On not knowing what we do

Peter J. Leithart
October 12, 2011
Category: Theology

Stanley Hauerwas (War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity [1]) offers a neat definition for American freedom: It is the modern “attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they chose when they had no story.”  Hauerwas’s test question is, “Do you think you ought to be held accountable for decisions you made when you did not know what you were doing?”  By and large, Americans answer No, because “you should only be held accountable when you acted freely.  And to act freely, you had to know what you were doing.”

In a few strokes, Hauerwas shows how deeply corrosive this is.  “It makes marriage unintelligible” since “no one can fully know what this commitment will entail” when the promises are made.  It “makes it unintelligible to try having children,” since “you never get the ones you want.”  Trying to fix this problem by waiting for children until you are “ready” makes this worse, since children so born “come to believe they can only be loved if they fulfill their parents’ desire.”  It’s only in the last few decades that Americans have really solved the challenge: You can’t be held accountable for marriage, and so divorce should be easy; since you can’t be held accountable for having children when you’re ignorant of what’s coming, abortion should be legal and safe.

It is religiously and politically corrosive too:

“The narrative that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood.  It produces people who say things such as, ‘I believe Jesus is Lord – but that is just my personal opinion.’”  While the “grammar” of this statement “reveals a superficial person,” the problem is more profound since “such people are the kind man think crucial for sustaining democracy.”  To “sustain a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common other than avoiding death, there must be people who will avoid any conflicts that might undermine the order, which is confused with peace.”  So, the American story of freedom reinforces is the foundation of American free society, which forms people who believe and live the American story of freedom.

The story of American freedom is self-refuting: “the narrative itself (that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story) is a story you have not chosen.”  We have to forget this fact in order to conform to American order, and work on the pretense that we indeed chose the story that we choose no story except the story we choose when we had no story.


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[1] War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801039290/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=leithartcom-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399373&creativeASIN=0801039290

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