5 Sep

Stanley Hauerwas on the modern idea of freedom

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/05/13

American churches and autonomous choosers

Stanley Hauerwas

One of the themes that emerged in several interviews on Volume 118 of the Journal was the meaning of human freedom. I think Ron Highfield (God, Freedom, and Human Dignity) is absolutely right in insisting that the modern view of freedom is incompatible with the Gospel’s understanding of who we are and how we were meant to thrive. Unfortunately, much of American Christianity seems configured to justify many modern assumptions rather than critique them. 

Do American churches have the capacity and courage to offer an alternative to the central assumptions that comprise the spirit of our age? In a recently published essay called “The End of American Protestantism,” Stanley Hauerwas argued that “Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world.” He further observes: “More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives or the lives of the churches to which they go.”

I have a lot of sympathy with Hauerwas’s evaluation of the cultural captivity of the American churches. And I think Hauerwas is right in this essay to identify a particular view of freedom (and of America) as fundamental to our confusion. That view of freedom is implicit in the glib concept of “church shopping” (as Daniel M. Bell, Jr., observed in our conversation) and in the proud championing of the “market-driven church” that has become uncontroversial in much of Protestantism.

Hauerwas argues that “America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story. That is what Americans mean by ‘freedom.’” Hauerwas has used this “no story” formulation to discuss the modern view of freedom in other essays, and it’s worth spending some time with his essay to discern what he means. I think that he’s right in insisting (here and elsewhere) that this is a view of freedom that issues in nihilism. American society, he asserts, is “a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common.” If churches really want to confront the implicit (and often explicit) nihilism of our cultural moment, they will have to confront their complicity in its nurturing.

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