Friday, July 12, 2013

Moving to the farm: Hauerwas and Coles' introduction

From Harrisonburg, VA
This is the second post in a series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. For a bit of context, see the intro post, and here's the first post from John.

[Originally an email back to John and Brian]

As I read the intro there were two things that I knew were going to be mentioned in our discussions, and I knew they were going to come from you John: the introductory Wendell Berry quote and the reference to ecotones! And you've come through on both! 

Actually I do find a lot of resonance with this from Berry: "My point is that when one passes from any abstract order... to the daily life and work of one's own farm, one passes from relative simplicity into a complexity that is irreducible except by disaster and ultimately is incomprehensible." Both Christianity and Democracy have become abstractions and many assume that one can speak of either and assume common definitions. Coles and Hauerwas helpfully point in the direction of "moving to the farm" (in terms of making the abstract more concrete) in this book, and I hope it will be a conversation that becomes fruitful. Berry’s quote also mentions, (you know, you've read it too) that to move to the farm in this way by necessity puts us into touch with the complexity (and wildness) of Creation and reminds us of our limitations. I think it notable that he mentions the limitations of knowledge, intelligence, character, and bodily strength - that's a lot of limitations. Also notable is that these limitations don’t seem to be despair-inducing for Berry, just observations about what happens when one passes from abstract to daily life and work (or when one moves to the farm).

I do think that to attempt to make abstractions concrete is to recognize place, at least I think it difficult to avoid place in these kinds of discussions (not that it hasn't been avoided in plenty of cases), and I'm happy that they have employed what seems to be a pretty ad hoc approach to these conversations. They are open about the reality that even as they went about other duties they kept this conversation in mind as a way to keep working at it. Excellent stuff. 

Simultaneous to reading this book I've been reading William Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist (either of you read it?) and he provides what I think to be an extended case study of what happens when Christianity becomes an abstraction. In the case of Chile during the Pinochet regime Cavanaugh traces how the Catholic Church essentially "disappeared" itself (the disappearance language used in direct relation to the Pinochet regime's "disappearing" of detractors or suspected detractors, sometimes to be seen again, many times to be tortured and killed) because of an ecclesiology that created the space for the church to function as the "soul" of Chile -- which ended up meaning that bodies were left to the state. In reference to Coles/Hauerwas and our conversation here, Cavanaugh suggests that the church in becoming the soul of Chile essentially disappeared the actual quotidian practices that would have allowed it to be a Body that could at least have provided some semblance of resistance to the state when the state became jealous and zealous. Cavanaugh says that the Catholic Church in Chile became an abstraction for a period of time. Cavanaugh argues that it was only when the church began to realize the practices (Eucharist) that made it a body, and actually practiced them for the purpose of being a body that the real conflict was revealed: who can make claims on bodies. Notably this recognition really doesn't solve any conflict, but it at least reveals the conflict simmering under the surface. (see this more recent article on connections between these topics and the United States) 

All of this is important stuff I think, but then my mind also moves to thinking that it is relatively easy to form a body in reaction to something (the state) but much more difficult to grasp the importance of body formation (which I take to be constituted by practicing the radical ordinary) BEFORE there is something to oppose. This is where I can get cynical about Hauerwas in particular and I start to think: where is this "church" and "Christianity" that you speak of? I have seldom experienced it. Mostly what I experience is a broken body. (Isn't there somewhere where Hauerwas was asked this question by someone? Was it Coles? Somehow I remember hearing that H's response was "where is this democracy you speak of?") Perhaps this is why they refer to democracy and Christianity as lived pedagogies of hope inspirited and envisioned through memories of "good, at its best." (3) 

And I think Coles and Hauerwas are getting at this in some important ways. In what I call their "theory of change" they suggest that Christianity and radical democracy are revolutionary. And yet revolutions cannot claim to be above and beyond the politics of ordinary, micro-relationship (and this includes the unavoidability of death). Here's the theory: "We think that it is most vitally in and through concrete practices of tending to one another that people find the sources of renewal and sustenance for a life-affirming politics-- one that provides the most hopeful wellspring for defeating the politics of death." 

I'll end with this: Hauerwas and Coles state that it is now the case that many students (at Duke?) doing grad work in political theory also do work in theology. Do students in theology also do work in political theory? So in the relationship between theology and political theory, is the “and” more important for political theory than it has been/is for theology? I realize that some of us are more interested in this kind of thing, but it seems that some of what we were doing in Christian Tradition (a required seminary course) could have been called political theory-- or at least calling it that (not all of it) would have helped to see the connections between "polities." Regardless, I think this reality (that political theory students work in theology, but not necessarily the other way around) contributes to the paragraph that follows. Coles thinks Christianity might matter for how radical democracy is understood and practiced, but Hauerwas isn't really sure that he has a stake in "radical democracy." But given what he knows of Coles (does this extend to other radical democrats?) he can't avoid being drawn into the lives of radical democrats. Hauerwas seems more intent on making sure readers know the boundaries than Coles does: and Coles seems to pick up on this in the suggestion that he fears Hauerwas isn't quite willing to subject his account of the church to the vulnerabilities that Coles wants him to. I'm not sure I have an opinion per say on this; I just wanted to point it out. Should Hauerwas be willing to expose his account of the church? I think he should (okay maybe I do have an opinion). Does refusing to expose his account suggest a fear of the death of that account?

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