Reflections on Cognitive Dissonance: Hauerwas and Newsweek

Reflections on Cognitive Dissonance: Hauerwas and Newsweek April 6, 2012

Reflections on Cognitive Dissonance: Hauerwas and Newsweek

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Stanley Hauerwas who Time magazine labeled America’s “best theologian.” (Hauerwas famously responded that “best” is not a theological term.) Hauerwas, of course, is renowned for emphasizing the constitutive nature of the church for Christianity. He has even been criticized for putting the church in the place of God. For him, there can be no such thing as churchless Christianity; the church is the gospel (when it is being the church).

As I was walking through the Dallas-Fort Worth airport the other day (just a day before the “fierce fingers of God” raked through the metroplex) my eyes fell on the April 9 issue of Newsweek magazine. The cover story is “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus” by Andrew Sullivan. Now, the actual title of the article inside the magazine is “The Forgotten Jesus,” but the marketers who design covers translated that into “Forget the Church:…” The cover shows a young Jesus dressed in 21st century hip clothes standing on a busy city street.

Andrew Sullivan’s article doesn’t quite live up to the cover title. Or the cover title doesn’t quite live up to the article. The subtitle reveals the author’s thesis: “Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them…embrace him [Jesus].” Sullivan doesn’t actually recommend abandoning church altogether; what he recommends, to save Christianity, is for Christians to follow the examples of Thomas Jefferson and Francis of Assisi and abandon power (except the power of love, of course).

It’s a strange combination—Jefferson and Francis. I wonder what they would say to each other? (Ah! An idea for another imaginary conversation!) What Sullivan likes about Jefferson is not his denials of traditional Christian doctrines but his emphasis on Christian practices—especially the teachings of Jesus he approved of. (Sullivan seems to approve of the same ones.) What Sullivan likes about Francis is not his tree-hugging naturism but his self-sacrificing lifestyle of love including abjuring of worldly power.

The villains of Sullivan’s rather jaundiced view of Christianity today are politicians who use Jesus and Christianity to promote political agendas—both right and left. Also, religious figures who use power politics to promote their religious agendas—both liberal and conservative. True Christianity, he asserts, is “the religion of unachievement.” His prophecy? That “one day soon, when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it [true Christianity] will rise again.”

Okay, we’ve heard much of this before—many times. There’s much here to agree with and much with which one must disagree if one is any kind of traditional Christian. The main point is the implicit one—that authentic Christianity is individualistic. There is no mention here of the church; the church seems to be the problem. (Sullivan only mentions church leaders critically.)

Back to Hauerwas. What would Stanley say? I don’t know, but I’ll venture an educated guess.

I think Hauerwas would agree with Sullivan’s diagnosis of the crisis facing Christianity. Only Hauerwas calls it Constantinianism or Christendom—the idea that the thinking and active Christian’s task is to translate the gospel to make it intelligible to its cultured despisers and to interpret the gospel so that it can be useful for secular politics. I think Hauerwas would disagree with Sullivan’s solution which seems to be another way of making Christianity palatable—to those who despise the many corruptions of true Christianity which are all they seem to see.

I suspect the sanctifying of Jefferson would irk Hauerwas as would the secularizing of Francis. Oh, Sullivan pays lip service to Francis’ love for the sacraments and obedience to the church, but his overall portrait of Francis is of one who has basically abandoned the church to set up his own little roving band of homeless helpers.

My own response is that Sullivan is mostly right in what he decries and mostly wrong in what he suggests. Contemporary American Christianity is largely held captive to consumerism and power. (Sullivan overlooks the many alternative forms of Christianity that have not succumbed to cultural accommodation.) Christianity is not about supporting American values—whether they be right-wing or left-wing. But I think Sullivan is mostly wrong in what he promotes which seems to be rejection of doctrine and organized Christianity—the church.

The church in America needs reform, not abandonment. The church is just as much a part of the gospel as is individual “humility, service and sanctity.” In fact, you can get those (depending on what is meant by “sanctity”) without the gospel. The gospel includes the new community of God’s people living and worshiping and serving together in obedience to the Lord who lives in their midst through the Holy Spirit.

