May 12, 2014 / Theology
Christians in the millennial generation are turning toward tradition, but deep tensions exist that may ultimately undermine this embrace.
As students across the country converge upon college and university campuses to embark upon another year of education, few of them will realize that they are doing exactly what the powers-that-be want them to do. Universities in the United States, especially research universities, regularly advertise themselves as places of progressive and liberal perspectives whose faculty work on the cutting edge of development. They tout themselves as sanctuaries for the unfettered pursuit of knowledge, and market themselves with the claim that they will equip students with the tools to bring about a better tomorrow by teaching them to be free-thinkers and rational-actors.
In contrast to all this self-promoting fanfare, however, theologian Stanley Hauerwas believes that they are actually more set on maintaining the status quo. In fact, Hauerwas wonders whether our modern universities are really capable of doing anything other than establishing and propagating the reign of state and market rule for a new generation. With this in mind, Dan Rhodes of The Other Journal sat down with Professor Hauerwas to discuss the possibility of a distinctively Christian approach to education and the ways in which it might challenge the university as we know it.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Given that this issue of The Other Journal is focusing on the topic of education, I want to start by asking you to speak about some of the things you mention in your recently published book The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God.1 At one point in the book you suggest that “The university is the great institution of legitimation in modernity whose task is to convince us that the way things are is the way they have to be.”2 Could you please elaborate on this very provocative statement?
Stanley Hauerwas (SH): Yes, though I think it differs from discipline to discipline. The very divisions in which theses disciplines are now configured reinforces the presumption that the role of education is to maintain the status quo. For example, the idea that you can separate economics from politics and create departments of economics and departments of political science that are separate from one another reinforces the presumption that economic relations are fundamentally relationships of exchange that don’t have anything to do with questions of the overarching and common good. Hence, this structure never leads you to the idea that human and social relations—whether they be of the economic or political sort—don’t have to function the way that they currently do. For example, the explanatory models for understanding relationships between nations and foreign policy in terms of balances of power write into those narratives the necessity of war so that you don’t even know how to begin to think of a world in which war is not a necessity.
TOJ: Another point you make in your book, tied closely to this last one, is the way in which the modern university serves the American state—would you see that, as you have already emphasized, primarily in regard to economics and war or are there other ways that the university serves the state as well?
SH: I don’t think it’s primarily in regard to economics and political science. More so, I think it has to do with the priority of science and the scientific disciplines as having overriding veridical (or truth-bearing) status. There’s a presumed importance given to these disciplines because in a sense we tend to think of them as “really true” in a way the humanities are not. I think that this veridical status has much to do with reinforcing the idea that the legitimacy of the modern state resides in its responsibility to keep people safe from death just as the sciences seem to offer a way to postpone the inevitable and control the uncontrollable.
You see this exemplified in how the modern university depends so much on medical schools for its legitimacy. For instance, one thing people often associate with Duke University, and which Duke works very hard to communicate, is that “Duke is the best medical center in the Southeast”—meaning, you can go there and not die. That’s a justifying of the state!
TOJ : If the modern university is linked directly to the life and legitimacy of the state, how might you see it as tied to liberalism and the liberal project more generally? Particularly, say, with reference to the chapter in your book where you critique somebody like Stanley Fish and his understanding of the university?
SH: Well, Stanley, of course, will deny he’s a liberal. To be fair to him, he doesn’t think liberalism is a position one can inhabit.
But I think it’s tied to liberalism insofar as liberalism tries to be a position that is timeless and, therefore, you don’t need a memory to inhabit it. As a result, my classic example is how we try to deal with the problem of being a slave nation. After hundreds of years of slavery and segregation, on the heels of the civil rights movements, African Americans now have the legal protection to move to the suburbs, have two cars, three TVs, and not to have to worry about Jews moving into the neighborhood! It’s all an attempt to forget the past in order to let things remain as they are. This allows white folks to quickly move on by saying, “What was a little slavery between friends?” The upshot is that we don’t have to come to terms with the continuing challenge of the injustices embedded in the memories we fear threaten to bring future violence.
TOJ : A question that I was going to hold for later but that seems appropriate to bring up now, given what you have just said about the lack of memory in both the modern university and society at large, is, why do American universities, while touting themselves as global institutions that reach out to all different types of people, still struggle to genuinely incorporate both minorities and the impoverished into their institutional life?
SH: Inclusivity is a way of forgetfulness. I often suggest that egalitarianism is the opium of the masses. This is simply because inclusivity is often nothing other than the direct attempt to eradicate difference. Therefore, I think that the presumption of inclusivity is exactly a way of preventing the conflicts we need to have in order to have healthy communities. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I just think that’s the way it works.
