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Hauerwas’s Problem with Liberalism

In the appendix to his recent book of sermons, A Cross-Shattered Church, Stanley Hauerwas attempts to give a miniature “accounting” as it were of his own work. He does this, interestingly through Samuel Wells’ secondary work on him, which he takes to provide the best guide to understanding him.

Here is what he has to say about his critiques of liberalism, a topic that came under much discussion back when the Church and Postmodern Culture blog symposium on Nate Kerr’s book was underway:

My problem with liberal political arrangements is not that they are liberal, but rather that Christians confuse such arrangements with Christianity. Wells notes that not all of my criticisms of liberal social and political practices depend on specific theological claims. That is true, but when I develop criticisms of liberalism using what I have learned from non-theological sources (Wolin, Coles, Connoly) I do so because I think liberalism is not only bad for Christians but also for liberals. It is so because the self that is formed by liberal practice lacks the substance to be virtuously habituated to acknowledge our character as ‘dependent rational animals’ [MacIntyre].” (p. 148-9)

So, it seems the problem Hauerwas has with liberal politica arrangements is that they produce bad selves. As such, it seems that the conflict between Christianity and liberalism must be, on his view a contest between two different sites of production. That seems to me to be quite problematic, ecclesially speaking. Can we really just reduce the church to a site of self-production?


  1. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    What would be “reducing” from?

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Wilson wrote:

    To be able to acknowledge our character, etc., is to have been converted from being turned inwardly (the practices of liberalism) to being turned toward God (theoretically the practices of the church being the church). I’m pretty sure that is how Hauerwas would explain himself, but I also don’t see a reduction of the church in the quote that your reproduced. Sure, there is an implicit claim about what the church does, but there is not a limit within that claim. He is also speaking about using non-theological arguments against liberalism instead of using ecclesial arguments, which would be formulated quite differently.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  3. Matt Shafer wrote:

    As someone who’s relatively new to Hauerwas — what precisely does he mean by “liberalism”? That terms has been used in so many ways in the American and global political/theological contexts that it seems to have lost all meaning. Which liberalism does Hauerwas critique?

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Nate Kerr wrote:


    In the Introduction to Against the Nations Hauerwas offers up this basic definition of what he means by liberalism: “In the most general terms I understand liberalism to be that impulse deriving from the Enlightenment project to free all people from the chains of their historical particularity in the name of freedom. As an epistemological position liberalism is the attempt to defend a foundationalism in order to free reason from being determined by any particularistic tradition. Politically liberalism makes the individual the supreme unit of society, thus making the political task the securing of cooperation between arbitrary units of desire. While there is no strict logical entailment between these forms of liberalism I think it can be said that they often are interrelated” (18).

    I think he would pretty much still hold to this definition today, and I think his most recent comments confirm that (or are at least consonant with it). By the way, if you are new to Hauerwas and really want to get oriented with the centrality of the critique of the liberal society to his “project” (if that is even what it should be called, in Hauerwas’ case) as a whole, Against the Nations is essential reading.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  5. Matt Shafer wrote:

    Ah. Thanks for that reference. Would I be right in interpreting it as saying that Hauerwas seems to see individualism as the key feature of liberal political theory?

    Clearly then, Hauerwas is not one of those who would conflate liberalism with “the left” more generally (also an ambiguous term, of course).

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  6. dave wrote:

    Yes, individualism would be one derivative of liberalism that Hauerwas critiques/doesn’t like. As you point out, liberalism and “the left” are ambiguous and also relative terms. For the most part, though, I think it’s safe to assume that when you come across the term liberalism in academia, it’s in reference to the wider political movement that is part of the aftermath of the Enlightenment. So in that sense “the left” in America is part of what Hauerwas means when he uses liberalism.

    Liberalism is more of a political ideology or mindset than a position within a political system. The epistemological angle is something I haven’t read too much into in Hauerwas, and maybe that’s the result of having never read Against the Nations.

    Another place to turn to, specifically in relation to Hauerwas and liberalismm, is the work of Alasdair MacIntyre.

    Anyways, it would probably be best to just stop reading me and start reading Against The Nations! Thanks for the helpful quote, Nate.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink
  7. Tim F wrote:

    I second the questions regarding what “reducing” means and how the quote implies that this is what Hauerwas is doing.


    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  8. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    In relation to MacIntyre and this critique of liberalism, I have a lot of respect for that and agree. At what point though does the turn to community mask political strife and domination? I can think of several communitarian efforts that explicitly support stripping people of “rights” (I know the problems there) in the name of community. It can be a term that masks political domination too. Hauerwas never addresses this that I know of and I wish he would ( I have not read all of his million books, only about a dozen).

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  9. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    I third the question Tim F. asks. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts if you have read more in Hauerwas.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Tim, et al, fair enough. “Reducing” may be unnecessarily pejorative here. But, having read most of the Hauerwasian text, I feel comfortable saying that a major part of his program or project or whatever you call it is about wanting the church to be a social body that forms and shapes people in a way that is more binding and effective than the culture of liberalism we inhabit.

