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The Christian


Embarrassed by God's Presence


B EFORE WE met each other, each of us was often

told that what he was saying and writing sounded
like the work of the other. We were also told that this
intellectual expression to our state of mind. He has made
clear why we are no longer content, as pastor and
theologian, to stand on the periphery, hat in hand,
commonality sounded like something new and not easi- apologetically trying to translate our religious convic-
ly characterized in terms of recent theological options. tions into terms palatable to the world. Rather, we are
As fate would have it, we now find ourselves at the same now ready to say that our convictions lay down a pro-
institution. Since arriving at Duke, we have tried to make gram, a vision, a paradigm for accommodating the world
clear to ourselves what, if anything, is "new" about us. to the gospel. For as Lindbeck suggests, religion is not
This article is our attempt to articulate what we have primarily a set of presuppositions to be believed or
discovered we share, and how that discovery positions disbelieved, but a set of skills that one employs in liv-
us vis-a-vis the church and recent theology. ing. Such skills are acquired by learning the stories of
Of course, this may be pretentious, since neither of Israel and Jesus well enough not only to interpret the
us is all that "important." Indeed, it is part of our percep- world, but to do so in specifically Christian terms.
tion that the day of "important" theologians or Lindbeck, along with scholars like Hans Frei and David
theological movements is probably over. Therefore we Kelsey, represents the academic side of our mood. But
would be particularly embarrassed it we were identified we also resonate to the thought of people as diverse as
as some "new wave." We have steadfastly criticized Will Campbell, John Howard Yoder, Walker Percy and
those in the theological establishment for forever attempt- Flannery O'Connor, who challenge the liberal theological
ing to catch the spirit of the age. Neither of us wants enterprise to its core. Though these people do not share
to write a Religion in the Secular City for the '80s. the same background, there is an aggressive, anti-
Moreover we want to make no grand claims of establishment spirit among them that we think is right.
representing a coherent theological position. Rather, we That is, they challenge both academy and church to
share more of a mood than a position, since we are realize that business as usual cannot continue if Chris-
anything but clear on our common methodology or tians are to be intellectually and socially of service in
assumptions. All we are trying to do is to characterize our time.
that mood and to ask for help from those who share our
sense of the challenges facing the church, and of how
we must prepare ourselves theologically to face those
W HAT COMMON themes of these critics do we
share, and in what sense are they an alternative
to the theology and practice of our recent past?
One way to characterize our attitude is to note the peo- 1) We seek to be neither conservative nor liberal—in
ple whom we are reading and who are influencing us. either our political or our theological thinking. As pastor
George Lindbeck's new The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and theologian, we began as mainline Protestants. We
in a Post-Liberal Age (Westminster, 1984), has given each started our work in the '60s during the time of stu-
dent activism, and shared the liberal preference for
Dr. Hauerwas is professor of theological ethics at the apologetics as the main task of theology. We didn't set
Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North out to be different or new. Rather, while trying to con-
Carolina; Dr. Willimon is minister to the university and front the world with our liberal presuppositions, we
professor of the practice of Christian ministry. somehow were pushed in new directions. We had heard

