IN HIS beautifully written memoir, The Shepherd’s Life: Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape (Flatiron Books, 2015), James Rebanks helps me and others who similarly 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 line of shepherds in the Lake District in Cumbria.
I was stunned to discover how many different kinds of sheep there are, and to learn that they 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.
He is a wonderful storyteller. Having 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 that 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.
After 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 world-view of the peasant.
He identifies it as that of a people who, though often battered, yet endure and, through such endurance, come to believe that they “own the earth”. They are a people — farmers, labourers — who always manage to be “there”: 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 realisation. 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 them 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 sweet and pure water from a stream. He rolls on his back to watch the clouds racing by. His well-trained sheepdogs, Floss and Tan, who have never seen him so relaxed, come and lie 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 my life. I want for no other” — this is 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. That many people feel forced to live lives that they do not want helps to explain the politics surrounding the Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. Let me try to explain.
Mr Trump has given voice to a widespread discontent in our culture, and it is a mistake to discount or disregard his supporters. Theories abound about who they are and why they embrace him. I suspect that there is something to most of these theories. I am sure, for example, that racism plays a part for some. I am also sure that the shock occasioned by 11 September 2001 is a factor that attracts some to his claim to be able to “Make America great again”.
Yet the racism and anxiety that Mr 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 troublingly, it also 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 and yet find that they are no better off than when they started. They deeply resent what they interpret as the special treatment that some receive in an effort to right the wrongs of the past.
ALL this is happening at the same time as the Church — at least, the mainstream Church — is struggling against a culture of consumption. Americans find that they have no good reason for going to church. The statistical decline of Christians has led some church leaders to think that 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 that you need to be nice.
The Church has failed to help people to live in such a manner that they would want no other life than the life they have lived. Such lives — like Rebanks’s — may well be filled with suffering and failures, but these are not blocks to having lived a good life.
To have lived a good life is to have lived in such a manner that, we hope, our lives will be remembered by others as crucial in enabling them to want no other life than the one that they have been given. To be happily remembered is to have lived with a modesty that indicates our dependence on others and makes possible the satisfaction of doing the right thing without regret or the wish to be noticed.
IF ANY people should know what it means to envision a good life, surely Christians should. And yet I do not think that we have emphasised enough why it is so important to live well, and, perhaps even more significantly, what living well looks like.
I am not suggesting that what it means to live a good life will be the same for everyone. But I do believe that having lived well would make it possible for me to want no other life than the life I had lived. Wanting no other life than the life each of us has lived — given that this is a life that often has moments of failure or betrayal — is made possible by what Christians call the forgiveness of sins.
The sense of outrage that currently grips so many in the United States is, I think, an indication that people are profoundly unhappy with the lives that they are living or have lived. If what I am suggesting has merit, it is hard to know where even to begin.
Surely, however, 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 defence against the politics of resentment which defines our times.
Dr Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Emeritus Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke University, North Carolina. He was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine in 2001.This is adapted from a lecture given at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Monday in the series “Who is my neighbour?” (www.smitf.org) . A podcast of the full lecture is at www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/podcasts.