a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Why is theology so boring? Stanley Hauerwas

with 24 comments


These are the posts where I get to be a not-so-nice guy. Theology is one of my principal bugbears, for many reasons, one of which is that I’ve rarely encountered a modern theologian or Christian apologist who can resist lashing out at atheists.

I suppose I should feel sorry for them, they make such soft, or frail, targets (they’re mostly elderly), but they do insist on making themselves targets, so I’m happy to oblige. Before today I’d never heard of Stanley Hauerwas, so imagine my lack of interest in encountering this soft-spoken elderly gentleman being interviewed on my favourite ABC this arvo. Well, not so much lack of interest but mild willingness to be interested – a willingness quickly dashed by some of the first remarks I heard Hauerwas utter (I didn’t know at the time that he was a theologian). He was being interviewed for all of ten minutes on the ABC show One plus One by Scott Stephens, the ABC’s ‘online editor for religion and ethics’. I now recall Stephens having conducted a series of soft interviews in recent times with prominent ‘believing’ Australians such as David Cappo and Clare Bowditch, but I didn’t recognise him immediately, otherwise I might’ve dodged this. Unfortunately I listened – well, ok, I do have a combative interest in what theologians say.

So here’s the little interview in total, together with my commentary and summing up. The interview material is in italics. Enjoy.

Stephens: You’ve written some very interesting things in your recently published memoir. You’ve admitted for instance – ‘you don’t need to be a theologian to be a Christian, but I probably did’. At the end of your memoir, you then say that the whole reason you’re able to call yourself a Christian is because your friends name you as such. In a time that values self-reliance and even fetishizes self-made men, it’s a very strange series of admissions to make from someone who is renowned as one of the most important Christian thinkers in the last half-century. How did you come to that conclusion?

Hmmm. What makes me think all this was in order to introduce Hauerwas as the best thing since Christians invented sliced bread?

Hauerwas: By necessity. I can’t imagine coming to it just by individual reflection, because I don’t trust my own subjectivity at all. So it’s exactly by discovering what I believe through friends who tell me that this is what I believe that I discover that I am a Christian. Umm, it’s not a natural thing for me to be, I oftentimes point out, hell I’m a Texan (laughs) I mean it does not come easy for Texans to become Christian in the way that I think we must be as faithful followers of Christ, that is, to be non-violent. But I think that it’s through friends that you are enabled to live that way.

All of this sounds unproblematic on the face of it, but I have two criticisms to make.

First, the Jesus of the gospels wasn’t an entirely consistent construction. Yes, he said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, and I say hurray to that, but he also lashed out at the moneylenders in the temple, sending tables and chairs flying (Matt 21:12), killed a fig tree for not producing fruit out of season (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25, Matt 21:18-22), and damned for all time the townsfolk of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, villages in his own neighbourhood, for not listening to his preachifying (Matt 11:23, Luke 10:13-15). So much for love your neighbours, never mind love your enemies.

Second, Hauerwas describes what people ‘must be as faithful followers of Christ’, rather than what we, arguably, should be upon reflection. It’s all about following the leader, apparently. I’ve written about this before, but the difference between the ‘follow my lead’ approach of Jesus and other preachers and sermonizers, and the Socratic method of constructive engagement, getting the interlocutor to ‘go deeper’, is key, and should be key to the whole framework of modern education. It’s because of this approach towards independence and ‘ownership’ of ideas that religion is fading, methinks.

Stephens: Now this is interesting to me, because one of the themes that you’ve been exploring throughout your career is that, even though it might seem, looking from the outside, that the church is in a pretty good position here in the USA, it’s precisely because American culture is so saturated with Christianity – you’ve spent the better part of your professional career trying to convince Christians in the United States that their cosy relationship with American culture is pretty hazardous to its own health.

Hauerwas: Absolutely. I say I represent the Tonto principle of Christian ethics. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were once surrounded by 25,000 Sioux in the Dakotas, and the Lone Ranger looked over to Tonto and said, “What d’you think we should do Tonto?’ and Tonto said, “What do you mean we, white man?’ and I’m trying to help Christians in America recover the Christian ‘we’, which has been very much occluded in the celebration of the relationship between Christianity and America as the presumption that American democracy is the equivalent of what it means to be Christian.

Stephens: One of your great critiques is that it’s not simply just, say, a cultural issue, that many Christians assume that what it means to be American is to be Christian, and in turn what it means to be Christian is to be American in some sort of deep level, but you’ve even, in some ways you’ve also  upped the ante. You’ve said that one of the great problems facing American politics and also Christian identity, is the assumption that the American god is the Christian god.

This American stuff is of course a bit of a yawn to me, but I will say that there’s no such thing as the Christian god – or rather, no clear-cut thing. In the same sense, there’s no such thing as the American god. There’s the god of Bush junior, who’s different from the god of Obama, etc etc. These are fantasies you can tailor to your individual personality and needs. Apart from that, I’m happy to let American believers simmer in their theological idiosyncrasies.