    Hauerwas may not technically reduce the church to a site of production but it is certainly not less than that for him. And the problem I have is with the notion that the church is a site of production at all.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  11. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Just to add a bit to Dave’s helpful response, I think it might be more exact to say that for Hauerwas liberalsim is a particular political theory that requires the production of individuals for its proper functioning. That is to say, the foundational principle of liberal political theory is a purported universal, rationalized ideal of what it means to be human. In order for this ideal to function politically, however, it requires the production of individuals who can simultanesouly assent to that ideal of what it means to be human, yet in such a way that they experience that assent as a matter of their own individual “free will.” Thus, liberalism cannot help but to function ideologically. So, to be precise, we might say that liberalism is not so much founded upon individualism, as it is the invention of the so-called the autonomously “free” individual. (William Cavanaugh, has made this point particularly well in his an analysis of the modern liberal nation-state as requiring the “individualizing” of human beings for the operation of its authority.)

    As to the question of “the left,” Dave is right: for Hauerwas, “right” and “left” as we conceive them in America (assuming that is what you are referring to) are merely distinct modalities of the operative liberal paradigm.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Permalink
  12. Theophilus wrote:

    How do you conflate “forming and shaping people” with “production”? The two ideas look qualitatively different to me. I don’t think your charge really sticks if the difference holds.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 10:44 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    In this context I fail to see the what a distinction such as you suggest could possibly mean. Forming and shaping people, at least for Hauerwas, means producing, or bringing about a certain kind of self through social practices.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  14. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I’m not that new to Hauerwas, but am newer to your blog. Could you spell out precisely why you have a problem with the church forming people like this?

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 3:24 am | Permalink
  15. d barber wrote:

    Isn’t everything in existence a site of production? Churches, books, plants, bodies, talking, eating, whatever one can think of. Can you say more about:

    (1) what would not be a site of production?

    (2) why one would want a theology that is not a site of production?

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 4:47 am | Permalink
  16. Alex wrote:

    This too is my suspicion with Macintyre and his theological borrowers. Increasingly I’ve been thinking that the problem is that a) plurality really does exist and is irreducible (Macintyre even seems to admit this) – the cat is out of the bag, so to speak b) how can this plurality be suppressed without violence. Macintyre’s solution, a kind of traditioned liberalism of a higher order seems weak to say the least. People moved away from community for good reasons – validating community (or indeed liberty) in the abstract seems worthless, although, here Hauerwas would say precisely he is advocating a particular form of community rooted in Christian practice.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 5:13 am | Permalink
  17. Jeremy wrote:

    Perhaps, you could explain what you believe this conception of church lacks?

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 5:44 am | Permalink
  18. Brad E. wrote:

    I think I’m in the same camp as a lot of others re: “production.” The term has a sort of nasty connotation if by it we mean the sort of mechanized factory production of mass consumption; but if we merely mean the timeful (as Hauerwas would say) formation of character in a community constituted by the Eucharist — and if in a liberal society, a community in precise contrast to the wider world’s way of formation/production — then I don’t see any problem with it.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  19. Halden,

    I echo Barber above. What’s wrong with the church as a site of production? Isn’t ‘production’, read ecclesiologically, just another word for discipleship? However, if the church is reduced to a mere site of “self-production”, then we’ve given up the ghost, no? I’m convinced that Hauerwas doesn’t reduce the church to a site of ‘self-production’. The social practices of the church that ‘produce’ or form disciples, are habits of speech, mind, and action that are graced to us by God–the practices that are requisite of friends of God. This, I don’t think, reduces the church to a site of self-production.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 7:05 am | Permalink
  20. Tim F wrote:

    Obviously, I can’t speak for Halden, but my guess is that his concern is that the church should be a site of pathos (suffering/undergoing) not of poiesis (production or making).

    As per Hauerwas, I think he would readily grant that the church is the place where we suffer God’s practices, at least at the deepest theological level. However, it seems his primary concern is not taking place at that level in most of his discourse. He’s more interested in ordinary formation and how people perceive their formation. I doubt he would grant that our receiving of God’s grace is in tension with the life it produces/recreates through ecclesial practices. If this is, in fact, what the concern is, I think it needs to be shown why productive effects of God’s grace are at odds with God’s giving. In other words, this is about justification and sanctification and the role humans have in them. Hauerwas, still being influenced by his holiness roots, understands humans and the church to have an active role in that even while observing the more primary passive moment of God’s gift.

    Tim F.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 7:08 am | Permalink
  21. Charlie Collier wrote:


    I wonder about the idea of liberalism forming selves that lack the substance to be rightly habituated. This seems to grant to liberalism either an ex nihilo creative power (these “selves” are so unlike usual selves that they must have been “formed” out of nothing) or a nihilistic destructive power (the natural self is so deformed by liberalism that its ordinary openness to virtuous formation—its teleology, if you will—is evacuated). Either of these moves would make liberalism more powerful than it could possibly be (at least if Hauerwas wants to uphold, as I knew he does, a basically Augustinian doctrine of creation). I suspect this is the postmodern Hauerwas momentarily getting the better of the Thomist/Augustinian Hauerwas.

