By Stanley Hauerwas
The virus has wounded us. Life was pretty good. Most of us knew when and from where our next meal or paycheck was coming. We could plan visits to see children or old friends. Spring training was soon to begin. If you cannot trust spring training you cannot trust anything. And that is exactly where we find ourselves. This damned virus has made us unsure if we can trust anything — and that includes God.
Years ago during the nuclear crisis, I wrote a little essay entitled “Taking Time for Peace: The Moral Significance of the Trivial.” For those who regret you missed reading this little contribution to our common life, it is the last essay in a book entitled Christian Existence Today that was published in 1988. What I had to say in that article may be relevant to our current situation.
|We live not to survive but to be in love with God and those God makes our neighbor.|
I called attention to the response by many that all normal activities should cease in the face of the possibility, since Reagan was president, that we might blow everything up. Those taking this position argued we should do nothing that did not have in view the destruction of nuclear weapons. These “survivalists” argued we should subordinate all life to the cause of securing our biological survival.
I found that a profoundly totalitarian sentiment. Survival cannot be an end in itself, but rather we seek to survive to develop ways of life that make survival constitutive of lives worth living. What appeared to be a profoundly ethical position to end the stock-piling of nuclear weapons had a logic that created such weapons in the first place. Fear can be an ugly reality.
What does this have to do with ethics? Even more importantly, what does this have to do with being Christian and our commitment to live in the light of God’s good care of us? I think this: Ethics is often thought to deal with “big questions” and dramatic choices, but in fact the most important and significant aspects of our lives are found in the everyday. The everyday is made the everyday by the promises we make, which may not seem like promises at the time but turn out to make us people that can be trusted. Such trust comes through small acts of tenderness that are as significant as they are unnoticed. It makes a difference that I am told, “I love you” before I leave for the day even though the declaration may seem to be routine. It is often routine and that is why it is so important.
The God that we worship as Christians is a God of the everyday. To be sure, the One that is Lord of time has acted and continues to act in ways that are extraordinary. But God does so that we might live lives shaped by the love found in the cross of Christ. Because of the cross we can have lives that contain the time necessary to sustain the everyday routines that make peace and justice possible. No routine is more significant than the willingness of the community called Christian to have and care for children, some of whom will be born “different.”
The kind of ethics associated with this way of characterizing the moral life is called an ethic of the virtues. A concentration on the virtues, an emphasis that characterized most ancient understandings of the moral life, was lost in modernity. In recent times, however, it has found powerful expression in the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Drawing on the work of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, MacIntyre has helped us recover the significance of our habitual formation that makes possible our everyday exchanges with ourselves, those we love, and strangers.
I have also been associated with his development. I have recently written a book entitled The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson. The book, as the title implies, are letters commending a virtue I assume is relevant to my godson’s age and development. I try to help us see that the virtues are not the result of extraordinary behavior. Instead, they ride on the back of the everyday. Accordingly, the virtues are not the result of my trying hard, for example, to be patient. I become patient by taking the time to learn how to dribble the basketball well. We do discover in times like the present that the moral commitments we had forgotten make us who we are. I am thinking, for example, of the commitment of health care workers who resolve not to abandon the ill even though to remain present may endanger their own lives.
The wound that the virus has inflicted on us is to tempt us to become impatient with ourselves and others in an effort to return to the “normal.” We had not realized how dependent we have become on the everyday habit of going to church and seeing one another on Sundays. We had lost track of the significance of our willingness to touch one another as a sign that we rejoice in their presence. In short, we had lost the significance of the everyday, and we rightly want it back.
But we must be patient. We are an eschatological people. We believe we are agents in a story we did not make up and it is a story that is true. That the story is true makes it possible for us to live truthful lives. Such lives require us to recognize that we are a people who must die. We are not meant to survive this life. That is why we live not to survive but to be in love with God and those God makes our neighbor. We have been wounded by this virus but we have not been morally destroyed. So, let us be patient with one another as God has remained patient with us.
Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke Divinity School and canon theologian of the Diocese of Tennessee.