Witnessing To The Truth

From “The Peaceable Kingdom:
A Primer in Christian Ethics”
by Stanley Hauerwas, b. 1940

There is no more powerful indication of religion’s superfluity in our culture than Christianity’s acceptance of itself as one “religion” among others. It reveals an assumption of the priority of so-called “faith” over particular convictions of the Christian faith, e. g., the nature of God, the significance of Jesus, the eschatological fate of the world. As a result, Christianity, both in practice and in its sophisticated theological expression, is reduced to an interpretation of humanity’s need for meaning or some other provocative anthropological claim. I do not mean to deny that every theology involves anthropological claims, yet theology today has become particularly adept at beginning and ending there. More than before we substantiate the claim of (Ludwig) Feuerbach (1804-1872) that religion is but the projection of mankind’s hopes written large.

Those concerned with the ethical significance of Christian convictions are particularly prone to this kind of anthropologising of Christian theology. Acting on a suspicion that what is left of Christianity is its ethical component, they abstract the ethical from the religious in an effort to make Christianity relevant. Though such a strategy often appears theologically and ethically radical, it usually results in a restatement of the prevailing humanism in the name of religion.

Behind this form of modern religious apologetics lies the assumption that religion can have no hold on us unless it functions to underwrite our desires and ensure our ultimate happiness. There is, of course, a proper sense in which this is true since the conviction that the kingdom wrought in Christ is meant to fulfil our deepest and strongest desires is at the heart of Christianity. Insofar as we are God’s creatures his redemption is certainly the fulfilment of the natural. But unfortunately, we quickly trivialise this insight by seeking fulfilment without recognising that in order to know and worship God rightly we must have our desires transformed. They must be transformed, we must be trained to desire rightly, because, bent by sin, we have little sense of what it is that we should rightly want.

A no less serious result of this kind of reductionistic theology is the loss of a clear claim to the truth of Christian convictions. For there is no stronger indication of the modem religious situation than that we no longer know how or what it would mean to claim religious convictions as true. The less sure we are of the truth of our religious convictions, the more we consider them immune from public scrutiny. But in the process, we lose what seems essential to their being true, namely that we be willing to commend them to others. For the necessity of witness is not accidental to Christian convictions; it is at the heart of the Christian life. Those convictions cannot be learned except as they are attested to and exemplified by others. The essential Christian witness is neither to personal experience, nor to what Christianity means to “me,” but to the truth that this world is the creation of a good God who is known through the people of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Without such a witness we only abandon the world to the violence derived from the lies that devour our lives. There is, therefore, an inherent relation between truthfulness and peacefulness because peace comes only as we are transformed by a truth that gives us the confidence to rely on nothing else than its witness. A “truth” that must use violence to secure its existence cannot be truth. Rather the truth that moves the sun and the stars is that which is so sure in its power that it refuses to compel compliance or agreement by force. Rather it relies on the slow, hard, and seemingly unrewarding work of witness, a witness which it trusts to prevail even in a fragmented and violent world.

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