Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction

Article by   September 2014
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Nicholas M. Healy, Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 142 pp. $23.00/£16.99

Stanley Hauerwas has his share of critics, but there is something wonderfully uncommon about this book. The writing is fresh, relentless, and incisive. Healy writes as a systematic theologian, taking minor umbrage at Hauerwas's caricature of the overly-tidy, faux comprehensive excesses of systematicians. It's true that Hauerwas often points out that the true subject of theology ought to be God. But Healy notices that, in fact, God seems to take a backseat to the idea and formative social practices of the church in Hauerwas's writings. There is something innovative in these critiques that, in this form at least, isn't trying to label Hauerwas a sectarian fideist, which is the main kind of critique one hears. Instead, when Healy is critical of Hauerwas's "ecclesiocentrism," he means that it is doctrinally, rather than ethically, out of balance. In this, Hauerwas's work is said to resemble the very modern theological approach of Schleiermacher--ironic, to be sure, since Hauerwas has always maligned Schleiermacher for shifting theology's focus, under pressure to respond to the spirit of his age, onto the human subject and away from God.

For their differences, Healy notes that Hauerwas and Schleiermacher both suffer from modern theology's change of subject. The fact that one emphasizes the church and the other emphasizes the individual is of minor consequence to Healy--it is only the difference between individualism and ecclesiocentrism. So when Hauerwas emphasizes the church, he means it to be in place of the individual--as bearer of faith, as moral agent, as locus of Christian practice. But Healy sees this focus on the church as being in place of a focus on God. Hauerwas on this account appears nearly Pelagian and obsessed with works, material embodiment, discipline, and obedience. 

Several years ago, Stephen Webb wrote an article in First Things called "The Very American Stanley Hauerwas" that argued the paradoxical point that, for all his anti-americanism, nothing more tightly associates Hauerwas with what he says he rejects than how he rejects it. There's something like this happening with Healy's critique too. Hauerwas's theology is constantly upfront in its disdain for modernity and liberalism, but the theological method employed in arguing these things is thoroughly modern. If the church plays a mostly sociological (or "political," rightly understood) role for believers, then it is very hard to talk about how God's grace creates and sustains the church when, for example, the formative ecclesial practices Hauerwas touts are not working or are practiced half-heartedly by what Healy calls "unsatisfactory Christians." 

Consider a very Hauerwasian quote to make this point clearer. In Sanctify Them in the Truth, Hauerwas writes about what salvation is:
Salvation, then, is best understood not as being accepted no matter what we have done, but rather as our material embodiment in the habits and practices of a people that makes possible a way of life that is otherwise impossible. That is why we are not saved in spite of our sin, but we are saved precisely through practices of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Notice that church practices save us. Healy wonders, why not God? Here Hauerwas sounds a little like Bonhoeffer in rejecting cheap grace, but the main targets here are all kinds of (especially American) pietism which Hauerwas no doubt associates with overly spiritual and individualized theology modeled on Schleiermacher and similar theologians. 

The trouble, it seems to me, is that Healy seems to miss the sacramental character of these comments. On one hand, this is understandable since Hauerwas's embrace of practice-language from the work of Alasdair MacIntyre seldom corrects the purely immanent, Aristotelian ways that people are habituated. We get very little in Hauerwas's writings of what Thomas Aquinas called the "infused" supernatural virtues. Or, rather, we get a certain amount of hope, some faith, and very little love. Healy is right that Hauerwas doesn't distance himself from this immanentism very well. But, again, Hauerwas sees the need to guard against an individualism that has become indistinguishable from pietism so that words like love and grace are under temporary moratorium until the church can be trusted to handle them again. This caution with certain language is related to MacIntyre's genealogies of concepts like justice and rationality; Hauerwas has written against the overabundant emphasis on justice found especially in liberal mainline Christianity.

As I say, though, if church practices are sacramental, they are much further from MacIntyre than Healy notices. Of course there's great diversity within Christian tradition on what sacraments are, how they work, and so on. And perhaps Hauerwas's own appropriation of practice-language isn't helped by his association with how John Howard Yoder wrote about them in his book Body Politics which develops what many take to be a strongly instrumentalized, non-spiritual approach. It is an understandable, but in my view mistaken, interpretation given Yoder's inaccurate caricatures of Roman Catholic sacramental theology. Neither Yoder nor Hauerwas envision church practices as purely human acts. Yes, what Healy calls "traditional theology" usually emphasizes the divine work of sacraments more strongly, that is, it more often and explicitly will speak of the church as the creation of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, a divine work of grace, God's work of election and ark of life, or (in Vatican II language) as itself uti sacramentum--a sort of sacrament.

There is another kind of disconnect in Healy's analysis. He appears to show little appreciation for the discipline of theological ethics as a discipline. It's surprising that Healy never once mentions Reinhold Niebuhr, who is arguably the key figure for understanding Hauerwas's entire career. Instead, Healy offers critiques that come from setting Hauerwas next to figures in much more systematic areas of theology (which is his own area) to the neglect of the kinds of efforts one expects to find if the goal is to steer twentieth-century theological ethics away from Niebuhr and other liberal Protestant heirs of Schleiermacher.

Furthermore, given the amount of time Healy spends showing that Hauerwas's work is ecclesiocentric, I was surprised that he slights the deeply Anabaptist quality of what Hauerwas means by it. Here we are in the more common territory of wondering what exactly Hauerwas means when he says "church." I've heard him critiqued elsewhere for having a "paper church," a comment that strikes me the way people say "paper tiger" to mean harmless and also as meaning to say that his church only exists on paper. 

