Here’s an interesting interview of Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler.
The whole interview is interesting reading, but here is one nugget that caught my eye right off the top:
I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.
This expresses very well Hauerwas’ focus on the church as the center of all the action in our faith. It also raises an interesting critique of our Methodist roots. This would likely be the exact kind of complaint that Church of England bishops had about John Wesley and all those Methodists running around talking about assurance of salvation. Perhaps this is part of the reason Hauerwas is no longer a United Methodist.
It also gets at some of the tension we have within our current church, I think. The question he suggests for us is which is primary: Our personal relationship with Jesus or our participation in the body of Christ?
I bet the answers that various people give to that question would be interesting.
I find I tend to wax and wane on that. I am a mushy modern Methodist and want to say “both/and.” But I think that is evading the question. It suggests Hauerwas is not capable of seeing that both play a role. No, his question is which is primary.
I think if forced to side, I’d have to say the participation in the body is primary because it is the way by which we come to know who Jesus is and what it means to be one of his followers. The Holy Spirit works through means of grace that are in the stewardship of the church.
But then my “both/and” emerges because I also believe that Christianity is not something you get by osmosis. It is not a T-shirt you buy at the gift shop. It is something that changes you. It is personal. And if it is not personal, it is ultimately incomplete.
It is complicated. And each Christian has his or her own story and own understanding of how the personal relationship with Jesus and the corporate existence among Jesus’ people shape us.
I guess that is why I value theologians who raise such interesting questions. They help me see the richness of our faith and they keep me from settling into easy and shallow answers.
If you get the time, I encourage you to read the entire interview. It is thought provoking and sheds some light on Hauerwas’ thought. Hauerwas’ answers to Mohler’s questions about the nature of the gospel and the meaning of the cross were most helpful to me as someone who has puzzled at times over what Hauerwas means by what he writes. I found Mohler’s closing monologue to his evangelical audience itself worth the time spent reading the whole piece.