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.

Hauerwas’ particular vision of church is derived from the more radical wings of the Anabaptist tradition. In these traditions, church is understood as requiring the creation of alternative religio-political communities which are separate from “the world” and where all aspects of life can be carefully regulated and “trained” according to a distinctive and rigorous set of moral/ethical norms (e.g. strict pacifism). Such communities are meant to realize, as much as possible, God’s kingdom here and now. These communities are essentially theocratic, inasmuch as the social-political lives of their members are governed directly by a set of religious norms (and religious authorities).

This idea of church has many historical antecedents. The most obvious are the ancient and medieval monastic traditions where groups of “elite Christians” separated from the world to form highly regulated, disciplined theocratic communities of special rigour and holiness. Interestingly, Hauerwas’ theological vocabulary follows the contours of ancient monastic discourse quite closely, particularly in his emphases on virtue, “training” (i.e. ascesis), “masters”, and the imitation of the saints.

Broadly, however, as I’ve argued, Hauerwas’ concept of church represents nothing more than an intensification and miniaturization of the standard pre-modern “transformational” vision of the Christian community. From at least the fourth century onwards, when Christianity first began to enjoy the status of official religion in various states, Christians saw it as their task to shape all elements of society into a Christian image: to “train” all aspects of the soul of the body politic to manifest and realize Christian ideals of virtue and religion. This was understood to encompass not only the internal/private lives of Christians but also the political/public life of the whole community. The hallmark of these polities was their regular and strict legal control over doctrine, conscience, morality, and so on, i.e. over all aspects of their citizens’ political-ethical lives – very much as in Hauerwas’ vision of his ideal churches/church-states.

Hauerwas’ commitment to this ancient ideal is evinced in his deep antipathy to all aspects of post-Enlightenment political and religious liberalism, including freedom of conscience, secularism (i.e. the removal of religious coercion from public life, and thus the limiting of religion to the volunteer realm), the celebration of the individual, primacy of individual rights over and against religio-communitarian ones, and the centrality of freedom of choice (as opposed to freedom from choice, in the sense of our “freedom” to not choose an option which religio-social authorities disapprove of). All of these ideas are quite antithetical to the ancient transformative tradition, whether in its classical or Hauerwasian form. For these traditions, controlling and “training” the conscience, subordinating the individual to a collective theology, subjecting political and social life to religious direction and control (usually including a close association of church and state), and so on, are the warp and weft of the social-political fabric. Hauerwas, then, is being quite consistent in reviving a pre-modern view of the church and world while also criticizing the liberal democratic worldview. And he does so endlessly, railing against individualism, human rights, individuals’ self-determination, and so on – pretty much against all the pillars of our post-Enlightenment society. (To get a flavor of this, try reading his 1991 article “Christianity: It’s Not a Religion: It’s an Adventure”.)

So Where’s the Contradiction?

But here’s the problem. Hauerwas himself, as a phenomenon, as a reality, as “a thing” – and Hauerwas’ entire discourse – is pretty much unthinkable within the type of church or society he is advocating. Hauerwas is an intensely modern, Enlightenment figure, and his whole lived reality is the product of the Enlightenment. He casually assumes that a lively academic discourse, in which controversial and radical ideas are regularly and properly aired in in public contexts, is a good thing; or that ethical discourse is normally a multi-faceted conversation with many voices; or that he and his interlocutors should have a right to their own opinion. His writings live and breathe the freedom of American liberal democracy, often challenging, probing, and startling. Most shockingly, from a traditional perspective, he is casually critical of his teachers and predecessors, and sharply distinguishes himself from them. His whole discourse has little sense of being written from within a tradition. He is also very critical of church and government authorities – authority in general has little real traction for him.

Perhaps most notably, as a professor in North American academic institutions, his daily livelihood – the way he keeps body and soul together, literally – is a kind of epitome realization of the Enlightenment ideal of freedom of conscience and expression. He enjoys the most extreme, institutionalized form of freedom of thought possible – academic tenure!

Hauerwas is thus unusually insulated from the concrete exercise of ideological or ecclesiastical authority  of the type that he considers essential for truly ethical, and indeed, Christian behavior.

