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A Comment on Church and Culture

Various theologians such as Kathryn Tanner and Ted Smith have argued against post-liberal theologians such as George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas that the relationship between the church and the world cannot be thought of in terms of a confrontational encounter between two complete wholes. Rather the church’s own identity is always in flux being partially determined by its ties to and embeddedness in the world. The church does not exist outside of the whole nexus of structures and system that make up a culture. Rather it is always already embedded within them and relationally defined thereby.

This is certainly true insofar as it goes. However, the point that I think such critics are missing has to do with the way they allow their definitions of culture to apply to the church versus other cultural formations. To be sure the church is never a complete whole that is definable in abstraction from it situatedness in it cultural and historical context. However, this is not simply true of the church but of any and all cultural formations that exist. All communal and cultural realities are not complete wholes that can be leveraged as a totality against other competing cultural wholes. Rather all cultural formations exist in a state of flux and relationality vis a vis other cultural formations.

Thus, while there are important critiques to be made of Hauerwas and Lindbeck, a more sympathetic (and accurate) reading of their underlying intention is possible. One need not say that the church has a secure identity in itself independent of it situatedness in culture and history to say that the church is just as much of a social and communal reality as other social and communal formations. One need not posit the church a completed whole or a totality to understand it as bearing the same kind of fragmentary wholeness that characterizes all cultural formations. The fact that the church is partial, fragmented, and compromised rather than a complete self-enclosed whole does not imperil the church’s claim to authentic communal-social-political reality. Fragmentation and permeability are simply characteristics of any and all political societies.


  1. Yes.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  2. Brad E. wrote:

    Great post. The distinction is no less real for the church’s being found in the midst of its interconnections and embeddedness. I am wondering if you see in Hauerwas’s strong distinction between church and world a negation of the church’s connectedness with the world? I know he emphasizes the difference — and with reason — but criticism of him usually misses where he makes clear that he knows the two are related.

    Also, great job on the whole blog. I’m a newcomer but am already overwhelmingly impressed by your writing, vision, and theology. Thank you for your witness.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I think that’s the danger in Hauerwas’s work, even though he at times tries to countermand this problem by acknowledging the connections between church and world.

    But, the main point I think is that we do not need to posit the church as a complete whole to say that the church represents a cultural formation in just as strong a sense as anything else is a cultural formation. All social traditions fragmented and in flux. This is just a reality of what culture is.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  4. Austin Eisele wrote:

    But Tanner’s and others critique is that Hauerwas is basically too Kantian, if I might put it like that. He posits an ideal community that is not quite realistic, and hence does not fully consider the tentativeness of labels like “church” and “community.” I think you can best see the opposite approach in Tanner’s “Economy of Grace” (although it’s explicitly formulated in the “Politics of God” concerning the possibility of Christian principles of providing for internal critique), where she argues that it is possible to change an economy of competition to an economy of grace from within the structures of capitalism.

    Hence, in my view, she’s much more Hegelian than Hauerwas. Whereas Kant posited something of an absolute ideal (viz., duty founded on reason) which aimed at radically altering humans, Hegel argued that ethics can only happen within a cultural formation, and that includes inclination, emotions, and desires. The analogy is that Hauerwas seems to have an absolute notion of terms like “church” and “community”, and expects these to have a certain amount of purity about them, whereas Tanner is willing to say that it is only within the cultural formations of late capitalism that these terms actually make sense.

    Friday, January 23, 2009 at 6:30 am | Permalink

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