No faith is an island

In a previous post, I draw attention to a comment that Stanley Hauerwas made in an interview wherein, discussing Friendship and Community, he said:

‘The last thing in the world I want is a personal relationship with God. Our relationship with God is mediated. And that’s the reason why without the Church we know not God … Our faith is a mediated faith through people reformed by word and sacrament. So I would never trust myself to have a personal relationship with God’.

I was immediately struck by this comment, spurted out in true Hauerwasian style. And while I reckon that Hauerwas needed to introduce a distinction here between ‘personal’ and ‘individual’ (I assume that it is the latter that he most concerned with) I think that his basic point is right.

Paul Tillich, in one of his clearer bits of writing (and there aren’t many of those), also argued that ‘the life of faith is life in the community of faith, not only in its communal activities and institutions but also in the inner life of its members … There is no life of faith, even in mystical solitude, which is not life in the community of faith’. (Dynamics of Faith, 118)

This same word was brought home to me again recently when I was reading Robert McAfee Brown’s book Is Faith Obsolete? In that book, Brown makes the point that we do not believe by ourselves, as individuals in isolation; ‘we believe as part of a community of believers, whether the community is a Benedictine monastery, a communist cell, a Protestant congregation, a Jewish minyan, or a Hindu ashram’. He continues: ‘To be sure, we must personally appropriate the faith of the community to which we belong and make it our own, and in this sense Luther was right in insisting that everyone has to do his own believing just as everyone has to do his own dying. But we need to remember also that the faith we personally appropriate is the faith of the community, and this means that even the most internalized, existential act of personal commitment will bind us into a communal relationship of shared belief with others. Even if the faith I appropriate were somehow brand new, never before conceived, the product of no apparent community save my own internal dialogue with myself, if I really believed it to be true I would perforce share it with others and thus, whether I directly willed it or not, a new community would be created around it’ (p. 141).

There is, Brown insists, a relationship between faith and community which is ‘inextricably joined together’. ‘Community’, he writes, ‘can only be created around a faith; faith can only be creative within a community’. And then he helpfully proceeds to identify five ways in which community nurtures and strengthens the life of faith.

1. The community is an economy of relations wherein the faith of individuals can be tested against the faith of the community. ‘The community has a long history; better still, it has a memory, which means that it can put its history to use. The individual has a short history that needs frequent checking against the community’s longer history’ (p. 142). This means that the practices and learnings of the present are to be in critical relation with, and to exemplify, the life of faith as the creative appropriation of an open past.

2. The community is an economy of faithful relations where the faith of the community can be tested against the faith of the individual. This means that ‘any community that is truly a community must be able to suffer fools gladly and even embrace the heretics that threaten its peace. Since communities are almost always careful and conservative, they need the leaven of fresh ideas, along with new interpretations of old ideas, and these are contributions that only the most venturesome within their midst are likely to propound’ (p. 143). This, Brown insists, is how communities stay alive and grow. He cites Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Hans Küng and Daniel Berrigan, as examples of those who were used by God to bring fresh wine alongside old wineskins.

3. The community is an economy of relations of faith where the burdens of doubt can be shared. Faith always – and necessarily – involves risk, some of which are too overwhelming and potentially destructive to be shouldered by the individual alone. At such times, Brown reminds us, ‘the community can be the place for “the bearing of burdens,” where things too heavy to be borne individually can, at least during crucial moments, be borne corporately. It need not be a sign of individual weakness, but rather it can be a sign of communal strength, when an individual can say of the forgiveness of sins or the inevitability of the victory of the proletariat, or whatever: “Look, that part of it just doesn’t make sense to me right now. It did once, and I hope it will again, but for the moment the rest of you will have to do the believing for me”’ (p. 144). This quality of sharing is not to be interpreted as an exposure of weakness but rather as charismatic, i.e. as gift.

4. The community is an economy of relations which contributes to the life of faith precisely because it functions as the locale where faith can be celebrated and faith’s loves embodied, where the community’s members may ‘draw assurance that their faith is a future possibility for all because it is a present reality for a few’ (p. 145). Is this not precisely why we compose community-forming liturgies, and, conversely where we are made communities by that same liturgical action, in order that we might dramatise our graced convictions and spur each other on to participate in, and be continually recreated by, the faith we share and which has taken hold of us. At the very centre of this action, participation and recreation is the eucharist, that event-location around which communities gather to both remember, in the sense of recalling the past, and also to re-member themselves. There is an important (re-)ordering that needs to takes place here too, and that with ecumenical implications. We ought to eat and drink together first, and then talk theology. To invert this ordering is a nonsense. Debra Dean Murphy recently reminded us, ‘Through the sacramental gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the community receives itself – it becomes the body of Christ, blessed, broken, and shared. As the Great Thanksgiving says, we are made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” In this act the Church is united across time and distinctions between the global and the local are collapsed, for in every local assembly is the whole body – “the world in a wafer,” as Bill Cavanaugh has said’.

5. Finally, community is an economy of relations which ‘contributes to the life of faith by being the place where faith is energized to turn outward. Communities cannot remain ingrown, concerned only with their own inner life. They too must exemplify faith as the dynamic interrelationship of content and commitment. They must thrust their members out into the “strange land,” into the arenas of life not populated by the community’ (p. 146). In other words, the community called by God and re-membered around generous helpings of broken loaves and poured out bottles of Shiraz is ever the apostolic community, i.e., it is always a people being ‘sent’ out in order to invite others to the feast.

Perhaps Hauerwas’ comments are not so strange after all.


  1. and even embrace the heretics that threaten its peace.
    For every Luther or St Francis, might there not be fifty Arius’s or Donatus’s? Are we to embrace every heretic equally? What happens where the faith of the community is tested against the faith of the individual and it is the individual’s faith which comes out lacking?

    Nonetheless, sounds like a good book.


  2. Good questions Byron, and thanks for asking them. My sense is that yes, we, in Jesus’ name, ought to embrace every heretic equally, for it is for heretics that Christ has come. (You will sense here the distinction I am wanting to insist upon between ‘heretics’ and ‘heresy’). I am reminded of the talk, “Thesen zur Grundlegung der Christologie”, that Jüngel gave in Tübingen around 1969/70, in which he offered 30 theses on heresy and superstition, among which were the claims that a theology that does not say ‘No’ to untruth cannot say ‘Yes’ to truth, that a merely negative defence against heresies is itself heretical, and that the mere recitation of confessions of Jesus Christ does not preserve theology from becoming heretical, but makes it all the more heretical. The mere recitation of confessions is christological superstition.


  3. Hey Jason,

    I stumbled on some really good posts of yours on the Brunner-Barth debate from several years ago. Could you please direct me to the sources you used for most of your quotes. I can only make the article by Joan O’Donovan, and a few others. My apology for posting it here. Thanks.


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