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Life in the Christian Colony
By Stanley Hauerwas, William H. Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Modern World: On Learning to Ask the Right Questions
Sometime between 1960 and 1980, an old, inadequately conceived world ended, and a fresh, new world began. We do not mean to be overly dramatic. Although there are many who have not yet heard the news, it is nevertheless true: A tired old world has ended, an exciting new one is awaiting recognition. This book is about a renewed sense of what it means to be Christian, more precisely, of what it means to be pastors who care for Christians, in a distinctly changed world.
A Changed World
When and how did we change? Although it may sound trivial, one of us is tempted to date the shift sometime on a Sunday evening in 1963. Then, in Greenville, South Carolina, in defiance of the state's time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us—regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church—made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox.
That evening has come to represent a watershed in the history of Christendom, South Carolina style. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world—served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church. There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide the world view for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.
You see, our parents had never worried about whether we would grow up Christian. The church was the only show in town. On Sundays, the town closed down. One could not even buy a gallon of gas. There was a traffic jam on Sunday mornings at 9:45, when all went to their respective Sunday schools. By overlooking much that was wrong in that world—it was a racially segregated world, remember—people saw a world that looked good and right. In taking a child to Sunday school, parents affirmed everything that was good, wholesome, reasonable, and American. Church, home, and state formed a national consortium that worked together to instill "Christian values." People grew up Christian simply by being lucky enough to be born in places like Greenville, South Carolina, or Pleasant Grove, Texas.
A few years ago, the two of us awoke and realized that, whether or not our parents were justified in believing this about the world and the Christian faith, nobody believed it today. At least, almost nobody. Whether we are with Pentecostals, Catholics, Lutherans, or United Methodists, we meet few young parents, college students, or auto mechanics who believe that one becomes Christian today by simply breathing the air and drinking the water in the generous, hospitable environment of Christendom America. A few may still believe that by electing a few "Christian" senators, passing a few new laws, and tinkering with the federal budget we can form a "Christian" culture, or at least one that is a bit more just. But most people know this view to be touchingly anachronistic. All sorts of Christians are waking up and realizing that it is no longer "our world"—if it ever was.
We in no way mean to imply that, before 1963, things were better for believers. Our point is that, before the Fox Theater opened on Sunday, Christians could deceive themselves into thinking that we were in charge, that we had made a difference, that we had created a Christian culture.
We believe the world has been changed but that change did not begin when the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. The world was fundamentally changed in Jesus Christ, and we have been trying, but failing, to grasp the implications of that change ever since. Before the Fox Theater opened on Sunday, we could convince ourselves that, with an adapted and domesticated gospel, we could fit American values into a loosely Christian framework, and we could thereby be culturally significant. This approach to the world began in 313 (Constantine's Edict of Milan) and, by our reckoning, ended in 1963. Of course, "Constantinianism" had begun earlier than 313 and ended before 1963, but dates, like birth and death, remind us that the way things were and are is not set in stone.
We are not suggesting that all Christians from 313 to 1963 have been unfaithful. Much can be said for those Christians who sided with the Constantines of our world—given what they perceived to be their alternatives. Much can be said for those who sought to uphold a day of rest for all God's creation through discouraging any form of behavior (e.g., attending Sunday movies) that fell short of praise to God. Moreover, we are aware that from 313 to 1963 many Christians found ways to dissent from the coercive measures necessary to ensure social order in the name of Christ. What we are saying is that in the twilight of that world, we have an opportunity to discover what has and always is the case—that the church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know.
The demise of the Constantinian world view, the gradual decline of the notion that the church needs some sort of surrounding "Christian" culture to prop it up and mold its young, is not a death to lament. It is an opportunity to celebrate. The decline of the old, Constantinian synthesis between the church and the world means that we American Christians are at last free to be faithful in a way that makes being a Christian today an exciting adventure.
One of our former parishes was next door to the synagogue. One day over coffee, the rabbi remarked, "It's tough to be a Jew in Greenville. We are forever telling our children, 'That's fine for everyone else, but it's not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You are a Jew. You have a different story. A different set of values.'"
