Stanley Hauerwas on the Protestant Reformation

Stanley Hauerwas is in Your FaceAccording to theologian Stanley Hauerwas, the Protestant Reformation is over and the Protestants won.  But the victory has also put Protestants in a state of crisis.  What is a theologian to do?

Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Washington Post:

…Over time, historians have helped us see that there was no one thing the Reformation was about, but that if there was a single characteristic at its heart, it was the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world. That emphasis turned out to be the overriding insight that shaped the work of Vatican II, meaning Catholics have overcome the major thrust of the Reformation.

That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.

But I am still a Protestant, even though I’m not sure I know what I am saying when I say I am a Protestant. I can think of my life only as a living ecumenical movement — I was raised Methodist, taught Lutherans (Augustana College), was overwhelmed by the Catholic world, was deeply influenced by the Mennonites and finally returned to the Methodists at Duke. All of which, of course, means I have ended up worshiping at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, N.C. That I am a theologian more defined by where I went to graduate school than by any ecclesial tradition mirrors changes in the Protestant world — in particular, that the gulfs between the denominations seem only to feel smaller and smaller. And so does the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Read the entire piece here.  Hauerwas also wonders why so many of his students have converted to Catholicism.

The Author’s Corner with David Hollinger

51BOYw8IuNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDavid Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus at the University of California-Berkley. This interview is based on his new book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Protestants Abroad?

DH: In the 1990s while writing books about multiculturalism (Postethnic America, 1995) and about Jewish intellectuals (Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, 1996), it struck me that many missionaries were precursors of the most defensible aspects of multiculturalism and were indeed the Anglo-Protestant equivalents of the cosmopolitan Jewish intellectuals who were famous for having expanded the horizons of American culture. I became annoyed at the patronizing and negative pictures of missionaries that were dominant among scholars and in popular culture. I also remembered, having long since forgotten it, what a powerful, charismatic figure was cut in my church-centered childhood by missionaries on furlough from China and India. As a little boy in Idaho and Washington, these people in their Sunday night lectures made me aware of a world much wider than my own surroundings.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Protestants Abroad?

DH: Deep immersion in foreign cultures led many missionaries to adopt relatively generous attitudes toward the varieties of humankind, causing these missionaries to question as provincial a great variety of Home Truths accepted by most of the folks at home. Between about 1920 and 1970, ecumenically inclined, anti-racist missionaries and their children advocated foreign policies friendly to the self-declared interests of non-white, decolonizing peoples, and promoted domestic initiatives that would later be called “multicultural.”

JF: Why do we need to read Protestants Abroad?

DH: To call attention to an egalitarian theme in the Christian tradition that is much less visible in the current era than it was fifty, seventy-five, and one hundred years ago. To make clear that Americans who have benefited from “white privilege” have done very different things with their color-produced opportunities, and have sometimes fought against the very racism of which they were the beneficiaries. To remind ourselves that contact with people very different from ourselves can liberate us from narrow understandings of what the possibilities for human life actually are.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

DH: I wrote an entire essay (“Church People and Others”) answering exactly this question, posed by the editors of Becoming Historians (edited by James Banner and John Gillis, 2009), which I reprinted as Chapter 8 of my own book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire (2013). The short answer is that I did this because I did not know what I was doing! I thought it would be easier than philosophy and theology, the other fields that most interested me. I was mistaken. It proved to be very demanding, or so it has seemed to me. But what made me stay with it is probably more important than the naïve conceptions of the calling that led me to it. What made me stay with it was the ever-growing awareness that the study of history was a virtually boundless opportunity to explore an infinity of questions about what it meant to be human. The title of the “Church People and Others” piece refers to how I found my way from the society of my youth into the overwhelmingly secular circles of academia.

JF: What is your next project?

DH: Two things are in the works. First, I have been writing a family memoir that I may or may not publish, organized around my father’s difficult path to the ministry and his even more difficult departure from it. It is an account of a “Pennsylvania Dutch” family’s migration from Gettysburg to Saskatchewan, and how my father and his siblings were almost destroyed by the blizzards and by the unwise decisions of my grandfather, who was a leader of the Church of the Brethren and a Brethren in Christ bishop when the two denominations worked together in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, I am making notes for what might be a short, essayistic book (modelled on Postethnic America) about religion and politics in modern America. This book would address some of the problems that follow from the sort of thinking authorized by 2nd Corinthians 10:5 (every thought captive to Christ, etc.), and would attempt to bring some clarity to the widespread discourse about the function of religious ideas and affiliations in contemporary American public life.

JF: Thanks, David!  I can’t wait to read both of those books!

Mark Noll: “Martin Luther Where Are You?


Mark Noll

Writing at LaCroix International, a Catholic website, Villanova theologian Massimo Faggioli argues that the “political legacy of the Reformation” has been “absorbed largely by white evangelicalism, which has given political support and theological justification to Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ platform.”

Midway through the piece Faggioli refers to the work of evangelical historian Mark Noll:

In a sense, if there is an American problem today that is embodied by Donald Trump, there is also a problem of American white Protestantism in Christianity. The German pastor and theologian (and martyr of Nazism), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famously defined the religious culture of the United States in 1939, during and immediately after his time in America, as “Protestantism without Reformation”. 

But European theologians of one century ago are not the only ones who have identified the genetic mutation of Protestantism into what is known today as American evangelicalism. There are also white evangelicals in the United States today who publicly acknowledging this. 

