A Theologian for These Times?

With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology

By Stanley Hauerwas. Brazos Press, 249 pages, $22.99

There was once a time when American Protestant
theologians were a vital part of the national civic debate. In recent decades,
however, theologians have steered their discipline toward a quest for academic
respectability, choosing narrow specialization over efforts to influence a wider
public. It is a remarkable fact that today, even in a time of terror and warfare,
when religious questions once again fill the public square, no one turns to our
theologians for help. American believers seek the quieter spaces of church and
synagogue, the meetinghouse and the vigil, and the solace of prayer and
contemplation. Commentary in The New York Times and The Washington Post since
September 11 has kept theological reflection to a minimum: predictable
fulminations from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; a plea from the
activist-author Jim Wallis to give peace a chance. For the most part, the voices
of ministers and rabbis have been muted and serious theological talk has been
relegated to academic symposia.

This popular indifference to professional theology makes all
the more interesting Time magazine's recent decision to add the category
"America's Best Theologian" to its annual "America's Best" list and to name
Stanley Hauerwas the first recipient. Although Hauerwas, who teaches at Duke
Divinity School, no doubt winces at the very notion of "Best Theologian," he is a
worthy selection. Hauerwas is a hardworking and generous man whose writing
displays an exceptional intellectual range. His many books and essays are mostly
free of the scholarly throat-clearing that plagues much academic writing.
Meanwhile, Hauerwas has redefined theology in the American academy, reclaiming
the language of Christian orthodoxy in the postmodern conversation.

Still, the selection of Hauerwas for "America's Best" caught many people by
surprise. Time's issue hit newsstands the week of September's terrorist
attacks. With images of death and destruction everywhere visible, Time was
bestowing its "America's Best Theologian" honor upon a pacifist. And not just any
pacifist, but one with attitude, one who insists that taking up the Cross of
Jesus means the final and complete rejection of all political means of
self-defense. Here is a man who once argued that if gays are to be excluded from
the military because of their unacceptable sexual practices, then Christians
should be excluded, too: How could you ever trust a man who prays for the enemy?
Who knows what kind of "disgusting behavior" these believers might engage in!
They might even start gathering nightly to hold hands and bow their heads.

To the uninitiated, Hauerwas is a hard person to figure. Indeed, those of us
who have followed his work cannot always follow his drift. He not only
considers the Christian Coalition heretical and fascist but also criticizes
the conservative-Christian lobby for its failure to distinguish between
discipleship and patriotism and for its "coercive reclaiming of a Christian
America." He also signed the "Declaration concerning Religion, Ethics, and the
Crisis in the Clinton Presidency," which was the closest the former president
ever came to getting a pastoral rebuke. Hauerwas opposes abortion and the death
penalty, and he thinks that school prayer can only inhibit genuine spiritual
development, which flourishes at the margins of legitimacy. He has called
capitalism the second-greatest threat to "family values" (the first being
Christianity), and he doesn't worry himself with same-sex marriage, pornography,
or Teletubbies. He has also called "justice" a liberal conceit that helps no
one, and "human rights" the self-reflection of the controlling elites. No doubt,
Stanley Hauerwas is something of a theological prankster: a Christopher Hitchens
on Aquinas; Daniel Berrigan with a sense of humor. His recent popularity may be
more attributable to a contrariness that lends itself to sound bites--Time
called him the "Christian contrarian"--than to his theological contributions.

But Hauerwas is not peddling pop shock-theology like the so-called radical
theologians of the late 1960s. Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, and
Gabriel Vahanian, you may recall, made for good copy in Time magazine, too,
with such ready-for-Rowan-and-Martin one-liners as, "God is dead, thank God!"
With their pipes and paisley ascots, questions of eternal life cast aside like
last week's church bulletin, 15 minutes of fame never felt so good. Hauerwas is a
different breed, at once more radical than the radicals and more theologically
serious than their Christian critics.

If there is a single ambition running through Hauerwas's books, essays,
sermons, and occasional writings, it is this: to undo the Constantinian synthesis
between the church and the world. The church must reclaim the proclamation that
scandalized the ancient world, that the "people who bear the cross," not the
sword, are "working with the grain of the universe." (The phrase is borrowed from
the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.) Hauerwas wants to free the American
church from its bondage to idolatrous self-constructions--otherwise known as
civil religion--and restore to its mission the countercultural practices of
forgiveness and reconciliation, hospitality to strangers, and nonviolence, as
well as nonresistance to death and suffering brought on by forces of evil.

