Stanley Hauerwas: With the Grain of the Universe

Considering the fact that With the Grain of the Universe, Hauerwas’s Gifford lectures, was the first proper monograph written by Hauerwas since The Peaceable Kingdom (1983) it is hard not to feel a bit disappointed by the book. This could have been the book where Hauerwas finally presented his complete vision of the Church, the one where we finally see how his ”catholicism” fits together with his appreciation of Yoder, how all this comes together in a liturgically formed, radically political community.

What we get instead is a discussion of three 20th century thinkers: William James, Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth. Hauerwas describes his argument the best, I think, in Hannah’s Child:

James, whom I came to admire deeply, provided the most humane account possible of how we could live in the face of a purposeless existence. Niebuhr’s theology is then the best we can do once James’s world is assumed. In contrast, Barth exemplified a way
of doing theology in which theological speech makes possible a world and a time that grant none of the assumptions of James and Niebuhr.

Now, Hauerwas’s reading of each of these three are interesting in themselves, and James does work very well as one that sets the scene for ”religion” in the 20th century. Hauerwas has of course treated Niebuhr several times before, so that part does perhaps not offer that much ”new” stuff. I have trouble with the chapters on Barth. Not becuase I find fault with Hauerwas’s reading of Barth, but Barth seems so uncomfortable in the role Hauerwas asings to him. Barth, is, as Hauerwas himself puts it, the hero of the story, since he provides the full treatment of God Hauerwas feels is necessary to be able to do theology, natural or otherwise (The Gifford lectures are supposed to deal with natural theology, so we see Hauerwas’s dilemma). Barth is the ”intellectual witness” that ultimately replaces argument as the principal form of talk about God. The problem is that Barth is the weakest where I find Hauerwas needs him the most, i.e. in the ecclesiology so to make the argument work Hauerwas has to use several tactics at the same time (develop Barth’s ”implicit” ecclesiology, develop what isn’t there, and discuss problems in Barth’s thought.) The paradoxical situation ends up being that although Barth is the hero, Hauerwas ends up being quite critical of him.

So, to be frank, what we get is a discussion on ”witness” that IMO goes in the wrong direction. Rather than using Barth as an example, together with Yoder and John Paul II, the more Hauerwasian mode would have been to point to concrete Church practice, and perhaps giving people like Dorothy Day more than a paragraph. Yes, what these people provide is ”intellectual witness”, but is not one of the problems of the Church in modernity, paradoxically and over-belief (as James would put it) in the intellectual as the primary mode of witness?

I suspect that the problem stems from Hauerwas’s approach to use previous Gifford lecturers to tell a story about 20th century theology – and idea he stole from MacIntyre. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but did not yield the best possible result, especially since Niebuhr has been treated elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot from the book. It just feels a bit like a wasted opportunity.

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