Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What I learned from Stanley Hauerwas

It’s a great privilege to know and be known by Stanley Hauerwas, the pre-eminent American theologian of our time. On the occasion of his retirement, I joined a terrific group of his students, former students, and fellow-theologians for a celebration of his life and work at an event called “The Difference Christ Makes.”
That celebration made me want to reflect on everything I’ve learned from Stanley Hauerwas. There’s too many to name, but here are six of them:
1. The smallest moral unit is the community, not the individual.
Hauerwas has been a relentless critic of what Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “the Enlightenment Project” which, in our day, is the common heritage of various forms of political liberalism (on both the left and the right). The Enlightenment taught us that morality comes down to individual decisions and the actions of an individual conscience. The picture is of rootless, tradition-less autonomy (literally a “law unto oneself”); who we are is who we have made ourselves to be when we neutrally stood before a range of moral options. I first learned the flaws of this picture from Hauerwas. Our characters are formed through numerous sources, many of which are beyond our control. We recognize human contingency in our dependence on others.

2. Political goods are superior to rights.
Because the Enlightenment Project values individuals over communities, the politics it produced (the modern liberalism of nation-states) needed to down-play what these individuals have in common—with the exception of the bare minimum: our fear of death and hence our will to survive. (Thomas Hobbes is a good example.) I learned first from Hauerwas (and then from many others) that this is a significant departure in the history of the West. Until the early modern period, it was possible to pursue questions of the common good by being concerned about what is actually good for humans and for human society. In modernity, the primary concern has become the granting and exercise of individual rights. Serious discussions of what is good for a people—beyond their rights, of course—tend to be discouraged on grounds that they are likely to be divisive. “Peace” in modernity is brought by the unity that nation-states broker by ensuring that their citizens remain distracted from asking about what is good.

3. The Christian church is a political body.
Hauerwas published A Community of Character in 1981 with the aim “to reassert the social significance of the church as a distinct society with an integrity peculiar to itself” (p. 1). It is fair to say that he has been unpacking this ever since. Hauerwas taught me (and countless others) that “politics” is much bigger than governments. Once we ask questions about human and communal goods, we discover that we have strayed from the modern political questions to which the answer, in America, always is “America!” Instead, Christians have been given a way of living that Jesus makes possible by rising from the dead and gathering a people to himself who may now live this resurrected life. This people is called “church.” When Christians fail to call this way of life anything less than a politics, we have severely restricted our imaginations.

4. Power is beside the point.
Nearly all so-called politics is understood to be the pursuit and exercise of power. Hauerwas has not only critiqued the Enlightenment project and political liberalism; he has also been seen rejoicing at the end of Christendom. The reason is that when Christians want to seize power (as in Christendom) in order to steer the course of history, they abandon the genuine goods of the gospel. I learned from Hauerwas that, rather than Christendom and Enlightenment being at odds, they are two versions of the same failing: both assume that power (especially violence and coercion) are required to achieve whatever goals a people set. I learned to call these goals idolatrous versions “salvation” and “the kingdom of God”—these are rivals to the salvation that God’s true kingdom really brings. We are tempted to settle for less than God’s truth and so we grab what John Howard Yoder called the “handles of history” in order to steer it. We justify violence accordingly.
5. Christ is the meaning of history.
Hauerwas taught us that Christians have no need to grab the handles of history. God has already done this in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. We are tempted to think that “history” is what powerful men do. We more or less accept that history is basically about who is in charge, who is the king. What I call “History Channel history” is basically two things: rulers and wars. What is American history? It’s basically the presidents and the wars—It’s Washington and Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers; it’s the Revolution, the Civil War and the World Wars. History Channel history tells us that the most significant people in this world are the ones with the most political power and the most firepower. What they do with all that power is what we allow to count as history itself. Hauerwas helped me see that the History Channel gets it wrong. Christ is the true king who reigns because he became poor for our sakes and refused the violence of kings, chariots, and violent revolutions. History is really a grand story told by one of history’s victims.

6. Christianity is mostly about hope.
This one’s personal. My wife works with poor families and disabled children. She has always had a strong sense of the difficulty of life and the suffering that it means for a lot of people. When we were first married, it was hard for her to see the point of bringing children into such a world. But reading Hauerwas’s book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (co-authored with William Willimon) about fifteen years ago gave her hope. This is God’s world. And God knows its pains. God brought his own son into just such a world anyway—out of love for humanity. The story of the world’s rejection of Jesus is also the story of God’s determination not to let our rejection be the last word. Hauerwas taught my wife that the Christian hope is a hope beyond hope: God bringing what is good even beyond what we deem most important. Reading Hauerwas gave her hope. I once told Stanley that Resident Aliens helped her want to welcome her own children into the world. “You know, Craig,” he said, “that’s exactly what it’s meant to do.”

God bless you Stanley Hauerwas.

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