In Good Company: The Church as Polis
By Stanley Hauerwas
University of Notre Dame Press, 268 pages, $29.95
“I do not want to be told that I write too much. Tell me what you want left out and why.” With those words Stanley Hauerwas sets before us another collection of his essays. I will not tell him that he writes too much, but, before I am done, I hope to tell him what I want left out and why. He will not mind, and he will give as good as he gets.
It is never easy, of course, to review a collection of essays. One can try to trace a central theme throughout the collection or simply take up and comment on particular essays that seem especially striking. I will do a little of each. When reading Hauerwas, one must, however, dig in one’s heels just a bit, lest we simply be carried along by the sheer force of his exuberant conviction. He is a master of the throwaway line that deserves more thought than it invites of the reader.
For example, pursuing his general theme that the Church must develop its particular—even odd—identity in a world all too eager to tolerate it to death, Hauerwas writes, “It is wonderful to live in a time when Christians have to discover that another person is also a Christian rather than being able to assume it.” Why? We know what he means, of course. He wants the Christian life to mean something and cost something—and is suggesting that this is not likely to be the case if just everyone we meet can lay claim to being a Christian. Nonetheless, I would give a great deal to live in a time and place where I could assume that all whom I met also named the name of Jesus. I don’t expect it to happen, short of heaven, but there is nothing inherently good about constantly feeling the need to live in opposition to those around us. It is a necessity often laid upon us in our present pilgrim condition, to be sure, but no more than that. We should feel no compulsion to make our life as Christians costly and meaningful; in Jesus God has done that in a way far beyond our capacities.
Or again, describing the (quite interesting) structure of the course in Christian ethics that he teaches to students at the Duke Divinity School, Hauwerwas says, “From the beginning to the end of the course I make it clear that I have no interest in teaching students about theology and/or ethics. Rather, I hope to transform my own and their lives that we all might live the life of praise more faithfully.” It sounds fine until we begin to consider that his calling is precisely to teach his students to think more clearly and precisely about Christian theology and ethics. In noting this we need not suppose that thought should be divorced from practice, as if a “mere” academic exercise were what we had in mind. But Jesus did command us to learn to love God also with the mind—that too is part, if only part, of a life of praise. Indeed, it may be a part that the average seminary student, a little inclined to think of seminary as a necessary hurdle on the way toward real service, needs especially to learn. Then, too, ought there not be a little more hesitation about seeking to transform the souls of one’s students? Even a teacher as compelling and alluring as Hauerwas no doubt is—perhaps especially such a teacher—must remember to leave something to the Holy Spirit.
Or yet again, praising with engaging perversity Quas Primas, the 1925 encyclical of Pius XI that established the feast of Christ the King and asserted the importance of recognizing Christ’s kingship throughout the social order, Hauerwas writes of Pius XI, “His point on this score is crucial: societies constituted on acquisitiveness cannot help but be imprisoned within perpetual conflict and violence.” Perhaps so. But those are not the only societies likely to be plagued by conflict and violence. In context, Hauerwas is arguing against our American tendency to emphasize the importance of freedom of religion, arguing that we have purchased such freedom by creating a world in which religion counts for little because acquisitiveness counts for much. But we—or our ancestors—did that, in part at least, because a world in which religion counted for so much in public life had become precisely a world “imprisoned within perpetual conflict and violence.”
Perhaps, as Hauerwas is likely to suggest, there might have been better ways to break free of that conflict and violence, but let us not underestimate the importance for human lives of peace. It may be a bourgeois ideal. There may be times when, for the sake of the truth and the call of God, we must be willing to sacrifice it. There may be times when our testimony must be that of the martyr. But we cannot appreciate at all the depth and meaning of such sacrifice, its wrenching quality, unless we know the beauty and the pleasure of the everyday and unheroic. The ordinary times lived in between the challenges—times in which we thank God for the sun and rain, play with our children, read a good book, play a ball game, walk hand in hand. That is what must sometimes be sacrificed—and sacrifice is sacrifice only because all that is good, honorable, and God-pleasing. One of the things I want left out of at least some of his future essays is a tendency to suggest—if only by tone and emphasis—that there are not, even in this liberal democracy of America, many faithful Christians rightly seeking time and opportunity to relish such good gifts of God.
