The Church, Freed: An Alternative to Hauerwas

About the Author
David Wagschal
  1. An Alternative to Hauerwas’ Church
  2. Summary: Conclusion

I’m hesitant to devote another post to Hauerwas. If you’ve followed my essays on Hauerwas over the past months, you know that my estimation of his theology has been souring. I’ve come to see his work as deeply flawed, at its very roots. More, I’ve come to see his theology as a dead-end.

To me, Hauerwas represents a whole generation of theologians who, enjoying perhaps the last gasp of Christendom’s material supports (secure professional positions, media profile, some level of public authority), recognized the dying of the old synthesis, but responded in exactly the wrong way. Instead of forging a new synthesis, they tried one last time to revive the old. Instead of engaging with the world, they retreated into sectarianism. Instead of finding new ways for the church to speak in the world with power and conviction, they just mired it further in Romantic nostalgia. Worse, they’ve managed to obscure the few voices (the old “liberals”) in the early 20th C who were struggling – admittedly, not always happily – to fashion some type of truly new synthesis.

As you can gather, I’m a bit bitter about this. I’m actually quite demoralized. We really needed more from them. I feel that my generation, with far fewer resources, now has the burden of not only devising a credible new synthesis – which was their task – but also cleaning up their legacy.

And their legacy is really problematic. Hauerwas and the post-liberals have convinced many that the only way to be Christian is to revert to a triumphalist and coercive theocratic(ish) vision of the pre-modern world. So they’ve simply re-packaged this old synthesis, with its systemic flaws, decorated it with a bit of contemporary theory, and sold the whole thing as a “brave new option” to a beleaguered Christian public. But the old synthesis isn’t a new option, and it isn’t brave. It’s the same old formula that got us into trouble in the first place. And the “bravery” and noble conviction of the post-liberals – which they’ve leveraged to great rhetorical effect – is hard to read as anything other than grief and fury at Christianity’s marginalization. So they’ve left us trying angrily to enact a troubled and impossible theology of a long-dead age – when we should be maintaing our composure to build for the future.

I’m also disturbed that their theology appeals exactly to the darkest needs of a vulnerable Christian people: our need for power, control, and “being right”.

The result? A legacy of frustration, anger and despair for today’s theologians and pastors. And also, I think, widespread compensatory authoritarianism and sectarianism as the frustration grows, which only further marginalizes Christianity.

Sigh. It’s exhausting to even contemplate.

(Did I mention too that they’ve associated Christianity with anti-democratic and anti-liberal themes? Great. We needed that.)

But maybe there is a silver lining.

Maybe the church can use their voices to clarify and express exactly what is wrong with the old synthesis. Maybe their work can serve as a foundation for something new, inasmuch as they have pin-pointed and articulated with such fine resolution many of the dying and dead habits and patterns of thinking of the old world. Maybe they’ve done the church a greater service than we know?

An Alternative to Hauerwas’ Church

On this note, I want to suggest a little experiment. What happens if we take Hauerwas’ post-liberal suggestions and messages – explicit or implicit – and flip them?

My contention is that the inverse of Hauerwas’ ideas might ironically provide some truly fresh and useful inspiration for us to move forward with.

Below are my suggested “flips” to Hauerwas. (Or you can just skip to my summary conclusion.) I invite you to consider your own.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: Christians, you must separate yourselves from “the world”. You must act against the world.
  • Flip: Christians, you are “the world”, and always will be; you are inextricably part of “the world”, as are all of your communities. You can’t separate yourself from it. And this is ok. The Gospel is that God came to save the world. Yes, “the world” (which means us!) is evil, but to confront the evil and injustices of the world you must above all recognize that these evil and injustices are structurally as internal to Christian communities as to any other – “the world” is never “out there”. Keep faith! Christ has overcome the world. But Christ has overcome it: not us.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: Christians, you are special, elect, distinct. You are called to be heroic, counter-cultural. Above all, you must be different from others.
  • Flip: The key thing is to realize that you are not different from others. You are as human as anyone else and you always will be. Your highest religious aspirations are common to all humans, as are your lowest and most evil thoughts. Yes, you should strive to be ethically exceptional, but this is not what your faith is about. The Christian faith is not about making you special. Your faith is instead a constant call to turn to contemplate and trust Christ’s distinctiveness, Christ’s “heroism”, Christ’s “counter-culturalness”. When we do this, we do not begin to perceive ourselves as more special or distinct: we instead recognize ever more deeply our unity with all humans as the common subjects of God’s unconditional love and acceptance.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: Developing virtue and moral character is of the very essence of Christianity. How Christian you are depends on how Christian you act. The Gospel only has meaning if it has a concrete, measurable effect on its listeners and on the world. So above all: you must behave rightly.
  • Flip: Christianity is not about behaviour or character. In fact, the Gospel is precisely God’s message of unconditional acceptance and salvation despite our behaviour and character. [So note: the Gospel is the literal antithesis of Hauerwas’ theology!] Christianity has many resources for developing virtue and moral character, but this is ultimately a secondary secular, human matter. Religion is only properly about God’s behaviour and character. And what is this? Impossible grace and mercy. This should and can inspire good behaviour and character on our part, but for these stumbling attempts to become the focus of what we are doing? Nuts!


