It is, alas, a story we hear almost everyday. A “terrorist” straps
explosives to his body and walks into the crowded market to cause
mayhem. Or “Holy Warriors” fight endless battles to prevent the spread
of democracy in their homelands. When we see these things, we shake our
heads and lament that in the name of God, these people not only commit
terrible crimes, but resist the very things—democracy and
liberalism—which will bring them the same peace and prosperity that we
enjoy. We have no doubts about how these events are to be interpreted,
for we know that misdirected and irrational violence is part of our own
history, a history from which we were rescued by the liberal state, and
the separation of religious and temporal affairs.
But what if our understanding is wrong? What if the nation-state was
not the cure but the cause of the wars that we term “religious”? In
other words, what if all that we “know” isn’t so, is in fact a myth used
to justify the nation-state and marginalize certain kinds of discourse,
most particularly “religious” discourse? This is the theme of William
T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence.
We know the story very well: after the Reformation, Europe fell into a
murderous cycle of sectarian violence, from which we were rescued by
the nation-state, which cordoned off “religious” concerns from the
temporal order, imposing a political tolerance on the contending faiths
while concentrating on building prosperous kingdoms (at first) and then
liberal democracies, in which the religious realm was kept separate from
the secular. It is this story which provides us—all of us, whether
“left” or “right—with the framework by which we view both domestic and
international events, and most particularly the Muslim world.
But is this story a history or a myth? Prof. Cavanaugh contends that
it is a myth, one that simply does not conform to the facts of history.
In support of this thesis, he makes a number of remarkable claims:
Religion in not a severable category from cultural political, and
economic life. In fact, “religion,” as we understand the term, is a
creation of the modern West, and would have been unintelligible to
previous ages and cultures.
The modern state precedes the so-called wars of religion, Indeed,
the “wars of religion” weren’t about religion at all.
There has been a transfer of the sacral from the religious order to
the political. Far from separating religion from the state, the modern
state creates its own sacred space, with its own rituals, hymns, and
theology, and its own universal mission.
The universal mission of this new Church is mainly tied up with
practical solutions to particular problems that are elevated to the
status of transcendent truths. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it:
The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a
dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one
hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always
about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and
on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time
invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]it is like being
asked to die for the telephone company.
If Cavanaugh is correct, then his thesis should profoundly effect the
way we view the world, or rather, the story we tell ourselves about how
the world works. Humans always tell themselves stories about how things
are; it is the only way to organize information into a coherent whole.
But it does help if the story bears some relationship to the way the
world is, or was; if its details can in general be correlated with some
actual history. In this case, the story does not correspond with
reality. Even if we allow that religion is not something severable from
the rest of life and culture, can we go along with Cavanaugh’s claim
that religion itself is a modern invention?
The moderns would hold that “religion” is a trans-cultural,
trans-historical reality, a universal genus of which “Christianity,”
“Hinduism,” and “Islam” are particular species. The problem is, any
attempt to define this genus in such a way as to include what the
moderns want to include and to exclude what they wish to exclude turns
out to be contradictory. Nationalism is no less a cult than Catholicism.
Including a belief in God would exclude many major “religions.” One
might attempt to limit religion to the “transcendent,” but ideas such as
“the nation” or “liberty” are transcendent ideas, as are all values.
Hence, there is no coherent way to distinguish “religious” from
“secular” violence. What counts as “religious” or “secular” in any given
society always depends on the configuration of power within that
society. Indeed, the demarcation of the “religious” sphere is itself an
expression of secular power, a political act.
Our concept of “religion” was simply unknown to the ancients. There
is no word in Greek, Latin, Egyptian, Aztec, Chinese, or the Indian
languages that precisely corresponds to our term. The Latin religio,
“re-binding” referred to the rites which bound the social order
together, and would include anything from the Japanese tea ceremony to
the Greek rites of hospitality, to the temple rites of the various gods.
