“I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt“. So says Stanley Hauerwas to a bunch of kids starting college at Duke University a few years ago. He goes on:
I am not making these claims because I want to shock you. I do not want you to leave the Youth Academy thinking
that you have heard some really strange ideas here that have made you think. It is appropriate that you might believe
you are here to make you think, because you have been told that is what universities are supposed to do, that is, to
make you think. Universities are places where you are educated to make up your own mind. That is not what I am
trying to do. Indeed, I do not think most of you have minds worth making up.
For Hauerwas, the great Christian contrarian of our age, these gantlets are thrown to try and reveal to the kids that being a Christian is an odd proposition and not something run of the mill. The Christian in the Western world really ought to be tremendously uncomfortable. I mean, how many times does the New Testament need to tell us that we are resident aliens before we start to recognise it? Flags in our sanctuaries should be an inconceivable punchline for our jokes. Yet driving through inner city Dublin this evening I saw a Catholic church with the flags of three political entities hanging from the door. Jesus may nominally be Lord of the universe, but the Vatican city, the Republic of Ireland and (bizarrely) the EU.
What I love about Hauerwas’ speech is not the controversial stuff about questioning salvation but the underlying reason why he feels he can talk to teenagers like this. He is not trying to provoke them to thought so that they can make up their mind. That would be futile. They don’t have minds worth making up.
It has in many ways, been a difficult summer for me to be a leader in Christian circles. I’ve been pretty discouraged at times because I have repeatedly been in the company of young Christians where they demonstrated such an intentional and willful ignorance that I lamented about why anyone would ever want to join this movement. Not because we believe stupid things or because we try not to have sex before marriage or some old fashioned reason like that. But because too often, Christians seem to be amongst the most uninterested people I have ever met. It has felt at times as if serious conversation, for too many quarters of the church is an impossibility and including Christians in respectful dialogue would be like pearls before swine.
Hauerwas laments, “What a terrible time to be young. Shorn of any clear account for what it means to grow up, you are forced to make up your own lives. But you know that any life you make up is not a life you will want to live.” Yet if being a Christian means anything at all, it means that we don’t make up our own lives. You can draw a circle around the set “Christian” by including everyone who includes themselves in the over-arching narrative of the Scriptures. Such ideas, such grounds for life well lived seem absurdly difficult to college educated, adult Christians who are quick to explain away their deficiency under such scandalous excuses as cultural relevance and the end of the age of text (because the “visual age”, if such a mythic proposition ever appears will somehow render clear thinking as redundant as syntax!?).
Paul tells us that we are transformed by the renewal of the mind. This is of course, an invitation to the intellectual life as a Christian calling for some of us. But in league with the “Jesus Creed” to love the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength, the call on the Christian, whether they be intellectuals or creative types, physicians or brick-layers, is to let the Scriptures and the community, shape and form and inform our mind so that we are transformed to love God, love others and love our world. We are not called to make up our own lives. We are called to grow up into the life made for us. We are not called to ignore the big issues and the hard questions of our life or our faith or our world but to engage with them with all we have.
This is not an optional calling for people with poncy weblogs and all the novels of George Orwell. You need to be trained before you can begin thinking. But once we start thinking, we are in a position to discover how odd being a Christian makes us. And that is the start of a very interesting pilgrimage.
Your Correspondent, You simply never know when he might try to baptise you.