Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (10) what is good preaching?

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 is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.

Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons? 

I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).

One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.

I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:

Those are extremely interesting observations. I  always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I  hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.

To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.

And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.

… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)

He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :

But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)

Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?

Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires.  The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.

At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.

What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)

Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.

There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:

This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)

Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.

I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.

Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.

On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:

BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)

This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.

That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (9): Medical Ethics, Disability and the Cross

I’m deliberately posting this on Easter Sunday – the content is profoundly appropriate.

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 is an excerpt from Chapter Seven, Medical Ethics, Disability and the Cross.

How do we think of modern medicine? What questions do we need to be asking as Christians when facing life and death decisions? In whom or what do we trust and how is this revealed in what we expect or hope medicine to do for us? What should we be saying NO and YES to?

This is a long conversation ranging over a number of topics. The thread tying them together is Hauerwas’ work in critiquing liberal modernist assumptions within the practice of medicine and how ‘the disabled’ are treated.

As Brian Brock puts it at one point .. “the technical apparatus of caregiving, organized by liberal society, gets to define the field” (201). This is the tyranny of the expert; how power is ceded to the medical professionals : how we put our trust in medicine to such a point that –  as Hauerwas likes to say – we begin to believe that it will enable us to get out of life alive.

Books discussed are Suffering Presence and Naming the Silences. This post only touches on one aspect of the discussion – Brian & Stephanie Brock’s encounter of the health care system through the experience of their disabled son Adam, who also has leukemia and a degenerative eye condition. It’s a very honest and moving account.

Naming the Silences (1990) talks about the need to hear and listen to those actually suffering before talking about suffering. It also hones in on the issue of facing childhood leukemia. Brock, the interviewer, is coming at this discussion from first hand experience of both. He comments that

I feel in an especial position to revisit it and probe the whole theology of modern medicine and the role of church and family in offering a better way. (214)

These are my words and they may or may not be accurate to the discussion: the issue here is how the juggernaut of medical professionalism and high-tech treatments swamps our humanity. We treat because we can, but all sorts of ethical and moral questions do not get asked.

For example, in the children’s leukemia ward, progress of how to treat childhood leukemia is mostly made by what is, in effect, experimentation on children. There will be little benefit for the child being experimented on, but over time advances are made … and so goes the process. But this is a process that is largely hidden from parents and children. (215-16)

Brian Brock tells of he and wife fighting to have their son treated free from involvement in medical experimentation – and how incredibly difficult it was. Hauerwas adds:

SH: I was talking to one oncologist who said, “You know, we’re pretty good now at curing hard tumors.” And I said, “How did you get there?” And he said, “Oh we just used the drugs we had. We’ve had them on hand but we just got better at doing it.” I said, “How’d you do that?” And he said, “We experimented on kids.” And I said, “Did they die?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Did you tell the parents it was experimentation?” He said, “No, we told them it was therapy.”

Even if they had told them it was experimentation, many parents of course are so desperate to have their children live they’ll say, “Oh yes, do whatever you think is necessary.” I do think that what’s crucial here is a truthful medicine, in which the parents have some sense that if they want to use these experimental techniques on their kids, that their children may well suffer pain they wouldn’t otherwise have suffered and will also die. (216)

Which leads a bit further on to this exchange ..

BB: We are in an odd kind of Mobius-strip world in which medicine can then only be funded because it is experimental and going to produce more high-tech medicine.

SH: I keep saying that Americans are committed to the idea that if we just get smart enough then with our medical technologies we will be able to get out of life alive! It’s not going to happen.

BB: Taking it back down to the concrete level: even with all the improvements in success rates, leukemia is still a terrible disease to treat because what you are treating is the bone marrow. You can’t get to it without a needle or a drill. And you treat it by injecting poison that is so toxic to the body that you have to put it in an arterial vein. If you put it into a peripheral vein it will burn right through the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissue. This means that when the disease is discovered you need both to get the chemo going and to surgically implant a port, so you don’t burn up too many of the peripheral veins with the chemo. But the kid at the point of diagnosis is pretty sick, so their immune system is not working very well.

I say all that because I vividly remember sitting on the edge of the hospital bed with Adam on my lap and holding the wound on his chest from where they’d put the port in. My despair was complete as I saw the incision slowly splitting open because his skin and his blood were unable to muster the strength to bind the wound. I tell this story because leukemia is a disease that leaves no marks at all, but the treatment leaves incredible wounds. I know people would find your comment about the barbarism of those treatments offensive, and yet any truthful account would say that it’s the treatment that is so scarring. You cut and stick and poison the kid because the only alternative is their dying. (218-9)

And Brock adds this from the perspective of a parent of son who is mentally delayed and largely non-verbal.

Adam hurts but he can’t verbalize where it hurts. He thus seems incapable of being incorporated within this medical narrative. In this, he seems to be more than a canary in a coalmine— another way that you often talk about disabled people— because he reveals modern medicine for what it is. Because he is impermeable to the mutual pretenses that govern our lives, for him there seems to be no other reality than trust and communion, or its lack. Without a horizon of future or past, he demands presence. (219)

And it is this demand for presence that meant that the Brocks decided that they would not subject him to the cruelty of a bone marrow transplant and 6 weeks in a bubble to avoid infection. To be separated from physical presence would be beyond bearing.

