Hauerwas 2: After Christendom Part 1

Stanley Hauerwas plays an important role in this series of blogs. These blogs are about political philosophy, the philosophical basis for how government should operate, and political theology, the theological basis for Christian thought and action related to public life. Strictly speaking, Hauerwas doesn’t fit neatly in either of these categories. He is not a philosopher. In his view, the Church does not so much have a political theology as a concrete reality as the bearer of the witness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world. Yet, Hauerwas is essential both because of his prominence as a thinker and because he challenges many assumptions Christians make about the nature of discipleship in contemporary culture.

More importantly, Hauerwas brings Christian discipleship to the forefront of the conversation. It is the discipleship of the Church that allows it to sustain itself within any particular political environment. This focus doesn’t mean that the theological commitments of church members don’t matter or impact public life. They do. It implies that the Church’s primary duty is to be the Church entirely. With this point, it is difficult to disagree.

Resident Aliens

Although Resident Aliens has come to be seen as an essential late 20th-century book of political theology, the book was not primarily addressed to academia or the society in which the Church lives in America. The book is addressed mainly to the Church; this is why, in various places, it is more concerned about forming disciples of Jesus within the Church than it is about politics. The focus is on the condition of the mainline Protestant churches, and particularly the United Methodist Church, as to how they might best respond to the cultural realities they face. Resident Aliens doesn’t discuss many political difficulties with which Christians are familiar. When it does, it takes a position designed to underscore the role of the Church as the primary instrument by which disciples are made. When the Church is the Church, it inevitably influences society by its integrity of faith and practice. (This. by the way, is one of the areas in which I am critical of Resident Aliens; it often seems too concerned to assure the readers that the authors have not joined the opposition and support the general theological, moral, and political drift of the mainline churches with rare exceptions.)

Hauerwas and Willimon, a Methodist chaplain and retired bishop, set out to speak to both sides of the theological divisions of our day in hopes that concerned Christians will see through them to a deeper issue: the meaning of discipleship in contemporary society. The Church and its discipleship are the basis for any Christian ethic or involvement in community. Hauerwas and Willimon put it this way:

… When it comes to Christian ethics, it is not whether we shall be conservative or liberal, left or right, but whether we shall be faithful to the Church’s peculiar vision of living and acting as disciples. [1]

In the end, Resident Aliens makes the claim its title announces: Christians in the West are called to live in a much different world than they have become accustomed to inhabiting, a world in which the secular powers and principalities rule, and Christians live as wanderers in the land just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in the ancient Middle East—a largely ignored and sometimes persecuted people worshiping a God foreign to the gods of the surrounding peoples. In America, this includes the gods of personal peace, prosperity, affluence, and pleasure, especially sexual gratification. In such a society, YHWH is an alien god indeed.

Question before the Church

If Hauerwas is correct, the primary question before the Church today is not: “How can we convert a pagan world?” (That was never the goal or motivating question of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Israel for most of its history). The question is, “How do we survive as strangers in a strange land?” Speaking as one born in the aftermath of the Second World War into a middle-class family in the Midwestern United States, where the entire life of the community was profoundly formed by the Christian week, the Christian holidays, and the Christian story, to ask the question Hauerwas asks is to ask another, one that Hauerwas and Willimon do not answer, “How in the world did we get here?” or perhaps more simply, as Dorothy observes in the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Christians today must ask, “How will we live now that we have left Kansas and come to Oz on a path we never intended?

After Christendom

In After Christendom, Hauerwas continues the discussion begun in Resident Aliens. [2] As a result, this second book is more academic and deals with some of the philosophical and theological basis for the position in Resident Aliens. Hauerwas begins where Resident Aliens left off with a quote from George Linbeck: Christianity in the West “is in an awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but not yet clearly disestablished.” [3]

Linbeck accurately describes the starting place where we find ourselves. Around us lies the ruins of Christian culture, symbolized by once magnificent Christian universities subverted to the service of all the “isms” of the 19th and 20th centuries, Communism, Critical-Theorism, Deconstructionism, Ecojustice-ism, Freudianism, Gaiaism, Marxism, and all the rest: breeding grounds for hatred of the West and its values and irrationally confident that its naive version of reality can bring in a paradise for human flourishing. This naïve silliness is not limited to the literary class. It is present on Wall Street and in those corporate boardrooms who admire the “efficiencies of the Chinese state.” It is much more likely that the leaders of the great cultural revolution of the West and its intellectual cheerleaders will bring in something that looks a lot more like Berlin on May 15, 1945, or Russia the week after Stalin’s death than paradise the day before the fall of the race.

