Wheaton Theology Conference: Stanley Hauerwas, “Church Matters”

On the evening of Friday, April 5, masses crowded into and overflowed from Barrows Auditorium at Wheaton College to hear from Stanley HauerwasDuke theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. That he was a primetime speaker at a conference on Christian theological consideration of political engagement is not surprising—the ever-staunch Anabaptist is perhaps best known for his strong stance in favor of Christian pacifism and for his unrelenting call for the Church to be the Church, irrespective of national political policies and cultural pressures. Indeed, to steal from the title of a John Howard Yoder book—a favorite theologian of Hauerwas’s—the Church ought to be about the politics of Jesus, not the politics of those with no professed allegiance to Jesus. Yet, though Hauerwas’s involvement at a theological conference on politics was not surprising, perhaps the fact that the conference was about Evangelical theological engagement with politics may yet be surprising. After all, to the extent that oral tradition is reliable, Hauerwas is said to have (at least) once quipped that the best theologians at Wheaton College are in the English department; not a small slight from a recognizable voice directed toward a theology faculty that itself has included notable and respected servants of the Church, albeit of a different tone than that of Hauerwas. Nevertheless, the element of intrigue notwithstanding, this was not the first but rather was the latest of a number of speaking engagements of Hauerwas at Wheaton over the years. And it seems that each time his words are only more anticipated than the previous.

So, what, then, of Christian political witness? It is significant that we say, “Christian,” and not, “Evangelical,” for Hauerwas was clearly concerned with Christians, especially Protestants, of all types, taking equal exception with both sides of the Modern North American Protestant divide, namely Evangelicals and Liberals. To Hauerwas, both groups, broadly speaking and in varied ways, have tended to embrace the rhetoric of something other than the Church and, thus, have neglected the politics of Jesus. Though somewhat simplistic at times, drawing lines much too cleanly between and within these groups, his larger point, nevertheless, remained forceful.

Hauerwas insisted that Christians ought to believe in history, for we come from a past that has a fulfillment and meaning because of its trajectory. While potentially a historicist assertion if left on its own, Hauerwas clarified repeatedly that this meaning is due to the trajectory of what God has, is, and will be doing, a trajectory dependent upon God’s action and given meaning by the cross of Christ. Conversely, according to Hauerwas’s historical construction, North American Evangelicals (by which he clearly meant a more generic “conservativism”) and Liberals have abandoned God’s history as manifest in Christ and manifest through the Church. Instead, Evangelicals have too easily been pulled into the currents of civil religion, identifying state politics with that of Christ, while theological Liberals have believed the Modern lie that people are to choose their own story amid believing that they don’t already have a story. The former group has identified itself with conservative state politics while the latter group follows the presuppositions of liberal social order and buys the lie that modern western civilization has progressed out of the “darkness” of the middle-age slavery to religion that eclipsed ancient learning and now lives in “enlightenment,” a Modern period of learning and civility. Modern theology of both types, following their respective self-formed narratives, has tried to satisfy itself and society at large by showing society that Christianity isn’t too different from what secular society already believes, accepting the latter’s naturalistic assumptions.

In hopes of reversing this unfaithful preoccupation in the Church, Hauerwas appeals to the 20th century theologian who spent a lifetime urging the Church to realize its true calling as the testifiers of Christ. Hauerwas leans heavily upon Karl Barth, arguing that the heart of the Swiss theologian’s proclamation was political. This is most obviously true when considering Barth’s role in drafting the Barmen Declaration, but in reality, the Declaration was simply the visible manifestation of what the whole of Barth’s theology embodied: a politics of Jesus for the Church. Barth’s close interfacing of theology and ethics attested to this, for theology is inherently ethical in that it calls us to action according to the economy of God’s action. Specifically, the politics of the Church is summarized by Jesus’ self-identification in John 14:6—Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through him.

In light of this, it is preeminently significant for Hauerwas that following Jesus involves bearing our own cross, suffering for Christ’s sake. In this suffering, we may find martyrdom, but, Hauerwas proclaims, “martyrdom defeats victimization” because “Jesus is Lord.” The reality of the suffering Jesus as Lord puts the politics of Jesus at odd with the triumphalistic politics of Constantine. Rather, drawing upon the insight of Nietzsche, Hauerwas argues that the politics of Jesus is a slave morality, a politics that helps the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast, and the criminal and suffers with them. However, conversely to Nietzsche, this slave morality is true strength, not weakness, because Jesus is Lord, and this slave morality was the way he revealed the Father. With the crumbling of Christendom in the rearview mirror, Hauerwas believes that if the Church is attentive to the politics of Jesus, its task should get easier: to be the Church.


About Ashish Varma

I am a PhD student under Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and my dissertation project pertains to defending the theological validity and identifying the dogmatic location of virtue in traditional Protestant thought, namely within the sphere of union with Christ. My wife Narissa and I attend College Church in Wheaton.
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2 Responses to Wheaton Theology Conference: Stanley Hauerwas, “Church Matters”

  1. Pingback: Wheaton Theology Conference: Stanley Hauerwas, “Church Matters … | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Pingback: Out On the Web: Links for April 19 | Out of Bounds

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