The Potter’s Mark: Meeting God and One Another

In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells have gathered a number of Christian thinkers and set them the task of re-conceiving Christian ethics and marking out Christian manners of approaching or responding to ethical dilemmas, all through the prism of Christian worship. While Hauerwas and Wells present their ideas clearly in the first section of the text, providing a solid framework, it is left to each subsequent author-using the ideas presented in section one as markers-to address specific issues in their own way.

We can gather an indication of theme within section two by considering the heading: Meeting God and One Another. It would be in keeping with the spirit of this section to tweak the heading a bit, and meditate upon the idea of meeting God with one another and perhaps through one another as well.

If Hauerwas and Wells provided us with the means to grasp the over-arching theme of the volume, then Philip Kenneson in “Gathering: Worship, Imagination and Formation” has offered us the tools we need to consider much of section two. The structure of section to, and the order of the essays is instructive. Up to chapter seven the focus in either worship in general (as in Kenneson) or in the greeting and entering into a Christian community. In chapter eight the Eucharist is addressed in the context of penitence and punishment while nine deals with the importance of aesthetics for Christian formation and worship. In chapter ten Michael Budde, in some ways, returns us to where we began with Kenneson: reflecting upon the countervailing messages and conflicting formation our culture bombards us with.

Evidently no fan of ambiguity, Kenneson begins with the bold assertion that: “No issue is more central to Christian ethics than worship. Moreover” he says, “human gatherings always involve worship, and worship always implicates human gatherings.” Disagreement on this point is less a sign of reason than of idolatry since the fact that “many people would regard such assertions as controversial, if not patently false, reveals more about the assumptions and convictions that underwrite Western cultures and societies than it does about the assertions themselves.” It seems, Kenneson argues, that we dislike the thought of worship being applied outside the so-called religious sphere because it inevitably brings our loyalties-work, leisure, hobbies, hates and loves-into a position of judgment.1

“All human life” Kenneson says, “is doxological, for its shape and direction always ascribe honor and worth to something or someone.” Arguing for a broader understanding of worship, and for recognition of the consequences of human gatherings and interactions, Kenneson leads us to the question of how it is that we learn to ascribe honor and worth to objects and people. This process occurs through secular socialization or religious formation. Much as a psychologist might speak of someone having reached an appropriate level of socialization, hence ascribing the appropriate amount of worth to other human beings, in a religious sense, one has been properly formed when one ascribes to God and to others, the honor due. This is a point that becomes very important in the later portions of the section, as it is argued that the manner of life exhibited by too many Christians indicates they have been too socialized and haven’t experienced proper formation. In other words, our sense of value has become skewed and our actions no longer seem appropriately informed or animated by our faith.2

In the two subsequent chapters, Emmanuel Katongole and Amy Laura Hall critique notions of identity that are out of touch with Christian values. For Katongole, the evidence for anemic formation is primarily found in his own experience as a Sub-Saharan African living in the United States and Europe. Moving from one situation to another wherein an anatomical feature he had never previously been conscious of suddenly became an important point of identification, forced Katongole to ask: “[. . .] how could I allow such a recent discovery to become the overriding characteristic for my self-understanding.?” This question forced Katongole to pursue ways in which our engagements with one another might move beyond race.3

With a reading of history and philosophy filtered through the thought of Arendt and Mudimbe among others, Katongole sought to understand the western notion of “race.” In the end he indicates that he believes race and racism to be products of the enlightenment and the brand of individualism it spawned: “with self-interest as the one and perhaps only story to live for, self-justification becomes both tenacious and ever suspect.” Ironically, given this concern with individuality and self-governance, this manner of life leads to an anxiety that “gives rise to practices in which the meeting with the other is policed by theories of race, history, or culture-all of which are meant to assure the modern self’s place at the center of history, as the climax of civilization, or as the ‘most advanced.'” Believing the notion of “tolerance” to be problematic because it reproduces a “form of inclusion by which power and privilege are extended but not questioned,” Katongole indicates that theologies or suggestions for racial reconciliation are doomed to failure because they reproduce the dichotomies that led to injustice without examining or challenging their foundational assumptions.4

Amy Laura Hall, likewise seeks to challenge some of our foundational assumptions regarding the feminine and masculine. As with Katongole and race/racism, Hall argues that gender is socially constructed. Not only that, but the prevalent tendency in the West, she argues, is one that seeks an equality of self-deception and avoidance: “Rather than men joining women in the servant ministry of mopping floors, washing dusty feet and touching broken bodies, women who are economically capable of doing so are joining men in the avoidance of this work.” Continuing, Hall states that “Such self-sufficiency is a lie against which Christians must testify. The middle and upper classes are hardly self-sufficient; rather, they are dependant upon an underclass that cares for other peoples’ children, runs the cash registers, and serves the burgers.”5

Sharing an interest in the liturgical greeting, Hall and Katongole use it to demonstrate and argue similar things. For Katongole the greeting serves as a call to fellowship, through which one is greeted by God and in turn greets others-a blessing through which one blesses. This blessing is illustrated in the example of a multi-ethnic church in the Malay Peninsula, in a village near Kuching. Before anyone could enter this church for the mass, they had to greet every other member of the parish. This practice highlights the docetism that Katongole and the gnosticism that Hall argued has been prevalent in the American church. Both of these heresies include a denial of Christ’s incarnation, which we implicitly deny when we refuse to greet one another or to bear one another’s burdens. Both Hall and Katongole wove stories into their essay from their lives to demonstrate the importance of meeting one another in the flesh, at the darkest points of our lives; in doing so, we greet Jesus.

