Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (5) (living gently in marriage)

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter four ECCLESIAL POLITICS, PEACEMAKING, AND THE ESCHATOLOGY OF WORSHIP.

In this chapter the conversation between Brian Brock and Hauerwas delves into familiar Hauerwasian territory of pacifism, gentleness and the church as an eschatologoical community. It’s rich reading.

One theme that gives me much pause for thought is where Brock and Hauerwas discuss how a theological commitment to pacifism needs to be part and parcel of learning to live gently in a violent world. (Echoing themes of Living Gently in a Violent World that Hauerwas wrote with Jean Vanier of L’Arche).

Brock notes at one point that

It’s at moments like these that it’s clear that you are aware of the danger that your work is easily subverted when people receive it as a challenge and a crusade to establish pacifism, rather than as a sign in the wilderness pointing to intangible practices of living gently in a violent world (106)

And Brock adds later,

In so far as people read you as pacifist and think that somehow excuses them if they are not being gentle, I’d like to insist that is not a venial sin but a complete falsification of your work. (107)

In other words, it is easy to be committed to pacifism / non-violence in an aggressive and violent way – I guess a bit like the evangelist who tells people ‘God loves you’ in a hostile or threatening tone.

Rather, Hauerwas is proposing (against his own instincts to fight and win against his enemies) that gentleness needs to be a virtue that characterises all of life.  Responding to Brock, he gives the example of marriage:

… What is one of the most frightening aspects of marriage? The person we are married to learns to know us better than we know ourselves. That’s why they are able to hurt us the most; they know our vulnerabilities. I think that there’s a certain sense in which it is very important that there be a gentleness between people who are married. It is a learned virtue. (108)

OK – so let’s go off on a Hauerwas inspired marriage tangent here ….

As someone who can seem reasonably agreeable to most people most of the time, who believes that following Jesus means a commitment to non-violence, and is researching and writing about love –  this chapter hit home. For it is possible to present that face and to believe those things – but not live or think or act gently.

What do you think it means to live gently in relationships? In marriage?

If gentleness, as Hauerwas says, is a learned virtue, then the tongue needs to be controlled to speak gently as a way of life. James does not mess about on this – see 3:1-12 and this:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. James 1:26

I have much learning and repenting to do for sure on how and what I speak.

On gentleness or kindness in marriage as a learned virtue see this important and practical article in The Atlantic on research into successful and failed marriages. Successful marriages the researchers found flourish on kindness – expressed a thousand ways. (The Atlantic article describes different examples of kind or unkind interactions).

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters [those with happy enduring marriages] tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

That love and relationships need sustained hard work is the language of learned virtue. The disposition of kindness (or gentleness or love) needs to be practiced and reinforced every day – it unlocks and releases potential kindness and love in return.

Kindness [as opposed to contempt] glues couples together. Research … has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

A lack of kindness, in other words the presence of aggression, hostility and especially contempt are signs that the marriage is in deep trouble. The researchers could predict with 94% success whether couples would stay together from observing their interactions around kindness (or the lack of it).

This all makes perfect sense. But, as the Brock / Hauerwas interaction reminded me, it is one thing to know something in your head, it is quite another thing to practice that virtue.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (4)

9780567669964

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Three on TEMPERAMENT, HABIT, AND THE ETHICS GUILD.

A challenging and fascinating chapter contains a conversation about Hauerwas’ relationship with the academic guild.

One thing you’ve got to like about Hauerwas – whether you agree with him or not – is his willingness to stand up and be counted in challenging a dominant consensus – whether in the academic world, in the church or particular toxic assumptions of his country’s nationalism. At one point he says this

  … what makes a life truly worthwhile is having some hold on the truth, the ability to be non-bullshit honest. (85)

Good theology is anything but boring! It cuts right to the heart of issues of justice, hope, forgiveness, love, death, money, power, sex, ambition, the environment, politics etc. Theologians, and the churches they represent should be speaking and acting as Christians within the world. And this will involve confrontation with the powers.

Hauerwas makes me uncomfortable because I wonder where is my passion for living as a Christian – a resident alien in the world. He should also make the church uncomfortable – for the last thing the church should be is boring, conventional and bourgeois, comfortably existing within the status quo of a deeply unChristian Western world. We are, after all, followers of a crucified Messiah.

