Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Better together: Hauerwas and Taylor on American Secularity

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
The statesman and the raconteur;
Charles Taylor & Stanley Hauerwas
Two pieces that popped up for me in the past day seem to be good companions for each other and stimulated my thinking along the topics of nationalism and secularity. That they come from two men who've dramatically influenced my thinking in the past year was a plus.
Hauerwas' piece outlines the way in which European Protestantism - moving along into the formation of the American republic - helped plant the philosophical, social, and political seeds of its own demise (or rather its dramatic marginalization in society). Because post-Enlightenment Protestants were more than happy to play along with the powers that be in an increasingly secularized social-political order, they created over time a church where, for instance, it is nearly impossible for most Christians in America to distinguish between what it means to be "Christian" and what it means to be "American." Hauerwas states that...
Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church. (Emphasis mine)
I see this nearly every day from both liberal and conservative Christian Americans. For instance the National Council of Churches (I could say more about the problems inherent just in that organization's name) tells people on one of its Twitter feeds to "pray for a faithful budget that gives everyone the chance to succeed."  Again, look back to Hauerwas' last statement above. Not that good, compassionate governance is necessarily a bad thing - indeed it's quite good and Christians should care about it and work for it to a degree - but we shouldn't confuse the halls of congress with cathedral walls.

Taylor's piece - in his trademark genre of "intellectual anthropology" - digs a bit deeper and farther back into the same past on which Hauerwas is shining light for his argument. Taylor's task is describing the way in which the word "secular" has local, particular meaning which shifts across time; in this case late medieval Europe moving through the Reformation into the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. This particular shift is a move from a co-dependent social-political order for church and state powers into laïcité, French secularism, which begins to see those various orders of the "religious"/transcendent as subservient to (and potentially dangerous to) the "secular"/immanent and its social-political orders.

Power Players
In both accounts that Hauerwas and Taylor lay out, the Christians involved in this process have operated with (and many still operate with) a view of power that is on the world's terms, what John Howard Yoder would describe as "constantinian." Seen from a neo-Anabaptist view, this is a problem, and that the church in America is losing its long-held grip on social-political influence (Hauerwas' "death of America's God") is 1) but a logical outcome of the church-in-power's own meddlings and 2) a good thing for the (little 'c') catholic Church, the body of Christ, as it finds itself in the United States of America in the early 21st century.

Power, then, must be deconstructed for Christian Americans and reconstructed by Christ through his Spirit. Power is not having a hand on the wheel of a social-political order, fighting through the cacophony of an increasingly corporatized government. What is real power? A cross. A cross which is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews (1 Cor. 1:22-25). A cross on which died the Lord of all who sends us into the world which is groaning for redemption, to be servants for the sake of God's mission toward that redemptive end. This takes place in a particular body, the body of Christ, animated by his Spirit. This is the real power that Christians are called to embody which comes only from God, not a government which may or may not want to "play nice" with such a group that sees things radically different than itself.

On pages 13 & 14 of the paper which I posted yesterday, "Building Peoplehood and Peace," I tell the story of teaching the students in my class in Ethiopia a similar line of reasoning to what Hauerwas lays out above (and indeed it was Hauerwas to whom I was mostly indebted to for such a lesson). At the end of my talk I encouraged my Ethiopian students, "Don't make these same mistakes." Why teach such a lesson in a conflict transformation class? Because if Christians don't lift the veil off such flawed thinking and practice, they continue to be blindly driven by such forces and pass them on to others. It negatively affects our peacebuilding work and any other kind of Christian practice we engage in.

Confusing worldly power for real, cruciform power has terrible consequences to the faithful witness of the church. What Hauerwas (and in a more descriptive way, Taylor) shows is that very story of terrible consequences for Western Christianity.

And because the global mission movement of Western Christianity has had such a profound impact on global Christianity, I care about these issues not only for the church in America, but also as the church developments in the global south, in places like Ethiopia. If those developments don't proceed with more humility and care than Western Christians have exercised in the past 600 years, the faithful witness of the church may suffer and develop into what Philip Jenkins has called "the next Christendom," which seen from a neo-Anabaptist view is not a good thing.

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