Human Life in a Liberal Society

I had the pleasure of listening to Stanley Hauerwas this morning. I’ve enjoyed reading some of his work and hearing him lecture over the years. He has a way of capsizing our presuppositions and leading us to reckon with the force of doctrine and scripture in every aspect of our lives. Today he spoke at the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability, and then participated in a panel discussion with John Swinton and Hans Reinders, both of whom are powerful thinkers as well.

Hauerwas and Reinders in particular have raised important questions about the ways in which we view human beings in a liberal society. By “liberal,” I’m not referring to a political position. I mean a society that presupposes autonomy, individuality, and agency on the part of its members. In this sense, both Democrats and Republicans are liberal, as are most forms of Protestantism. If our society places a high premium on autonomy, individuality, and agency, then people who are impaired with regard to their decision-making capacity occupy a very strange space. They are ostensibly people, though without full command of the capacities that define personhood and serve as ports of entry into the social world. They are outliers, and that is a dangerous way to live.

I’m glad to know that there are theologians and pastors who are willing to challenge these assumptions. The view of humanity we assume culturally is remarkably thin, and it has very real consequences. If the church doesn’t provide a strong public witness on this matter, I’m afraid that things will only get worse. Addressing these matters of the nature and value of human life is going to require considerably more focused work, both in the academy and the churches. May God give us the wisdom and fortitude we’ll need to be about this work.


6 thoughts on “Human Life in a Liberal Society

  1. David – Thank you for this. I am glad you defined ‘liberal’ – success terms are so overused and misused that the meaning can get lost and assumptions made.

    It has been my observation over the years that Jesus had a particular concern for the outliers. Perhaps that should be the focus of the church much more than it is.

  2. I think it is instructive that for Hauerwas salvation is defined entirely in terms of the creation of the church. He writes somewhere the church is salvation. This makes sense when you don’t want to assume autonomy or agency. It is very tough to square a traditional Protestant conception of salvation with a world in which autonomy is not a crucial aspect of humanity.

  3. Pingback: People who do not fit | John Meunier

  4. Pingback: Video: Hauerwas on Disability | David F. Watson

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