It did not come to this –  but these are the sorts of questions that Hauerwas and Brock are probing and encouraging Christians to think hard about rather than unthinkingly go with the modernist flow of whatever the medical experts say.

It would be wrong to end here without some more theological comment. At the end of the chapter Brock raises the idea that disability is a hermeneutical key to reading Hauerwas. By this he means that as Christians we are to live by and under the cross.

The Christian faith is not a success story. It is God’s glory revealed and victory won at the cross. The church and all theology can never move past the cross. We live in a world that Hauerwas has spent his life trying to engage Christianly – a world of war, pain, mental illness, physical illness and death, slavery, patriarchy and so on. (237)

He is, I think, an ‘anti-success theologian’. He takes seriously that the foolishness of God is wiser than the bankrupt wells of human wisdom.  And that is profoundly counterintuitive in a North American culture dedicated to success, happiness and positive thinking.

Comments, as ever, welcome.



Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (8) on Gender

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 is a second excerpt from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

This is a longish post – but worth bearing with I suggest. These are important and relevant themes for Christians trying to negotiate the modern minefield of gender and sex.

In this excerpt Brock and Hauerwas discuss the contemporary fragmentation of previously accepted ideas about gender. Below, we break into a discussion about how we understand masculinity and femininity. Hauerwas treads a wise path here – he wants to resist elevation of relative cultural forms of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identity and roles (the popular equating of ‘biblical’ gender roles with mid-20th century American family values among some strands of evangelicalism for example), But he also wants to acknowledge the sheer variety of what it means to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ and the difficulty in defining what each means.

Brock links this to contemporary battles over gender and the current rejection of gender distinction in favour of a swirling kaleidoscope of gender identities where nothing is fixed. Both men agree that dismissing the essential differences between male and female (the rejection of heteronormativity) is a false step.

SH: Well I’ve always distrusted those kinds of descriptions [defined ideas of masculinity and femininity] because they so invite either biological determinism or social constructivism of one kind or the other. Men and women have bodies that are specific and also different. What forms that difference takes, I think, is open to unbelievable variation. I don’t know that there’s any one Christian way of displaying what that difference should look like. I would hope that Christians wouldn’t necessarily underwrite the modes of what counts for feminine and masculine in the various societies that they find themselves.

BB: If I am hearing you rightly, it sounds like you think that not only do they never end, but these negotiations about the force of gender should never end. But also, conceptually speaking, one way to end the discussion is to deny that there is a distinction at all.

SH: Right! There is a distinction.

BB: We just don’t know how appropriately to acknowledge and respect it. What we do know is that it is patriarchal and imperialistic to have a claim about distinction at all in the new ideology. Such claims ought to be resisted. The so called rejection of heteronormativity, in other words, you think is a misguided solution?

SH: Absolutely. (186)

Brock then develops the conversation, astutely describing the current status quo in the West – how Christians after long being cultural ‘insiders’ are finding themselves as cultural ‘outsiders’. The new sexual morality can, I think, be seen as a particularly strong form of liberation ideology – throwing off the shackles of oppressive patriarchy and its restrictive and judgemental power structures in favour of freedom of the individual to express their identity in whatever way is true to their inner self – whether male, female, transgender, queer or whatever. Such is the momentum of the new morality that Brock is surely right to observe that there will be less and less legal space for dissent from the new consensus.

In other words, a question facing the Church in a post-Christendom West is what will it mean to be faithful disciples of Jesus in a culture that increasingly sees Christian beliefs about sex and gender as morally and legally objectionable?

BB: … But Christians now are having to learn what it means to be on the wrong side of a rapidly changing moral convention. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of sexuality, which encompasses the problems related to gender violence as well as a long history of violent suppression of same-sex relationships and other formerly marginalized expressions of human sexuality. We are rapidly reaching the conclusion of the first phase of the transition that started in the 1960s with the coming out of marginal lifestyles that had been vigorously excluded for centuries and is concluding with their being near the center of the cultural mainstream. It’s a transition from one moral regime to another. It will probably for a little while longer be possible to get away with saying, “It’s not clear to me if gay relationships can be called marriage,” for instance. But pretty soon this will be seen as by definition a bigoted or an unjust belief and if Christian theologians want to explore such positions they are going to have to do so on the wrong side of the moral, legal and cultural law. (187)

In this new landscape, Brock asks Hauerwas what advice he has for Christians living in unmapped territory. Hauerwas’ response implies a willingness to speak and take the consequences – allied to his oft articulated criticism of the failure of Christian marital practices and their destructive conformity to Western culture.

