The Ruins of Christendom

July 10, 2022   •   By Brad East

Fully Alive: The Apocalyptic Humanism of Karl Barth

Stanley Hauerwas

THIS YEAR STANLEY Hauerwas turns 82 years old. To mark the occasion, he has published a book on Karl Barth, who died at the same age in 1968. The timing as well as the pairing is fitting. Barth is the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, and probably the most widely read of any theologian over the last 100 years. As for Hauerwas, since the passing of Reinhold Niebuhr in 1971, he has been the most prolific, influential, and recognizable Christian theological thinker in American public life. Barth somehow graced the cover of Time magazine in 1962, even though he was a Swiss Calvinist whose books on technical theology are so thick they could stop bullets. Hauerwas has never made the cover, but in 2001 Time did call him “America’s best theologian.” That fall, Oprah even invited him onto her show. In short, given Hauerwas’s age and stature, Fully Alive: The Apocalyptic Humanism of Karl Barth has the inevitable feel of a valediction.

In that sense, the book is an invitation to consider Hauerwas’s project more broadly. That project concerns, above all, the visible witness of the church in a secular age. That is to say, Hauerwas wants to envision, and in certain respects to rethink, what it means to live and worship as the Christian community in a liberal society. What this means for Hauerwas is a sort of social and political dispossession. Christians must be exorcised of the demon of presumptive responsibility for America, not to mention “the West.” That demon’s name is Legion, for it is manifested in countless ways.

Principally, it shows itself in war. This is why Hauerwas is a pacifist and why, in turn, he argues for nonviolence as a hallmark of the church. To forswear the sword is not to reject politics, however. It is in service of an alternative politics: the politics of Jesus. On this understanding the church is by definition a minority community called out from the world in order to live differently than the world as an alternative to the world — its bloodlust and greed, its injustice and idolatry — while simultaneously living in its midst. Thus, his oft-repeated remark: “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” Put plainly, the church is neither chaplain nor soul of the nation-state; it is the sacrament of God’s redemption, bearing witness to the work of the God who made and still loves the world, a witness that takes the form of a certain common life.

Unfortunately, in Hauerwas’s view, both liberalism and capitalism make this witness difficult, even unintelligible. For as he puts it, “[M]odernity names the time when people came to believe they should have no story determining their lives except the story they chose when they had no story. In America that story […] is the story called freedom.” Hence Hauerwas’s welcome of establishment Christianity’s death rattle: “The loss of the church’s social and political status means theologians are free to think thoughts that were hard to think when Christianity was assumed to be the ethos necessary to sustain something called Western civilization.” If the church is to retain its integrity, therefore, much less recover its voice, Christians must “recognize we are no longer in control of the social and political orders that were created to make what it means to be Christian and American (or European) an identification without difference.”

To be Christian, then, means embracing that difference, which Hauerwas finds articulated most powerfully and eloquently in Barth, particularly in what he terms “Barth’s theological politics.”

Barth had the temerity to stare down the powers of his day. He rebuked his teachers — every one an upstanding Protestant liberal — for underwriting Germany’s role in World War I. He repudiated Hitler and the Deutsche Christen who supported the Third Reich. He even refused to “pick sides” during the Cold War. Hauerwas observes that Barth’s politics were rooted in one thing: the incarnation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His undaunted resolve to fund every word he ever wrote by this singular truth — to be sure, a truth confessed by faith, known neither by deduction nor by unaided reason but by divine revelation — is what Hauerwas believes the church in America needs today. To be rooted in the incarnation is to have the resources to resist the siren songs of the powers that be. It is to live as truly human beings in an inhuman and inhumane world. It is, in sum, to embody what Barth called “the humanity of God.”

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Such, anyway, is a rough sketch of Hauerwas’s project, granting that I have left much out — Aristotle, Aquinas, MacIntyre, Wittgenstein, narrative, virtue, Scripture, Trollope, baseball — that informs his postliberal vision of Christian witness beyond Christendom. But there is something else that makes this book notable in addition to its author, subject, and timing.

In the last decade, a mix of reporting and scholarship has revealed three of Hauerwas’s greatest influences — John Howard Yoder, Jean Vanier, and Barth himself — to have engaged in long-term extramarital, inappropriate, or violent sexual behavior. Yoder and Vanier (the former a Mennonite ethicist who died in 1997, the latter a French priest who died in 2019) both used their fame, authority, and institutional power to coerce and manipulate women into sexual relationships. Whereas Barth, it turns out, maintained a lifelong affair with his assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, even having her move into his household (alongside his wife, Nelly, and their children) for the final four decades of his life.

Yoder, Vanier, and Barth suffuse Hauerwas’s writings. His response to the revelations about each has been different, however. Barth’s affair fails to register. A chapter featuring Vanier remains in the book, albeit with some noted reluctance. And Yoder is nowhere to be seen; since 2017, when Hauerwas addressed Yoder’s sexual abuse in an online essay, the references and citations have dried up.