Below, in response to Brock’s probing, he shows that his first ‘loyalty’ is to speak as faithfully and truthfully as he can as a Christian … and if that makes him not a very good ‘objective’ ‘impartial’ ‘professional’ academic then so be it.

SH: I assumed that part of what it meant to become a theologian is you ought to have something to say. I probably was insufficiently trained out of that presumption …  I appreciate the conceptual skills in which we were trained [at Yale], but I thought I  ought to have something to say. To have something to say, you have to be at least willing to be accountable to some community. That’s part of why the emphasis upon the church is so important to me. It’s a matter of accountability. And of course, I draw from what I’ve learned as a Christian, because I personally don’t think I have all that much to say. But what I do have to say, I have to say because I’m a Christian. So, I try to say to Christians what I think Christians should say to one another. That of course, makes me a very bad academic! (67-68)

On his comment that ‘on his own’ he doesn’t have anything that significant to say – Amen! How often do you hear something like that from a ‘famous’ Christian leader?

A Christian teacher’s authority only comes first from the Scriptures and secondarily how they have been interpreted within the ‘Great Tradition’ of the Church. There is an essential humility in attempting to be faithful to a received gift and pass it on to others. Oh, that many a self-absorbed and egotistical preacher and teacher would remember that they are under that discipline and calling!

Now, in different hands, Hauerwas’ words could become pious claptrap. But he rightly, keeps reminding us of his many limitations. Later in the chapter he says this .

I’ve always felt about half Christian and I’m never sure if I don’t enjoy being Christian more to thumb the nose at those who aren’t and who are arrogant about it, or whether I am really Christian (84) ….

That’s honest.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (3)

9780567669964This is the second in a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Two on CONTINGENCY, VIRTUE, AND HOLINESS.

The exchange below is located within a complex discussion about Aristotle and virtue. It speaks, I think, right into our contemporary Western culture and its obsession with materialism, comfort, tolerance and equality. Brock’s question about a modern distaste for strong moral convictions evokes a classic Hauerwasian response about having children, abortion, faith, hope and a determination not to let suffering have the last word.

It also speaks to me of the adventure and challenge of being Christian.

BB: … Does it admit the debate or ought we to admit the debate, “Maybe I’d fare better if I didn’t have strong moral convictions?”

SH: Well, that’s one debate that would be well worth generating, if we could! I do think that people are afraid of having strong convictions today.

BB: Life certainly seems to go more smoothly in at least in the short and middle term with less strong convictions. How else would utilitarian and consequentialist modes of reasoning become our dominant modes?

SH: It’s clearly a bourgeois ethic! Or at least the way it works out most of the time. It’s a bourgeois ethic that asks how I can get through life with as little suffering as possible, given the fact that there is nothing that I  deeply care about. My problem with those kinds of lives is, “God, how do you stand the boredom of it!” If we weren’t Christians Brian, what would we end up doing? Drinking, screwing, and dying!

I think that you see the results of the attempt to avoid strong convictions in the avoidance of having children today. I’ve always regarded the debates around abortion as a failure to get at what’s really at stake. And what’s really at stake is people’s lack of confidence that they have lives worth passing on to future generations. So, abortion really is a nihilistic practice that says we’re not going to impose the meaninglessness of our lives onto future generations. That’s really a very sad result.

The supposed lesson of the Wars of Religion was that if we could just get people to not take themselves so seriously, then maybe they wouldn’t kill anyone. Well, they end up killing their children. I have a lecture I used to give on the yuppies as the monks of modernity, because the yuppies really have an ascetical discipline; they would rather have a boat than a child. So they discipline themselves not to have children exactly because why would you want children when you would rather have a boat? What strikes me about such a way of living is it is just so sad.

I regard one of the great moral witnesses of the last centuries as refusal of Jewish people to let Christian persecution stop them from having children. That they would have children in the face of Christian hatred was an extraordinary faith in God, because it’s not that you’ve got faith in your children turning out OK, it’s that you have faith in God, who would have the Jewish people be for the world a sign that God will not give up on us. (49)

 

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (2)

9780567669964This is the first is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post.

