Christians among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics

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Christians among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics. By Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. xvii + 224 pp. $29.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

We need more books like this: Pugnacious and articulate, it knows its own positions and is not afraid to state them. It likes a good fight; indeed the book is structured as a series of disputatious conversations. And it picks its fights well: Each interlocutor merits the attention it receives. The book's disputatiousness has both formal and material attractions. Formally, the disputatiousness compels it towards an admirable specificity through engaging in detailed discussions with diverse interlocutors; Martha Nussbaum, John Casey (author of Pagan Virtue), and even Alasdair MacIntyre and the current obsession with "virtue ethics" come in for insightful critique here. Materially, these engagements usefully illuminate matters central to Christian faith, such as the virtues' interrelatedness (especially the place of courage and patience alongside [or within?] Christian caritas), and how Christian convictions should inform our endurance of suffering.

As a set of engagements, the book raises crucial theological issues in a helpful way, even if one wishes to dispute the position put forward. Indeed, one learns at least as much by disagreeing with the book as by agreeing with it. For example, in defending its "sanctificationist" approach to ethics, the book argues that Christian faith allows the possibility of genuine moral development. This assumes that repair and development do not differ enough to undermine the practicality of virtue ethics for Christian faith. This seems usefully disputable; one might argue that a basic difference separating broadly "naturalist" ethics from Christian ethics is the Christian admission of original sin, which pictures humans as not simply born underdeveloped, but born positively perverted. This would seem to complexify the task of ethics-conceived of as reflection on "moral development"-in interesting ways. As "Christian realists" argue, Christian faith admits the possibility of genuine moral goodness but insists, against all teleology (whether Aristotelian naturalism or modern progressivism), that sin infects us too thoroughly for any such hope to be a straightforward ethical guide. Perhaps eschatology has a more complicated role to play in Christian ethics than this book admits; here it seems to function mostly as a kind of ultimate consequentialist trump card, legitimating a willed indifference to consequences by appeal to the idea that God will settle all things at the end of time. …