"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Monday, March 5, 2012

Books Books Books! (Pt XV): Hauerwas and Willimon, “Resident Aliens”

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989)

Getting closer to being caught up! (I think I read this one in October?)

To start with, I should clarify. This is not a sci-fi book about beings foreign to our planet coming to dwell among humankind. It’s about the Church. Apologies for the tease. J

Hauerwas has been instrumental in my interest in virtue ethics and Christian character. This book continues in the same vein. Hauerwas believes Christians should be distinct from the world, like many Christians do; he is significantly aligned with the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, emphasizing the role of the Church as a radical community that challenges “the powers” with its commitment to such goals as non-violence.

He feels the Church’s distinctiveness should lie in its pursuit of character (or goodness), not simply in its beliefs or practices (except where those practices are connected to the shaping of character and social action). But his vision of the Church doesn’t seem to encourage political involvement as a means of shaping the world; rather, the Church subverts social and political “evils” by its alternative lifestyle. That’s the theory at least.

He also stands in what is called the “postliberal” tradition, which I’m not sure how to explain concisely other than to refer to it by its other name, “narrative theology”—a way of thinking about the Christian experience that lessens the emphasis on one’s personal relationship/experience with God and increases the focus on the Church as a community, a “colony” set up by Jesus to be a people committed to Jesus’ values.

I think the “narrative” part lies in how the Church exists as the continuation of the story of Israel and of Jesus...kind of like the next stage or chapter. Our individual stories are a part of this, but our corporate story as a people is key.

A quote that expresses this idea:

“In Jesus, we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world, and humanity, but an invitation to join up, to become part of a movement, a people. (The gospel does not claim to be) ideas abstracted from Jesus (but) Jesus with his people.” (21)

That’s essentially the gist of narrative theology, though there’s certainly much more to it. Part of it is a critique of individualism—an excessive focus on the personal experience of being Christian:

“The church (can) become one more consumer-oriented organization, existing to encourage individual fulfillment rather than being a crucible to engender individual conversion into the Body.” (33)

Yes, the individual must convert, he’d say; but convert into an alternative community, not only to a new way of thinking/believing:

“The church today exists as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.” (49)

Maybe you don’t feel the Church is “adventurous.” Maybe you think that the Christian Church is really no different than the rest of culture, save a few rituals. Maybe you find this to be overstatement and believe one can have no religious commitments and still find a deep sense of adventure. Maybe you don’t think self-expression should be dismissed so quickly. There might be a lot to take issue with here. I will say that Hauerwas seems to often use “is” in places where I would expect a “should be”. I’m pretty sure it’s intentional.

Hauerwas stands in the same tradition as Lesslie Newbigin—with whom I, figuratively speaking, spent a year of my life with in writing my masters’ thesis—in that he puts the “right” amount of emphasis (“right” according to my tastes J) on what the Church can and can't do:

“…Christians begin our ethics, not with anxious, self-serving questions of what we ought to do as individuals to make history come out right, because, in Christ, God has already made history come out right.” (87)

As with Newbigin, the Church shouldn’t “check out” and say “to hell with the world”, but it also should not anxiously feel like the pressure is on the Church to “fix things.” Our role is a much more modest (but important) one. Yet is a role that demands the Church be something other than just a sort of chaplain to the world that puts its “Christian stamp” on things. The Church must be devoted to things like love and justice because that is its role in the story and it is also something the world needs. We are not to simply accommodate to the world, but to be firm in our convictions (but the right convictions). Hauerwas writes:

“Unfortunately, an accommodationist church, so intent on running errands for the world, is giving the world less and less in which to disbelieve. Atheism slips into the church where God really does not matter, as we go about building bigger and better congregations (church administration), confirming people’s self-esteem (worship), enabling people to adjust to their anxieties brought on by their materialism (pastoral care), and making Christ a worthy subject for poetic reflection (preaching). At every turn the church must ask itself, ‘does it really make any difference, in our life together, in what we do, that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling the world to himself?’” (95).

A firm critique of many churches, yes; and perhaps an unfair exaggeration of the problems with elements of the Christian experience you might view in a much more positive light (worship, preaching, etc). But maybe there’s some truth here. And, finally, a nice summary statement:

“The biggest problem facing Christian theology is not translation but enactment.” (171)

In all my studying—past, present, and future—I don’t feel like my primary aim is to find ways to make the concepts of Christianity, of God, or of Jesus more credible or understandable, as if the right words will come along that I can then use to share my hope with others in a more captivating way.

Words help, but I don’t think non-Christians are wishing for a more articulate Church; they want a more good church (bad grammar intended), a Church that has found better ways to be faithful to its story, a story about how God has reconciled the world and is using as messengers and agents of this reconciliation a community of people who’ve learned how to live well and embody love, justice, healing and reconciliation in their lives together.

That’s my goal in studying/doing theology, I think—to figure out how to better enact this story, and to get others excited and on a similar path toward enactment.

Or maybe non-Christians just want the church to shut up and stay out of the way. That’s possible, too. :)

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