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Nate Kerr’s Hauerwas: A Summary

The Church and Postmodern Culture conversation about Nate Kerr’s new book has continued with John Wright’s contribution, which tackles Kerr’s view of Hauerwas. This is one of the most interesting posts so far in the series, and it gets at some key questions about Kerr’s reading of Hauerwas.

If I may attempt a little bit of (hopefully) clarifying summary, I think we need to view Nate’s critique of Hauerwas as involving a few key axioms. Nate’s reading of Hauerwas is informed by a particular hermeneutic/theological biography. Indeed, one could find a host of such genealogies of how Hauerwas came to think what he thinks. This is seen in Jeff Stout and Ted Smith as well, for instance.

For Nate (to my reading, which I admit may be flawed) there are three key points about Hauerwas that render his theology problematic. The first key point about Hauerwas’s conceptual architecture is its reactionary nature. Nate’s Hauerwas deploys his ecclesiology in the way that he does precisely because he must do so in order to resist/subvert the order of liberal modernity. In other words, Hauerwas’s theology is a negative reaction to liberalism, and as such it depends upon the existence of the liberal order for its intelligibility and force.

Secondly, the way in which Hauerwas opposes liberal modernity is by positing the church as a counter-polis to that of the modern nation-state. The church is a site of communal, social, political reality that provides critical leverage against the hegemony of the modern political order. In other words, we need the identity-shaping reality of the church to resist the tyranny of the modern powers. Thus, the church becomes a a sort of ideological articulation that seeks to challenge modernity by setting itself up as a dialectically opposed sort of counter-modernity.

Third, this leads to the ultimate theological problem that Nate sees, namely that Hauerwas’s theology ends up grafting the church into Christ’s own singularity in too immediate a manner. Christ’s apocalyptic invasion and transformation of history is not, in Hauerwas’s thought, something that comes to the church from outside itself, but rather lies at the heart of the church itself. The church and Christ are united in such a way for Hauerwas that Christ’s own singular identity is eclipsed by being incorporated into the church’s own–ostensibly stable and determinate–narrative identity.

This, in my view is a summary of Nate’s critique of Hauerwas. For Nate, Hauerwas’s theology is problematic in that it is 1) determined by a negative reation to liberal modernity, 2) understands the church in an ideological manner as a counter-modernity which exists oppositonally, and 3) wrongly conflates the church’s historical identity with Christ’s singular apocalyptic existence. The question is, of course, whether this critique has purchase and to what extent.


  1. D C Cramer wrote:

    I have to admit that even if Kerr’s depiction of Hauerwas is correct, I fail to see much of a problem with (1) – (3); that is, of course, unless the words “determined,” “wrongly,” etc., are necessary modifiers of Hauerwas’s view.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  2. adamsteward wrote:

    Nice summary, Halden. You present the argument very cogently here.

    DC, I think the real problem with this way of thinking about the church (which I do think ends up being Hauerwas’ default construal, if not in his better moments) is that it turns the church into a parasite. If we need an enemy in order to exist, then that gives ontological priority to evil, and that’s not a tenable position for a Christian. It may be that pragmatically, in our history, the existence of the church takes the form of opposition to modernity, but the onus for this is upon the forces of society. It is they that are in rebellion – the church, though, simply is what it is, and will continue worshiping all the same as empires come and go.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Solid comment over on the original post there. The article may be somewhat problematic, but I think it did succeed in crystallizing several important topics for discussion, several of which, you have noted.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

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