Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hauerwas, America's God, and the Church

I saw that Brian McLaren had a quote by Stanley Hauerwas over on his blog.  That quote had a link to a longer column over at ABC's religion page titled "The Death of America's God."

In typical fashion, Hauerwas points to the reality that the faith most Americans have is deeply shaped more by our political notions,  than who Jesus is.  Hauerwas wrote:
Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end in itself. This presumption was then reinforced by an unassailable belief in the commonsense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain those disciplines that are necessary to sustain a truly free people - people who are capable of being a genuine alternative to the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Hauerwas, this sort of writing is nothing new.  I did find however his discussion about marriage to be interesting.  He begins writing about how the notion of liberty plays itself out.  Human beings are presumed to be rational creatures with the ability to make "free choices."  The problem as Hauerwas sees it, is when accountability is brought into the equation.  We want accountability and responsibility, but at the same we demand that we know what we "know what we are doing." He says that most Americans do not think someone should be held accountable for something if they do it when they do not know what they are doing.  And here is where marriage becomes problematic, he says. He writes:
But the problem with such an account of responsibility is that it makes marriage, among other things, completely unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised life-long monogamous fidelity? That is why the church insists that your vows be witnessed by the church, because the church believes it has the duty to hold you responsible to promises you made when you did not know what you were doing.

I am not sure I agree with Hauerwas' suppositions. I think most Americans want to hold others accountable for things even if they did not know what they were doing.  But if we ask individuals if they should be held accountable when they did not know what they themselves were doing, then maybe. But his discussion rings true as I consider some friends who just could not see themselves ever getting married.  One discussed it with me after a break up with his long-time live-in girlfriend.  He could not ever see committing to one woman because he just didn't know what else was out there.  In other words, he wanted to know what he was doing before he made a decision where didn't know what he was doing.  I am fairly certain that my friend will never marry... or he might once he realizes the hopelessness of his situation. 

Hauerwas' column is not as clear as it could be and he likely preaches to the choir.  But he is on to something here.  Watching the incommensurability of political discourse in America today, it is clear that the three antithetical threads he names in America are beginning to fray.  An April survey by Public Religion Research Institute showed that most Americans believed Christianity and capitalism to be at odds with one another.  Several prominent Congressmen and Congresswomen who claim to be Christian also espouse Ayn Rand's atheist philosophy.  Hauerwas is clearly on the right track.

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