When Augustine wrote De Vera Religione, “Of True Religion,”
his subject was not Christianity. Rather, it was about worship, which
can be given either to the creator or to the creation. True religion is
directed toward the creator alone, and religion is not something
contrasted with a secular realm. In the City of God, Augustine
uses the term religion to refer to the worship of God, but he finds the
term ambiguous, because:
In Latin usage…”religion” is something displayed in
human relationships, in the family (in the narrower and wider sense) and
between friends; and so the use of the word does not avoid ambiguity
when the worship of God is in question. We have no right to affirm with
confidence that “religion” is confined to the worship of God, since it
seems that this word has been detached from its normal meaning in which
it refers to an attitude of respect in relations between a man and his
When we turn to a work like Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, we
would expect it to be concerned with what we call “religion,” but Thomas
uses the term only once. Religion is one of the nine virtues that are a
part of justice; it is that part which renders to God what is due to
God and refers to the rites and practices that offer worship to God. It
is not a term that designates a sphere of human activity that stands
apart from some other sphere, called the “secular.” Indeed, the terms
“religious” and “secular” in the middle ages normally referred to the
two orders of clergy, those bound to monastic vows and those which were a
part of the diocesan structure. The different “religions” were
Benedictine, Cistercian, Dominican, etc.
If there is no analytical severable category of “religion,” then the
idea of the “wars of religion” from which we were saved by the secular
state can’t be correct either. The neat narrative of a struggle with
Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other simply doesn’t work
out. The framework of the 30-Year’s War was a struggle between three
Catholic monarchies, the French and the two branches of the Hapsburgs.
Prof. Cavanaugh gives of 10 pages of examples that run counter to the
standard narrative: Catholics allied with Protestants against Catholics,
Protestants allied with Catholics against Protestants, Protestants
battling Protestants, etc. Obviously, the facts exceed the narrative.
Nor was the rise of the modern state the solution to the problem, it
was the cause. Long before the Reformation, the state was expanding its
power at the expense of the Church. The taxing of the clergy, the
consolidation of ecclesial courts into civil ones, intrusion into the
educational system, the replacement of the Church’s charities with the
welfare state, and royal control of clerical appointments were some of
the signs of the expanding power of the state. The Reformation itself
was part of this process, since so many of the “reformers” were more
than willing to replace the pope with the prince to enforce a
confessional conformity. The Reformation depended on lay power, and gave
a justification for that power. The biggest source of power is always
property, and the wealth of the Church was a tempting target. In 1524,
King Gustav Vasa of Seeden welcomed the Reformation because it allowed
him to transfer the tithes from the Church to the crown, and three years
later he appropriated all Church property, nine years before Henry VIII
did the same. In France, “secularization” meant the transfer of Church
property to the crown.
But this confessional conformity required that local privileges and
independence to be overturned. The Catholic Monarchs desired absolutism
as much as did their Protestant counterparts. Charles V made war against
the Protestant princes, with the help of at least some Protestants, in
an attempt to turn the Holy Roman Empire into a centralized, sovereign
state. In France, the crown attempted to unite the country under un
roi, une foi, une loi, which required a war against the nobility.
The nationalized churches became part of a clientage system, so much so
that Pope Julius III could write to the French King Henry II, “You are
more than pope in your kingdoms.”
After the state caused the wars, its apologists proposed the state as
a solution. Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau saw a strong state
(or even a state religion) as a necessity. After all, membership in a
religion was voluntary, but membership in the state was compulsory, and
the state required a degree of conformity. It is not that the new state
would be intolerant. On the contrary, it would enforce religious
“tolerance,” but only for a “religion” shorn of any civil interests.
Religion was to be a private passion—or fantasy—one which would not be
allowed to serve as a source of resistance to the totalizing state.
Hence, Catholics were excluded from this tolerance, not because of
bigotry, but on the quite rational grounds that the Catholic Church
could never confine itself to being a “religion” that could be
conveniently domesticated and striped of its civil and economic
concerns. This church could never fit into the truncated category of
religion, and hence could not be compatible with the modern state. The
actual trajectory is that first the state was “sacralized” by absorbing
the powers of the Church, and then the state was “liberalized” by being
tolerant of the “religions,” but only insofar as they present no genuine
opposition to the power of the state.
Seen in this light, the so-called “separation of church and state” is
a complete sham. As Robert Bellah put it, the state becomes “an
elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion” that “has its own
seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding
that any other religion does.” the real issue is where we place what
Cavanaugh calls our “lethal loyalties,” which have been transferred to
this new religion and its universal mission: the imposition of democracy
and market economics on the whole world. None of us would think of
killing for the faith, but killing for the state becomes “patriotism.”
