Promises and Prohibitions

This is from an essay called “The Politics of Gentleness” by theologian Stanley Hauerwas:

”... we live in a time when people believe they have no story except the story they chose when they thought they had no story. That's 'freedom' in a society shaped by liberal political theory. If you don't believe that's true of you, just ask yourself whether you believe someone should be held responsible for a decision they made when they didn't know what they were doing. Most of us don't; this ethos of freedom is deep in our souls. We believe we should be held responsible only for the things we freely chose when we know what we were doing.”

“The problem with this way of thinking is that it makes marriage unintelligible. How do we ever know what we are doing when we promise lifelong monogamous fidelity? Christians are required to marry before witnesses in church so we can hold them to the promises they made when they didn't know what they were doing. If marriage renders this understanding of freedom unintelligible, try having children. You never get the ones you wanted. Yet we still feel extraordinary pressure to raise our children in such a way that they will not have to suffer for our convictions. Otherwise, we think they would not be 'free.' But this just reveals that we do not know why we're having children. And this has everything to do with the deep assumptions about freedom that now shape our lives. We believe that we should produce people who have no story except the story they chose when they had no story. So our children grow up thinking that freedom is the choice between a Sony and a Panasonic.”

Think how many fairy-stories feature decisions made by people who don't know what they're doing. In “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien notes that the point of the story of the princess and frog lies “in the necessity of keeping promises (even those with intolerable consequences) that, together with observing prohibitions, runs through all of Fairyland. This is one of the notes of the horns of Elfland, and not a dim note.”

In the old stories, promises must be kept even if they were made uncomprehendingly, even if their consequences are intolerable. This makes me think of a claim from Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent Donald Maass, regarding what kind of stories sell -- “there are two character qualities that leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other: Forgiveness and self-sacrifice.”

1 thought on “Promises and Prohibitions”

  1. The Hauerwas essay goes on to discuss the alternative to what you quote: life as a gift. I thought the quote was intriguing enough to read the source, which is interesting throughout.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top