Hauerwas: Right, yeah, I think, that the reason – I mean, atheism is so uninteresting in America. I mean, atheism in general is uninteresting in our world, because the god that is being denied isn’t very (laughs), isn’t the Christian god. That’s the reason why Americans think it’s very important that you believe in god, irrespective of what ‘god’ names. I find it extremely uninteresting whether you believe in god or not. The god I worship is not some deity, but the father the son and the holy spirit. That makes all the difference in the world for a people that are identified as not religious America. So I want Christians to be able to recover that kind of theological integrity in a world that makes it very hard to even identify it.

This is the passage I first heard – ‘atheism is uninteresting’. Again, I’m endlessly amused that theologians and religious apologists just can’t help having a go at atheism, and so revealing their ignorance as well as their anxiety. And of course their denialism of the fastest-growing movement vis-à-vis religion in the west. Of course, in one sense Hauerwas is right, atheism is totally uninteresting when you compare it to being the pet project of a supernatural being who’s also the creator of the universe, created just for you. It’s a bit like being personally chosen by the Doctor as his lifetime companion in all his space-time adventures. Great japes! Only Doctor Who is a science fantasy TV show, not a religion (with apologies to the Whovians out there).

Yes, rejecting the existence of supernatural entities is not intrinsically interesting, but the point is that atheists don’t go around being atheists. If I can give a roll-call of some of my intellectual heroes –  Aristotle, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hume, Stendhal, Darwin, Russell, Einstein, Sagan, Attenborough, to name a few – I don’t so much care whether they were atheists, though clearly many of them were/are. What attracts me is their this-worldly concerns. None of these ‘uninteresting’ people are interested in theology, they’re too fascinated by how the real world – and its inhabitants on this tiny planet – works. We live in enthralling times – for exploring human origins, for exploring the world within and beyond our solar system, for exploring neurophysiology and consciousness, for exploring nanotechnology. So many realms opening up for exploration, it’s just endlessly fascinating. I just can’t see how ‘faith’ and theology, the eternally fruitless but entirely self-serving speculation about non-evidence-based supernatural entities, can possibly compare.

Stephens: What you’re saying, though, truly runs against the grain of the assumption that many people believe today, kind of guarantees a kind of social peace and cohesion, the assumption being that, if you wanna be religious, fine, just make sure your religiosity remains a form of inwardness, or even just, probably a better term would be sentimentality. Now, almost everything you’ve written is pitted against the reduction of religion to sentimentality, or ‘god’ to some sort of general deity.

These remarks of Stephens are simply intended to introduce the term ‘sentimentality’, a term that Hauerwas has apparently twisted out of all recognition to feed his theological concerns. I should simply remind readers that the currently agreed dictionary definition of sentimentality is something like ‘an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason’.

Hauerwas: Absolutely, I say the great enemy of Christianity is not atheism it’s sentimentality. and the deepest sentimentality in our culture is the presumption that we should have children in a manner that they do not have to suffer for our convictions. I think it drives people – it drives children absolutely crazy for our parents to think that they ought to raise children in a manner that when children grow up they get to make up their own minds. I mean, what kind of conviction is that, why did you have them in the first place, if you want them to make up their own minds? They don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve been trained. So exactly how to overcome those kinds of sentimentalities that, interestingly enough result in great violence, I think, is exactly the kind of challenge that Christianity presents to the world in which we find ourselves.

So Hauerwas has defined sentimentality, or one aspect of it, as ‘raising children so that they get to make up their own minds when they grow up.’ Imagine how Socrates would deal with such a distortion of a concept!

Maybe somewhere in his theological works Hauerwas has presented his views more cogently than here, but I have little appetite for anyone’s theology, so I must presume to limit myself to this little interview. I’m far from denying that human children need (and get) training, as do all social animals, including dolphins, elephants, wolves, lions and hyenas, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have minds of their own, and that independence of thought isn’t a desired outcome. The trouble is, Hauerwas’s god only knows what he means by ‘being trained’. I suspect the worst, bearing in mind his remark that children should suffer for their parents’ convictions. This sounds to me like he thinks Christian parents should bring them up strictly to be Christians, and make them suffer if they stray. No Darwins, no… (name just about every significant thinker of the last century) would ever get to emerge in Hauerwas’s world it seems, they’d all be trained out of their independence of mind until they were black and blue. But I’m being mean – Hauerwas is an advocate of non-violence.

In any case, none of this has anything to do with sentimentality. We bring children into the world for a whole host of reasons, not all of them worthy, of course. We hope to contribute to their becoming good people and happy, but we don’t need to have read Pinker’s The Blank Slate (another boring atheist) to be aware that kids do indeed have minds of their own from day one. I have no idea what Hauerwas could possibly mean by saying that encouraging independence of spirit leads to great violence, but obviously he’s no student of history. Our modern education, which tries to combine a certain degree of training in the basics, without which children are unlikely to succeed in modern society, with independent analytical skills of the type that have created the scientific and technological explosion we’re currently witnessing, has, in fact, helped to create a less violent society than at any time in human history. And that’s not spin, it’s well-supported fact.

