Stanley Hauerwaus and G K Chesterton

August 22, 2011

I recently read this piece by Stanley Hauerwaus on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

[Aside: I’m not a connoisseur of Hauerwaus, largely because of his brooding and seemingly ubiquitous presence (intellectually) in Durham and Chapel Hill. It is perhaps one of my character flaws that I tend to be something of a contrarian — that everyone loved Hauerwaus virtually guaranteed that, until I could get some space, I would not.]

This little article is something of a gem. One sentence jumped off the page because as I read it it reminded me of another author I admire, G K Chesterton. Hauerwaus writes,

American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny. Thus the only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Chesterton believed that paradox was truth standing on its head and waving its arms to get our attention. Apparently Hauerwaus does too. Isn’t it ironic that the American God is frankly not interesting enough to produce a really interesting atheist. Who can get up in arms about a vanilla deity whose specialty is producing health, wealth, and happiness in our lives?

Hauerwaus is exposing and giving words to something I sense and feel and struggle to communicate — that the American church exists not as an alternative culture, a new society, but as a baptism of American presuppositions.

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…. The church’s primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money. That is what Americans mean by ‘freedom.’

 

–Stanley Hauerwaus

 

The church, simply put, is America. If you’re American, you’re a believer. And there’s a staggering hubris to our underlying belief that anyone would want to be “like us” if they had the chance. It’s the sort of hubris necessary to run an empire.

As Hauerwaus notes, the only form of atheism that really gets a reaction here is to believe that the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness aren’t guaranteed.

Frankly, they’re not. As much as I’d like to write to the contrary, God is more interested in you and I becoming saints than guaranteeing our material affluence, our freedom to pursue whatsoever we choose, or the notion that happiness is a true north that we can follow and find something other than our own appetites. 

Hauerwaus writes that American Protestantism is dying of its own success. I say, good riddance. I might choose a the metaphor our Lord used — pruning. The significant changes in American culture are making it more difficult, especially for younger people, to be in church. This may be because young adults think of the church as the last place where they will receive the encouragement, support, and grace that they need to live counter-culture lives.

How ironic? The church, it seems, needs to be relegated to the margins of the culture so that it may become what it once was — a truly alternative society within a society, a family, a household marked by its quality of life and by its visible fealty to Jesus through pulpit, font, and table.

It’s an interesting time to be alive, wouldn’t you say?