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Fragmented People

This past Sunday’s sermon touched briefly on the experience of meaninglessness. The text was Genesis 1:1-5 and I focused on how the creation narrative portrays God speaking life and light and beauty and purpose into the cosmos. Yet so often, in our world and in our lives, this seems more than we can believe. We postmoderns are restless people who have difficulty accepting that there is a big story within which our individual crazy, chaotic stories can find their place. We are fragmented and unmoored people who are divided and distracted in so many ways.  

As I reflected upon themes from Sunday’s sermon and on subsequent conversations, I was struck by the words of a prayer from  Stanley Hauerwas’s Prayers Plainly Spoken:

Holy Lord, we have come before you fragmented people. Our lives are divided into pieces and we are unsure if the pieces when added up make up a life. What we do here, with one part of our life, seems undone there, with another part of our life. Who am I, Lord, who prays to you in this prayer? Where are we, Lord, when we so pray to you.  Augustine has taught us we are restless until we find our rest in you, but this does not feel like such divine “restlessness”—it just feels confusing.

Holy Lord, make us one with ourselves and one another. Form the scattered bits of our lives, the fragments of desires, into lives capable of saying “From the beginning you, dear God, were with me.” Help us be capable of truthful memory and fervent hope so that our lives will reflect the purposefulness of your kingdom. So reflected, may our lives manifest for one another your holiness and the world may say, “They are God’s people. See how they love one another.” Amen.

Yes. From the beginning, you were with us. Give us this truthful memory, this fervent hope, this love that anchors and reconstitutes our fragmented lives.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m not sure how I wandered my way over here this morning (Twitter?) but I’m glad I did. The God who brought order out of chaos is bringing purpose and meaning to the fragmented pieces of my life. Beautiful thought, beautiful prayer.

    January 11, 2012
    • Thank you kindly, Nancy.

      January 11, 2012
  2. Paul Johnston #

    “They are God’s people. See how they love one another.”

    That’s it, all the praxis we need.

    I don’t mean to be the neandrathal at the postmodern, coming out, emo style wake/party, (actually I probably do 🙂 ) but I think I can still hear the echo of my now deceased Scottish grandmother saying something like, ” Are you feeling sorry for yourself, son? Good, now get busy helping somebody! “

    January 11, 2012
    • Your grandmother would make a good Mennonite :).

      January 11, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #


        January 11, 2012
  3. Ken #

    At Huffington, Hauerwas wrote: “God is just not there for me the way God is there for some people.” I think that is what he meant when in his prayer above he wrote, “Augustine has taught us we are restless until we find our rest in you, but this does not feel like such divine “restlessness”—it just feels confusing.”

    He does not claim to believe in God. Ironic, perhaps, for a theologian, but not at all unusual in the old protestant denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians. I don’t think he believes with you as you said to God, “From the beginning, you were with us.”

    Even while my own atheism is not far from his in some ways, I find no comfort in his prayer, and certainly no cause for faith or love.

    January 11, 2012
    • I see no reason to doubt that Mr. Hauerwas means what he says in his prayer. Like many of us, no doubt, there are times when his faith seems weaker than others. Like many of us, there are times when we need to lean on the past (“from the beginning”) to sustain us in the present and orient us for the future.

      For me, I see honesty and hope in his prayer, along with a desire to remember rightly and to live in a way that reflects what is good and true—to manifest for one another the holiness of God.

      January 12, 2012
    • Ken #

      I don’t doubt what he says either. I was contrasting what he believes and says with what I understand you to believe and say.

      You have written before that you believe that God is a being. Hauerwas does not. Hauerwas says that he does not believe in God and is critical of those who do. As he describes his own theological project, he has tried to explain how a community would act that does believe in God. While he does not believe in God, he likes the way such a community would act, assuming that they agree with him on how they should act. Hauerwas is an ethicist.

      I also see honesty and hope (not my hope, but his) in his prayer. His hope is in a community that worships God. That hope is somewhat different from hope derived from belief in God. It is a hope founded in ethics or morality. That is why he writes statements like, “God is just not there for me the way God is there for some people.” That is why he distinguishes his restlessness from that of Augustine.

      Hauerwas seeks people with “lives capable of saying “From the beginning you, dear God, were with me.”” That is different, I think, from your prayer, “From the beginning, you were with us.” Your prayer implies that you believe in God. Hauerwas’ prayer does not. That understanding is critical to understanding his work. He is honest about this.

      The theology of Hauerwas is an example of what Dawkins has called, “sexed-up atheism.” That means, in the expression of Dawkins, that Hauerwas is an atheist who confusingly uses God language. Hauerwas does not use it dishonestly because he is transparent about what he is doing. I don’t recall Hauerwas calling himself an atheist. He describes himself as a Christian theologian who does not believe in God. He is not trying to deceive anyone. He is trying to be clear about his beliefs and disbeliefs, and, ultimately, his hope.

      The disbelief, and yet faith and hope, of Hauerwas are not unusual in the old Protestant denominations.

      January 12, 2012
      • I assume this is the quote you are basing your comments on (if not, please correct me):

        I observe in Hannah’s Child that most people do not have to become theologians to be a Christian, but I probably did. I still find it surprising that I am a Christian. God is just not there for me the way God is there for some people. I am not complaining. I assume that that is the way God works to make some of us have to think hard about what it means to worship God. I use the language of worship rather than belief because I am never sure if I believe in God. I do not trust myself enough to take what I believe seriously. But I do worship God, and I do so with joy.

        It seems to me that you are much more confident regarding what Mr. Hauerwas does or does not believe about God than he is. Hauerwas—at least in this quote—seems to allow for more possibilities than you are willing to grant him.

