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    flock of sheep grazing beside a stone wall in the Lake District, UK

    The Good Life

    If liberalism failed to deliver it, what can?

    By Stanley Hauerwas

    October 13, 2021

    In his beautifully written memoir, The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, James Rebanks helps those like myself who know nothing about sheep to have some sense of what it means to be a shepherd. Rebanks is well prepared to perform this task as he comes from a lineage of shepherds. Rebanks knows sheep and he helps his reader know something of what he knows.

    For example, I had no idea there are so many different breeds of sheep. The diversity of breeds means, moreover, that the breeding of sheep can be quite specialized. For example, there are breeds of sheep that have been and continue to be bred to negotiate different topographies.

    Romantic conceptions of what it might mean to be a shepherd cannot survive Rebanks’s honest account of the brutality that is often necessary to maintain the flock. The bargaining between shepherds can be a cutthroat business. To maintain the farm, moreover, is sheer hard work and the result is often a barely sustainable living. If you are tempted to become a shepherd, you need to remember you will spend a good deal of your life looking into the mouths of sheep, because it seems you can tell much about the quality of sheep by looking at their teeth.

    Rebanks is a wonderful storyteller and writer. He knows how to write because, as one who hated formal schooling, he improbably ended up doing a degree at Oxford. Although he left secondary school as soon as it was permissible, he discovered he loved to read. Every night after a hard day of working on his grandfather’s and father’s farm he read. While taking a continuing education course, he was discovered and encouraged to take the tests necessary for him to go to a university. He did take the test, and the rest is history.

    flock of sheep grazing beside a stone wall in the Lake District, UK

    Photograph by Annie Spratt

    Having gone to Oxford, he could have pursued a very different form of life than that of a shepherd, but he chose to return to the farm. He did so because, as he observes, he had inherited from his grandfather the classic worldview of the peasant. That worldview he identified with the presumption that he was in the line of those people who just always seem to be “there” – a people who though often battered yet endure, and through such endurance come to believe they “owned the earth.” Such people, Rebanks observes, are “built out of stories” that are embedded in the everyday necessities of life.

    In the last paragraphs of The Shepherd’s Life, Rebanks, who has now been a shepherd for many years, reports on a moment in his busy life. It is in the late spring, and he is in the process of returning his flock to the craggy hills. These sheep had been bred to fend for themselves in a rocky terrain. He enjoys watching the sheep find their way in the rough fields because they are evidently happy to be “home.” Rebanks imitates his flock’s sense that all is as it should be by lying down in the grass to drink sweet and pure water from the nearby stream. He rolls on his back and watches the clouds racing by. His well-trained sheep dogs, Floss and Tan, who have never seen him so relaxed, come and lie next to him. He breathes in the cool mountain air, he listens to the ewes calling to the lambs to follow them through the rocky crags, and he thinks, “This is my life. I want no other.”

    “This is my life. I want no other” is an extraordinary declaration that one rarely hears today.1 As odd as it may seem, I want to suggest that the loss of our ability to have such lives, the absence of the conditions that make such a declaration possible in contemporary life, is a clue for understanding our current cultural moment and corresponding politics. Stated differently, that many people feel they are forced to live lives they do not want or understand helps explain the phenomenon called Donald Trump. An extraordinary claim, so let me try to explain.

    God knows it is hard to take Donald Trump seriously, but I think it is a mistake to ignore him or, more importantly, to ignore the people that support him. Trump has given voice to an unease that is widespread at this time in our culture. Theories about who the people want as well as why they support Trump abound. I suspect there is something to most of these theories. I am sure, for example, that racism plays a role for some who support Trump. It is hard to believe we have people running for the presidency of the United States promising to be the “law-and-order” president. If you ever wanted an exemplification of the oft-made observation that Americans forget their history, Trump’s claim to restore law and order ignores the racist presumption that gave birth to that phrase. I am also sure that the fear occasioned by September 11 is another factor that attracts some to his pledge to “Make America Great Again.”

