complained that Hauerwas’s stress on Christian practices, even if intended to widen the circle of those to whom forgiveness is open, veers toward fostering exclusivity, shutting out those “who have not had the luck to be formed so as to engage more than infrequently” in these practices, and thereby threatening the idea of grace as given to “virtually all people regardless of the extent of their formation” and their pursuit of right ways of living (Healy 2014, 135). At the same time, Hauerwas’s image of Christian practices as marked by difference has come under scrutiny from theologians who want to follow him in accenting these practices and who hold that, in a practice-oriented context, it is indeed possible to explain how forgiveness and reconciliation are “accessible to all,” specifically by allowing that grace won’t save us if we don’t ourselves play a—grace-enabled—role (Fiddes 2016, 351). Where these further theologians see themselves as disagreeing with Hauerwas is in thinking that, if we are to do justice to the notion of freely given grace, we need to move away from the theme of Christian distinctness and toward a “vision of participation in the triune God through a whole range of practice not only inside but outside the church” (Fiddes 2016, 351).

There can be no question here of my jumping into the fray and taking part in this involved debate among theologians. To be sure, I am attracted to the interventions of those theological commentators on Hauerwas who maintain that it is possible to work from a congenial and doctrinally satisfactory emphasis on Christian practice and tradition in a wholly ecumenical spirit. But I hasten to add that I am open to hearing from Hauerwas that he is rightly read as himself consistently and deliberately making room for this possibility. If I have anything useful to contribute to discussion of how this possibility might be realized, it is because I approach the issues as neither a theologian nor a Christian. Starting from some basic commitments that I have as a philosopher interested in ethical and religious life, I want to sketch and invite him to respond to a strategy for telling the inclusive story that interests me—the sort of story that could open the door for conceiving TCV as a book for my children and others who are not Christians.

My story begins from some fundamental questions of metaphysics and moral epistemology on which—I believe—Hauerwas and I agree. A pivotal preoccupation of my work as a moral philosopher has been discrediting an influential but ultimately indefensible image of the objective world as exclusively made up of things that can be adequately conceived independent of any appeal to human perceptual responses or attitudes. I have on many occasions argued in favor of broadening our understanding of objectivity to include qualities that are subject-dependent in the sense that they cannot adequately be conceived apart from a reference to perceptual or affective responses that they elicit. My motive has been to counter the tendency of philosophers to impose wrongheaded and morally damaging restrictions on the resources available to us for illuminating the world of moral concern. I have wanted to bring out vividly how the kind of understanding of worldly phenomena that we are after in ethics requires openness to investigating ethically charged attitudes that we find expressed in, say, “work across different fields in the humanities as well as in literature and other arts” (Crary 2016, 3). In his initial contribution to the exchange between us, Hauerwas told me that he was welcoming of these ideas—in part because, he said, they permit theological considerations to contribute to our grasp of the world of practical concern. I was, and am, happy to accept this suggestion and to affirm that it follows from some of my core philosophical claims that non-neutral perspectives to which theological reflections, or religious experience, open us may be capable of directly contributing to our empirical understanding of things around us. I will return to this point.

Before doing so, I want to point out that some version of the basic philosophical outlook that I just sketched provides the backdrop for the very particular, in notable respects Aristotelian, conception of the virtues that Hauerwas operates with in TCV and elsewhere. To say that Hauerwas’s picture of the virtues is recognizably Aristotelian is to say that it combines the following two elements in a distinctive manner. To begin with, virtues are modes of affective responsiveness, or forms of sensibility, that are the product of habit. It is by participating in practices expressive of specific virtues—practices that instill relevant sensibilities in their participants—that we come to possess those virtues. Hauerwas is echoing this thought of Aristotle’s when he declares that the “the virtues develop from corresponding activities” (TCV, 187–88) or, to quote one appealing figurative formulation, that “the virtues ride on the back of forms of life we discover along the way” (TCV, 41; see also 68, 78, 118, and 161). But possession of the virtues isn’t simply a matter of acting well in this or that case. To be virtuous is also to have a distinctive capacity of discernment. It is to be able to recognize occasions that call for the exercise of particular virtues. Within TCV, Hauerwas does not greatly emphasize this further aspect of his characteristic understanding of virtue. He brings it out more fully in other writings in which he is discussing the massive significance he attaches to Murdoch’s notion of “ethical perception” (see, e.g., Hauerwas 1997, ch. 10, esp. 155). Although this isn’t his focus in TCV, he still occasionally indicates that he believes a kind of intellectual ability belongs to virtue—for instance, when he describes virtue “as a way of seeing” (TCV, 103). Hauerwas holds that virtues involve this intellectual component in addition to a habit-produced component. Yet we fail to register the interest of his Aristotelian approach if we take him to be conceiving virtue as an indifferent amalgam of these two ingredients. We need to add that, as he sees it, the accretions of sensibility that we acquire through habit contribute internally to the capacities of discernment that are likewise essential to virtue. Hauerwas makes this point in TCV by representing the kind of vision that, by his lights, is integral to virtue as resulting from the training of routes of feeling. “To see justly,” he explains, “entails a willingness to submit to the training necessary to see the world as it is” (TCV, 103).