In this excerpt, Brian Brock asks Hauerwas about his method of writing his autobiography, Hannah’s Child.

BB: Having talked a bit about the question of why you wrote the memoir, let’s talk more seriously about how you went about doing it.

For instance, in every presentation of the self in writing, the writer has to locate herself within the conventions of the culture and the writing, identifying the canon which the writer wishes to join. You’ve already, as you do in the book, talked about Trollope being your model in a sense. To write is to opt into all the exclusions and elisions that positioning oneself within a canon demands. The ambiguity of all confessional, autobiographical, or memoir writing lies in the writer having to inhabit those conventions, the conventions of the day, and therefore to present themselves as inevitably artificial constructions. Writing in this way necessarily straddles the fuzzy boundary between literary convention and personal memory, and memory
itself is organized by conventional tropes and frames of reference. I take this to be one of the core reasons that you’ve resisted the comparison of Hannah’s Child to Augustine’s Confessions , and you only very guardedly and partially embrace this connection in your responses to those reviewers who have suggested it. You proposed instead that you stand closer to the tradition of the English realist novelists. That’s a positioning in relation to an established canon that I’d like to understand how to negotiate.

You’ve already said that you thought long and hard about how to write the book and the core question there had to be of what form would convey rather than threaten what you believe is most important about the particularity of your own life and theology. Is that right?

SH: I think that’s right. It’s lovely put.

It’s always important to try to read an author for what they don’t say, as well as what they say. There’s much in Hannah’s Child that isn’t said. I tried to avoid the “personal,” because I didn’t want— and this has to do with the point I made at the outset today— I didn’t want Hannah’s Child to be a legitimation of “my experience.” So I didn’t talk very much about my experience.

I didn’t notice a trope that is much used when I was writing the book, but folks kind enough to read the book have called my attention to it. The trope “I didn’t understand.” For example, I say I didn’t understand what it meant to go to seminary, I didn’t understand what it meant to marry Anne, and I didn’t understand what it meant to move from Notre Dame to Duke. I didn’t. I really didn’t, because I’m the kind of person that tends to make decisions and be willing to live them out, without having thought them through! That has worked out OK for me. I’ve talked with friends in the academy who have had a job of offer, and they use phrases like, “I’m not sure this would be a good career move.” I could never use a phrase like that. It’s never occurred to me that I have a career that I needed to be one place rather than another for the advancement of a career. My life has happened to me. That’s a wonderful thing. (8)

 

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (1)

A wee while ago I posted a book notice about Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Kevin Hargaden and featuring a series of extended discussions between Brian Brock [BB] and the man himself [SH].

The book is a creative format that draws you into what I’d call an ’embodied theology’. By this I mean Hauerwas has been willing to open up his life and thought beyond what emerges in Hannah’s Child. Indeed he admits he may not have known what he was getting himself into when he agreed to the idea of a series of conversations. [That theme of not knowing or understanding pops up throughout the dialogues. It’s another aspect of SH’s honesty and his humility (this might not be a word that many associate with SH but I think it is true).

I put ‘life’ and ‘thought’ together, because a by-product of reading these discussions is a reminder of how none of us are Cartesian ‘brains on a stick’  – disembodied objective minds rationally deducing truth with a capital T. All of us exist, think, live and work in specific contexts by which we are profoundly shaped, and Hauerwas is no different.

He’s lived a pretty tumultuous American life: full of friends, a lot of pain, a deeply ambivalent attitude to the idea of modern America, and an endless energetic work habit. It’s the latter that has propelled him from being an outsider to an insider; from the son of bricklayer to one of the most prolific and significant theological voices in the world. One thing he’s not is dull. So one of the beneficial, and perhaps unplanned, outcomes of what are deeply theological conversations, is the new light that is cast on Hauerwas the man.

I’m not drawing straight lines here between Hauerwas’ theology and his life. BB and SH talk about this issue a fair bit, particularly in chapter 1 on the writing of Hannah’s Child. Hauerwas resists any easy deconstructions (not that BB is attempting this – he’s far too astute. Heck at times, such is the depth and insight lying behind BB’s questions that it seems that BB knows and understands SH better than SH does!).

