The Church as Kiln of the Soul

Character and the Christian Life makes a clear case for the centrality of the virtues, but it is strikingly formal in its conclusions. To be in Christ, Hauerwas concludes at the end of this early work, means being shaped by a power, some x, that gives order and form to our lives, that molds our character. Perhaps if Hauerwas were a Lutheran, he would not have hesitated. He would have said that the x is the Gospel. That is the word that Lutherans use when they want to emphasize the thick and weighty power of God. Perhaps if Hauerwas were a Roman Catholic, he would have said that the x is grace, for Roman Catholics often use that word to denote everything that God does for us and in us. But Hauerwas is a Methodist, and Methodists have tent meetings, but they do not have handy theological words. As a result, convinced as he might be about the central importance of character, Hauerwas must investigate the x that, according to the promise of the Gospel, shapes our lives.

The results of Hauerwas' investigations are his signature preoccupations. Unable to use the word "Gospel" in its Lutheran sense, he appeals to narrative, and in so doing he draws attention to the fundamental role of scripture in the formation of Christian character. At the same time, Hauerwas turns to the church and points to the many institutional practices that Roman Catholics always take for granted when they use the word "grace." In both cases, Hauerwas plunges into the details that constitute the x that forms (or should form) the character of Christians. The upshot is a rather plastic vocabulary -narrative, community, church, practices, sacraments, story - that refers to particular instances of God's formative power, that concreta Christiana, that give density to our lives. The x is no longer formal. It takes on material content, and political consequences follow directly.

Density is a function of strong forces that hold together potentially fragmenting elements. What, then, holds our lives together? What gives sharp force and real endurance to our characters? For Hauerwas, the glue of personal life is narrative or story. "The metaphors that determine our vision," Hauerwas writes, "must form a coherent story if our lives are to have duration and unity" (Hauerwas 1981b: 3). Narrative and not principle, story and not duty, allow us to make sense out of the dynamic and developmental reality of moral life. For example, St. Augustine's Confessions exercise such a profound influence because he can tell a story about his life. His personal transformation makes sense, not because of the fact that he made some "meaningful" decision, or because he "affirmed" his life, but instead because the narrative as a whole makes sense.4

The concentrating power of story is a theme that is central to Hauerwas' escape from the impotence of Protestant liberalism. Although Hauerwas consistently reminds us of the importance of adherents to the "Social Gospel", such as Walter Rauschenbusch, who drew attention to the political dimension of Christian convictions, he sees a fundamental problem in their orientation. "They provided," he writes, "a far too limited account of the nature of those convictions and how they work morally" (Hauwerwas 1981a: 90). Emphasis fell on Christian principles that, once isolated from the fabric of Christian speech and practice, became semantically underdetermined. The content of Christian convictions becomes diffuse. God's "love" and "righteousness" were thus easily absorbed into the therapeutic goals and liberal political framework of twentieth-century American culture.

It is against this gaseous tendency that Hauerwas sets the solidifying importance of narrative. Just as our lives take on density when embedded in a story, so also do theological convictions. For Christian theology, "love" and "righteousness" have a determinative meaning precisely as constituents of a story about what God has, in fact, done in the election of Israel, and in the fulfillment of that election in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As he says pungently, "The Gospel is not about love, but it is about this man, Jesus of Nazareth" (Hauerwas 1981b: 115). Thus, for Hauerwas, "by calling attention to the narrative character of Christian convictions, the reductionistic assumptions associated with the ethics sponsored by Protestant liberalism can be avoided" (Hauerwas 1981a: 90). The story of Jesus of Nazareth gives content to Christian words such as "love" and "righteousness."

The point is not that Christian convictions are somehow clearer in a narrative context. It can be very difficult to see how the justice of the God of Israel can require the exile of the righteous remnant, a difficulty that prefigures the suffering of the righteous Son. Rather, the point is that narrative creates density. Because we must puzzle out the nature of God's righteousness within the narrative, we must account for layer upon layer of event and episode. Concepts are not "clarified"; they are weighted with exegetical reflection that, however inconclusive and complex, is not easily taken captive by rival, extra-Christian interpretations. It is for this reason, and not on the basis of the philosophical arguments he often uses to show the contextual nature of all concepts, that Hauerwas insists, "There are no doctrines for which one must search out moral implications; rather 'doctrines' and 'morality' gain their intelligibility from narratives" (Hauerwas 1981a: 90) Narratives are engines of density, and Christian doctrines have staying power only if they have a weight born of this density.

Story is central to Hauerwas' quest for the brick-like truth of Christian faith, but when we focus on narrative alone there is the danger of a literary abstraction that parallels conceptual abstraction. "Part of the difficulty with the rediscovery of the significance of narrative for theological reflection," Hauerwas cautions, "has been too [much] concentrated attention on texts qua texts" (Hauerwas 1988: 55). Stories are not uniquely potent simply because of their narrative form. Stories have force when they are told and retold. Indeed, they have force when they are enacted as retold. This requires place, memory, and discipline. We must come together to hear the story. A tradition must keep the story forever contemporary. A community of enactment must endorse disciplines that shape us according to the story. Just as St. Augustine's ability to tell the story of his life does not depend upon a "metaphor" of God as Forgiver, but requires a narrative framework into which he can place his own life, so does the power of that narrative framework depend upon the actual practices of repentance that characterize the Christian community. For Hauerwas, "church" identifies this place, memory, and discipline.

