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Stanley Hauerwas on sin, character formation, and fear

From Chapter 3 of Stanley Hauerwas’ book on Christian ethics The Peaceable Kingdom, this wonderful insight into how we can think about sin as interacting with our own power, control, and self-direction (emphasis mine):

We are rooted in sin just to the extent we think we have the inherent power to claim our life – our character – as our particular achievement. In other words, our sin – our fundamental sin – is the assumption that we are the creators of the history through which we acquire and possess our character. Sin is the form our character takes as a result of our fear that we will be “nobody” if we lose control of our lives.

Moreover our need to be in control is the basis for the violence of our lives. For since our “control” and “power” cannot help but be built on an insufficient basis, we must use force to maintain the illusion that we are in control. We are deeply afraid of losing what unity of self we have achieved. Any idea or person threatening that unity must be either manipulated or eliminated…

This helps us understand why we are so resistant to the training offered by the gospel, for we simply cannot believe that the self might be formed without fear of the other.

This gets to the heart of a lot of the discussions I’ve had with my Dad lately about the first step in making a positive spiritual change (which might be what Hauerwas here calls “the training offered by the gospel”) is to be freed from fear. One needs to be secure in their standing with God and with their community to be able to change and grow. (The counter-example here is frequently seen: spiritual communities that make any interest in ideas outside the accepted orthodoxy grounds for exclusion and expulsion.)

Hauerwas continues:

Our sin lies precisely in our unbelief – our distrust that we are creatures of a gracious creator known only to the extent we accept the invitation to become part of his kingdom. It is only be learning to make that story – that story of God – our own that we gain the freedom necessary to make our life our own. Only then can I learn to accept what has happened to me (which includes what I have done) without resentment. It is then that I am able to accept my body, my psychological conditioning, my implicit distrust of others and myself, as mine, as part of my story. And the acceptance of myself as a sinner is made possible only because it is an acceptance of God’s acceptance. This I am able to see myself as a sinner and yet to go on.

This does not mean that tragedy is eliminated from our lives; rather we have the means to recognize and accept the tragic without turning to violence. For finally our freedom is learning how to exist in the world, a violent world, in peace with ourselves and others. The violence of the world is but the mirror of the violence of our lives. We say we desire peace, but we have not the souls for it. We fear the boredom a commitment to peace would entail. As a result the more we seek to bring “under our control”, the more violent we have to become to protect what we have. And the more violent we allow ourselves to become, the more vulnerable we are to challenges.

This is growth toward wholeness: “the means to recognize and accept the tragic without turning to violence”.

For what does “peace with ourselves” involve? It surely does not mean that we will live untroubled – though it may be true that no one can really harm a just person. Nor does it mean that we are free of self-conflict, for we remain troubled sinners – indeed, that may well be the best description of the redeemed. To be “at peace with ourselves” means we have the confidence, gained through participation in the adventure we call God’s kingdom, to trust ourselves and others. Such confidence becomes the source of our character and our freedom as we are loosed from a debilitating preoccupation with ourselves. Moreover by learning to be at peace with ourselves, we find we can live at peace with one another. And this freedom, after all, is the only freedom worth having.

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