Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Stanley Hauerwas (1940-)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Stanley Hauerwas is the most prolific and comprehensive, as well as perhaps the most important, theological ethicist alive.  Born July 24, 1940, Hauerwas undertook his undergraduate education at Southwestern University. His graduate work was completed at Yale University, where Hauerwas earned a B.D., M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D., before teaching at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School and also holds an appointment in Duke Law School. Hauerwas’s importance is not simply a result of the quantity of his work, but also of his attempt to reframe all modern theological discourse, ethics included.  The various movements (e.g., postliberalism, narrative theology, virtue ethics) associated with Hauerwas share his larger aim of opposing the corrosive effects of modernity on Christian theology.  The questions posed by modernity, says Hauerwas, are not to be answered but rejected as anti-theological.  As a result, one of Hauerwas’s main goals has been to provide an account of Christian theology that does not rest on modernist assumptions.

2. Works (Selected List)

Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection (1974); Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics (1975); Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations into Christian Ethics (1977); A Community of Character (1981); The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (1983); Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society (1985); Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (1986); Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living in Between (1988); Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (with William Willimon, 1989); Naming the Silence: God, Medicine and the Problem of Suffering (1990); After Christendom: How the Church Is to Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas (1991); Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (1993); Dispatches from the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular (1994); In Good Company: The Church as Polis (1995); Where Resident Aliens Live (with William Willimon, 1996); Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics (with Charles Pinches, 1997); Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth Century Theology and Philosophy (1997); Sanctify Them in Truth: Holiness Exemplified (1998); A Better Hope: Resources for a church confronting capitalism, democracy and postmodernity (2000); With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology (2001); Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Non-Violence (2004); That State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God (2007); Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations between a Radical Democrat and a Christian (with Romand Coles, 2008).

3. Themes

Because much of Hauerwas’s work is dedicated to reframing the theological discourse, it is easy to misconstrue Hauerwas’s intent and position.  As he says, “One cannot understand what I am all about if one continues to presuppose the dominant philosophical and intellectual habits of the past hundred years” (Hauerwas, 2001b, 91).  This section explores what Hauerwas is “about” by articulating his provocative vision of the church vis--vis the modern world.

The Problem of Modern Theology

The easiest way to understand Hauerwas’s critique of modernity is to trace historically how Christian theology has changed as a result of modernity’s influence.  “At one time,” says Hauerwas, “Christian ethics did not exist” (Hauerwas, 2001b, 37).  Or to be more precise, before the Enlightenment Christian theologians did not distinguish between the ethical and theological dimensions of Christian living (Hauerwas, 2001b, 40).  The Enlightenment began modernity’s quest to find a secure basis for action that was independent of the contradictory claims of religious traditions.  Perhaps the most famous attempt to secure ethics by reason alone was Immanuel Kant’s formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that Maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law” (quoted in Hauerwas, 2001b, 45).  By accepting a divorce between what one believes and what one does, many Protestant theologians began to view theology as just a type of metaphysics, which can or cannot be dispensed with, depending upon one’s metaphysical inclinations (Hauerwas, 2001b, 47). 

Once this split was generally assumed, the “metaphysical” claims of Christianity became harder to justify.  Christians responded to this challenge in one of two ways, both of which Hauerwas thinks distorted Christianity.  On the one hand, some Christian theologians followed Kant by “turning to the subject” in order to ground theology in something secure.  One cannot speak confidently about God, but one can speak confidently about one’s experience of God.  The result, according to Hauerwas, is that for some modern Christians, “Christianity only makes sense as a disguised humanism” (Hauerwas, 2001b, 64).  For Protestant liberal theologians, Christianity is not really about Jesus’ atoning death, but rather about the ethical dimension of the Kingdom of God. 

On the other hand, more conservative Christian theologians turned to natural theology to lay a necessary foundation for belief, upon which special revelation could build.  This can be seen in the stipulations of the Gifford Lectures, first given in 1888 and delivered by Hauerwas in 2001.  Lord Gifford wanted the lecturers to treat religion “as a strictly natural science, the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed, in one sense, the only science, that of Infinite Being, without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation” (As quoted in Hauerwas, 2001a, 26).  The worry here was that without a secure epistemological base, beliefs can only be “arbitrary” and “dogmatic.”

Both reactions to modernity, argues Hauerwas, were ultimately unsuccessful.  By trying to make Christianity “rational,” they in fact promoted its eventual decline.  If Protestant liberals do not need theological claims to justify their ethics, why do they need Christianity?  And the more that one relies on natural theology for belief in God, the more troubling the particularity of Christianity becomes.  Hauerwas thus argues that if Christianity is in fact true, it cannot accept the intellectual terms of modernity.

 Theology of the Particular; or Why Christian Theology is a Story

For Hauerwas, the task of Christian theology is not to tell everyone what they already know.  Christians, like all human knowers, do not have access to a mechanism that could gain universal assent and remove all doubt.  The task of Christians, says Hauerwas, is to bear witness to whom they know: God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The fundamental discourse of Christian theology is not about what universally has to be, but what historically has been.  Christians are witnesses to a “story”—because a story describes the particularity—of God’s redemptive intervention into the world.  And stories, precisely because they are about the particular, cannot be universalized to meet modernity’s criteria of rational belief. 

To those who accept the terms of modernity, Hauerwas’s arguments are troubling because his strategy seems designed to ignore and evade the challenges offered by science and pluralism.  Hauerwas thus summarizes a critique offered by James Gustafson:

[Hauerwas’s theology] cannot but result in a fideistic stance that legitimates a tribalistic understanding of Christianity…it has the unfortunate effect of ‘isolating Christianity from taking seriously the wider world of science and culture and limits the participation of Christians living in the ambiguities of moral and social life in the patterns of interdependence in the world’ (Hauerwas, 2001b, 93). 