    Yet the racism and fear Trump uses to give the impression that he would be a “strong leader” are, I believe, manifestations of an even deeper pathology – namely, the profound sense of unease that many Americans have about their lives. That unease often takes the form of resentment against elites, but, even more troubling, it funds the prejudice against minority groups as well as immigrants. Resentment is another word for the unease that seems to grip many good, middle-class – mostly white – people.2 These are people who have worked hard all their lives yet find they are no better off than when they started.3 They deeply resent what they interpret as the special treatment some receive in an effort to right the wrongs of the past.

    The bottom line is many Americans are angry, but they are not sure on whom that anger is appropriately directed. Their anger needs direction and Trump is more than happy to tell Americans, particularly if they are white, who their enemy is as well as whom they should hate. There is a therapeutic aspect to Trump’s rhetoric because he gives people an enemy that delays any acknowledgment that those at whom they should be angry may be themselves.

    All this is happening at the same time the church, at least the mainstream church in America, is consumed by a culture of consumption. Americans increasingly discover they have no good reason for “going to church.” The ever-decreasing number of Christians has led some church leaders to think our primary job is to find ways to increase church membership. At a time when Christians need to have confidence, what we have to say is simplistic and superficial. You do not need to come to church to be told you need to be nice to those with less.

    Of course, that is not the only way the church has responded to our current political and social challenges. Drawing on the spirit of the civil rights struggle, Black and White Christians have again joined with those who seem to represent the progressive forces of history to extend the equality they assume is promised by our democratic convictions. Rightly embarrassed by complicity in past injustices, Christians now try to identify with any group that claims it wants to make America a more just society. Accordingly, Christians express their moral commitments by joining with those who think they are having their fundamental rights denied. This is called social ethics. The only problem with this attempt to recover the moral authority of the church is that while it may be a very good thing for Christians to support these attempts to make our social order more just, it is not theologically clear how the pursuit of justice so understood helps us know how to live. Indeed, I worry that many people now confuse being on the right side of history with having a life worth living.4

    The church has simply failed to help people live in a manner such that we would want no other life than the life we have lived. Such lives may well be filled with suffering and failures but suffering and failures are not blocks to having lived a good life. To have lived a good life is to have lived in a manner that we will be remembered by those who have found our lives crucial for making it possible for them to want no other life than the life they have been given. To be happily remembered is to have lived with a modesty that testifies to our dependence on others and makes possible the satisfaction that accompanies doing the right thing without regret or notice.

    “This is my life. I want no other” is the expression of what in the past was called “a good life.” That language is still used but now it references lives that have not been unduly burdened. To have had a good life now means, for many, that their second marriage has turned out all right, the children did not become addicts, and they had enough savings to retire. That understanding of the good life too often produces people who do not want the life they have lived. They do not want the life they have lived because it is a life without consequence. I suspect the reason so many men want their military service mentioned in their obituary is because they believe that service was of consequence.

    If any people should know what it means to have a good life, surely Christians ought to have something to say. Yet I do not think Christians have emphasized sufficiently why we think it so important to have a life well lived and, perhaps even more significant, what living well looks like. I am, of course, not suggesting that what it means to live a good life will be the same for everyone. But I do believe to have lived well makes it possible to want no other life than the life you have lived. To want no other life than the life we have lived – a life that often has moments of failures and betrayals – is made possible for Christians because our lives can be located in a determinative narrative that makes it possible for us to make sense of even those aspects of our lives about which we are not sure we can or should make sense.

    In his extraordinary book, After Virtue, which was first published in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre observes that the conception of a whole human life is a concept that is no longer generally available in our culture. Such a conception, MacIntyre contends, is necessary to provide the content of non-arbitrary judgments about particular actions or projects that make up our individual lives. The loss of such an understanding of our lives, MacIntyre argues, has gone unnoticed partly because it is not seen as a loss, but as a gain for human freedom. But the result is the loss of the boundaries derived from our social identity and any sense that our lives are ordered to a given end.5 Why and how this has happened I want to explore by calling attention to John Milbank’s and Adrian Pabst’s account of our contemporary situation in their book The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future.