Here, Hauerwas is very clear. "Narrative is unintelligible abstracted from an ecclesial context"; and, once abstracted, it is all too tempting "to develop general hermeneutical theories" in "an attempt to substitute a theory of interpretation for the church" (Hauerwas 1988: 55). This temptation must be resisted, for it leads back into the "reductionism" of liberal Protestantism. The narrative form supersedes the content of what Christians proclaim, and the emptiness of form produces the same vaporous conclusions that characterize earlier forms of theological liberalism. In fact, as Hauerwas likes to say, the story of liberalism is the story that we have no story. We can adopt narratives that disembody our lives. We can anchor our lives in distorting and destructive stories. Therefore, the material link between narrative and church is crucial. The brick-like quality of the Christian life does not come from an abstract commitment to narrative. It comes from adopting the story of Jesus Christ that is remembered and embodied in the church.

For this reason, for Hauerwas, the church is the fundamental and density-creating form of God's power in the world. If you and I are shaped by the church, then we are sturdy stones in the walls of the heavenly city, or (to take a more aggressive mode characteristic of Hauerwas' rhetoric) we are ready projectiles to be lobbed against the threatening, but ultimately hollow forces arrayed against righteousness. If we understand Hauerwas on this point, then his noted remarks about ethics, truth, the world, and the church make sense.

Consider these claims. "The church is an ontological necessity if we are to know rightly that our world is capable of narrative construal." "Without the church the world would have no history." "The faithfulness of the church is crucial for the destiny of the world" (Hauerwas 1988: 61). Such formulations can be deceiving. Hauerwas does not think that a churchless world has no past, present, or future. Rather, he is offering the following postulate. Without the density-conferring work of God in the identity-forming practices of the church, worldly life is ethereal and weightless. We have political, economic, ethnic, familial commitments, to be sure, but the sum of the whole is less than the parts, and as a consequence, we have little ballast against the storms of violence and fear that sweep across our lives. However, if we are formed by the church, then we have weight and density. We have a place to stand against the supposed "necessities" of life (preservation of one's life, protection of one's property, defense of one's own kind) that give evil its seeming cogency and force.

Given this insight, Hauerwas' polemic against "ethics" becomes clear. To try to meet evil with principle and duty is futile. They lack worldly weight to counteract worldly powers. In contrast, the identity-forming practices of the Christian community (Hauerwas can range very widely in his descriptions of these practices) cement our allegiance and solidify our defenses. For this reason, the church, for Hauerwas, simply is the social ethic of Christians. To define the principles of righteousness, to intend the good, to clarify duty, to expound upon the Christian vision of justice - all these efforts are well and good as constituent practices within the life of the church; but alone, they are powerless. The church provides the glue that cements together such practices, and many others, into a whole capable of resisting worldly powers.

Thus, for Hauerwas, the church is the kiln of a brick-like soul: not the featherweight soul defined by "ultimate concerns," but soul weighted by the scriptural stories, moral disciplines, and communal practices that make sharing the Eucharist a real rather than ritual act. Here, Hauerwas' theological concerns are classical, not modern. God's truth transforms persons, not political systems. But such classical concerns are not at all apolitical. After all, when frail human flesh is cemented into the People of God, it can resist evil and give solidity to the cause of righteousness. And surely Hauerwas (and the classical tradition) is right. For falsehood has shown itself able to endure many changes of regime. Fear and violence are ready to serve any political program. Yet, as the witness of the martyrs shows so vividly, neither falsehood, nor fear, nor violence can survive the identity-shaping power of divine love.

Thus, for Hauerwas, the church is the foundational sacrament, the sign of redemptive power that makes real that which it signifies. The church is the body of Christ, the enduring worldly form of his work in the world. For this reason, Hauerwas often says that the truth of Christian faith depends upon the church. As he asserts, "The truthfulness of theological claims entails the work they do for the shaping of holy lives" (Hauerwas 2001: 17). God's truth is the power to resist evil: "By being trained through Jesus' story," Hauerwas writes, "we have the means to name and prevent these powers from claiming our lives as their own" (Hauerwas 1981a: 50). Resistance is but the first step. The Lord intends to bring all things to consummation, and that power is present in the life-forming practices of the People of God.5 Thus, the world has a "history," or more precisely, a truthful history, only insofar as the church's power waxes and worldly powers wane. Indeed, as Hauerwas sets out to show in the conclusion of his recent Gifford Lectures, With the Grain of the Universe, all that is finds its full weight and reality in light of the proper weight and reality of the church's witness. The more brick-like the church, and our lives as shaped by the church, the more vain and vacuous are the distorting forces of evil, and the more real and purposeful is the created order.

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