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By Stanley Hauerwas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1999 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Politics of Salvation
Why There Is No Salvation Outside the Church
Between Establishment and Disestablishment
George Lindbeck observes that contemporary Christianity is in an "awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but not yet clearly disestablished." Awkward strikes me as exactly the right word. Most Christians, at least in the industrialized societies of the West, are unsure how we ought to think about ourselves and/or our involvement as Christians in those same societies. We are not sure whether, as Christians, we ought to or can return to times when the church at least allegedly seemed to have status if not power or whether we must seek some yet undetermined more modest stance in liberal societies.
These questions are made even more bewildering by the anomalies occasioned by sudden changes in our world. We are puzzled by the fact that in countries where we have freedom of religion it is very difficult to make serious reference to God in the public arena. Of course we are not prohibited from confessing our belief in God as long as we make the appropriate social gestures that we understand such belief has no implications for our fellow citizens who do not have such beliefs. Yet suddenly in countries that have repressed the Christian faith for most of this century, Christians, exactly because they are Christians, have become the primary political actors. Indeed in those contexts it seems some even think it makes a difference, and it is a political difference, whether what Christians believe is true or false.
For many in more "democratic" countries this concern with truth almost strikes us as odd. For as Alasdair Maclntyre observed some twenty years ago, the debate between theist and atheist is increasingly culturally irrelevant and marginal. He suggested this is not due simply to the fact that secular disciplines are advancing in areas in which no direct confrontation with theism occurs. The problem is not the direction in which secular knowledge is advancing, but "the directions in which theism is retreating. Theists are offering atheists less and less in which to disbelieve. Theism thereby deprives active atheism of much of its significance and power and encourages the more passive theism of the indifferent."
The "retreat" of which Maclntyre speaks is aptly indicated by the very use of belief to characterize what makes Christians Christians. That the question of the truth or falsity of Christian convictions is occurring in societies in which Christianity was socially and politically condemned is surely not accidental. For in such societies the continued existence of Christianity became a political challenge reminding us that all questions of truth and falsity are political. In contrast, the cultural establishment of Christianity in liberal societies necessarily forced Christians to divorce their convictions from their practices so that we lost our intelligibility as Christians. By being established, at least culturally established in liberal societies, it became more important that people believe rather than be incorporated into the church.
Of course the very description established is fraught with ambiguity, particularly in liberal social orders. Where one has separation of church and state it is often assumed that Christianity has been disestablished. The irony is, however, that Christian self-understanding of legal disestablishment presumed the continued social and cultural hegemony of generalized Christian presuppositions. You do not need an established church when you think everyone more or less believes what you believe. Particularly "awkward" in our situation is the very characterization of Christianity as a system of beliefs that was a correlative of our cultural establishment in liberal societies. This characterization robs Christians of the resources necessary to reclaim for ourselves why we believe being Christian has to do with the power that moves the sun and the stars.
In his magisterial book Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Charles Taylor notes that the crucial change in modernity is that "even in societies where a majority of people profess some belief in God or a divine principle, no one sees it as obvious that there is a God." This loss of "obviousness" does not arise, as is often alleged, from science and education. Rather "our sense of the certainty or problematicity of God is relative to our sense of moral sources. Our forebearers were generally unruffled in their belief, because the sources they could envisage made unbelief incredible. The big thing that has happened since is the opening of other possible sources. Secularization doesn't just arise because people get a lot more educated and science progresses. This has some effect, but it isn't decisive. What matters is that masses of people can sense moral sources of a quite different kind, ones that don't necessarily suppose a God."
It is my thesis that questions of the truth or falsity of Christian convictions cannot even be addressed until Christians recover the church as a political community necessary for our salvation. What Christians believe about the universe, the nature of human existence, or even God does not, cannot, and should not save. Our beliefs, or better our convictions, only make sense as they are embodied in a political community we call church. Taylor is quite correct that our sense of God, our very understanding of God, is correlative to moral sources, or as I would prefer, practices. For Christians, without the church there is no possibility of salvation and even less of morality and politics.
For example, I will argue in a later chapter that Christian reflection about "sexual ethics" is a hopeless mess because we have allowed the terms of the discussion to be set by presuppositions antithetical to Christian practices. To ask "Is premarital or extramarital sex legitimate?" is to have lost the day. The very notion of pre-marital sex is not a description Christians should endorse since Christians believe all sex is marital. Christian concern for sexual behavior outside the publicly acknowledged marriage has been a fear that the resulting privatization of sex would have insufficient resources to resist forms of domination that sex invites. I hope to show the significance of such moral issues are at the heart of what it means to confess that God is worthy of worship. For Christians do not believe certain things about God and then think such beliefs require life-long monogamous fidelity. Rather as part of our learning to be a people capable of practicing life-long monogamous fidelity we learn to worship God.
