The “Sectarian Temptation” and Social Responsibility

ImageThe following is an excerpt from a draft of my summer research paper on the “considerable disagreement” between James Gustafson and Stanley Hauerwas. In my paper, I also consider the corrigibility of Christian convictions and the ethical tensions between Christology and creation. 

While Hauerwas’s claim that “the first duty of the church for society is to be the church,” is often interpreted as a legitimation of withdrawal (i.e. social irresponsibility), such interpretations involve a host of presuppositions that need to be considered:

a) That political activity is legitimated only by and through participation in activities that are facilitated by the state (e.g. voting). Such construals of the political process fail to recognize the church as an alternative polis that generates forms of political action unique to the Christian narrative and tradition. This failure is especially detrimental insofar as it undermines the church’s capacity to recognize and appreciate the political dimensions of prayer, liturgy, baptism, and the like.

b) That there is some definite and/or universal agreement concerning the nature of social responsibility, what it requires, and/or how it might be “measured.” Ambiguities of this kind are almost always resolved by the tacit assumptions of those (like Gustafson) who charge others with social irresponsibility. Not surprisingly, these “tacit assumptions” are usually consistent with–or somehow related to–various kinds of consequentialism.

c) That efforts to bring about a desirable result entail a social “involvement” and/or “activity” that is not demonstrated by those who seek to fulfill their moral duties prior to bringing about a desirable result. While the contest between effectiveness and faithfulness has yet to be decided after millenia of debate, the recognition that Gustafson and Hauerwas belong to different, and often conflicting ethical “camps” still remains a valuable philosophical distinction. Indeed, I suspect that many have identified the Hauerwasian ethic as an ethic of “withdrawal” precisely because they have not carefully considered the reasons why Hauerwas opposes the ethical determinacy of effectiveness.

In The Peaceable Kingdom, Hauerwas makes explicit the normative social location of God’s people–the church is called to “be a community…within the world.” As such, Gustafson’s charge of social irresponsibility seems clearly mistaken, at least insofar as that claim depends on the more basic charge of “withdrawal.” Social irresponsibility, moreover, does not necessarily follow from the conviction that the church is (in some respect) different than the world. Following John H. Yoder, Hauerwas insists that this difference is one of agency–that is, the distinction between church and world is not between the natural and the supernatural, but “rather between the basic personal postures of men, some of whom confess and others who do not confess that Jesus is Lord.”

It seems the relevant question concerning Hauerwasian social involvement, then, is not if but how? For Christian existence is not an issue of reducing political engagement to a matter of “yes” or “no,” but of rightly situating ourselves within the ecclesial body such that our social involvement can witness faithfully to the particularity of reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Indeed, Hauerwas develops this very point in Vision and Virtue. He writes

The crucial question is not whether the church should or should not be responsible for society, but rather what that responsibility is. It is surely being irresponsible if it attempts to change the world through the shortcut of using means unfitting to its ends. The church cannot attempt to become another power group among others in society that seek to dominate in the name of good…such a “withdrawal”…is based on the conviction that God has changed the essential reality of human affairs by his work in Christ. For the church to act in any way that contradicts this faith means that she has failed.

Echoing Hauerwas here, I suspect that Gustafson’s charge of withdrawal does not actually reflect a concern about the presence of social involvement but the type. After all, worship, baptism, and the Lord’s supper are–peculiar as they may be–social and political practices. What stands to question is whether they are the kind of social and political practices that Gustafson thinks constitute a “responsible” social ethic.

Of course, the kind of social involvement that Hauerwas adopts is the kind that he learned from Yoder during their time together at Notre Dame. In The Christian Witness to the State, Yoder argues that our present historical period is “characterized by the coexistence of two ages or aeons.” These aeons, however, share an essential difference of direction in that “the present aeon is characterized by sin and centered on man,” while “the coming aeon is the redemptive reality which entered history in an ultimate way in Christ.” According to Yoder, the old aeon is socially manifested by the state, while the future aeon is uniquely present in the church as a foretaste of what is already, but not yet. Yoder’s understanding of Christ’s lordship over the old aeon in the present time results in the conviction that evil can be used by God to serve His purposes. Accordingly, Yoder writes in The Politics of Jesus that “the key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience.”

In the end, then, Gustafson’s mistaken charge of isolationism is likely the result of his failure to identify the crux of this issue as an eschatological difference. As evidenced by his insistence on the location of the church within society, it’s clear that Hauerwas does not seek to isolate the church from the world. Thus, if Hauerwas’s ecclesiology results in a social irresponsibility, it is not because it legitimates a withdrawal from society but rather because it renounces the claim to govern history by affirming that Jesus “excluded any normative concern for any capacity to make sure that things would turn out right.”


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