Sullivan’s article seems like another version of “spirituality without religion,” only the “without religion” part seems to mean “without the church.” The cover title isn’t totally wrong; it captures the thundering silence of the article about God’s people, the church, born on the Day of Pentecost and constantly in need of reform while continuing to be the presence of Christ in the world.

However, my cognitive dissonance becomes acute when I ask myself this question: What does a Christian do when he or she finds himself or herself in a society without any true church? That is, what to do in a society where virtually all “churches” are subverted by culture? It has happened. Luther found himself in that situation and started his own churches (by converting Catholic churches into Protestant ones). However, Luther turned right around and accommodated his new churches movement to the feudal system, calling on the nobility of the German nation to violently suppress the revolt of the peasants.

Kierkegaard found himself in that situation in early 19th century Denmark. Bonhoeffer found himself in that situation in mid-20th century Nazi Germany. (The Confessing Church which he helped found was too timid for his taste.)

Hauerwas and Sullivan seem to agree on one thing: the American churches are almost totally subverted by American culture. Of course, both no doubt see points of light here and there, but, by-and-large, both take a very dim view of the situation of Christianity in America. I see Sullivan’s solution—abandon the church and create your own Christianity guided by Jesus and Francis and Jefferson. What is Hauerwas’ solution? That’s not as clear to me. When he extols the church as constitutive of the gospel, which “church” is he talking about? Is it some ideal church that doesn’t exist materially and empirically? I don’t think that’s his intention. But what, then?

Here is my cognitive dissonance problem: I largely agree with Sullivan’s and Hauerwas’ diagnosis of American Christianity (although I’m not quite as pessimistic as they seem to be). On the other hand, I disagree with their solutions while seeing SOME value in both. Hauerwas’ solution seems to be some kind of traditionalism (as Jeffrey Stout calls it in Democracy and Tradition). My question is: Whose tradition? If you really want tradition, I say, go join the Eastern Orthodox churches. Hauerwas attends an Episcopal church. To me, that’s the very epitome of Constantinianism. How can he attend a church whose Chief Governor is a monarch? Yet, some return to tradition is needed in the face of invented Christianities all over the place.

Sullivan’s solution of individualism is anathema to me. There is no such thing as churchless Christianity. On the other hand, to the extent that all the churches are culturally accommodated, “going it alone” and waiting for authentic Christianity to return would seem to be the only path. I know good Christian people who live in cities where, after visiting numerous churches for many years, they have concluded that non-culturally subverted churches are not present. But “going it alone” is not ideal.

Again, both Sullivan and Hauerwas challenge me and American Christianity. And prophetic criticism is needed. I just wish they had more viable solutions.


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  • Roger, I love your blog, read it everyday. You represent Arminians who love Jesus, the church, rich theology and the Bible very well. Thanks.

    I too struggle with the solution that Sullivan prescribes. I have serious biblical questions about it but the practical question is: Does it work? From my experience, in a very lost city my answer is No. I have run into numerous (easily over 100) young adults (20’s and 30’s) who left the church to do the “I’m all about Jesus but not dig’n church” thing. They’ve had many of the same reasons for strong disillusionment with the church as Sullivan. So, they attempted the church-less Christianity and very few are still faithful to the Lordship of Jesus. I did a little post from a less scholarly perspective on the Newsweek article >

  • Hauerwas has been asked that “What church are you talking about?” question many times before. I think his response is usually to list the local churches of which he has been an active member. So, I think he would be less concerned with Episcopalianism and more concerned with the particular episcopalian church he now attends. How much more “concrete” can one get than pointing to an actual local church? And I’ve heard him say that if he walked into a church that was putting on a patriotic display (say, for the July 4th or Memorial Day weekend), he would turn around, walk out, and never come back.

    • rogereolson

      I would do the same. My only problem is that the local Episcopal congregation is not “the church” in Anglican ecclesiology. The Church of England, or, in the U.S., the Episcopal Church is the “the church.” When you join a local episcopal church you put yourself under the bishop. The local congregation is only a local expression of “the church.” This is why it is right to speak of “the Episcopal Church” but not right to speak of “the baptist Church.” There is no “the baptist Church.” There are only baptist churches and conferences and conventions. So, when Hauerwas, as an Episcopalian, speaks of “the church” and then refers (as you say) to the local congregation as the object of that reference, I have to think he is thinking as a baptist! But why be Episcopalian if you don’t embrace it’s ecclesiology and polity?

