Christianity and Liberalism:
A Call for Change from Stanley Hauerwas
Nathan C. Clendenin
The fundamental call of Christianity is a call to surrender
control of one's life to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In surrendering,
one acknowledges life as a gift from God. Since the Enlightenment, Christianity
as a whole has moved away from acknowledging life as a gift. The Enlightenment
project to provide a completely rational basis for morality has infiltrated
the Christian ranks, making our religion incapable of speaking to a secular
world. The church needs to once again surrender ourselves to the forming
power of the gospel of Christ, which enables us to recognize life as a gift,
for as Christians, we should recognize that only through the power of the
gospel do we find true freedom.
Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of theology at the Duke University
School of Divinity, offers a challenging critique of modern liberalism,
the foundational philosophy of American government. His critique exists
throughout his works, but I will focus on arguments found in the following
texts and essays: After Christendom?, A Community of Character, Resident
Aliens, "Preaching as Though We had Enemies," and "Honor in the University."
In characterizing his project, it will be important to clarify to some
extent the subject of Hauerwas' critique, namely modern liberalism. His
arguments against liberal definitions of freedom and justice will be presented,
in an effort to set the stage for explaining why the church should abandon
the liberal presuppositions it has adopted over time. Hauerwas' alternative
vision of the church as a community with a craft-like notion of morality
formed by the gospel will be presented, followed by a critique provided
in Martha Nussbaum's, "Recoiling From Reason?" Finally, I will explain
how Hauerwas can escape Nussbaum's criticism, and conclude that Hauerwas'
project is largely successful and convincing. What is Modernity?
In an essay entitled, "Preaching as Though We Had Enemies,"
Hauerwas suggests that modernity's goal was to produce a people without
a specific story. He writes:
...the project of modernity was
to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story
they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story
of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically
as market capitalism and politically as democracy.1
In other words, modernity is what taught us that freedom means
having no specific story or viewpoint. This 'freedom' is fostered by the
institutions of democracy and market capitalism which give us a 'free' choice
over what we consume and who governs us.
In terms of ethics, Hauerwas thinks the goal of modernity
since the enlightenment has been to create a morality that is autonomous.
He quotes Charles Taylor who describes the enlightenment goal to, "achieve
the fullness of disengaged reason and detach ourselves from superstitions
and parochial attachments."2 The
type of reason Taylor describes is supposedly autonomous, and is free
from any sort of prejudice or preconceived notions. The foundational principles
on which the United States is built presuppose our ability to achieve
autonomous reason such as Taylor describes. Our basic assumptions about
morality and ethics appeal to a universal reason or common sense. These
presuppositions about reason and its application to morality constitute
what we call liberalism in America. Based on this definition of liberalism,
Hauerwas can be said to attack any ethical theory which attempts to speak
from a neutral standpoint, claiming an autonomous reason as its method
and criterion of understanding.
Hauerwas against Modernity and Liberalism
The Marketplace of Ideas
Hauerwas provides many arguments to support his claim that
liberalism is a bankrupt theory. In an essay entitled "Honor in the University,"
Hauerwas criticizes the modern university for assuming to be a market
place of ideas. The assumption behind the university is that a student
can come to the marketplace to find out about the various options and
theories and then is able to choose "freely" which theory he or she would
like to adopt. This means the teacher's role in the University is to present
objectively the options available, leaving the student to make up his
Hauerwas thinks this assumption behind the modern University
is false. He is often quoted as claiming that he wants his students not
to make up their own minds, but to think just like he does. First, students
don't have minds worth making up in the first place. Students don't even
understand the importance of the ideas in question, nor do they have a
good set of criteria to determine good theories from bad ones. The University
thus leads students to choose an idea based on whether or not they like
it. It produces consumers of ideas, who think they are free to choose
ideas just like they are free to choose a Panasonic or Sony radio.3
The situation in the University is likened to the surrounding society,
which tells us that freedom means being able to choose our own beliefs.
This definition of freedom, which tells us that we are
free when we can autonomously choose those beliefs that are meaningful
to us, Hauerwas thinks is a false account of what it means to be free.
Hauerwas quotes a social critic Solzhenitsyn, who writes about our liberal
democracy that "every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and
material goods in such a quantity and of such a quality as to guarantee
in theory the achievement of happiness."4
Democracy makes freedom an end in itself, assuming that such personal
freedom, restrained only by that which might infringe on others' freedom,
is sufficient to make people happy. However, "one psychological detail
has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and
a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western
faces with worry and even depression."5
In other words, the pursuit of free choice that the University, and liberalism,
gives us does not really make us free, because human nature is such that
we are seldom satisfied with what we have.
Making freedom a commodity means that we will seldom be
satisfied with the amount we have, and will always pursue more, in the
hopes of finding happiness. That this liberal notion of freedom makes
us happy is ultimately a lie, because instead of gaining freedom, we are
made slaves to our own desires. Hauerwas writes that as Christians, "we
have learned that freedom cannot be had by becoming 'autonomous' - free
from all claims except those we voluntarily accept - but rather freedom
literally comes by having our self-absorption challenged by the needs
of another."6 In other words, true
freedom is freedom from our self-absorbed desires. This type of freedom
is only achieved in a community where we can be challenged by others.
