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After Christendom?
by Stanley Hauerwas
Abingdon Press, 192 pages, $12.95

Stanley Hauerwas once told me that After Christendom? might be the systematic assembly of his thought for which friends and opponents have pressed him. In considerable part, the promise is fulfilled. The chapters of this book were drafted for a single set of lectures and work together in a way not common in Hauerwas’ books. If for this reason alone, and there are many others, the book is to be read. 

Nevertheless, the chapters of this work are also a succession of separately comprehensible essays. His unifying conceptual commitments, moreover, were in fact closer to the surface in Christian Existence Today than they are here. And we had better stop pressing Hauerwas for more; he has gone over to the offense. “The very idea of systematic theology was a result of a church with hegemonic power that belied the very substance that made it a church to begin with.” A reviewer who is a systematic theologian is tempted to ask if the founder of our discipline, the great Origen, has been retroactively rescued from the Decian persecution—but never mind. 

The first thing to be said is that, in this book as before, Hauerwas is right about so much that nearly the whole American church and academy culpably have wrong, and he is so beneficial in his ability to say what others can or will not say, that he fully deserves his position as bellweather and bête noire  of American theological ethics. I found the opening chapters, those that lay out a framework, more continuously satisfying than some of the later ones that fill it in. This is doubtless a result of my systematician’s prejudices. But it is also a regular phenomenon when I read Hauerwas: I think I am in full agreement until I hit some of the more particular consequences he draws. 

The work’s subject is Christianity’s present relation to liberal society. That relation is characterized by quoting George Lindbeck: Christianity is now in an “awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but not yet clearly disestablished.” The great power of the work is its blunt description of the awkwardness. 

To be sure, about half of Hauerwas’ gravamen might better apply to a situation of Christianity’s unbroken establishment within liberal society than to a situation of in-process disestablishment from it. The way this works in Hauerwas’ thinking seems to be that Western society’s liberalization itself entailed Christianity’s disestablishment, so that Christianity’s establishment in modernity intrinsically means clinging to an establishment in process of dissolution. But does this mean that Christianity’s situation was less “awkward” when it was less ambiguously established in the pre-modern West? Perhaps less awkward and more simply wrong, for Hauerwas’ key pejorative throughout this book is “hegemonic.” But if establishment as such was an evil, has not liberalism done some good by inaugurating disestablishment? And should not the sources of that good within liberalism be located? Something shows itself here. 

Hauerwas’ diagnosis has two poles. Both are familiar from earlier work. Both, I think, are accurately placed. 

First. To be—or to try to remain—established in a liberal society, Christianity must understand itself as a particular “system of beliefs.” Just thereby, it is trivialized. When there were integral Christians, they knew themselves to be “participants in a grand drama of God’s salvation of all creation,” involved “with the power that moves the sun and the stars.” But a set of beliefs cannot participate in drama; only a community does that, which just thereby is a “political” community. 

Integral Christians knew that Christian “beliefs” are “correlative” to moral practices in community, so that “without the church there is no possibility of salvation and even less of morality and/or politics.” Freedom of religion, as freedom to entertain various private beliefs, is one thing; the freedom of the church, which is her freedom “as a people capable of saying no to the world” and which she receives from no one but God, is quite another. A church that accepts liberalism’s accommodation for faith abandons the particular freedom of faith and so faith itself. 

Second. Clinging to establishment in a liberal world, Hauerwas writes, Christians come to think that responsibility for the world means trying to make liberalism work. Thereby we but connive in our own social and political irrelevancy, for the rules by which the liberal world excludes such fanatics as Christians from the public realm are essential to what makes the liberal world work.

We accept ethics that identify as the moral agent “that new creature we have learned to call ‘the individual,’ “ thereby denying the church’s reality as a moral agent. We accept politics that are no longer, as anciently, “the ongoing conversation necessary for the discovery of goods in common . . . [but] the means necessary to secure cooperation between people who share nothing . . . other than their desire to survive.” The crucial distinction that sustains such politics is between the public and the private; Christianity goes to the private side. We construe the whole moral life by “love and justice”; thereby “Christian social ethics become functionally atheistic.” 

A church that so understands herself cannot, of course, be a disciplined community. Thus she cannot teach even her own members virtue the only way that virtue can in fact be taught, by apprenticeship and drill. (I read this book in proof; there the chapter on this matter, chapter 4, bore the marvelous title, apparently marked to be changed: “Why a Friendly, Caring Church is Impotent.”) 