But what comes out in Hannah’s Child and in this book, is how Hauerwas’ writing projects, his idea of a ‘career’, his marriages – the whole trajectory of his life – just sort of unfolded, unplanned. This is not to say he was not ambitious and driven. But there is a real sense that he lived ‘in the moment’. Without complaining or much introspection he just got on with things regardless of the circumstances of his life (and at times they were grim). There is a sense of someone who survived and flourished in and through a relentless work routine. And, it must be said, the God-given gift of a brilliant mind.

Out of all of this contingency the famous ‘Stanley Hauerwas’ emerged.

One of my favourite exchanges captures SH’s innate ‘anti-success’ approach to theology in general and being ‘Stanley Hauerwas’ in particular. Brock brings out a lovely reverse parallel to Saint Paul. In Corinthians Paul describes his willingly embraced experience of suffering and rejection despite his right to be called an apostle. Hauerwas distances himself from being revered as ‘Stanley Hauerwas’ and insists that his ‘success’ is mostly due to factors outside of himself – especially his friends.

BB.  You and he are making very similar gestures but to opposite ends, it seems to me. He is being treated like rubbish, even though he’s an apostle, and so he tells his story to counter that. You’re being treated like the hero, so you talk about your friends to puncture that. Is that correct?

SH. Yes. I didn’t write my story to say, “Do this.” It’s the story I had to tell, and it had to be told that way because that’s the way my life has been lived. Namely, I’ve always been saved by friends who by claiming me as a friend make me more than I am. It turns out by making me more than I am, I am not the same “I am” I was before the friendship.  (7)

That’s a flavour of the conversations. Here are the chapter headings that follow a very well written Foreward by Kevin. I’m not going to review the book, but in a few follow up posts will clip a favourite exchange from each chapter (hard to select one but will try).

FOREWARD. Kevin Hargaden.

  1. BIOGRAPHY, THEOLOGY, AND RACE. Special focus here on the ethics and mechanics of writing Hannah’s Child. I think this was my favourite chapter in the book. Fascinating.
  2. CONTINGENCY, VIRTUE, AND HOLINESS. The densest chapter – on metaphysics and the implication that the ultimate contrast between God and all that exists.
  3. TEMPERAMENT, HABIT, AND THE ETHICS GUILD. What it means in practice to be a Christian ethicist.
  4. ECCLESIAL POLITICS, PEACEMAKING, AND THE ESCHATOLOGY
    OF WORSHIP. Discussions around the church and peacemaking and the transforming hope of the Christian narrative.
  5. ARE CASUISTRY, NATURAL LAW, AND VIRTUE METHODS? Brock really does interrogate Hauerwas here on his method of theological ethics.
  6. JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER. Themes most closely associated with Hauerwas the anabaptist. He is pushed hard here on specifics.
  7. MEDICAL ETHICS, DISABILITY, AND THE CROSS. The upside-down ‘anti-success’ kingdom emphasis of Hauerwas, especially on disability.
  8. PREACHING, PRAYING, AND PRIMARY CHRISTIAN LANGUAGE. Explores how prayer is central to Hauerwas’ thinking and writing. Reveals particularly, I think, a deeply engrained Christian habit of prayer that flows from a lived faith. This ventures into areas that many academic theologians fear to tread. As ever SH kicks against false modernist conventions that attempt to divide faith and reason.

AFTERWORD: Brian Brock and Kevin Hargaden.

PS. I happily received a free copy, but unhappily the book costs £85.

 

 

 

 

Interrogating Hauerwas – book notice

My friend Kevin Hargaden has had the privilege and task of listening to and editing a series of conversations between his two Texan PhD Supervisors, Brian Brock and a certain Stanley Hauerwas. He’s done a great job.

The result is Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas, to be published in February 2017. Here is the endorsement that I’ve had the pleasure to write:

“This is no ordinary conversation. Brian Brock’s deep familiarity with the entire Hauerwas corpus, astute and persistent probing, combined with an ability to push Hauerwas hard, results in an important book – one that offers new perspectives on both Hauerwas the man and the integrative importance of Christology and ecclesiology within his diverse theological vision. Following the discussion is demanding. It is also an education – not only in Hauerwasian theology but in truth-telling, the art of conversation, wisdom, virtue, suffering, prayer, love, hope and joy. All told, a richly rewarding eavesdropping experience.” –  Patrick Mitchel, Irish Bible Institute.