In addition to a false definition of freedom, both the
University and liberalism face another problem. By teaching students to
make up their own minds about the various ideas available, the University
has presupposed that the student should be free to choose. In other words,
while claiming to be objective in presenting ideas, the University has
imposed a choice on its students. Hauerwas writes, "I can think of no
more conformist message in liberal societies than the idea that students
should learn to think for themselves."7
The "freedom" to choose presupposes that students, as well as Americans,
know what they should choose. The assumption that without training, one
can make up his own mind about what is good, is a false one. Hauerwas
thinks training is essential because, "training involves the formation
of the self through submission to authority that will, if done well, provide
people with the virtues necessary to be able to make reasoned judgment."8
Through proper training, we are equipped with the necessary tools for
then discerning why what we learned is good.
Liberalism puts theory before practice in the assumption
that on reflection, we can determine what is best for us. Liberalism creates
people who think that being able to choose freely will lead to happiness,
but really this just leaves us at the will of our desires, as slaves.
We cannot know what is good to choose until we have been formed and given
the tools necessary for making such a judgment. By giving up the liberal
"choice", we actually become free, because we are then able to be trained
in the virtues necessary to see why certain ideas are better than others,
irrespective of our desires.
Hauerwas thinks that the church is in a similar situation
to the University, in that, like the University, it has adopted a voluntaristic
conception of what it means to be a Christian. The church presupposes
that one can be a Christian independent of Christian training.9
The church has become like the secular society with its assumption that
to be free is to be able to choose. Hauerwas notes that once this position
is established, any alternative cannot help but appear as a negative authoritarian
alternative. In the next section, I will present Hauerwas' critique of
the church's adaptation of deeply problematic assumptions.
Liberalism and Christianity
According to Hauerwas, the United States, being founded
on the presumptions of liberalism, has given Christians a false sense
of security, and has furthermore undermined the need for faith within
the Christian tradition. The way in which our country is constructed necessarily
relegates Christianity to the realm of the private, by regulating conduct,
which is public. Hauerwas describes the way this occurred by referring
to a column written by George Will about a Supreme Court decision to uphold
a law prohibiting the use of peyote by the Native American Church.
A central purpose of America's political arrangements is
the subordination of religion to the political order, meaning the primacy
of democracy. The founders, like Locke before them, wished to tame and
domesticate religious passions of the sort that convulsed Europe. They
aimed to do so not by establishing religion, but by establishing a commercial
republic - capitalism. They aimed to submerge people's turbulent energies
in self-interested pursuit of material comforts.
Hence, religion is to be perfectly free as long as it is
perfectly private-mere belief - but it must bend to the political will
(law) as regards conduct. Thus, Jefferson held that "operations of the
mind" are not subject to legal coercion, but that "Acts of the body" are.
"Mere belief," said Jefferson, "in one god or 20, neither picks one's
pockets nor breaks one's legs."
Jefferson's distinction rests on Locke's principle (Jefferson
considered Locke one of the three greatest men who ever lived) that religion
can be useful or can be disruptive, but its truth cannot be established
by reason.10 Hence Americans would
not "establish" religion. Rather, by guaranteeing free exercise of religions,
they would make religions private and subordinate.
The founders favored religious tolerance because religious
pluralism meant civil peace - order. Thus [Judge] Scalier is following
the founders when he finds the limits of constitutionally required tolerance
of "free exercise" in the idea that a society is "courting anarchy" when
it abandons the principle stated in the 1879 ruling: "Laws are made for
the government of actions." If conduct arising from belief, not just belief
itself, is exempt from regulation, that would permit "every citizen to
become a law unto himself."
Scalia's position is not only sound conservatism, it is
constitutionally correct: It is the intent of the founders.11
Hauerwas argues that the world described above, where religious
actions are subordinate to the law of the land, is what most Christians
assume to be the right form of government. Christians have thought that
our task should be to make such a system work, because it is a system
which promotes civil peace. As a result, Christian theologians have, "increasingly
construed the Christian moral life in the language of love and justice,"12
or the language of liberalism. In other words, in order to take action
on private Christian beliefs, Christians thought it necessary to translate
their convictions into the public language of liberalism, namely peace
and justice. Therefore, Christianity as such has become functionally atheistic.
The question became: Why should we have God as reason for morals, when
we have universal reasons which don't presuppose any particular tradition,
and therefore don't create the (potentially violent) conflict that Christian
It is Hauerwas' project to show that "the epistemological
assumptions that underwrote the liberal commitment to individual rights
- the private-public distinction, the harm principles - have become problematic."13
Hauerwas gives evidence for this fact in part by citing liberals like
Rorty and Stout who, "no longer believe in the justification of liberal
democracies based on the philosophical strategies of the Enlightenment."14
Unfortunately the Enlightenment
wove much of its political rhetoric around a picture of the scientist
as a sort of priest, someone who achieved contact with nonhuman truth
by being "logical," "methodical," and "objective." This was a useful tactic
in its day, but it is less useful now. 15
While quoting Rorty does not prove Hauerwas' case that liberalism
is a bankrupt theory, Rorty's denial of the Enlightenment presuppositions
about neutrality and objectivity begin to show that even modern liberals
acknowledge the failures of Enlightenment liberalism.
