Here’s an intriguing passage from an article I’ve posted on the bulletin board about theologian Stanley Hauerwas.
“No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.”
Perhaps the only surer way to enrage an American Christian than threatening to take the Bible out of his hands is threatening to take away his gun (no doubt, Hauerwas would bid both farewell gladly). Hauerwas wants to remove bibles from the pews because he is worried that individualism—the conceit of self-sufficiency—has thoroughly corrupted American Christians’ ability to interpret Scripture.
Lost in the smoke, American Christians “feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read.” This despite centuries, if not millennia, of church teaching that a rule of faith is necessary to preserve orthodox theology. In the end, it was not so much a commitment to Scripture that separated out the world-hating gnostics from those who worshipped God enfleshed, nor raw assent to scriptural authority that separated out the Arians from the Trinitarians. All sides used the Bible to make their arguments. In the end, it was the rule of faith, the pattern handed down across time by the apostles, that enabled Christians to interpret Scripture rightly.
By taking the Bible out of the hands of Christians, Hauerwas hopes to remind them that the Bible can only be read well when it is handed down. Interpretation, where it is faithful, always occurs within a tradition. As G. K. Chesterton would remind us, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead” (Orthodoxy). Hauerwas has no patience for individualism, for it denies the necessity of thinking with those who merely happen to be dead. But even more crucially than Chesterton’s point, individualism forgets that we are indebted to the dead, those whom the tradition gives voice, for collecting, preserving and passing the Bible, as well as its proper interpretation, along to us. We inherit a set canon from those who came before. Without the tradition, we would not have a Bible.
“I do not want students to think for themselves[.] I want them to think like me.”
At the beginning of a course, Hauerwas never fails to tell the classroom, with grinning candor, that his goal is not to make them independent thinkers but instead little Hauerwasians. His point, beyond quite literally desiring to make a peaceable army of minions, is this: we never think for ourselves; we learn to think by submitting ourselves to instruction by others. As John Maynard Keynes warned any would-be freethinkers, “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Individualism pretends as if humans were actually capable of independence, forgetting that we owe our life and our ability to think to others. Insofar as individualism is a refusal to submit to the authority and critiques of others, individualism is a refusal to think.
Together, individualism and liberalism eat away at the conditions and virtues necessary for community, leaving Americans incredibly lonely and without any story by which to make sense of their sad condition. As Jesus warns, when an unclean spirit is driven out of a man, “it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself … And the last state of that person is worse than the first” (Luke 11:24-26). So it is when liberalism drives out religious narratives from our self-understanding. Just as Legion is the name of the myriad demons Jesus drives out in Mark 5, Nationalism is the name of the many demons that have taken residence in American churches.
I get Hauerwas’s point, I really do.
However, I think he is not necessarily describing a problem within most churches, a problem of the parishioners themselves. Oh, it’s there of course, but even in congregations that are filled with people holding their own Bibles, those folks have bought into the narrative of their tradition and are not thinking for themselves as autonomous individuals. They generally toe the party line instead. Having a Bible of one’s own doesn’t change a thing.
Regardless of our rhetoric, I don’t think we can avoid this. Most people will only think for themselves up to a point. They will bind themselves to a story and submit to it. The people who really are thinking for themselves are the ones leaving the church and attaching themselves to other narratives.
Perhaps it is more a problem that our institutions are being led by people making up their own stories rather than submitting to the received tradition?
Or, perhaps the real problem is that our narrative has been found wanting?
Or, perhaps the church has done such a poor job of tending to the health of our narrative that we have been found wanting?