The Hauerwas Enterprise

From the May 7, 1982 issue
This story is included in these collections

TOWARD THE DOLEFUL end of After Virtue, a most compelling analysis of our cultural crisis, Alasdair MacIntyre writes: ''What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us." Stanley Hauerwas, the Methodist professor of theology at Notre Dame and one of the most prolific and provocative teachers of Christian ethics today, has frequently acknowledged his debt to MacIntyre. With MacIntyre, Hauerwas insists that ethics is inseparably connected to narrative, to story, to something that began some specific somewhere and is moving toward its end, its telos. Only within the context of narrative do concepts such as virtue, honor, good, and evil make any sense. Hauerwas's previous books reflect this preoccupation, Character and the Christian Life and Truthfulness and Tragedy. The central exploration is expanded and refined in his most recent collection, A Community of Character. The essays range from family life to abortion to the biblical idea of the kingdom to the flaws in liberal democratic theory. The book is an invitation to examine our familiar discontents in a suggestively unfamiliar way. The invitation should not be declined.

MacIntyre argues that the reasons we have no referents by which to sustain or reestablish a public ethic is that our civilization has lost its story line. There is no publicly recognized way rationally to debate our ends. Modernity has succumbed to emotivism. That is, we have severed "value" from "fact"; every statement that begins with "you ought" really means no more than "I would prefer" that you do this or not do that. There are no agreed upon trans-subjective, or objective, referents for moral judgment. After the collapse of the tradition that ran from Aristotle through Christendom, there were credible efforts to reestablish a world of public moral discourse. Kant's pure reason, Utilitarianism, the social contractarians, for examples; but today they are only minor sects in the cacophony of our moral confusion, which we disguise by calling it pluralism. As we shall see, MacIntyre and a few others have ideas about how one day light might dispel this presently dark age but, for the moment and in the absence of a shared and public story, the best we can do is to preserve the possibility of moral discourse by living out the stories and pieces of stories that are our own.

Stanley Hauerwas urges us to live out and think out the story that comprehends all other stories, the story that we assert to be the truth, the story of Christ and his church. Admittedly, Hauerwas's is a somewhat idealized church, the church as it would be were it true to itself, or, more precisely, were it true to its Lord. ''The first task of the church is not to supply theories of governmental legitimacy or even to suggest strategies for social betterment. The first task of the church is to exhibit in our common life the kind of community possible when trust, and not fear, rules our lives."

 

In the 1920s Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and others launched the movement known as "dialectical theology" or "crisis theology." Its journal was Zwischen den Zeiten—“Between the Times." The "times" in question had to do with the interim between one kind of theology and one kind of world, now dead, and another struggling to be born. On the larger scale, Zeiten referred to the revelation of God in Christ and the promised consummation in his glorious return. Similarly MacIntyre and Hauerwas understand us to be between-the­times. MacIntyre's implied time frame, so to speak, is short range, although that may mean decades or centuries. It is until these dark ages are past and it is possible once again to reconstruct a truly public ethic. Hauerwas's time frame is eschatological; the strategy he proposes is to be in effect until the Kingdom of God dispels our confusions. Along the way, according to Hauerwas, the church should not be distracted by efforts, probably vain efforts, to reconstruct a more universal ethic. It is task enough just to be the church. Thus Hauerwas's Zwischen den Zeiten is not marked by an intense dialectic (if we can rescue that word from today's pop-Marxists) between church and world. But neither is it a matter of church and world running along parallel tracks, for Hauerwas stresses the frequent and necessary collisions. Rather, the church is to pursue its truth without incessantly looking over its shoulder to see what impression it is making on others.

"The challenge of the political today," writes Hauerwas, "is no different than it has always been, though it appears in a new form. The challenge is always for the church to be a 'contrast model' for all polities that know not God. Unlike them, we know that the story of God is the truthful account of our existence, and thus we can be a community formed on trust rather than distrust. The hallmark of such a community, unlike the power of the nation-states, is its refusal to resort to violence to secure its own existence or to insure internal obedience."