"Rabbi, you are probably not going to believe this," I said, "but I heard very much that same statement made in a young couples' church school class right here in Bible-belt Greenville the other day."
Pastors who listen to their members, particularly to young parents, will hear them saying to their own children, with increasing regularity, "Such behavior is fine for everyone else, but not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You have a different story. You have a different set of values. You are a Christian."
And we believe that recognition signals a seismic shift in the world view of our church, which makes all the difference in the world for how we go about the business of being the church. Now our churches are free to embrace our roots, to resemble more closely the synagogue—a faith community that does not ask the world to do what it can only do for itself. What we once knew theologically, we now know experientially: Tertullian was right—Christians are not naturally born in places like Greenville or anywhere else. Christians are intentionally made by an adventuresome church, which has again learned to ask the right questions to which Christ alone supplies the right answers.
The Right Theological Questions
Of course, much of what we describe happened long before that Sunday evening in 1963. The project of theology since the Enlightenment, which has consumed our best theologians, has been, How do we make the gospel credible to the modern world?
Christians, our theologians told us, are in the rather embarrassing position of having a faith rooted in ancient, parochial, Near Eastern writings, which present the life of an ancient, parochial, Near Eastern Jew named Jesus. Modern Christians stare at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus across what the German philosopher Lessing called the "ugly wide ditch" of history. Copernicus, despite the church's efforts to silence him, finally convinced us that the sun did not go around the earth, and everything changed. The Copernican Revolution was the first, we were led to believe, seismic shift for the church. Everyone's world view had shifted to something called "the modern world view." The poor old church, however, was stuck with the legacy of a "pre-scientific (i.e., premodern) world view."
This explains why, at least for a century, the church's theology has been predominantly apologetic. The church did not want to duplicate the mistake we had made with Copernicus. When we took our first religion course in college, it was a course in how to fit the Bible into the scientific world view. We compared the archaic cosmology of Genesis to that of the true cosmology revealed by science. We learned how Moses could not possibly have written the Pentateuch nor Paul have written Ephesians. When we got to preaching, we were told to hold the Bible in one hand and today's newspaper in the other. The preacher was the one who heroically bridged that great, wide gap between the old, ancient world of scripture and the new, real world of the modern era. Schleiermacher's project of making the faith credible to Christianity's "cultured despisers" was adopted by everyone.
The most supremely apologetic theologian of our time was Paul Tillich. In one sense, he seemed the most modern—a theologian thoroughly conversant with modern thought, particularly existentialist thought, who could translate our archaic, inherited thought forms into modern ones. God = Ultimate Reality; Faith = Ultimate Concern; and so on.
Yet Tillich was not so new as he first appeared to be. He is best described as the last great nineteenth-century theologian, a systematic theologian whose foundational assumption was that the "modern world" had provoked a crisis in thought, an intellectual dilemma so great that Christian thought must be translated in order to become intelligible to modern people. When the modern pastor stands up to preach to a modern congregation, the pastor is the bridge that links the old world of scripture to the new world of modern people. In our view, the traffic has tended to move in one direction on that interpretive bridge. Modern interpreters of the faith have tended to let the "modern world" determine the questions and therefore limit the answers. Is it true that the church's modern problem is the intellectual dilemma posed by Tillich: how to relate the ancient world of the faith to a modern world of disbelief?
Tillich's position is filled with nuance but, crudely stated, Tillich assumed that, though believing in Christianity had become difficult, many modern people are unavoidably religious. Indeed, religion became the determinative Tillichian genus of which "Christianity" is but a species. In the American utilitarian setting, this became the coarse generalization (Eisenhower) that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe in something. With Bultmann, Tillich thought that it was not so much that Christianity was inherently unbelievable, it was that Christianity was burdened with too many false intellectual impediments. Who cares, modern theologians asked, whether or not Jesus walked on water, or Moses split the Red Sea, or Christ bodily rose from the dead? The important matter is not these prescientific thought forms but the existential reality beneath them. Everything must be translated into existentialism in order to be believed. Today, when existentialism has fallen out of fashion, the modern theologian is more likely to translate everything into Whiteheadian process theology, the latest psychoanalytic account, or Marxist analysis in order to make it believable.
