Thursday, February 2, 2012

Glossing Stanley Hauerwas's Definition of Love

An oft-repeated claim of Stanley Hauerwas's is his definition of love in The Peaceable Kingdom as "the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other." The phrase has always struck me as helpful yet surprisingly passive in its force. Why not instead define love as "peaceable hospitality toward the other as other"? As Hauerwas is wont to argue, peace is a deeper reality than violence, and so ought not to be defined by being "not" violence. And the image of hospitality has much to recommend it over against that of apprehension: it is a central theme of the Christian tradition; it is an actual practice; it can be either individual or communal. Moreover, it evokes the sense of both active welcoming, a concrete positive action, and giving (making) space, a negative letting-be that retains the noncoercive component of apprehension as "perception." Finally, the phrase is clearly rooted theologically: in the act of God in the incarnation; in the being of God as eternally triune; and in the kingdom of God as inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit.

What's not to like?


  1. I think "apprehension" might be understood as a sort of "first hospitality". There's no hospitality if you don't let-the-other-be from a distance, before you crowd their space with your good deeds toward them, letting them be on their terms, as other. Indeed, hospitality that skips over apprehension can turn sour and maim more than heal. So I like 'apprehension'--because I understand it to be the starting point of any true hospitality.

  2. Andrew,

    I hear what you're saying regarding the virtues of "apprehension," but to make that definitional of love seems to be exactly what you name -- love/hospitality "from a distance." I don't think we need to understand hospitality as crowding space with good deeds; isn't that just bad hospitality? Included within the definition, it seems to me, are the noncoercive and letting-be aspects that answer those concerns, as the parameters of the sort of hospitality in view here.

    1. The distance of apprehension is a first step, not a final step. I'm speaking from witnessing attempts at hospitality that do not respect the dignity and space of the 'needy' person. Some might not ever realize the 'hospitality' they're giving is in fact stifling. So there's something to pausing, and apprehending, actually seeing, the other person as they are before moving in with 'hospitality'. So I guess I'm thinking of apprehension as a form of seeing/listening, which, as I said, is the beginning of hospitality. So in other words, hospitality need not be coercive--true hospitality, I would argue, is not. But I think some harmful things can be done in the name of what people perceive to be 'hospitality', which is why I like the emphasis on first seeing, apprehending, respecting the dignity of the person in 'need'.

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  4. Brad, I too find Hauerwas’ choice of "apprehension" here inadequate, and for several reasons. This language seems to be at odds with his emphasis elsewhere on the shortcomings of "belief," or to put it another way, mere intellectual assent apart from tangible action. I therefore agree with your revision for "hospitality." Moreover, apprehension, at least according to the dictionary, is ambiguous in its meaning. While Hauerwas does modify "apprehension" with the adjective "non-violent" (possibly to resolve this ambiguity), it is inconsistent with his overall arguments for truth telling. If apprehension is an act of mental ascent, then choosing or forcing that apprehension to be "non-violent" would tend to be coercive and dishonest. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a practice and, ideally, a virtue, which shapes the person into a non-violent agent through performance and repetition, not by self delusion. I am curious to know if this definition of love carries on into Hauerwas' later writings as well.