But these are throwaway lines. Among the thirteen essays in this volume there are also several that perhaps deserve special mention. Chapter Four (“Whose Church? Which Future? Whither the Anabaptist Vision?”) seems to me an especially clear and helpful statement of some of the themes that have dominated Hauerwas’ thinking and writing. First written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Bender’s famous essay “The Anabaptist Vision,” this piece states succinctly and clearly one of the book’s central themes. Anabaptists emphasized both Christian “discipleship” and the “voluntary church.” In the historical context of sixteenth-century arguments, the idea of the voluntary church was “a prophetic challenge against mainstream Christianity,” an assertion that being a Christian required commitment to the disciple’s way of life. But, notes Hauerwas, in a liberal democracy that is no longer “Christendom,” continued emphasis upon voluntary commitment seems only to reinforce our contemporary love affair with autonomy. No particular congregation has a claim on us. If we don’t like one, we join another—and it’s our decision alone.
Surely there is something to this analysis, and surely this situation does sometimes eviscerate the life of our congregations. But the analysis would be stronger if a clear alternative were offered—an alternative that did justice to the truth that God wants from us lives of faith and obedience that are freely given. Objecting at one point to George Will’s suggestion that Luther’s ninety-five theses had struck a blow for freedom of the individual conscience, Hauerwas writes, “Luther provides no ammunition for Will’s project; rather his theses were his contribution to an argument over church discipline.” They were that, but not only that. For Luther did believe—whether rightly or wrongly—that true faith must be elicited by the proclamation of the gospel and neither could nor should be compelled.
Perhaps Hauerwas simply disagrees. He does, for example, write approvingly of Veritatis Splendor that it “reminds us that we must be wary of thinking that we are different from what we do.” One of the things I would like Hauerwas to do in a future essay is take up this question in conversation with a theologian like Luther or Roger Williams. I, for example, do not find myself terribly interested in what Stanley Fish has to say on the subject—or in what Hauerwas has to say commenting on Fish. But I would be intensely interested to see whether Hauerwas wants to argue that God’s judgment of our person and God’s judgment of our works perfectly coincide. I know he loves Aristotle, but I also want to know whether he will Christianize the understanding of the person that he has learned from Aristotle. I want him to leave out of future essays the claim that “the association of the Reformation with presumptions of justification by faith through grace as a center of the Gospel was a profound mistake” unless and until he makes that claim in conversation with a Luther or a Williams—thinkers who, unlike Fish, have some genuine claim on the attention of the Body of Christ.
Another quite different but equally provocative essay is Chapter Twelve (“A Trinitarian Theology of the Chief End of All Flesh”), written with John Berkman. There is not a lot of good theological writing on “environmental ethics,” but this essay raises interesting and important questions. I do not entirely agree with its claims, but they force us to think through issues too easily ignored. Hauerwas and Berkman assert that “the only significant theological difference between humans and animals lies in God’s giving humans a unique purpose.” They see this point as a critique of mistaken anthropocentrism, but I do not understand why it should be so taken. Precisely because God has called us to be his covenant partners and given unique purposes to our lives, a kind of anthropocentrism may be quite appropriate.
Of course, God may also have unique purposes for the other animals, but if their relation to God is somehow mediated through the human beings who are called to exercise priestly “dominion” over the creation, they may be there in part—though only in part—to serve human life. I am also uncertain why we should be persuaded by the analogy drawn between nonviolence (against our fellow human beings) and vegetarianism. The analogy will work only if we are first persuaded that there is no legitimate anthropocentrism within Christian thought and action. Nevertheless, the essay’s clear distinction between its own Christian form of care for the other animals and widespread notions that Christians have “an overriding stake in the survival of the earth” or of the human species is powerful and cleansing. We would all be well served if Hauerwas were to develop these themes in greater detail.
“I am,” Hauerwas writes, “a theologian with a theological position that makes no sense unless a church actually exists that is capable of embodying the practices of perfection.” Shall we regard this as a reductio of his entire body of work? That would be to miss how much there is to be learned from keeping company with him, but, nonetheless, he may be convicted out of his own mouth. The letters of St. Paul in the New Testament are a constant reminder that in its present pilgrim condition the Church exists only as a community of justified sinners gathered under the cross.
The life that we live by faith in the Son of God is still a life “in the flesh” (Galatians 2:20). The saints at Corinth, themselves very far from embodying the practices of perfection, are nonetheless those to whom God has given the victory through the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57). And, perhaps most strikingly, in Philippians, after Paul writes of himself as in many ways having embodied the practices of perfection and of having reason for confidence in the flesh, he continues, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. . . . Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:7-12).
None of this, of course, is meant by Paul as an invitation to take the cost of discipleship with anything less than full seriousness. It is precisely because “we are justified by faith” and “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” that we know “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:1, 3-4).
