Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Look

Jason Micheli —  May 14, 2014 — 1 Comment

St Thomas AquinasIt’s not named the ‘Summa’ for nothing.

In his massive, multi-volume and ultimately unfinished Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas makes his account for the Christian faith by first asking such questions as ‘Does God exist?’ and ‘What can be known about God?’

Only after establishing baseline conclusions about God with which a reasonable non-believer could concur does Aquinas dig a bit deeper, exploring what the Church means by naming God ‘Trinity,’ how God reveals himself in Creation and fully in Christ.

Only at the end of this long, methodical chain of exhaustive logic does Aquinas finally in the end get around to talking about us. Human creatures.

Those whom God foolhardily made in his image.

Much of modern liberal theology has returned the favor, making God in our image and doing so, Stanley Hauerwas argues, by upending Thomas’ medieval method.

The founding father of modern liberal Christianity, Friedrich Schleiermacher, sought to re-present theology as an academically respectable discipline in the light of the scientific age.

Schleiermacher’s 19th century no longer took ‘God’ as self-evident nor did it accept the particulars of Christian doctrine as referents to an exterior, objective reality. As a result, Schleiermacher repositioned Christianity for its ‘cultured despisers’ by turning away from God to the human subject.

Schleiermacher sough to preserve Christian theology’s place within the secular academy by turning away from what could not be proven objectively (theos) and towards what could be objectively established (anthropos).

Religion, therefore, should be judged not according to the soundness of its doctrine but according to its ability to articulate humanity’s feelings of dependence upon ‘God.’

That is, does a particular religion adequately address the human existential crisis.

To save Christian face in polite, secular society, Schleiermacher made us not God the subject of theology; consequently, the coherence of Christianity was to be measured by our emotional appropriation of it not by its correspondence to anything ‘true’ outside it.

By shifting from doctrine to dependence, doctrine itself became subsidiary- even unessential- in modern theology.

One of my muses, Stanley Hauerwas, has made it his life’s work to retrieve Christian theology and its practice (ethics) back from the modernist turn towards the human subject, a turn, which Hauerwas has argued repeatedly, makes Christianity unintelligible; so much so, that a portrait of Scheiermacher with a bulls-eye painted on him could gloss the cover of nearly every Hauerwas book without misleading the reader as to its contents.

hauerwasIt’s a sneak attack then that Nicholas Healy lobs at Hauerwas in his new book, Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction.

Healy argues that Hauerwas- the anti-Scheiermacher- merely repeats the modernist sin only in plural form.

Rather than turning away from God to the human subject to justify Christianity’s intelligibility, Hauerwas turns away from God to human subjects. That is, the Church.

Healy writes:

“In spite of his rhetoric of retrieval- his reaffirmation of our distinctively Christian communal identity over against the temptations of liberalism, individualism and sundry other modern or longer-lasting errors- his turn to the church is sharp and thoroughgoing enough to amount to a new direction in theological inquiry.”

As he continues his critique, Healy wonders if Hauerwas’ attempt to ground an account of Christianity in the community’s practice-based interpretation of scripture is sufficiently robust to make the breadth of historic Christian belief intelligible.

Put the other way round, Healy suggests that Hauerwas’ theological vision begins with too narrow a vantage point to ever take in broader Christian themes like Christology or the doctrine of God.

Put an even different way, by beginning where Aquinas’ Summa sought to end Hauerwas’ Theologiae doesn’t have the gas to make it to the other end. If the error of the modernist turn was individualism- a charge with which Hauerwas heartily agrees- the error of Hauerwas’ approach is ecclesiasm, a focus upon the ecclesial community so severe it obscures the God in whose name the community gathers.

Such a reductive focus upon the Church, Healy argues, distorts much of what historic Christianity has proclaimed about the Church and its God. By not beginning theology with God and God’s actions towards the world, Healy argues, Hauerwas finds too little grist to say things about God and God’s actions in the world that any Christian would think need to be said.

I think Healy has hit upon an appropriate critique of Hauewas’ theology if for no other reason than that it’s unique from the ad nauseam, ignorant criticisms of Hauerwas as fideistic and sectarian. And while I certainly think ‘Hauewas is doing ethics not theology’ could serve as adequate reply to Healy’s critique, I also know first-hand the frustration that Hauerwas’ approach provokes for larger theological questions.

This winter I attended a lecture Hauerwas delivered at Virginia Theological Seminary, in which he said:

Nonviolence is not a strategy by which Christians attempt to rid the world of war but rather, in a world of war, as followers of Jesus Christ Christians cannot conceive of any other way to live.

That makes perfect sense to me.

I know what theological conviction produces such a statement and I can see what conclusions derive from it. But I KNOW it’s obvious to everyone who’s not a theology nerd or a Hauerwas fanboy.

For Hauerwas, Christian nonviolence is the clear implication of Cross and Resurrection. We’re called to nonviolence not because it’s an effective means to an end nor because Christians are utopian idealists.

In Hauerwas’ view, Christians are called to nonviolence precisely because they’re Christians.

But such a claim depends upon a particular understanding of the atonement that may not be clear to every reader or listener.

Indeed Hauerwas’ work assumes a particular understanding of the atonement that is an alternative to how many Christians view the work of the Cross.

Saying nonviolence is the clear implication of the Cross is a complete non sequitor to many Christians steeped in traditions that tell them the message of the Cross is that Jesus died in their place to suffer God’s wrath for their Sin.

Sure, there’s even a more ancient view of the atonement available (Christus Victor). One that’s latent and assumed in much of Hauerwas’ work but he’s never supported his central argument by leveraging a fully developed theology of the atonement which would make his conclusions clear.

I think the full force of Hauerwas’ emphasis on Christian nonviolence is lost to many readers (who assume the individualistic, transactional view of penal substitution) because he never specifies his own understanding of what Christ has accomplished.

In reading Healy’s (very) critical treatment of Hauerwas I’m left feeling that both Healy and Hauerwas are correct.

I absolutely concur with Hauerwas’ vision for the church and his identifying Christians as the People called to live the non-violent love of the future Kingdom now. However, I can’t help but agree with Healy that had Hauerwas started his project more like Thomas the conclusions which Hauerwas wants us to affirm would be harder to avoid.




Jason Micheli


One response to Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Look

  1. Jesus lived in a theocracy, subordinate to an empirical government. There was no concept of a representative, much less, democratic government. I’m not sure, for purposes of this question if those facts are particularly relevant. However, my question is this: Can such a thing as “military deterrence” in the face of an opposing evil empires represent Jesus vision of non-violence and providing for the least of these? I don’t know if I would go so far as to envision a “just war theory”, however, I’m trying to envision Jesus’ commanding his followers in a culture where we can influence government regarding issues such as Nigeria, Ukraine, North Korea, etc. In trying to relieve suffering, can we bring military resources to bear? Or, do those military resources create counterbalancing evil and suffering that neutralize any virtue?

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