The Character Of Virtue

Sep 4, 2018

Theologian and Duke Divinity professor Stanley Hauerwas uses life experience and scripture as lessons in building virtue. What began as letters to his godson turned into his latest book.
Credit courtesy of Duke Divinity School

The responsibilities of a godparent can range from showering a child with gifts to stepping in as a surrogate in a moment of crisis.

When theologian Stanley Hauerwas became a godparent, he and his godson were separated by distance, so he decided to share his words of wisdom in the form of letters that infuse scripture with personal lessons. Hauerwas combines those with his own personal and religious journey in his latest book  “The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co./2018). Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University. He joins host Frank Stasio to discuss character, virtue and the friendship behind this book.

On the birth of the book:

Sam (Wells)  wrote his dissertation on me ... We became close friends. They asked me to be the godfather of their first child Lawrence. I said: I’d be happy to do that. I’d be honored as a matter of fact, but I’m just a terrible godfather. I don’t know what to do. Sam said: Well I’ll give you an assignment. Every year at the anniversary of his baptism you’re to write him commending a virtue.

On the truth about virtues:

The virtues are known primarily retrospectively.  We may think we’re being kind, but we may be in the process of satisfying our own egoism in terms of the kind of way we’re being kind.

On the virtue of war:

I’m trained in theology and ethics. When I first came into the academic world the ethics that was thought to be at the center was called situation ethics. And it was sponsored by a man named Joe Fletcher … The questions were always: what would you do in terms of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And he justified that with utilitarian calculus. You do what’s the greatest good for the greatest number. And somehow I thought that was a mistake. The first question is not what to do, but who are you. And where did that come from.

On the virtue of kindness:

The first virtue that I discuss is kindness. To be kind in a violent world will mean your life will be in danger. But you can’t want to live any other way once you discover how wonderful it is to be kind. You don’t become kind by trying to be kind. You become kind by learning to pet your dog.

On understanding the story behind a virtue:

You don’t separate the virtues from the narratives that shape us, so stories are absolutely crucial to know what courage is. For example, if you take courage, it’s often times associated with the training of people in military circumstances that know no fear. That's not courage.  Courage is to have the right fear rightly.