TOJ: In a sense, it is a way of excluding the type of people who don’t fit into the type of inclusivity we’re looking for.
SH: Right. Exactly. I mean tolerance and inclusivity are always strategies of the powerful!
TOJ: You suggest in your book that the goal of discipleship within the Christian community differs from the goal of education within the modern university. Could you please elaborate on how these goals differ and speak to how the goal of discipleship might, as you say, “Put our children at risk”?
SH: Well, take something as simple as prayer before class. In the modern university you cannot pray before class because it would be coercive. I certainly wouldn’t do it. But in a university shaped by the narratives and practices that come from the Christian tradition, I would think it would make a good deal of sense to pray before class. This practice, I believe, would shape the knowledges that constitute that class. Furthermore, the questions of the class I think would change. Rather than asking, “What would be good for an American foreign policy?” We might well ask, “What would be the common good of Christians in the United States being in unity with Christians in Basra?” And as a result we might have to reconsider how should we think about and live our lives.”
So it changes the structure of the knowledges and the very way you go about thinking. It doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be able to learn from some of the knowledges that are produced in the political science department of the modern university, but it does mean that you would also have to think very hard in different ways than the normalizing discourses that occur in those departments.
TOJ: So, in some ways, the discourse in a school aimed at making disciples would encourage and necessitate conversations between theology and say, economics, biology, and public policy or political science. An institution hoping to train Christian disciples would have to engage in cross-disciplinary conversations.
SH: Not only that, it would change the disciplines themselves. And as I suggested in The State of the University, this would mean doing the unthinkable. Namely, I began to gesture to the idea that there might be something called “Christian economics,” or that there might be something called “Christian history.” I really do think it’s not just that theology needs to have a place in the university, but that the church has to have confidence enough in our practices to change the very notion of what knowledge looks like in economics, political science, and possibly, even biology.
Think about a word like nature. The term nature tempts you to forget that from a Christian perspective nature is always understood as created not un-created or eternal. I want to argue metaphysically that creation is a more determinative category than nature. And therefore, if biology is always a reductive explanatory mode that thinks efficient causality is all you can or need to use to think about the world in which we find ourselves, then I think we’ve got a serious theological problem.
TOJ: In saying that, as is the case with much of what you write, a certain group is going to respond to that comment with a lot of excitement, hearing it as if you are saying that it is time again for theology to play the role of the queen of the sciences within the academy. It will simply scare the hell out of some people!
SH: Right, right, it sounds like fundamentalism.
TOJ: So can you clarify the way in which you’re both saying and not saying that theology should be reinstated as the queen of the sciences?
SH: Well, in saying it, I am also saying that I don’t know what it will look like, so it is really an attempt to suggest the kind of thinking that we need to begin, because I don’t know. I’m a modern university person. Hell, I learned a hell of a lot from modern economics, modern history, and so on, and so it’s not clear to me how they might be changed. But I do think those disciplines are shaped in service to the state and the modern epistemes which shape those expectations. So it’s just a way to lay down a challenge rather than a particular structure or schematization.
TOJ: How do you think that might look similar and different to a Christian liberal arts college such as those that make up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU)? One thing that you say in your book is that these aren’t really “Christian” colleges at all.
SH: Well, I’m very sympathetic with what these colleges are trying to do; they’re just not doing it very well. And they’re not doing it very well because they are insufficiently ecclesial. For example, they have accepted far too easily the modern public/private distinction, and therefore, it doesn’t occur to them that the question about whether Christians can rightly go to war might change how they should think across the board. So that’s a lot of my problem with these colleges. But hell, they’re a resource to begin to think through some of these issues, so I don’t want to dump all over them. I think they have possibilities that might be quite intellectually important for the future. I mean, I’m all for institutions that are out of power and therefore might have the freedom to think more courageously and creatively than those of us who are in power.
Here’s an example. Some years ago I was asked to speak at Indiana College in Indiana, Pennsylvania. It’s a state school, but it’s completely off the radar screen of prestige and power that go along with being a top-tier research institution. I was talking to a historian there who taught American History, and I said, “Tell me how you structure your class.” Shockingly, he said, “I do it on car models.” I said, “What?” He said, “Well, I teach it in terms of changing designs of cars in the twentieth century; it’s a way to help students get a sense of what was going on.” I thought, “You know he probably wouldn’t make it at Yale, but this is really interesting because of the way it restructured the normal discipline of the knowledge of American History.” And he could do that, he was free to do that, precisely because he knew that he would never make it at Yale. I thought this is really good.
TOJ : A lot of these institutions—I’m thinking of Taylor University, Wheaton College, the Biblical Institute of Los Angeles (Biola), or other places like them—were started to some degree as missionary schools. It seems that part of what you’re saying is that their missionary emphasis, to some extent, has been both positive and problematic, but that with all of the possibilities they offer for rethinking the disciplines in genuinely Christian ways, they tend to err when they forget the church. Is that what you mean when you say they are insufficiently ecclesial?