Over the years, critics of Hauerwas have complained that his work
lacks careful articulation; that he tosses out provocative claims without
sufficient attention to their complexity; that he has not given us any sustained
book-length treatment of his overall project. Hauerwas has responded with his
most satisfying book to date, With the Grain of the Universe, originally
delivered as the 2001-2002 Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews. His
aim is to retell the story of modern Protestant theology so as to show that the
truth claims of Christianity do not rest on natural reason but are better
understood as the revealed conditions of the church's peaceable witness in the
world--as a new "narrative" about the relationship between the human and the
divine.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Hauerwas that The
Nature and Destiny of Man,
Reinhold Niebuhr's classic study of Christian
truth-claims in the nuclear age (delivered as his own Gifford Lectures between
1938 and 1940), is taken to exemplify the endgame of the Protestant liberal
tradition. (The death-of-God theologians of the 1960s simply restate Niebuhr's
conclusions in a different form.) Hauerwas does not share mainline
Protestantism's veneration of Niebuhr as heroic churchman making faith acceptable
to its scientific and cultured despisers. He does not even offer an acquiescent
nod that Niebuhr, despite his theological failures, at least had the courage to
get his hands dirty. Hauerwas takes Niebuhr's influence as just another dreary
episode in the story of modern Protestant theology, wherein Christianity, after
abandoning its historic commitment to revealed knowledge of God, becomes an
anthropomorphic enterprise. "Niebuhr's theology," Hauerwas says, "seems to be a
perfect exemplification of Ludwig Feuerbach's argument that theology, in spite of
its pretentious presumption that its subject matter is God, is in fact but a
disguised way to talk about humanity."

Protestant liberalism built its franchise on the premise that the truth claims
of Christianity could be reinterpreted in a manner consistent with the
antimetaphysical drift of the modern world. Immanuel Kant's critiques of pure and
practical reason had rendered theological knowledge untenable even while keeping
God in the picture as an idea useful in ordering moral experience. The story of
Protestant liberalism begins with this reduction: The doctrines of the church are
meaningful only as lessons about human experience. As descriptions of the living
triune God, they are nonsense. The nineteenth-century theologian Friedrich
Schleiermacher may have shown that this flawed tradition could sometimes produce
inspired results, as in his exquisite rendering of religion as an aesthetic
sensibility, "a sense and taste of the Infinite." But Feuerbach, Freud, and Marx
better appreciated the devastating theological consequences of Kant's
methodological shift. Religious questions, however new or remarkable, are just
questions like all other questions and are answered with greater detail and
panache in nontheological accounts. As the philosopher Richard Rorty said in one
of his refreshing anticlerical rants: "The theologians read the philosophers in
the way in which couturiers in undeveloped portions of the fashion world read the
latest reports from Paris. For their activity consists largely in changing the
label on the latest philosophical costume. The new label always reads 'God,' no
matter what the old label was."

According to Hauerwas, Reinhold Niebuhr accepted modernity's antitheological
premise while adding to it a further discrimination that would have horrified
most nineteenth-century liberal Protestants. Niebuhr claimed that the historical
Jesus and his social teachings were irrelevant in the modern world. Jesus has
meaning today only as a symbol that reminds us of our complex finitude,
illuminating the tragic distance between divine love and human action. "The
Cross," wrote Niebuhr, "symbolizes the perfection of agape which transcends
all particular norms of justice and mutuality in history." Niebuhr's Cross is
not the atoning miracle of the one who "became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,"
as the Nicene Creed instructs; nor is it the supernatural center of the church.
Rather, Niebuhr's Cross is something like an interpretive key that "unlocks the
mystery of what man is and should be and of what God is in relations with men."
In fact, for all that the Cross might teach us about the pathos of human
experience and the self's uneasy conscience, it remains a symbolic idea and may
one day be replaced by other, better symbols.