Healy says "church" and thinks of church authority in Catholic ways. And while there is a lot that is quite Catholic in Hauerwas's work, I have usually found that Protestants and Catholics, when encountering his use of this word, initially react very differently to it. When Hauerwas says "church," this is one time he is being very Anabaptist. By it, he means "community" in a way that comes close to a believers church, though he tries to move that conception into the mainstream by pointing out that the practices that form a community of disciples are deeply traditional and, in some settings, have lost their social and political character.

Healy knows all of this. But then it is surprising that, in a discussion of church authority (pp. 62-71), Healy accuses Hauerwas of pulling a fast one: on one hand claiming that Christians can only rightly understand the Bible in the church but then preaching non-traditional interpretations that clearly arise from his own study. Where is the church in this? Healy points to Hauerwas's commentary on Matthew as another example.

Yet Healy misses that Hauerwas has in mind the authority of communal interpretation, not church hierarchy. My brother was a student at Duke Divinity School when Hauerwas taught a seminar on Matthew. Each student chose and worked through a different commentary. The seminar, then, was Hauerwas's "community" that played one of the roles that I think he means by "church." There are some problems with this, of course. For one thing, a seminar class of graduate students is unlike a church in many ways, not least of which is that they are not engaging in all of the ecclesial practices that Hauerwas routinely extols. I think we can admit that it is a good example of a "paper church." Then again, I want to highlight the Anabaptist element of communal discernment that it exemplifies and how Healy is simply mistaken to conclude that Hauerwas "interprets Scripture as an individual" (p.63).

Healy divides Hauerwas's concerns into a general agenda and a particular agenda. He agrees with the general agenda of renewing the church, emphasizing moral formation through church practices, shifting away from universal and abstract ethics, and so on. But he thinks the particular agenda of pacifism, anti-Constantinianism, and anti-liberalism need not be accepted and are under-argued in Hauerwas's work. This strikes me as an unwarranted division, which I want to illustrate by focusing on pacifism. 

To simplify slightly, my take is that Hauerwas focuses on peace for two main reasons and an additional reason that strikes me as somewhat playful. First, if the cross is central to Christian theology, then understanding Hauerwas's theology of atonement as the foundation of his pacifism means that his pacifism is central and not peripheral. I will agree with Healy, though, that this is underdeveloped. Thankfully the atonement theology industry is currently very much on this task.

Second, pacifism is Hauerwas's reply to Niebuhr's realism in which, for now, justice trumps pure love. The reply is really an eschatological one. From what I can tell, though, Hauerwas's style of realized eschatology is adopted fully from Yoder's work (nearly all his work, but especially see Yoder's essay "Peace Without Eschatology?" and his well-known book The Politics of Jesus). In Hauerwas's own work, the eschatology is under-argued and seldom explicit, so I can see why Healy is tempted to move pacifism to the fringes even though I believe it is a mistake. My point is that between atonement and eschatology, we have a serious theological project that is every bit a part of Hauerwas's "general agenda" as the other themes Healy identifies. But both of these theological loci are missing from Healy's chapter-length treatment of "Hauerwas's Theology."

More playfully, Hauerwas is getting the goat from liberal proponents of peace and justice by talking about peace in an unapologetically christological way. Liberal peace, of course, is deeply worried about people with strong religious convictions--insisting on them leads to violence; giving up on them leads to peace. Hauerwas wants to demonstrate that the content of those beliefs matter, not just the depth of conviction. Strong convictions about the nonviolent character of Christ's suffering and the violent character of the cross humanity laid on him exemplify a particular peace that will match any purported universal, liberal peace project. So I find it ironic that Healy describes Hauerwas's nonviolence as an optional, "particular" adjunct to theology's more serious business--ironic because Healy doesn't realize how much this discloses a certain liberal modernist tendency in his own approach.

Even though Healy doesn't much approve of ad hominems, I want to conclude with one since his book reminded me of one moment of disappointment I felt as I was getting to know Hauerwas's work while in seminary. Reading Resident Aliens, I was so struck by the radical political and social call that the authors were making for the church, I assumed that Hauerwas must be a member of some radical Christian commune that shares its possessions and finds other creative ways to live differently from the world. After all, in order to loosen the power that money has over Christians in our society, Hauerwas asks whether churches might require those seeking baptism to disclose their income to the congregation--to welcome the discipline of the community that comes from truly being one body. So I was frankly disappointed to learn that Hauerwas goes to a regular church a lot like mine. 

As I've said, Healy has his own disappointments about Hauerwas's concept of church. He worries that there is little grace or place for members who are not as devoted to the mission as Hauerwas wants. Then again, Hauerwas would have us notice the radical nature of ordinary churches, so I don't think this critique is all that it purports to be. Still, I think Healy is right that nonviolence can be an easy hobbyhorse for a tenured university professor to ride. Preaching a call to evangelical poverty would be less easy.  

Healy has written a highly original critique of one of the most interesting theologians of our time. I can't think of a better way of enriching the wide range of issues that matter to these two authors than to carry on the conversations this book invites.


Craig Hovey is associate professor of religion at Ashland University and is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence. He is the author of numerous books including Bearing True Witness, What Makes Us Moral?, and To Share in the Body

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