We live after Christendom, and only the deluded think it is a good place to be. As Alastair MacIntyre puts it:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless, certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead-often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes pan of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another-doubtless very different-St. Benedict. [4]

This, indeed, is where Stanley Hauerwas believes Western society has come. We are at some point in a new Dark Age, in which the powers and principalities embodied by the new barbarians reign and are busy consolidating their power. These new barbarians, working for a New Oligarchy, control most of the West and a good bit of the rest of the world. In some places, the situation is worse. In our captivity, we await a solution, much different than the solution to which we have become accustomed.

The Metaphor of the New Benedict

This is difficult for people of a certain age and background. I know that I find that my best efforts at adjusting to this new situation often amount to an attempt to rescue a now far-distant civilization of the past. Memories of a childhood in the American Midwest interfere with fully comprehending this new reality.  Like Benedict of Nursia in late 5th and early 6th Century Europe, the solution is not to restore the Roman Empire. Christians must think outside the box.

Hauerwas reminds us that seeking to restore the lost influence of the Church is neither a wise nor shrewd approach. The approach is to learn to live where we are and to maintain Christianity in the situation we are in today. The metaphor of the New Benedict is intended to warn us that restoring the past is not an option. We must await a new future.

Thus, Hauerwas believes two approaches to our predicament are unlikely to work. The first is the approach of liberal Christianity: a vain attempt to regain the Christian faith’s lost respect by embracing the social-political programs of the left, hoping the gradual evolution of society will restore the Church to its lost role in Western culture. The second approach is that of conservative Christianity: a vain attempt to overthrow the excesses of the Enlightenment and its political practitioners of “real politics” and restore Christendom in some liberal democratic form. Interestingly, Hauerwas has been accused by the left and right of subversively supporting both these approaches. He is a proponent of neither.

Salvation as Discipleship

If the analysis of Hauerwas is correct, then the issue is not how to restore Christendom. The problem is how to sustain the Church in the current era of Western history—and how Christians previously addressed Western society are no longer applicable. The strategies that were appropriate in Western culture when it was at least superficially Christian simply no longer work. During the period of Christendom, it was possible to merely believe those things that one’s Church held to be doctrinally correct and live like the rest of the members of society. Believing a set of propositions, liberal or conservative, left or right, Biblical or modernist, simply misses the point. The question today is this: “Am I behaving like a disciple of Christ?” This means that the church cannot be satisfied with teaching principles. It must instead help people adopt a form of life.

What Hauerwas recommends is what MacIntyre suggests: the formation of “communities of character” in which the virtues, practices, and modes of living demonstrated in the New Testament are learned by Christians so that they may live according to the pattern found in the New Testament, most notably in the live, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


The discipleship portion of this series of blogs and the political and theological focus intersect every so often. Hauerwas is one of those occasions. Next week, we shall discuss discipleship as a set of skills that Christians internalize in learning to be like Jesus. In this respect, becoming a disciple is less like learning a profession and more like learning a trade in which one has to use one’s hands. This insight has important implications for disciple-making and the training of pastors. The church seems to have no alternative but to adopt a holistic approach to disciple-making, in which Biblical and doctrinal education are not more important than learning to pray and serve a hostile culture and its elites.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991).

[3] Id, at 23.

[4] Alastair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, 261.

3 thoughts on “Hauerwas 2: After Christendom Part 1”

  1. Thought provoking.

    I would be interested in hearing your vision of community. Is a community a place where all of life is shared in common? Puritan New England, Calvin’s Geneva, Amish Ohio? A common unity.

    Or are we to maintain solitary outposts of Christian homes without Christian neighbors and shared values. And if the later, how is this sustainable, and an effective transformative witness.

    I seem to recall that Western Christianity survived the 6th century through the work of isolated Celtic monks. Probably an exaggeration but the point is it was an isolated community, physically proximate, dedicated to the task at hand and maintained a remnant of Faith.

    Serving together,

    1. Well, this is a good question. First of all, the community in which Hauerwas is primarily interested, is the church. Thus, the family, however, important does not replace the church. As to the Celtic idea, there’s a very good book on Celtic evangelism, written by a professor at Asbury, the fact is, a form of “Celtic evangelism” may be implied in the notion of a postmodern attempt to build sustainable communities. This goes back to the comment that Alistair McIntyre makes. We need a kind of “Benedictine focus”. That focus is on building, sustainable, disciplined communities.

  2. Thank you, Chris. Your writings always provide fodder for great pondering and provoke self examination of one’s daily thoughts and actions. Do I behave as I say I believe?

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