In other words, a theology that ceases to submit its claims to public debate and possible revision becomes irrational and dangerous.

Hauerwas’s response is to question the presuppositions underlying Gustafson’s account, using Alasdair MacIntyre’s “traditioned” account of rationality (MacIntyre 1990).  One of MacIntyre’s main points is that rationality is not monolithic.  Rather, what is rational depends on one’s context and community.  What is rational for an Oxford don might not be so for a Chinese rice farmer.  Humans are born into communities that shape their presuppositions; as those persons who share basic commitments try to solve shared problems they create traditions.  In the absence of shared basic assumptions on the part of dialogue partners, dialogue breaks down and progress becomes impossible.  This can be seen even in scientific communities, when, for example, hiring patterns (e.g., biologists must accept Darwinian evolution) enforce certain limits on inquiry.  Unless scientists share the same basic paradigm, to use Thomas Kuhn’s terminology, there can be no “problem solving” (Kuhn 1996). 

Hauerwas’s response to Gustafson, then, is that Christians must not submit theological claims to non-theological standards.  Christians do not inhabit the world in the same way non-Christians do.  Furthermore, while modernity claims to endorse a “neutral” or “value-free” account of rationality, it too rests on certain value-laden presumptions about what counts as rational.  In other words, modernity itself forms a tradition with a certain history and context, despite the fact that it must deny this on its own terms.  Thus, while Hauerwas is not willing to accept the “anything goes” aspect of postmodernity, he thinks that it rightly unveils the contradictions found in modernity.

If rationality depends on traditions, how then does one avoid a “tribalism” in which multiple traditions co-exist without any way of adjudicating between them?  For Hauerwas, a traditioned account of rationality does not preclude truth-claims from being challenged (Hauerwas, 2001b, 98).  Just because there is no universal standard of rationality, does not mean that one can ignore evidence against one’s own position.  Indeed the function of traditions is to provide a context for solving problems that are encountered, often by dialoguing with those outside the tradition.  That is why Hauerwas responds in the following manner to Gustafson:

Rather than asserting that material theological convictions must be revised in light of science, should not Gustafson indicate which scientific conclusion should be considered and why?  Certainly I see no reason why the central affirmations of the Christian faith need to be surrendered or denaturalized in terms of mere activity of science, and I am unaware of any scientific conclusion that would force such a conclusion (Hauerwas, 2001b, 98).

Hauerwas’s position is not to deny rationality, but rather to deny that scientific results come automatically coupled with the power to judge theological claims.

How then does one become a member of the Christian community?  Why do persons decide to leave their own communities to become initiated into the Christian community?  For Hauerwas, it certainly does not come through be “reasoned” into Christianity.  This is because believing in Jesus Christ requires not just a change of mind but a change of heart.  It is God that redeems both the world and the human heart, and so “witness and argument are the work of the Holy Spirit” (Hauerwas, 2001a, 211).

One can see why Hauerwas wants to shift the epistemic burden placed on Christianity by modernity, for “the very content of Christian connections requires the self be transformed if we are adequately to see the truth of [its] convictions…” (Hauerwas, 2001b, 100). While Christians are within their epistemic rights to hold to their religious beliefs, there is no way fully to justify them to those who have not been transformed. 

If it is the Holy Spirit that makes the argument to unbelievers, what then is the role of the Christian community?  It is simply to bear witness, because the very fact that the community exists counts as evidence that the claims of Christianity are true.  Here two fundamental assertions of Hauerwas—that one cannot separate belief from action, and that one cannot discount evidence against one’s position—cohere.  Without the manifestation of Christian convictions in a community of virtue, one would not have evidence that the radical claims that one makes of the triune God are true.   Hauerwas argues, “Christianity is unintelligible without witnesses, that is, without people whose practices exhibit their committed assent to a particular way of structuring the whole” (Hauerwas, 2001a, 214).  These practices can and must have a positive effect on those outside the community, “…for the only truthful way of making Christianity attractive is through witness.”  Thus, the job of Christians is not to convince but to witness, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to the unbeliever through the witness of Christians (Hauerwas, 2001a, 210).  The purpose of the church is not to prove that Christianity is true, but to demonstrate what the world is like if it is true (Hauerwas, 2001a, 214).   And because the church is a foretaste of the coming community of God, to be a Christian witness is, as the title of Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures suggest, to be working “with the grain of the universe.”

Like one of his theological heroes, Karl Barth, Hauerwas issues a fundamental challenge to those who do “academic” theology that is divorced from Christian community.  And like Barth, Hauerwas has sparked strong reactions: “Hauerwas is contemporary theology’s foremost intellectual provocateur” (Elshtain 2001).   Ultimately, one’s evaluation of Hauerwas will be tied closely to one’s evaluation of modernity and to whether one sees in modernity a necessary turning away from superstition or a kind of superstition itself. 

4. Outline of Major Works

 [Forthcoming]

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

 [Forthcoming]

6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Elshtain, J. B. 2001. “America's Best.” Time. September 17, 2001.

Kuhn, T. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hauerwas, S. 2001a. With the Grain of the Universe: the church's witness and natural theology: being the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 2001. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press.

Hauerwas, S., J. Berkman, et al. 2001b. The Hauerwas reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

MacIntyre, A. 1990. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

7. Internet Resources

Hauerwas on Wikipedia

Duke University Divinity School Profile

Hauerwas Online: Unofficial Internet Archive (links to articles by and about Hauerwas, interviews, etc.)

8. Related Topics

John Wesley (1703-1791)

Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

 

Edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material from Josh Reeves (2005).

 

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