This past week I attended the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes. It may sound pretentious (and to be honest, there’s more than a little pretension to be seen around) but it’s an exciting opportunity to hear from some of the best minds inside and outside of the Episcopal Church and to hear from others how they are innovating and responding to our rapidly changing culture.
I was especially intrigued when I saw that Stanley Hauerwas and Diana Butler Bass would be presenting back to back on the conference’s last day. I’ve long been an admirer of both and expected to be challenged to think in new ways about the role of the church in twenty-first century America. Although I had to leave before the end of Bass’s presentation, listening to the two of them on the same morning provided some gist for thought as the twitter hashtag emerged: #HauerBass.
As I listened to Hauerwas’ lecture, I puzzled over his intent. He spent much of his time revisiting the history of Liberal Protestant theology. Hauerwas has long been critical of the American church’s embrace of nationalism and easy acceptance of American culture and he sounded those themes again. He railed against the privatization of religion that is one of liberal theology’s hallmark, as well as the high value placed on toleration. The critique of liberal theology led him back to Karl Barth and that earlier critique of German liberal Protestantism. For Barth, the shock came when leading German pastors and theologians, including his own teachers, signed a declaration in support of the German effort and Kaiser Wilhelm II at the outset of World War I. Over against this assimilation of Christianity to the German war effort, Barth began to articulate a theology in which the Word of God stands in judgment of all human effort, including religion. That theological position would ultimately lead Barth to pen the Barmen Declaration in which he and others set out their resolute opposition to the idolatry introduced by Hitler.
Hauerwas seemed to want to suggest to his audience that we are in something of a similar cultural situation. Certainly Protestant hegemony is over; Christendom has come to an end, but as he points out the liberal state demands our allegiance and wages war in which we are complicit. Hauerwas argued instead that the claim “Jesus is Lord” is a political assertion and if we are serious in making that claim, our allegiance is not to the liberal state, but to the Reign of God that is breaking in upon us. He also asserted that “Jesus is Lord” is an absolutist claim and that it does not brook “toleration.”
On one level, none of this is new. As I listened to him, I thought back to workshops I had attended over the previous days, as well as my pastoral experience in Madison. At the heart of Hauerwas’ project is a view of the Christian faith that begins in absolutist claims like “Jesus is Lord” and assumes total allegiance. The Christian community he envisions is a gathered community, in conflict with the dominant culture and open to martyrdom. He looks back to the early church and sees Constantine’s conversion as something of a watershed, perhaps even a “fall.” Unfortunately, none of this describes the lived experience of most people living in America. Perhaps it should. On the other hand, most people experience a host of competing claims, from job, family, financial security, and the demands of the marketplace, to the ongoing search for meaning in life. Christianity, for better or worse, is only one claim among many. A common theme in the workshops I attended was the importance that we (as clergy, as communities of the faithful, as the Episcopal Church) find ways to engage people as they seek meaning. I wonder whether in the American context, for many, if not for all Americans, Hauerwas’ assertion that “Jesus is Lord is an absolutist claim” makes any sense whatsoever.
And this is precisely where I wanted to hear Diana Butler Bass reflect. For the culture she is describing has very different contours than the one Hauerwas described. She too talked about the decline of Protestantism in America, pointing out that according to the latest Pew Survey, the percentage of all Protestants has declined to below 50% for the first time in US history (I presume she wasn’t thinking about Native Americans when making this claim). The percentage claiming to be mainline Protestant is now lower than the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. This is a culture in which there are multiple claims on our allegiance, religious and otherwise and negotiating among those claims, making meaning in the midst of those competing claims, is difficult, demands nuance. I think it also inevitably requires allowing a certain amount of ambiguity, if one is at all self-reflective.
I don’t find Hauerwas’ construction of “post-Christendom” Christianity particularly helpful. It might work for certain Anabaptist or neo-Anabaptist communities, but the Episcopal Church is situated differently, and Anglicanism, whether or not the Episcopal Church survives, offers a different stance toward its cultural context. We may be able to develop committed communities of faith made up of disciples seeking to follow Jesus Christ, but we also welcome strangers and seekers who encounter Jesus Christ in our liturgy and may not, for a multitude of reasons, ever make the sort of deeper connection we want and hope. They may never be able to experience and submit to the absolutist claims of “Jesus is Lord” because they encounter other absolutist claims from other sectors of our culture. We must be able to minister to them as well. We must be able to find ways of helping them make meaning in their lives, whether or not they are able to fit into the membership boxes we want to stuff them in. It’s more important to speak their language than to expect them to speak, and accept, ours. Because if we are able to help them find meaning in the contexts in which they live, they will also be able to find God there, and to experience the redemptive love of Jesus Christ.