To be clear, my reason for delineating these influences is not to indict Hauerwas, either for engaging them constructively or for his responses to their transgressions. It is to raise the question for us. For whether and how to receive the work of those whose conduct ranges from the unimpressive or improper to the wicked or criminal is a question that continues to roil our national life, the academy, and popular culture alike.

One answer presents itself, simple if punishing in its moral rigor. It is not, as I will argue in a moment, the answer we ought ultimately to accept, but it is influential and thus worth considering seriously. It says: Behavior reveals character, and corrupt character exposes corrupt persons. Such persons are not to be tolerated. Their actions place them outside the circle of healthy life in society; therefore, they must be expelled by whatever means available. Their employers should fire them; their friends should disown them; their publishers should void their contracts. If they are writers, musicians, or artists, you and I should withhold our patronage.

The position is an extreme one, but it is not so easy to dismiss as critics of “cancel culture” might desire. Can Bill Cosby be separated cleanly from The Cosby Show? Can Woody Allen be distinguished neatly from the writer, director, and star of his films? What about — to instance a potential reductio of the argument — a person like Ted Kaczynski? Does his manifesto have much to teach us, so long as we bracket the minor matter of the use to which he put his ideas?

At the same time, ideas and arguments do stand apart from the women and men who first proposed them, circulating in complex and unpredictable ways. They are not material objects infected at the source. Reading Heidegger will not make you a Nazi. Reading Foucault will not make you advocate dropping age of consent laws. And reading Barth will not make you an adulterer. It is perfectly possible — indeed, it should be the expectation for every literate adult — to read genuinely problematic texts, as well as texts written by genuinely problematic authors, with a critical and discriminating eye. For the unavoidable fact is that much, if not most, of our cultural inheritance that is true, good, or beautiful has its origin in minds, hearts, and hands that in their time were misguided, selfish, treacherous, blinkered, bigoted, hateful, cruel, vile, or bloodstained. What to do with this inheritance falls to us.

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Here is what Hauerwas would argue. What the world needs is a paradigm for the personal naming of evil together with a prescribed path toward both reconciliation with the community and recuperation of a tainted past. It needs, in other words, a church that practices confession, penance, and absolution, precisely as an alternative — and thus as an offer — to the endless cycles of accusation, recrimination, and litigation that bedevil our society.

Yet what is to be done when Christians are counted among the guilty? When #MeToo leads to #ChurchToo? When the violence and prejudice to which the church should be an alternative are reflected or even forged in and by the church?

The question haunts the church in America today. There are no easy answers, and Christians should be wary to point the finger at others while their own house is in such disarray.

Hauerwas does offer a provisional answer, though. In a chapter on race and racism, he writes:

If slavery is a wrong so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right, the only alternative is to be drafted into a history of God’s redemption that makes confession and forgiveness a reality. Only those who are willing to be forgiven can seek reconciliation with those they have harmed.


He goes on: “[I]f I have any comment about the continuing alienation between white and Black people, it is that […] when all is said and done, the truth matters. That truth, a truth that is to be found hanging on a cross, makes hope possible even in the face of an ongoing injustice.”

Christian hope, Hauerwas wants us to see, has curious grounds: the corpse of an innocent man unjustly executed. In that corpse, so the church believes, is hidden the seed of the only life worth having — a life worth dying for. That seed is what transfigures the cross of Jesus into the tree of life. And if, by some great power, an instrument of torture can become a means of healing, then the same power can do similar wonders in the present. Trust in this power, a power perfected in weakness, is finally all the church has to offer a world riddled with conflict, division, and enmity. It is a power the church’s own members need, as Barth knew. For his No to Hitler was addressed first of all to fellow Christians who had said Yes. Barth’s was not a time of Christian success. It was one of church-wide failure, as is ours. Yet in the ruins of a dying Christendom Barth professed hope for the future of a church hollowed out from the inside, a church devoid of prestige, privilege, and worldly clout.

The hollowing out continues. The exorcism is not yet finished. Hauerwas follows Barth, moreover, in naming this process for what it is: divine judgment. On the far side of judgment, however, renewal awaits. St. Paul writes that the church is the body of Christ. In our time, one might be tempted to call it instead the corpse of Christ: the lifeless body of a community having breathed its last. Yet the power to reanimate the one is able to reanimate the other. For the name of that power is resurrection.

In a well-known passage from the Hebrew Bible the Spirit of God takes the prophet Ezekiel to a valley full of dry bones: nothing but carcasses and skeletons. He then asks the crucial question: “Son of man, can these bones live?” To which the prophet replies: “O Lord God, thou knowest.”

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Brad East (PhD, Yale University) teaches theology at Abilene Christian University. The author or editor of three books, he has written for Commonweal, The Hedgehog Review, The New Atlantis, and The Point, among others.