Stephens: Weeks before the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, Time magazine named you America’s best theologian.

Hauerwas: Actually it was September 10, 2000 the 11th, by the time the magazine came out it was the day before, which was wonderfully ironic, because then no-one noticed.

Stephens: But after September 11 you issued many of your most public, most notable, and for many people now even most infamous critiques of the American response to that attack.

Hauerwas: That’s true. My response was, one, you could have done it as a just warrior. I said, you know, the most fateful words that were uttered after September 11 was George Bush’s ‘we are at war’. Now, I think that that was a deep mistake on ‘just war’ grounds. What happened on September 11 was murder, and you don’t go to war against a murderer. As soon as Americans agreed with George Bush, we are at war, you gave Bin Laden exactly what he wanted. You made him a warrior, not a murderer. I think then, the problem…. I think George Bush’s response was a pastoral response. The American people felt at a loss, we didn’t know what to do. We know war, so to say we were at war made this a comforting claim that gave us a sense that we knew what to do – we had to find someone to kill (laughs). So Afghanistan and Iraq were destined to be wars that we had to fight against the infidel. If we had been able to say ‘this was murder’, and how do you respond to murderers, it would have been… it would’ve required a patience that the American people find very hard to enact. I was recently asked, what would I suggest if I wanted America to be more thoughtful and possibly even non-violent, and I said the return to the draft. That we have the situation, we now have is because we have a paid military in which we expect very little cost from the broad American middle class, and it would be very interesting to have a return to the actual sacrifice necessary in order to pursue a legislated war against terrorism. It’s very… I think the Obama administration is to be credited with toning down the war against terrorism, because they understand that’s a war you can’t win in that way. But, generally the American people bought into that, and we paid big prices for it.

Okay, in this latter part of the interview we’ve left theology far behind, thankfully, and we’re into straightforward ethical issues. Apart from the remark about a ‘pastoral response’ from George Bush, there’s nothing in Hauerwas’s argument that owes anything to religion, it’s all secular ethics, and it’s the same ethical argument that myself and many others, such as Geoffrey Robertson, have been putting for years – that so-called acts of terrorism should be treated as criminal, police matters and dealt with under criminal law rather than glorifying them, inadvertantly or otherwise, as acts of war.

So Hauerwas seems to have some reasonable ideas, and a few dodgy ones (he’s a Texan, after all), but it’s unlikely that any of his best ideas emerge from Christian theology. Don’t be a faithful follower of anyone – or anything, except evidence.

Written by stewart henderson

December 20, 2013 at 6:20 am

24 Responses

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  1. What an ignorant treatment of Stanley Hauerwas’ discussed views an analysis


    May 16, 2015 at 6:32 am

  2. What an ignorant treatment of what Stanley Hauerwas really means in this interesting conversation…disgusting atheism…it’s like the other face of the so called coin-fundamentalist christianity..it exists only to attack, to disregard, disrespect, without any means of true analysis and deep conversation…


    May 16, 2015 at 6:34 am

    • Thanks for your thoughtful contribution to debate. Clearly you didn’t read the whole article, you only read whatever you needed to fuel your hatred. Always great to hear from Christians like you, it pretty well proves my point. It’s the last thing we need.

      stewart henderson

      May 16, 2015 at 7:38 am

  3. Well, when you ignorantly and without knowing this author well, out of your pitty knowledge come and assess his writings and treat him like this, this is the answer you get…and hey…Christians also don’t need you…the caravan is continuing to proceed for 2000 years and will continue to proceed…and the dogs will bark…


    June 19, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    • Dear Zizou
      I have no interest in pursuing Hauerwas’ theology in detail, there are far more interesting things in the world to pursue. However, my criticisms were based on a detailed analysis of what Hauerwas actually said in the interview I heard, which I quoted verbatim, with complete accuracy. This method is basically the same as ‘explication de texte’, a method used in French schools of examining a short piece of writing in depth for consistency, ethical validity and so forth. It is a perfectly reasonable and fruitful approach to critical analysis. You on the other hand haven’t engaged in anything remotely analytical or fruitful.
      As to Christianity, you must be aware that the biggest movement in western society since the sixties is the movement away from Christianity, a movement that’s accelerating. Many European countries can no longer call themselves Christian, and these are the countries that regularly top the surveys describing the safest, most peaceful and happiest countries in the continent. As to the USA, where you presumably come from, its most heavily Christian sectors are those with the highest crime and divorce rates, the highest unemployment, the lowest education levels, and generally the highest levels of social dysfunction in the country.
      May your god go with you.