Hauerwas thinks that liberalism fundamentally opposes the
church, because it attempts to define virtues apart from a context which
makes sense of those virtues. "Freedom" and "justice" are words we all
use, with the assumption that we all agree about what they mean. But it
is often not clear what we mean when we talk about "justice" and "freedom."
For Christians, "freedom" and "justice" are defined by the story of Jesus,
providing a necessary context in which these terms make sense. In the
next two sections, we will begin to see why Christians must reject the
liberal definitions of justice and freedom.
Hauerwas thinks that because freedom of religion exists
in our country, Christians have thought it their job to support the state,
who in turn protects its freedom. This presumption is false, because it
means the church is defined by the state, and the conflict between the
two is swept under the rug of peace and tolerance. He writes, "I am not
convinced that freedom of religion has been good for church or society
in America. It has tempted Christians in America to think that democracy
is fundamentally neutral and, perhaps, even friendly toward the church."16
Liberalism opposes the church because it holds as basic
the autonomous individual who is supposedly capable of determining right
and wrong through unaided rational reflection. In contrast, Christians
hold as basic the practice of living in a community formed by the power
of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians, unlike liberals, realize that
only through the forming power of the gospel manifest in the church, do
we become truly free. We become free from the tyranny of our desires.
Hauerwas makes the point that because of the Christian
accommodation to the principles of liberal democracy which provide freedom
of religion, "we have failed to notice that we are no longer a people
who make it interesting for a society to acknowledge our freedom."17
In other words, the church has become an institution which is basically
liberal and democratic. It looks no different than the society around
it, because we have become more concerned with the functionality of our
convictions in society than with the truth about them. We have forgotten
that "[t]he question is not whether we have freedom of religion to preach
the gospel in America, but rather whether the church in America preaches
the gospel as truth." 18
There is a competition for loyalty between the state and
the church, and freedom of religion is a subtle temptation because it
tempts us into thinking we are safe because of the legal mechanisms in
place by the state. Because we think it is the church's task to support
the state, we have lost the critical skills formed by the gospel, to discern
when we have, "voluntarily qualified our loyalty to God in the name of
the state."19 Hauerwas thinks it
is the case that Christianity today has given its loyalty to the state,
in the name of religious freedom, and forgotten the true freedom found
in God, as evidenced by the church's adoption of the basic principles
of Enlightenment thinking.
The current emphasis on justice
among Christians springs not so much from an effort to locate the Christian
contribution to wider society as it does from Christians' attempt to find
a way to be societal actors without that action being colored by Christian
Because of the relegation of religious convictions into the
private realm, Christians have assumed that in order to take action they
must provide "reasonable" justifications for their actions that are not
necessarily Christian. General appeals are made to universal notions of
justice such as a person's rights to a happy life. After all, everyone is
for justice and peace. But the crucial problem with this view is, whose
justice prevails? It is not clear that widespread agreement exists about
what justice is, or what implications it has in societal action.
"Justice" has become a word that people use to enforce
their notion that a certain set of circumstances is bad and needs correcting.
People say that the fact that humans are starving is unjust and, we should
do something to make the world a more just place. Yet one can find no
reason given as to what is bad about the situation, or what we should
do about it. Hauerwas thinks the case may that the starving people have
been victims of injustice, but they may just be victims of bad luck.
Furthermore, general appeals to justice often result in
conflicting social strategies, which leave out the Christian witness on
the matter at hand. For instance, many claim that since modern society
oppresses the poor and women, they should be given more power, thus making
things more just. Yet the appeal for the poor involves egalitarian presuppositions,
while the appeal for women has libertarian presuppositions. The two are
in competition, because "If you want to create a social order where everyone
is provided with as much liberty as is compatible with liberty for all,
it is very unlikely you will be able at the same time to sustain egalitarian
social policies." 21
Behind this search for universal justice is the Enlightenment
assumption that there is a concept of "justice qua justice" which corresponds
to an account of "rationality qua rationality". In contrast, Hauerwas
contends that any account of justice is dependent on a tradition. For
example, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that in order to understand (much less
criticize) Aristotle's account of justice, it is necessary for us to try
as much as possible to discard the standpoint of modernity. In order to
understand justice in Aristotle's terms, we must understand the tradition
from which his concept was born. It does no good to take his definition
of pleonexia, a vice in contrast to justice, out of context by equating
it with what we call greed, which many have done. "Greed" is the name
of one motive for activities of acquisition, while pleonexia names a disposition
to engage in a certain activity for its own sake. Calling pleonexia greed
puts Aristotle's words in the context of modernity, where they mean something
different than the original intent, and from within Aristotle's tradition.
Ultimately, Hauerwas argues that Christians have forgotten
that apart from the story of Jesus, we cannot even understand "justice"
or "peace." He writes:
The church really does not know
what these words [justice and peace] mean apart from the life and death
of Jesus of Nazareth....It is Jesus' story that gives content to our faith,
judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be
suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself
In order to make sense of justice and peace, Christians must
have a context in which to talk about the significance of those ideas. For
Christians to be Christians, we must offer the world what only we can offer.
That is, we must understand justice and peace in light of the story of Jesus,
recognizing that, "genuine justice depends on more profound moral convictions
than our secular polity can politically acknowledge."24
Any attempt to appeal to a neutral position on justice is to deny what makes
Christians what we are. It is to deny the Gospel of Christ.
