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Calling Churches Back to Their Roots

The decades-long experiment to `modernize' Christianity has failed, say two radical thinkers. That effort has brought humanistic, even atheistic trends into religion, and the church is in danger of losing its soul, they say.

STANLEY HAUERWAS and William Willimon are not shy Christians. Nor is the message of these two Duke University theologians a meek and mild one: It is a strident warning. Christianity, they say, has been so busy in recent decades trying to please the world and accommodate the world's habits and tastes, that churches are in danger of losing their souls. ``Being a Christian is not just synonymous with being a good human being,'' says Dr. Willimon in a Monitor interview. ``It's more serious than that.'' Much of what Drs. Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics, and Willimon, the Duke University chaplain and professor of ministry, object to is a vague drift in the mainline American churches away from what makes them distinctively Christian. The drift is nothing new, they say. It has taken place through much of the 20th century. Mainline Protestant theology is often less concerned with God than with immediate social and personal needs. Pastors and theologians have sought new languages to speak to reach the children of a more scientific age. Yet the two renegade theologians - both of them Southern-born baby-boomers educated at Yale, both from the Methodist tradition - say the ``secular'' church approach has failed. The heart of the failure, they argue, is that the experiment to make church and theology more ``relevant'' and ``modern'' has actually made the basic Christian message of God and His healing and saving Christ less relevant. In a much-copied Christian Century article titled ``Embarrassed by God's Presence'' (September 1984), the pair wrote about a ``new mood'' they felt: ``Ultimately, it all comes down to the issue of the centrality of God's presence. The central problem for our church, its theology, and its ethics is that it is simply atheistic. It builds its social structures on the presupposition that God doesn't really matter. We endow pensions for our clergy and devise strategies for church growth as if God were not here.'' Such comments have made the pair both popular and controversial - and a hot topic in divinity schools. The thesis of the Christian Century piece has been expanded into a book: ``Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People who Know That Something Is Wrong'' (Nashville: Abingdon Press), has sold 23,000 copies since August. That's a raging best-seller in a market of scholarly religious books, where 5,000 copies sold is considered successful. The book questions conventional Christian ideas about language, politics, belief, prayer, theology, ministry, economics, and what Hauerwas says is the prime mistake of Christianity since Roman emperor Constantine's mass conversions in 313 AD: the effort to make the gospel credible to the world's powers-that-be. Accordingly, ``Resident Aliens'' is loaded with rhetorical salvos such as: ``The Bible finds uninteresting many of our modern preoccupations with whether or not it is still possible for modern people to believe. The Bible's concern is whether or not we shall be faithful to the gospel, the truth about the way things are now that God is with us through the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.'' Or: ``We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world.... The most creative social strategy we have to offer is the church. Here we show the world a manner of life the world can never achieve through social coercion or governmental action.'' Some critics say Hauerwas and Willimon come across like fundamentalists - a tag they reject. They are not theological liberals or conservatives, they say, but ``radical followers of Jesus.'' As Hauerwas says, ``If you talk about justice, that's OK. It's Jesus people don't want you to talk about.'' Too many pastors and denominations have given up on theology, on the church's distinctive place in culture, and even on their congregations, the two argue. Hauerwas, a lean, intense man with a penchant for jogging and frozen yogurt, leans on the edge of his chair to say ``There's a hell of a lot more life out there in that `middle-class, compromised' church than we're told. It is filled with faithful people.... Nor do we think it is theologians' job to make religious language meaningful. The language isn't the problem - it's in good working order. People are using it.'' At the same time, Willimon points out that many pastors who want to invest the gospel with meaning find themselves with members interested only in changing the public style of the church. Willimon, an affable man with blond hair and glasses whose just-plain-folks sensibility contrasts with the sober paneled richness of his huge rectory office, says ``I got a letter yesterday from a pastor in Delaware who says his church's main agenda is to distance itself from traditional Christianity in every way. `We need to come up with a name for the church,' [he writes] `and the only thing we can agree on is not to put anything that is Baptist or Christian in the title.''' TO sympathetic colleagues, Hauerwas and Willimon are part of a move to restore distinctiveness to theology and worship. ``They are `properly traditional,''' says Prof. Mark Noll of Wheaton College in Evanston, Ill. ``They aren't traditionalists, but are trying to find a creative way for the tradition to speak to the present.'' Says Richard Mouw, provost of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., ``They argue for a distinct identity for Christians. They feel churches should not be shaped by the culture around us, but by the claims of the gospel. That's not an abdication of concern. They feel Christians should be involved in the world. But they want them to retrieve an identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.'' This last point is central to ``Resident Aliens,'' and all that Hauerwas and Willimon stand for. The America of the past two decades has fundamentally shifted from its religious roots, they argue. The culture and its institutions no longer implicitly reinforce Protestant Christianity. Christians can no longer automatically rely on the home, the state, or even the church to reinforce their faith: ``All sorts of Christians are waking up and realizing that it is no longer `our world' - if it ever was.'' In some ways, says Willimon, questioning Christians may have to begin to think of themselves more as children of Israel, and less as children of a political state. As for the Gulf war, the two say that churches have not thought through the issue. Churches have so identified with American politics that they've written a blank check on the war, says Hauerwas: ``Our leaders were democratically elected, so we don't criticize them. It's unfortunate - we've robbed the President of a people who can tell him `No.''' The two have been influenced by a number of modern theologians, including Mennonite John Howard Yoder, Yale theologian George Lindbeck, and Karl Barth. Barth's defiance of the Nazis in World War II appeals to Hauerwas: ``Other leading intellectuals were explaining away the Nazis. But Barth wouldn't sell out. He attacked them on the basis of the integrity of the gospel - that one could not both take the life of Jesus seriously, and remain silent about the Nazis.'' Today is a time of both great danger, and great opportunity for Christians, they say. Danger, because churches may not wake up to the subtly atheistic and humanistic path the world has set out for them. Opportunity, because in losing the notion of converting the world, the churches may rediscover their souls. Feb. 11: Influential teacher - Robert Goeser TODAY: Christian radicals - Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon March 4: Philosopher Carol Ochs March 11: Black `lay preacher' - Cornel West March 18: Christian Century - editor James Wall -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/pduke.

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