I’m increasingly suspicious that Hauerwas’s “ambiguous ecclesial position,” which he obviously knows is a problem for him, means more theological trouble for him than he realizes. Take this quote, from his response to Stout’s Democracy & Tradition in Performing the Faith:
We betray the very gospel we are to serve if we have “positions” that become substitutes for what the church is about. Put in Catholic terms that Yoder would not have liked (though John often said his only problem with bishops is that they did and do not act like bishops), the bishop remains the theological heart of the church. That is why theologians are subordinate to the bishop and should be disciplined by the bishop if our work threatens the unity and holiness of the church. (233)
This amounts to a total reversal of what it means for a theologian to be accountable to the church—a matter of subordination to the community’s most powerful member, and not, as for Yoder, “subordination” to the weakest. Does he think it’s possible to make this kind of claim while leaving the bulk of his dependence on Yoder intact? Does he think that Yoder’s refusal of a clergy/laity distinction, or of any fixed hierarchy in the community, is finally unrelated to Yoder’s pacifism, his ecclesiology, his Christology?
One of the standard critiques of Rawlsian liberalism is that its supposed neutrality with respect to comprehensive visions of the good, especially religious visions, masks a bias that rules out a priori certain religious ways of thinking about political questions. This critique usually goes hand in hand with the conviction that all forms of rationality are situated in a tradition and only “make sense” within that tradition, so pretending to a tradition-neutral form of rationality could only ever be a smokescreen.
Jeffrey Stout’s way of dealing with this critique–which I find extremely refreshing–is to bite the bullet: he grants the latter point, arguing that democracy is also a tradition, and as such, is not simply neutral with respect to other traditions. Democracy is not just empty space within which Christianity, Deism, and Emersonian perfectionism can equally flourish; it disciplines and shapes the other forms of life it circumscribes, even while it encourages them to remain true to themselves.
As one can imagine, this is not much consolation to the “radical Christian,” who still perceives this as an effort to subjugate Christian rationality to the rationality of the state. But it should be consoling; it should be something Christians embrace. For one thing, it’s not a matter of subjugation but rather of conversation. Stout’s democracy, which he takes to be expressive of an actual lived tradition with deep roots in American culture, is entirely open to being critiqued and developed by religious constituents for religious reasons, as its deep dependence on Christian concepts easily shows. Democracy and its constituent comprehensive traditions are mutually conditioning. And moreover, Stout’s democracy makes no claim to be comprehensive in the way religious traditions usually do. It dictates no all-determining master narrative. Its challenges to particular traditions are local and specific. To theologians: don’t imitate other discourses, be true to your own rationality; don’t encourage resentment toward the broader order, but critical constructive engagement and open cooperation; don’t set yourselves up as hierarchs or give others reason to do so; leave space for dissent. Encourage gratitude to one’s forebears but not absolute obedience, hope that political solutions to present problems can be found, love for even those around us who disagree with us at a fundamental level.
What’s here for Christians to oppose? Most of it, in fact, is partly derivable from things Christianity bequeathed democracy to begin with! Surely one can and must find serious questions to ask, both about Stout’s vision (how does this tradition deal with being yoked to coercive power?) and about its instantiation (has it not all been transformed by another logic, that of the market?)—but democracy encourages those questions, even, as part of its non-neutrality towards other traditions, demands them. And so democracy demands of “radical Christianity” the genuinely critical voice that it pretends to offer in calling democratic order the anti-Christ, which is actually far too easy, and far too closed off to further conversation.