    The Politics of Virtue

    John Milbank has reclaimed the importance of Christian theology for helping us better understand why many no longer think Christian theology can be about truth. He has done that by polemically showing how the very disciplines we use to understand our lives are, in fact, legitimations that make us think that there are no alternatives to the way things are. Accordingly, with his co-author Pabst, he argues in The Politics of Virtue that our lives are shaped by narratives that make it next to impossible to be happy with the lives we have lived.6 Milbank and Pabst argue that people who are citizens of advanced societies like the United Kingdom and the United States cannot be satisfied with our lives because we no longer have the resources to live honorable lives of virtue. As a result, we seem to be living lives that are contradictory or, as I suggest above, lives we do not understand.

    According to Milbank and Pabst, we no longer are able to live virtuously because our lives are determined by a hegemonic liberal story. That story comes in two basic forms. There is the liberalism of the cultural left, which is primarily understood as the attempt to free people of past forms of oppression. That liberal story is often contrasted with the political and economic liberalism of the right that is primarily focused on economic and political policy within a capitalist framework. Milbank and Pabst argue, however, that these forms of liberalism, though they have quite different understandings of freedom, have increasingly become mutually reinforcing. The left and the right are joined by the common project to increase personal freedoms – even if the result is the atomization of our lives that makes impossible any account of our lives as having a narrative unity. Ironically, societies committed to securing the freedom of the individual end up making that same individual subject to impersonal bureaucratic procedures.7

    Politically, liberalism increases the concentration of power in the central state, as well as at the same time underwriting the assumption of the inevitability of a globalized market.8 The latter has the unfortunate effect of destroying a sense of place. In such a social order the production of wealth increasingly is in the hands of a new, rootless oligarchy “that practices a manipulative populism while holding in contempt the genuine priorities of most people.” As good a description of Trump as one could want.

    I think it will be helpful in support of Milbank’s and Pabst’s account of liberalism to call attention to Ron Beiner’s understanding of liberalism in his well-regarded book, What’s the Matter with Liberalism.9 Beiner, perhaps even more forcefully than Milbank and Pabst, stresses that liberalism is not only a social and political alternative, but more importantly, the recommendation of a distinctive moral way to live. To be sure, Milbank and Pabst know that liberalism is a normative proposal for how best to live, but Beiner helps us see that even if we do not think of ourselves as liberals, the liberal story determines our lives. In my language, liberalism is morally the presumption that I am to be held accountable only for what I have done when what I have done is the result of my choice and my choice alone.10 That is what liberals mean by freedom. As a correlate to this understanding of freedom, equality is understood as the goal of trying to secure for each individual freedom from arbitrary limits.11

    A liberal way of life, Milbank and Pabst argue, however, is built on contradictory and self-defeating commitments that are only viable because they have been and continue to be parasitic on the heritage inherited from the past and in particular the Roman and Christian traditions. For example, the Christian commitment to the uniqueness of the person conceived and realized through constitutive relations with other persons is lost in the ruthless liberal presumption that our task is to expand our individual domains limited only by contractual agreements made to ensure fairness. The result is an inequity that “gives rise to endless discontents” which spill over into atavistic assertions of the absolute identity of race, nation, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, and so on.

    According to Milbank and Pabst, the contradictory character of liberalism is but an indication that liberalism’s most profound mistakes are metaphysical. Liberalism goes against the grain of our humanity and the universe itself because it is based on the presumption that life has no telos other than the arbitrary desires we impose on the world to make us feel at home. From a liberal perspective, all life is finally materially determined. This recognition cannot help but result in a pervasive nihilism. The resulting politics of contractual arrangements, whether it is the politics of Hobbes or Rousseau, tries to ameliorate the violence that is at the heart of attempts to sustain cooperative relations between isolated individuals. Such arrangements cannot help but fail because a genuine politics cannot be sustained without some account of the role of those who represent what it means to live well as people of virtue and honor.

