Having read Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I then read Tom Wright's Virtue Reborn yesterday and Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith today. Given that I might now move on to Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian next, I thought I would draw just a few threads briefly here. (This is not to inform the wider world, who probably know all this stuff anyway, but in order that I have a record not only of what I am reading, but also of the trains of thought that the reading set off in my not-very-sharp mind. I do, of course, realise that these writers might find my brief comments do not begin to do justice to their writings.)
Ethics can never be merely theoretical. Bonhoeffer wrestled with what it means to be human, good and Christian in the face of a massive personal dilemma: whether it was legitimate to kill Adolf Hitler. Tom Wright wants to get us away from a preoccupation with rules and back on to paying attention to the development of character – the purpose and end of virtue. Miroslav Volf explores the place of faith in the contemporary, pluralist world and echoes the emphasis of Wright that a developed Christian character would be unafraid of the modern world and be open to all that the world offers.
Try these brief quotes:
The practice and habit of virtue … is all about learning in advance the language of God's new world. (Wright, p.62)
Virtuous character matters more than moral knowledge… Faith idles when character shrivels. (Volf, p.13)
And, a propos of my last couple of posts about current work/welfare/politics/economics debates:
Is the purpose for which I work sufficient to sustain me over time not just as an 'economic animal', but as a human being? (Volf, p.32)
Despite addressing themselves to different specific ends – Schlingensiepen to explain Bonhoeffer's ethical thinking and development in the context of his particular experience, Wright to rescue ethics from mere rules and urge concentration by Christians on the development of Christian character, and Volf to set out how Christians should live faithfully in a pluralist world – all three writers agree that Christians have no alternative but (a) to love God and neighbour, (b) to develop Christian nature by attention over a lifetime to a world-loving discipleship, and (c) to take seriously the common good of all. All further agree that doing this is costly.
The other thing that might hold them together is, perhaps strangely, a notion of 'hope' that calls us from the future (Wolfhart Pannenberg is interesting on this, as is Jürgen Moltmann) and calls us into the future. Volf's observation is probably apt:
Western churches have a past they like to boast about, but a future they seem to dread. (p.77)
All three would seem to say that Christians, truly set free from fear and drawn by hope, have nothing to dread – whatever the future holds and however the world works, we find our true humanity in Christ, and this frees us to love regardless of whether that love is received and regardless of the cost.