I’ve been rereading Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom and continue to find things I could write on for the entire semester from just the first chapter. I’ve been interested in reading Hauerwas for some time. I have an existing conceptually rough outline of his perspective, but it has already been confirmed by the first chapter.
Hauerwas starts off by saying, “All ethical reflection occurs relative to a particular time and place.” Ethics, he claims, is determined by the particularities and peculiarities of a community and history. It is contextual. But Hauerwas says that this runs counter to much of ethical reflection in Modernity that sought a universal and objective ethic with unchangeable principles. I think this is a hard pill for many to swallow at least initially. Though my hunch is that is their inability to find such a universal that drives them onward. Because things are so ambiguous at times, I can see why many want to create a universal set of principles on which society must reside. Hauerwas notes the irony that our dogmatism hides our profound doubt. I was just chatting about this with a friend the other day about how our family and social upbringing impacted our view of God and the theological system we find ourselves most comfortable with. She had remarked that sought out her Catholic aunt who was a nun when her family and home life was falling apart because she wanted a solid theological framework around her to give her life stability. I have seen this in others as well. As her life became more stable over the years, her theology grew from the fundamentalist answers she held on to so tightly at the beginning of her faith journey to and embracing of the question and mystery of God now.
Hauerwas is also keen on deflating the modern individual and how the lone person tries to conceive, in isolated freedom, a personal ethic without impingement upon his or her neighbors. Ethics, for Hauerwas, is not a matter of ones own shaping rather something that shapes us. He states, “We do not create moral values, principles, virtues; rather they constitute a life for us to appropriate.” While I agree with the thrust of this thought, I would want to make one small change to suggest that we are appropriated into the tradition. To say that we appropriate this life still suggests the priority of the individual rather than the story.
Hauerwas presents a similar story to that of Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart. Where there is no shared standard value system, individuals all exist on equal ground where tolerance becomes the virtue of plurality. As a private matter, one cannot impose upon another’s chosen values. In such a world, conflicts are resolved by “honesty and communication” of ones “needs and desires” as matters of “technical problem solving, not moral decision.” Morality then is based on the highly subjective nature of personal preferences. Values are arbitrarily chosen. As a result, successful self-reliance and self-fulfillment become the standards for choosing those preferences and yet, that self-fulfillment is done in radical isolation without means of affecting that same fulfillment for others. The only, and very ironic, fragile unity that such a strident diversity is able to bring about is in the language of individual rights.
One of the other key directions that Hauerwas introduces is the idea of practices. These practices shape both the individual and communities to embody the storied ethic. This was one of the ideas I was wrestling with a few weeks ago in my posting. I was struggling to articulate the insufficiency of an abstract or objective privatized religion. Such a state of affairs has a tendency for a detached critique rather than a love embodied into the world. Practices, like baptism and the Eucharist, ground or embody our ethics in the lives of the community, rather in the abstraction of the radical individual. Thus our participation in the life of the community is formative shaping us in those right commitments to be acted in the world. Since we are all sinful we need to be trained and well practiced to desire rightly. Something that cannot be done on our own because since we are sinful, we cannot rightly conceive of what is good. What we begin to see is an incarnational ethic. We do not simply conceive of a set of principles from our theology, rather our theology is our ethic. They are not separate matters.
The last thing I wanted to touch on is his non-violence methodology. This is something new that I will be looking at. I have thought about the violence in terms of our actions, but not really considered the violence done by our methodology. Like a computers operating system that determines the actions outcomes one can take, our methodology would seem to suggest the same thing. It is not just the resultant actions that are violent but also the methods behind them. Hauerwas suggests, “For the attempts to secure peace though founding morality on rationality itself, or some other inherent human characteristic, ironically underwrites coercion. If others refuse to accept my account of rationality, it seems within my bounds to force them to be true to their true selves.” He further states that “peace is not something to be achieved by our power.” Central to that direction is a peaceful acceptance of diversity within the Body, rather than forcing everyone to an objective morality. This is a challenging statement for the ecclesia of God.
Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, ( ), 1.
Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 16.