A book review

Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony

by Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon

A Critical Book Review by Jean Hite (prepared for a class in Ethics, The General Theological Seminary, Easter 2011)

In response to an inquiry about the success of their co-authored book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon offered this statement:  “If our book, Resident Aliens, has struck a chord, it is because it is part of a symphony.  More than needing ‘great theologians’ the church needs the renewal of intelligible theological discourse for ‘anyone,’ the kind of discourse a community does.  That comes as the church awakens from comfortable life as a civilizational religion and as Christians recover their status as “resident aliens.”  The task is to disengage from the Constantinian habits that have led us to confuse America with God’s salvation.  Where the book strikes a chord, we hope it is the chord of challenge to leave behind past forms of unfaithfulness and live adventurously.[1]

This statement serves to summarize the major arguments of the book and also provides an insight into the intention, passion and imagination the authors bring to their assessment of contemporary Christianity and its relationship with American culture.

The chord that Hauerwas and Willimon strike with Resident Aliens they hear as part of a symphonyEach author brings a tonal focus – Hauerwas as an ethical theologian, Willimon as a pastoral theologian – so that the combined chord they offer to the symphony is rich in resonance and overtones.  In working together, complementing each other, they are in a sense modeling the community they espouse.  The collection of voices that Hauerwas intones is the “school” of postliberal theologians who have been shaped by Ludwig Wittgenstein (philosophy of language), Alasdair MacIntyre (moral philosophy), and Clifford Geertz and Peter Berger (the sociological nature of community.)  The ecumenical spirit of postliberal theology originates in the work of George Lindbeck, a Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council.[2]  Willimon brings to the Resident Aliens duo his expertise in writing on pastoral themes for general audiences.  The authors’ combined gifts make Resident Aliens an accessible presentation of postliberal ecclesiology, ethics woven together with practical ministry.

Both Hauerwas and Willimon are United Methodists, although Hauerwas has light-heartedly labeled himself a high church Mennonite[3] and has praised Roman Catholics for their integrity in acting in accord with their moral and ecclesiological beliefs.[4]

As indicated by the subtitle of Resident Aliens: “a provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong,” the book includes an extensive discussion of what it is that went wrong:  with the dislocated “doing” of theology that grew out of the Enlightenment, with the loss of community to the pathology of individualism, with the dysfunctional relationship between church and secular society (especially as Constantinianism collapsed in America), and with the church’s misdirected sense of identity.

“The European Enlightenment,  . . . sought to rally people around a modern intention called reason.  The Enlightenment devised its own tradition of scientific investigation, individualism, and rights with attendant institutions built upon its values.  In our mind, the Enlightenment thereby contributed not only to the grand discoveries of the modern world, but also to it’s greatest tragedies.  The Enlightenment not only helped us to discover the Atom bomb but also gave us the intellectual means to use it without great guilt.”[5]

Resident Aliens charges that Post-Enlightenment theology has gone wrong in two respects:

1)  Theologians attempted to make a case for God in the secular world exclusively by means of rational argument apart from the faith and the revelatory tradition of the church.  As a result, over the last century theology has been predominantly apologetic.[6]   “Apologetics is based on the political assumption that Christians somehow have a stake in transforming our ecclesial claims into intellectual assumptions that will enable us to be faithful to Christ while still participating in the political structures of a world that does not yet know Christ.  Transform the gospel rather than ourselves.  It is this Constantinian assumption that has transformed Christianity into the intellectual ‘problem’ which so preoccupies modern theologians.”[7]

2)  In asking the question “How can we make the gospel credible to the modern world?” theologians have attempted to “transform the gospel rather than ourselves. . . The theologian’s job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.”[8]

Resident Aliens is highly critical of H. Richard Niebuhr because in the authors’ view Niebuhr called for Christianity to accept the values of culture and politics, undermining discernment of and adherence to distinctively Christian values.[9]  On the other hand the authors hold up the work of John Howard Yoder who defines three church types:  activist (liberal), conversionist (conservative) and confessing which “seeks to influence the world by being the church, that is, by being something the world is not and can never be, lacking the gift of faith and vision, which is ours in Christ.”[10]  Hauerwas and Willimon see both the liberal and conservative factions as dysfunctional underwriters of the American democratic system demonstrated by the fact that the views and actions of liberal and conservative Christians mirror so closely those of the Democratic and Republican  parties.[11]  Instead of joining the political parties in their secular agendas of power and reasoning in order to bring about change in the world, the church’s mission is simply to be – to model Christian values for the sake of the world in the spirit of the confessing church.

