While I love reading Hauerwas’ (the man who wants Protestants to be more Catholic and Catholics to be more like Mennonites) critique of American Christians idolatrous devotion to the nation-state and its war machine, there are a few things about his underlying theology that continue to puzzle me.
First of all, given our tendency to think of the U.S. as God’s chosen nation, I appreciate his desire to clarify the gospel from the world or larger culture. However, I am a bit worried about his decision to speak of the world as divided between “Christians” and “pagans.” It is not that I disagree with his critique of the un-christlike (and even antichrist-like nature) of the role of war as secular ecclesiology and soteriology. Instead, I believe that to speak this way is to engage in a type of supersessionism. It seems that, biblically, the world is divided up between not “Christians” and “pagans,” but “Israel” and “Gentiles.” To speak of Christians and pagans as Hauerwas/Pinches does reeks of a type of triumphalism associated with the worst aspects of Christendom—a fact which is especially problematic for Hauerwas who, as evidenced by his admiration for Yoder, is otherwise opposed to such post-Constantinian ecclesiologies. Recently, scholars such as Willie James Jennings in his The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race and J. Kameron Carter in his Race: A Theological Account have chronicled the deep connection between supersessionism, even when not accompanied by overt anti-Semitism, and the colonial origins of white supremacy and racism in the West. I am not charging Hauerwas/Pinches with racism here, I am only pointing out that the dangers of supersessionism extend beyond anti-Semitism—there is growing evidence that supersessionism is a betrayal of the gospel itself.
Secondly, the authors make a claim that I find very strange, especially given their reliance on Aristotle: “As a religion of happiness, Christianity becomes a general form of religiosity that is so useful the question of whether it is true hardly makes any difference” (3). If the authors want to distance Christianity from utilitarianism or from corrupted notions of happiness based upon consumer-capitalist desire, then I applaud them. But this does not seem to be what they are doing here. They seem to be making a deeper philosophical claim that truth is something that is unrelated to practice/praxis. This seems to be a claim that not only needs to be justified (rather than casually asserted), but also seems to imply a type of ethical voluntarism. It’s almost as though there is no ethics only speculative truth. Such a claim seems to suggest not just that Christians should conform their lives to the Christian story, but also that we should not expect such conformity to have any type of practical coherence.
Similarly, the authors claim that God is not “primarily concerned with our happiness” (14). Again, it seems as though God wants obedience for obedience’s sake. When the authors’ claim “we are happy only to the extent that our lives are formed in reference to Jesus of Nazareth,” it seems not only that the authors are guilty of equivocation, using the word happiness to signify several different things, but also they have evacuated happiness of any content. My main problem with the authors’ theology lies in the following claim: “we suggest that reading Aristotle in this way makes it easier for Christians to remember that the moral life does not derive from some general conception of the good, nor even from an analysis of those skills or excellences that allegedly allow human nature to flourish. Rather, the moral life of Christians is determined by their allegiance to a historical person they believe is the decisive form of God’s kingdom” (29). First of all, it is easy to dismiss flourishing when you are flourishing. Second of all, such a view that the kingdom of God revealed in the person of Christ has nothing to do with human life and flourishing severs redemption from creation. In this view, there is only God the redeemer; if God the creator exists, She is certainly not the same person as God the redeemer (again, here a type of Israel-denying, Marcionite-like supersessionism creeps in…). It is clear that the authors think Christ saves us from sin, but what is not at all clear is what they think Christ is saving us for! Given their idealized portrait of the church (we could also ask what it means to speak about obedience to a church that has never existed), it seems as though the Church has replaced not only Israel, but also the Kingdom of God.
The authors’ claim that God is not primarily concerned with our happiness seems to contradict with their later claim that “the God of the Universe desires that we exist” (51). Why would God desire we exist but not desire our happiness, understood as our true good?! Similarly, why would it be a good thing for a Christian to die for her friends (48) if her death failed to bring about something good for these friends? Similarly, why would Christ die for us if not out of love, understood as a desire for our flourishing?
Hauerwas is most effective when he is pointing out the difference between the gospel and the American empire. He is also excellent when speaking about disabled persons. However, I am not sure that his ethical critiques necessitate the type of theological moves he makes.