A church that understood herself as church would not be surprised by the further awkwardness that the liberal world itself is coming apart, Hauerwas contends, for in making the church irrelevant the liberal world has undone its own sole support. The communal moral capital that liberal society discredits was what it lived on. Freedom of religion solved the problem of religious pluralism only by making the problem of forming a culture unsolvable. The purely procedural state that no longer promotes the good but exists only to protect rights is exponentially coercive, since thereby it becomes a universal administration. Liberal societies cannot live without continual conflict, since the separate demands they evoke are infinite. Indeed, says Hauerwas, a self-aware Christianity would seize liberalism’s troubles as a great opportunity to challenge modernity’s false universalism and “recover the locality of Christian salvation called the church” (emphasis added). 

According to Hauerwas, what the church truly has for the world is one thing only: witness. In the present book, this is Hauerwas’ final answer to the problem of Christianity in a disintegrating liberal society. Witness to God: “The first thing as Christians we have to hold before any society is not justice but God.” And witness to herself: “Salvation is a political alternative that the world cannot know apart from the existence of a concrete people called the church.” 

So much summary is accompanied by so much enthusiasm. But I must now report that this book disquieted me in a way none of Hauerwas’ earlier work has done. The disquiet became most intense at the very end. Hauerwas appends a letter from a graduate student who had read the last lecture. The letter calls the very notion of “witness” violent, simply in that witness asserts as true for the other a truth that the other does not already possess. Duke University’s French connection duly appears in a citation of Deleuze, citing Nietzsche to the effect that those who claim truth really claim the right to judge life, which is beyond judgment. And to this letter Hauerwas can only comment, “It is a reminder that the way of nonviolence is never easy and that our language can embody . . . violence in ways that we hardly knew.” 

Can Hauerwas’ thinking finally sustain its own central claim, that the church is the world’s salvation? The church cannot save the world in any of the ways the liberal church tries, and Hauerwas rightly rubs our nose in this plain fact But how then is the church the world’s salvation? 

The student has a point: every claim to speak truth does indeed exercise something that might plausibly be called “violence,” if we so choose to use the language. If Hauerwas accepts this usage of “violence,” he must abandon witness as what the church can do for the world. It seems, indeed, he must end with a doctrine that the church saves the world simply by silently existing. Now even such a doctrine may be sustainable, but only by a lot more speculative systematic theology than Hauerwas seems willing to countenance. 

That Hauerwas may in fact accept a sense of “violent” like that employed by his student, and so be committed to regard as violent every claim to truth not already possessed by the other, is also suggested elsewhere in the book. The last chapter, on “Christian Education in Liberal Societies,” joins the fashionable—I never thought I would use this pejorative about Hauerwas!—attack on “eurocentrism” in academic standards and curricula. As the student correctly sees, the position from which consistent “multiculturalism” can be sustained is fatal to “witness.” Hauerwas tries to elide the problem by saying Christians need stand neither with the hegemonists nor with the nihilist multiculturalists: “What we must ask, however, is how Christians ever got ourselves in the position to believe we must make such a choice . . . . “ Such moves in Hauerwas are often precisely right. This one is plainly a dodge. 

I have a suggestion. All address by the church to the world must indeed be “violent”—as all mutual address by factions within the world undoubtedly must be—unless the church and the world are always antecedently involved in one conversation. That is, unless there is God and unless he is in converse with the world by ways other than by way of the church. We may not want, as I do not, to construe this converse by the categories of “natural” and “law.” But Hauerwas has arrived at a position where he must acknowledge and construe it somehow, or end with a silenced church. 

It is, I think, the same unease that afflicted me while reading Hauerwas’ argument against those who, like Richard John Neuhaus, have some hope that American general religiosity can have a saving role within a liberal polity that deserves to be saved. A first draft of this review was written immediately after President Bush’s State of the Union speech last January. It began, “Hauerwas is right and Neuhaus is wrong!” And I am indeed less hopeful for what is actually available to clothe our public square than is Neuhaus. And yet there is a curious emptiness and withdrawal about Hauerwas’ polemic. If God is not speaking in that awful religiosity out there, how is the church to speak to it without violence? How indeed is there anything out there of which the church might be the salvation? 

These are, of course, but a systematic theologian’s quibbles.

Robert W. Jenson is Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College and author of Unbaptized God (Fortress Press); he is also Associate Director at the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and co-editor of the journal Pro Ecclesia.

Photo by Leo Foureaux on Unsplash. Image cropped.