Resident Aliens sounds a wake-up call for Americans to acknowledge that we no longer live in a nominally Christian culture; we now live in a “society of unbelief.”[12]  This fall of Constantinianism (the culture in which the assumption is that most everyone is Christian – the state endorses the church and the church endorses state) is actually a good thing for the church because it potentially frees the church to reestablish its identity and values to function as a community, a colony of aliens resident in the world.  Hauerwas and Willimon envision the church with a mission of its own – with a distinctive story and reason for being.  The church is not merely another social group or service organization nor is its primary task to make society better.

“Alas, our greatest tragedies occurred because the church was all too willing to serve the world.  The church need not worry about whether to be in the world.  The church’s only concern is how to be in the world, in what form, for what purpose.”[13]

“As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.”[14] 

Resident Aliens states that, although America was founded on the liberalism of the Enlightenment and its promise of self-freedom, what its citizens have ended up getting is “self-centeredness, loneliness, superficiality and harried consumerism.”[15]  However according to Hauerwas and Willimon, this failure now makes possible a restoration of Christianity as an adventurous journey; the American church is called to be, think and act as a community, turning away from this predominant individualism.

In turning to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, the authors point out that the Sermon on the Mount is not primarily addressed to individuals.  Actually it is in acting as individuals that professed Christians are most likely to fail.  “The Sermon on the Mount does not encourage heroic individualism, it defeats it with its demands that we be perfect even as God is perfect.” [16]

The book further calls the church to reclaim its identity as “a city on the hill,” a light to illumine the truth that can be seen in this world only through Christ.  The church detaches itself from the ways of the world in order to demonstrate its pursuit of Godly perfection. The church must exist in the world as “an island of one culture in the middle of another.”[17]

In addressing ethics, Hauerwas and Willimon argue that the church’s responsibility is to model ethics, not to define ethics theologically, rationally or universally.  “An ethic claiming to be ‘rational’ and universally valid for all thinking people everywhere is incipiently demonic because it has no means of explaining why there are still people who disagree with its prescription of behavior, except that these people must be ‘irrational’ and, therefore (since ‘rationality’ is said to be our most important human characteristic), subhuman.”[18]

A primary role of the church is to form Christian disciples.  Discipleship must be learned, and must be learned through being in contact with others who are disciples – the apprenticeship system – a praxis-based learning system, not an intellectually based one.  Therefore an essential ethical role of the church is to bring together in community those who are experienced, those who are good at living the Christian faith.[19]

“Faith begins, not in discovery, but in remembrance”[20].  As a colony of heaven, a community of resident aliens, the church has a biblical story that sets it apart.  In the church Christians retell their story to each other and to their children, and in so doing hold each other accountable, confess their sins, receive forgiveness and commune at the Lord’s table.[21]   Like their Israelite forefathers who came to see themselves as a people on a journey, the church’s ethics become the virtues necessary to sustain the journey.[22]  The church’s very identity is rooted in narrative ethics.[23]

Because the church is constantly faced with the challenge of creating a vibrant colony, a model of ethical Christian truth, the most valuable priests and pastors are those with the gift of forming and nurturing community.

“The challenge is to form a community, a colony of resident aliens which is so shaped by our conviction that no one even has to ask what we mean by confessing belief in God, a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[24]

Failing [in this calling], the pastoral ministry is doomed to the petty concerns of helping people feel a bit better rather than inviting them to dramatic conversion. . . Or else the pastor feels like a cult prostitute, selling his or her love for the approval of an upwardly mobile, bored middle class, who more than anything else, want some relief from the anxiety brought on by their materialism.”[25]

Clergy frustration and burnout can result when the pastor’s role is too tightly bound to misguided goals of the church, when churches are caught up in the negative residual of Constantinianism.  By contrast pastoral leaders who engage the story of the church’s communal, social and ethical truths are living into their faithful vocation.  In this way “pastors orient the church toward God.”[26]