98 The Christian CENTURY

H. Richard Niebuhr's call for the integrity of the theo- to present church formation abuse that text. Scripture is
logical enterprise. Now we found ourselves traveling fur- rightly read and interpreted within the liturgy, which
ther than he himself was willing to go. Beyond the pres- keeps reminding us of the whole story of God.
ent relativism, even beyond the past confessionalism, we This emphasis upon liturgy disassociates us from the
came to feel that theology really does make true or false return to orthodoxy represented by such figures as Karl
claims about the way things are. Moreover, we became Barth and the Niebuhrs. While we have taken clues from
convinced that our religious convictions required of us Barth, we do not share his epistemological presupposi-
a much more radical orientation toward our social order. tions that revelation is self-authenticating. Barth, perhaps
We could not escape the conclusion that the Christian incorrectly interpreted, still reigns among those Prot-
faith is intellectually "imperialistic," a contentious com- estants who view theology as personal belief rather than
petitor with all other claimants for truth. as service to gathered congregations at worship.
2) Related to our concern with the integrity of theolog- 5) We confess that to us the church has an indepen-
ical discourse is a strong sense that theology need not dent and intrinsic value in a way that we have not heard
be translated into the terms offered by the world. We articulated by others. Willimon's The Service of God (Ab-
agree with David Kelsey's critique of translation in mod- ingdon, 1983) and Hauerwas's The Peaceable Kingdom
ern theology's use of Scripture. Theology is best charac- (University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) were preoc-
terized as a unique language that must be learned rather cupied with the church. We are not at all interested, as
than translated. Just as a poem by Dante loses something Richard John Neuhaus is, in contending that the church
crucial in translation, so the Christian faith loses is a useful component in keeping constitutional democracy
something crucial when it is made more relevant, useful, afloat. It may be, but that is neither the church's nor the
understandable and interesting by modern translator- Christian's first task. Our account of the church is (we
apologists. Our sense of Christian social ethics also dif- admit) more—imperialistic. Given our sanctificationtet
fers from that of modern theology's mainstream. The leanings, we believe that the sort of life required of Chris-
liberal and conservative churches have allowed the world tians is too difficult and peculiar to survive without the
to "set the agenda" for so long that we are without church. This life challenges every other social o r d e r -
anything substantial to say at the meeting. As the proper including democracy. In this sense, we are more radical
method of church discourse, theology sets its own agenda. than either the liberal or the conservative camp.
3) In our own work we note an increasingly strong 6) Perhaps this accounts for the quite different way in
stress on Christian formation and sanctification. Wesley which we feel the ecumenical spirit. Liberalism failed
was right: the gospel is not simply about forgiveness; to deliver what it seemed to offer: a means of understand-
it is also about response. The gospel is more than a set ing and talking with other religious traditions. Liberalism
of interesting ideas; it is a whole way of life which re- was imperialistic and reductionistic ("Basically all
quires the church to be holy. It is always contretemps, religions affirm the same great truths"). Neither point
always an alternative to life in the world. We are therefore of view enables us to understand one another. Our posi-
at odds with those who turn theolgy into an arcane tion is shared by many Catholics, Protestants and,
discipline, the urbane pastime of graduate schools of
religion. Theological integrity and sanctification are in-
extricably related. Christian theology is renewed not by
new thinking, but by new living. Our faith is apprehended
and validated by those who submit to the painful work
of sanctification. Job and the Donkey
4) Our concern for formation explains our (to some) A wild donkey, old and tired,
rather surprising preoccupation with liturgy, Scripture finding no food in the desert
and the church. One reason why liberals have been visits my garbage dump. It is dark
apathetic about Christian liturgy is that they have con- and he doesn't see me.
sidered the surrounding secular culture to be a prop for He forages for food,
the church. The so-called neoorthodox have shared anything will do,
liberals' disdain for liturgy and sacraments because their finds scraps enough to fill,
concern for theological integrity has never been pushed at least for now,
to a concern for holiness. his insatiable hunger.
Although we are not fundamentalists, we believe that There is no food for me
Scripture is central in the formation and correction of in this place, no comfort
the church. Our view of Scripture is more corporate than when Eliphaz tells me
that of fundamentalists, more concerned with how Scrip- "As for me, I would seek God
ture functions politically and socially to form a people and to him would I commit my cause."
worthy of being its reader. Both academic and fundamen- The donkey raises his head,
talist interpreters who deal with the scriptural text apart looks at me. I look back.
from its communal origins, its meaning and its relation Elmer Suderman.