I read it in bed in a mammoth session over a weekend when not feeling very well. It was a wonderful excuse to do nothing else but devour this book and forget about the rest of life for a couple of days. While these two men are obviously very good friends, the conversations are far from ad hoc chats. Brian Brock is frankly rather awesome (I can say that of an American) in his depth of research combined with an ability ‘interrogate Hauerwas’ in a way that very few people would be equipped to do.

The resultant conversations are erudite and – I’ve got to be honest here, you can’t BS about Hauerwas, he’s the one who says we must be first and foremost truth-tellers! – at times I had to read and re-read to keep up with what was going on.  The level of learning and the art of conversation is remarkable, but more that this, what comes through is the vibrant, attractive (I’m a huge fan) and passionate humanity of Hauerwas.

The thing is he is just simply right about a whole lot of things. And he writes beautifully, whatever the subject. The discussion on his writing of Hannah’s Child was fascinating in how seriously Hauerwas takes the creative art of writing.

What’s the best way in to Hauerwas? Opinions welcome.

Three suggestions to begin:

His autobiography Hannah’s Child is wonderful – I read it again a while ago and it helped me enormously at the time.

The Peaceable Kingdom is terrific – I recall thinking that Hauerwas was extolling the benefits of narrative theology long before it became popular and fashionable.

War and the American Difference is classic polemical and prophetic Hauerwas, calling Christians to an alternative ecclesiological body politic to that of militarism, nationalism and violence that characterise contemporary America. (And that just might be a message that needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops in the next few years …)

Who Owns Marriage? (3) counter-cultural witness

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 2 in which Nick unpacks evangelical beliefs and values around marriage, sex and society.

Nick’s discussion of four core values for evangelical thinking about same-sex marriage forms a really helpful and honest chapter. I particularly liked the description of relationship-based morality which gets to the heart of evangelicalism ‘at its best’. At the end of this discussion Nick concludes that

“an Evangelical passion for holiness, and our search for morality, should lead us more to self-examination and repentance than to an obsession with judging and condemning the actions of others.”

This is so refreshing to hear! In a ‘culture war’ any admission that ‘our’ side might not be completely in the right is an admission of weakness. Nick’s appeal for evangelicals to be self-critically reflective shows that he has no interest in scoring points or trying to control culture. The most significant challenge for all Christians in this debate is not winning a vote ‘from the top down’ but embodying the transforming beauty of loving marriages from ‘the bottom up’. For the reality is that Christians of any hue are fooling themselves if they think that marriage can be ‘saved’ by defeating the same-sex Referendum in May 2015. Trusting in the law to preserve or enforce ethical or moral good is a Christendom instinct and is, I believe, a profoundly mistaken way to witness to the gospel of Christ. Ireland’s recent experience of Christendom should have taught us that. For the reality is that traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble in Ireland. Over 50% of children in Limerick Ireland are now born outside of marriage (the figure nationally is about 35% which is similar to EU averages). Relational breakdown is pervasive. The Referendum is only a symptom of a much deeper process of cultural transformation driven by the West’s embrace of capitalism and consumerism: the autonomous individual; freedom of choice; privatised morality; the pursuit of happiness; and the right to express our own identity – whatever it is (within the law).

The 1937 Irish Constitution was framed in a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. It was assumed that the state had a ‘maximal’ role in shaping law to reflect the Catholic values of the vast majority of the population. Remember De Valera’s vision of his ideal Ireland? It was a place of frugality, spirituality and simplicity in which Ireland’s isolation protected the people from the unspiritual forces of modernisation, materialism and capitalism. Those hopes now seem quaint in a globalised world. Let me illustrate it this way. At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying “No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation.” In his day, the individual was subordinate to the greater cause of the nation. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say “No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.” Now the nation is subordinate to the rights of the individual – and is legislating accordingly.

