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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