One of their most important intellectuals to do so is Mark Noll. He is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of several seminal books that deal with the intellectual crisis of evangelicalism, the relationship between Christian theology and racism in the Civil War, and many other issues. 

It was during a panel discussion of Noll’s 2005 book (co-authored with Carolyn Nystrom), Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, that I witnessed the most powerful indictment of contemporary American evangelicalism. It took place ten years at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta (Georgia). 

In his response to the panel, Noll emphasized that the problem of the Reformation was no longer concerned with Catholicism. He said the Reformation has succeeded to some extent by making Catholicism more evangelical. But the problem, he said, is that it still not clear if American Protestantism has remained faithful to the Reformation. 

Noll gave a quick description of what continues to pass for American Evangelicalism. It is a declared or undeclared theology of the “prosperity gospel”, an aberrant theology that teaches that God rewards faithfulness with financial blessings. Noll concluded his remarks with the powerful question – “Martin Luther, where are you!?”.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Heather H. Vacek

Heather H. Vacek is Assistant Professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This interview is based on her new book, Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness (Baylor University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Madness?

HV: I’m curious about how religious beliefs shape practice, and in particular, how Christians respond—or fail to respond—to suffering. Working as a student chaplain at a state mental hospital a number of years ago, I realized Christian reactions to mental illness seemed more complicated than, for example, reactions to minor surgery or cancer treatment.
Early in my research about the history of Protestants and mental illness, I began to frame this reality with the question, “Who gets a casserole?” Thinking about typical modern congregations, it appeared individuals and families navigating cancer diagnoses were much more likely to receive support in the form of casseroles than those navigating acute or chronic mental illness. If Protestants profess to care for the well-being of bodies, minds, and souls, why did those living with mental illnesses often receive minimal attention? I found myself curious to know if the different reactions to mental and physical illnesses had always been the case, and so I set out to uncover Protestant responses throughout American history.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Madness?

HV: From the colonial era to the twentieth century, two forces combined to inhibit American Protestants’ ability to fulfill their stated mission of caring for the whole person: 1) shifting professionalization sequestered clerical and lay Christian authority in the private, spiritual sphere, leaving healing—physical and mental—as the responsibility of secular medical professionals, and 2) the social stigma surrounding mental illness deepened, making churchgoers reluctant to engage sufferers lest they be tainted by association.  Both rising confidence in humankind’s ability to solve problems and the persistence of theological notions that connected mental maladies to sin deepened stigma and linked mental maladies with weakness and deviance, making Protestants reticent to respond. 
JF: Why do we need to read Madness?

HV: It can be easy to assume that particular religious convictions generate an expected set of responses. While that is sometimes the case, Madness demonstrates how and why reality is much more complicated. This is a story of how external factors—shifting clerical authority, the rise of medicine, the interaction between religion and medicine, the emergence of state institutions, and social stigma—formed the reactions of religious people in the face of a particular sort of illness. The book’s exploration of Protestants and mental illness demonstrates what appeared—and failed to appear—on clerical and congregational agendas.  It also offers insight about how Christians engaged suffering, particularly seemingly intractable distress. Though largely a historical account, for those who are members of Christian communities, the final chapter thinks theologically and explores hospitality that might be extended in the face of the suffering and stigma that often accompany mental illness.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HV: I suspect I don’t fit the typical mold of how one enters the field of history. My work as a scholar of American religion is a second career. I first trained and worked as an engineer, employment that I loved and found invigorating. Then, after a decade in corporate America, I responded to a call to a different vocation and enrolled in seminary. Afterward, I entered a doctoral program in American Religious History. The object and purpose of my intellectual efforts shifted from the pursuit of corporate profit to exploring the past to shed light on the present. I found the skills I’d gained as an engineer—working to figure out how and why things work the way they do—translated nearly seamlessly into the work of a historian. The work of engineering and the work of history share common methods. In light of a central question, I pose a hypothesis, and then find, explore, and synthesize sources that will help prove or disprove that initial theory. I attend to the evidence, and finally, I hazard a claim about what that data reveals.
JF: What is your next project?

HV: The shape of my next project solidified during an interfaith prayer service following the tragic shootings at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015. As I looked around a chapel filled to the brim with the laments of members of my city from a variety of faith traditions, I was acutely aware of how theological heritage, demographics, and life events shaped experiences of suffering and ways the human and divine intervention that followed were voiced. Participants lamented together, but from distinct vantage points. Even the Christians in the room brought different postures toward that specific horrific event and the suffering it caused.
Given my curiosity about responses to suffering, my next project will explore more deeply how context has shaped experiences of, and responses to, suffering. Among other factors, theological convictions, frameworks of belief, the source of suffering (war, illness, oppression, and other forms of evil), race, class, and gender play a role in how suffering is experienced and described.
The colonial clergyman Cotton Mather narrated suffering as an expected part of the Christian life. Centuries later the modern preacher Joel Osteen seemed to name suffering as a failure of faith. What have other Americans thought? What have they agreed about? Where and why have their reactions differed? What changed (or remained consistent) in the American political, social, and economic landscape between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries to generate those differences? Some believers expected suffering. Others even sought suffering as a test of faith. Some Americans found their faith strengthened through distress, while others abandoned religion, finding God and radical suffering incompatible.
I’m early in the exploration of this new project, but anticipate that the racial context of the American landscape will figure prominently in the work. Between Mather and Osteen, thinkers including Sarah Osborn, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Beecher Stowe, James Baldwin, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others will populate the account of American Christian responses to suffering.

JF: Thanks, Heather!