It was in the trenches and the gas attacks of World War I that Wilfred
Owen discovered the price of this new religion in “the old lie,
Dulce et Decorum est, pro patria mori.” And of course, what we die
for, we also kill for.
The actual trajectory of history is that the state absorbed the
powers of the church, and then “solved” the problems this creates by
offering “tolerance” to any church which would become a “religion,” a
domesticated, private fantasy that could pose no challenge to secular
authority. As Christians, our best response is to accept the role that
Hobbes and Locke assigned to us: permanent outsiders, to be viewed with
suspicion at best and persecution at worst. This new state, actually
just another cult, rationalizes some forms of violence and condemns
others. We are horrified at the violence of those whose countries we
invade, but “shock and awe” over Baghdad is a regrettable, but rational
form of violence in a noble cause; in the end, it will bring free trade,
democracy, and better phone service.
The obedience that the state requires is total, and dissent is worse
than traitorous, it is unpatriotic. Every combat soldier instinctively
recognizes the truth of Randall Jarrett’s The Death of the Ball
Turret Gunner, and tells his own version of the grim joke:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Stanley Hauerwas teaches theology and ethics at the Divinity School of Duke University. After receiving his Ph.D. from Yale, Dr. Hauerwas spent the first part of his career at the University of Notre Dame before coming to Duke in 1984. For a theologian, not exactly a vocation one chooses to be well-known, he has lectured widely, his work often crossing disciplinary lines, and has found himself in the New York Times, Time Magazine, and in the wake of 9/11 on Oprah’s stage. Yet, just as commonly one finds him speaking in small churches. Many know his reputation for being a salty bombastic provocateur; this reputation allows many to miss that he is a generous and gentle person. Now almost seventy, he has recently published his memoirs Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010). Wunderkammer sat down with Professor Hauerwas to talk about his memoir and to reflect on greed in the U.S. economy.
Wunderkammer: Knowing you for some time, you’ve always been
generous with your time and have a door that is open to your students,
but there is also the sense that you’ve been reticent to talk about
your own biography. And now a memoir?
Stanley Hauerwas: I say in the book, it's such an odd thing
for me to do—writing a memoir— being the great enemy of subjectivity
and pietism. I continue to be the great enemy of the notion that my
experience should count for how I understand the nature of what God has
done for us in Jesus Christ. But I can tell the story of why I think
that the turn to the subject has not been a particularly good direction
for theology. I'm still not terribly interested in my own
subjectivity. I mean the philosophical psychology that shaped me
basically through the reading of Wittgenstein continues to inform those
reactions, so you're quite right.
WK: Another person who recently came out with a memoir who
said they would never come out with a memoir is Cornel West.
SH: Yes, he told me he had done it. And, of course, I’m
sixty-nine, and Cornel is what, in his mid fifties? So, he may have to
do another one and I won’t.
WK: What were you trying to do with your memoir?
Stanley Hauerwas on
SH: It tells the story of how I became a theologian and in
particular what a surprising thing it is for me that I’m a Christian.
What it has meant for me to be a Christian is what extraordinary
friendships I’ve been drawn into through that avowal. I’m quite happy
with the book. It also tells the story of my marriage for over twenty
years to a woman who tragically had bipolar disorder and I try to be as
upfront and honest as I can about that. All of that interacts with
the various diverse contexts that have made me who I am, having spent
fourteen years at Notre Dame was a decisive shaping for me and now
twenty-five years at Duke. Hopefully, it’s a kind of story that
exhibits much of the diversity of theological developments that have
been characteristic of the last fifty years. I hope to reach a whole
different reading public with this.
WK: As far as your normal audience goes, when Jeff Stout’s Democracy
and Tradition came out in 2003, it seemed like you had different
appraisals of your level of influence.
SH: I have no idea how influential I am. I have the feeling…I
mean my response to Jeff was: Jesus, I had no idea that anyone thought
that I had that kind of influence. My view is that Duke is one of the
few places where [Karl] Barth and [John Howard] Yoder are still read
with sympathy, not that there were that many places to begin with, but I
think it's still pretty limited that if you go to most seminaries the
narrative would still be one set by Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard
[Niebuhr], and Paul Tillich, so I don't see the influence as all that
great. Intellectually, there is now a phenomenon that people—young
people think that they need to show why they aren't Hauerwas, which I
find kind of boring. I don't know—it's not for me to say how
influential I am.