It is in this sort of context that Christians are to live and witness. This is where Nick’s call for repentance and self-reflection is so important. First we need to look at ourselves. How well are we living up to the high ideal of Christian marriage that Nick describes? The American ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual satisfaction is a very modern development that has led the church to neglect the public and political nature of sex in Christian theology. If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.

Of course love is a pretty important part of Christian marriage! But I like the way Hauerwas challenges popular perceptions as he talks about a minister asking a young couple getting married if they love one another;

“What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you are in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”

If this sounds strange maybe it is because we have been more shaped by our consumerist and individualist culture that we would like to admit. This isn’t the place for detailed discussion of the development of Christian marriage since Bible times save to make a few brief points. For centuries marriage was a communal and political ‘institution’ that provided the context for sex, the raising of children, giving them legal status, and the ordering of property rights. Interpersonal love had no significant place in Christian marriage from the New Testament, up through the Middle Ages to the Reformation. For much of this time marriage was seen as a lower spiritual option than the religious life of celibacy. After all, both Jesus and Paul (a widower?) were single men and Paul, while seeing both marriage and singleness as good valid options, preferred the latter (1 Cor. 7). More negatively, Augustine’s theology of sex as the means by which original sin is transmitted and the only legitimate sex within marriage being for the purpose of procreation would cast a long shadow over Christian attitudes to sex. It was at the Reformation that marriage received a new theological assessment. While rejecting the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, Luther considered marriage a God-given and most natural form of life, to be lived in faith by the grace of God. Sexuality is a good gift of God, to such a degree that Luther could not imagine a woman or man living without sex unless they had been given the rare gift of chastity. He also spoke against forced marriages and the need for the couple to have desire for each other. This was a new appreciation of women as marital partners. He, with other Reformers, saw marriage as a high calling, a vocation for a couple to bring up their children well. Marriage in this sense is far more than mere legitimation of sexual desire or a private partnership for mutual fulfilment.

Hopefully, this quick review helps explain Hauerwas’s comment. The emergence of love as the overriding motivation for marriage is a recent development, yet ‘mere’ romantic love or hopes of conjugal bliss will not sustain a marriage through difficult times. An authentically Christian view of marriage needs to be robust.

It’s time to make some concluding points (and I’ve run out of space to comment on chapters 3 and 4!):

First, an authentically Christian view of marriage stands in increasingly sharp contrast to the personalised romantic understanding of marriage as a private affair between two individuals of whatever gender that now dominates Irish and Western culture. The basic orientation of a Christian marriage is outward, towards the church community and wider world. The man and woman’s love is a transformative gift of God that goes beyond their mutual desire and enjoyment to serve and bless others. Marriage in this sense is a pathway of God’s grace. As Christians are by definition people who have been forgiven, so they are to be people of forgiveness (Roms. 15:7). For without forgiveness a marriage will not survive, grow and flourish. The calling of Christians to get married and stay married is a sign of the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness being worked out in everyday life. This vision of marriage demands my complete self-giving to my other and a willingness to be transformed by that relationship of difference as it is worked out in relationship with God and with others in the community of faith. All of this is to say that for Christians, sex and marriage serve a very different vision and purpose than they do in our contemporary society.

This is why I agree with Nick Park’s suggestions about civil partnerships for all and the state withdrawing from the marriage business in Chapter 4. For the state to take upon itself the right to extend a redefined notion of ‘marriage’ is exactly the wrong direction to be going. This is why I will be voting ‘No’. Justice and equality can better be served by civil partnerships for all. It is a very curious aspect of the Referendum debate how marriage is being viewed as an idealised status to which everyone has a right to aspire. The law should not be used primarily as a stamp of societal approval and recognition of personal desires – which is what the legislation is primarily about. (But neither do I believe the sky will suddenly fall in if and when it passes).

Second, more recent emphasis in Christian marriage since the Reformation on the necessity and high calling of marriage has actually marginalised the equally if not more valid Christian calling of singleness. As a result many single Christians can be made to feel second-class citizens within the church. We need to beware the ‘idolatry’ of marriage and the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation. The fact that Christians are followers of an unmarried Jewish man should be a reminder that marriage and sex is not essential to live a completely fulfilled life! Also, Jesus’ teaching on the temporary nature of marriage in this life should also give us pause about unduly exalting marriage as the ultimate goal of happiness, personal fulfilment or affirmation of identity (Luke 20:34-5).

