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Timeless wisdom from a renowned theologian on living well
From the fairy godmother’s pumpkin coach to Herr Drosselmeyer’s nutcracker, godparents have long been associated with good gifts. But in The Character of Virtue theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas offers his real-life godson something far more precious than toys or trinkets - the gift of hard-won wisdom on life and the process of maturing.
In each of 16 letters - sent on the occasion of Laurence Wells’s baptism and every year thereafter - Hauerwas contemplates a specific virtue and its meaning for a child growing year by year into the Christian faith. Writing on kindness, courage, humility, joy, and more, Hauerwas distills centuries of religious thinking and decades of self-reflection into heartfelt personal epistles that are both timely and timeless.
An introduction by Samuel Wells, Laurence’s father and Hauerwas’s friend, tells the story behind these letters and offers sage insight into what a godparent is and can be.
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- Adam Shields
16 Letters to his Godson about virtues
Maybe I am just getting old. But as I spend more time studying spiritual formation, both for my own benefit and to assist others in their own spiritual development, the more that I think the church as a whole has lost the thread of the development of character and virtue as an aspect of Christianity.
I know there are some good reasons for this loss of interest in virtue. Virtue and behavior management has been used to be socially and personally controlling. It has focused on cultural and encouraged a belief in white supremacy. It has been misused to prop up powerful people that lacked character for utilitarian reasons. But with the loss of authority around virtue and the loss of focus on virtue, individuals and communities have lost out on part of what is important about spiritual formation as both individuals and communities.
We are always christians within a culture. Our culture today is highly individualistic and while we as a Church should push back against that in many ways, we cannot pretend that the individualism of culture does not impact the church. Part of what this means is that we cannot assume that the older generation will automatically work toward the training of younger Christians. The older concept of godparent has been lost in part because of the mobility of our society.
In the fairly lengthy introduction to The Character of Virtue, Samuel Wells, the father of the godson being addressed by Hauerwas, gives a background not just on the letters to come, but the concept of godparent and how Hauerwas in particular came to be the godparent of a child in a different country. Because of the distance, Wells asked Hauerwas to write a letter a year on the anniversary of his godson’s baptism, about a different virtue.
Hauerwas knows that the early letters in The Character of Virtue are not going to be read by his godson for a while. But there is intention in the later ones to pay attention to the age and personality and position of the actual child. Laurence Wells was born in the UK. But his parents came to Duke where Hauerwas taught and for several years they were physically close and a more traditional godparent relationship developed. But before long, Lawrence was back in the UK again and the letters noted that change in relationship.
I do not know when these letters became conceptually became Character of Virtue. The last one directly addresses the fact that others are going to read them. So maybe it was not until just before that last letter was written that the plan was decided. Regardless of when the plan to publish was developed, these are formal letters that are intended to be read and re-read over time. They have references to a particular time and the particular child, but like many aspects of ‘wisdom literature’ the particular gives rise to ideas that are more wide spread.
I could not help but think about Paul’s letters in the New Testament as I was reading them. Hauerwas is addressing a particular child, as Paul was addressing a particular group of people, but wisdom and instruction addressed to particular people is often helpful to a much larger group because as much as we are separated by time and culture and background, many aspects of what it means to be human are common.
The more I read about virtue and character and spiritual wisdom, the more do not want to read ‘self help’. It isn’t that all self help books are bad. Many of them are very helpful. But one of the aspects that I have appreciated about reading wisdom from elders is that it is not simply principles to be learned and followed, but particular people that can be learned from and emulated, Not because they are perfect, but because they have experience and wisdom gained from long life of striving after virtue. Certainly not all elders are wise and virtuous people. But I do think there is something important to learning from those that are elders that have evidence of the virtues.
I have not read much Hauerwas, his excellent memoir and Resident Aliens over 25 years ago and some articles. I want to read more. There is probably subtext to some of these discussions in Character of Virtue that I am missing because I am unfamiliar with his work in ethics and theology. But the discussion of virtues targeted toward a child, or at least toward a young adult that would re-read these letters when they fully understood them, seems to be exactly what this 45 year old needed.
I should have read them more slowly. Because virtue development needs more than a quick read. I could handle two or three short chapters at a time before I had to stop and process. But I probably would have benefited from reading them no more than one at a time. It is content like this that the concept of slow reading is best practiced. I just am not very good at slow reading, but I am beginning to develop an eye and ear for the content that needs to be read slowly. Or at the very least, read over again several times.
5 people found this helpful
Virtuous performance of a good work
This Godfatherly advice reminds me of my Papa and some lessons he shared with me as I was growing up. A great listen for people of faith and even those who are not but find themselves in a position of being a Godparent, and what that should entail.