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Agency according to Hegel

What does it mean to be a free individual? Conceptualized negatively, freedom is the ability to do whatever one desires, the absence of impediments. For the libertarian, freedom is conceptualized entirely different. We are only free when we are released from the desires that control us. Hegel, on the other hand, understands freedom entirely different. For him, one is free only when the self is in harmony with society. According to Hegel, the human individual is free insofar as the self has internalized and absorbed the culture of his or her time; including the mores, traditions and ideals of society. In other words, the more one is identical with the society in which he or she lives, the more he or she is free. In this manner individual freedom is not defended in opposition to society—as with an abstract, negative ideal of freedom—but is included within it.

There is, therefore, no such thing as freedom apart from a good society. If one were to live in a corrupt State the individual would never be free to conform to the fabric of society. Thus, “[I]ndividual freedom is valuable to the extent that it permits one to engage in and identify with a common, public life” (Richard Lichtman, An Outline of Marxism, pp. 28-9). Simply put, there must be harmony between the individual and the collective; congruency between the oikos and the polis.

An abrupt quagmire, however, surfaces when we begin addressing the concept of agency in resisting counterfeit States. Clearly, following Hegel, an individual is no longer free when he or she is no longer able to conform, in good conscious, to the spirit of the age. The trouble with Hegel becomes conceiving “just how one gets outside the state, absorbs it, and transforms it” (p. 26).

Reconciling this impasse is not limited solely to Hegel but is encountered in most critical thought. We encounter the same form of deadlock, for instance, with Hauerwas: “our freedom is dependent on our having a narrative that gives us skills of interpretation sufficient to allow us to make our past our own through incorporation into our ongoing history” (Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character, p. 147). For Hauerwas, freedom is the ability to recognize oneself in a community and narrative that the self has learned to make one’s own. But this freedom is particularly dangerous in societies that inhabit the worst forms of evil; the same difficulty that befell Hegel’s understanding of the State.

This parallel between Hauerwas and Hegel is, however, not an anomaly. Although Hauerwas fails to acknowledge his dependence on the modern intellectual traditions of Hegel and Marx, Jeffrey Stout has not overlooked this significant connection (Democracy and Tradition, p. 138). In fact, Stout looks to Hegel himself to find a way out of this Gordian knot: the Hegelian paradigm of discursive, dialectical exchange where individuals are able to articulate their deepest commitments in reasonable argumentation, thus enabling citizens to modify situations they inhaibt. In this instance, at least, we can look to the same philosopher who inflicted the wound of incommensurability as the one who can potentially cure it.

Pacifism in the Legacy of Hauerwas

Since this essay is regarding peace in the legacy of Hauerwas it should be pointed out immediately to those unfamiliar with Hauerwas that his theology is substantially oriented towards the critique of liberalism contrasted against the alternative that non-Constantinian Christianity provides. With that said, it quickly becomes apparent that Hauerwas thinks “justice” is a bad idea. Ever since the church and state became intertwined in 313 CE with the conversion of Constantine the temptation of Christianity has been to show its relevance by imitating the social order and concerns of the state with a vaguely religious tint. This has led to the conflation of humanism with the gospel. It is now generally assumed that what it means to be a Christian is simply an elaboration on what it means to be a human. This is most visibly seen in the appropriation of secular justice by Christianity. In this instance justice is defined independent of our knowledge of God and applied to Christianity. At most, the agenda of Christian ethicists has been to justify liberal systems of justice using faith convictions, only to forget those convictions after such a theory of justice has been accepted.

This is done by Christians who fear social marginalization. Not wanting to sound overly sectarian, they articulate an ostensibly neutral conception of justice that any intelligent person, regardless of beliefs or nationality, could agree on. The error of such an agenda is that no unbiased perspective exists. Rather, our worldview is always a product of how we are culturally situated in time (e.g., no children or disabled persons are present at Rawls’ “original bargaining game” which would put into question our values of self-sufficiency and autonomy). The outcome of such disinterested objective Rawlsian justice, subsequent universal rights included, is that anyone who threatens a particular concept of justice is liable to be corrected by force. Liberal conceptions of justice according to Hauerwas diverge from how Christians assume others should be cared for and treated. Such an appropriation also avoids confronting the exercise of power and domination by the nation-state.

