Hauerwas on Hope & Peace

Here’s another (long) quote from Stanley Hauerwas, this time from his book A Community of Character:

The Kantian-inspired attempt to make justice integral to the alleged rational and universal requirement to respect all persons as ends in themselves is a noble endeavor. Indeed, such a vision, I suspect, draws its inspiration from the Christian hope of the realization of a kingdom where peace and not war will characterize the relation between peoples and nations. But for Christians such a kingdom remains an eschatological hope that cannot be made present by heightening the status of human rationality. From the Christian perspective, Kant’s account of the universal requirements of reason is a secularized version of Christian hope. Kant sought to make Christian hope into a necessary condition for rational living, but in the process hope is trivialized, for if the kingdom can be based on or come from within humankind, then there is no reason to hope. Kant’s hope is one that no longer knows how to be patient in the face of the dividedness of the world and in desperation seeks peace by making God’s Kingdom a human possibility. Yet peace, Christians believe, cannot be founded on false accounts of our rational powers but depends on our learning to acknowledge God’s lordship over all life. The Christian commitment to peace is based not on the inherent value of life, but on the conviction that war cannot be consistent with the Kingdom we have only begun to experience through the work of Christ and his continuing power in the church.

It must be admitted that to stake one’s life on such a view is indeed dangerous. For there are many who claim their convictions to be true and assume that those who do not hold similar beliefs should be forced to do so. They are even willing to kill in defense of what they hold dear. To abandon the attempt to develop a “universal” ethic, as I have done, therefore appears as an act of despair, as we are left at the mercy of our enemies.

The Christian, however, does not claim that the world is safe but only that it is under God’s lordship. Christian confidence in God’s lordship provides the church with the power to exist amid the diversity of this world, trusting that the truth “will out” without resorting to coercion and violence for self-protection or to secure adherents. Therefore the non-resistant character of Christian community, which is often sadly absent, is a crucial mark of the power of the Christian story to form a people in a manner appropriate to the character of God’s providential rule of the world.

Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, 100-1.

After the God-Shaped Hole

The story of my conversion from despondent hedonism to following Jesus is quite conventional and fairly dramatic in places. I’ve told it to believers and non-believers alike on many occasions, with dramatic flair. The story’s got it all: a troubled childhood, self-destructive tendencies, drug abuse, an existential crisis, and an abrupt conversion experience with immediate radical consequences to my life. One day I was smoking dope and contemplating my next rave. Two months later I was a de-facto youth pastor.

The idea that I had an impossible-to-fill “God-shaped hole” was quickly instilled in me. I internalized the narrative that I’d tried to fill this hole with drugs and general hedonism before meeting God, using it to explain my own story of coming to faith. The story goes something like this: “You see, I had this God-shaped hole, and no matter how many drugs our pleasures I tried to fit in there, it was just as empty as before. But then I gave my life to Jesus, and He filled it completely. Hallelujah!”

Before I come across as merely a disaffected evangelical, I’ll say that this narrative has some excellent explanatory power and isn’t all wrong. The biblical narrative clearly shows that we were created by God to be in relationship with Him—a relationship shattered by the Fall and made possible once again through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The problem with the God-shaped hole narrative is that it follows the exact same structure as nearly all marketing narratives: 1) you are deficient in some manner, but 2) Product X makes up for your deficiency by 3) giving you Benefit Y. For example: I once was unpopular with the ladies, but now I have Axe Body Spray and the chicks love me. Or, I once was lost, but now I have Jesus and I feel better about myself.1

The gaping hole in this narrative is that it ceases to be compelling once the benefits lose their potency. I was an insecure sketchy kid who gained a sudden feeling of peace and belonging that I had distinctly lacked beforehand, which is no longer tangible to me 11 years later. I no longer have the day-to-day sense that Jesus made a sad kid happy.

The problem isn’t that I’ve lost that sense. The problem is that I’d put so much stock in that sense in the first place because I’d absorbed the God-shaped hole narrative. When you start to lose the sense of Benefit Y, you begin to question if Product X is right for you any more. And here I think we have an excellent explanation for the steady leak of younger folks from the church: Jesus just isn’t delivering the benefits that the God-shaped hole narrative promises.

Please, churches, stop telling the story of the God-shaped hole. We have enough troubles with consumerism as it is without turning Jesus into yet another product in the market. The reason that people are leaving your churches isn’t that they haven’t listened to what you preached, but precisely because they did. They were falsely promised Benefit Y and are looking for a more trustworthy product.2

As for myself, I’ve been blessed enough to catch sight of the story of the Missio Dei—the story that the Kingdom of God, where peace and justice reign in the person of Christ, has drawn near; the story that self-emptying love is the logic that drives the Universe. This story, freed of the narcissism of the God-shaped hole narrative, invites us to join the outposts of the kingdom of God to put forth the full powers of our various gifts in creative enactment of peace, laughter, reconciliation, mourning, and preaching the good news about Christ.