WK: And who is your audience?
SH: I write for Christians, and I say most academics write
for other academics. I write for Christians. I've always, from the very
beginning, realized that I wanted people who are not trained in the
so-called field to be able to read what I was writing—so my books are a
combination of fairly hard articles, you could call them chapters,
where you might need to know a good deal about Kant's second Critique
in order to get it right next to an article which is an invitation to
consider why we care for people with intellectual disabilities. And
they are meant to work together in a way that pulls people who are not
educated philosophically or theologically into the world of theology.
WK: I’m curious about one part of your readership, American
Evangelicals. Considering that Evangelicals have produced some of the
realities that you have spent a career resisting, how do you receive
Evangelicals as readers?
Stanley Hauerwas on his
SH: I think that what Evangelicals bring is Jesus and energy.
And insofar as evangelicals still have a high regard for Scripture and
in particular the Christological center, then we are on the same side;
and that they bring to that a desire to tell other people of the joy
that this has given their lives is a great good that I'm all for. I try
to help them recover a sense of the church that they don't have
because they think that the church is a secondary reality to their
immediate relationship with God, which is why they so often times they
have no way to resist Protestant liberal alternatives. So, I'm very
pleased that Evangelicals can recognize some continuity between what I
represent and what they represent, but it's going to change them.
WK: So, is there a sense in which you appreciate the gifts of
Jesus and energy but you don't want them to stay there?
SH: Yes [laughs]. But by ‘I don't want them to stay there’ I
mean I don't want them to continue to presume that they have a
relationship with God that is unmediated. That's the crucial issue that
I see. And that one of the problems with Evangelicals, particularly as
it's taken the form of church growth, is the presumption that you get
to make God up, you get to make Christianity up. It’s as though they
don't receive Christianity through the gifts of 2,000 years that have
made them possible. I think that too often, Evangelicals have the New
Testament and now. But, tradition matters and I'm a catholic in this
regard. Of course, a tradition is always subject to error, but the way
you know error is through the tradition.
WK: You’ve just written a short piece on greed, and I was
wondering, given that our economic downturn is often attributed to
greed that grew out of control, if we could talk about that.
WK: Greed seems to be one of those vices that we have a hard
time naming. People seem confident that they can tell you what, say,
lying entails and one will hear sermons about lust, but not greed, even
though it was one of the seven deadly sins. So, what is greed?
SH: More. It is the need to have more and the more you have,
the more you need in order to secure the more you have. That’s greed.
And it’s a power that possesses us. I say, you know, we may have
always been greedy, but we are the first society as far as I can see
that has institutionalized it as a necessity in order to be allegedly
or nearly just, because you need to be greedy to produce more so that
you’ll have more to distribute.
[Alasdair] MacIntyre has this great article on Aristotle's
understanding of temperance. He says:
“…from an Aristotelian standpoint, it can never be right to weigh
preferences in such a way that everybody counts for one and nobody for
more than one. And it would be a fundamental mistake to try to
maximize the satisfaction of the preferences of all the members of a
Now that is at the heart of modern economic rationality.
WK: What do you take that to be saying?
SH: He's challenging the presumption that is at the heart of
modern economic rationality—that an economy is good if it tries to
maximize the satisfactions of the preferences of a given society. He's
challenging the presumption that is at the heart of modern economic
rationality—that an economy is good if it tries to maximize the
satisfactions of the preferences of a given society. He’s saying that
from an Aristotelian perspective, it’s wrong to give the same weight to
the desires of the vicious as to the desires of the virtuous person,
but that modern democratic societies do this. He goes on to say that
in such societies, temperance isn’t generally seen as a virtue anymore.
Of course, people will talk about moderation when it comes to health,
longevity or to be attractive, or to support career advancement, but
this is different than seeing temperance as necessary to making the
kind of choices that make up a good life.
Now I take it, that, just to begin to think about how temperance as a
virtue that would challenge the very presumptions of a capitalist
social order seems to me a very radical perspective and that is one
that I share. What we presume is that you must have constant economic
growth in the hope that the more shares that you produce will be able
to be distributed to those with less shares, all without the rich
losing their shares. Now, exactly what Macintyre is challenging and
what I would want to challenge is that in order to name the goods that
are appropriate to a well-lived life, you might need to think about
having an economic order that is not constantly expanding in terms of
simply producing to produce. So I think that those are exactly the
kinds of issues that should be at the heart of the church's social
WK: So you think that temperance is an important virtue and
one that we don’t really think about because it runs contrary to how
our economy is set up?