SH: … My basic advice is to say what you think you can say honestly and clearly. I think also the word “courage” is probably going to be necessary, because the demand given the Supreme Court decision for recognition of gay marriage is just going to be a presumption that you just have to accept.  I can’t accept it, as much as I would like to. If you think that marriage is an institution in Christianity that has a unitary and sacramental end, I cannot also see how it doesn’t have the procreative end. It doesn’t mean that every marriage has to be procreative. But marriage as an institution does. I am more than ready to acknowledge that gay people can be as good as parents— if not better— than nongay people. The question is, finally, where do you get children from? For me, it’s not going to turn on any one biblical text. It’s really an ontological question that involves the navel. I just wish that Christian marital practices were sufficient to sustain the acknowledgment of significant gay committed relationships, but our practices are awful, because romantic conceptions of marriage have just destroyed us.  (188-9)

What Hauerwas is talking about in the that last sentence, is how, once Christians have often joined the world in how they have viewed and practiced marriage. Namely, in idolising the idea of the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation, we have made almost incomprehensible that marriage and sex are not essential to live a completely fulfilled life. In treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual happiness, we have bought in to modern ideas of romance and individualism. I have written elsewhere that “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.”

The exchange on gender closes with these interesting observations by Brock about Christian defence of marriage.

BB: Christianly speaking it [marriage] has to be a gift that the church, both men and women in it, are so vulnerable here. But I think that vulnerability produces an anxiety that is easily displaced into the debates in which we are so angrily embroiled, about protecting the traditional family from interlopers, namely from people with sexualities that are different. As if the disarray of the old patriarchal ordering. of domestic relations was the gays fault! I think the great demonic twist of this historical moment is the lack of exemplars that I was talking about earlier. There seems to be a kind of white- knuckle approach to marriage that came to be the norm over the last thirty or forty years. We’re going to hang on to something that doesn’t seem to be working with the collapse of that old patriarchal model. The new twist is that the white- knucklers now are being called violently bigoted, and it’s just leading to chaos. (191-2)

The conversation closes with Brock asking SH his response to the question of how Christians can live up to the strong moral claims of their faith that ‘that produce, or should produce, countercultural living.’

Hauerwas admits he does not know the answers – but he knows where to look: – in the Great Tradition of the Church and in prayer to God.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (7) on non-violence and Yoder’s sins

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 Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.

But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.

Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.

Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America.  Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)

And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,

People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)

I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjust practices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.

What Hauerwas wants to see is real alternatives on the table for Christians – a bit like the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge I guess.

Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.

BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?

SH:     No.

BB:     So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?

SH:     They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

BB:   And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?

SH:     Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.

BB:     That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before.  (178)

What do you think of these practical positions?

Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.

Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’

Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.

But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)

Hauerwas also comments that

SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)

I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.

There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’.  Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.

Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.

So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (6) repentance

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 five, ARE CASUISTRY, NATURAL LAW, AND VIRTUE METHODS?

We’re into a pretty technical discussion in this chapter about Hauerwas’ method of theological ethics. Within a closing dialogue on habits and virtue, Brian Brock’s questions lead into this exchange about repentance (151-52)

As I read this, it is all connected back to Hauerwas’ emphasis on truthfulness and honesty – with ourselves, with others and with God.

It is also an interesting take on discerning the will of God and making decisions. Many is the time we pray, take advice, and make decisions that seem the best – but later, if things have not worked out, we look back and wonder what the heck happened there? This can lead to all sorts of theological contortions and introspection – how did we get God’s will wrong? But for Hauerwas this is not the real question – he is much more focused on how we take ownership of our decisions and repent of our mistakes.

BB: Could you explain how you understand repentance to work within your journey account? … How wedded are you to the claim that Christians should know they are making progress in the Christian life?

SH: We tend to think that the moral life is prospective, namely we always think, “How do I get it right in the future?” when in fact the most powerful form of our lives is how to make sense of our lives retrospectively. We think, in terms of prospective decisions, if we just get clear on fundamental principles and what the facts are, we’ll get it right. And then later we look back on those decisions when we thought we knew what we were doing and have to say, “My God! How could I have done that?” Well, you must take responsibility for it if you are to be who you are. And that means you must be able to repent in a way that the past becomes your past. So repentance makes possible our acknowledgment that when we didn’t know what we were doing, what we did was wrong and we must take responsibility for it. Otherwise, you will not have a self. So that’s the way I think about repentance.

And he follows up with this comment

SH: What usually messes us up is not what we do but our need to give justification for what we do. So one of the disciplines of the Christian life is to learn that I do not have to justify my life, but rather, I can acknowledge I’ve lived a life less than it should be. And yet, I don’t have to go on reproducing that. That’s a form of repentance that I want to say is crucial for our being able to think that we have lives worth living.

To which Brian Brock feeds back and summarises eloquently what he’s hearing from Hauerwas

BB: So, in fact, there’s a perception. We could refer to that as a revelation because you have been doing that all along, it just never occurred to you and it never appeared to you as morally relevant or you had strong internal rationalizations and deceptions to keep on doing it. So the questions of how repentance happens internally is going to be tied up with something that broke in on us to reveal a whole pattern of thinking and behavior as needing to be given up. And that looks a lot closer to some of the biblical language about the dependence for sanctification on the work of the Holy Spirit.

SH: I’m sure that’s right

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)


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.
    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.