Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sectarian, Fideistic Tribalist - Stanley Hauerwas On The Church Versus America

America is at once the name of an aspiration to liberty and equality of rights and the name of the power that stands in the way of that aspiration. - Stanley Hauerwas, "On Being A Christian And An American", in A Better Hope, p. 31.
As I wade through Roland Boer's dense commentaries on the Marxist appropriation of theology, I am pausing to read an essay or two from my one volume of Stanley Hauerwas. For those who may not know the name, Hauerwas is more than just "a Christian ethicist". His name is a symbol for kicking against so many conventions, not the least of which is his contention that "Christian Ethics", as a phrase (let alone a discipline of the academy) isn't really intelligible.

A Better Hope: Resources For A Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, And Postmodernity is one of the initial publications by Brazos Press, a small imprint of Baker Book House. A compendium of essays from the 1990's, the collection could be considered "dated" (it was published in 2000) were it not that the topics he addresses are not just pertinent but really vital.

I will confess that I have mixed feelings about Hauerwas. I want to like much of what he has to say. I get the feeling that his intentions are not just honorable, but rooted in instincts that are correct. His counter-claim to what he sees as the unholy alliance between political liberalism (broadly understood) and the Christian churches in America is simple enough. He writes the following at the end of the essay quoted above, on p. 34:
I believe . . . Christians can do nothing more significant in America than to be a people capable of worshiping a God who is to be found in the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The worship of such a God will not be good for any society that desires a god made in the image of the bureaucrat. A people formed by the worship of a crucified God, however, might just be complex enough to engage in the hard work of working out agreements and disagreements with others one small step at a time.
Fair enough. Yet, unlike those who face the fire of his ire - John Rawls, in particular - Hauerwas is thin on the ground as to how, exactly, we are to negotiate the differences among incommensurable vocabularies, or to put it in his terms, reconcile the different stories we tell about ourselves. If, as Hauerwas suggests, Americans are a people predisposed to a certain avoidance of conflict, pasting over very real differences in order to keep a certain social peace - and I am not convinced this view, which he borrows from an essay by Alisdair MacIntyre, is true - then the alternative he suggests would seem to prevent anything else than agreeing that we do, indeed, disagree. These disagreements, moreover, under the terms he sets forth here, would be unmanageable because they are rooted in "stories" that start in different places, have a whole different cast of characters, themes, motifs, and serve such a welter of purposes that "disagreement" is a polite way to describe what really would be conflict.

So, we end up where we are in many ways. Different groups insisting on the primacy of "their" story as being the key to being "America" (and despite his insistence that his view denies a role for "America" in a Christian's self-understanding, the practical result is the same), without any common vocabulary, or single "story" to which to appeal, sounds very much like our current situation. The appeal to the Church to "be" the Church of Jesus Christ, witnessing to that reality in its life in the life-world that is America is hardly a sectarian call to arms. All the same, working through both his method, and his sectarian, tirbalist view of what it means to inhabit a story, leads me to the conclusion that a key ingredient is missing from his theological polemic - grace.

Without grace, that sense that God's justice and love are united in a prodigal condescension to our human condition - and Hauerwas is certainly correct when he notes that the Nicaean/Chalcedonian formula is a shorthand for the uniqueness of the Christian story of God (although I prefer "confession" to story) - leaves out the key to understanding the "why" of the Incarnation. Are we, in being the Church in America, presenting a set of stark alternatives, the "thou shalt" of a new law? If this is the case, what need have we to confess this same Incarnation?

Again, there is much in this essay, and in Hauerwas' larger theological project, to commend itself to a variety of publics. All the same, what I found wanting in this essay - how we get to the point where we can negotiate those agreements and disagreements - is really indicative of a far deeper problem. Hauerwas' view of the Church is one much like himself, confrontational, committed to its "story" without any need to justify that commitment to those outside its walls, and lacking any sense of grace, which would be rooted in an acknowledgment of the contingency and partiality of any narrative. This, too, is a Scriptural insight, one Hauerwas passes over in silence.

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