"Justice," as defined by the story of Jesus, looks radically
different from the liberal assumptions about what justice is like. Jesus
suffered and died a death which most would call unjust. He was accused
of numerous crimes which he did not commit, and was ultimately crucified
by the Roman government to appease the Jews who radically opposed His
message. He received no trial, and when questioned did not even give a
defense. Were any American citizen to endure such unfair treatment, we
would undoubtedly condemn such treatment in the name of upholding justice.
As Christians we believe that what happened to Jesus was
a part of God's larger plan to fulfill ultimate Justice. In living a sinless
life, Jesus was worthy to die for the sins of the rest of the world. Through
his death, God's justice was upheld, and we receive the benefit, and the
burden, of living our lives in recognition of God's love and justice,
to which we owe our lives.
The Statement of the Problem is the Problem
Because religion has been privatized in America, the church's
main function has also been private. Hauerwas notes that the primary role
of the church has been a community of care.25
Pastors are good at "providing the kinds of services necessary to sustain
people through the crises in their personal lives, but this simply reflects
the fact that the church has become the privatized area of our culture."26
Hauerwas thinks the church has mistakenly thought that its primary role
is to be a community of care.
Friendliness and generally nice people who essentially
avoid conflict for the sake of peace characterize such a community. The
result is that such a church lacks the ability to build itself in a community
which is capable of standing against the powers it confronts.27
The very way we have learned to state the problem is the
problem. The very fact that we let the issue be framed by terms such as
individual and community, freedom and authority, care versus discipline,
is an indication of our loss of coherence and the survival of fragments
necessary for Christians to make our disciplines the way we care.28
It is very difficult for a community of care to tell its
members that the discipline of the church must transform their lives,
as they are willing, because of our liberal notions of freedom and individuality.
We (the liberal church) seek to be cared for, but do not want to be judged
so that we might have to change our lives. Yet changing our lives is exactly
what Hauerwas thinks should be the primary role of the church.
In his paper, "Honor in the University," Hauerwas defends
the premise that the most compassionate thing you can do as a Christian
is to turn someone in for cheating.29
Most people would not turn someone in for cheating because they assume
that that person is really only hurting himself. Hauerwas thinks this
argument rests on the type of individualism found in our liberal assumptions
which basically tell us that we can do what we want to as long as we do
not hurt anybody else and we play by the rules fairly. In contrast, a
Christian owes it to those who cheat, to turn them in. One isn't protecting
himself, but is rather reminding those who cheat that they have betrayed
what they care about in being at an institution of honor. The consequence
is excommunication, but for Christians "excommunication is the most gracious
act the church ever performs. Without excommunication how would you ever
know that you are leading a life that cuts you off from the community
of grace?"30 In the University,
expulsion reminds a student that he is living a life which contradicts
the principles of the institution. The University shows them they need
help, and reminds them what the University is all about, just as excommunication
from the church reminds people that they are leading a life which needs
to be fixed.
The Alternative Vision
In order to understand the disciplined community which
Hauerwas thinks the church should be, we should examine the process of
learning about how to lay brick. This will provide us with an appropriate
analogy for what it means to be saved, or what it means to be a Christian.
First, to learn how to lay brick, one cannot just be told what or how
to do it, but rather one must learn a myriad of skills that are necessary
to lay a brick. One must learn to build a scaffold, mix the mortar, hold
the trowel, etc. To be told how to do these things is not enough, but
one must practice laying brick day after day.31
The craft is not just a set of skills to be learned, it
also involves a language which both forms and is formed by the skills.
You must learn to "frog the mud," which involves creating a trench in
the mortar that will create a vacuum to suck the brick down so that it
virtually lays itself. The language involved is not just incidental to
the craft, but is a central part of the practice of laying brick. You
cannot lay brick without learning how to talk "right."32
The language of a craft also reveals the history behind it, so that you
are not just learning a new skill, but are being initiated into an entire
All of the necessary parts of learning to lay brick require
a master craftsmen who teaches the craft to the apprentice. This notion
is in opposition to the modern democratic presuppositions. Hauerwas writes:
"It is assumed we each in and of ourselves have all we need to be moral.
No master is necessary for us to become moral, for being moral is a condition
that does not require initiation or training."33
Hauerwas suggests that the most formative situations left in society are
where people learn to play a sport, to quilt, to cook, or to learn to
lay brick, because these situations require the acknowledgement of authority
based on a history of accomplishment.
However, brick layers are increasingly scarce, making their
services more expensive. As a result, many highly functional but ugly
glass buildings have been built, to the extent that people are beginning
to forget what true brick buildings were like. Hauerwas likens this situation
to what has happened to our understanding of morality. The cheap and easy
glass buildings are much like the kind of morality we want: fast and functional.
Cheap and easy morality has led to less and less masters of morality,
and we've eventually forgotten what the craft-like morality really is.34
Hauerwas pulls heavily from Alasdair MacIntyre in his account
of morality as a sort of craft. MacIntyre argues that the moral good is
not readily available to just any intelligent person, regardless of their
point of view. "Rather, in order to be moral, a person has to be made
into a particular kind of person if he or she is to acquire knowledge
about what is true and good."35
In other words, any account of morality which does not involve an account
of some sort of conversion is unintelligible.36
Like in the bricklaying example, one enters the tradition
in order to learn the intelligence and virtue necessary for the craft.
