Will Willimon: 'Resident Aliens' at 25


This year Abingdon Press has released a new edition of  Resident Aliens  on the book's twenty-fifth anniversary. Stanley Hauerwas and I have written a foreword and afterword for the new edition. Here is the first part of my foreword. Stanley and I will present at this year's Alumni Convocation at Duke Divinity School in early October.

It is tempting to describe the genesis of Resident Aliens as happenstance. Luck is about as much as contemporary North Americans are permitted to claim for the direction of our lives. I sound humble if I say that just good luck placed Stanley and me at Duke on the same week, that we became fast friends, and eventually produced a book that sold more copies than anything we wrote before or since.

Yet as you know, Christians don't believe in luck; we believe in God, a God who acts, who takes over the lives we thought we were living under the delusion that our lives were our own. What the world calls luck, we are taught to call Providence, the surprising machinations of a living God. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we get to live out stories we don't write by ourselves. Dorothy Day ends The Long Loneliness with a beautiful passage about how she and Peter Maurin and their leftist buddies were just sitting around talking and someone asked for bread, so they gave bread. Then while they were just talking, cranking out The Catholic Worker in the depths of the Depression,someone showed up and asked for a bed; they provided housing. If they hadn't, all their talk would have been just talk. And thus began one of the great stories of God reclaiming a portion of New York for good through a bunch of otherwise ordinary leftistsMartin Luther famously claimed that he just drank lots of good Wittenberg beer and the Reformation simply happened. The Acts of the Apostles alleges that Philip was just hiding out in Samaria and next thing he knew, oops, he was baptizing Gentiles and eunuchs.

Christians describe our lives in the fashion of Day, Luther, or Luke, not to give credence to the pagan fantasy of luck but rather to indicate our belief in Providence, those sometimes joyful, often terrifying moments when we lose control of our story, when we find ourselves commandeered by the Holy Spirit, and we are being put to use for greater ends than we intended.

I am bold to believe that Stanley and I came up with Resident Aliens under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Not all of the book can be attributed to the Third Person of the Trinity, of course, but enough of the book was good enough to think God meant this little book to be. I'm sure that we were wrong about lots of things (what joy to be able to say to some unfair critic - and aren't they all? - "Oh, Stanley wrote that section, not me."), but at least we gave God enough to work with to enable thousands of pastors and laypeople to say, "Resident Aliens is an apt description of us, our church, and the work that God has now given us to do."

To those who said that my opening illustration of the first Sunday movie at the Fox Theater as the death of Christendom was the most memorable part of the book, thanks. To those who claim to have seen me making out with Janie Jones during that movie, you're crazy. Who would waste a John Wayne movie for that which could have been more easily done in the darkened balcony at the Sunday Evening Service at Buncombe Street Methodist Church? (As he began to play "Sweet Hour of Prayer" as background music, our organist always turned down the rheostat during our concluding "Altar Prayer Time," thus providing the darkness needed for such teen exploits.)

Though I didn't think of it this way when we were writing the book, I now believe Resident Aliens is mainly a work of ecclesiology by two erstwhile Barthians who weren't thought to have an adequate ecclesiology. The book announced, though we didn't put I this way at the time, that sentimental, subjectivist, squeamish Docetism is a greater peril for North American Christians than arrogant ecclesiastical triumphalism. Our line was drawn not between righteousness and sin, or belief and atheism, or liberalism and conservatism, but between the church and the world. We called upon the church to be more deeply, aggressively "political," as we redefined politics. As Barth had thundered, "Let God be God!" we less boldly suggested, "Let the church be the church." Resident Aliens is Christianity not only countercultural but also corporeal. While at Yale, reading Barth, Stanley and I heeded Barth's warning never to, "overlook the visibility of the church, explaining away its earthly and historical form as something indifferent, or angrily negating it, or treating it only as a necessary evil, in order to magnify an invisible fellowship of the Spirit and of spirits," and thereby attempt to flee the real church into "a kind of wonderland."[1] Though I think God has given me a greater natural inclination for being Christian than God has given Stanley (growing up fatherless has its advantages), we both believe that there's no way either of us would have embraced and persevered in this faith without the church embracing us.

As Bonhoeffer said, we must never dream a church that imagines a corporate identity that has never existed. Yet as Bonhoeffer also said, we must resist the tendency to make the Christian life something that is inward and spiritual rather than the sort of objective, personal truthfulness that is primarily visible and historical.[2] Resident Aliens is a demonstration (in my case, thanks to Lesslie Newbigin) of the continuing historicity and necessary visibility of the church. Newbigin criticized the Reformers' conception of the church as having, "no real place for the continuing life of the church as one fellowship binding the generations together in Christ. It makes the church practically a series of totally disconnected events in which, at each moment and place at which the word and sacraments of the Gospel are set forth, the church is there and then called into being by God's creative power."[3]   I hoped to overcome some of that Lutheran and Reformed eventfulness, as well as to counter current frothy "spirituality" with some good old Wesleyan "practical divinity" in my contribution to Resident Aliens. Better books were written in the past two decades about the ideas of Christ, the work of Christ, or the mission of Christ; I am bold to think that this book was a not too shabby rendition of the corporeal, fleshly, sacramental Body of Christ.

Regrets? I wish we hadn't spent so much time early in the book doing battle with academics of the past, many of whom are unread today. Not too exciting a beginning for our theological polemic. I wish we had given much more emphasis to the specific shape, the content and peculiar quality of the Missio Dei, even though last semester I usedResident Aliens in my Local Church in Mission to God's World Course and it seemed to work. Of course, we believe that the church is mission. We also asserted, along with Newbigin, that North America is one of the toughest mission fields the church has ever attempted. When asked by the disbelieving world, "Do something missional" (or "political," "evangelical," "ethical," or "useful") we try to plant and nurture a church.

I wish our Christology had been more self-evident. Stanley's ecclesiology (in my humble opinion) sometimes tends to hypostasize Christ with his church. I, on the other hand, agree with Barth that, "The world would be lost without Jesus Christ . . . the world would not necessarily be lost if there were no Church."[4] After doing time as a bishop, sometimes I think Stanley flirts with ecclesiastical romanticism. (He would slap me for that comment were it not for his Christian pacifism.) I join Barth in granting to the church only an "equivocal witness."[5] As Barth famously quipped, to be in the church is to be a bird always beating its wings against the bars of a cage.[6] After eight years as a bishop, I know more about that cage than Stanley.

A larger dose of pneumatology wouldn't have hurt the book. Without taking away any of our Catholic, Anglicanesque sacramentalism, I would have liked a bit more robust, wild and goofy Pentecostalism. I regard the worldwide Pentecostal outbreak of signs and wonders by the Holy Spirit as one of the most interesting moves God is making with the church today. When I told my class this year that I was curious if Resident Aliens still had resonance with a new generation of Christians, one smart aleck quipped, "This book was written two years before I was born."   Still, the book has outlived most of its critics. Through some of my more accessible syntax lots of people were introduced to the demanding thought of Stanley - the most interesting theologian of my generation.

Will Willimon


[1] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV, 653-54.

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church(London: SCM Press, 1952), 48.In these same lectures, Newbigin criticized Barth's ecclesiology of church as "event" for allowing the eschatological "completely push out the historical." (49)

[4] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3, 826.

[5] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, 617.

[6] Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 147


From Will's Blog, A Peculiar Prophet