    I have no doubt that Milbank’s and Pabst’s understanding and criticism of liberalism will invite critical responses. Milbank and Pabst will be dismissed for having far too strong a position by liberals, who in principle dismiss strong positions yet cannot recognize that they too have a strong position. The kind of position Milbank and Pabst represent stands the risk of dying the death of a thousand qualifications, which is the academic equivalent of being nibbled to death by ducks. I have no intention of being part of that flock. That may be because I am in deep sympathy with Milbank’s and Pabst’s understanding and critique of liberalism, and I have sympathy with some of their proposed alternatives. By exploring my differences with their recommendations, I hope to clarify why I begin with a shepherd’s story.

    Milbank and Pabst call their proposed alternative post-liberalism. Post-liberalism is a blend of two older traditions: “a combination of honorable, virtuous elites with greater popular participation: a greater sense of cultural duty and hierarchy of value and honor, alongside much more real equality and genuine freedom in economic and political realms.” I am particularly drawn to their understanding of the ethics of virtue, which they argue depends on the presumption that our lives have a purpose and meaning that is not just our arbitrary will. When confronted by what may be morally difficult, those whose lives are determined by the virtues do not ask what should be done, but rather ask “what I should consistently be doing at all. What sort of shape might my entire life appropriately take? What sort of character do I want to be and how should I order this desire in an acceptable way to my relationships with others?”

    Such questions – and admittedly they observe these are not questions we ask or need to ask on a daily basis – are often asked at crucial transitional points in our lives. I suspect, for example, such a point is when the newly married couple ask themselves what they have done, or when new parents suddenly have forced on themselves the stark reality that they have brought a new life into the world, and they are not sure why. Any answer to these questions, moreover, entails further questions about the kind of society in which we want to live. How does my life fit with the lives of others with whom I must share goods? This is a question that cannot be avoided if we would live lives that can be happily narrated. The good news is we cannot have an honorable life without others who also seek to live honorably.12

    To so live can sound quite burdensome, but Milbank and Pabst do not think that to be the case. To live virtuously does not mean that we must be constantly thinking about what we should do or not do. Rather, Milbank and Pabst observe, most of what we do that is honorable is “an everyday matter of performing your job well, being a good lover, spouse, parent, friend, colleague, and citizen, or even enjoying a game or a trip. For if goodness is given in nature and not something we contrive with difficulty from time to time, then simple gratitude is a crucial aspect of virtue.”

    Milbank and Pabst, who know much of what they are recommending, will be thought by some to be reactionary, for they do not hesitate to take positions that many will think to be outrageous. For example, many will consider their defense of an ethics of honor an exercise in nostalgia. Yet they argue, drawing on papal social encyclicals, that a post-liberal ethic is about the everyday process of locating the goods we have in common. Such goods are not, as liberalism would have it, the aggregate of privately owned items, but rather goods that can be shared together such as intimacy, trust, and beauty. The goods that should determine how we live are embedded in the practices of honor and reciprocity that are developed over time through the habits sustained by a tradition. The formation of such traditions depends on the existence of people of wisdom who can provide the judgments necessary for responding to new challenges while remaining faithful to the past.

    The substitution of technique for wisdom is one of the main reasons that we have no place for understanding the responsibilities and status of the elderly. In wisdom cultures, the elderly are expected to remember the judgments made in the past about matters that pertain to the present. Once a social order no longer depends on memory, the old have no responsibility to younger generations. The result, too often, is to make growing old a dreadful development which may increasingly be understood as an illness. To grow old in societies like the United States means your primary responsibility is to get out of the way.

    Milbank and Pabst argue that we need some account of civic roles in order to have a basis for discerning what resources should belong to those who have specific responsibilities. Such judgments inevitably imply the legitimate place for hierarchies and elites for initiating the young into the tradition of the virtues. They think such an ethos and politics is a realistic possibility because increasingly the working class and the middle class share a common commitment to meeting the needs of family and community. They argue that a coalition politics so conceived would be an alternative to the liberal commitment to abstract universalism and the corresponding denial of the significance of place.

    In support of their views, Milbank and Pabst use George Orwell’s socialist vision because Orwell’s emphasis on practices of reciprocity, through gift giving and receiving, makes possible the process of mutual recognition. Orwell rightly thought most people pursue association with others because they desire that their contribution to our common life, no matter how small, be recognized. To be so acknowledged is what it means to be honored.

