“We become just by the practice of just actions”

Aristotle and Aquinas rightly argued that the virtues are acquired through habituation and, in particular for Aquinas, the habituation of the passions. The habits we acquire necessary to make us not only do what justice requires but to become just in the doing are complex responses learned over time. Therefore to become just means acting as the just act; but you cannot become just by slavishly imitating what the just do. Rather, you must feel what the just feel when they act justly. The virtue, therefore, can only be acquired through our actions if what we do is not different from what we are. The virtues can be learned through doing, but the “doing” cannot be a product separate from the agent. Aristotle observes, “men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing harp. Similarly, we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.”

Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith, page 156.

I really like this explication of acquiring the virtues from Hauerwas, because I think it captures the a lot of the problems inherent to progressive justice-obsessed spaces online. A lot of progressive political life is lived on social media, whether that be Twitter, Facebook, or more recently, TikTok. Clearly, among these folks, there is a yearning for justice, and an ever present call for action and to “do better” at a personal level. These calls come paired with the irony-laced mockery of political foes, showcasing the contempt those foes are held in. These two things are often inseparable: a desire for a more just, loving and inclusive world, and an attitude of derision for those not as committed to such a vision.

But, as Hauerwas reminds us, Aristotle and Aquinas taught us that the doing of virtuous deeds cannot be separated from a character of virtue. And the making of such character cannot be done by oneself; it requires a community, the real presence of other people, who hold us accountable and teach us what it means to have character, who show us the virtues required for such a life, in action. In turn, those people learned from others before them, on and on down through the ages, from those who first learned them. If we want a better world for everyone, then we cannot expect it to be forged amongst a disparate collection of atomized individuals who have only a vision of the world shaped by the demands of Progress. No, it takes people trained and practiced to identify the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, not just to understand them, but to feel those things deep in their soul. As Hauerwas says above, its not about a pale imitation of a certain way of life; its a Knowing deep in the soul, a Knowing that can only be given as a sort of Grace, that will really change the world in any real way.

And if that isn’t a compelling case for the importance of the church, over and against the wasteland that is the modern technoculture, then I don’t know what else is.


“Christians are not fundamentally concerned about living”

Whenever the idea of being “pro-life” or the concept of the “sanctity of life” are being bandied about, as they are now in the wake of Dobbs, I often think of this passage from Stanley Hauerwas’ Suffering Presence:

It is a mistake to assume that “sanctity of life” is a sufficient criterion for an appropriate concept of death. Appeals to the sanctity of life beg exactly the question at issue, namely, that you know what kind of life it is that should be treated as sacred. More troubling for me, however, is how the phrase “sanctity of life,” when separated from its theological context, became an ideological slogan for a narrow individualism antithetical to the Christian way of life. Put starkly, Christians are not fundamentally concerned about living. Rather, their concern is to die for the right thing. Appeals to the sanctity of life as an ideology make it appear that Christians are committed to the proposition that there is nothing in life worth dying for.

I come back to this passage a lot in my head: the words “Christians are not fundamentally concerned about living” have really stuck with me since I first read them. They are challenging words, especially for those who are called to lead churches today. I don’t think a lot of Christians today want to hear that Christianity isn’t about how to find some little piece of comfort in a difficult world, but is instead about how to prepare yourself to die for something you believe in. I don’t envy pastors who have to try to thread this needle. But I think Hauerwas is right; after all, we follow a Savior who died, and we are called in Scripture to be willing to do the same. The Christian life is one that is different from the culture around it, not in a contrarian sort of way, but because we understand life to mean something more than just existing.

The problem with pro-life rhetoric is that it doesn’t seem to have a firm foundation of what it is we are preserving life for. It mirrors the common American conversation about liberty in this way; freedom is always from something, and very rarely for anything. Life appears to be the same for American Christians. We are standing for life, not because we then want to declare that that life needs to serve the needs of others, but because we want to be able to do with life whatever we please. Its just another way that American Christianity has become wrapped up in the worst kind of Enlightenment liberalism, the kind that takes it deepest cues from capitalism and the market, a kind amoral permissiveness that says if you can afford to do it, then it is good to do. Ethics are a function of financial and social capital. Life isn’t about the good, in a philosophical sense; its about gratifying an immediate desire. In this understanding, life perversely comes to mean not dying, because I have more things that I want to do, to buy, to consume. Life is just the avoidance of death long enough to take another hit of whichever drug consumes us.

It becomes hard then to take pro-life arguments seriously, because they seem to have such a casual disregard for life and its purpose beyond just being born and thus existing. This is why I have such a problem with the pro-life movement, despite my own moral qualms about abortion. If we are going to work so damn hard to force women to carry to term any and all pregnancies no matter the cost, shouldn’t we have some idea of what kind of life we want people to lead? It isn’t good enough to say “live and let live.” Christians can’t be laissez faire about these kinds of things; we are too committed to following a risen Lord who lived life in a very specific way, and even more importantly, was willing to give up his life for the sake of his friends and his God.

Because, in the end, that is the “something” for which life exists: to love and to serve your Lord God and your neighbor. Those words mean something, something more than just “get yours while you can.” Death is not to be feared, and life is not to be revered, because neither are absolutes; only God is, and as Scripture tells us, God is love. Hauerwas goes on in the same vein:

Therefore life for Christians is not sacred in the strict sense. Christians view life as a gift, but a gift for which they must care. Thus the claim that life is sacred is not really so much a statement about ourselves as it is an indication of the kind of respect we owe our neighbor. Our life and the lives of our neighbors are to be protected, since they are not ours to dispose of. For our dying as much as our living should be determined by our conviction that we are not our own.

a note on the task of theology

I’m going back to my roots this summer and re-reading the major works of Jurgen Moltmann. His Crucified God had as profound an effect on my own calling as a theologian as any work ever has, and even today, when I depart from Moltmann on much of his theology, I still turn to the Crucified God regularly. I’ve blogged about it here and here.

I’m presently reading his first major work, Theology of Hope, and early in the book this sentence stood out for me:

The theologian is not concerned merely to supply a different interpretation of the world, of history and human nature, but to transform them in expectation of a divine transformation.

This is a good reminder for me, and for anyone doing the work of academic theology: our work must live in the world in a profound way. It must escape the library stacks and the Gothic towers, and be something for the transformation of the world in anticipation of God’s coming kingdom. Good theology is living theology.