The success of parish ministry is grounded in its worship.  “In our worship, we retell and are held accountable to God’s story, the adventure story about what God is doing with us in Christ.”[27]  In worship God’s story intersects the church’s story, God’s story and the church’s story become one.  “God is taking the disconnected elements of our lives and pulling them together into a coherent story that means something.”[28]


In their stated hope that that Resident Aliens has struck a “chord of challenge to leave behind past forms of unfaithfulness and live adventurously”, Hauerwas and Willimon have carried a strong message of encouragement throughout the book about what the church might be if it returns to its biblical mission.  Although the assessment of the contemporary church often sounds grim, the honesty of the assessment rings true. Embracing the unfolding Christian journey in the spirit of adventure is ever present in the book.  Hauerwas and Willimon make clear the challenge to reclaim community, identity, a theology generated in the church’s communal setting, and its status as resident aliens in the world even as the question of a viable game plan remains open.

Many readers may find it troubling that Resident Aliens seems to offer no encouragement for establishing conversation with non-Christian faith traditions – no expectation for the possibility of hearing God’s voice outside the Church.  Are the authors intentionally suggesting that the ministry of reconciliation should be limited to the church’s internal relationships?

Resident Aliens presents clearly and powerfully the traditional Christian values of community, discipleship, ethics (based in Christian story), the marriage of theology and ecclesiology, and the practice of Christian virtue – all these themes constitute valuable proclamation themes for sermons.  The book certainly also encourages and points to the importance of doing theological reflection in small groups in the parish setting as it carries the reminder of maintaining a balance between “head and heart” in the formation offerings of the church.



 Hauerwas, Stanley, and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.

Hauerwas, Stanley, and William H. Willimon. “Why Resident Aliens Struck a Chord.” Missiology 19, no. 4 (O 1991): 419-429. Accessed April 10, 2011. ATLA Religion Database with ARLASerials (ATLA0000846114).

Hauerwas, Stanley. “The Importance of Being Catholic: A Protestant View.” First Things, March 1990.

“Stanley Hauerwas.” In Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology, Wesley Wildman, ed.  Boston University, 2005. Accessed April 11, 2011.  http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce /hauerwas.htm.


[1] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, “Why Resident Aliens Struck a Chord,” Missiology: An International Review Vo. XIX, No. 4 (Oct. 1991): page 419, accessed April 10, 2011, ATLA Religion Database with ARLASerials (ATLA0000846114).

[2] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “Postliberal theology,” accessed April 11, 2011, last modified April 5, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postliberal_theology.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, “Why Resident Aliens Struck a Chord,” Missiology 19, no. 4 (O1991): page 427, accessed April 10, 2011, ATLA Religion Database with ARLASerials (ATLA0000846114).

[4] Hauerwas wrote in a paper presented at the Univ. of San Francisco:  “I also believe that there is nothing more important for the future unity of the church than for you to be Catholic. Unless you draw on the integrity of your hard won wisdom about matters such as abortion, then you will have failed your calling to be the church that holds itself in judgment for the church’s disunity. (“The Importance of Being Catholic: A Protestant View,” First Things, March 1990, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/08/004-the-importance-of-being-catholic-a-protestant-view–13.)

[5] Resident Aliens, 99-100.

[6] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 19.

[7] Resident Aliens, 22.

[8] Ibid, 24.

[9] Ibid, 40-41

[10] Ibid, 46.

[11] Resident Aliens, 38.

[12] Resident Aliens was published in 1989.  The predominance of “unbelief” is perhaps even stronger today than it was twenty-two years ago.  (JH)

[13] Ibid.,43.

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Resident Aliens, 77.

[17] Ibid., 12.

[18] Ibid., 101.

[19] Ibid., 102.

[20] Ibid., 52.

[21] Resident Aliens, 92.

[22] Ibid., 54.

[23] “Hauerwas has sometimes been associated with narrative theology or post-liberalism . . . Hauerwas writes of narrative as “the necessary grammar of Christian convictions” in that Christian claims are inextricably linked to what God has done in history and to the ongoing story of God’s people as they move through time.” (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, s.v. “Stanley Hauerwas,” accessed April 11, 2011, last modified March 12, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Hauerwas.)

[24] Ibid., 127.

[25] Ibid., 123.

[26] Ibid., 136.

[27] Resident Aliens, 137-138.

[28] Ibid., 53.

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