Further, it’s quite clear that Hauerwas, protected by the ideals and institutions of the Enlightenment and liberal democracy, has never truly lived in the type of community he is proposing as an ideal. He has never even, it seems, been subject to the discipline of a modern Mennonite community, or been constrained to work entirely within the more traditionally hierarchical governance of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches.1 He has always instead lived – in reality – outside of and “above” these communities, looking down on them from outside. Yet being “subject” to community and standing “within” tradition is a central theme of his writings!

As a result, there is a strange sense of unreality and irony that permeates all of Hauerwas’ work.

It makes you wonder: has Hauerwas ever really thought about what it would be like if he or one of his colleagues were to live in a traditional community of the type he is trying to revive?

Well, as a scholar of late antiquity, I can tell you how this would have played out in the old empire!

In the Christian empire – the theology of which Hauerwas’ work recalls intensely – if Hauerwas tried to push the envelope against established orthodoxy, he would have been subject to a host of legal and political censures. His writings would be banned and probably burned. He would be forbidden from teaching and immediately thrown out of his post. He would be subject to excommunication and ostracism; quite possibly he would be exiled, imprisoned, or even executed. In all cases he would be publically shamed and branded with infamia (or maybe even physically branded – possibly on the face; yup, that happened!). If he somehow managed to associate himself with a quasi-tolerated doctrinal minority, he would not be able to hold public office or otherwise participate in political society. He might have to wear special clothes, and keep to segregated parts of the city. His children might not be able to regularly inherit from him, and in any case would have limited access to the legal system. He would not be able to participate in many economic transactions. It would be rare for him to enjoy any friendships or regular social interactions with anyone outside his group. Marriage outside of his minority, of course, would be out of the question, or at least subject to serious disabilities. Open discussion of doctrine of any type would be very difficult. Broadly, he would be legally defined as a second-class citizen, and effectively silenced.

And even if he stayed with orthodoxy, i.e. within the state-sanctioned orthodox group, his writings, his style, his behavior – everything – would be subject to careful and constant ecclesial oversight. Hauerwas: think if you had to get every one of your articles approved by the Methodist bishops!

Thanks to the Enlightenment (praise be to God for it!), all of this seems very distant and unreal to us. But this is pretty much how “normal” societies worked before the modern period. This was real stuff. God forbid that anyone ever has to endure such a world (again). I hope Hauerwas never does: he is an impossibility in such a world.

The Pandora’s Box of Pre-modernity

What then do we make of Hauerwas – and other post-liberals – apparently trying to open up the unholy Pandora’s box of pre-modern religious polities?

This is a very troubling question. He is trying to promote something for others that he has little experience of, and has never been subject to – and which was, historically at least, pretty horrific. More, he is promoting something that would extinguish his own dynamism, his own flourishing, his own contributions – and indeed, the flourishing and contributions of the majority of people he’s ever known.

At best we can say that it reveals Hauerwas’ profound naiveté about the on-the-ground reality of the type of communities and polities that he is imagining from the safety of his liberal-democratic professorial office.

This naiveté, though, is very dangerous. Hauerwas is playing with fire when he starts to theologically undermine the structures that have nurtured and protected not only him but everyone and everything that he has ever known and loved. Would he really like to see his colleagues’ works burned? Or their families exiled? Or totally ostracized from the church? Or shamed? Or would he accept it if all the intellectual relationships, good and bad, he’s had over the years simply became impossible? Or, even in more mild versions, as might be manifest today: would he accept it if he were simply forbidden from writing by ecclesial authorities? Or would he really want his colleagues silenced by these authorities? What if he had been silenced his whole career?

My concern grows when I begin to consider our current political context. We are now discovering with Trump et al. that our Enlightenment social and political structures are more fragile than we thought. Do we want to jeopardize them by advocating – or even appearing to advocate – a step back into pre-modernity? Although it might be a bit extreme to make the comparison, I admit that I often think nervously about ISIS when I read Hauerwas and other post-liberals. ISIS has been attractive to estranged young western-educated Muslims who, from the comfort of post-Enlightenment west, have fantasized about restoring the pre-modern Caliphate – a society not that different, fundamentally, from the old pre-modern Christian states. To these young westerners, it has seemed like an attractive prospect to “step back” into a pre-Enlightenment world without inalienable rights, religious freedom, pluralism etc. They, too, dream of resurrecting a world with a clear sense of “the ontological good”, a strong, indeed overwhelming, “story” to which all must conform, a uniform religious identity, and so on.

