The meaning of salvation in Resident Aliens

Since the 25th anniversary re-release of Resident Aliens, I’ve been reading the book again in bits an pieces.

Ever since my first reading of the book, I’ve struggled with the ways that the narrative-based theology and ethics the books advocates undermines or sets aside historical Christian ideas.

For instance, here is how the book describes the nature of salvation:

Here, with our emphasis on the narrative nature of Christian life, we are saying that salvation is baptism into a community that has so truthful a story that we forget ourselves and our anxieties long enough to become part of that story, a story God has told in Scripture and continues to tell in Israel and the church.

There is something appealing in this, but it also troubles me when I stop to think about it.

My primary source of discomfort is that it makes salvation about freedom from anxiety and self-centeredness. Or not freedom so much as forgetfulness. For all the ways that the authors write about Christian ethics being incomprehensible without Jesus Christ, their definition of salvation comes down to the commonplace notion that it is good to be caught up in something bigger than ourselves.

In the end, salvation is about learning to see the world differently and learning to tell our own story in reference to a different story than we did before anyone taught us the story of Jesus. In the end, salvation is about getting our mind right.

In other words, salvation does not appear to have much of anything to do with the Holy Spirit grabbing hold of sinners and breaking up stony hearts.  Nicodemus need not be troubled by the implications of this. He just needs to learn how to inhabit a new story.

The salvation offered in the book feels much too safe. It feels well suited for a Duke University classroom or an encounter group. It feels like it leaves much too much room for the distant and ironic stance that allows us to talk about salvation without being shaken up by it too much.


5 thoughts on “The meaning of salvation in Resident Aliens

  1. I’ve understood narrative theology as still containing the unsettling-factor you talk about. Through the transformation of the Holy Spirit, we are shaken up and see the world and God’s Kingdom differently. Narratives change our lives, and while the language of “story” implies optimism or romanticism, I think there ought to be serious wrestling associated with diving into God’s story. The sense of complacency or safety only comes once you feel like you’ve “arrived” and ended this journey. Likewise, you tame and master God’s story. Such an assumption is utterly misguided.
    …But this might be me reading too much into Hauerwas/Willimon. I’m not sure.

    1. I could be under-reading, but I do notice in what reading I’ve done that Hauerwas does not have a pronounced pneumatology. Indeed, in his forward to the 25th anniversary edition Willimon mentions a bigger dose of pneumatology as one of the things that would have helped the book.

      1. under-read is apt I think. Resident Aliens is not a systematic theology by any stretch of the imagination. I think it is rather o corrective move from where Mainline Liberal protestant got off course in modernity AND an emphasis on a rationalism/reason that doesn’t require Jesus or the gospel. Hauerwas is arguing that w/o Jesus and the community that mediates the gospel we would never know it anyhow…no such rationalism truly exists.
        Hauerwas is admittedly weak on pneumatology.

        I could also argue by analogy, that your critique is like asking which one of Wesley’s articulations of grace is salvific: preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace?
        always appreciate your post. peace

  2. What it sounds like is Buddhism. Buddhist Meditation is meant to instill a sense of losing oneself, walking around in a transe-state of awareness and rejection of reality centered around self.
    Christianity is about facing reality (seeing the world as it is) control of oneself, ones body, mind and practice and focusing on the Word of God.

  3. I agree with both John and Billyy. I sense a kind of objective imitation of Jesus and salvation….which gets one nowhere, rather than the subjective learning Jesus which gets one everywhere. I feel the salvation offered in that book feels much to safe… fact, it seems to leans towards false.

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