Character and the Durable Self

The initial focus of Hauerwas' work seems rather removed from bricks, brick-throwing, and a concern about Christian power in the world. His first book, Character and the Christian Life, attempts to give an account of "the nature of the Christian moral life" (Hauerwas 1985: 229). This is just the sort of conceptual focus that threatens to shift attention away from the worldly weight of the Christian life. Yet, in this early study, Hauerwas thinks himself away from concepts and toward his characteristic preoccupation with the living particularity and density of Christian truth.

Writing in the early 1970s, Hauerwas sees two parallel tendencies in the theological and philosophical approaches that dominated midcentury English-speaking academic life. By his reading, much of Protestant thought has been preoccupied with "the metaphor of command." An anxiety about righteousness through works leads to the presumption that an exaggerated emphasis on sanctification undermines the doctrine of justification.3 This theological outlook consistently blocks the development of a vocabulary to describe continuing human participation in divine purposes. Without continuing participation, the power of Christianity can easily seem occasional and ephemeral. It has to do with the "vertical" dimension of transcendence, not the "horizontal" dimension of everyday life. Furthermore, modern anxieties about scientific determinism have tempted modern moralists to secure a zone of indeterminate freedom as the realm of "values." Free decisions are seen as the key moments of moral significance in lives otherwise embedded in the context of social and natural forces. As a result, moral philosophy sets about to thoroughly analyze the dynamics of decision. Again, the "vertical" is juxtaposed to the "horizontal." Difficult circumstances are carefully assessed so that we might find our way along the narrow paths of duty and obligation. So-called "quandary ethics" take center stage.

For Hauerwas, concerns about righteousness through works and the desire to secure a narrow zone of freedom have encouraged a disembodied and atom istic view of the self. The slide occurs in many ways. Pietism turns inward; neo-orthodoxy treats divine intervention as a series of explosions that shatter worldly forms. Kantian morality focuses on purity of intention, while utilitarianism endorses dispassionate and detached calculations of harms and benefits.

Hauerwas has a great deal to say about these different trends, but it is the end result that is most important. For much of modern moral thought, and for nearly all of what passes as ethical reflection in modern Protestant theology, a Gnostic sensibility prevails. What really matters in our lives - our participation in God's justifying grace, our self-determining moments of moral choice, our calculations of utility - is separated from the vast majority of what defines and shapes our lives, and the result is anything but powerful. Restricted to the "vertical," moral and religious life is so distant and ephemeral that it cannot exercise power in the world.

In Character and the Christian Life, Hauerwas urges us to think otherwise. He wants us to use character, rather than command, as the "central metaphor." This requires a detailed study of an array of theological and philosophical issues concerning sanctification, agency, and the nature of the self. Theologically, Hauerwas shows how the radical Augustinianism of Barth (which Bultmann does not so much affirm as exploit) is vulnerable to the perversion of "situation ethics" (Hauerwas 1985: 177-8). If the articulation of continuing and durable forms of Christian life and practice is rejected as an encroachment upon God's prevenient grace, then Christian ethicists seem free to just make it up as they go along. Philosophically, Hauerwas makes the case that human agency is always the agency of someone, and to be a person is to have a history and a personality. As Hauerwas never tires of reminding his readers, the illusion of the "view from nowhere" is a close cousin to the "decision from nowhere." Thus, indeterminacy cannot be the signal note of freedom, at least not the freedom of persons.

Hauerwas' reductio ad absurdum of the prevailing theological framework for Protestant ethics, as well as his demonstration of the untenable philosophical assumptions of a decision-oriented ethical theory, are compelling. Yet what is most important about Character and the Christian Life is the underlying concern, for it leads toward bricks, and the other solid objects that he so often throws at his readers in his later work. Animating his analysis is a clear theological judgment. The Gospel is good news because God does something for us that involves "real change in our mode of being and existence" (Hauerwas 1985: 228). God, moreover, is faithful. He ensures that this real change is continuing and durable. Here is how Hauerwas puts the matter: "To be in Christ is to be determined by the reality that claims to be able to order and form the rest of reality in a way that our life can achieve genuine 'continuity' and 'integrity'" (p. 226). In short, Christ has the power to shape us as persons.

In view of this affirmation, the central topic of Character and the Christian Life has a clear role to play. Character is the basis for the "continuity" and "integrity" of a person subject to a power that effects real and lasting change. Virtue denotes the qualities of character that establish continuity and integrity in lives changing for the better. Vice denotes those qualities in lives changing for the worse (and therefore disintegrating). Hauerwas has a great deal to say about the kinds of virtues that make up a Christian character - truthfulness, peaceableness, patience, hope, and more - and what affections and practices constitute and sustain these virtues is a matter of inquiry and debate. More important, however, is the underlying importance of character. "The virtues," Hauerwas writes, "bind our past with our future by providing us with continuity of self"(Hauerwas 1988: 265). The virtues are the ways in which Christian truth "becomes enduring in our intentionality" (Hauerwas 1981b: 2). In short, character denotes the density of our lives. Everything that Hauerwas writes after Character and the Christian Life is an extended inquiry into this density. He wants to understand the particular ways the lives of Christians take on weight and solidity. He is eager to explain how this brick-like quality both collides with and resists the worldly powers that dominate our lives, and just this collision and resistance defines the political reality of Christian character.

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