One does this by submitting as an apprentice to the direction of a master
of the craft. The apprentice learns the acknowledged standard of what
is good, both in his own circumstances, and the overall, unqualified good.
The unqualified good informs both the master and the apprentice about
the telos of their craft, which is the perfect good. The apprentice not
only learns the practice of the craft, but his sense of what he thinks
he should learn is also formed by the practice. That is why Hauerwas makes
the claim, "there can be no knowledge without appropriate authority,"
because knowledge comes from submitting to a master who imparts to us
what we should know.37
The absence of a master means we cannot even begin to learn what we should
know; we do not know where to start without the master.
When we view the moral life like a craft, we can see why
we need a teacher to help us actualize our potential. The teacher, having
been were we have not, is able to tell us what intellectual and moral
habits we must acquire in order to become good participants in the craft.
These standards come from the community of the craft, and are justified
historically, as they emerge from criticisms in the past. For instance,
good brick layers hold the trowel a certain way because through time that
has improved on the craft's predecessors.38
The teachers themselves do not necessarily embody the notion
of a perfect good, but instead derive their authority from the tradition's
concept of a perfect good which is the telos for that craft. The teacher's
role is to help us understand that telos, as he is also striving for it.
Hauerwas contends that the craft is never static. A master gains his status
and authority because he embodies the best so far in his craft. But furthermore,
the master must know how to continue on, producing works which are closer
to the perfect telos. He must also be able to challenge others to go on,
and must teach them the skills necessary to do so.39
Bricklaying and the Church
The first thing that the craft analogy reminds us about
the church is that Christianity is not a combination of beliefs about
God along with a certain behavior. Hauerwas writes, "We are not Christians
because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples
of Jesus."40 This discipleship
does not primarily entail a sort of new self-understanding, but rather
first involves becoming a part of a new community with a different set
of practices. We do not hold certain beliefs which entail certain types
of actions. Instead, we learn how to live, how to lay brick, and in the
process we gain what is necessary to learn what it means to live well.
The practice of living well comes before the theory behind it.
Central to the Christian tradition is learning to worship.
It is through the act of worship that our lives become engrafted into
the story of God. Worship, for Christians, is the activity to which all
the other skills are ordered. Through worship we can acquire the skills
necessary to discover and acknowledge that we are sinners. This means
that as Christians, worship is morality.41
Worship gives us the tools to see how we've fallen short of our telos.
Like bricklaying, worship requires training and practice. One cannot begin
to see what a terrible bricklayer he is until he tries it out, just as
one sees how far he has to go to worship God when he first tries to do
it. Yet through that practice of worship, one actually gains the skills
necessary to be a better worshipper, much like through the practice of
bricklaying, one learns the intricacies and quirks of laying brick. It
can not be mastered intellectually, but can only be learned through practice.
The type of Christian life Hauerwas is developing here
is antithetical to modern theology which suggests that sin is a universal
category, the knowledge of which is available to anyone. It is assumed
that "people might not believe in God, but they will confess their sin."42
Thus, sin is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition.
Hauerwas thinks that such a theology is odd to a people who have been
taught that to confess sin involves being trained by a community that
has learned how to point out those aspects of our lives that are in opposition
to being disciples of Jesus. 43
For example, Hauerwas writes, "We cannot learn to confess
our sins unless we are forgiven," because prior to forgiveness we cannot
know our sin.44 "It is the great
message of the gospel that we will only find our lives in that of Jesus
to the extent that we are capable of accepting forgiveness."45
Accepting forgiveness however, is not easy, because we are submitting
to the power and control of God. Such a submission makes the type of Christianity
Hauerwas promotes deeply at odds with modern assumptions about autonomy.
The notion that we would allow our lives to be defined by a narrative
given to us rather than created by us, is in direct opposition to the
spirit and ideals of modernity. Modernity tells us that we can determine
the meaning of our own existence as self-created individuals. Christianity
tells us our lives must be shaped in a community formed by the gospel,
a story foreign to liberal notions of individuality and autonomy.
Life as a Gift
At the heart of Hauerwas' alternative vision of the church
is learning a story which helps us recognize our life as a gift. He writes,
"It is from the story that we gain the skills to recognize the gift on
which our life depends."46 In other
words, as Christians we learn a story which helps us to live truthfully
to the way things are.
For the truth is that since
we are God's good creation we are not free to choose our own stories.
Freedom lies not in creating our lives, but in learning to recognize our
lives as a gift... The great magic of the Gospel is providing us with
the skills to acknowledge our life, as created, without resentment and
regret. Such skills must be embodied in a community of people across time,
constituted by practices such as baptism, preaching, and the Eucharist,
which become the means for us to discover God's story for our lives.47
Through the practices of the church tradition (e.g. baptism,
preaching, Holy Communion) we come to discover and accept the story we have
because of God. This process is what being a Christian is all about.