    People who so live do not think their first task in life is to become more wealthy or powerful as individuals. Rather wealth is best thought of as what we share in common, such as parks or practices to which all have access, such as medicine. In other words, the post-liberal strategy is exactly the opposite of the liberal assumption that assumes that social practices of mutual assistance should be eliminated while at the same time encouraging our desires for wealth and prestige. The liberal desire for the well-being of the individual not only ignores the goods built on gift relations but in effect destroys the habits that make such relations possible.

    To their credit Milbank and Pabst confront straight on what I take to be the most determinative objection to their understanding of post-liberalism: the problem of luck. Luck comes in many forms and sizes, but the most fundamental manifestation of luck is the brute fact that no one chooses when, where, or to whom they will be born.13 Yet the family into which we are born determines our future, making us subject to inequalities that are justified in the name of this or that tradition, history, or some other abstraction.

    I have always thought the profound moral power of the liberal tradition is to be found in the liberal desire to defeat luck. That is particularly the case when luck may be just another name for fate. The impersonality and abstract universalism characteristic of liberal institutions is an attempt to find a way not to let the accidents of birth determine a person’s life.14 Milbank and Pabst, however, argue that liberalism’s ambition to overcome luck results in the destruction of any sense that we have a responsibility to fulfill the duties associated with the ascribed roles we inherit through birth.

    The importance of luck creates the context for Milbank’s and Pabst’s defense of hierarchy and the importance of sustaining an aristocracy governed by a monarch. The defense of hierarchy, they argue, is but a correlative of the necessity that there be an established church. If the church is not established, the church threatens to become but another voluntary society rather than a political entity that is the living heart of the nation. Milbank and Pabst develop a complex theological position – complex is my way to say I am sure I do not “get it” – to argue that the established church also requires that there be a monarch who can receive the sacraments for the whole society.

    Milbank and Pabst defend this account of aristocracy by turning the tables on liberalism. They do so by arguing that the liberal respect for persons qua persons can be compatible with the exploitation of the person qua miner, qua father, and so on. As a result of this false idealism, personhood is divorced from vocational role. But, Milbank and Pabst argue, if Aristotle is right that the aim of politics is to produce virtuous citizens, and if people develop character through social and economic relations, then these relations cannot be attended to properly if the virtuous formation of people is not the purpose of politics. This will require that each and every person’s contribution to common life be valued in a manner that each person can be assured that they can exercise political influence through their workplace and with those they share a common purpose.

    Milbank and Pabst argue that not only is their account of aristocracy consistent with democracy, but that democracy is, in fact, dependent on the existence of elites.15 Elites are not necessarily incompatible with democracy. What is incompatible with democracy is liberalism exactly because of the liberal presumption that all forms of hierarchy are arbitrary and unjust. The liberal attempt to destroy aristocratic elites can lead to the tyranny of the majority.

    Liberalism and democracy are in tension just to the extent that liberalism can result in a populism that is indifferent to matters of truth and goodness. The liberal emphasis on individual preference can result in the spread of a kind of anarchy that “exacerbates the increasing inability of the modern sovereign state to command the loyalty of its citizens.” War becomes the necessary means to secure the obedience of people who have been formed to vote for their self-interest.16

    Storied by Christ

    The high theory that Milbank and Pabst represent may seem quite foreign to Rebanks’s depiction of the life of a shepherd. I suspect Rebanks does not need Milbank and Pabst to understand his life. However, Milbank and Pabst probably do need stories like the one Rebanks tells about his life. They need Rebanks because they need exemplifications of the kind of lives they intimate must exist if their position is to be persuasive. The challenge Milbank and Pabst represent is not that lives such as Rebanks do not exist, but that, under the power of the liberal story, people like Rebanks may lack the resources to rightly tell the story of their life. Even more troubling, people like Rebanks, and people like you and me, may wrongly describe who we have been and who we are yet to be. It is a testimony to his humility and modesty that Rebanks makes neither of those mistakes.

