Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics
By Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches University of Notre Dame Press. 230 pp. $29.95
Virtue is making a comeback. The success of William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues in 1994 is perhaps the most notable indicator of this fact, but the “virtuecrats”-the politicians and public figures who have made careers of promoting virtue-produced enough of a splash to make the cover of Newsweek some time back. And on its face, this is surely a good thing that Christians should applaud warmly.
In their new book, however, the Christian theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches express considerable reservation about the current revival of interest in virtue. The reasons for their reservation will be apparent to readers familiar with any of Hauerwas’ other work. Convinced that Christianity is a distinctive community with a distinctive narrative and distinctive practices, the authors declare that “One of the main burdens of the book is to argue that the virtues Christianly considered are in fundamental ways different from the virtues associated with quite different practices, communities, and narratives.”
The book is divided into three sections. The first section consists of three chapters of “theological reflections on Aristotelian themes.” The next section responds to contemporary exponents of virtue: Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and John Casey. The final section, which the authors consider most crucial to their case, is devoted to examining particular Christian virtues.
The opening section’s material on Aristotle is foundational for the author’s project, not only because Aristotle’s account of the virtues has been influential in both philosophy and theology, but also because the critique of Aristotle sets the tone for the rest of the book. The broad purpose of these chapters is to show the “complex relation between happiness, temporality, and virtue.” Unashamedly concerned with happiness in his ethics, Aristotle provides us with a powerful picture of how the virtues are necessary for happiness.
It is easy enough to see affinities between the Christian life and the Aristotelian life, and theologians have often attempted to synthesize the two. But even more interesting than the affinities are the contrasts Hauerwas and Pinches draw between Aristotle and Christianity. The contrast comes into focus when the authors compare how friendship is understood in the two traditions. Aristotle recognized the need for friends if we are to become virtuous. It is not the case that we must first become virtuous and then seek out similarly virtuous friends. In Aristotle’s view, as the authors put it, “friendship itself is an activity by which we acquire the kind of steadfastness necessary for our being true friends.” There are, however, limits to friendship among the magnanimous men who epitomize virtue for Aristotle, for essential to the virtue of the magnanimous man is the notion that it is better to give than to receive. This has far-reaching implications if such a man is struck by misfortune or adversity so that he can no longer give to others. In this case, the man must insulate himself from his friends to protect them from sharing his suffering.
The contrast with Christianity could hardly be more profound. Christians worship a God who befriended us while we were in deepest need and displayed this friendship most vividly while hanging on a cross. “Here it is assumed that friends will suffer with friends, indeed, that friends will suffer because of friends, as the disciples will suffer for Jesus’ sake.”
At the outset of the second section of the book, Hauerwas and Pinches remind us that they have “no stake in defending virtue as a thing in itself.” Indeed, to defend virtue that way may result, for the Christian, in defending what is vicious. Examining the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, the authors echo one of MacIntyre’s famous titles and insist: ”If someone asserts that striving after virtue will bring one closer to God, Christians are obliged to ask: what virtues? and which God?”
Rather than attack him directly, Hauerwas and Pinches do so indirectly by summarizing John Milbank’s critique of MacIntyre. In particular, they are interested in Milbank’s challenge to the notion that a “universally compelling philosophical case can be made for the ascendancy of virtue.” Milbank is especially critical of MacIntyre’s attempt to defend Christianity by the allegedly universal method of dialectics. That is, he is skeptical of the attempt to show that Christianity is true by demonstrating that it is more consistent than its rivals, resolves more problems, and so on.
Moreover, Milbank believes MacIntyre has a problem as a Christian in urging a return to virtue as understood by Plato and Aristotle. The ancient philosophers’ view of virtue is fundamentally heroic and situated in a context of conflict and the defense of the polis by violence. By contrast, the Christian picture of virtue has as its end not domination but liberation. ”As such it transcends a model of the person whose telos involves the practice and perfection of the virtues of conflict, and it offers the new political possibilities of mutuality and community that previously were inconceivable.”
The discussions of Nussbaum and Casey further develop the point that there are fundamental differences between Christian and Greek accounts of virtue. The critique of Nussbaum shows that Christianity does not share her conception of the fragility of human love and friendship. Christians neither place the same sort of positive value on fragility Nussbaum does nor think goodness-in a world created by a gracious God whose good purposes will finally prevail-is as vulnerable as Nussbaum imagines. Hauerwas and Pinches put the point succinctly: “Christians’ affirmations of the fragility of goodness must always be qualified by their eschatalogical convictions.” The chapter on the contemporary philosopher John Casey points out some of the difficulties in his project of reviving such pagan virtues as anger, pride, and courage when we lack a modern context equivalent to the ancient setting in which these virtues flourished and made sense.
The final section of Christians Among the Virtues begins with an account of the hopeful virtues, beginning with Paul’s classic statement of justification by faith in Romans 5 and raising the question of how virtue relates to justification. Hauerwas and Pinches show how distinctively Christian doctrines such as the resurrection of Jesus radically shape the way Christians construe suffering, forgiveness, endurance, and the formation of character. The next chapter examines the sense in which obedience is a virtue from a Christian perspective. Then follows a discussion of courage that points out how Christian resources transform and subvert notions of courage defined by the context of battle. The book concludes with a suggestive treatment of patience in relation to modern medicine. Here the authors explore, among other things, the irony of our still being called patients by the medical profession “given the impatience which so imbues the modern practice of medicine and the social order it serves.”
Consistently provocative and rich with insight, the book deserves a wide audience. Philosophers as well as theologians will find much in it to stimulate their thinking and challenge their convictions. There are numerous passages in the book that edify and even some that are religiously moving.
Christians Among the Virtues is not without its difficulties, however. For instance, the authors often mention their rejection of universal modes of argument. They have little patience with the notion that there might be universally acknowledged means of resolving disputes, and their rejection of universals is often accompanied by expressions of disdain for liberalism.
While certain strands and developments within the liberal tradition richly deserve all the scorn Hauerwas and Pinches can muster, it is much less clear that the idea of universal standards of rationality should be jettisoned as well. They are quite correct, not to mention historically sensitive, to recognize the distinctiveness of various traditions, their particular locations, and specific shapes-and that goes for the Christian tradition as much as for any other. But this cannot be the last word if one also believes Christianity is true, and true in the deepest sense, as Hauerwas and Pinches clearly do.
Similarly, the authors are surely correct in claiming that “differing accounts of the virtues rest on differing claims about the way things are.” As they show, distinctively Christian truth claims alter the shape of the virtues. The question, however, is whether there are universally accessible considerations that show the preferability of the Christian vision of reality-a vision that consists of the Christian account of “the way things are” and the corresponding picture of virtue.
It is odd, to say the least, to think the Christian story of creation and redemption, with its extraordinary implications for all persons, could really be true without its truth being discernible, at least in significant part, to any properly informed seeker of truth. Perhaps a hopeful pointer for resolving this issue lies in the authors’ comment that “sin and redemption, while universal, are imbedded in a particular history, one we must come to share if we are to know our true state.” The point is, Christians believe that universal truths have been revealed in a particular history. If the true state of all persons is indeed that they are sinful and in need of the redemption Christianity provides, then surely there must be considerations that point all persons to the truth of the story that illumine the meaning of their lives and the way they ought to live.
In Christians Among the Virtues, Hauerwas and Pinches convincingly argue that Christianity offers a very different account of the virtues. But they leave us wondering why, if that account is true, it is only accessible to those who have made a prior commitment to Christianity.
Jerry L. Walls is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.