Aha! I see a thread developing here.

I am on sabbatical (study leave) and in Basel for a couple of weeks. Staying with good friends, I can't spend all day every day reading my books – so, I have managed one film (documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer), two football matches, lots of walking, browsing in bookshops, reading in cafes, meeting people, chatting with friends, visiting a radio studio (Basilisk), sleeping, and so on. I can hardly believe it.

I have already posted on three of the books I have read in my first few days: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tom Wright on Virtue Reborn and Miroslav Volf on A Public Faith. Yesterday and today – in the margins of fun stuff – I read Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian. Like the others, he ranges through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and … er … Bonhoeffer, but also has a good go at Roman Catholic Social Teaching, Methodist theological ethics and other stuff en route.

Now, it is in an interesting collection of essays and sermons on broadly ethical themes. But, it is a little inconsistent in dynamic. Anyway, I don't want here to go deep into a critique or exploration of his views – I would have to be clever to do that; instead, I want to point to four things that struck me while reading the text today. And, I'm not joking, it isn't deep.

1. If I pay £25 for a paperback, I expect that a proofreader will have added punctuation, removed typos and questioned syntax. OK, I expect to have to translate from American into English (both in language, style and context), but, like reading Walter Brueggemann, I had to read half the sentences twice before I understood them. Apart from an odd use of words and phrasing, some sentences are just unnecessarily complicated. Where was the editor?

2. Constant references to Wittgenstein were helpful – especially where they explained Wittgenstein. But, every time I see or hear his name, I also see that photograph of him in the same primary school class as Adolf Hitler. Same education, different outcomes. Maybe education can't – in and of itself – save the world, after all.

3. Bonhoeffer, Wright, Volf and Hauerwas all have something to say about liturgy and the worship language/performance of the church. What struck me, however, was a question arising from a statement: the worship of the church asserts in the world a reality that the world does not see as being real – that the church will live now according to the way of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated; and every act of worship is, in one sense a defiant affirmation of humanity as it should be, of the world now as it one day shall be, of life itself as it should be. What would happen if every clergyperson/worship leader prepared for and led every liturgy with this sense of ultimate hope and defiance, deliberately conscious of doing something powerfully prophetic in the here and now of people's lives?

4. In one sense unrelated to the above, but in the fuss going on in England about bishops banging on about foodbanks and poverty (how dare they?), it has been pointed out that many or most people in the churches agree strongly with the need for welfare reform. Two questions: (a) who said they didn't – and who said that the complaining bishops don't agree with the need for reform (as opposed to noting the real effects of the particular reforms being made just now)? and (b) since when was it the job of bishops to 'reflect' the views of church members? Having just read about Bonhoeffer (again), where would this put Bishop George Bell? Or Bonhoeffer himself, for that matter, even though he wasn't a bishop? The German bishops largely colluded with the views and preferences of their 'members' during the 1920-40s. So, provide us with opinion polls, if you like, but they will not and should not mean that bishops simply go with the flow of popular opinion – even Christian popular opinion.

I conclude this insubstantial ramble with Hauerwas's comment on Catholic Social Teaching and Humanae Vitae in particular:

… the modern political state and economics reduce human activity to choices … that are best for 'me' but do not also lay bare the fact that these choices already subsume us into a worldview in which we must reject some of what makes us human. (p.249)

 

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.