      stewart henderson

      June 19, 2015 at 12:43 pm

  4. Your argument isn’t convincing at all, particularly when you quoted from the Bible…if you look at the lives of the christians in the first three centuries, christians were pacifists, christians were martyred and never killed…after the third century, the constantinian shift made christianity an empire which this author condemns in many of his writings…and Stanley Hauerwas always uses provocative language, you can’t take his writings seriously…if you are not familiar with his prose, then you can misunderstand him… and hey, you didn’t see the pew research center analysis? Yes currently the religion is shrinking but for the coming years christianity and islam will again rise and the numbers of those who are atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated will shrink…and again you make the mistake…Life in USA is unsafe, there are crimes, divorce rates not because the population is Christian, but because of the politics, the deep nature of consumerism and rigid capitalism that the US has…if you look the encyclopedia of the wars, religion was the cause for only 6% of the wars throughout history, and most of these had geopolitical reasons…for further analysis you can read William Cavanaugh: The myth of religious violence…


    June 19, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    • If you constantly look at history through the distorting lens of Christian apologetics you will get it wrong. The picture of early Christianity is much more complex than you describe. For the most part, the Roman empire was quite tolerant of Christianity and other minority religions. Occasionally you’d get an Emperor who had it in for minorities, and then you’d get persecutions, but Christian apologists have grossly exaggerated the number of victims. Also you’d get tensions in different parts of the Empire, between brutish governors and the local population, but you also had belligerent Christians who mocked the Roman gods and taunted the ‘pagans’ about the coming apocalypse, in which Christians would be saved and the rest sent to hell. And of course both sides called the others ‘atheists’, a taunt still used in the middle east today.
      Religion depresses me because it’s fundamentally false.. Nobody has ever presented any evidence for the existence of supernatural entities, in fact nobody has even been able to present the concept in any sensible way. These entities emerged as intellectual placeholders for things we couldn’t explain, or accept, such as disease, injustice and death. I prefer to look for real explanations, to face the world as it actually is. And there are millions of us, and they’re the best and brightest. Christianity will never make a come-back in the west.
      If you’re into reading, I’d suggest Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, for a comprehensive account of how we’re becoming more civil, and more secular.

      stewart henderson

      June 20, 2015 at 9:15 am

  5. By the way i am not american, i am middle eastern. From a country that saw war and instability, because the American Government always supported the policy of a country (Israel), which is the only democracy in the middle east.


    June 20, 2015 at 12:09 am

  6. Throughout the first centuries christians were persecuted for the most part because they didn’t identify their god with the figure of the the Emperor…and yes there was a persecution of the minorities..Jesus’ way was nonviolent, this is why he was crucified..for further analysis see John Howard Yoder: the Politics of Jesus…the dichotomy between supernatural vs natural is wrong, it came in christianity because of a greek influence…nowadays lot’s of theologians and particularly thinkers in the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church see that there is no divide between the supernatural and natural, because God isn’t a figure, an old man with grey hair or beard, sitting somewhere in the premodern heaven, but on the other hand, God is the ground of the universe…so Christianity isn’t what some charlatan televangelists portray to us…and the empirical knowledge isn’t the only criteria (at least for some people)…Science today became a new hegemony….we got the fruit of this civilization in the first part of the twentieth century, when more than 70 million people perished because of the 2WW…i saw a summery of Pinker’s book, i didn’t see anything specifically concerning religion…There are some of good analysis and reviews of his book, how he oversimplifies things…and yeah, you said civility and secularity, huh, most of the weapons used in the middle eastern conflicts come from civilized, enlightened countries…one day the excessive individualism will destroy the western countries…


    June 20, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    • Your claim – or that of Mr Yoder – that Jesus was crucified because he was non-violent, is highly speculative and can’t possibly be substantiated (and to say the least it’s highly unlikely). We know very little about why Jesus was arrested, or even if he was. All we have are the gospel accounts, which are all hearsay, full of contradictions and unable to be relied upon. In any case I’ve never found Jesus to be a particularly interesting character compared to, say, Socrates.
      Your remarks about gods, the supernatural and theology are, I’m afraid, of little interest to me. Sorry.
      Your remarks about Pinker’s book are obviously second or third-hand, so they’re hardly worth criticising. As to individualism, we are and continue to be the most socially-oriented of the complex species on the planet. Our language, our cities, our jobs, our education, our institutions are all an outcome of human co-operation. Having said that, I too am concerned with the dangers of assertive individualism and greed. Humanity faces, and has caused, many problems on our little planet. We need to work together as much as possible to find solutions. That means real solutions, not hope from the heavens, or the schadenfreude of ‘you nasty westerners are all gonna die…’

