A New Search for the Good Life
In his beautiful memoir published last year, The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, James Rebanks helps those like myself who know nothing about sheep to have some sense of what it means to be a shepherd. Rebanks is well prepared to perform this task since he comes from a lineage of shepherds in England’s Lake District.
I confess I was stunned to discover how many different kinds of sheep there are, and to learn that sheep have been bred to negotiate different topographies. Romantic conceptions of what it is to be a shepherd cannot survive Rebanks’s honest account of the hard work required to make a barely sustainable living raising sheep.
Stories of Endurance
Rebanks is a wonderful storyteller. As one who hated formal schooling he improbably ended up doing a degree at Oxford. Although he left secondary school as soon as it was permissible, he discovered he loved to read. Every night after a hard day of working on his grandfather’s and father’s farm, he read. Taking a continuing education course, he was encouraged to pursue the tests necessary for him to go to a university.
And having gone to Oxford, Rebanks could have pursued a very different vocation and forsaken the life of a shepherd. But he chose to return to the farm. He did so because, as he observes, he had learned from his grandfather the classic worldview of the peasant. He identified it as the worldview of a people who though often battered yet endure, and through such endurance they come to believe they “owned the earth.” They are a people – farmers, laborers – who always manage to be “there,” a confident people who are “built out of stories” embedded in the everyday necessities of life, he writes.
In the last paragraphs of The Shepherd’s Life, Rebanks, now a good deal older, recounts the story of a crucial realization. It is springtime, and he is returning his flock to the hills. These sheep are bred to fend for themselves in rocky terrain. He enjoys watching the sheep find their way in the rough fields; they are evidently happy to be “home.” Rebanks then imitates his flock’s sense that all is as it should be by lying down in the grass to drink the sweet and pure water from the nearby stream. He rolls on his back to watch the clouds racing by. His well-trained sheepdogs, Floss and Tan, who had never seen him so relaxed, come and lay next to him. He breathes in the cool mountain air; he listens to the ewes calling to the lambs to follow them through the rocky crags, and he thinks, “This is my life. I want for no other.”
This Is Your Life
“This is my life. I want for no other” – an extraordinary declaration that one rarely hears anyone make. As odd as it may seem, I want to suggest that the scarcity of this declaration in contemporary life is a clue to understanding our cultural moment. Stated differently: The fact that many people feel forced to live lives they do not want helps explain the politics surrounding Donald Trump. Let me try to explain. Trump has given voice to a widespread discontent in our culture, and it is mistake to discount or disregard those who support him. Theories abound about why they embrace him. I suspect there is something to most of these theories. I am sure, for example, that racism plays a role for some. Surely the shock occasioned by September 11 is a factor that attracts some to his claim to “Make America Great Again.”
Unease in Zion
Yet the racism and anxiety that Trump has exploited are, I believe, manifestations of an even deeper pathology, namely, the profound sense of unease that many Americans have about their lives. That unease often takes the form of resentment against elites, but even more troubling it funds the prejudice against minority groups and immigrants. Resentment is another word for the unease that seems to grip good, middle-class – mostly white – people who have worked hard all their lives yet find they are no better off than when they started. They deeply resent what they interpret as the special treatment some receive in an effort to right the wrongs of the past.
In short, Americans are angry but they are not sure at whom to direct that anger appropriately. Their anger needs direction and Trump is more than happy to tell Americans, particularly if they are white, who their enemy is and who they should hate. There is a therapeutic aspect to this rhetoric. He gives people an enemy that obscures or delays any acknowledgment that the object of our anger might or should be ourselves.
Reasons for Churchgoing
All this is happening at the same time the church, at least the mainstream church, is struggling against a culture of consumption. Americans find they have no good reason for “going to church.” The statistical decline in the number of Christians has led some church leaders to think our primary job is to find ways to increase church membership. At a time when Christians are seeking to say something confident and useful about “church growth,” what we communicate is superficial and simplistic. You do not need to come to church to be told you need to be nice to those with less.
Of course, that is not the only way the church has responded to our current disruptions and disappointments. Drawing on the spirit of the civil rights struggle, many black and white Christians have again joined with those who would represent the progressive forces of history to transform American democracy. Many Christians now try to be identified with the effort to seek justice. They take this to be their primary witness. Though it may be a very good thing for Christians to support these campaigns to make our social order more just, there is a problem with the attempt to recover the moral authority of the church: It is not clear how the pursuit of justice so understood helps us theologically to know how to live.
The church has failed to help people live in such a manner that we would want no other life than the life we have lived. Such lives – like Rebanks’s – may well be filled with suffering and failures, but suffering and failures are not blocks to having lived a good life. To have lived a good life is to have lived in a manner that we hope we can be remembered by those who have found our lives crucial for making it possible for them to want no other life than the one they have been given. To be happily remembered is to have lived with a modesty that indicates our dependence on others, making possible the satisfaction of doing the right thing without regret or notice.
Lives of Consequence
“This is my life. I want for no other” is an expression of what in the past was called a good life. The language of the good life is still used, but now its meaning has altered: It refers to lives that have not been unduly burdened. To have had a good life now means our second marriage turned out all right, the children did not become addicts, and we had enough savings to retire. Such an understanding of the good life too often produces people who regret the life they have lived, because they feel it has been a life without consequence. I suspect the reason so many men and women want mentioned in their obituary their military service is because they believe that service was of consequence.
If any people should know what it means to envision a good life surely it must be Christians. Yet I do not think we have emphasized sufficiently why it so important to live well and, perhaps even more significantly, what living well looks like. I am not, of course, suggesting that what it means to live a good life will be the same for everyone. But I do believe that to have lived well makes it possible to want no other life than the life I have lived. To want no other life than the life each of us has lived, a life that often has moments of failure or betrayal, is made possible by what we call the forgiveness of sins.
The sense of outrage that currently grips so many in America is, I think, an indication that people are profoundly unhappy with the lives they are living or have lived. If what I am suggesting has merit, it is hard to know where even to begin. But surely as Christians we have at our disposal language that can help us say to one another why it is so important that we live lives that can be called good. A people so constituted, I think, would be the first line of defense against the politics of resentment that defines our times.
Stanley Hauerwas ’65 B.D., ’67 M.A., ’68 M.Phil., ’68 Ph.D. taught at Notre Dame for 14 years before joining the Duke Divinity School faculty in 1983. His book, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, 1991) was named by Christianity Today as one of the 100 most important books on religion of the 20th century. Other books include Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010) and The Work of Theology (Eerdmans, 2015).
- James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (Flatiron Books, 2015), p. 288.