    Though I am obviously sympathetic with the general position Milbank and Pabst represent, I think there is something missing in their argument that is not without importance if we are to understand what we need to make our lives our own. What is missing in Milbank and Pabst is a person called Jesus and the people he gathers called the church. Milbank and Pabst are good Christians, and there is no doubt that Christianity plays an important role in their account of an ethic of virtue and honor. But Christianity is not the church. The church is a particular people who have been gathered from the world to worship Jesus. That they do so is the necessary condition for them to have lives that glorify God without their lives being desperate attempts to secure worldly glory.

    Milbank and Pabst no doubt assume that such a church exists, but that church seems subordinate to a more determinative reality called England. That they have England gives them the confidence that social, economic, and political practices are possible at a national level to offer an alternative to liberalism. That is why they contemplate alliances between the working classes and the middle class. I have trouble keeping Blue Labour and Red Tories straight.

    All of which means I am obviously an American. I do not have an England to think about or with. In truth, I am not sure if Milbank and Pabst have the England they seem to think is somehow lurking in the wings ready to be reborn. I think, moreover, this is not irrelevant for the questions about the politics in which we now seem caught. For unless a people exist who have a narrative more determinative than the story shaped by the politics of the day, I fear we will continue to produce politicians like Donald Trump, people who not only seem to be dangerous but are dangerous. They are, moreover, all the more dangerous because no people seem to exist who are capable of telling them the truth. Of course, some quite extraordinary people exist, like the poet and farmer Wendell Berry, but Wendell Berry is not a politics. At least he is not a politics given what most Christians in America assume is “real politics,” that is, the politics of elections.17

    To be a Christian in America is to assume that there is a form of political organization that is not only compatible with our fundamental Christian convictions but is the expression of those convictions. The name for that political reality is democracy. The discipline I represent, Christian ethics, is a discipline built on the assumption that American democracy is the form of Christian politics. Thus Walter Rauschenbusch, the great representative of the social gospel, claimed that Jesus saved God by taking the Father by the hand and by so doing made God the Father a democratic figure. According to Rauschenbusch, Jesus came proclaiming as well as instituting the kingdom of God to be a movement in history to democratize all our relations with one another. Rauschenbusch could even claim that politics in America had been saved because we were a democracy. The great remaining challenge, Rauschenbusch maintained, was to extend that political transformation to the economic realm.18

    Though Rauschenbusch’s naïve underwriting of democracy is often criticized, his fundamental presumption that there is a necessary relation between Christianity and democracy is assumed by subsequent figures identified as theologians and ethicists. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the sharpest critics of Rauschenbusch, developed a realist justification of democracy that I suspect continues to be assumed by many who seek to express their Christian convictions in a politically significant way.19 For Niebuhr, democracy was not an ideal, but that is not a problem because there are no ideals. Exactly because there are no ideals is why Christians have a stake in democracy as an expression of the best one can do under the conditions of sin.

    What we may now be facing is a challenge to the presumption that democracy is the expression of Christian convictions. In 1981 I wrote a chapter in A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic entitled “The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity.” In that essay I suggested that the Christian underwriting of democracy as rule by “the people,” when the people are understood to be self-interested players in a zero-sum game of power, has resulted in the loss of voice by Christians necessary for the church to be an alternative polity. I continue to think that may be true.

    The issues surrounding the relation of Christianity and democracy will not and should not go away. The Trump presidency has raised them with new urgency. In particular, Trump has alerted us again to the worry that there is finally no check on the tyranny of the majority in democracy as we know it. Tocqueville’s worry that individualism would undermine American democracy is back on the table. Tocqueville saw clearly that democratic citizens pursuing their own interest without regard for the commonwealth would result in the loss of associational forms of life on which democracy depends. Andrew Sullivan, drawing on Plato’s critique of democracy, argued in an article in New York magazine that democracy depends on elites to protect democracies from “the will of the people.” Sullivan’s position has been countered by Jedediah Purdy, who argues that it is not majoritarian democracy that is the problem but the growing economic power of a small group of capitalists who have the power to undermine the kind of rule Trump says he is for.20

    I have no intention of trying to resolve these fundamental questions in democratic theory and practice. I think Milbank and Pabst are right to call attention to the incompatibility of liberalism and some forms of democracy. For example, John Bowlin’s understanding of democracy as “resistance to domination through the practices of mutual accountability” is an ideal for which it is well worth trying to imagine an institutional form it might take.21 I fear we are not even close to having such an imagination in play.