      stewart henderson

      June 21, 2015 at 9:21 am

  7. A major thesis of Hauerwas is that modern liberalism discourages truth telling. “Truth” becomes emotes. What word other than sentimentality would you use for this phenomena? What other word would you suggest other than sentimentality that makes possible saying without irony such a statement as “I believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. But that is just my personal opinion.” Such a statement is nonsense unless religious belief is divorced from a commitment to truth. I believe this is precisely the point Hauerwas intends. So, we raise our kids to “make up there own minds” and by no means suffer for their parents convictions. Such “sentimentality” abandons children to the propaganda of modern states and modern consumer culture. Our children still no doubt suffer. But no longer do they suffer for the religious commitments of their family. Now they suffer at the hands of unconscionable forces of modern society. We leave our children to “make up their own minds.” But divorced from any commitment to truth beyond that which is useful for our own ends we do indeed sacrifice our children at the altar of make sure you have the right clothes, the right education, the right job, so that you can have the right toys in the right neighborhood and thereby give your children the right clothes, the right education, the right job, so that they can have the right toys. And be damned whoever must be stepped on to get there. Hence, the violence made possible by sentimentality. Likewise, sentimentality makes possible, and effective, the martial pomp and circumstance that goes hand in hand with rural football. I pledge allegiance to the flag. . . by the dawn’s early light. . . as the jets fly over before the kickoff. The goosebumps of such patriotic religiosity are never challenged by a religious commitment to the truth. And so we sacrifice our children to the altar of “freedom” and “democracy” which George Bush revealingly interpreted as our ability to go to Disney World and shop at the mall. Saddam Hussain no doubt has weapons of mass destruction. And be damned those ragheads in our pursuit of those cute shoes and that kickass stereo system. Hence, the violence made possible by sentimentality.

    An observation is that children who make up their own minds draw astoundingly similar conclusions to one another and to the conclusions that benefit the commercial and political interests of those in power. This is another way to say that children do not have minds to make up until they are trained. I suggest that children are trained one way or another. Either they are intentionally brought up by their parents, taught, and held accountable within a certain tradition that has its own standards and possibly even logics, or they are intentionally and unintentionally manipulated into modern consumerism and politics. Hauerwas is making a claim that this modern consumerism and politics which we often term “the American Way” is a way of violence. Hauerwas teaches that the way of Jesus is an alternative politics, one that is committed to truth and peace in contrast to sentimentality and violence.

    Cynicism and sentimentality are closely linked (if not identical) in this analysis.

    Joseph Frana

    August 6, 2015 at 5:33 am

    • Hello Joseph, thank you for your comments. It’s hard to know where to begin in response.
      As I’ve written, this post was sparked by Hauerwas’s comment that ‘atheism is boring’ – hence my piece’s title. And I do find theology boring.The parts of Hauerwas’s interview that were not about theology were the most interesting, and you’ve elaborated upon them here, namely the ‘violence’ of modern consumerism. However I don’t agree with the analysis, as I don’t think consumerism is particularly modern or violent – and I write as someone whom nobody would describe as a rampant consumerist. Consumerism – having the latest trendy stuff to show off your status – was just as prevalent in ancient Mycenaean and Egyptian societies as it is today, as many an archaeologist can confirm. And it’s particularly prevalent in comparatively wealthy societies. And in ancient times, along with competitive consumerism, there was co-operative religious observance, with people sharing the same gods and rituals – and there were no doubt many other forms of competition and co-operation. So I see the social picture in rather more complex terms.
      I’m not American so I don’t have any great interest in American politics except when it is exercised on the world stage (e.g Iraq), but I do have an interest in secularism. Like Einstein, I consider belief in a personal god to be a form of childishness, so I consider that the West’s recent emergence, since the sixties, from religiosity to be a kind of growing up process. The USA is seen as an outlier in this process, but it’s by far the biggest country population-wise, and parts of it are essentially European in their turning away from Christianity, which is all to the good. And I don’t see this as a turning away from ‘the one true Gard’ towards the gods of consumerism and status. It’s way more complicated than that. In any case your (or Hauerwas’s) claim that religious belief must be a commitment to truth makes no sense to me. As a person strongly interested in science, truth and evidence are very important to me, as can hopefully be seen in my writing. I’m certainly interested in what religious belief actually is, and how it has evolved, but it isn’t about truth. It appears to be about faith, that a supernatural agency exists who loves us or is deeply concerned about us, and who created everything with us in mind. This is the self-serving falsehood at the heart of the Abrahamic religions, and I find it pernicious and insulting. The truth as we have discovered it is that we are an evolved primate mammal, and anyone who thinks that we’re more than mammals has a wholly inadequate understanding of what a mammal is and can be. Like many social mammals (e.g. dolphins, elephants) our children grow up under the care of their parents, then move on to hang out with their peers, in adolescent groups, which are both competitive and co-operative. In modern western society, the mandatory education system helps to formalise this break between parents and their children, who become more concerned to compete with as well as win the affection of their peers, but they’re still individuals, and there are many other influences, such as teachers and other good and bad role models in the media and so forth. It seems to me that ‘group-think’ is a particular feature of late childhood and adolescence, as kids struggle to find their own feet and are afraid to put a foot wrong, to be seen as different. At the same time they would be highly resistant to being ‘trained’ by their parents or by anyone else. It’s a difficult time.

      stewart henderson

      August 6, 2015 at 8:35 am

      • Thank you for your kindness and thoughtfulness in responding. It’s a delight to have a sort of coffee/teashop conversation. I hope this is interesting enough to continue a bit. I will try to be a bit more organized so that I have clearer claims/questions to which you may respond.

