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 – down to its 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 drew it further into 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 new synthesis.

As you can gather, I’m a bit bitter about this. I am — speaking very personally — quite demoralized and frustrated. 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 anger 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.)

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, ironically, pin-pointed and articulated with such fine resolution many of the worse instincts 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 actually provide some 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. [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 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 with its recipe 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, probing 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. 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 have to 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)


Let’s try 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. []

Comments 3

  1. The only objection/question I have is about Jesus. How can you say he doesn’t call for obedience, when he clearly does so over and over in the Gospels? Same with his proclamation of God’s rule. How do you reconcile these assertions with Jesus’ own proclamation about himself in the Gospels?

    1. David Wagschal Post

      Hi Robin, Thanks for your comment! I think the quick answer is that the gospels are not the Gospel; Luther’s very good on this point, both in his instinct that it’s much easier to get the Gospel from Paul than the gospels, and in his warning us to constantly guard ourselves from the “law-Christ”. Check out his “How to read the Gospels” and also his commentary on Galatians (although you have to dig). Also, let’s not forget: the gospels are Greco-Roman texts arising from a context where control, obedience and rule-metaphors were deepy woven into the cultural fabric. We’ve got to read them today with a very strong filter for this stuff — these are a take on Jesus and the Gospel by 1st century Greco-Romans. Let’s never forget that. Doesn’t make them any worse than us — but we shouldn’t take this as definitive of the Gospel. The Gospel determines the gospels, NOT the other way around (that’s one of the Reformed tradition’s fundamental mess-ups – but even Lutheran fall into it). Anyway, I elaborate more on this at http://www.underthesunblog.com/main/the-gathering-storm-a-guide-to-reformation-2-0-part-two-scripture/ and a few other places, if you’re interested.

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