    Also, the first sentence in the quote doesn’t square with the main point of the quote. Clearly, Hauerwas has a problem with liberal political arrangements because they’re liberal. Should the first sentence rather be taken as “My MAIN problem with liberal political arrangements . . .”?


    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    Thanks to all for the comments. I think I’ll expand on this more in another full post shortly. Short answer for now: I think that discipleship should not be equated with the production of a certain sort of self. Christian formation/discipleship is not about the reproduction of a certain type of self, rather it is following Jesus and participating in his mission. This process involves change and transformation to be sure, but it is not the reproduction of a pre-determined self. Rather the process is far more catholic in that the kinds of persons who come to be through the journey of discipleship/mission are not simply reproductions, but wildly diverse and contingent.

    I know that needs to get filled out more, but I think that’s a start.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  23. Brad A. wrote:

    Point taken, Halden. But I fail to see how you get your foil model from Hauerwas, particularly in the above quote. Such a move seems to require quite a bit of reading into that passage.

    I’ve read Hauerwas talk about formation and discipleship in the way you describe here, and in terms of cultivating skills via relationships, etc. I don’t remember reading him to mean “reproduction of a pre-determined self.” In fact, the latter seems to go quite against what I’ve read.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    I would push even further and say that not only is the church not about the production of a specific type of self, it is also not about the production of a pre-determined communal reality. That may be where things hit home for Hauerwas even further.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  25. Brad A. wrote:

    Well, I suppose it would have to depend on the extent of the “pre-determination.”

    Can we assume the church is pre-determined to manifest at its holiest (avoiding “ideal” language here) certain virtues or theopolitical beliefs and practices? I think we can, and I really can’t fathom a serious response that would say otherwise. Do we know in advance what that will look like in its particulars? No, and I don’t think Hauerwas attempts to do that; indeed, he resists it at points, by my reading.

    I’d need to see some specific examples of what you’re talking about. I don’t see any in the quote above.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  26. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:


    Regarding the destructive power on individuals so that they are so deformed that ordinary openness to virtuous formation is distorted:

    I presented a paper on Alasdair MacIntyre and anarchism in London a few years back. MacIntyre was there. I argued that because in his thinking our liberal world does what you just said, he has to be practically a pacifist, because there can be no such thing as a “just” war under the “catastraphe” he describes. So we can use that for good ends!

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  27. Hill wrote:

    I have to say… this looks an awful lot like criticism in search of an object for critique.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink
  28. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Did the Big Mac respond?

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  29. Geoff wrote:

    At the risk of sounding trite, doesn’t your concern, Halden, really have to do with who/what is doing the “forming”? I’ve always thought that the Church (at least ideally) is nothing but a community of selves being formed by the Holy Spirit. Inasmuch as that is happening via the members of the Church, I fail to see the problem. But then, I fail to see a lot of things… :-)

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  30. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    No. But the feedback I received from all the other participants was entirely positive. There were some pretty big name MacIntyre scholars there. The title of the conference was “Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism.”

    I took him to task for suporting war and police precisely because it is not possible to practice the virtues under the conditions of modernity, and in those institutions. I argued that he should clarify his stance on anarchism by engaging it (like he does Marxism, which is still influential to him). He is effectively an anarchist by arguing that institutions by their very nature focus on external goods, which threaten the internal goods of practices. That is a philosophical anarchism.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  31. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    I agree. Can’t make a judgment on Hauerwas’ entire work based on that quote. Is that what Halden meant to do though? I doubt that. Halden is just pondering out loud on this quote that Charlie says is a momentary lapse. At least that is my charitable reading and gesture of peace to Halden!

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  32. Matt Shafer wrote:

    Very interesting insight. Thanks.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  33. not to be redundant, but b/c I haven’t given up on the subject (or the self) it seems the self is either self-produced or other-produced just as a community is self-determined or other-determined (or better some combination of both). hauerwas is adamant that he is for the church being other-produced (by God) rather than self-determined (the liberal myth). he even argues that it is exactly creedal orthodoxy that guards “the site of prodution” (two-natures, etc.) from collapsing into self-determination (and of course we could argue the effectiveness of that argument).

    but really, it seems the opposite charge would stick to Hauerwas better, that he is so other-production focuses (by God via sacramental community) that sometimes it makes discipleship automatic without the need for, dare i say, self-production (i.e. disciplines spiritual practices) or individual discernment.

    Monday, August 10, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  34. Brad A. wrote:

    But Geoff, Hauerwas places so much emphasis on mentoring relationships for discipleship and training in virtue. Wouldn’t that fall in the second category rather than the first (as though the two are separable)?

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 5:16 am | Permalink

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