Using the distinction elaborated by Ernst Troeltsch, Hauerwas chooses the "sectarian" rather than the "churchly" model of Christian existence in the world. As one who has collaborated over the years with Mennonite theologian John Howard Hoder (Hauerwas describes himself as ''a high church Mennonite"), he does not take umbrage at being called a sectarian. Nor, in the company of other ethicists, does he apologize for being, in a qualified sense, an ethical relativist. Not, to be sure, a relativist relative to God's revelation and the faithful living out of the Christian story; but a relativist in that he is not intimidated by the accusation that he is out of synch with the reasonings of those ''that know not God.'' Our story is the truth and, if the world disagrees, so much the worse for the world.

THERE IS SOMETHING marvelously bracing about Hauerwas. If ethnic borrowing be permitted, his is an exercise in sophisticated chutzpah. Moral teaching in most of our churches is marked by spinelessness dressed up as deference to ''wisdom from other sources.'' Timorous ethicists of mincing mind tread with care lest they be thought, God forbid, judgmental. In the face of whatever evil, they rush only to absolution. Then, with Humpty Dumpty's linguistic facility, they pronounce their embrace of the culturally approved to be "prophetic." To all that, Hauerwas says No, and he says it forcefully. 

If you are a Methodist, it is liberating, it is deliciously heretical, to declare yourself a sectarian. In the American experience, Methodism is pretty much the center of ''culture Protestantism." Methodists have historically accepted, indeed exulted in, the task of providing moral definition for our public life. A few years ago, a German theologian friend who was visiting America spent a day in conference with Methodist clergy. Afterwards, he expressed his amazement. "All day long they talked about what 'we' did do or didn't do or must do, and I couldn't figure out what the 'we' meant. Did they mean 'we Methodists,' or 'we Americans,' or 'we Christians,' or what? Finally I recognized that in their minds those distinctions didn't count. To be Methodist, to be American, to be Christian—it was all the same 'we'!" Precisely, Stanley Hauerwas is disaggregating the "we," and it's about time.

Roman Catholics might view Hauerwas's enterprise somewhat differently, however. At first flush, the sectarian option might seem to be particularly liberating for Catholics. After all, if there is any Troeltschian model of the “churchly,'' it is the Roman Catholic church with its traditional ambitions to establish a Catholic culture. Only not in America. Here, in the ironies and perversities of secular-Protestant America, the Catholic model has been the sectarian model. First with the nineteenth-century "Americanists," but not with broader impact until John Courtney Murray, did Catholics begin to think about a specifically Catholic responsibility for the American polity. Earlier "triumphalists" dreamed of a Catholic America which, in the event of Truth's failure with the invincibly ignorant, would be brought about by a mix of immigration and baby booming. By non-Catholics (and by a good many who used to be called Commonweal Catholics) that mindset was sometimes viewed as curious, sometimes as dangerous, but always as sectarian. In fact, the case could be made that, in the rhetoric of anti-Catholicism and strict separationism between church and state, the term sectarianism is almost synonymous with Catholicism. Within American Catholicism then there were integralists who sounded very much like Hauerwas today. In 1948 Father Leonard Feeney was condemned for asserting what he viewed as "the full, unequivocal, uncompromised message of Jesus Christ.'' Extra ecclesiam nulla salus est, Feeney declared, and let the cultural consequences be damned.

"Let the Church be the Church!" the Protestant ecumenical movement proclaimed at Oxford in 1937, and it was a liberating and bracing cry. "Let the Church be the Church!" says Stanley Hauerwas, and for most of mainline Protestantism that would mean deliverance from cultural accommodationism and from pathetic searching for a social purpose that might make up for the loss of much excitement about the Gospel. But to Catholic ears, "Let the Church be the Church!" may sound more like the battle cry of an illusionary militancy that once cloaked defensiveness and retreat in American culture.