As discussed above, Liberalism calls freedom the ability
to choose one's own beliefs and morality, so long as we do not impinge
on the rights of others to do the same. This "freedom" is not freedom
at all, because it makes us slaves to our desires. Christians who are
formed by the story of Christ have learned that to deny the self in this
sense is a great freedom, because we can then get to our real task which
has nothing to do with our desires, and everything to do with God.48
Hauerwas claims that the primary social task of the church
is to be itself.49 When we live our lives as disciples
of Jesus, recognizing they are a gift, we live out the truth. "For if
the doctrines of Christianity were practiced, they would make a man as
different from other people as to all worldly tempers, sensual pleasures...
it would be as easy a thing to know a Christian by his outward course
of life as it is now difficult to find anybody that lives it."50
In other words, one who truly lives out the Christian life cannot help
but be in conflict with the modern world which is fundamentally opposed
to such a life. Our task now as Christians is not to ignore that conflict,
but to accept it and live in that conflict. For how will the world know
they are the world unless the church presents the living alternative?
Recoiling from Reason?
Hauerwas' Debt to MacIntyre Criticized
Much of Hauerwas' theory about the nature of traditions
and the learning of morality as a craft comes from Alasdair MacIntyre's
work. In an attempt to provide a worthy criticism of Hauerwas' project,
I will show how criticisms of MacIntyre may also apply to the project
discussed in this paper. The major criticism comes from Martha Nussbaum's
article, "Recoiling from Reason," which provides a critical analysis of
MacIntyre's work in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?.
Much like Hauerwas, MacIntyre argues that the language
of contemporary ethical debate is hopelessly disordered. 51
"Lacking the firm guidance of shared agreements about moral standards,
lacking even a common moral language, we argue past one another... hurling
at our opponents uprooted fragments of once vital ethical traditions."52
One then naturally wonders if a new shared language of morality
would exist only in local communities, or if there would be reasons for
preferring some traditions over another. Critics doubted that MacIntyre
could combine his view that all argument occurs inside traditions with
his claim to be able to justify a single tradition as rationally superior
to others. 53
MacIntyre argues that when two traditions are in conflict,
one usually establishes itself as superior to the other and gains acceptance
from the defeated. The winning tradition does this by explaining how to
solve the problems that came up in the other view, while showing how to
incorporate the good points left over in the defeated tradition. 54
In this way, competing traditions can hold rational discourse and the
side with the best theory can be rationally determined, based on universal
notions of logical argumentation.
Yet in his account of why the Catholic, Thomistic stance
is the superior tradition, he relies on the doctrine of original sin.
Basically, this doctrine says that man is morally deficient, that when
given the chance man will not do the right thing. This disobedience manifests
itself most often as sexual desire. Nussbaum argues that to an Aristotelian
(representing a competing tradition) the entire idea would seem ludicrous.
Aristotle says that a person who did not find sexual relations pleasant
would not be fully human.
The disagreement that would persist between the Catholic
and the Aristotelian traditions would mean that the criteria for superiority
would not be met. The winning tradition (Catholic Thomism) has not convinced
the defeated position why theirs is rationally superior. This is essentially
due to the fact that an appeal to the authority of the church over an
individual is made.
Only an institution such as the
Church - and not some mere reasoner like Aristotle, sitting disenfranchised
and powerless as a resident alien in Athens - could succeed in rationally
justifying a set of beliefs as MacIntyre finally understands that task.
It is not enough to bring forward good arguments. "Political acknowledgement"
of the arguments is also required.55
In other words, is seems that the church must serve as the
political acknowledgement over an individual by its authority over secular
rulers. Nussbaum makes the charge that this sort of justification is not
rational. If to win an argument Catholic Thomism has to beat dissenters
into line with its authority because of original sin, then we have moved
from the realm of rational discourse between competing traditions. Indeed,
not even the doctrine of original sin is rationally based, but was originally
used as a rationale for the exercise of church authority.56
If such is the case, then one may suspect that "MacIntyre is in the grip
of a world view promulgated by authority rather than by reason." 57
Nussbaum goes on to show that MacIntyre's (and thereby
Hauerwas' also) pessimism about reason is unjustified by giving an example
of people from different traditions who through secular, rational debate,
make progress towards a convincing picture of the good life. Her example
comes from Aristotle himself.58
First, Aristotle did not believe that rational debate in
which he took part was based on a set of fundamental agreements. He tells
us in the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics that while all humans agree
that their goal is eudaimonia, "as to what eudaimonia is, they are at
odds."59 Despite lacking consensus
about the good life, Aristotle believed he could still provide a reasoned
justification for his own account.
Second, Aristotle does not stay within his tradition, but
considers arguments from various other traditions. His list of the virtues
is intended to be internationally based on the common experiences of mankind.60
Third, Aristotle does not expect universal agreement. Many people are
not well-educated, or are not in a position to understand rationally what
Aristotle is trying to say. This lack of understanding is due not to a
defective will or sin, but is due rather to bad politics. 61
Finally, Aristotle begins his description of each virtue
with a characterization of some sphere of shared human experience. Aristotle
goes through each of the spheres of human activity, giving a general account
of what it means to live as a human with both limitations and abilities.