I am suggesting that as Christians we have a responsibility to ourselves and our non-Christian neighbors to make use of this awkward time to rediscover the politics of salvation. After all, how can any politics be truthful that does not have as its telos the one alone who is worthy of worship? As servants of liberal regimen we resist asking such questions, suggesting as they do a return of Christian imperialism and/or theocracy. Yet I am convinced if the church is necessary for salvation, such questions cannot be avoided even, or perhaps especially, in this awkward stage.
Why Ethics Is a Bad Idea
In some ways the awkward character of being Christian in our time is the result of living in an awkward time. Put simply, the very epistemological and political presuppositions that have led to the disestablishment of the church and that have turned Christianity into a set of beliefs are increasingly being questioned. We thus live in a time where Christians in the name of being socially responsible try to save appearances by supplying epistemological and moral justifications for societal arrangements that made and continue to make the church politically irrelevant.
The awkwardness of our times is perhaps nowhere better exemplified by the current enthusiasm for the development of something called ethics. As Charles Taylor observes that in the Enlightenment the belief was fostered that if we could "achieve the fullness of disengaged reason and detach ourselves from superstitions and parochial attachments, we should as a matter of course be moved to benefit mankind." Thus the project of modernity is to base ethics, and correlatively our social and political institutions, on rationality qua rationality. Of course the Enlightenment project to underwrite an independent realm called "morality" was a response to a very definite set of circumstances.
Rights, respect, and utility gained virtually exclusive priority in moral thought precisely when appeals to a wide range of assumptions and categories in the traditional ethos of our predecessor culture became more likely to generate conflict than agreement. Recoiling from Reformation polemics and the religious wars, modern ideologies and ethical theorists increasingly had good reason to favor a vocabulary whose sense did not depend on prior agreement about the nature of God and the structures of cosmos and society ordained by him. That the favored notions were abstracted from that same ethos should not surprise us. Neither should the fact that the resulting abstractions are ill-suited to interpret or explain much of the moral revulsion sustained by remnants of that ethos which still survive. Early modern ethical theorists disagreed rather little about cannibalism, bestiality, and the like. But as religious discord grew they found it necessary to devise a language in which highly contentious social and cosmological categories and assumptions would no longer be presupposed. Ethical theory, by sticking to this more austere language, drew a relatively tight circle around morality.
Of course it is just this sense of ethics that Christians are called upon to embody in the interest of developing medical ethics, business ethics, professional ethics, and so on. We are asked to leave our theological convictions as much as possible behind and become casuists for liberal social orders. We become technicians for the working out of basic principles of autonomy, justice, and beneficence for the quandaries of the profession. The development of these highly formal accounts of "ethics," as Stout notes, was thought necessary to stop Christians from killing one another. Religion had to be socially and politically relegated to the newly created space called the private. Ethics now becomes an autonomous area of human behavior that can be distinguished from religion and etiquette. Just as we can only know X or Y is true insofar as we are able to divorce our knowing from any concrete tradition, so morality can now only be a correlative of an account of rationality qua rationality. It is now assumed that morality, as such, must be autonomous. The object of such morality is to create respect for autonomy of that new creature we have learned to call "the individual." "Medical ethics," "business ethics," and other "ethics" become ways to explore the quandaries such a morality necessarily creates.
There is a politics correlative to this understanding of truth and morality. Politics is no longer the ongoing conversation necessary for the discovery of goods in common. Such goods clearly do not exist. Rather, now politics is understood as the means necessary to secure cooperation between people who share nothing in common other than their desire to survive. Crucial to sustaining such politics is the distinction between the public and the private. The only area that legitimates the intervention of public authorities into our private lives is whether another's action will cause undue harm. Indeed it is unclear if we can even make sense of what it means for someone to be a public authority, or what it might mean for any of us to be a citizen.
This view of social and political order has momentous implications for those with Christian convictions. For example, George Will, one of America's most conservative political analysts, in a recent column reflected on the role of religion in the American polity. The occasion of his remarks was the decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, and in particular an opinion by Justice Scalia, a conservative justice, to uphold a law prohibiting the use of peyote by the "Native American Church." Commending Scalia for upholding the law, Will argued Scalia did not go far enough. According to Will, Scalia should have said the 1972 Old Amish decision was also mistaken. We need to return to Thomas Jefferson, the "patron saint of libertarians," who articulated the cool realism and secularism of the philosophy that informed the founders.
