Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church
Submitting a late review of an untimely book, this reviewer offers his apologies to the readers of the Englewood Review. The untimeliness of Stanley Hauerwas’s latest collection of sermons, Without Apology (Seabury, NY: 2013), is of a different kind. It is an unapologetic untimeliness, neither ashamed of the Gospel nor trying to render its foolishness comprehensible or defensible in an era after Christendom. I would call it a holy untimeliness, because in these pages a Christian theologian and ethicist walks to the pulpit and speaks to a “peculiar people,” the church.
Hauerwas, recently retired from Duke Divinity School and now an endowed faculty member at the University of Aberdeen, is well aware of his own peculiarity as a theologian (not to speak of his peculiarity among theologians). As he wryly says in “Clothe Your Ministers with Righteousness,” he is one of those who are “paid to believe.” Nevertheless, in the very first sermon in this collection (“Incarnation”), Hauerwas is insistent that “Christians are a people whose faith demands we attempt to understand what we believe.” Hence, his “love for the job” is born from his joyful conviction that his work is contributing, “in some small way,” to the life of his local church. If nothing else, Hauerwas writes, a theologian is “to be held responsible” for understanding the faith.
Hence this collection of sermons, delivered at Chapel Hill’s Church of the Holy Family (his local church), Christ Church Cathedral in Tennessee (where he is “canon theologian”), at Duke Chapel, at his United Methodist childhood church in Texas, at commencements and ordinations. In these messages Hauerwas anchors his learning to specific occasions and specific gatherings of believers.
Nevertheless, one notes that these sermons are all subtly post-Christian in position. They do not take for granted that, in the church and world, Christian discipleship is a natural and ongoing enterprise. In this regard, “Facing Nothingness – Facing God” is outstanding, as Hauerwas turns his attention to William James’s vision of the “aimless weather” of our haphazard cosmos, and pointedly asks his congregation to acknowledge that “we fear . . . that our faith may be little more than a manifestation of our species’ collective narcissism.” True to his stance as an ethicist, Hauerwas insists that the world “can only appear without purpose if we persist in viewing and acting in the world as if God does not exist.” Rather than have us ask for proof of God’s existence, Hauerwas insists that we live as “creatures created . . . to glorify God.”
Although unsurprising to those who have spent time studying him, such a stance seems like that of a recalcitrant fideist to me at first. Does Hauerwas subordinate metaphysics to ethics? What brings together this particular sermon, and this collection of sermons, is Hauerwas’s obstinacy about the truth of the Gospel. Hauerwas boldly proclaims that “William James paid close attention to the weather, but he missed the storm that bears the name Jesus.” The life of Jesus the Son of God is what redeems the time and nothingness and gives us “something to do.” Foolishness to the world, indeed – Hauerwas subordinates both metaphysics and ethics to the Gospel. In a commencement sermon later in the book, Hauerwas is disarmingly straightforward:
. . . my prayer for you is that in the future, when you are asked why you came to seminary, why you sought ordination, why you were willing to be a priest in a confused and compromised church, or even why you are a Christian, all you will be able to say is, “Because it is true.”
The sermon takes its name from those last four words. Hauerwas says this in the faith that the truth is a person, a person who tests us and sets us free from illusions, to live lives marked by a steadfast joy. As a theological amateur, I have not yet sussed out the shifting relationships between Hauerwas and the Barth he alludes to in the course of his message. But as a stumbling Christian disciple, I find his words salutary, and even healing.
As an often distracted college student, I take similar encouragement from Hauerwas’s penultimate piece, an “open letter to college students.” The advice here is familiar, and perhaps timeless: “You are a Christian. That means you cannot go to college just to get a better job. . . . Christ’s call on you as a student is a calling to meet the needs of the church, both for its own life and the life of the world.” Hauerwas emphasizes the importance of relationships with friends of different disciplines, with professors of different beliefs, and with authors of different times – not merely to agree and disagree, but “link and connect.” (For this reader, Hauerwas’s mention of Francis Schaeffer, while doubtless a bit dated for many, comes to me as a joyful surprise – Schaeffer was present at the start of my own education, and while I, like Hauerwas, “am not a big fan,” I remain indebted to him.)
“You owe it to yourself and the church not to let the incoherence, laziness, and self-critical excesses of the contemporary university demoralize you,” Hauerwas writes. “Be sure not to let these failures become an excuse for you to avoid an education – a Christian education.” One recognizes in these words the same melody transposed to a different key – Hauerwas once again insisting on the difference of being a disciple, of being a person adopted into the people of God. Once again, the “incoherence” of education is exposed as an incoherence of perspective – the question is not whether the contemporary university is a disordered institution, but whether I am pursuing faithfulness as a person belonging to Jesus Christ (who just happens to be a college student).
I could go on more about the sermons gathered here: the unflinching look at the ethics of sex in “Sexing the Ministry,” for instance, the reading of Foucault in “Prisoners No More,” and a thoughtful reflection, given on Founder’s Day at Duke University Chapel, on the institution that has housed and shaped Hauerwas’s thought. But the best praise I can give this volume is that, wherever I turn its pages, I hear a voice that isn’t just Stanley Hauerwas, a voice that exposes my self-deception and frees me from an easy purposelessness, a voice that challenges me to think and live as a disciple. I think that’s another way of saying that the word of God is preached here. And for a collection subtitled “Sermons for Christ’s Church,” that is gift – grace – enough indeed.