CHRISTIAN ETHICS: The Narrative Character Of Christian Convictions, Part 1 by Stanley Hauerwas

A Primer in Christian Ethics

The Narrative Character Of Christian Convictions, Part 1 by Stanley Hauerwas

From The Peaceable Kingdom

The nature of Christian ethics is determined by the fact that Christian convictions take the form of a story, or perhaps better, a set of stories that constitutes a tradition, which in turn creates and forms a community.  Christian ethics does not begin by emphasizing rules or principles, but by calling our attention to a narrative that tells of God’s dealing with creation.  To be sure, it is a complex story with many different subplots and digressions, but it is crucial for us at this point in the book to see that it is not accidentally a narrative.

Too often we assume the narrative character of Christian convictions is incidental to those convictions.  Both believer and unbeliever are under the impression that narrative is a relatively unimportant moral category.  Specifically, we tend to think of “stories” as illustrations of some deeper truth that we can and should learn to articulate in a non-narrative mode.  Thus, when we are children we make do with stories, but when we grow up we want the literal truth – that is, the truth that can be substantiated apart from the story.  Augustus Compte even suggested that such a development corresponds to the history of the race, noting that we have now reached the age of science, in which we no longer have the need for stories (myths).  Ironically, Compte failed to notice that he told a story to show we have now reached the age in which we no longer require stories!

Moreover, we naturally associate stories and narratives with fiction.  Stories create a fantasy world that releases us from the burden of having to deal with the real world.  The stories of God in scripture, it is thought, are but attempts to say “mythically” or “symbolically” what might be said directly, but because of the nature of the object being described can only be reached through “poetic” form.  Such stories of God, like most stories, are perhaps important to comfort us, but one is mistaken to ask if they are true.

I think this is a dire misreading of the narrative character of Christian convictions.  My contention is that the narrative mode is neither incidental nor accidental to Christian belief.  There is no more fundamental way to talk of God than in a story.  The fact that we come to know God through the recounting of the story of Israel and the life of Jesus is decisive for our truthful understanding of the kind of God we worship as well as the world in which we exist.  Put directly, the narrative character of our knowledge of God, the self, and the world is a reality-making claim that the world and our existence in it are God’s creations; our lives, and indeed, the existence of the universe are but contingent realities.

Some may think that emphasis on narrative as the primary grammar of Christian belief is a theological mistake.  Surely we can talk about God in a more fundamental manner than through stories – e.g., through doctrine.  Doctrinally we affirm that God is our creator and/or redeemer, or that God’s essential nature is that of a Trinitarian relationship.  But such emphasis ignores the fact that such “doctrines” are themselves a story, or perhaps better, the outline of a story.  Claims such as “God is creator” are simply shorthand ways of reminding us that we believe we are participants in a much more elaborate story, of which God is the author.  Doctrines, therefore, are not the upshot of the stories; they are not the meaning or heart of the stories.  Rather, they are tools (sometimes even misleading tools), meant to help us tell the story better.  Because the Christian story is an enacted story, liturgy is probably a much more important resource than are doctrines or creeds for helping us to head, tell, and live the story of God.

Narrative is not secondary for our knowledge of God; there is no “point” that can be separated from the story.  The narratives  through which we learn of God are the point.  Stories are not substitute explanations we can someday hope to supplant with more straightforward accounts.  Precisely to the contrary, narratives are necessary to our understanding of those aspects of our existence which admit of no further explanation – i.e., God, the world, and the self.

Actually it is not incidental that knowledge of God, the world, and the self seem to have similar epistemological status.  On analysis each appears a strange “object,” since it seems that our knowledge of one is dependent on the other.  To “know” God requires a rethinking of what and how we know the self and the world.  To know one’s self, one cannot but make claims about the kind of world in which selves are able to exist.  Neither God, the world, nor the self are properly known as separate entities but are in a relation requiring concrete display.  That display takes the form of a narrative in which we discover that the only way to “know” God, the world, or the self is through their history.

Narrative plays a larger part in our lives than we often imagine.  For example, we frequently introduce ourselves through narrative.  To be sure, any story with which we identify “ourselves” can be and should be constantly tested by the history we have lived.  But the telling of the narrative is itself a reinterpretation of the history.  We see that because the self is historically formed we require a narrative to speak about it if we are to speak at all.  One should not think of oneself as exemplifying or being some individual instance of a self, but one understands in what his or her selfhood consists only insofar as he or she learns to tell that particular story.

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