A central purpose of America's political arrangements is the subordination of religion to the political order, meaning the primacy of democracy. The founders, like Locke before them, wished to tame and domesticate religious passions of the sort that convulsed Europe. They aimed to do so not by establishing religion, but by establishing a commercial republic—capitalism. They aimed to submerge people's turbulent energies in self-interested pursuit of material comforts.
Hence religion is to be perfectly free as long as it is perfectly private—mere belief—but it must bend to the political will (law) as regards conduct. Thus Jefferson held that "operations of the mind" are not subject to legal coercion, but that "acts of the body" are. Mere belief, said Jefferson, in one god or 20, neither picks one's pockets nor breaks one's legs.
Jefferson's distinction rests on Locke's principle (Jefferson considered Locke one of the three greatest men who ever lived) that religion can be useful or can be disruptive, but its truth cannot be established by reason. Hence Americans would not "establish" religion. Rather, by guaranteeing free exercise of religions, they would make religions private and subordinate.
The founders favored religious tolerance because religious pluralism meant civil peace—order. Thus Scalia is following the founders when he finds the limits of constitutionally required tolerance of "free exercise" 24 .idea that a society is "courting anarchy" when it abandons the principle stated in the 1879 ruling: "Laws are made for the government of actions." If conduct arising from belief, not just belief itself, is exempt from regulation, that would permit "every citizen to become a law unto himself." Scalia's position is not only sound conservatism, it is constitutionally correct: It is the intent of the founders.
This world, which I think we can call liberal, has become the presupposition of most Christians as well as most Christian theologians. We believed our task was to make such a world work. That Christian practice was relegated to the private realm was a small price to pay for living in societies that were peaceful. Therefore Christian theologians increasingly construed the Christian moral life in the language of love and justice, which usually meant that Christians should seek to construct societies that rightly know how to balance "freedom" and "equality." In short, Christian social ethics became functionally atheistic, thus insuring, as Maclntyre indicates, the marginality of the theist-atheist debate. In the name of Christian responsibility to the "world," theologians became "ethicists" so they could be of service in liberal political regimens.
The Loss of a Liberal Justification for a Liberal Society
Yet in the most awkward manner this world—the liberal world—is beginning to come apart. For the epistemological assumptions that underwrote the liberal commitment to individual rights—the private-public distinction, the harm principles—have become problematic. Thus Richard Rorty simply declares, "'The nature of truth' is an unprofitable topic, resembling in this respect 'the nature of man' and the 'nature of God,' and differing from 'the nature of the positron,' and 'the nature of the Oedipal fixation.'" Yet Rorty does not believe that giving up attempts to ground the moral commitments of liberal society in reason qua reason means we must abandon liberal societies. For according to Rorty:
It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedriess should not be fostered because, as Scripture teaches, truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, truth will always win in a free and open encounter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content: to call "true" whatever that upshot of such encounters turns out to be. That is why liberal society is badly served by an attempt to supply it with philosophical foundation. For the attempt to supply such foundations presupposes a natural order of topics and arguments which is prior to, and overrides the results of, encounters between old and new vocabularies. The idea that (liberal culture) ought to have a foundation was a result of Enlightenment scientism, which was in turn a survival of the religious need to have human projects underwritten by a nonhuman authority. It was natural for liberal political thought in the eighteenth century to try to associate itself with the most promising cultural developments of the time, the natural sciences. But unfortunately the Enlightenment wove much of its political rhetoric around a picture of the scientist as a sort of priest, someone who achieved contact with nonhuman truth by being "logical," "methodical," and "objective." This was a useful tactic in its day, but it is less useful now.
Excerpted from After Christendom? by Stanley Hauerwas. Copyright © 1999 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One The Politics of Salvation Why There Is No Salvation Outside the Church,
Chapter Two The Politics of Justice Why Justice Is a Bad Idea for Christians,
Chapter Three The Politics of Freedom Why Freedom of Religion Is a Subtle Temptation,
Chapter Four The Politics of Church How We Lay Bricks and Make Disciples,
Chapter Five The Politics of Sex How Marriage Is a Subversive Act ...,
Chapter Six The Politics of Witness How We Educate Christians in Liberal Societies,