Being Accommodationist: What Hauerwas and Willimon Really Mean
The term “accommodationist” has recently become a topic of some contention in global Orthodox Christian conversations on human sexuality. The term was derived from the widely influential book by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (first published in 1989, and reissued in 2014 with a new foreword and afterword). Because this term could continue to influence the way that we as Orthodox speak with each other about our tradition, bringing some clarity to the term itself might be helpful. I therefore reached out to Hauerwas and Willimon directly in order to gain some insight into their understanding of the concept. Both graciously agreed to speak with me about this topic. What follows is my reflection on their key points. (Direct quotations without citation are taken from phone conversations that took place in April of this year, and citations from the text itself are taken from the most recent 2014 edition).
I would summarize Hauerwas and Willimon’s understanding of the term “accommodationist” in the following way: the term “accommodationist” is a critical heuristic, not a category of heresy.
Both Hauerwas and Willimon explained that the term is not useful as a way to denote a specific group of people. Instead, it denotes a specific kind of methodological error in Christian theology. Accommodationist thinking occurs when the ethical and philosophical categories of the secular world are allowed to frame the terms of Christian theological thinking. This critical heuristic is a tool that Christians can use to continually ask themselves whether their minds are conforming to the terms of the world, or being transformed in Christ (Romans 12:2).
This is why both Hauerwas and Willimon noted that having a conversation about LGBT identity does not itself constitute accommodationist thinking. As Willimon explained, opinions about human sexuality and identity are not the supreme criterion for what constitutes Christian orthodoxy, and as faithful Christians we can therefore have a continuing conversation on deep issues of human identity and experience. In fact, he argues, utilizing this conversation as a way to distinguish true Christianity from false Christianity may itself be a form of accommodationist thinking because it forces Christians to categorize themselves according to the particular political and ideological frameworks of the present historical moment.
As Hauerwas put it, “I can’t see how an argument within a tradition can be said to be an accommodationist view.” Hauerwas noted that tradition is “a lively argument across time” that must always involve critical self-reflection on the claim to historical continuity: “if you are doing the same thing as the world around you changes, you’re not actually doing the same thing.” Traditional continuity is crucial to what it means to be the church- but what exactly this continuity means in a given historical moment must continually be interrogated. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we are conforming our theological rationalizations to the demands of the world, or pursuing a world transformed in the mind of Christ, which is what it truly means to be the church.
A close analysis of how Hauerwas and Willimon use the term “accommodationist” in Resident Aliens supports these points. The term and its derivations appear seven times in the text (pp. 27, 28, 32, 92, 94, 148, and 150). In all of these instances, the term refers to the mistake of letting contemporary political categories and social concerns, which are always contingent and in flux, to dictate the terms of Christian social thought. This does not mean that Christianity has nothing to say to social issues. On the contrary- Christian thought must address and engage social issues, but precisely because it must do so on its own terms, its authentic witness will never be conformable to the politics of the age. According to Hauerwas and Willimon, both conservative and liberal Christianity in America “are basically accommodationist” because they both “assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (32).
In other words, if a Christian elaborates a specific position on a contemporary social issue from within the framework of tradition and witness, the mere coincidence of this position with a particular American political ideology does not necessarily constitute accommodationist thinking. What does constitute accommodationist thinking is if the Christian believes that the task itself of their social thought is to coincide with a given political ideology. The problem with accommodationist thinking is not the fact that it has political implications. The problem is that the intentional coincidence of theology with a given ideology underestimates and holds captive the truly transformative politics of theology, a transformative potential that is simply vaster than can ever be conceived of ideologically.
When seen as a critical heuristic, the term “accommodationist” can help Christians engage in both individual and communal self-reflection on what it means to reason traditionally in the modern world. Christian self-reflection is critical, for as Willimon puts it: “We believe that the church can be a major means of conversion, detoxification, and inculcation of the practices required to be Christian in a world that thinks it already is” (4). What is ultimately needed is the restoration of the conviction that the Gospel “drives us back to a completely new conception of what it means for people to live with one another. That completely new conception is the church”- or the space where transformation in Christ becomes the ground of the transformation and salvation of the whole world (92). This is why Hauerwas describes the book as fundamentally “hopeful,” because it “suggests that we are actually living at a time when God is doing wonderful things for the church” (173-4).
Phil Dorroll is Associate Professor of Religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.