Yesterday I was listening to Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theological ethics at Duke, as he spoke to a class at Campbell University before delivering the Relgion Department Staley Lecture in the evening.
Somewhere in the course of describing the difference between a deontological and utilitarian ethical position, and showing how it can often be hard to pin down a clear answer for what’s right and wrong, he asked if people should be held responsible for things they did before they understood what they were doing.
I suspect that most of us in the audience were thinking about children who may do horrid things or make bold promises before they have any real comprehension of what their actions entail. Most people would agree, he said, that we wouldn’t hold people responsible for their actions if they didn’t know what they were doing.
And then he said, “So what then do we do about marriage?”
The implication was that nobody really knows what they’re doing when they get married. That’s why the state insists on having witnesses to a marriage, he said, so there would be someone to hold people accountable for what they did when they didn’t know what they were doing.
Maybe it’s because I’m neither a theologian or an ethicist by training, but I didn’t get it. Of course, no one knows everything they’re getting into when they choose to marry, any more than we know everything that will confront us when we get out of bed every morning.
But we are responsible for choosing the course our lives will take. Whether we will take the risk of any relationship, including marriage, even though we can’t know all that lies ahead. Whether we will join a church, not knowing if controversy is on the horizon. Whether we will commit our lives to serving God when we have no idea where that path will lead.
When we take the first step, we’re not yet responsible for all the steps that come after. But with every step, we make choices for good or ill or something in between, and we are responsible for those.
I suppose one could always wonder if anyone ever fully comprehends anything — and I certainly don’t claim to fully understand where Hauerwas was going with the question — but to the extent that we are capable of understanding, I can’t help but believe that we have the power to make choices, and to bear the responsibility for them.