Against “illuminating the human condition”


We all need a little Hauerwas now and then.

Stanley Hauerwas’ 1995 article in First Things, “Preaching As Though We Had Enemies,” is a classic statement of his critique of liberalism’s intellectual posturing and pathos. His particular aim in this article is to reveal how “high humanism” prides itself on “illuminating the human condition,” as illustrated in Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr: “What could be more comforting to modern consciousness than to discover that ‘ultimate concern’ and ‘sin’ are essential and unavoidable characteristics of the human condition” (46). “Desiring to become part of the modernist project, preachers and theologians accepted the presumption that Christianity is a set of beliefs, a ‘worldview,’ designed to give meaning to our lives” (Ibid.).

This results in a method and style of preaching that values the “illumination of our condition” above all else, frequently done with great insight and sensitivity, but ultimately boring. Here is Hauerwas:

…the preaching and theology shaped by new critical presumptions to illumine the human condition hid from us that the human condition we were illuminating was that of the bourgeoisie. That is why the sermon meant to illumine our condition, which is often eloquent and profound, is also so forgettable and even boring. Insights about the human condition are a dime a dozen. Most days most of us would rightly trade any insight for a good meal.

The high humanism of contemporary theology and preaching not only hid the class interest intrinsic to such preaching, but also reinforced the presumption that Christians could be Christians without enemies. Christianity, as the illumination of the human condition, is not a Christianity at war with the world. Liberal Christianity, of course, has enemies, but they are everyone’s enemies – sexism, racism, homophobia. But liberal versions of Christianity, which can be both theologically and politically conservative, assume that what it means to be Christian qua Christian is to have no enemies peculiar to being Christian. Psalms such as Psalm 109, which ask God to destroy our enemies and their children, can appear only as embarrassing holdovers of “primitive” religious beliefs. Equally problematic are apocalyptic texts that suggest Christians have been made part of a cosmic struggle. [p. 46]

And here are a few more passages that further illustrate what Hauerwas has in mind:

You cannot preach about abortion, suicide, or war because those are such controversial subjects — better to concentrate on “insights” since they do so little work for the actual shaping of our lives and occasion no conflict. [p. 47]

Our difficulty is not that we have conflicts, but that as modern people we have not had the courage to force the conflicts we ought to have had. Instead, we have comforted ourselves with the ideology of pluralism, forgetting that pluralism is the peace treaty left over from past wars that now benefits the victors of those wars. [Ibid.]

The problem is no longer that the Church is seen as a threat to the political order, but that now my desires are disordered. The name for such an internalization in modernity is pietism and the theological expression of that practice is called Protestant liberalism. [Ibid.]

And on “normal nihilism”:

All our values are self-devaluating because we recognize their contingency as values. As [James] Edwards puts it, “Normal nihilism is just the Western intellectual’s recognition and tolerance of her own historical and conceptual contingency. To be a normal nihilist is just to acknowledge that, however fervent and essential one’s commitment to a particular set of values, that’s all one has: a commitment to a particular set of values.”

…I am aware that such a suggestion can only be met with disbelief. You may well think I cannot be serious. Normal nihilism is so wonderfully tolerant. Surely you are not against tolerance? How can anyone be against freedom? Let me assure you I am serious, I am against tolerance, I do not believe the story of freedom is a true or good story. I do not believe it is a good story because it is so clearly a lie. [pp. 47-48]

I could quibble about the extremity of some of this (namely, whether culture and “values” are always the enemy), but his description of liberal mainline preaching is spot on. He is also aware that this liberalism (modernist pietism) can take conservative form — this is Hauerwas after all.


Image: Stanley Hauerwas by Lydia Halldorf


  1. When Hauerwas says:

    “The problem is no longer that the Church is seen as a threat to the political order, but that now my desires are disordered. The name for such an internalization in modernity is pietism and the theological expression of that practice is called Protestant liberalism.”

    Is he couching it as one extreme focus over the other? Or that any inward look is Liberal? If the latter, the problem is to focus on one evil and to ignore the others. It’s a false dichotomy. We ought to be able to probe our flesh, and seek after the hope of the Son of God, and yet also be able to speak as a “political” community of aliens and strangers.

    But I love Hauerwas for being a hard-headed jackass like myself.

    • At least in this article, he is not nuancing whether this is a matter of extremes or balancing. He is squarely focused on this one thing: the “wisdom” of liberal self-evaluation. I don’t think he is against probing our flesh but, rather, the satisfaction that comes with doing so. It is the self-satisfaction that comes with self-understanding (eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, perhaps). But, yes, Hauerwas could definitely be accused, as he often is, of creating false dichotomies. He rather err toward the side of over-criticizing “pietism” than to allow our illusions to remain undisturbed.

      I love Hauerwas too, just like I love Kierkegaard and Weil, even as I have “developed” my theology in considerably more catholic and positive terms. If I were to ignore these prophetic voices, then I am bound to make the church (or a particular theology) into an idol.

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