We need thicker, richer stories that can sustain us. We need stories that focus not on our emotional status, but on Christ and his ongoing mission in this world that we find ourselves caught up in. We need Christians everywhere3 to repent of their consumerist faith designed to augment their life rather than remake it. Above all, we need Christ himself, and openness to the wild things he might do in and through us if we would just take our eyes off of ourselves for but a moment.

  1. This therapeutic faith is as toxic as it is prevalent. 
  2. Truth in advertising would have it much closer to “Jesus ruined my life.” 
  3. Primarily Christians in “the West,” if we’re honest. 

Why Bother With Jesus?

Shane Claiborne was in Winnipeg in late May and talked about the emerging mode of Christianity he’s helped publicise under the rubric of New Monasticism. His The Irresistible Revolution played a formative role in my own journey into intentional community at Flatlanders Inn.

I’d heard most of his stories before, since most were in things I’ve read by him in the past. So I greeted the Q&A time with some anticipation. Although I didn’t have questions I wanted to ask, other people’s questions for someone like him are always interesting, as they reveal the perception of people who aren’t already trying to lead lives similar to Shane’s.

For me, the most interesting question asked was something like: “This social justice activism stuff sounds great, but I’m wondering why you need Jesus to do it?” There was so much potential in the question, but I must admit that Shane’s answer reminded me of a politician’s: he said a lot of things, but never really answered the question. He did say something to the effect of Jesus helping you to be a nicer/more loving activist, but that was about it.[ref]It’s probable that I’m forgetting something. I’m also not even slightly condemning Shane – there’s no way for anyone to be “on” all the time.[/ref]

This got me to thinking how would I answer his question? Here’s how I might have answered if asked the same question:

That’s a very good question. I don’t know if you’re a Christian or not, but I’m sure that we’re both frustrated with Christians who seem apathetic at best about justice issues. In fact, they’re sometimes on the sides of injustice, both today and historically, which makes me really sad and sometimes mad. But the answer to their twisted Christianity isn’t no Christianity, but better Christianity.

Now, your question assumed that social justice activism is the main thing to be concerned about, and that Jesus is some type of footnote that seems a bit unnecessary. That’s how the world may look to you and others, but I see it differently.

Now, Jesus is at the heart of what you call activism when you hear what my community gets up to. His teachings and life, and the lives of many saints throughout history have convinced me that God is on the side of the poor, outcast, and oppressed. The Sermon on the Mount, the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself, and the teaching in Matthew 25 that whatever we do to the “least of these,” we do to Jesus himself has made living a life that sometimes looks like activism inescapable in my community’s life.

So, you might say that it’s Jesus who got us into this mess. We were doing just fine as citizens of the empire when Jesus got a hold of us and compelled us into loving people nobody else does. We couldn’t imagine starting to do this without Jesus, or keeping on doing this without Jesus. We might sound crazy with all of this Jesus-talk, but anyone who’s on the side of the poor sounds crazy, so we’re in good company.

Jesus Is My Boyfriend

It’s easy to find Christians despising the “Jesus is my boyfriend” motif in worship music. I’ve usually mocked it myself, but something I read in James K.A. Smith’s recent book Desiring the Kingdom made me think about this from another angle.

In order to understand Smith’s defense of erotically-charged worship, we must first understand the basic question animating his book: “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” (18) In other words, Smith is arguing that the affective and erotic are more basic and fundamental than the cognitive. We are lovers before we’re ever thinkers.

If we grant Smith this point (and I do, although there’s an enormous and tantalizing philosophical debate lurking around precisely that point), then criticisms of “Jesus is my boyfriend”-type worship songs are not as easy as they seem. In a lengthy footnote, Smith has the following to say on the topic:

I think a philosophical anthropology centered around affectivity, love, or desire might also be an occasion to somewhat reevaluate our criticisms of “mushy” worship choruses that seem to confuse God with our boyfriend. While we might be rightly critical of the self-centered grammar of such choruses (which, when parsed, often turn out to be more about “me” than God, and “I” more than us), I don’t think we should so quickly write off their “romantic” or even “erotic” elements (the Song of Songs comes to mind in this context). This, too, is testimony to why and how so many are deeply moved in worship by such singing. While this can slide into an emotionalism and a certain kind of domestication of God’s transcendence, there remains a kernel of “fittingness” about such worship. While opening such doors is dangerous, I’m not sure that the primary goal of worship or discipleship is safety. Catholic novelists such as Graham Greene, Walker Percy and Evelyn Waugh recognize this thin fulcrum that tips from sexual desire to desire for God—that on the cusp of this teetering, “dangerous” fulcrum, one is closest to God. The quasi-rationalism that sneers at such erotic elements in worship and is concerned to keep worship “safe” from such threats is the same rationalism that has consistently marginalized the religious experience of women—and women mystics in particular

James K.A. Smith, Desiring The Kingdom, 79.