In championing a conception of the virtues as thus having inextricably intertwined affective and cognitive dimensions, Hauerwas commits himself to the basic philosophical outlook I described two paragraphs back. There is no room for his preferred conception of the virtues within the framework of philosophically received accounts of the objective realm on which it is exclusively made up of qualities that can be adequately conceived independently of any reference to perceptual or affective responses. For here there can be no question of allowing affective endowments to internally inform our ability to bring the world into view, and, by the same token, no question of allowing practices that shape these endowments to thereby contribute directly to the sorts of capacities of discernment that, by Hauerwas’s lights, are an ineliminable part of virtue. In order to accommodate the Aristotelian understanding of the virtues that Hauerwas favors, it is necessary to conceive the objective or empirical world as including qualities that can only adequately be captured in terms of modes of affective responsiveness. That is what enables us to hold, as he does, that the habit-produced sensitivities integral to the virtues are at the same time integral to capacities of discernment.

These reflections bring me back to the comment about the logic of faith that I made in my previous exchange with Hauerwas, the comment on which he asked me to expand. My remark about faith, in that earlier context, was informed by an understanding of moral education of a sort that is encoded in Hauerwas’s conception of the virtues. I was underlining my tendency to insist—in a manner that is congenial to that conception, and that is licensed by the construal of the objective domain that I favor—that developments of sensibility can make accessible to thought morally salient aspects of the world that aren’t otherwise available. One of my larger motives for adopting this tone of insistence has been to illuminate the demands we confront in ethics in trying to get the worldly lives of our fellow human beings adequately into focus. My thought, which I originally inherited from Stanley Cavell’s reading of Wittgenstein, is that a certain attitude—an attitude reflecting an at least reasonable sense of the kinds of things that are important in human life—is a prerequisite of the kind of empirical understanding of other human beings that we seek in ethics. This thought equips me to say things about our relations to human others that many philosophers would reject as confused. For instance, I would be happy to claim that we do not respond appropriately to others because we believe in their existence; rather, we believe in the existence of others because we respond to them in a range of appropriate ways. I chose this particular formulation because it is structurally similar to the assertion of Hauerwas’s about the logic of faith that I earlier claimed to find congenial. “We do not grieve because of our belief in God,” Hauerwas had written, “we believe in God, at least the Christian God, because we are creatures for whom it makes sense to grieve.” Similarly, in TCV he writes that Christians “discover they do believe, for instance, that Jesus rose from the dead, because they couldn’t make sense of their lives otherwise” (TCV, 182). I am not in a position to affirm these claims of Hauerwas’s in my own voice. But I freely admit that I find their logical form intelligible. I am full of respect for the idea that—and note that I am here returning to the question about the intellectual interest of theological considerations, and of religious experience, that I set aside a few moments ago—new experiences, including religious ones, might result in the transformation of an individual’s intellectually respectable beliefs.

There is one more issue I need to address before decisively posing to Hauerwas my main question about the inclusiveness of the Christian vision that he develops in TCV. It will no doubt seem to some theologians who are critics that the fact that an avowed non-Christian can express such unqualified enthusiasm for Hauerwas’s ideas is a sign, not of a promising possible greater communion, but of a failure to appropriately register the Christian truth. The thought might be that, if we arrive at our image of Christian existence by appealing to a roughly Aristotelian conception of the significance of habits and traditions, then we cannot help but veer toward suggesting that the story of Jesus is at bottom qualitatively no different from the stories embedded in other (nonreligious as well as religious) traditions. (For a thought on these lines, see, e.g., Healy 2014, 125–26.) But it is not clear to me why we need to accept this. What would entitle anyone, Christian or non-Christian, to think that they can antecedently place limits on the nature of the truths that participation in specific practices might reveal? Why shouldn’t even non-Christians allow that they might one day feel the need to express newly uncovered truths using phrases with strings of words for which they don’t currently have meaningful uses—say, strings involving words such as “transcendence,” “omnipotence,” “grace,” and “God”?

Now I am in a position to raise the question about TCV that chiefly preoccupies me. The considerations adduced thus far here lead me to think that Hauerwas’s account of Christian virtues is in essentials suitable for, and is aptly taken to be addressed to, young people both inside and outside the church. As I understand Hauerwas’s larger intellectual commitments, there should be, for him, no obstacle to admitting that forms of life that unfold in isolation from self-avowedly Christian institutions and communities might open individuals to Christian truths—to truths that are rightly taken to call for articulation in categories hospitable to Christianity. So, would I be correct to revisit and reinterpret those portions of TCV, touched on at the opening of these remarks, that struck me as suggesting that it was written only for individuals within the church? Can the book be read with understanding by non-Christian as well as Christian children and adults? Are my children and I included among its desired audience?