  • Scott W

    Dr. Olsen-
    The following piece by Hauerwas is an apt response to your query:

  • Joshua

    Was there ever a time when the church did not capitulate to the broader culture to some degree? As an egalitarian wouldn’t you argue that that is exactly what Paul is doing with his instructions concerning women? Head coverings?

    The problem with saying that the churches are accommodating American culture is ambiguity. What exactly does that mean? Is he referring to the social gospel, prosperity gospel, “get-out-the-vote churches,” churches that support any and every military conflict the U.S. is engaged in, or all of the above. If so, then there are churches that aren’t like that.

    I’m not criticizing your thread, but the article you’re referring to.

    • rogereolson

      I take it Hauerwas is referring to churches that capitulate to consumerism and militarism and regard themselves, consciously or unconsciously, as props for American values such as individualism and progress.

  • traveller

    While I understand your point about Sullivan not specifically mentioning the church I am not quite certain he is suggesting individualism is the answer. My take is that he is critiquing the current institutional expression of the church. It is my belief the reason there is no real answer from Sullivan, Hauerwas, or others, for that matter, is because we live in a period that is unsettled and great change is occurring within the church though few people see it. The very fact a piece like Sullivan’s could appear in Newsweek is some evidence of it. But there is a plethora of books, articles, blogs, etc. over the past decade saying much the same as Sullivan. This is the in between time. The time between what is passing away and what is yet to be. Whether the institutional expression of church will disappear and be replaced by something different or be reformed no one knows but the change is happening now.

    So, whether Sullivan is an individualist or not does not really matter since his comments will play some part in the process of change. It is fascinating to me to watch the church change even if I do not live to see the process play out completely.

  • Russ Booton

    The chief governor of the Episcopal Church is not the Queen of England. I think you’ve confused this church with the Church of England, whose Archbishop of Canterbury our church respects but doesn’t necessarily follow. (It’s been an issue recently.) The highest authority in the Episcopal Church is our National Convention, which meets every three years. Our church is by no means an ideal church, but I don’t think it’s particularly Constantinian.

    • rogereolson

      I stand corrected, but I have to admit Episcopal polity confuses me (probably as much as Baptist polity confuses Episcopalians).

      • Jesse Reese

        If I may be forgiven for confusing you further, what came to my mind was that the “local church vs. episcopal church” part isn’t quite as clean, either. What you said IS true of many Anglicans (myself included), but there is a strong evangelical Anglican tradition, in line with the largely Protestant Thirty-Nine Articles, of seeing the local church as the primary visible expression of “church,” and the trans-local organization as legitimately church, but ultimately less important: “Article XIX: The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” It is kind of frustrating, actually, because it ends up meaning that evangelicals are less involved in the bureaucracies that determine the direction of the denomination as a whole. But in any case…

    • James Petticrew

      Can I point out there is no Queen of England, she is the Queen of the United Kingdom, the monarch stopped being the king/queen of England after the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland.

      • rogereolson

        Yes, you may point it out.

  • Dmitriy

    Great article, totally agree on point that our churches subverted to our culture. My question how do you keep the balance from being subverted or go to opposite that you become monastery where people can’t relate to you?

    • rogereolson

      This is a great question. I guess (speaking for myself) it depends on what “relate to you” means. Let me use an illustration. Everyone everywhere could relate to Mother Teresa without her giving up her nun’s garb or her strong anti-abortion stance, etc. People were drawn to her by her evidence life of love and service to the poor. She made no attempt, so far as I know, to be “relevant” to culture.

  • F Conley

    So why isn’t non-denominational Christinity the answer? True local polity works for me.

    • rogereolson

      Defenders of denominations would say that local churches need accountability and without denominations there would be no Christian colleges or universities, mission agencies, Christian world relief organizations, etc.

