Grace Upon Grace
A Feature Review of
Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction
Reviewed by Jordan Daniel Wood
Many of us have benefited from the provocative, incisively critical work of theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. Here Roman Catholic theologian Nicolas Healy offers a critique no less provocative: Hauerwas’s program to promote the visible distinctiveness of the Church and its practices lacks what is most distinctive about Christianity – its theology (9-10, 16).
Such a sweeping critique need not indicate Healy’s failure to appreciate Hauerwas’s work. Healy makes a helpful distinction between a thinker’s “agenda” and “argument,” which together constitute one’s “project” (4). One’s agenda comprises the changes one desires to see in the Church and its life. One’s argument is how one attempts to present and persuade others to adopt that agenda. While Healy agrees with much of Hauerwas’s “agenda,” he takes issue with Hauerwas’s “argument” in three major areas: methodology, social theory, and theology (6). These weaknesses “undermine” Hauerwas’s agenda and demonstrate that “his argument needs considerable revision” (9).
Before developing these criticisms, Healy spends a chapter locating “the center” of Hauerwas’s thought, the Church (ch.2). Hauerwas’s antagonism towards systematic articulation of theological convictions betrays his fear of abstracting Christian belief from Christian practice, which he avoids by asserting that Gospel truth must always be embodied in the Church, lest it be unintelligible (18-22). “Hauerwas’s refusal to give a systematic account of his position thus rests on his account of the church” (24). This account grew out of Hauerwas’s earlier work in which he rejected situation ethics, emphasizing the irreducibly interpretive nature of ethical decision-making – a “vision” that enables true “virtue” (25-7). The formation of this vision and character happens through narrative and in community. That is, a community’s particular narrative (and thus rationality) grounds and is embodied in practices that discipline members to live into that narrative. Only thus is the narrative’s “truth” made manifest as a distinctive, superior narrative (28). For Hauerwas, the Christian story is the story of Jesus and its communal manifestation is called the Church (29-34). The truth and intelligibility of the Gospel thus depends on the Church’s faithful and visible witness in the world. Hence Hauerwas’s overriding aim is to engender the difference of Christian identity over and against other identities (e.g. liberal, national, etc.), a difference only achieved through right ecclesial formation (36-7). The Church, therefore, becomes the central object of theological inquiry (38).
Healy then levels his most interesting critique in the form of neologism: Hauerwas’s thought verges on “ecclesism,” which is “a distortion of Christianity consequent upon a reductive focus upon the church as the central and structuring locus for all theological inquiry” (40). This ecclesiocentric approach differs from what Healy terms “traditional theology,” whose primary object was not the Church, but God (42-3). Indeed, to the chagrin of Hauerwasians everywhere, Hauerwas’s method is better likened to the father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher. Both “begin with a non-theological account of what constitutes a community – religious for Schleiermacher, community-in-general for Hauerwas – and then go on to specify the Christian difference” (49). This move implies “a contrastive definition of the church,” which focuses on how the Church is different from and superior to other communities (49). Thus both evince an ecclesiocentric apologetic wherein the Church is made attractive either through the superior development in God-consciousness enabled by Jesus’ God-consciousness (Scheiermacher) or through the superior social ethic exemplified in Jesus’ narrative (50). Finally, both seem to subordinate doctrine to the human subject, whether to the existential individual (Schleiermacher) or to the visible community (Hauerwas). Healy draws on David Kelsey’s three theological “logics” to make the point. The “logic of belief” deals with the coherence and explication of fundamental Christian doctrine; the “logic of coming to believe” explores the apologetic reasons people accept faith; the “logic of living” concerns Christian ethics (52). “Hauerwas’s work tends to conflate all three logics, to the detriment of the logic of belief” (55). Healy then traces this conflation in Hauerwas’s account of Scripture and Church authority. Hauerwas makes identity formation the primary aim of each and so neglects the work of God in and outside of each. Hauerwas’s “peasant Catholicism,” wherein members are passively malleable to Church authority so as to cultivate distinct Christian identity, makes critical engagement from non-official authorities almost unthinkable – though, ironically, this contradicts Hauerwas’s own career as a critical lay theologian (64). His ecclesiocentric emphasis “lacks an adequate account of the necessity, pervasiveness, and freedom of God’s working amongst us, for us, and in spite of us” (68).