Having spent so much time formulating these questions, I cannot now discuss at any length the various additional features of TCV that I find appealing. But I want to at least mention one. Among the key attractions of the book for me is the fact that the first virtue discussed is kindness (39–48). Hauerwas insists, rightly in my view, on the importance and centrality of this oft-marginalized virtue. This struck me not only because I find that kindness is wrongly disparaged and neglected in the academic and activist circles in which I spend much of my time but also because my correspondence with Hauerwas began with a notable act of kindness on his part. Hauerwas agreed to contribute to a symposium about a book of mine—a symposium that, as he recognized, would otherwise have been largely devoted to relatively abstract and tiresome scholarly quarrels, with barely a hint of the moral and political concerns that prompted me to write the book in the first place. I remain grateful for his kind gesture, and I hope that he will accept these reflections about his work—as they are intended—as an expression of my gratitude.

 

Works Cited

Crary, Alice. 2016. Inside Ethics: The Demands of Moral Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fiddes, Paul. 2016. “Versions of Ecclesiology: Stanley Hauerwas and Nicholas Healy.” Ecclesiology 12: 331–53.

Hauerwas, Stanley. 2015. The Work of Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

———. 1997. Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth Century Philosophy and Theology. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Healy, Nicholas M. 2014. Hauerwas: a (Very) Critical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


  1. See Hauerwas, “Theological Reflections on Alice Crary’s Inside Ethics”; Crary, “Thoughts on Cats and Theology”; and Hauerwas, “A Footnote for a Continuing Conversation,” at https://syndicate.network/symposia/philosophy/inside-ethics/.

  • Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas

    Reply

    Response to Alice Crary

    “I want to ask whether, or to what extent, he is offering his reflections on virtue in TCV also to individuals whose identities are formed, and whose lives are lived, outside the self-avowed communities of Christian practice and belief that are the core focus of his work.” A question that seems innocent enough, but one that I can give no definitive answer. I cannot give a definitive answer because I try to write in a manner that might attract a wide audience. After all I want to sell my books.

    So I try to write in a way that is interesting in the hope I might be able to attract readers no matter whether they are Christians or not. Non-Christian readers may find some of what I have to say about kindness too “pious,” but I also have the hope (a virtue that may require even deeper theological claims than kindness) that the reader who is not a Christian may find insights in what I have written about kindness they think interesting.

    So I certainly hope I can be read by non-Christians. Indeed I want not only to be read by those who do not count themselves Christian but I even would like to be understood by those that do not share the Christian faith. Crary is quite right to worry if her children should read TCV, but I think not because some of the things I say seem to suggest I think non-Christians should not read what I have written. But I would like her children to read TCV so they might get a glimpse of what it means to be baptized.

    I need to be very careful how to say what I have just said. First I am not saying you must be a Christian to read and understand TCV. Christians are just as likely to get what I am doing wrong than non-Christians. The method that is at the heart of TCV is one that presupposes that though different narratives will produce different virtues, there may still be similarities between different virtue traditions that reflect the determined fact that we have bodies. In TCV I tried to show how that works given the body is fundamentally transformed in baptism.

    These are, of course, the kind of issues raised by Herdt concerning the relation between nature and grace. Because “nature” is teleologically oriented to the glorification of God it is a theological mistake to assume that non-Christians would find it impossible to understand what Christians have to say. It is not simply a question of whether non-Christians can understand what Christians say, for example, about why martyrdom is the paradigm for Christian death, but whether Christians understand what they say when they reflect on death.

    I have spent a lifetime trying to help Christians recover the difference made by how we talk as constitutive for how we live. I have done so as part of a general project to test the truthfulness of Christian practices. I have assumed that if it is possible to find the difference “Christian” names, you may have some idea of what it would mean to claim what we believe is true. Crary is right to suggest that the issues are christological because the difference different readers represent is the difference Christ makes.

    Given we live in a diverse world some Christian theologians have tried to translate the descriptions at the heart of Christian speech into a language that can be understood by anyone. The problem with that project is no language exists that can be understood by that mythical figure of Enlightenment, that is, the cosmopolitan who understands everyone but themselves. That does not mean that some translation is not possible but just as a language in use such as Irish cannot be translated into English so Christian cannot be translated into another language without remainder.

    The use of the description “Christian” to name a language in the last sentence of the previous paragraph may seem quite strange. English, French, Spanish are languages but Christian is not a language in the same way that English is a language. But to describe a language as Christian can be understood as an analogical proposal that helps explain why speaking Christian requires training. In a similar fashion so does reading Christian. It is not as if the non-Christian cannot understand what they read when they read Christian. They may often understand better than Christian readers what is read. The only advantage the Christian has is they are committed to undergoing the training necessary to be a good reader.

    Crary’s observations about what we philosophically share in common are important for the issues she raises in her response. Like her I have been influenced by Wittgenstein and Murdoch, who in different ways emphasized the importance of the need to have a certain attitude to reflect a “reasonable sense of the kind of things that are important in human life.” I take it that such a view means certain gestures such as petting the dog may well put a human being on the way kindness or to reading TCV with understanding even though they are not a Christian.

    So of course Crary and her children are among my desired readers. If for no other reason than to discover what an odd but interesting life Christianity makes possible. It may even be the case that we live in a time when philosophers and theologians have something to say to one another because they actually read what the other writes. I am, therefore, extremely grateful that Crary has done me the favor of reading and responding to TCV.

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