So January started to wrap up, and I got the notification: Gus Cole-Kroll, podcast listener and Christian Humanist friend, had called on me, along with Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity and Mark Van Steenwyk (whom I don’t know but nonetheless seems like a good fellow to know), to offer some comments on Stan Hauerwas’s book Resident Aliens for the book group Portland People’s Seminary. (How’s that for some hyperlinks?) In the two weeks and some change that have passed, I’ve allowed myself the pleasure of re-reading a book that gave me new questions to ask some seventeen years ago. Because Gus asked some eminently clear questions in his request, I’m going to do him the courtesy of answering them first.
Question 1: What does Hauerwas get right, and what does he get wrong?
This one is the real booger to answer, because the book’s central project is to call into question what counts as right and wrong in theology. It was from Hauerwas, I now realize, that I learned some of my early suspicion of too-easy dismissals of the Bible as “premodern” and such. I’ve come, in the years since first encountering Hauerwas, to develop a deep and abiding respect for atheists like Nietzsche who want to throw it all away and have done with the crucified one, even as my contempt for Dawkins-style atheism, which wants to retain the concern for the lowly without having any good reason to do so (they might well be inclined to help out those least fit to survive in the system-as-given, but in terms of natural selection or sexual selection, it’s hard to grasp why). At the same time, while I name several liberal Christians as genuine friends in the Aristotelian sense (even as some of them roll their eyes when I feel the need to invoke Aristotle), I’ve come to know, not fear, that I’m never going to be the sort of moral agent who would make a good liberal. I’m just not the heroic individual that good liberal activism seems to require. I need the Church and a Bible that’s genuinely Scripture to keep me from the pits of self-deception.
I’ve come to differ from Hauerwas, and especially from this book’s arguments, when it comes to the nature of divine encounters. Resident Aliens tends to narrate encounters with God in terms of moral allegory. Thus Ananias and Sapphira drop dead from fear that their lies have been exposed, spiritual gifts have to do mainly with cooperation in the pursuit of ethical goods, and so on. I’ve been around too many faithful Pentecostals, dedicated missionaries to non-Western nations, and other such folks to sit comfortably with such metaphorical readings. I’m not one to naturalize the supernatural, to put much stock in exorcism manuals or bestiaries of the demonic orders. Yet I remain convinced that, in unpredictable manners, realities beyond what I can imagine with my undergraduate-science-classes vocabularies is at work in the world. I say “unpredictable” because I don’t think that such things are subject to handy definitions (though I adore St. Thomas Aquinas for giving it a run), but I say “realities beyond” because reducing such things to “nothing but” psychological epiphenomena strikes me as false. My hope is that, as I spend more years with my Pentecostal friends at Emmanuel College, I might learn to name such things more truthfully than I can now. But for now, I don’t want to say that Annanias and Sapphira died from a guilty conscience; I want to say that something beyond easy explanation struck them down, and part of the challenge of Acts is to confront that ugly reality.
Question 2: Why would it be helpful or harmful for laypeople to adopt his views on the role of the church?
As the book group no doubt has discerned, to go along with Hauerwas and Willimon (which I think I have, though that’s for others to judge) means entirely different ways to think, talk, and live “politics” and “religion.” Thus their views are only “helpful” of they’re true, and if they’re not, they’re undeniably “harmful.” In other words, although I’d be glad to be wrong here, I don’t see much of a way to regard this book in terms of pragmatism.
So if what they say is true (and I’m going to assume that it is for the rest of this section), Christians are always and inescapably political, and accusations that this or that theologian abandons “political” involvement is hogwash. The real question is not whether or not Christians are political but how we are. Do we yield to the current powers the ability to continue what they do, uncontested, as we focus our time and energy on self-improvement in a Capitalist mold? Do we throw in with this or that partisan movement, holding our nose at those features of the “party” that run counter to the expectations of Christ or (even worse) pretending that they’re actually more faithful than actually following Jesus? Do we swear off any contact with the “political” and pretend that our engagements with “culture” render us immune to the assent that our silence lends to the establishment? Or do we try something different, receiving the gift of salvation and letting its gratuity lend us confidence to ask different questions? Resident Aliens leads towards that last strategy, and in my mind it’s the most interesting alternative.
In the terms that this book lays down, the possibility open in particular to Church, in our moment, is a politics that encompasses prophetic speech, hospitable friendship, and communal truth-telling. Rather than splitting the world among those who back the proper “party,” those who back the wrong “party,” and those who have no “party,” Resident Aliens holds up Church as a polis among the empires, a “place” inside of which the world can see an alternative politics operating and into which, praises be unto God, all are invited. The bottom line, which remains implicit in the book but I’m going to lay out here, is thus: to attempt to render the world different and better by means of the politics of empire, be that empire democratic or autocratic, is to impose by threat of violence one’s own vision of things. To invite human beings into a community that one can always turn away is to do things differently and ultimately better.
An Excursus on Politics and Christianity
What, then (to appropriate the Pauline rhetorical question)? Shall we retreat into our own “colony,” never to speak to, with, or about those “outside”?
By no means!
Instead, this sort of ecclesiology makes possible (perhaps not uniquely possible, but I’d contend more fully possible in contrast to the dominant alternatives) alternative modes of action: we can speak, neither as bought-and-paid-for party members nor as people who pretend to be apolitical but as the heirs of the prophets, those who tell the truth about the world. Because we’ve been given the gift of alienation from the kosmos, we can, even as folks who have always lived “here,” speak the words of a stranger and in the name of a Stranger. Because we gather as an alternative ekklesia, though those who belong to the parties will accuse us of being concern-trolls or “relativists” who don’t care about the “important” matters of the day (I’ve been called both), nonetheless we have the ability to expose the would-be gods of our moment, the state and the market and the cause, as powers that might well have a place in the divine economy (I think they do) but which have overstepped their proper bounds and thus lie when they demand our ultimate allegiance.
And because those powers are, in truth, subject to the one true God, we have genuinely interesting things beyond supporting one bozo presidential candidate after another. We can speak against state execution not in the name of our own squeamish sensibilities but because our LORD might still have love to offer the one the state condemns. We can offer baptism not in hopes of a conventional “afterlife” but because dying right here and right now to the powers that would claim ultimate allegiance means entry into a life right here and right now that’s more free than what our dead selves knew before. Life beyond market forces! Hallelujah! We can invite all, the poor included, to be part of who we are, not by means of “programs” that keep them at a safe distance while satisfying our sense of noblesse oblige (or “social justice,” if you prefer) but by calling them sister and brother and becoming family. We can imagine ways to provide rescue for the unborn that don’t condemn the mothers who had no plans of motherhood. When we speak to the state that the definition of “personhood” should not be a matter of consumer choice, we can invite the unwanted unborn to join us in adoption. And here’s the great thing: those who prefer the powers that currently rule can stay there. Christianity as Resident Aliens imagines it, unlike world-improvement by means of national policy, doesn’t “force” anyone to become part of the new order. God might well call on us to speak truth to those powers, to confront them with their own hypocrisy and moral posturing (and I’m talking about whichever party is in the White House at the moment), to invite them into something better.
It’s ultimately the movement of invitation that Resident Aliens offers, as a strong alternative to politics as folks often think of it, to those who read. I would have preferred to see a book whose vision of God were a character in the story as the New Testament and the missionaries I know think of God as a character in the story, but in the end, the questions that Willimon and Hauerwas have taught me to ask have made me the sort of thinker that I’ve become.
Whether that’s a good thing or not I suppose I’ll let other folks decide.