SH: It can be, but it’s also because they tend to be so propositionally oriented, that is, they are oriented by a strong articulation and devotion to personal Christian belief. Often people don’t quite get that when Christianity got turned into a religion of personal beliefs it found itself lodged within a very modernist mode. That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m trying to help us recover from.
TOJ: One of the most important points you make in your book echoes something that you’ve been saying throughout your academic career, namely, that you cannot easily divorce what you know from how you come to know it. Can you explain how this idea might help Christians better reflect on the process of education? How might it change the way we think about what Christian education looks like?
SH: Well, I don’t think it means engaged learning!—where you say, “Go work with the poor and come back and reflect on it.” I’m all for sending students out to work with the poor, I just think that you’ve got to know what you’re doing before you do it. The idea that you can later reflect on what you’ve previously done already suggests a divorce between thought and practice that I worry about. I think it is absolutely crucial that we are serious in terms of the formation of students in these knowledges, and this may well make them extremely dysfunctional and unsuccessful. We have to create dysfunctional graduates, that is, dysfunctional with regard to the fact that they will have been formed in such a way so as to not easily fit into the modern economic and institutional projects of the state. Education itself is a practice concerning the formation of lives, and that’s what we’ve got to get very serious about.
TOJ: Tied to that, in your work, and particularly in your current reflections on education, you spend a lot of time talking about tradition and traditioning as integral to one’s education. But you also write quite a bit on the imagination as a means of recapturing for Christianity an avant-garde response to our current situations. Those two things seem to be at odds to many people. Can you help us understand how in education we might bring both tradition and imagination together?
SH: I think it has to do with language. To “be traditioned” is to learn how to talk well as part of an inherited grammar that is honed out generation after generation to shape a way of seeing the world. And so, like my point earlier about creation, that’s learning to speak well as part of being traditioned. When we speak of nature as creation, we recognize in saying this that it had to have a beginning. This then is to say that all that is, is by gift, and not that there isn’t a sense of beginning to it as is often communicated in the biological term nature. And then, how to be a competent speaker within a tradition of speaking that requires constant re-appropriation and renewal is what imagination is about, and therefore, it’s materially based. Words are material in that they shape how we come to see. I think imagination is the means by which we come to see.
TOJ: Lastly, our fall issue of TOJ is going to be on the upcoming presidential election. I want to ask you to segue into that for us by getting your thoughts on what issues Christians should be thinking about and focusing on as we enter this election season?
SH: I’d say, simply not to overestimate the importance of elections!
TOJ: I guess I set myself up for that one.
SH: People forget that elections are not democracy. Elections are only the means to try to occasion the debates necessary for the discovery of goods in common that are impossible to be discovered without the debates. Elections themselves can be very coercive practices in which the majority gets to tell the minority what to do. So I think that the overestimation of elections as the defining mark of democracy, and how you even begin to think about democracy, is one of the things I would want to warn Christians about in this time.
I will probably vote this time, but I don’t always do so. I always think of Mike Baxter’s claim, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them!” But because Obama is symbolically such an important development, I’ll probably do what my African American friends tell me to do and vote for Obama. But I do think that the expectations his election encourage may become a deep problem, because there’s no way he can meet them.
TOJ: You’ve also recently written another book, Christianity, Democracy and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations Between a Radical Democrat and a Christian, in which you, a Christian theologian, engage in a lengthy discussion with your coauthor, Rom Coles, a radical democrat. As we end, could you tell us how your thinking on politics has changed over the years? As one who is often classified as a radical sectarian not interested in engaging American politics, can you describe how your current interest in radical democracy is related to the concerns that have animated your work throughout your academic career?
SH: Well, it has a lot to do with Rom. He offers an account of a certain kind of radical democratic practice associated with community organizing in the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and I want to say, yeah, you know, Christians certainly want to look at those kinds of processes and practices as quite hopeful ways for people to discover a politics unavailable anywhere else in American life. I think it’s real politics. I don’t regard national elections as politics; it’s entertainment. And so I don’t sense in myself any change in that regard from the beginning, but Rom being here made it possible to be articulate about it, that’s all.
TOJ: Professor Hauerwas, thank you very much for your time. We always appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and hear what you have to say.
SH: Thank you.
Dan Rhodes is Editor-in-Chief of The Other Journal. He is also Minister of Political and Missional Life at Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the author (with Tim Conder) of Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Baker Books, 2009). He is currently a candidate for the doctorate of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Elizabeth.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Ethics at Duke Divinity School.