"The story he tells should, he thinks, be intelligible to any human being
who hears it, despite differences of language and culture."62
All this said, Nussbaum thinks she has shown that it is
plausible to pursue a reasoned account of the good life which would fit
all humans, universally. This means MacIntyre's and Hauerwas' pessimism
about rationality is unjustified, and their project against liberalism
is weakened tremendously. Furthermore, if Nussbaum is right, then much
of Hauerwas' critique of the modern church may be ill founded.
It seems that Nussbaum's main concern with the theory that
MacIntyre and Hauerwas hold about rationality and competing traditions
centers on her contention that a Christian tradition-based conception
of rationality will lead to irrational coercion and manipulation. If an
individual voluntarily commits his life to be formed by the church, then
the issue of coercion is reduced, for the individual willingly accepts
the church's authority. But as the church enters into dialogue with competing
traditions, Nussbaum's fear is that the church will use its authority
as an irrational means of persuasion, by coercing its enemies into believing
what it does. This fear is not ill-founded, for certainly the church has
used coercive tactics in the past. Hauerwas' likely reply would use the
model of debate among rival traditions which I have laid out above. I
will show that while liberal notions of autonomous reason are certainly
bankrupt, liberal ideas about pluralism and tolerance can be incorporated
into the sort of view that Hauerwas promotes.
In terms of theories on political schemes and governments,
let us distinguish four different approaches. The first is the authoritarian
regime, of the sort that Nussbaum fears the church could become. Citizens
are involuntarily made subject to the authority of a ruler, or government.
At the other end of the spectrum is the liberal democracy, where freedom
of the individual and rational autonomy are praised. Certain foundational
principles independent of any particular tradition exist to govern the
society, allowing one to pursue his or her own good, so long as it does
not interfere with the right of someone's else's pursuit of the same freedom.
An alternative to both of these theories is the type of
system Aristotle describes in his Nicomachean Ethics. In this ideal society,
all free adult citizens agree to be members of the tradition and agree
to be shaped by that tradition's story. Each person in the society agrees
on the fundamental goods for the tradition, and there is little room for
differences in opinion on fundamental goods. Nussbaum characterizes MacIntyre's
project as very similar to this sort of classic Aristocracy. The difficulty
Nussbaum has with classical Aristotelianism is the lack of a plurality
of points of view, due to the authority of the tradition in determining
the goods for the rest of the society. As described in the Nicomachean
Ethics, a truly healthy polis would allow debate on fundamental goods
but would uphold a conception of the good life in which the virtues, rather
than wealth or power, would be constitutive of the good life. This uniformity
of agreement on the fundamental goods opposes liberal notions of autonomous
reason and plurality that lead us to think we can define for ourselves
our fundamental goods.
The final alternative could be called liberal Aristotelianism,
and it is the theory that both MacIntyre and Hauerwas seem to promote
as the right way of approaching a pluralistic society, without accepting
rational autonomy. As a Christian, Hauerwas recognizes that coercion is
not an appropriate means of persuading someone to accept one's own tradition.
Recognizing that the church is a political alternative to liberalism he
[B]y taking seriously its task to
be an alternative polity, the church might well help us to experience
what politics of trust can be like... . The problem in liberal societies
is that there seems to be no way to encourage the development of public
virtue without accepting a totalitarian strategy from the left or an elitist
strategy from the right. By standing as an alternative to each, the church
may help free our social imagination from those destructive choices.63
In Hauerwas' view, the church stands as a political alternative
to totalitarian and elitist strategies, both of which rely on some form
of coercion or manipulation for survival. In contrast to coercive methods,
the church stands (or should stand) as a community built on trust. Our witness
in a surrounding pluralistic society is in a large part as a community of
trust. Therefore, for the church to abuse its authority through coercive
acts would mean its failing to be a community of trust.
The church would become the type of community which Hauerwas
ultimately argues against. The church can remain a community based on
trust and simultaneously acknowledge competing traditions as relevant
voices in an ongoing debate. For instance, Christians can challenge the
liberal definition of freedom, while supporting and embodying respect
for other traditions. The important thing in Hauerwas' view is to recognize
that a conflict does exist. There is a tendency in liberalism to think
that there are no real conflicts, because individuals are "free" to define
themselves, and therefore virtually any statement that one does not agree
with can be rejected on the grounds of self-definition. Instead, Hauerwas
calls us to recognize the conflicts, and as Christians to stay true to
our uniquely Christian convictions. His vision of the church, therefore,
can support respect and tolerance of other traditions, and still maintain
a critical attitude towards competing traditions. The church can acknowledge
a pluralistic culture, maintaining respect for other traditions, without
recognizing autonomous reason and without compromising its Christian convictions
about the ultimate truth of competing traditions.
It is clear that coercion also presents a problem for secular
political strategies, in societies where Enlightenment influence encouraged
the ideal of autonomous reason. On a small scale, the modern University
coerces its students to "choose" between ideas, as if it were a marketplace.
Hauerwas' arguments against the University's false notions of choice and
freedom can be found in more detail above on page five. On a larger scale,
many devastating wars have been fought since the Enlightenment that were
not based on religious convictions. If the Enlightenment sought to prevent
religious wars, it at least in part succeeded. Yet it failed to cure secular
violence, for people still kill each other, even though their reasons
are no longer mainly religious. Nazi Germany fought for the Aryan nation,
The United States fights for democracy, and the result is still coercion
via violence. So while the church may be susceptible to coercive tendencies,
it is clearly a problem that all humans face, not just Christians.