Although Christians may agree and cooperate with others on many issues, Hauerwas recognizes that we must be clear about our commitments up front and the possibility that we may not always be allies. We embrace that there are traces of truth in all of humanity since we affirm a theology of creation and incarnation, but God’s fuller revelation comes through his Word and his people. This means that we will always be tempted to misdescribe the world apart from his Spirit.

One of the significant ways in which Christianity is an alternative to liberal politics is that whereas the latter’s self-given task is to eliminate suffering, God promises to redeem it. Ever since the Enlightenment suffering in itself has lost all social meaning. Today it only merits sympathy and the promise to end to it. Implicit within this attitude is a declaration to cease suffering by means of violence against all who cause suffering and against all whose suffering cannot be cured. As an alternative, God neither promises to cease or explain suffering but to redeem it. With this assurance we are free to vulnerably participate in God’s redemptive work rather than trying to make sure that history turns out right by any means necessary. In this sense the fetishization of control and results stands in sharp contrast with the enduring hope and patience of Christians.

It is often assumed and expected that Christians make a difference in the world by participating in its organizations and power structures, but Hauerwas wonders if this has anything to do with Jesus’ refusal of violence and worldly influence. It is apparent after all, with the perspective of Christianity’s history in mind, that we are guilty of committing a lot of wrongs in the name of “responsibility.”

Hauerwas believes that this kind of virtue only comes through training in a community that renounces mastery, control and speed. Instead of anxiously trying to fix things in God’s name we can live as peaceful and humble people in anticipation of God’s eschatological promise that everything will be redeemed in the end. Of course this sort of “doing nothing” rests on the presumption that God exists and Christian convictions actually matter. In this case, peacefulness is faithfulness in itself rather than merely a means to a greater good.  

In a world where violence is the norm and peace is the exception Christianity must embody political alternatives that the world would not be capable of imagining otherwise. Pacifists are often slandered with quandary situations such as “What would you do if…?” that are meant to expose the unworkability of peace in the real world. But this sort of challenge exposes the self-prophetic nature of those asking such questions because they deterministically presume that violence is the only answer. Therefore, in order to provide practical responses for these situational ethicists Christians must have visible expressions of peaceful coexistence that they are able to point to lest the world give in to cynicism and despair over having no alternatives.

The alternative polis that Hauerwas repeatedly points to throughout many of his works is the L’Arche communities begun by Jean Vanier. The fact that Hauerwas frequently references alternative examples in contrast to humanistic society, such as L’Arche, exemplifies the fact that Christianity is more about description and story telling than explanation. It has always been at its best after all when radically attempting to incarnate the kingdom of God. Despite the degradation of the co-opted Constantinian church today Christianity is never without faithful witness somewhere. It is in this sense that Hauerwas believes the church serves the world (despite the fidestic, tribalist, and sectarian criticisms he receives). He emphasizes the significance of the church because the world is desperately in need of some shining examples. But in a world of normalized violence it is inevitable that Christians who pursue peace will be identified as fanatics.

Perhaps the most noteworthy example of how Christians have faithfully resisted the world’s temptation to gain significance throughout time has been martyrdom. The importance of martyrdom, according to Hauerwas, is that God determines its meaning rather the world. Thus, because we no longer fear that the meaning of our lives is given by the world, remembering the stories of those who gave their life for Christ shapes us to be people who are committed to the slow, difficult practice of peace, patience and humility. And by committing the “socially insignificant” martyrs to memory we are capable of imagining and embodying a different way to sojourn through an alien culture as a set-apart people.