January 30, 1985 99

interestingly, Jews. Catholics resonate particularly to about peace and ecology) as a survival tactic for the
our views on the liturgy and church formation. So- modern world: the church primarily has been seen as
called sectarian Protestants rightly sense in our work a something of extrinsic, functional value to the culture-
new concern for moral formation and for seeing the helping Caesar keep society in good working order.
church as a countercultural phenomenon. Indeed, we Against such incipient atheism, we declare that God is
think that recovering Christianity as a sectarian form really present in this world. We affirm that God finds
of Judaism is quite important to what we are about. While a way, even when American theologians cannot. Indeed,
serving a church next door to a synagogue, one of us we are more troubled by the rebirth of optimistic
became convinced that the church in general must become American patriotism than by cultural pessimism because
more Jewish if it is to become more Christian. Though we fear that both the liberal and the conservative chuches
the particularities of our stories as Protestant, Catholic lack the theological and moral means to oppose such
and Jew divide us, we are finding an amazing ecumenical arrogance.
consensus that believing communities must take Ultimately, it all comes down to the issue of the cen-
themselves more seriously and the surrounding culture trality of God's presence. The central problem for our
less so. church, its theology and its ethics is that it is simply
atheistic. Therefore it forever builds its social structures

I N SUMMARY, the new mood in which we find

ourselves is characterized by a renewed sense of the
integrity of theology, of the intrinsic importance of the
on the presupposition that God doesn't really matter. We
endow pensions for our clergy and devise strategies for
church growth as if God were not here.
church, of sanctification and holiness as hallmarks of At last, we lay our theological cards on the table. We
Christian living and of the centrality of Scripture and believe that our mood is new because we know that God
liturgy as focuses of the Christian life. has acted in Israel and in Jesus, and continues to act in
We have come to this position not by thinking that we the church today, transforming the world. Our Sunday
must formulate an alternative systematic theology, but worship is immoral and indifferent (if not rather silly),
by being pulled toward this perspective both by our unless we really believe that God is present in our gather-
theological growth and by our social situation. Frankly, ing and in the world, and that our listening to the story,
it's a bit embarrassing for middle-aged mainline, Prot- our service to others and our breaking of bread are
estant university professors and pastors to find themselves dangerous attempts to let God be God.
moving in this direction. If what we say here is true, then, God knows, we are
You will detect in us a pessimistic view of modern on risky terrain. Are we being narcissistic? Faced with
culture. We are children of Vietnam. There we faced, the impossibility of making religion work in the modern
for the first time in our Kennedy-Johnson liberal lives, world, are we turning our gaze toward our liturgical
the possibility that democracies might be no less im- navels? God help us if we are. We started down this road
perialistic than other forms of government. That ex- in the first place because we wanted to give the church
perience taught us that one doesn't challenge Caesar's the means of fulfilling Jesus' mandate to look outside
imperialism with open-minded, soft liberalism, but itself and challenge the world in a more radical way than
through being so well formed that one is able to say No! our old theology enabled us to do.
Also, our continued sense of our culture's racism makes Indeed, we have rejected the assumption, ingrained for
us—both native Southerners—less sanguine about in- so long in theology, that salvation lies in a renewed sense
herent American goodness or the effectiveness of govern- of self-understanding. Salvation is the tough social for-
mental and legislative attempts to create justice. For us, mation of a colony, a holy nation, a people, a family,
much of liberation theology (particularly that of North a congregation that is able to stand against the preten-
American theologians) is the last gasp of the old liberal sions and the illusions of the world.
naivete wedded to newer strategies of governmental coer- We also hope that this statement will not be perceived
cion. We are not disturbed simply that such strategies as a new addition to the Richard Neuhaus-Michael Novak
don't work, but that they are unfaithful. neoconservative enterprise. While with them we raise
Like those who formulate liberation theology, we find questions about theological integrity and share their low
ourselves looking toward the Third World. But we do estimate of religious liberalism, we are more pessimistic
so with pessimism about the notion that the United States about this culture than they, much more radical and much
is the clue to the Third World's future. Instead, we take more optimistic about the church's intrinsic worth.
heart from the church's unity and universality, which cuts Here we are, one representing a university chapel built
across our national and cultural boundaries as well as to bless American religiosity, the other tenured to
our hopes for political progress. teach in a mainline divinity school. We don't know how
We hope that our position is not a response to the to explain these facts to ourselves. We realize some of
miasma that currently grips the American polity. For- the dangers, but both of us have always had difficulty
tunately, God's purposes are not dependent upon our sur- in keeping quiet when we thought that something ought
vival as a church or a nation. For too long Christians to be said about the meaning of being Christians in our
have presented their faith (most recently in much talk time. •
100 The Christian CENTURY
^ s
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