In the final chapter of of With the Grain of the Universe, Hauerwas reaches something of an apogee in stating his view of the importance of the church’s witness in relation to the truthfulness of the Christian message:
Does the truth of Christian convictions depend on the faithfulness of the church and, if so, how do we determine what would constitute faithfulness? Am I suggesting that the ability of the church to be or not to be nonviolent is constitutive for understanding what it might meant [sic] to claim that that Christian convictions are true? Do I think the truthfulness of Christian witness is compromised when Christians accept the practices of the “culture of death” — abortion, suicide, capital punishment, and war?
Yes! On every count the answer is “Yes.” (p. 231)
Meditate long and hard on what’s being said here. As far as I can tell Hauerwas is saying outright that the truth of Christianity, the truth of the gospel depends on the church’s own faithfulness. This, to me seems like a crazy statement. Its one thing to say that we have no way to talk about the gospel’s truth apart from listening to witnesses (whether they be apostolic witnesses, historical witness, or ecclesial witnesses). But it is quite another to say that the truth of the gospel depends on us being nonviolent.
Or, simply put, if Hauerwas is right then the gospel simply cannot be true because “the church” no matter what sort of content we try to fill that term with is manifestly violent and unfaithful.
Even when I was at my most sympathetic towards Hauerwas, I still couldn’t get behind what was being said in this book. Because what’s going on here is a fundamental redefinition of the very meaning of “witness.” Hauerwas’s attempt to get beyond Barth’s allegedly faulty ecclesiology (see p. 193) actually runs completely contrary to Barth’s whole understanding of witness. For Barth a witness is, well, a witness, someone who reports what they have seen. Witnesses point outside of themselves to a reality fundamentally other than they. Thus, the truth of the reality witnessed to is in no way dependent on the witness. The credibility of the witnessing account may well be dependent on the life and word of the witness, but the object witnessed to is not.
For some reason (and really, I’m not sure what), Hauerwas will not content himself with saying that the credibility of the church’s message depends on its faithfulness (which is obviously true and right). He is bound and determined to go further and say that the truth of that message itself is at stake in our own moral performance. If we perform badly, somehow the gospel isn’t true anymore. The very truth of the gospel has found itself inextricably internal to our own moral effort and achievement (though of course Hauerwas uses the language of gift for the church’s nonviolent witness).
So why? Why does Hauerwas want not merely the gospel’s credibility, but its very truth to depend upon our faithfulness? What does making that move accomplish? Why is this better than simply making the far more plausible and intelligible argument that the gospel’s credibility rather than its truth is at stake in our faithfulness or lack thereof? Why is it so important that, at the most fundamental level everything must depend on us?