        The itch that I am scratching at is not consumerism in generic. No doubt, the drive to possess and the drive for status is perennial and in each context contributes to a complex social picture. What is possibly unique to “modern consumerism” is the lack of a coherent counter-point. In ancient Greece no doubt and I would guess in ancient Egypt as well, having trendy stuff to show status was by no means the highest value of a community. There was a framework (or story to use Hauerwas’ normal term) that interpreted status and set bounds on the propriety of consumption. What Hauerwas observes is that “freedom” has been identified with consumer choice. Justice has been identified with me getting what I want. Truth has been identified with what is useful. This removes the teeth of any criticism or correction of business as usual or politics as usual. The context for this analysis is in the larger conversation of Nietzsche vs Aristotle (See Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue). Basically the claim is that we live in the ruins of a coherent ethical landscape. We still have artifacts of that prior coherence, but like the Little Mermaid uses a fork to comb her hair, we no longer know how to use our ethical artifacts. Nietzshche was an astute observer of this reality. He advocates throwing off and away these ruins and embracing the will to power. Of course, the “supermen” could make use of said ethical ruins to control their underlings. Hence, freedom is choice, justice is power, and truth is pragmatic. McIntyre (and Hauerwas) argues that someone like Aristotle offers an alternative. Freedom, justice, and truth have integrity beyond one’s attempt to impose one’s will. They even ground this claim biologically! (I thought that might intrigue you) See McIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals. Obviously this analysis is simplified here, but what do you think?

        Hauerwas mocks the religious and the atheist alike. The religious’ god is boring, this god who serves only to prop up business and politics as usual. If you want to be a “good American” or to serve in public office you are expected to “believe in god.” But this god is devoid of any real content and makes no demands. Hauerwas claims that American “believers” believe not in God but in belief. This leads to saying such nonsense as “I believe Jesus is Lord and Savior. But that is just my personal opinion.” Who cares about your personal opinion. So correspondingly the current breed of atheist is boring. The god they reject is not a god worth anything in the first place. (Although I must admit taking some pleasure in their jabs at the silliness and wickedness of some of the religious.) Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre are more interesting because they are wrestling with god in areas like causation, power, and freedom. They seem to be wrestling with real matters of ultimate concern. Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Pinker seem to be mostly poking fun (although at times in deadly serious terms) at people. After a while this is simply boring — they are not really contributing to a conversation. The experience I have listening to many so-called debates in the style of “atheist” versus “believer” is a good amount of talking past one another.

        As to truth. Religion in general is not a commitment to truth. What I would argue (and I think Hauerwas as well) is that “faith in Jesus the Christ” commits one to truth. Now this is a commitment that is more than simply a matter of a correspondence theory. Truth is more than “just the facts” or a matter of evidence. How do we talk about our commitments and relationships to fellow humans, fellow mammals, trees, bees, and dirt? Talk of DNA and chemistry and textual and material history all say something, but they do not say everything. It is odd indeed that the story of Adam and Eve is bogged down in a contest between evolution and creationism; what an exercise in missing the point!

        Science is not a morally neutral enterprise. The sorts of questions that are asked (and funded) are bounded by the moral commitments of the questioner and the apparatus that supports the work of that questioner. We just don’t and won’t investigate certain things. And what we do study is interpreted within frameworks that are not themeselves open to the scientific method. It would be almost worthless to “do science” in the vein of simply collecting discrete facts. The value of such facts comes in their organization into a whole as well as the power to explain, predict, and control reality. Would you agree that there are however aspects of reality that are beyond our explanation, prediction, and control? Would you agree that there are matters of reality that are not really about prediction and control? I am gesturing towards the fact/value dichotomy, and the problems inherent in that dichotomy. In sum, facts are not value free. Facts are sought, interpreted, and put to use within value systems. Truth is a moral category. Morality is a feature of story.

        Talk of good, bad, virtue, vice, right, and wrong are only meaningful within the context of a story. Is it fair to say that modern liberalism is the project to live out the claim that the only story you should have is the story that you chose when you had no story? A major part of Hauerwas’ work is pointing out the incoherence and the resulting violence of such a claim. In contrast he advocates for a certain story, the story of God revealed in Jesus Christ. He is self-aware that this story is not universal in the sense that “any thinking person would accept it.” Such projects of the “universal” have historically been disguised attempts by white European males to dominate the world (projects of universalization and colonization went well hand in hand). Unlike the universalizers of old and now, Hauerwas disavows the use of the sword. As he has put it in other places: “Of course I think I am right and I am going to try to convince you. But I am going to do it by the only means available to a follower of Jesus, I am going to try to persuade you.” This requires a dogged and religious commitment to the truth. The violent can use lies and still get what they want — they can coerce you. Those committed to non-violence only have the truth in order to win the day – they can only persuade. Such persuasion in the case of the truth claims of faith are not of the sort that are assessable to the scientific method. How do you conduct an experiment that the Jews are the covenant people of God? How do you conduct an experiment that nothing can separate you from the love of God? How do you conduct an experiment that Jesus is Lord? How do you conduct an experiment that Jesus is risen from the dead? Most of these claims are only demonstrated by way of witness and they are confirmed by certain experience. This is a necessarily humble demonstration. There exists no high hand to wield a faith claim against another. Does this mean that such claims are either nonsense or worthless? (If so, why?)