Such passages suggest that Hauerwas cannot so easily brand “the polemics of the Reformation centered around the alternatives of grace and law” as “distinctly a side issue.” These themes—however difficult to understand rightly—are very near the center of the Christian life and Christian care of souls. Hauerwas will be in good company if he does not dismiss them too quickly. To attend with care to such themes need not in the slightest degree undercut his own polemic against a theology that becomes simply an academic discipline separated from the life of the church. Rather, it is precisely a theology that pays attention to the Church here and now, and to the gospel by which the Church is constituted and continually reconstituted, that will not be able to avoid the centrality of grace in the life of the Church and the individual Christian. Perhaps Hauerwas does not mean to disagree. But if so, I wish he would cease to dismiss the language of justification and pay heed to the many Christians who, conscious of their failures as disciples, cannot hear in a description of a Church that embodies the practices of perfection a word that renews and enlivens—that draws them more fully and deeply into those practices by covering them with the perfection of Christ.
This puts a little different spin upon what it might mean to be “in good company” in the Church. We need not deny Hauerwas’ oft-repeated claim that the Church is a social ethic or the claim of this volume that we need a “theological politics” that understands the Church as an alternative to every other polis or civitas. But everything depends on what we find most striking in the alternative. What strikes me about the Church is not so much that it embodies the practices of perfection as that it is the gathering of forgiven sinners. If this church provides an alternative life by whose light we can criticize all other communities, that is because it has nothing in itself of which to boast.
A continuing theme of the essays in this volume is that, despite their emphasis upon the Church and the ecclesial location of Christian ethics, Hauerwas himself feels the lack of an ecclesial home. Certain individuals provide good company along the path of Christian life. A few local congregations also provide such company. But he notes that his views are “too ‘homeless’ to represent ‘a church.’“ This leaves him in the rather disconcerting position—at least for one who opposes the voluntary church and freedom of religion—of “picking and choosing parts of traditions I like without having to bear the burden of the parts . . . I do not like.”
I suggest that the antidote to this, paradoxically enough, is a renewed understanding of the Church as, first and foremost, a community of forgiven sinners gathered under the cross. Not a community that embodies the practices of perfection or that is simply separate from the world, but a body of believers who still live “in the flesh,” who are still part of the world, suffering the transformations effected by God’s grace on its pilgrim way. In such a church even those struggling for perfection can find a home—though, of course, one that keeps them always “on the way” as hopeful sojourners.
None of this is meant to deny that Hauerwas rightly diagnoses some of the problems faced by Christians in America. He does, and it is an understatement by far to say that many have learned from and been influenced by his diagnosis. It has been given to him to be a deeply influential thinker even within the academy he sometimes scorns. But he said we should tell him what we want left out and why. That I have been attempting. For the diagnosis, on target as it sometimes can be, is by now pretty well known.
Strange as it may seem to say of one who is known for his attempt to reclaim ethics as a theological discipline, what we need from Hauerwas now is more theology. At several points in this collection he offers a telling and perceptive suggestion about why papal encyclicals are often rather boring to read. In the encyclical letters the Church is seen as exercising something like a universal teaching office—enunciating basic truths for all people. Inevitably therefore, Hauerwas suggests, the encyclicals are rather abstract and general, even “platitudinous and irrelevant for policy decision.”
Hauerwas must watch the company he keeps lest he fall into a similar trap. Strange as this may sound when said of his work, one is sometimes uncertain whether the dominant intellectual influences are really those of the theological tradition. In part, of course, this is only because he reads almost everything, but this volume articulates a rather abstract analysis that seldom enters into specifics.
I would like him to leave that out from now on. And instead, I would like him to develop in more detail his defense of vegetarianism, or his claim that we can and should return to the concept of a just wage, or the assertion that we do not need to attribute any great significance to our work. I would like some help in thinking through my own participation in a modern economy. Broadsides are useful up to a point, but they remain abstract and generalized. Shall I be like the Oberlin student who at commencement rode his bicycle in the academic procession in order to symbolize his opposition to the internal combustion engine?
More than all this, however, I would like to see him begin to draw less directly on our contemporaries and more directly on older Christian thinkers for whom practical questions were never divorced from theology. I don’t, of course, suppose that even Hauerwas has time and energy to give us detailed help on all these matters. But I have been keeping company with him for a long time, and it has been good company, at least for me. In a peculiar way, however, he has focused so intensively on theological method-while making his case against method—that the case has become an abstract and general one, aimed at anyone and everyone.
It would be a great gift—not just to me, which hardly counts, but to the Body of Christ—if he were now to leave out the method and simply return to questions of substance. As Michael Oakeshott once put it, “Not the cry, but the rising of the wild duck impels the flock to follow him in flight.”
Gilbert Meilaender has just assumed a chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.