HAUERWAS'S INTENT IS certainly not that we should return to the bastions of separatistic identities. Working in a Catholic context, Methodist-Mennonite Hauerwas is nothing if not ecumenical. By "the church" Hauerwas means no one denomination or cluster of churches, he means all those who follow the Way. But if the church is to be "the contrast model" by which the social order is brought to judgment, it clearly cannot include most of the people in the society. The church is “to challenge the moral presuppositions of our polity and society," it is to be "the community of character" that demonstrates the possibility of living by trust rather than by fear. But where do we find this church? Does it have any specifiable reality? Or is it merely a very good idea? Although he does not say so explicitly, Hauerwas's answer is that "the church" is what in venerable sectarian tradition is known as "the believers' church." This is most evident in Hauerwas's insistence upon absolute pacifism as a mark of "the church." Whatever else politics is, politics is the business of getting and using power; and whatever else power is, power is the use or threatened use of coercion. Thus it would seem that Hauerwas's church is by definition excluded from the political process.

Hauerwas resists that conclusion: “The way the church must always respond to the challenge of our polity is to be herself. This does not involve a rejection of the world, or a withdrawal from the world; rather it is a reminder that the church must serve the world on her own terms." To talk about "the church" offering a critique of "the society" assumes that the two realities can be more or less clearly differentiated. It makes no sense in contemporary America where the great majority of people claim, in one sense or another, to be part of "the church." "The church" then includes everybody from the Mennonites to the Moral Majoritarians, from the Catholics to the Two-Seed-In-A-Pod Predestinarian Baptists, Inc. In that case the church becomes almost coterminous with the society and therefore cannot be the agent challenging the society.

A church capable of offering the needed critique must be much larger than the society, representing a transcending community of teaching and loyalty by which the society can be judged. Such a "contrast model" is, however inadequately, present in the universalizing identity of the Roman Catholic church. Or the church that offers the critique can be a "prophetic minority" within the society. Put differently, we can either look for an ecclesiastical fulcrum that will give us critical leverage, or we can create one by definition. Hauerwas, most clearly in his strictures about non-violence, chooses the latter course. The choice is not without a certain appeal. In this post-Christendom and anti-Christendom era, many mainline Protestants and many Catholics express a longing for a more pure and primitive church, a church of courageous witness, a prophetic and persecuted minority, perhaps a church of the catacombs.

That is the church we might want to belong to, but it is not the church we do belong to. It is, I believe, a romantic indulgence of—to borrow a term from our Marxist friends—false consciousness. It is a serious flaw in Hauerwas's argument. Hauerwas's believers' church is a more distinctively Christian version of the new sectarianism which some liberationist theologies promote as "the partisan church of the poor." Hauerwas's church is radically obedient to a classic understanding of God's revelation in Christ and is profoundly suspicious of the present or proposed politics of the principalities and powers of this passing time. The liberationists' church is defined primarily by reference to the revolutionary praxis of political and economic change. These very different churches are alike in that both are sects.

An ecumenical consensus in the broader catholic tradition is that the church is composed of all who are baptized and confess Jesus Christ as God and Lord. It is a distressingly disparate and unfocused community. It can hardly serve as the fulcrum or "contrast model" that Hauerwas wants and the world needs. Within that church, however. there arise communities, leaders, bands of specific intent to act radically upon a distinctive understanding of the Gospel imperatives. These are the contrast models that stand in bold witness toward the world, and also toward the larger church, calling it to a stricter fidelity. But within that same church, alongside and sometimes against such intentional communities, are other Christians and groups possessed by a different understanding of God's will. Neither is exclusively "the church," although both may make that claim. For two millennia, serious Christians have been pulled between catholic inclusiveness and sectarian strictness, between engaging the culture in the hope of transforming it and obeying the Pauline injunction, "Come out from among them and be ye separate'' (2 Corinthians 6). The direction of Hauerwas's ethics is set by his despairing of the task of cultural transformation.