Third, it’s fascinating just how counter-cultural the early church’s practice of family and marriage was. The first Christians were accused of undermining the family structures of the Roman Empire by allowing men, women, Roman citizens and even slaves to be baptised into their community quite independently of the permission of the patriarchal head of the Roman household. The church became the ‘household’ of God (a word used frequently of the church in the NT) whose head was the risen Lord not the pater familias. It’s hard for us to imagine how radical this was in a highly stratified world. Just imagine a slave with the gift of teaching instructing his master in the church gathering! Or a woman prophet prophesying to a mixed gender community. The basis for membership of this new family was faith in Christ. Their common father was God whom they could even call ‘abba’. Anyone could join – across the great gender, social and religious boundaries of the ancient world (Gal. 3:28). It was to be a united household marked by love, acceptance and forgiveness not power or control. Significantly it did not require the establishment of biological families. The household of God was to be ‘propagated’ by witness and mission. The goal or hope of the new community was future orientated to a new creation to come.

None of this was to diminish family structures but it was a radical departure from a Roman way of seeing the family and the world. For this reason the early church was seen as a threat to accepted societal norms and posed an implicit (non-violent) challenge to Empire. In time, this challenge would result in violent persecution by the state.

I mention all this neither to suggest that Christians today are about to face state persecution nor to equate the Irish government with the Roman Empire! My point is that for Christians, family, marriage, sex and sexuality is part and parcel of their identity to live counter-culturally. Christians belong to a different story to that of the world. During Christendom this distinction got covered over and many Christians assumed the state would always be ‘on their side’. As we move more and more into a post-Christendom secular Ireland, the gap is widening fast. The same-sex Referendum is a reminder that the state does not remotely share a Christian view of marriage and the wider culture reflects the values of hyper-consumerism more than any other belief system. This should not be a surprise to Christians. The challenge it poses to us is what does it look like to be a counter-cultural community of Christians in 21st century Ireland?

Finally, linked to that last question and to Nick’s comments about evangelicals and social justice, I believe that there is a question that evangelicals too often overlook or ignore in this whole debate. Namely, how do we respond to those that are different to us; who have opposing objectives; whom might even be seen as ‘enemies’? Jesus’ command is pretty clear – love. At the very least love means listening well. It must mean opposing stereotypes and ‘doing unto others as we would have them do unto us’ in terms of how we speak and think. To love gay people will include building communities where everyone is welcomed and respected without fear of being singled out, shamed, embarrassed or judged. Can evangelical churches be places where people of same-sex orientation can feel secure enough to be open about their sexuality as they explore the Christian faith? Are Irish evangelicals ready or able to encourage, affirm and rejoice in an openly gay celibate Christian using his or her gifts in ministry in their local church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

and a bit more Hauerwas

And a bit more of vintage Hauerwas from War and the American Difference

The political novelty that God brings into the world is a community of those who serve instead of ruling, who suffer instead of inflicting suffering, whose fellowship crosses social lines instead of reinforcing them. The new Christian community in which walls are broken down not by human idealism or by democratic legalism but by the work of Christ is not only a vehicle of the gospel or a fruit of the gospel; it is the good news. It is not merely the agent of mission or the constituency of a mission agency. It is the mission. (167)

The church is the gospel, the church is mission.  By this he means to break down any abstraction whereby there is a gap between what we say we believe and how we actually live.  The Christian community ‘performs’ the gospel as well as believing it; it ‘performs’ mission as well as subscribing to the idea of mission and witness.

I have huge sympathy with this. The Christian faith not simply a good idea, but a transformed identity; a transformed life; a transformed purpose.; a life shaped by a new story – that of belonging to the risen Lord, Jesus the Messiah of Israel.

So deep is the Enlightenment disjunction between ‘faith’ and ‘knowing’ that the former is privatised and individualised and separated from public life. Hauerwas will have none of this. The gospel is public truth; the church is publicly to embody that gospel.

