sectarian, Stanley Hauerwas

Reunderstanding the Word Sectarianism

Halden has put forth a post on the necessity of Sectarianism. I am rather sympathetic to such an argument. However, I think the discussion itself is somewhat flawed.

At Union Theological Seminary for one of Prof. Dorrien’s Social Ethics classes, we read through the Hauerwas Reader. Needless to say, quite a few people — that is most people — did not like it. Some had some rather unsophisticated critiques, some just didn’t seem to get Hauerwas in the first place, and others were more challenging. However, in both the inchoate and more nuanced critiques, the word sectarian was brought up.

Now, I found in this case, sectarian was something akin to a curse word. Similar to more conservative people using the terms gnostic or marcionism to label a current theology, sectarianism can function in theology as a four letter word. The thing is, sectarianism, as a four letter word tends to function somewhat differently than a dictionary definition — that to be accused of sectarianism is to be accused of withdrawal and isolation. In actuality, at least one professor at my undergrad, a Bible college at the time, voiced the exact same critique.

Now, such a charge towards Hauerwas I think is uninformed. Hauerwas is not withdrawing and he does not describe or envision something like the Amish, in fact, he does the exact opposite — hospitality is a significant praxis. Rather, what Hauerwas does is that he moves the conversation. He and others like him move towards a discussion closer to the categories of American theology, than say, the system that sits atop of the categories of American theology. Hauerwas still engages, and communities like the one Halden is involved in can be extremely relevant. In fact, I’ve seen at times, in communities like Halden speaks of, more of an on the ground relevance than say, the denominational system. Withdrawal and isolation are not the keys to how the church exists under which Halden speaks.

On one hand, what is important is for the church to be the church. On the other hand, there is also the acknowledgment that we live within other contexts as well. The confluence of the church and, say, America results in the rethinking of categories and how communities function and interact. To charge Hauerwas and others as sectarians in the sense of the four letter word is rather blind.

There are better things to critique the heirs of the Duke school for. How about we move on to that?


3 thoughts on “Reunderstanding the Word Sectarianism

  1. Dave-

    It may be that one of the difficulties that we come up against in this conversation is the dissolution of the church as a community at all. Instead, I’ve noticed that the tendency (often in myself, even), is to view the church as no more than a hub or nexus for other interests. Thus, Hauerwas’ call for the church to be the church is highly instructive. However, to move the conversation to another level–of negotiating between communities–is to trouble the waters a bit, precisy because in many instances the church is not a coherent community (and by that I mean that it’s own self-perception is not tangibly bound up in it’s common origin and life together). When “church” begins to slip from its moorings, dialogue becomes something very strange. I think that it’s symptomatic of a sustained confusion over who we, as the church, actually are. Such a confusion is itself a symptom of confusion over who Jesus actually is.

    Anyway, I’m preaching to the choir probably, but while I sympathize with your desire to see the conversation extended beyond squabbles over community boundaries, I’d wager that we’ll only fall back into the categories of spurious political or economic ideologies if we don’t beat this horse til it’s really dead…not that you’d beat a horse…it’s a metaphor…


  2. Confusion certainly doesn’t help and I wonder if it is symptomatic of the inability to truly imagine. The notion that enlightenment thought conflicts with ecclesial thought, seems to really gall those in mainline denominations — ones that actually lobby in DC — and others who would die or send others to die for “freedom.” The mainlines lobby for good things and maintain thinktanks and centers for change, but lobby and work fluidly within the system nonetheless. Is there a way to really exist another way? Sure Hauerwas says, use your imagination. However, to fulfill such an imagination means that dramatic change must take place.

    For such dramatic change, there must be solid ground — a slew of examples that work quite well. Certainly some people will just avoid the change no matter what, but to have people live out the idea of Resident Aliens stems the ignorant protest that “such a thing cannot exist or work.” I found mentioning communities I knew of and had seen, really threw a wench in the gears of people who thought Hauerwas interesting but unfeasible or uninteresting and unfeasible.

    I do agree with you that community boundaries are important to talk about, however some talks are deeper than others. I was trying to work with two definitions of sectarianism in the above post, one a dictionary definition and one spat out with condemnation. The one with condemnation was the one I attempted to address — its a superficial objection and used to misdirect. The condemnatory definition is to address Hauerwas from the status quo perspective, not from his own. I really do think it shows a lack of understanding, or attempt to understand what Hauerwas says. He may indeed fit into other notions of sectarianism, but those must be carefully defined because this word is slung about so easily today. And thats my problem with most of the discussion right now, sectarianism seems relatively undefined, no matter how many defintions one looks up. Lots of people seems to know what it means, but use the word differently than many others.

  3. Pingback: 5 Theological Word Plays that Annoy Me « flying.farther

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