In addition to “what if…” statements another cynical test directed at pacifism is that it is an easy or lazy way out of difficult and complex situations. It should be noted that pacifism is not to be confused with passivism. Rather, peace-seeking and reconciliation is a slow, difficult journey that does not force others to bend to our will. Furthermore, if we are to adequately offer an alternative to the violence and impatience of the world then we require a place to take time and build trust with others; a process which requires vulnerability and the exposing of our wounds.

The “timefulness” and “placedness” that trust requires at a place like L’Arche where other people have a claim on our lives is profoundly inconvenient to those who are steadfast in emancipating themselves from commitments. That is why patience is predicated upon hope which urges us to work towards a world that could be rather than settle for what it is. Christians must also be truthful because peacefulness can easily become a cover for subtly different tactics, such as manipulation. Hence, Hauerwas refuses to be cordial if it only covers up conflicts. It is for these reasons that Christianity requires training by an ecclesia in order to reshape our imaginations that have been dulled over time by the persistent claim that violence is the only option. It is only by embodying an alternative social reality of peace that we will be able to show the world a different way that it would otherwise not know.

Unleashing the Scriptures

Hauerwas, in Unleashing the Scriptures, offers the bold statement that urging Christians to read the Bible on their own is a bad idea.

The Bible is not and should not be accessible to merely anyone, but rather it should only be made available to those who have undergone the hard discipline of existing as part of God’s people (9)

His point is that without transformation by proper training we are not bible1capable of reading the Bible correctly because we will read it with the hermeneutics of liberalism. In other words, an individual will read the Bible as he or she wishes. Therefore, a Christian must be a member of an interpretive community, the people of God, in order to authentically interpret the word of God. In contrast to the reformation doctrine of sola scriptura which assumes Scripture is accessible to all, Hauerwas – allegedly representing the catholic church – believes that without initiation into the Holy Tradition we will be agents of nationalistic ideologies. The outcome is the continuation of hegemonic cultural religion.

It is a common strategy of Hauerwas across his writings to unduly emphasize that theology requires training from a master. It seems that this must be held in balance with making our own judgments and questioning long-held beliefs as well. Not for the purpose of abandoning them but to imaginatively investigate them and test to see if they ring true and worthy of worship. This is particularly the case when the people of God, the agents of salvation, become part of the problem. I do not think we necessarily have to take these at odds with one another either because critical thinking requires training from a source beyond ourselves (for further elaboration see Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 31).

The limits of Natural Theology

stanley-hauerwasFollowing up his book With the Grain of the Universe, Hauerwas adds a few more comments to his take on natural theology in Performing the Faith. In his previous work he forgot to reference his deep indebtedness to Preller’s Divine Science and the Science of God. The gist of Hauerwas’ appreciation of Preller is how the man is able to go on believing when our beliefs cannot ultimately be proved. Even if God can be proved, ontologically for instance, we are still unable to prove things about the character of God, which happens to be the most important thing in need of proof. Therefore, natural theology is unintelligible apart from a full doctrine of God. God is known by revelation in other words, not by nature and reason. Even though God cannot be proved, or at least it is shown to be unhelpful to do so here, that does not mean that speech about God, or making claims about the way things are, is unbeneficial. At this juncture Hauerwas moves onto Wittgenstein to show how our speech is action that makes connections between the contingencies of our existence that reveals its beauty; meaning philosophical inquiry has no end. For Wittgenstein, comprehending the world ultimately fails because theories dull us to the wonder of the particulars in life. Our explanations only go so far and we are left ‘wondering’ at a world that exists with or without explanations. Since we must learn a language prior to reflecting on the world, pride hinders our ability to see the world correctly because in doing so we deny our dependence and contingency on others who give us speech. Therefore, for reality to be known rightly the agent viewing nature must at least be transformed in a certain way. Hence, why ‘God talk’ is still beneficial even when it cannot ultimately be proved true.