HAUERWAS ILLUMINATES brilliantly the reasons for despair. His essay, ''The Church and Liberal Democracy,'' is required reading for anyone tempted to think that Christians can feel at home in a society operating by truth-denying principles, such as ours does. His demolition of John Rawls's theory of justice, which in the name of individualism excludes everything essential to being an individual, is incisive. His exposure of the grotesqueries of Roe v. Wade and his argument that Christians should make an unabashedly Christian case for the protection of the unborn are deserving of the widest hearing. Hauerwas has seen the dark void at the heart of a certain kind of liberalism: it is the nihilistic proposition that nobody knows the truth and therefore everyone's opinion counts equally; it is the assumption that there is no substantive morality, only formal rules; it is the situation in which any evil is permitted so long as the procedures are observed.

Hauerwas is deeply skeptical of the notion that the church can posit “a political alternative or ways to qualify some of the excesses of liberalism." That is because "our society offers no ready alternatives to liberalism." But surely Christians within the society can offer alternatives? Hauerwas is not persuaded. "We are all liberals. In fact for us in America, liberalism, a position dedicated to ending our captivity to nature, custom, and coercion, ironically has become our fate." This, according to Hauerwas, is the divide in the souls of American Christians. We are fated to be liberals and called to be Christians. Qua Christian, I can only stand in witness outside the courts of the liberal democracy in which it is my fate to be implicated. There, with others of the faith, we nurture the virtues that dare not speak their name within the secularized precincts of the American polity. Hauerwas's is a formula for what I have elsewhere called the naked public square. The naked public square is created when the agora, the space in which the business of the polis is debated, is sanitized of religiously based values. When pursued far enough, the sectarian option becomes the ally of militant secularism in bringing about a polity that is devoid of transcendent and potentially transforming moral discourse.

Hauerwas does not give sufficient consideration to the degree to which, despite the formal principles of liberal democracy, America public life is still informed by the operative values and beliefs of the American people—values and beliefs sustained by religion and community. Nor does he weigh how very recent in our legal and cultural history are those "excesses of liberalism" which have tried to divorce rules from virtue. The cultural and intellectual crisis he analyzes is so severe, the operation of the formal polity is so out of sync with the social reality, that we are facing also a political crisis. That, I believe, is the most important meaning of the phenomenon we call the Religious New Right. This, I would argue, is not the time to despair of liberal democracy; it is rather a time of opportunity to reconstruct purposefully the public ethic that was until recently taken for granted. That religiously based public ethic, although largely unacknowledged in the official theory of a "secular" society, made possible the functioning of a liberal democracy that is much more complex than its principles suggest.

A public ethic is one in which public reasons are available for the adjudication of moral disputes. In the absence of such an ethic, our inevitable moral disputes turn politics, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, into "civil war carried on by other means." Then we are reduced to the battle between Moral Majority and the ACLU in which each strives to impose its morality while accusing the other of trying to impose its morality. In some times past, writes MacIntyre, it has been possible in moral disputes to step back and ask in a systematic way "what the appropriate rational procedures are for settling this particular kind of dispute." Moral philosophy once played a critical role in that adjudication, but now moral philosophy itself has fallen prey to the disease of emotivism. ''It is my own view," says MacIntyre, "that the time has come once more when it is imperative to perform this task for moral philosophy.'' Having diagnosed the present crisis in After Virtue, Macintyre suggests he will now be turning his attention to "a systematic account of rationality" in moral discourse.

Theological ethics should not absent itself from this task of reconstruction. Fortunately, this is recognized by some theologians. The recognition is evident, for example, in David Tracy's recent work on the public nature of Christian theology. Most ambitiously, Wolfhart Pannenberg's life's work is aimed at reestablishing theology's role in the universe of rational discourse. His recent Ethics contains essays indicating how such a reconstruction of a public ethic might proceed. The erosion of public moral discourse happened over many years; the effort to restore it may take many years more. In the absence of Stanley Hauerwas, that effort will be the more difficult.

Meanwhile if Christians in their several communities are to have anything of substance to contribute to a new societal ethic, it is imperative that they be faithful to the truth they know. That requires clear moral thinking and a readiness to challenge cultural conventions. Such clarity and challenge is the achievement of Stanley Hauerwas's edition of Zwischen den Zeiten.

The late Reverend Richard John Neuhaus was president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and editor in chief of First Things.

Also by this author
'Sentire Cum Ecclesia'
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