As Hauerwas sees it, this is precisely the kind of mess you get
in when you try to write theology for the "public" rather than for the church.
People do not lay down their lives for their neighbor out of devotion to a
principle or a hermeneutical key; they do so for the sake of a living and
personal God who transcends nations and cultures, who calls and forgives and
loves. Hauerwas abhors the spectacle of Christians constantly trying to adjust
themselves to the spirit of the age, whether to the fashions of academe, the
spirit of nations, or the drumbeats of war. Any Christian seeking to be faithful
to scripture and tradition must recognize that Niebuhr's "morally creative world
view," with its tough talk about the will to power and coercive action, is
finally determined by the shared needs of the professional-managerial class.
Hauerwas writes:

[Anyone] who would put Niebuhr on the side of the angels must
come to terms with the extraordinary "thinness" of his theology. Niebuhr's god is
not a god capable of offering salvation in any material sense. Changed
self-understanding or attitude is no substitute for the existence of a church
capable of offering an alternative to the world. Of course, Niebuhr did not seek
such an alternative, which is why he could not help but become the theologian of
a domesticated god capable of doing no more than providing comfort to the anxious
conscience of the bourgeoisie.

Niebuhr speaks of God by speaking of America in a loud voice.
This is the theological voice we hear in presidential prayer breakfasts, in
blessings for our way of life, in the cosmic-muffin piety of civil religion, the
voice that unites the Protestant mainline and the Christian right. But after
Hauerwas, that Niebuhrian voice will never again sound so reassuring.

The hero of With the Grain of the Universe is the Swiss Reformed theologian
Karl Barth, whose defiant "Nein" to natural theology turned the nineteenth
century on its head. Barth believed that the blood-and-soil theology of the
Deutsche Christen--the German civil religion of the Nazi state--demonstrated the
logical conclusion of the Protestant liberal impulse. "Man has taken the divine
into his possession," Barth wrote, "he has brought it under his management."

Hauerwas reads Barth's 14-volume Church Dogmatics as a comprehensive
reconfiguration of the world from the perspective of the triune God. Barth's
astonishing achievement, the creation of "a universe of discourse" (in the words
of the theologian Hans Frei), with its peculiar rules and rhythms, its "lengthy,
even leisurely unfolding" of the strange, new world within the Bible, was above
all an expression of joyful confidence in the self-validation of Christian
theology's distinctive message: True freedom is life lived in the intimacy of
God's freedom. The God who revealed himself in Israel and Jesus Christ invites
humanity to share in the divine history by sharing in the new dispensation of the
nonviolent kingdom, which for Christians means the church. Authentic Christian
existence must begin and end with the church's struggle to produce "truthful
witnesses," who speak to us, as it were, from a different world, a counterkingdom
of peace.

Hauerwas concludes his work with a meditation on the "necessity of witness."
The term witness introduces a new theme in his work. In earlier writings,
Hauerwas appropriated terms from moral philosophy such as character and
virtue, which lacked sufficient theological depth and sometimes led to the
confused impression that Christianity valued friendship and rectitude over
discipleship and risk. Witness evokes a sense of fear and trembling that is
too often missing in the heavy-handed communitarianism that underwrites most
postliberal theology. Several of Hauerwas's theological soul-mates appear in this
final section--John Howard Yoder, Pope John Paul II, and Dorothy Day of Catholic
Worker fame--each intending to show us that the "Christian faith is not simply a
set of propositions to be accepted by the intellect" but a truth to be lived and
practiced. Each shows us too that the truthfulness of Christian witness is
diluted when Christians accept the practices of the "culture of death." Says
Hauerwas: "The Christian confession that God has placed the Messiah above every
cosmology and culture means that Christians affirm that the cosmos will find its
true coherence in the lordship of Christ." In other words, the credibility of
Christian truth-claims depends on the church's steadfast commitment to
nonviolence.

For this reason, "America's Best Theologian" has nothing to offer
America's new war. So fierce is Hauerwas's protest against Niebuhr that any
concession on pacifism is taken as an offense against the nonviolent God of Jesus
Christ. God owes America nothing. In times of war and in times of peace, the
church's task is to proclaim and practice the Gospel. Ministers, priests,
laypeople, bishops--all must stand opposed to war. In private and in public, they
must preach, practice, and encourage one thing: peace.