  • Steve Rogers

    There seems to be a growing consensus that (particularly) American Christianity is ailing. Having taken leave from being a pastor and active denominationalist in search of a less institutional and more “organic” expression of what it means to follow Jesus, I remain unsatisfied. I am convinced that community is vital to the journey. It’s just that, around here at least, it is very difficult to find outside of some form of structured local church. The question that remains unresolved for me is should one hold out for a “purer” local expression of the Body of Christ, or be resigned to the fact that such doesn’t exist and plug into whichever humanly flawed (power and politics) local congregation that is the least off-putting?

    • rogereolson

      I doubt you’ll find what you’re looking for, Steve. You and I and many others were seriously wounded by an abusive religious organization and, unfortunately, such abound. My advice is to turn away from toxic religion without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are organized churches, local congregations, that are not abusive. I suggest you check out Christ Community Church at (Notice the “c” at the end of “christcommunity.” It’s easy to miss but necessary to get there!)

  • F Conley

    Are my comments unworthy of posting?

    • rogereolson

      Not if they are apropos the discussion, respectful, informed, and thoughtful.

  • gently reformed

    Roger, granted the local diocese is the “church” in U.S. Episcopal polity. My question to you is what makes “polity”? Baptist polity is difficult for me to define. A specific identifiable denomination such as the SBC would be a challenge to define in my mind. Another challenge could be the United Church of Christ, it has a loosely defined polity of covenant relationships through associations and conferences with mutual accountability through bylaws and a constitution, while each local congregation is essentially independent. How does baptist polity compare?

    • rogereolson

      In traditional Baptist polity (I am not aware of any contemporary exceptions although they may exist) each Baptist church is completely independent. There is no authority over the local congregation. Local congregations decide at will whether or not to affiliate with other Baptist churches in associations, conference or conventions (basically the same thing under different names). These are for fellowship and cooperation only; their leaders (elected by the delegates or messengers to annual meetings) have no authority over local churches. Thus, there really is no such thing as “the Baptist church.” Even a Baptist denomination (conference or convention) is not a “church.” A Baptist association, conference or convention may decide whether to admit or expel a local congregations, but in any case, that has no effect on the local congregation’s own existence or decisions about itself. A local congregation can be affiliated with several conferences or conventions at the same time. The church I belong to is affiliated with: the local Baptist association (roughly county wide), the state Baptist convention (that includes churches outside the state as well), and a totally separate national “fellowship” of (mostly) former Southern Baptist churches. Some would say that our church is also Southern Baptist because it has never taken a vote to disaffiliate with the SBC, but we do not send messengers to the SBC and, if we did, they would probably not be given “credentials” to vote. Ironically, last I knew, however, the SBC still counts us as a member church. Very strange.

      • gently reformed

        Yes. In my own growth as a minister I believe the most salient and fruitful path is one where ministers meet regularly and are answerable one to another. Covenant and accountability instead of complete autonomy.

        • rogereolson

          I agree. Being answerable to one another is the better way (than complete autonomy). But I would rather than the pastor be answerable to the congregation (and vice versa) than to a bishop.

  • Zach

    I would say that Niebuhr struck the balance just right of “accommodating” and being faithful. Hauerwas manages to do neither, as he has done nothing practical and still reaps the benefits of all the horrid “cultural” things he speaks out against. I think he missed that one that said “Woe to you o hypocrite”.

    • rogereolson

      Is someone a hypocrite who speaks out against, say, socialism but accepts social security checks that add up to more than he or she paid into social security (including interest)?