        I hope that I am interesting to you and worth your attention and response. In any case, I am thankful to you for provoking me to think.

        Joseph Frana

        August 7, 2015 at 6:33 am

      • Joseph, you’ve certainly raised some interesting points, and being a ‘big issues’ sort of person I could happily spend a lifetime discussing them.
        First, you’ve talked about a framework or story that cultures use to create greater social cohesiveness and limit ‘consumerism’, or if you like individual selfishness. Often this has been religious in nature, because religion has proved very good at codifying and ritualising communal behaviour. I’m certainly fascinated by the origins of religion, and my belief is that it emerged as an explanatory framework first of all and then developed as a useful tool for promoting social restraint and control. The anger or caprice of gods was the best explanation for the apparently arbitrary events and forces that threatened whole communities – storms, disease, famine, floods, etc. What other explanation was there? We emerged as a species to be ‘animistic’ – that is, we had an overdeveloped sense of the agency of things – raging winds, scowling skies, trees that shook with fury. It was clearly in our interest to take these forces seriously and to keep them on our side as far as possible, and that required collective effort against collective danger. Anyone who didn’t toe the collective line would naturally be suspected of siding with the malign forces, and would have to be dealt with severely. We of course still see this sort of thing being played out in some tribal societies.
        So this would help to explain constraints on consumption – anyone who got above themselves, either in material possessions or in knowledge, would be targeted as a threat to the community (Phillip Ball’s book ‘Curiosity’ shows how hard it was for the figures of the 17th century British scientific enlightenment to emerge from a general belief that curiosity for its own sake is an affront to God – an attitude that crippled Augustine of Hippo’s reflective writing).
        We no longer feel these constraints – some of which were bad, others perhaps more useful – but I don’t agree that we now have no coherent ethical landscape. Of course it sometimes seems that way because we live in a much more rapidly changing world than that of, say, biblical times. But this kind of talk, about moral degeneracy or the lack of a moral compass, is common among religious leaders who see their own power to control and influence rapidly waning. But the fact is, we don’t get our morality from religion.
        For example, the way we treat others is obviously a key moral issue. Nowadays, most Christian denominations are more or less tolerant of homosexuality, whereas a few centuries ago every Christian denomination without exception considered homosexuality ‘an abomination before the lord’. And of course the way we treat animals, children, women – just about every aspect of the way we treat others, essentially the foundation of morality, has changed drastically in a few centuries. So much for eternal religious values.
        That’s all I have time for right now, will post again later perhaps

        stewart henderson

        August 9, 2015 at 6:08 pm

  8. Joseph, don’t bother yourself with further analysis and explanations. He will continue the same trend, he will continue to say the same thing but from different side or in different picture. That’s why i abstained from replying him anymore. Save your time.


    August 8, 2015 at 8:25 am

    • Zizou, you have come to my blog primarily to insult me, it seems. You certainly haven’t provided any arguments for the truth of Christianity or any other religion. You may for one reason or another think that being a ‘believer’ is more efficacious than being a non-believer, but that’s surely a matter of opinion, and has essentially no bearing on the truth of a particular religion, which is a matter of evidence. Provide me with some evidence and you’ll win me over (and become world-famous in the process – imagine the headlines – evidence at last!)
      I will, however, continue to permit your comments here (unless they become really nasty), because they are very revealing.

      stewart henderson

      August 8, 2015 at 11:08 am

  9. Stewart, i’ve never intended to insult you or make ad hominem attacks or arguments at all. I challenge you to bring one sort of evidence which proves that i insulted you in any way. I don’t intend to “convert” you. My goal was to make some corrections on understanding Dr. Hauerwas’ premises. I don’t think that i see any usefulness to continue this conversation any more. Thanks for your patience.


    August 9, 2015 at 12:51 am

    • Well it’s nice to see you’re being polite now. In your first comment you described my post as ‘ignorant’ and went on about disgusting atheists – the sort of treatment atheists are accustomed to. In your country at least atheists aren’t murdered and executed as they regularly are in Bangladesh and Pakistan, but it’s part of the same disrespectful, fearful spectrum.

      stewart henderson

      August 9, 2015 at 11:10 am

  10. You said it, i described your post as ignorant, not you personally. No body disgusted atheist, please don’t play the role of the victim. In my country my people are murdered because of the weapons that come from the so called “civilized” countries and their policies.