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: Christians, you have all the answers; you possess the correct prescription and law for living; you are “right”; you are the best form of community; you are to teach and model for “the world” what true human living is. The world needs to be trained and instructed by you.
  • Flip: Your sinfulness is as profound as that of any other group of humans, and individually and collectively you are as wrong as anyone else. In fact, the starting point of faith is recognizing that you are constitutionally always wrong, even in your best moments. Only God is “right”, and God’s “rightness” is no law: it’s an impossible grace. So you know that you can never claim to have the answers. Your voice is never prima facie privileged. You always need to be reformed and corrected by others – by Christians, by non-Christians, by whomever. All of humanity is training and instructing each other. This should in no way threaten you.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: Your Christian life must be characterized by constant striving, effort, improvement, “adventure”.
  • Flip: Your Christian life is fundamentally about learning to let go; exhaling; calming; accepting; trusting; relaxing.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: You should be suspicious of the liberal democratic state with its “toleration”, human rights, and respect for freedom of conscience. You have your own special biblical story which a prescription for a separate, holy and divine polity which must claim your true and absolute allegiance.
  • Flip: You should be suspicious of everything, and above all you own “story”! Christianity is not a prescription for a specific social or ethical order. It is a message about a) the structural screwed-upness of all orders, including (especially?) religious ones; and b) the message that God has still chosen to love and redeem us despite this screwed-upness. This message means that all social orders – including the strange ancient near-eastern and Greco-Roman structures which the bible assumes – should be subject to constant, searching critique by Christians. You never divinize (i.e. idolatrize) any particular order. This perspective allows you to recognize with total ease that a) something like the liberal democratic state might far exceed in ethical truth and beauty the human orders found in the bible or elsewhere in history (which, let’s be honest, it almost certainly does); b) we Christians have many times fallen into the sin of opposing better ethical moral and political systems than our “own”, even when we are being faithful to our own tradition. We. Do. Get. Stuff. Wrong.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: You must radically subordinate the individual to the communal order. The individual has no real meaning outside of the church. Church leaders: your key function is to control the behaviour of individuals in the church, to ensure their conformity and subjection to the community’s values and way of life – this “reads” them into the church’s story. So you must teach others what to choose, what to believe – and use social coercion as necessary. “Freedom” is only freedom to choose what is right, as defined by Christian authority. Obedience and deference are constitutive of Christian life.
  • Flip: You don’t need to subordinate or control anyone! The Gospel doesn’t require any coercion or obedience – in fact, it’s the rejection of both, because it’s the recognition that all of our coercion is evil and all of our obedience is fake! Christ, dead on the cross and risen, chooses exactly not to coerce, and not to require obedience. So whatever control is necessarily exercised in your community, or in any ethical interpretation of the Gospel, is entirely a matter of secular good order – i.e. with no divine or salvific significance at all. And as to the individual? Our ultimate meaning comes only from God’s action, the action of grace – so everyone’s story is already fully constituted before they walk into a church. How dare we think that any of our paltry and sinful little communities might have any bearing on anyone’s meaning, especially before God! The Christian community is called only to recognize God’s complete constitution of every person and to stand in total respect and awe of this.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: The church is a divine institution essential for salvation, God’s-kingdom-concretely-here-now, and absolutely constitutive of Christianity.
  • Flip: The church is a human organization which has no bearing on salvation. Any idea of the “Divine Church” is simply a form of our constant temptation to make ourselves God, to divinize God’s creation. In the end, it’s just another Molech, an Asherah, to be constantly recognized as the idol that it is, and cast down.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: The world depends for its salvation on you, on your struggle to be faithful to God’s new law.
  • Flip: The world depends for its salvation on Christ alone. Full stop.


  • Hauerwasian post-liberal: Salvation is archetypally about the establishment and recognition of God’s rule; of God’s sovereignty; of God’s lordship. Salvation is a political reality, requiring obedience, faithfulness and reciprocity.
  • Flip: Jesus, on the cross, is the central and ultimate revelation of who God is. This Jesus does not care about ruling or sovereignty, and decisively rejects any human political rule or lordship. We are saved instead by a broken and rejected God, who works in weakness instead of power. This God’s salvation has nothing to do with the imposition of any type of rule, no matter how sublime: it is instead an act of endless grace and truly unconditional acceptance, where there is no action, individually or politically, expected in response. So, if Christ is a ruler, he rules without law or expectation; if a “judge”, he always lets the accused go; if a “father” or “mother”, he doesn’t chasten or coerce; if a “king”, he cares nothing for his standing or honour. So in the end, these titles aren’t that helpful. No: the pagan gods ruled us; theirs was a world of offerings, lordship, fear, subjection, “gratitude”, and so on. This God, our God, Jesus Christ crucified and risen, is something very different!

Summary: Conclusion

My final take on Hauerwas is simple. Hauerwas had the misfortune of being born into the generation that was the first to witness the real beginnings of Christendom’s disintegration (after the brief post-war revival).

His liberal antecedents enjoyed being part of the broader cultural conversation in an integral way; but by the time Hauerwas was on the scene, this was over. Christianity was losing its public authority and credibility. It was losing its power and prestige, even its influence.

This frightened Hauerwas terribly – as it frightens us all. For academics, in particular, it was no longer clear that Christianity had anything credible to contribute to the broader ethical and political conversation. This tapped into the deepest, darkest fear of all those who construed Christianity as fundamentally a moral/ethical enterprise – as Hauerwas did. The fear was that Christianity secretly lacked any true moral authority; and maybe even moral truth. The particular dread, too taboo to express, was that the political and ethical accomplishments of the old Christian synthesis had in fact been surpassed by secular liberalism1. But, of course, they almost certainly had been.

And so, I think, Hauerwas’ theology represents Christian moral theology in a state of panic. His theology becomes an exaggerated attempt to re-assert and re-claim traditional Christian moral authority. In particular, it becomes an attempt to reinstate that one thing Christian moral leaders felt they were losing above all: a community they could control and define; a community that deferred to them; a community that affirmed them; a community that obeyed them.

But the desperation of the attempt soon becomes clear. None of the quiet confidence of a Niehbuhr or a Tillich remain. Instead we see a blatant advocacy for the most retrograde dynamics of the old churches: control, coercion, tit-for-tat reciprocity. We see a strange neglect of the traditional Reformation counter-arguments to such positions. And we see an oddly one-sided critique of the liberal tradition, where (legitimate) criticisms of the liberal synthesis are never balanced against the tremendous socio-ethical failings of the pre-modern world.

The result: a polemical but also quixotic vision of Christianity.

But it has been a seductive vision. Its effect has been to distract Christian leaders with one last hope that the old order might be restored (if maybe in smaller form). It is as if Hauerwas whispers: we might still be able to re-assert the moral pre-eminence and authority of Christendom!

But his vision is not viable. Not even close. In the end, post-liberal Christianity is founded on control, compulsion, pride (“you special, elect Christians have all the answers!”), and coercion. I can’t think of a better way to make Christ finally and totally repulsive to the world. But then, this vision doesn’t offer the world Christ, it offers the world “The Church” – i.e. it offers us. Really!?

But there is another way.

The Gospel of grace acts like an inoculation to all these temptations. Hauerwas’ theology is like a clenched fist: frightened, angry, threatening. Grace can relax it and open it. Grace gently reveals the critical error Hauerwas has made in his theology: the idea that theology is fundamentally about ethics, about our behaviour. This is our primeval human temptation. It is false.

Theology is about God’s actions, God’s works, God’s “behaviour”, God’s faithfulness, God’s struggle. The Gospel exactly removes our actions from the realm of the divine, from the realm of salvation, from the realm of mattering. The Gospel is the message of God’s total acceptance and mercy despite our actions. It is the message that God has already done everything. It is a message of supreme consolation and hope. It doesn’t depend on us.

Hauerwas missed this, but he is not alone in making this error. We all make this error. Constantly. Paul made it, Luther made it. It is the central insight of theology to recognize that we constantly make this error and that we constantly need to counter this error: we constantly must distinguish between law and Gospel, in traditional Lutheran lingo.

But when we recover from this error – even briefly! – wow, how the horizons open! We’re freed from the necessity of Hauerwas’ conclusions. Suddenly there is a possibility that Christianity doesn’t require control; that it doesn’t need to compel; that it isn’t worried about authority; that it truly isn’t intimidated by the liberal democratic state; that it can permit many forms of church and community – and in fact, most importantly, that it isn’t that worried about church at all! In a manner of speaking, it finally frees the church from “The Church”! Instead Christianity can simply be kind. Relaxed. Calm. Confident. Real (worts and all!). And totally integral to its own message. It can be truly Good News!

And so let’s conclude with the Good News. Here is how Hauerwas defines the Good News: “we are possessors of the happy news that God has called people together to live faithfully to the reality that he is the Lord of this world. All men [sic] have been promised that through the struggle of this people to live faithful to that promise God will reclaim the world for his Kingdom.” (From “Character, Narrative, and Growth in the Christian Life”, 1980; Hauerwas Reader p. 251)


We need to fix this: “we are possessors of the happy news that God has called all peoples, despite their unfaithfulness, to hear the Good News that God has always loved them, and always accepted them, and always forgiven them, even since the beginning of the world. He cares not for lordship nor dominion: he is pure Gift. All have been promised that, whatever the struggles of the Christian people to live faithful to God’s promises, God will always remain faithful to his promise to reclaim the whole world for his Kingdom. Amen.”

I suspect that I’ll be taking a bit of a break from my political theology posts for the next while — I want to devote more attention to other projects. But I’ll be back with some book reviews soon.

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  1. e.g. in justice, equality, human flourishing, critical capacity, respect for the other, etc. []

There’s Something Fishy about Hauerwas’ Idea of Church

About the Author
David Wagschal

I’ve now completed the Hauerwas Reader, and I’ll soon be writing my concluding post on America’s Theologian. But first, there is one issue that has been nagging at me. It has to do with a strange set of contradictions that linger around Hauerwas’ understanding of “church”.

  1. Hauerwas’ Idea of Church
  2. So Where’s the Contradiction?
  3. The Pandora’s Box of Pre-Modernity
  4. Hauerwas the Liberal and the End of the Road

Hauerwas’ Idea of Church

Church is a central, maybe the central, focus of Hauerwas’ work. In fact, his theology could be characterized as a Methodism-that-found-church. Methodists understand the Gospel as an empowering of Christians to realize a concrete moral/ethical holiness. Hauerwas (a Methodist) believes this whole-heartedly, but his holiness must have a “political” dimension: an active manifestation in a socio-political community. Therefore, Christians must achieve holiness as church. Church therefore becomes a critical part of Christian life, since a) it is the necessary training ground and framework for holiness/virtue; and b) more so, it is the very realization of that political holiness: the church is Christian ethics in Hauerwas’ view. And since the Gospel is Christian ethics, and Christian ethics means nothing without the church, the church is the Gospel.

Read More…

Reforming Popes, Holy Councils: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

About the Author
David Wagschal

Change is in their air. There is no doubt about it. Even within the last 20 years we’ve seen a major change in the role of the church in society and in society’s view of the church. Internally, churches are experiencing increasing fragmentation and polarization as different groups respond to these changes in different ways. Almost all denominations are in the midst of some type of transition.

Recently we’ve seen some interesting developments within two of the oldest Christian confessions: the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. In the former, the pontificate of Pope Francis has been decisively reformist, marked by progressive “signaling” on all manner of issues, particularly the environment and the economy, but also gay rights and even abortion. The Orthodox churches have been keeping a lower profile, but they too are about to hold their first formal pan-Orthodox council in centuries. Topics include relations with other churches, the status of Orthodox Christians outside of traditional Orthodox countries, and a variety of ritual practices.

Both developments have created quite a stir within church circles (and sometimes even without). Commentators have been carefully weighing the nature and significance of phrases, statements, and each and every political move.

But when I encounter the commentary, controversy and buzz, I keep having the same existential reaction:

Does any of this matter? Really?

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A Humane Reform II: Surmounting the Obstacles

About the Author
David Wagschal

Last post I raised the question: how do we enact reform in a way that is kind, that is respectful, that is humane?

The prospect of deep structural and even theological reform is very intimidating. I identified three obstacles in particular:

  1. Identity (reform threatens our personal and corporate identities, particularly those of church professionals);
  2. Money (reform threatens our livelihoods);
  3. Few things are totally bad (reform threatens things we genuinely cherish).

Can we surmount these obstacles to move forward with real reform?

Read More…


A Humane Reform?

About the Author
David Wagschal

As readers of this blog know, I’ve increasingly come to believe that the church needs some serious reform.

This is not a very radical idea these days. How often do you meet a theologian or church leader, of any stripe, who is satisfied with the status quo, and wishes to defend it? The polarization we are seeing across denominational lines testifies to this. Everyone feels that something is wrong, possibly seriously wrong. Everyone has a different assessment of the problem, and a different solution: neo-conservatism, radical pluralism, neo-traditionalism, radical reconstructionism, more cultural assimilation, less cultural assimilation, more bible, less bible, more church, less church, etc. But whatever the case, most people feel that the church somehow needs to move to a different place from where it now is. Something has to change.


But what about the how of reform?

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Why the Episcopal Church Shouldn’t be Afraid to Leave the Anglican Communion

About the Author
David Wagschal

Rocking the boat is not a very Anglican thing to do. So the measured response of the Episcopal church to their new “demotion” over their championing of LGBT rights is not unexpected – and, politically, almost certainly the “right” response.

But their reaction should perhaps be stronger. It may well be time for the Episcopal Church to actively dissociate itself from the Anglican communion – and quite possibly issue a formal rebuke to both Canterbury and the other senior primates.

Here’s why:

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The Church Confident

About the Author
David Wagschal

A New Ecclesiology for a New Millennium? Part 3

I really wish that the church could regain some confidence. It seems to be in short supply.

Take the clergy. My years working in the church taught me that Christian professionals have a serious problem with low self-worth and low self-esteem. A sense of inferiority and even shame has become very internalized. How many times have I heard pastors or priests talk about not having a “real job” or otherwise deride or downplay their own profession? How many times have I seen clergy embarrassed to admit their profession or even attempt to hide it in public contexts? Or to be so aggressive about asserting their identity as to make it clear that it’s a sore point? How many times have I heard pastors tell me that they just don’t feel valued or respected? And how often have I seen behaviors in clergy that simply seem to say, “No one gives a damn about me, and I’m very hurt”?

None of this is surprising. Even in my lifespan (I’m just pushing 40), there is no doubt that the clergy have fallen in society’s estimation. As the churches have become slowly marginalized, the clerical caste no longer holds the caché it once did. Their socio-cultural prestige has waned as the socio-political power of the churches has waned. Recent scandals haven’t helped.

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Keeping It Real: Church without Feeling Fake or Awkward

About the Author
David Wagschal

A New Ecclesiology for a New Millennium? Part Two

Feeling out of Place?

Do you often feel a bit out of place in church? Do you feel like it’s somehow a bit of a game? That there is something perpetually a little fake or artificial about the whole thing? That it’s almost as if church is a play, and everyone has to stay in character? Everyone has to put on a “church mask”?

And have you ever found that if you don’t “keep up the appearances”, Christians have a genuinely difficult time dealing with you? It’s like you don’t compute? Anything outside the box gets ignored or excluded?

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Learning to Let Go: Towards a Church that Doesn’t Need to Control Everyone and Everything

About the Author
David Wagschal

A New Ecclesiology for a New Millennium? Part One

Christians are addicted to control.

It’s an extraordinary phenomenon. Those of us who’ve been in the church our whole lives may not even notice it, but Christians have this idea that we should control not only people’s ideas, beliefs, and religious practices – which, reluctantly, we might expect – but also their bodies, their relationships, and their politics. In its more extreme forms our desire to control can extend to manners, language, diet, emotions, even minute details of clothes and appearances. Look around a bit and you’ll see it everywhere. We’ve somehow gotten it into our heads that, to be Christian, we must control almost everyone and everything around us: society, morality, culture, politics – the list goes on.

Read More…


Church Dreams

About the Author
David Wagschal

Our series on homosexuality has got me thinking a lot about two things: truth and the church. Maybe more specifically, it’s got me pondering truth about the church.

One of the things we are trying to do on this blog is to offer a place where we can engage in some creative thinking about what the church is and where it’s going. We want to do this by providing a space for honest, open reflection.

This has got me thinking “ok David, so what really are your own beliefs and feelings about the church these days?”

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