  • Mark rogers

    I have just found Hauerwas, thank you Dr. Olson, but let me tell you what I think he is thinking. First of all he would be opposed to Sullivan’s solution simply because Sullivan is looking at symptoms of the problem not the problem itself. The story that people should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story, which is the story of freedom, is a lie. America’s culture and thus the American Church’s, since the two have become seemingly inextricably linked, embrace of freedom has enslaved us. Absolute freedom enslaves absolutely. We know our values which we freely choose are no more correct than someone else’s values freely chosen. That is pluralism, every one has a right to their own opinion. Freedom has not only eclipsed truth but has become the originator of truth. This is wrong. We are the created creature, we are under the authority of Jesus Christ. “Freedom lies not in creating our lives but in learning to recognize our lives as a gift.”
    We have become like passengers on a spinning galaxy. We do not know which way is up or which way is down. We can determine the rate at which we are spinning away from the other galaxies. We can determine that we are spinning toward isolation and desolation into nothingness and as Karl Barth said “Nothingness is not nothing.”
    We are in a cosmic struggle. Consumerism, militarism and the rest are but counterfeits and strategic deceptions by the enemy. The war is the war against war. The weapons will be preaching and the sacraments. The battlefield, since remember the world is but a character in the story of Israel and the Church, will be the Church.
    I do not know if I have translated Hauerwas correctly, but I do know he is my new best friend.

    • rogereolson

      Having just read quite a bit of Hauerwas (including his autobiography) and meeting him and hearing him speak I think you have it right.

  • There are lots of connections between Baylor/Truett and Duke: Steven Porter, Natalie Carnes, and Jonathan Tran are some relatively recent Duke hires at Baylor/Truett. My advisors for my dissertation on Yoder’s reading of Barth’s ecclesiology are Hauerwas and Curtis Freeman (Baylor Ph.D.) for my Th.D. at Duke. Hauerwas asked in Ethics class this semester how many MDiv students were Baylor undergrads and there were a number.

    For a Christianity Today article, I asked Hauerwas some questions about his church background, issues about the local church, and about the Eucharist.

    You started out in a United Methodist Church that was as you say functionally Baptist because it was in Texas. Then you taught at a Lutheran school Augustana, a Roman Catholic institution Notre Dame, and then back to a United Methodist school Duke Divinity. At each stop, you found yourself worshipping with people of that tradition and learning from them appreciatively. Now you worship at an Episcopal church. How do you explain your eclectism or is it ecumenicalism?

    I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don’t know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that’s true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don’t think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.

    When you just said, “The Episcopal church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about,” I think you are referring to a particular congregation and not the denomination as a whole.

    I say, “We’re all congregationalists now.” I don’t particularly like it, but we are. How to ensure given that reality that Eucharistic assemblies are not separate from each other is one of the great challenges before us. The role of the bishop is very important to make sure that Eucharistic assemblies are not isolated from one another. There are also other ways to do it. Certainly sending people from one congregation to another helps. But how we recover Christian unity in the world in which we find ourselves is a deep challenge. By “unity,” I don’t mean just agreement about ecclesial organization; I mean the refusal of Christians to kill one other. I think that the division of the church that has let nationalism define Christian identity is one of the great judgments against the Reformation in particular.

    See also this question:

    Your critics say that you want Christians to retreat from the world and just practice the Eucharist. How do you respond?

    If I’m asking people to retreat, why are so many people mad at me? [Laughs]. I wouldn’t mind retreating, but we’re surrounded so there’s no place to retreat to. So Christians have to engage the world in which we find ourselves. We’re in love with the world because God is in love with the world. Therefore, we want the world to know what God has given us. Of course, I’ve never asked Christians to refrain from being politically engaged. I just want them to be there as Christians. What it means to be there as Christians is to be shaped by the body and blood of Christ, which has been done for the world. The closing prayer after our Eucharist celebration includes: Send us now into the world in peace and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart through Christ our Lord, Amen. How could that be a retreat? I can’t imagine how the Eucharist can be self-containing if you’re sent out from it.

    • rogereolson

      He speaks at Baylor occasionally. I recently met him, had a brief conversation with him and head him speak. He refrained from profanity or vulgarity throughout the talk–until the discussion time after it. I just finished a chapter on Hauerwas for my revision of 20th Century Theology (coauthored with Stan Grenz in 1992) for IVP. I enjoyed reading him and found myself agreeing with much of what he wrote. My main issue with him is about Reinhold Niebuhr. I think he is ungenerous there.

  • The reference for the above quotes is:

    ‘The Gospel Makes the Everyday Possible’
    70-year old Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains his new memoir, addresses his critics, and explains why he says, ‘We’re all congregationalists now.’
    Interview by Andy Rowell | posted 9/09/2010 09: