A theological iconoclast on 'Start the Week'

A theological iconoclast on 'Start the Week'

BBC Radio 4's stimulating 'Start the Week' programme, hosted by Andrew Marr, ran a special edition this morning (18 October 2010) discussing morality, religion and politics. It featured irascible and creative US theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

Alongside him was the philosopher, humanist and former Professor of Geriatric Medicine Raymond Tallis, the former Conservative MP John Gummer, now Lord Deben, who converted to Catholicism in 1994, and philosopher Mary Warnock, who in her latest book, Dishonest To God, seeks to separate out morality, politics and religion.

Stanley Hauerwas, for those who don't know him, is the Gilbert T Rowe professor of theological ethics at Duke University Divinity School and has been described by Time magazine as "America's best theologian". He is a thorn in the side as much to comfortably liberal, accomodationist Christianity as he is to obscurantist conservatism, and is often thought of as a prime exponent of Anabaptism, though he is by tradition a Methodist who worships in an Episcopal Church.

Hauerwas is also a redoubtable pacifist Christian thinker who, so to speak, takes no prisoners! In this programme he gently but firmly disputed the language of 'moral sense' (talking instead of character-formation), the definition of Christianity as 'religion', the disaster of conceiving politics independently of morality (a distinctly 'modernist' heresy), the concept of the sanctity of life ("God is holy, life is not"), the distinction between doing to death and the possessive preservation of life, the separation of theology and rationality, the Christian preoccupation with lust rather than greed, establishment religion in England and civil religion in the USA, the 'war on terror' as a legitimation of war without end, the failure of 'just war' thinking, and more.

Raymond Tallis made some extremely powerful points, too. "The Church is a massive accumulation of Mammon, a great heap of things. of the such that would make most poor people extremely envious," he said. And "they [the leaders of the church] put all their sentiments behind the poor, and all their power behind the rich... and I think Stanley [Hauerwas] sets that out very well when he talks about how unhelpfully close churches in America are to the 'American project', patriotism, 'the American dream' and so on."

In response to criticisms from Mary Warnock about religion that thinks of itself as morally superior, or which seeks to direct others from a supposed position of superiority, Hauerwas responded with clarity and simplicity - and in a way which would very much echo what we see Ekklesia as doing.

He said: "I represent a form of Christianity which is non-Constantinian. Most of Christianity in recent times - well, since Constantine - thought it needed to rule. I represent what I like to call the peasant view of Christianity. I just want to know who's ruling me and how I can survive them. In the process, I hope to make a contribution [addressed] to those who rule."

Underlying this, it was clear from other remarks, is a vision of God which is very different from the Constantinian monarch upheld by establishment and civil religion - but which nonetheless takes scriptural categories like holiness and judgement with great seriousness.

Perhaps Hauerwas' best and funniest line, echoed in a fine recent article in the Guardian (How real is America's faith?) was: "When George Bush is described as a sincere Christian, that is just an indication of how little being a Christian has to do with sincerity."

Equally importantly, he declared: "To coercively ask someone to worship God would be a denial of the very character of God."

I hope those who justify, in the name of Christianity, the imposition of collective worship in Britain's publicly-funded schools, were listening.

The whole programme can be downloaded as a podcast from the BBC's website here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/stw

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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