Look what happened. They created a monster – one that hass been much more repressive and brutal than any historical Caliphate. In the end, they created an absolute perversion of Islam. I wonder what the long-term damage will be to Islam from the ISIS experience? How many young Muslims are now quietly rethinking their religious commitment to Islam – and religion generally?

Hauerwas, of course, to his credit, does not want to recreate the Christian Empire. But could his thought feed similar tendencies in our own societies? Could all of his anti-liberal talk encourage Christians, frustrated by their declining power and unclear identity, to start advocating for the most negative and objectionable elements of the old pre-Enlightenment world? And then start to pass this off as true Christianity? That’s a very worrying thought.

Final Thoughts: Hauerwas the Liberal and the End of the Road

These concerns aside, there is also another problem with Hauerwas’ ecclesial contradictions: they have a strangely obfuscating effect. The “disconnect” between Hauerwas’ reality and message suggests that Hauerwas actual theology is different from his prescribed or stated theology. By this I mean that the theology implied in Hauerwas’ total discourse, his “total message”, seems different than what he says it is.

On the face of it, Hauerwas is calling for Christians to separate from society to form totalitarian theocratic church-states-within-actual-states (in a nutshell). But his discourse reveals that he has no real intention of doing this himself, and has never subjected himself or others to any such thing. Instead, both his life and his discourse (as a practicing academic theologian and teacher) point in another direction: we should be solid citizens of liberal democratic societies, enjoy all the benefits that the Enlightenment has brought us (including the liberal mainline churches, like the United Methodists, and institutions like Duke University!), but at the same time continue to push the envelope on realizing an ideal vision of Christian virtue by participating in robust, edgy, provocative, rough-and-tumble Enlightenment-style debate and discussion, and thereby strive to both improve civil society and ensure that Christianity has a prominent place in that society! We should engage, in other words, in constant critical discourse! This, I think, is what Hauerwas might actually be saying.

If this is right – if this is his real theology – then Hauerwas the post-liberal actually ends up as a kind of highly-rhetoricized liberal!

But this is very confusing. Does he actually mean what he says? Or doesn’t he? It’s a bit bizarre.

But then there is maybe another read on this “disconnect” too – one that is darker, and sadder. This is to realize that, on the one hand, Hauerwas and the post-liberals are a dynamic, powerful and articulate generation of theologians. They are established in academia, well-versed in modern thought, and perfectly at home in post-Enlightenment institutions. And yet: Romantics at heart, they only know how to look backwards. They are in fact entirely captive to their deep longing for a world that is past and passing. And so their theology, in contradiction to their existential reality, is strangely backwards: for all their command of contemporary intellectual resources, for all their lived engagement now in our society, they simply can’t imagine anything new. (The liberals on the 19th and early 20th C – so despised by Hauerwas – at least tried.) For all their power and sheen, the post-liberals literally see nothing in our future. So all they can do is fill this void with increasingly unreal, ill-fitting, and even dangerous visions from the past.

This suggests that they actually represent an “end of the road”, a dead-end, a last gasp: a dead theology for a dying church.

This is not good enough. We need something better than this. Much better.

Next post: An Alternative Vision to Hauerwas

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  1. William Cavanagh in the introduction to the Hauerwas Reader, gently makes a similar point when he remarks the “ecclesial ambiguity” (p. 24) of Hauerwas’ lack of consistency in his church identity/membership – a situation, incidentally, only conceivable in a highly post-Enlightenment liberal democratic culture like the US. []

Comments 2

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to put my finger on just what I’ve found so unsettling about a lot of the post-liberal critiques generated by academics like Hauerwas, Milbank and, more recently, Deneen and this identifies it and sums it up much better than I could have.

    1. David Wagschal Post

      Thanks for your comment – and sorry I didn’t see it earlier. I’m glad this was helpful. I haven’t yet read Deneen — perhaps I need to put him on the list! Milbank I will post on eventually.


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