Hauerwas's pacifism is neither quixotic nor easy. His
commitment to Christian peacemaking can freeze you in your tracks every time you
try splitting the difference between the Sermon on the Mount and the ways of the
world. As a sympathetic reader and theological fellow traveler, I nevertheless
worry that Hauerwas's astonishing single-mindedness creates an oppressive mental
environment that forecloses too many options for peace. In a time when military
action appears unavoidable, I worry that Hauerwas's account of the Christian
life, wherein power, coercion, and force are always judged as corrupt, reckons
inadequately with the Cross. "Nonresistance but names the way God has chosen to
redeem us," Hauerwas writes. Yet the Christian story of the Cross--at least as
Saint Paul tells it--is about the defeat of the "principalities," the "powers,"
and "the rulers of the darkness of this world." God has not demonstrated
nonresistance toward the antihuman powers of disintegration: God has destroyed
them. To be sure, the triumph over evil ought not to become triumphalistic;
Christians live their mortal lives amidst transition and uncertainty--"between
the times," as Barth put it--on the Saturday between the Cross and Easter. But
for Saint Paul, victory has been won, and this victory defines the Good News as
the victory over death, not death's veneration or its masochistic embrace. Such
a theological move is hardly Niebuhrian, a symbolic rebuke to the tragic sense
of life, for it celebrates the Cross and the Resurrection as ontologically
decisive events in the history of being.

In recent days, Hauerwas has admitted to friends that he feels heavy hearted,
depressed, and exhausted. He continues to remind Christians that the colors red,
white, and blue ought to mean Pentecost, Easter, and Mary, that the only defeat
of the enemy we celebrate takes the form of the eucharistic feast. Yet most
church people since September 11 have seemed unusually circumspect; the patriotic
songs on Sunday mornings have felt more like laments than anthems for battle.
Hauerwas seems confused about what to say to the church in these difficult times.
"I have made certain commitments," he has said, "and feeling the distance that my
commitments have made with people I know and love makes me very sad. But look, if
you have strong convictions, you have to just live with them."

It is important, too, to keep in mind that the hero of Hauerwas's book, Karl
Barth, was not a pacifist; nor was his best-known student, Dietrich
Bonhoeffer--arguably the Protestant church's most powerful witness in the
twentieth century. Barth made it clear that if the church is faithful to the
primary obligation of calling the nations to repentance, it need not be afraid of
how to act in a time of international crisis. For the church that does not give
easy sanction to war, that in fact constantly seeks to avoid it and proclaims
peace alone as the will of God on earth, will be able in a true emergency to tell
the men and women who serve the country in the military that even though they now
have to kill they are not murderers, and that they "may and must," as Barth says,
"do the will of God in this opus alienum of the state."

The case of Bonhoeffer is even more troubling to Hauerwas's pacifism. As one
of the few Christian dissidents in Germany and a member of the resistance,
Bonhoeffer abandoned his own pacifism in the face of Hitler. Or more precisely,
he continued to believe that Jesus taught nonviolent resistance and that
Christians were called to witness to peace, but that his historical situation
required sinful action for the sake of a greater good. Aware of the human costs
of inaction, Bonhoeffer risked the moral consistency of nonviolence on the wager
that there is in the Bible an implicit reservation in favor of those obviously
extraordinary moments in history that responsible people understand as
exceptional. Responsible Christians must sometimes sin boldly. Bonhoeffer died in
a concentration camp in 1945 for his involvement in a plot to assassinate
Hitler. "The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask," he wrote in prison,
"is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the
coming generation is to live."

It is too early to tell whether, or how, the events of September 11 will
change Hauerwas's mind. Any honest theologian must feel about the present time a
certain uneasiness with the familiar confidences and categories. Perhaps Hauerwas
will tone down his praise of martyrdom and medievalism; perhaps he will stop
saying that the son of his who joined the military would not be welcome home.
Perhaps he will even rethink his pacifism in the good company of the saints and
heroes he admires, though that seems unlikely. But I hope he will not let
Reinhold Niebuhr have the last word on ultimate honesty and worldly perplexity.
For Christian social involvement may demand an even more difficult witness than
either Niebuhr or Hauerwas is able to imagine.

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