    August 9, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    • I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say zizou, but in your first comment you claimed I was ignorant and wrote of disgusting atheists, a clear reference to myself. I responded to your claim effectively in my first response, and I have nothing to add to that. However I did find your outburst rude, bad-mannered and offensive and I was tempted to simply delete it. I have never commented on another person’s blog in such an unproductive way, so I naturally don’t feel kindly disposed to the lack of civility of others.
      As for your people, whoever they may be, being murdered by the weapons of civilised countries, you would have to give far more details before I could comment. Are you talking about your people being bombed, or are you talking about the supply of weapons? And what exactly does this have to do with religion or atheism?

      stewart henderson

      August 11, 2015 at 9:56 pm

  11. Touching on philosophy, I’ve been quite interested in my early years by Nietzsche, and certainly by Hume, but what has since influenced me far more – and it’s of course missing from those thinkers – is an evolutionary perspective. To me, ethics is first and foremost about how we promote our surviving and thriving as fundamentally social creatures (that’s something I first learned from Aristotle). Aristotle collected state constitutions in the hope of developing a ‘best of’, an ideal constitution that would promote human flourishing. You could say that this was a precursor to the modern universal declaration of human rights. But the best way to promote our flourishing is to develop knowledge – of what we are, as complex mammals, and what we might be. When I look at the enormous suffering we have inflicted on each other, and on other species, I don’t blame religion, I blame ignorance. Ignorance of a whole range of things, including our own best interests and what we owe to others, to our astonishing biosphere, and to the unfathomably complex but thoroughly engrossing circumstances that have created the particular universe that we so fortunately find ourselves in.
    To reflect on these circumstances is so awe-inspiring and humbling as to render consumerism and the concerns of Hauerwas and his pet Jesus as trivial, to my view.
    You’ve mentioned Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett and Pinker. I’ve read all of these writers, but not always on atheism.
    I first read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in 1980, and have since read The Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden and his monumental work The Ancestor’s Tale – all of which educated me thoroughly about evolution and genetics. And I’ve also read The God Delusion, which Dawkins clearly wrote out of frustration with the ignorant claims of Christian creationists and the enormous damage that was being done to the education system in the USA by these people. Dawkins was taking a stand, saying enough is enough. And I think he was right to criticise all Christians, not just fundamentalists, because a proper knowledge of evolution makes Christian belief, or belief in any supernatural being obsessed with us, well-nigh impossible. I don’t think these are compatible ways of understanding the world.
    Dennett is a well-known philosopher, whose writings on free will and consciousness I’ve been reading since the mid-eighties. To describe his more recent book ‘Breaking the spell’ as mocking Christianity would be frankly ridiculous.
    I could go on, but I think it would be better to do so in a future post, rather than in these comments. I particularly want to focus on ‘faith’, and why religious people hold it up as a positive value, yet are incapable of defining it in any coherent way.

    stewart henderson

    August 13, 2015 at 8:36 am

    • As you think about and consider writing on “‘faith’, and why religious people hold it up as a positive value, yet are incapable of defining it in any coherent way”, I would encourage you to read the first lecture of Hauerwas’ gifford lecture series. The link is http://www.giffordlectures.org/books/grain-universe/1-god-and-gifford-lectures. He may help in giving texture to “faith” in a way that relates it to “evidence” at the same time he historically situates some confusions about their relationship. One notable point, and one that would help much talk, is the recognition that when he says God he is not referencing just another piece of furniture in the universe. I would suppose that Hauerwas, as one allied with Karl Barth, would join many atheists in arguing that the “God” so often referenced by much “natural theology” is but a projection of the human writ large or of human wish-fulfilment.

      Joseph Frana

      August 14, 2015 at 3:50 am

      • Thanks for that Joseph, I’ll check out Hauerwas’s lecture, though I must say I’m feeling overstretched at present with various duties, and theologys not a huge interest of mine – I prefer to encourage an interest in this-worldly stuff, exhilaratingly multifarious and endless as it is!

        stewart henderson

        August 14, 2015 at 8:06 pm

  12. […] A post I wrote some 18 months ago reflecting on the comments of an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, while he was in Australia (I think) has raised some interest – more than I’m accustomed to – from people who obviously find theology more important than I do. My post was triggered by Hauerwas’s inane remark that atheism was ‘boring’, the kind of cheap remark that Christian apologists are apt to make. So it was with some bemusement that I was treated, in comments, to a defence of Hauerwas as a great Christian critic of standard US Christianity (which struck me as quite beside the point), and as a person whose throwaway lines shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Maybe so, but I can only go on the words I heard, which seemed to be spoken seriously enough, and I have little interest in researching Hauerwas’s whole oeuvre to get a better handle on particular utterances, as I do find theology quite boring (and that’s not a throwaway line). […]

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