In conclusion, Nussbaum is right to fear the coercive tendencies
of authoritarian government and of coercing a classical Aristotelianism
on a pluralistic society. Yet coercion is a problem which faces humanity
as a whole, not just Christians. Hauerwas' vision of the church adequately
shows that the liberal ideals of tolerance and respect for other's beliefs
can be incorporated into the church's stance on competing traditions.
In following MacIntyre's model of competing traditions, Hauerwas can show
how the good points of liberalism are sympathetic to the Christian tradition
and can easily be incorporated into it, thus making Hauerwas' stance consistent
and ultimately convincing.
1"Preaching as Though We had Enemies,"
Stanley Hauerwas, 4.
2 After Christendom? Stanley Hauerwas.
This is a quote from Charles Taylor, 27.
3 "Honor in the University," Stanley Hauerwas,
4 Community of Character, 75. Hauerwas
quotes Solzhentisyn. Emphasis added.
5 Ibid, 75. Another quote from Solzhentisyn.
6 After Christendom?, 54.
7 Ibid, 98.
8 Ibid, 98.
9 Ibid, 98.
10 Will's interpretation of Locke may
be less than accurate, as it seems odd for Locke to say that one would
hold any belief without a rational defense or proof of why that belief
is true. However Will's point about the subordination of religion in America
is still clear, and any debate over his interpretation of Locke is irrelevant
to this main point.
11 George Will's quote found in After
12 After Christendom?, 31.
13 Ibid, 31.
14 Ibid, 33.
15 Ibid, 32. A quote from Rorty.
16 Ibid, 70.
17 Ibid, 71.
18 Ibid, 71.
19 Ibid, 71.
20 Ibid, 58.
21 Ibid, 47.
22 Ibid, 49-50. Paraphrased from Hauerwas'
description of MacIntyre's account of Aristotle's justice.
23 Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and
William Willimon, 38.
24 Community of Character, 74.
25 After Christendom?, 95.
26 Ibid, 95.
27 Ibid, 93.
28 Ibid, 99.
29 "Honor in the University," 31.
30 Ibid, 31.
31 After Christendom?, 101.
32 Ibid, 101.
33 Ibid, 102.
34 Ibid, This paragraph is indebted to
many of the ideas found on page 102.
35 Ibid, 103.
36 Ibid, This paragraph is indebted to
many of the ideas found on page 103.
37 Ibid, This paragraph is indebted to
many of the ideas found on page 105.
38 Ibid, This paragraph is indebted to
many of the ideas found on page 105.
39 Ibid, This paragraph is indebted to
many of the ideas found on page 106.
40 Ibid, 107.
41 Ibid, 108.
42 Ibid, 109.
43 Ibid, This paragraph is indebted to
many of the ideas found on page 109.
44 Ibid, 109.
45 Ibid, 109.
46 Community of Character, Stanley Hauerwas,
47 "Preaching as Though We Had Enemies,"
Stanley Hauerwas, 4.
48 Ironically, denying the self in this
way is actually in favor of the self, because through a life of worshipping
God, the self is fulfilling the purpose for which it was created, and
is thus happier.
49 Community of Character, 10.
50 Ibid, 150. Hauerwas is quoting William
Law, A serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, (55).
51 "Recoiling from Reason," Martha Nussbaum,
52 Ibid. Part of Nussbaum's synopsis of
MacIntyre's work in a previous work, After Virtue.
53 Ibid, 39.
54 Ibid, 39. This paragraph is indebted
to the ideas of Nussbaum found on this page in her article.
55 Ibid, 40.
56 Nussbaum refers here to Elaine Pagels's
book which reveals how Christians did not originally see "original sin"
until later when the church made it doctrine (40).
57 Ibid, 40.
58 Ibid, 40-41.
59 Ibid, 41.
60 Ibid, 41.
61 Ibid, 41. This paragraph is indebted
to Nussbaum's ideas on the noted page.
62 Ibid, 41. This paragraph is indebted
to Nussbaum's ideas on the noted page.
63 Community of Character, 86.
Hauerwas, Stanley. After Christendom?, Abingdon Press,
Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character, Notre Dame
Press, Notre Dame, In, 1981.
Hauerwas, Stanley. "Honor in the University." First Things,
vol. 10, Feb. 1991.
Hauerwas, Stanley. "Preaching as Though We Had Enemies."
First Things, vol.53, May 1995.
Hauerwas, Stanley and Willimon, William H. Resident Aliens,
Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1989.
Nussbaum, Martha. "Recoiling From Reason." New York Review
of Books, vol. 36, Dec. 1987.
Other Works Consulted
Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom, Notre Dame Press,
Notre Dame, In, 1983.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Dispatches From the Front: Theological
Engagements with the Secular. Duke University Press, 1994.
Jordan, Shannon M. Book Review of A Community of Character,
by Stanley Hauerwas. New Scholasticism, Vol. 57. American Catholic Philosophical
Association, 1983. MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality?,
Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, In, 1988.
Stackhouse, Max. L. Book Review of Dispatches from the
Front, by Stanley Hauerwas. The Christian Century, Vol. 112, 1995.
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