We have come to see that this project, though well intentioned, is misguided. The theology of translation assumes that there is some kernel of real Christianity, some abstract essence that can be preserved even while changing some of the old Near Eastern labels. Yet such a view distorts the nature of Christianity. In Jesus we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world, and humanity, but an invitation to join up, to become part of a movement, a people. By the very act of our modern theological attempts at translation, we have unconsciously distorted the gospel and transformed it into something it never claimed to be—ideas abstracted from Jesus, rather than Jesus with his people.
The belief, on which much apologetics tends to be based, is that everyone must believe in something. This is the Constantinian assertion that religious belief is unavoidable. Constantine knew that, in order to keep the Empire afloat, if people were no longer classically pagan, they would have to be made imperially Christian. You cannot run a world without people believing in something. Our best minds were enlisted in the Constantinian enterprise of making the faith credible to the powers-that be so that Christians might now have a share in those powers. After all, we would never be culturally significant if we Christians talked a language unintelligible to the Empire. Apologetics is based on the political assumption that Christians somehow have a stake in transforming our ecclesial claims into intellectual assumptions that will enable us to be faithful to Christ while still participating in the political structures of a world that does not yet know Christ. Transform the gospel rather than ourselves. It is this Constantinian assumption that has transformed Christianity into the intellectual "problem," which so preoccupies modern theologians.
We believe that Christianity has no stake in the utilitarian defense of belief as belief. The theological assumption (which we probably wrongly attribute to our first apologetic theologians—some of the early Fathers) that Christianity is a system of belief must be questioned. It is the content of belief that concerns Scripture, not eradicating unbelief by means of a believable theological system. The Bible finds uninteresting many of our modern preoccupations with whether or not it is still possible for modern people to believe. The Bible's concern is whether or not we shall be faithful to the gospel, the truth about the way things are now that God is with us through the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Lately it has become fashionable to speak of "faith development" and "stages of faith, "as if faith were a natural human ability, an instinctual urge. There may be some truth to the suspicion that we humans are incurably religious animals, that we are determined to bow down before something. Yet the Bible seems to have little interest in encouraging such behavior or in analyzing its dynamics, except perhaps as our "faith development," left to its own devices, is often an exercise of various forms of idolatry.
The Bible's concern is not if we shall believe but what we shall believe. So this popular interpreter's defense of prayer is beside the point:
Everybody prays whether he thinks of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ahh-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the skyrocket bursts over the water.... Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC [New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973])
Such a defense of prayer begs the question of content. What does it mean to pray "in the name of Jesus"? What distinguishes the prayers of Christians from the inarticulate groanings of pagans? There are too many gods about to make belief qua belief interesting.
Which explains why Tillich and Bultmann, two premier "modern" theologians, were not so modern. They both bought into the notion, conventional wisdom at least since Schleiermacher (no, since Constantine), that the challenge of Christianity was primarily an intellectual one involving the clash of two different systems of belief: how to make old Christianity credible to the new modern world.
Which explains why Karl Barth was much more "new" than Tillich. Tillich still thought that the theological challenge involved the creation of a new and betteradapted systematic theology. Barth knew that the theological problem was the creation of a new and better church. Tillich hoped that, by the time one had finished his Systematic Theology, one would think about things differently. Barth hoped that, by the time one had plodded through his Church Dogmatics, one would be different. For Barth taught that the world ended and began, not with Copernicus or even Constantine, but with the advent of a Jew from Nazareth. In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, all human history must be reviewed. The coming of Christ has cosmic implications. He has changed the course of things. So the theological task is not merely the interpretive matter of translating Jesus into modern categories but rather to translate the world to him. The theologian's job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.
And that's new.
Excerpted from Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas, William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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