But this is also of course deeply uncomfortable. If the church ‘is’ the gospel; if the church ‘is’ mission – then how many churches would we gladly and unhesitatingly send our friends to ‘see and taste that God is good’? And if not, why not?

And a PS

While I see his point, for me that language here is too close to identifying the church with the kingdom of God / with the gospel.  While there is real danger of abstraction (look at what we believe, not what sort of community we are!), I would still want to create some distance between the church and the gospel.  The gospel is the ‘gospel of God’ – it is the good news of his saving action in his Son. The church is formed by the Spirit in response to that divine initiative.,

To equate church and gospel is to conflate Christ and church. This, it seems to me, comes close to the classic Protestant objection to Roman Catholic ecclesiology whereby ‘Christ and his church are one’ with all the problems associated with such an identification. By problems I mean where the Church (and its Pope) has unquestioned authority; where salvation can become sacramentalised (to put it crudely, once you are ‘in’ you are OK); and where the kingdom of God tends to be limited to the structures of the institution and so on.

To be sure, the sort of upside-down kingdom community Hauerwas talks of in the quote above is a long way from this, but do you think, as I do, that the language of church = gospel opens the door towards an unhealthily exalted ecclesiology? Or am I too pessimistic about the possibility of a transformed community of the Spirit?!

Hauerwas and ‘war and the Irish difference’

I’m writing this on a train sitting in Connolly Station. On the table in front of me is a book I’ve been reading by Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity. It is superb.

Back when, I wrote a book on evangelicals and nationalism in Northern Ireland but I can only dream of writing like Hauerwas on ‘War and the Irish difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity’.

In a quite brilliant chapter he unravels ‘Why war is a moral necessity for America’.  In it, he traces how the Civil War descended into a ‘total war’, vigorously supported by the clergy. The moral stakes were raised to justify obliteration of the other side. God and nation were joined together, the latter being given a messianic destiny that demanded utter loyalty – and utter violence. For both North and South, “Christianity offered the only terms out of which national identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued.’ [Hauerwas quoting Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: a moral history of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), p.43]. Blood sacrifice and martyrdom for the noble national cause sacralised the war, elevating it to a moral battle. And nowhere is this more plainly seen in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work for which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people , by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

A nation determined by such words, Hauerwas proposes, means that it does not have the capacity to keep war limited.

Which brings me back to Connolly Station. Just across the platform on the wall is a plaque inscribed with the 1916 Irish Declaration of Independence. It begins

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

The context is different, the theology of blood sacrifice for national freedom the same. ‘Just war’ or ‘just violence’ lies at the heart of Irish identity and history, just as it does for America. And the unleashed power of sacred nationalism could not be controlled in Ireland either – it led straight to a vicious civil war and later to 30 years of IRA violence.

Later, Hauerwas talks of the silence surrounding war and killing.

To kill, in war or in any circumstance, creates a silence – and certainly it is right for silence to surround the taking of life. After all, the life taken is not ours to take. Those who kill, even when such killing is assumed to be legitimate, bear the burden that what they have done makes them “different”. How do you tell the story of killing? Killing shatters speech, ends communication, isolating us into different worlds whose difference we cannot even acknowledge. (67)

This is why, I think, the Irish Civil War was virtually erased from popular consciousness throughout the 20th Century. The shame and pain of Irish ‘fratricide’ was too deep to dare uncover.

And such is the stain of killing that establishing the legitimacy of violence becomes of crucial importance.  The battle for legitimacy of past violence continues to dominate Northern politics.

But, Hauerwas argues, the Christian alternative to war is worship and reconciliation.

The church does not so much have a plan or a policy to make war less horrible or to end war. Rather, the church is the alternative to the sacrifice of war in a war-weary world. The church is the end of war … Christ has shattered the silence that overwhelms our killing and restores those who have killed, because his sacrifice overwhelms our killing and restores us to a life of peace. Indeed we believe that it remains possible for those who have killed to be reconciled with those they have killed. This is no sentimental bonding represented by the comradeship of battle. This is reconciliation made possible by the hard wood of the cross. (69)

Comments, as ever, welcome.