Correcting Mennonite Brethren Individualism: The Pertinence of Stanley Hauerwas’s Theology

Well, earlier this month I finally submitted my MCS thesis for binding. While the whole process pushed me in just about every way imaginable, I can truly say it was an extremely awarding project. The chance to explore the historical developments of my own religious heritage (Mennonite Brethren) in relation to a contemporary theologian has been an experience that will impact my life forever.

If you're interested, I've included the abstract to my thesis here and below is a link to the document itself for anyone brave enough to wade the waters of Mennonite Brethren history and the oftentimes refreshing yet frustrating Stanley Hauerwas.


Individualism is a pervasive problem in Christian faith and practice in the twenty-first century, elevating the individual experience of faith at the expense of acknowledging the community-implications of Christian identity. Stanley Hauerwas, prominent Christian ethicist and theologian, provides a response to individualism that is both compelling and frustrating, offering an inspiring argument for the centrality of community in the Christian faith, but leaving to his readers the task of applying his ideas.

A contemporary North American denomination susceptible to individualism is the Mennonite Brethren. By emphasizing the individual nature of the Christian experience, the Mennonite Brethren movement has demonstrated a propensity towards individualistic interpretations of the Christian faith, both in its historical roots and North American assimilation. Considering their individualism, the Mennonite Brethren are an appropriate case study for assessing the applicability of Hauerwas’s theology.

This thesis examines the applicability of Stanley Hauerwas’s theology for responding to Mennonite Brethren individualism. Hauerwas’s project helps Mennonite Brethren identity by challenging them to rebalance their theology and practice away from individualism and towards a more community-oriented faith. Unfortunately, Hauerwas lacks practical and realistic solutions that could help envision Mennonite Brethren community in the twenty-first century. Ultimately, Hauerwas’s project is only partially valuable towards correcting Mennonite Brethren individualism.

MCS Thesis - David Warkentin


Len Hjalmarson said...

Dave, why not post this abstract on ? Drop me a line at and I'll send you the access information. I'd like to get some conversation going on the blog :)

Ryan said...

Just finished reading chapter one, Dave. Well done! I feel like I actually understand a bit about Hauerwas now...

You may get to this later in the thesis (or I may have missed it in chapter one), but how does Hauerwas envision anyone "changing stories?" What does conversion look like for him if all we can do is live out of our own stories? I think you talk about this a bit in your critique section (the charges of relativism and fideism), but I'm curious if you've come across anything explicit on this.

David said...

Thanks for the compliments Ryan!

Off the top of my head, I can't recall Hauerwas specifically addressing conversion (I'll have to look into that and get back to you), but his focus is primarily on how to live out the Christian story well. He is not so much concerned with other stories, besides critiquing the story of modern liberalism I suppose.

The sense I get is that if we live out the Christian story faithfully, which implicitly means represent Christ in community, then it will be evident to the world - the 'other' stories - that the Christian story is better. This results in much of Hauerwas's energy directed towards defining his view of Christian faithfulness in response to what he sees as an unfaithful church in the modern world. Unfortunately, he typically neglects a practical discussion on the challenges of a pluralistic culture.

In fact, I actually pushed him during the question period of one of his lectures about the presence of other stories in relation to martyrdom. He suggested that from a Christian perspective a willingness to be a martyr reveals a moral truth beyond the individual, as the conviction to die for ones beliefs points towards something bigger than just that person's own opinions. While his point may be true to a degree, I asked about other religious martyrs and moral truth and found his answer quite unsatisfactory. He began by saying he doesn't like to answer that question, and then proceeded to say something along the lines of you would have to learn the story of that martyrs willingness to die, and those views of martyrdom are different than Christian ones, etc... For me it just confirmed that while I resonate strongly with the admonition to know and live our Christian story well, the absence of practical dialogue with other stories can be frustrating at times and leave us without the tools to genuinely interact with the competing stories we are constantly confronting in the world.

Hope that helps. I'll see if I can't find some more of his thoughts on this.

Ryan said...

I think you were right to push him on that question. It seemed to me as I read your summary that Hauerwas is somewhat of a "narratival determinist" and his response to your question seems to confirm that. Even if we were to discover that other martyrs' stories were "different" than Christian ones (which seems pretty obvious, to me), we would still be left with the question: OK, is there a way we can figure out which one (if either) is TRUE?

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