    But we do have James Rebanks. I suspect for me to have begun an essay dealing with the challenge of national and global politics by calling attention to Rebanks’s account of being a shepherd seemed for many quite odd. It is odd, but also hopeful. I believe as long as we can produce narratives of lives like Rebanks, we have a way out of the mess we are in. Alasdair MacIntyre observes that most work is tedious and arduous, but nonetheless fulfilling if the work has a purpose, if it can be recognized to be our contribution for doing it and doing it well, and if we are rewarded for doing it in a way that enables the realization of goods of family and community.22 MacIntyre even suggests that such a conception of work is a form of prayer.

    Such a view of work is why I think it crucial, no matter what you call the systems in which we now find we exist as Christians, that we discover ways to sustain the truthfulness that is constitutive of learning how to be a good judge of sheep. Such a way of life is only made possible by a people who have good work to do that can only be done if we have the skills to say what is true. Hopefully, Christians will be such a people because God in these times seems to be determined to make us a people who are leaner and meaner. Such a people might know how to tell one another the truth because they no longer have anything to lose. A people who have nothing to lose, moreover, might discover they want no other life than the one they have been given.


    1. I am not suggesting that Rebanks declaration is equivalent to him being morally good, though I think he is a person of rare virtue. Interestingly enough Alasdair MacIntyre comments in his Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999) that “someone can be a good shepherd without being a good human being, but the goods of sheep farming are genuine goods” (65–66). I am sure MacIntyre is right, but I also think the kind of goodness necessary to be a good shepherd puts one on the road to being morally good. I do not think MacIntyre would disagree. It does not follow, however, that the relation between learning to be a good shepherd and a good person holds for every activity in which we are engaged.
    2. One of the questions raised by the Trump phenomenon is what makes the middle class the middle class. There is increasing evidence that the middle class is shrinking.
    3. It is interesting to ask: What does it mean for people to want to be “better off”? Often when asked they say they would like their children to have more opportunities than they have had, but that answer betrays some uncertainty about what that ambition entails. It usually means they would like their children not to have to work as hard as they have had to work, but it remains unclear what they would like for their children to get out of life. The oft-made declaration that “I just want them to be happy” is not very informative or helpful. You seldom hear someone say that they want their child to be a good person. I suspect people do want their child to be a good person, but that is seldom made explicit.
    4. There are several generations – I am part of “the several” – whose moral identity is dependent on having a cause to support. The first cause was the civil rights struggle, then anti-Vietnam, then support of the women’s movement, then the protest against prejudice toward gays. Each of these movements was worthy of support, but they raise very different moral issues. That they do so is often ignored by many people who identify with “the cause” to assure themselves that morally they are on the right side of history and thereby morally OK. Their “personal” life may be in shambles but at least they are politically rightly identified. The continuing tension in American public life between freedom and equality is evident when the reasons for supporting these causes are made articulate. Put differently, when everyone is said to be “equal” simply because they are an American, then the significance of difference is not clear. Some forms of feminism manifest this problem, maintaining that women are like everyone else and should be treated equally, yet also claiming that women have a unique way of knowing that men cannot understand.
    5. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 34.
    6. John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).
    7. This is one of the determinative themes in Rusty Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). Reno’s book is a critique of multiculturalism, political correctness, and the gay rights movement; he sees these liberation projects as being consistent with, as well as the outgrowth of, the American dream of freedom understood as the ability to make ourselves into anything we wish. Such a view of freedom cannot help but end in contradiction because it cannot help but reproduce the coercive power of government to promote freedom for the sake of freedom (25).
    8. The best account I know of the implications of a global market for how the nation-state will be understood is Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (New York: Anchor Books, 2003). The great tension Bobbitt sees clearly is how the developing “market state” can maintain the honor ethic of the military.