Whether termed docetism or gnosticism, this dualism names an inability to accept human failings and frailty. For Katongole this means a refusal or inability to greet one another in the flesh, as embodied human beings in all our diversity. The avoidance of such embodied interaction, Katongole believes, is the origin of our detached claims to color-blindness and our protests of personal purity in regard to racism. It is only through this interaction that we can be brought into the Body of Christ, enter into the time between times-between creation and the end-and be enabled to look beyond race.

For Hall, this dualism leads to acceptance of cultural understandings of masculinity that leaves men with unattainable goals. The image of masculinity presented by our culture, she argues, is one that places an unrealistic expectation on contemporary men-an expectation shaped first by the memory of the first World War as the last “good war,” and the psychic projection of Superman filtered through the bitterness of Vietnam, only to fracture into dueling ideals represented in the cultural iconography of Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” and “Rambo: First Blood.” There is, she argues, too great an emphasis on a crusading mentality, as though no problem is important enough for men to deal with unless it were a civilization threatening conflagration. As a result of our shift to an economy based primarily on service and information, where manual labor has been pushed to the periphery, masculinity has become defined not by the lives of “good men,” but by Hollywood. Our task is to reclaim the tasks of embodied discipleship and relationship as definitive of manhood.

A common theme that emerges in each of these essays, is that of identity. The questions asked by each author approach from various directions the question of who Christians are and secondarily, what Christians do. Through worship, it is argued, Christians are able to learn something of their identity and how they are to respond in the world. For Hall and Katongole, the emphasis was on being brought together, incorporated, started or awakened by the greeting-the greeting of God and greeting one another. For Berkman the emphasis is Eucharistic and the question becomes what it means for our actions to say that we are a community of the “reconciled and reconciling.” Vanhoozer takes on the prevalence of postmodernity’s “happy nihilism” and the emptiness of the protean project of self-creation. Through a consideration of aesthetics and Christian worship-of the importance of beauty too often ignored by the faithful-and the formative effects such worship can have on who we are and how we relate to the world. Finally Michael Budde, in some sense, brings us full circle, calling on us to reconsider where our allegiance lies. Like Kenneson, he argues for a broader understanding of worship and the attendant expansion of the charge of idolatry; and like Hall and Katongole, he expresses the importance of his personal experiences of greeting.

Berkman argues that our ethics-particularly of penitence and punishment-should be considered in the light of the Eucharist. In the light of the Eucharist and Christian belief, “the primary objection [to capital punishment] will be that in light of the Christian imperative of reconciliation, it is not punishment at all.”6 Capital punishment, it is argued, undermines the basic Christian understanding of reconciliation: it is difficult to reconcile with ones executioners and one cannot be reconciled when one is dead. For Berkman, the identity of Christians as shaped by the Eucharist is one that makes unintelligible the practice of capital punishment. Vanhoozer, in considering the Doxology, offers this reflection upon Christian worship:

Worship, like experiences of beauty, solicits our attention and seeks to shape our character into the image of the one to whom we are attending in our prayers and praise: the triune benevolence.7

The importance of Christian worship then, is that it provides a space wherein the knowledge, identity and faith of the community can be expressed, allowed to work and shape the faithful into the image of the Christ they honor, worship and glorify, so that in their interactions during the “ordinary” times of their lives, they react to challenges and concerns as members of the Body of Christ. Budde offers a fine summary of this notion when he says that “‘learning our place in the Christian story’ might be a serviceable definition of Christian discipleship;” it is worship through which we learn the narrative of Christian life.8

    Questions:

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of approaching race/racism or masculinity/femininity as social constructs to be circumvented? Do you feel such an explanation is true?
  2. Do you believe the premise of this book-that worship is the correct or primary lens through which Christian action is to be judged and mediated? What is beneficial in such a view and what might be the draw-backs.
  3. Amy Laura Hall cites what she believes to be a split in the ideal of masculinity in the 1980’s. Do you believe her analysis is correct, and does her argument necessarily hinge upon this observation?
  4. There are some points within the essays, particularly Vanhoozer’s chapter on aesthetics and worship, which might be challenging for those of us who seek to be evangelists. Taking the premise of the book and these essays into consideration, where are these criticisms valid and where do you think they miss the mark?

Works Cited
Berkman, John. “Being Reconciled: Penitence, Punishment, and Worship.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Budde, Michael L. “Collecting Praise: Global Culture Industries.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Hall, Amy Laura. “Naming the Risen Lord: Embodied Discipleship and Masculinity.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Katongole, Emmanuel. “Greeting: Beyond Racial Reconciliation.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Kenneson, Philip. “Gathering: Worship, Imagination, and Formation.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “Praising in Song: Beauty and the Arts.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.


  1. Philip Kenneson, “Gathering: Worship, Imagination, and Formation,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, Blackwell Companions to Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 53. []
  2. Ibid., 54. []
  3. Emmanuel Katongole, “Greeting: Beyond Racial Reconciliation,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, Blackwell Companions to Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 70. []
  4. Ibid., 75-76 []
  5. Amy Laura Hall, “Naming the Risen Lord: Embodied Discipleship and Masculinity,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 84-85. []
  6. John Berkman, “Being Reconciled: Penitence, Punishment, and Worship,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 106. []
  7. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Praising in Song: Beauty and the Arts,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 117. []
  8. Michael L. Budde, “Collecting Praise: Global Culture Industries,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 124. []