SH: Classically, temperance is the disciplined formation of
desire to want that which is good in a manner that my want is not more
determinative of the good than the good itself. When you talk about
temperance, the immediate language you are tempted to use is “how do I
control my desires?” so it sounds like the task of restraining desire,
rather than being an appropriate desire. Temperance is a desire that
is appropriate to that which is rightly desired, namely, a good helps
me discover what it means to be a human being.
WK: So, the greed operative in our society is just a function
of desires that are not sufficiently shaped?
SH: Yes, I think it is. When I said it was just the need for
more, “more” is just an empty cipher that you get to fill in, so
there’s no good to want and that’s the problem.
WK: It seems like there is a deep fear that underlies our
desire for more.
SH: Oh, there is. I think it is a fear that is fueled by a
fundamental distrust of ourselves and one another. So, I have to
secure my existence because there is no one that I can trust to do
this. It’s a deep fear.
When people talk about economics, immediately one assumes that
distribution is the primary issue, and I suggest that it is helpful to
start by asking what sort of people we have to be to sustain an
economic life that is not overwhelmed by greed. And that’s a different
way into the conversation.
WK: So for someone who is in college or starting a career and
says, “I want a comfortable life and if the money is there to be made,
it might as well be made by me,” how do get through to such a person?
Why shouldn’t I want that?
SH: Because it's not good for you. Because it makes you less
than what you were created to be. That's what you say.
WK: So, to the inequitable distribution of wealth in our
society, which seems to be worsening, you say to people that the desire
for more is not good for you?
SH: Well, that’s not how desires are formed, but, yes. It’s
not good for you. It's killing you. That's right. That's exactly what
WK: How does it kill someone?
SH: It gives them no way to know if they are ever happy,
comfortable perhaps, but no way to know if they are living a good life
and that can be terrifying. Now, they will usually tell you that it is
not the money itself but the skills acquired and necessary to making
money that is satisfying, and I understand that. But, I think that
often one finds oneself lost in a way of life with no purpose that is
intrinsic to the activities themselves. It’s not to say that these
people do not have virtues or that the work they do cannot produce
them, but often the virtues necessary to chase after wealth, if they
don’t include say justice, prudence or temperance, are disordered. And
disordered virtues can kill you.
WK: Do you have suggestions that might help us become such
people, people not overwhelmed by greed?
SH: In my Introduction to Christian Ethics course, I often
say that one of the first things we can do is to tell other people what
we make. The difficulty with telling one another what we make is not
for someone like me who makes a lot of money; the problem is for those
in the church who don't make a lot of money since now what you make
seems so important for who you are. But I think that it's perfectly
appropriate for people in the church to tell one another what we make
and then to be told, "We need your money for these other people that
aren't making so much." So I'm for just starting with the declaration
of income. That's not a bad place to begin.
Then, of course, as a Christian, I think that a practice like the
Eucharist is a practice of abundance, where we discover that the God
who feeds us cannot be used up, and hopefully this helps the church
learn that our lives should picture this kind of generosity. I also
think that if we could find markets that are smaller, I think it would
be helpful. I mean, I like farmers’ markets and that sort of thing.
WK: For what reason?
SH: The laborer’s product is not separated from the laborer,
so there is less alienation and it becomes important for the buyer not
only what you buy but also the people who produced it.
WK: It makes the process less anonymous, more relational?
SH: Yes. So, how to find smaller markets where the market
doesn’t determine relationships, but serves relationships, is an
WK: One still has some sort of relationship, some sort of
relating, when one shops at one of the big box stores, a Target or
Walmart, and proceeds to the cash register, right?
SH: Sure, it’s just not that interesting or determinative,
and their relationship to the service they are providing is alienating
in a way. People in such settings can be quite humane, and you are
happy when they are, but nonetheless it is very disconnected from who
they are. One may start to get to know a person in such a setting, but
that is in spite of not because of the setting, so I think smaller
markets where there is a deeper connection between labor and product
might also be a place to start.
Dan Morehead is a former student of Dr. Hauerwas, an
independent scholar and writer.