    9. Ron Beiner, What’s the Matter with Liberalism? (Berkeley: University of California, 1992), 22-23. For my use of Beiner’s account of liberalism see my Dispatches from the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 156–163.
    10. My usual way of putting this is to say that modernity is the name for the political and economic ambition to produce people who believe that they should have no story other than the story they chose when they had no story. The only problem with that story is those whose story it is did not choose that story.
    11. Often those who support the ethos of the Enlightenment argue that figures like MacIntyre continue to presume the goals of the Enlightenment such as the securing of freedom. They fail to comprehend that what MacIntyre means by freedom is quite different than most Enlightenment thinkers. The latter concentrate primarily on freedom from, but MacIntyre is concerned primarily with freedom for. The same is true of the importance of equality. For MacIntyre the question is how equality works in some social relationships but not in others. Accordingly, from MacIntyre’s perspective some account of hierarchy is required. For MacIntyre’s reflections on these matters see his “Where We Were, Where We Are, Where We Need to Be” in Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism, edited by Paul Blackledge and Kelvin Knight (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 326–327.
    12. Milbank and Pabst do not provide an extended account of honor, but I take it they are trying to recommend an understanding of honor that simply has no standing in the modern world. At least that is Alasdair MacIntyre’s view. In After Virtue, MacIntyre argues that the ancient understanding of honor as the recognition of what is due a person has been lost because any account of our relation to one another as determined by what is due has been abandoned (116).
    13. For an analysis of luck see Lisa Tessman, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Tessman develops the notion of moral luck as the presumption that a person of good character has “responsibilities that outrun control.” Tessman’s nuanced account of moral luck turns on how luck shapes as well as is shaped by our lives. She provides an account of the moral damage that comes from being oppressed or being the oppressor. She quite rightly develops Aristotle’s insight that good luck can be bad for us if we fail to have the character necessary to receive such a benefit. These are complex but crucial questions that have not been sufficiently explored in contemporary philosophy or theology. For example, we need to know how to think about the significance of the temperament for our being virtuous. Is temperament luck? Tessman distinguishes between constitutive moral luck and luck we associate with being accidentally “lucky.” Temperament seems clearly to be a form of constitutive luck but that makes it no less significant for our becoming persons of moral character. Tessman suggests that regret is crucial for our ability to make our own what may have happened to us but for which we must take responsibility if we are to have a life worth living.
    14. The hegemonic character of liberalism can be made apparent in the language we use that is assumed to be descriptions of the way things are. For example, the phrase “accident of birth” is a description shaped by liberal presupposition that there is or should be a non-accidental way to be born.
    15. It occurs to me that it might well be time to revisit the work of Jose Ortega y Gasset and in particular his understanding of the “masses” in The Revolt of the Masses (New York: Norton, 1957).
    16. For an account of the place of war as a moral and liturgical enterprise for Americans see my War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011).
    17. I have often compared American national elections to the Roman use of the staged battle to distract the proletariat from noticing who is ruling them. Elections become a form of entertainment that gives people the mistaken idea that they are ruling themselves because they get to vote. Donald Trump seems to be a confirmation of this understanding of the electoral process. The association of democracy with elections is a profound but widely held mistake.
    18. For an account of Rauschenbusch see my chapter “Walter Rauschenbusch and the Saving of America” in my A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2000), 71–108.
    19. I have written about Niebuhr’s position in a number of essays but on this matter particularly relevant is my chapter written with Michael Broadway entitled, “The Irony of Reinhold Niebuhr: The Ideological Character of Christian Realism,” in my Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth-Century Theology and Philosophy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 48–61.
    20. Jedediah Purdy, “What Trump’s Rise Means for Democracy,” Dissent (May 4, 2016).
    21. John Bowlin, “Democracy, Tolerance, Aquinas,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 44, 2 (May 2016), 278–99.
    22. Alasdair MacIntyre, “Where We Were, Where We Are, Where We Need to Be,” 323.
    Contributed By StanleyHauerwas Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas is a theologian and Christian ethicist, and professor emeritus of theological ethics and of law at Duke University. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books.

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