Many of us are armchair warriors when it comes to talking about Our Current Moment. We speculate much, opinionate often, and are likely to find ourselves recanting a comment when a new article is published or a new announcement is made. The Moment is big and multifaceted like that.
The question of ethics is at the heart of some of the most difficult conversations these days. Judgments of value and obligation, questions of utilitarianism and moral subjectivism. Stanley Hauerwas, an ethicist I greatly respect, brought some ethical thought to bear today over at The Living Church. In an essay titled “Ethics: The Everyday Matters,” he writes:
The virus has wounded us. Life was pretty good. Most of us knew when and from where our next meal or paycheck was coming. We could plan visits to see children or old friends. Spring training was soon to begin. If you cannot trust spring training you cannot trust anything. And that is exactly where we find ourselves. This damned virus has made us unsure if we can trust anything — and that includes God.
He then goes on to revisit some of his ethical thinking from a similar historical moment during the nuclear crisis of the 1980s, where he questioned what he calls a “totalitarian sentiment” of survival as an end in itself. He continues:
What does this have to do with ethics? Even more importantly, what does this have to do with being Christian and our commitment to live in the light of God’s good care of us? I think this: Ethics is often thought to deal with “big questions” and dramatic choices, but in fact the most important and significant aspects of our lives are found in the everyday. The everyday is made the everyday by the promises we make, which may not seem like promises at the time but turn out to make us people that can be trusted. Such trust comes through small acts of tenderness that are as significant as they are unnoticed. It makes a difference that I am told, “I love you” before I leave for the day even though the declaration may seem to be routine. It is often routine and that is why it is so important.
The God that we worship as Christians is a God of the everyday. To be sure, the One that is Lord of time has acted and continues to act in ways that are extraordinary. But God does so that we might live lives shaped by the love found in the cross of Christ. Because of the cross we can have lives that contain the time necessary to sustain the everyday routines that make peace and justice possible. No routine is more significant than the willingness of the community called Christian to have and care for children, some of whom will be born “different.”
The kind of ethics associated with this way of characterizing the moral life is called an ethic of the virtues. A concentration on the virtues, an emphasis that characterized most ancient understandings of the moral life, was lost in modernity.
That last statement is true because every year I teach students who have little to no concept of the virtues. The closest they get is the idea that “patience is a virtue,” but they aren’t quite sure why or how that connects to anything bigger. His conclusion then, is sober and strong:
The wound that the virus has inflicted on us is to tempt us to become impatient with ourselves and others in an effort to return to the “normal.” We had not realized how dependent we have become on the everyday habit of going to church and seeing one another on Sundays. We had lost track of the significance of our willingness to touch one another as a sign that we rejoice in their presence. In short, we had lost the significance of the everyday, and we rightly want it back.
But we must be patient. We are an eschatological people. We believe we are agents in a story we did not make up and it is a story that is true. That the story is true makes it possible for us to live truthful lives. Such lives require us to recognize that we are a people who must die. We are not meant to survive this life. That is why we live not to survive but to be in love with God and those God makes our neighbor. We have been wounded by this virus but we have not been morally destroyed. So, let us be patient with one another as God has remained patient with us.