It is always heartening to see books of essays being published. There is something essential about the essay – long enough for a decent argument, short enough to enforce the tightening of argument. Stanley Hauerwas is often referred to as one of America’s best theologians; a title he thinks is laughable (how does one measure ‘best’ in theology?). In any case, he is certainly an important one. And his reputation rests as much on the arguments he has hammered home in his essays as on those of his full length books.
Approaching the End is another collection of essays (to be added to Wilderness Wanderings and Working with Words) (a fan of alliteration, is he?) loosely centred on the theme of eschatology, a word that refers to ‘last things’, or the end of history. In Hauerwas’s case, this usually means talking about the difference between the way the world views the process of history and the way the church does. And this has some ramification for politics and the church. In fact Hauerwas suggests that the church’s entire reason for being is to “provide an alternative to the politics of the world”. Now, this is open to much misunderstanding so some clarification is required, and Hauerwas’s book is partly dedicated to this clarification.
The task of the church is not to turn the world into the church, whatever that may mean. According to Hauerwas, controversially, the first task of the church is simply to tell the truth about the world, not change it. This may mean simply preaching the gospel and affirming the way the church should operate – as a caring community – against the world’s insistence that building wealth and power through individuals clambering over one another is the main goal. Again, both Christians and non-Christians may be tempted to think the church’s main goal is to reform the world, but it is there first of all to point out the world’s flaws and to offer alternatives. Non-Christians in particular may be reassured by the picture of the church as not foremost imposing its morality on the secular state, but pointing out where injustice occurs and revealing another option. Hauerwas is also keen to point out that he is not arguing for a “pure” church. In other words, in offering an alternative the church does not proclaim itself to be perfected, only willing.
The church is there to – as Hauerwas puts it – help us bear the difficulty of reality. It is tempting, particularly in some evangelical circles, to think that God solves all our problems. But Hauerwas insists that reality (the world) is not made less difficult by faith. In fact, faith may open our eyes more acutely to suffering in the world and make us more concerned/frightened/angry. Is this contradictory? After all, if the church helps us bear the load, isn’t our load then lighter and thus less difficult? I think what Hauerwas means can be illustrated by a simple analogy: If we are sick and someone sits with us and comforts us, we are not made less sick, but we feel better.