        Re: “Your prayer implies that you believe in God. Hauerwas’ prayer does not.”

        I’m not quite sure what to make of your parsing of my usage of these few lines in Hauerwas’s prayer. I see myself as praying the same thing he is praying: “Help us to recognize that you are and have been with us. Help us to live lives that reflect the purposefulness of your kingdom.” Even when our faith is weak. Even when we’re not sure if we believe.

        January 12, 2012
  4. Ken #

    Hauerwas has spoken often about his disbelief and how that has shaped his life and theology. Such is not at all unusual in liberal seminaries. I speak the same way. Hauerwas and I are much alike, even while he focuses on ethics and I focus on nature. I have read much of his work with great interest because for him a kind of faith or hope is possible even with disbelief.

    I think you may be taking something personal here that I did not mean about you or Hauerwas. I was not attempting to “parse” anything you wrote, or Hauerwas. Apparently we do read Hauerwas differently.

    I have criticized Hauerwas in the past because I heard him ridicule his mother over her faith. It appears that what happened, based on other things he has written, is that she may have injured him or scared him when he was young by telling him that she had dedicated him to God like Hannah did Samuel. If so, it is understandable that he would not admire his mother’s faith. I have friends who were similarly frightened.

    Hauerwas is a fine theologian and writer. I think that you and I agree on that, even while we read him differently, and even while I don’t find hope in his writing.

    My favorite book by Hauerwas is Naming the Silence. In it, he does a finer job of describing the theological trouble or mystery surrounding suffering than any work I have ever read. I have read it more than once. I remember the excitement I felt when I first read it, because in the end I expected to find hope. But I did not. I reread it assuming I must have overlooked it. It is still a fine book.

    January 12, 2012
    • I don’t think I’m taking anything personally—just trying to understand what you see as the differences between my usage of Hauerwas’s words and his intent (as you see it), and why the distinction is an important one for you.

      I had not heard of Naming the Silence—but I have added it to my list of books to read. I have been meaning to read Hannah’s Child for a while now, but haven’t gotten around to it.

      January 13, 2012
    • Ken #

      I want to read Hannah’s Child too. From the excerpts I have read, he addresses the significance of this phrase, among others, in the prayer you quoted: “Help us be capable of truthful memory.” He writes that he doubts the truthfulness of his memory. A deliciously ironic admission in one’s autobiography. Considering the importance of memory, community memory, in many of his theological works, that doubt is particularly significant and is an example of the paradoxes that I have found so interesting in his work.

      Peter Van Breemen writes insightfully about this paradox and cites English philosopher Ernest Gellner as the source of this metaphor: “Human intelligence is like the publicity department of large, complicated, and somewhat turbulent corporation run by a secretive and internally divided board of directors. The latter take good care to prevent the PR people from ever getting a clear picture of what management is up to. Yet it is the PR people who do the talking.”

      January 14, 2012
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I like the metaphor, Ken. How true this must be for other people. 🙂

    The kinds of doubt you allude to here manifest in me mostly when I look to myself as being responsible for proving the reality of God. When I am just able to relax and quiet my person so as to experience the presence of God, such proofs seem irrelevent.

    Maybe you experience something similar to this with “Lectio Divina”.

    January 14, 2012
    • Ken #

      Yes, I think it is true.

      Peter Van Breemen told a story about Saint Ignatius in which he said that after we let go of all of our own will in prayer that the will that remains is the will of God. That is, in one sense at least, the presence of God, and it is experienced as you write when we relax and quiet our person, when no proof is relevant.

      January 14, 2012
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Thinking about these last couple of responses a little more and dealing with a family crisis, which in part is compromised by conflicting “community memory’, perhaps what Mr. Hauerwas identifies as “doubting the truth of memory” is at times, intentional to God’s plan.

    If even within ourselves, in spite of our best intentions and efforts we recognize our inability to discern the truth of the matter, and likewise we recognize, (often more readily than we acknowledge our own defficiency) this “failure” in others, where do we go for truth? Where do we go for justice?

    And so I kneel before the cross, sinful and sorrowful, going to the only place I can go. Not so much looking for a specific answer as I am adoring His being, and hoping in Him.

    And in return there is condolence.

    No charted course of action. No check list of do’s and don’ts. Just the hope that only faith brings. Shallow in cognizant detail; deep in mystery and trust.

    And for me, it is enough.

    The heartbreak comes when those you love and in whose love you hope to share, see your efforts as absurd and inneffective; see you as incompetent and indifferent.

    January 16, 2012
    • Yes, how very true, Paul. Our limitations and doubts—about our memory or anything else—ought to drive us to the cross. There is deep hope there, and mercy too.

      God be with you in the pain that comes with conflicted people and conflicted memories.

      January 16, 2012
    • Ken #

      Paul, yes indeed. That is the hope that only faith brings.

      January 16, 2012
      • Ken #

        I was interrupted before finishing what I wanted to say last night.

        Re Paul’s: “Shallow in cognizant detail; deep in mystery and trust.

        The Roman Catholic understanding of mystery, reflected beautifully in Paul’s expression here, is quite useful to faith and understanding faith. Something quite similar is found in much nature writing, even when materialist. (Loren Eiseley is an example.) I noticed in the writings of Peter Van Breemen, the author I quoted above, that mystery figures importantly and in a way that is compatible with modern materialist leanings (like mine.) The metaphor that he associated with an English philosopher is an example of how the idea of mystery fits with a materialist, or evolution view of what the human mind is like, as well as with older Catholic ideas of what it is like. Breeman’s work represents a way to deal with the problem of suffering, and fragmented lives, through appreciation of mystery. I do find hope in his work, and in the Catholic understanding of mystery.

        January 17, 2012
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks, Ryan.

    January 16, 2012

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