The folly of Christianity

If we have lost our concepts we have done so because we are living lives that make sense even if Jesus was not raised from the dead. But he was raised. (Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology)

Like so many things Stanley Hauerwas has written, the quote above strikes me as true and leaves me puzzled about how to apply what he has written to Christian ministry in actual churches with the people we find there. What does it mean, after all, to live a life that makes sense only if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead? Hauerwas seems to think the answer to questions like that are so obvious that they do not need to be explained.

My hunch is this. I suspect that what he is advocating is a life that could only be called a “good” life if Jesus Christ is Lord and the promises of Christianity are true. In other words, it cannot be a life that you would call good by the standards of contemporary American culture or ancient Roman pagan culture or any other culture that does not take as its center point Jesus Christ.

What Hauerwas is calling for, I think, and what gets so many people uncomfortable with him, is a life fundamentally at odds with what most Americans would describe as living the good life. The dream of many Americans is to live a life centered on what gives them pleasure, including the pleasure of feeling like they are being a good person when they share some of their time and their money helping those who are “less fortunate.”

Hauerwas argues that such hedonism — even if it is a soft hedonism that we feel slightly awkward about at times — is at odds with Christianity on a fundamental level. Christian life is about serving a Lord who said, “Deny yourself and follow me” and “turn the other cheek” and “do not lay up treasures on earth.” Those commands make no sense to us and they are foolish to follow unless, it turns out, that the one who said them really is Lord of Lord and King of Kings.

 

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The practical problem of evil

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response.

— Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences

A word for Pietism

Stanley Hauerwas is an influential voice among United Methodist pastors. He is not shy about his dislike of Pietism, which is awkward for United Methodists since John Wesley was one of the most well-known advocates of the heart religion that is the hallmark of Pietism.

Since Hauerwas was influential in my early Christian intellectual formation and still tugs on my head-strings, I have always found his disdain for Pietism — I can still hear in my head his distinctive Texas twang’s mocking way of saying the word in some YouTube lecture I heard long ago — at odds with my understanding of what it means to be a United Methodist.

As a bookish man with a somewhat academic bent and a Midwestern introvert not given to emotionalism, I’ll admit that religion of the heart is not something I would have naturally been inclined to embrace. But, perhaps in good Methodist fashion, my experience tells me that the “heart warming” religion that so changed John Wesley’s life is still at work today.

I had a recent conversation with a man in which he discussed the jaw-dropping experience of discovering that all this church stuff was not just words jangling off his ears, but something that had gotten down in his heart. It was not just something in his head, but it was running through his whole life in an exciting and a little bit of a shocking way.

I know we need to be watchful for the ways Pietism can lead us off the narrow path of Jesus. We need to watch for hyper-individualism and mysticism and things that I’m not aware of, I’m sure. But this kind of deeply felt — yes “felt” — experience of faith seems to me to be one of the gifts of Methodism to the church catholic. It is part of what we exist to offer God’s world.

We won’t find many of our brothers and sisters in the Protestant world embracing Pietism. I’m sure there are orders and movements within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions who speak this heart religion language.

It seems to me that we should be mining and preserving and passing on these forms of Christian spirituality. That is why God raised up our movement in the first place. Or, so it seems to me.