Stanley Hauerwas: With the Grain of the Universe: The church’s witness and natural theology, SCM Press, 2002 [ISBN 0 334 02864 7], £13.95.

In his typically erudite 2001 Gifford Lectures Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University in the USA, pursues the challenging idea that natural theology is revealed theology, rightly understood. That is, it depends upon a full doctrine of God. His critique of attenuated and accommodating forms of faith takes Hauerwas into a reassessment of major past Gifford lecturers — notably William James, Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth.

For him Barth, above all, shows what ‘natural theology’ can be after Christendom and beyond the intellectual mistakes of modernity. God is made known through witness, through the truthful lives and speech of Christians and through the ‘correlative politics’ of church, not through epistemology. The world can only really know itself when it knows the God who called it into being, who is revealed transformingly in Jesus Christ. Knowledge is metanoia, which enables us to speak truthfully of the world. There are no other ‘foundations’ to be had.

This is classic Hauerwas. There is much in his writing and in the provocation and good-humoured polemicism of his style that I like. He is absolutely right to say that the Gospel proposes a new theo-logical way of relating to the world disclosed in Jesus Christ, and that the church is at a loss when it fails to live and articulate this. However for me he ends up being far too dismissive of post/modernity and secularity, like Milbank and others of a neo-Barthian or Radical Orthodox temperament.

Let me suggest another way of seeing. Suppose God called the universe into being in freedom for the purposes of love, as I believe the lived Christian narrative suggests. We would then expect that both the zone of freedom (the saeculum) and the zone of love (the divine kingdom) would together exhibit God, not least in their tension and in the fulfilment of the former by the latter.

If this is so then being destined in the image of God means that we are apart from God as well as with God, and that our ultimate hope is that we can be united to God through a redemption which does not obliterate self and otherness but brings it into free relation.

On this basis I would contend that the secular and the religious other (barely mentioned by Hauerwas) may be seen as positively experimental plots in their own right, in communication and struggle with a church that signifies the Body of Christ in the world. They are not simply examples of rebellion and confusion, as Hauerwas seems mostly to end up portraying them.

So while there is a necessary specificity and vocation to ‘being church’ (I am wholly at one with Hauerwas’ counter-cultural vision of ecclesia, and his conviction that non-violent enemy love truthfully reveals the victory of the Lamb who was slain), there is also a necessity for otherness, independence and plurality in the world. The church needs the world’s autonomy to avoid its own temptations to power and evasion, and the world needs the transformation made visible in Christ through his companions.

Niebuhr assumed that the truth of Christianity consisted in the confirmation of universal and timeless truths about the human condition that made Christianity available to anyone without witness, says Hauerwas. He is absolutely right to criticise such cosy assumptions, whether we think he is being wholly fair to Niebuhr or not. But the alternative is not the absorption of the world into the church. Rather it a conversation, involving strong witness and argument, counterveilance and vicarious availability.

William James rightly says that there is no scientific or other method by which human beings can steer safely between the opposite dangers of believing too little or too much. This is also true of theological method, in a way that Hauerwas does not always seem to recognise. At one point he lovingly chastises his mentor, the moral philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, for saying that his return to Catholic faith was mediated by a prior philosophical turn in his thinking. This offends Hauerwas’ ferocious commitment to the epistemic privilege of his kind of theology. Not that he acknowledges its roots as epistemological, of course.

One is tempted to say (in the polemical style beloved of the man) that a better theological framework would see less of a problem here than Hauerwas seems to perceive! Reading Barth through Bonhoeffer, for whom committed discipleship and radical questioning became natural allies for thoroughly theo-logical reasons, might suggest a more world affirming way forward for the church than Hauerwas allows. With God and for God we live in the world without God, and so on.

None of this gainsays my agreement with Hauerwas that testimony is at the heart of truth, and that the story of a crucified God who loves and changes us in, through and beyond suffering and death is ‘what it is all about.’  But surely the key point is that this vision goes against the grain of a universe that, far from conforming to the divine, is the open — and therefore terrifyingly contingent — space in which the purposes of love can be experienced without compulsion through knowing subjects, so that its creator can take all the values the cosmos has realised through them and ensure that they are developed for ever in the divine personality (Keith Ward).

Maybe the issue here — thrown up by recent confusions over ‘creationism’ and evolutionary theory in public education — is that Hauerwas and theologians of his ilk think exclusively in personalist and almost never in cosmological terms. It is ironic that an otherwise hugely stimulating set of essays bearing the title With the Grain of the Universe speaks of science so fitfully. We need a theology that recognizes fruitful human investigation as enriching and effective for its discourse. Far from constraining theology, that is part of its capacity to speak truthfully. As Colin Morris once said, the world without God is a terrifying mess, but God without the world is a hopeless abstraction.

There are many other riches in this book that I have not begun to do justice to. Hauerwas’ reading of Barth is one of the most persuasive I have read, for example, though I remain un-persuaded at certain critical junctures. He occasionally lapses into bizarre idealisations. It would be interesting to know what Leonardo Boff would make of the extraordinarily disincarnate claim that John Paul II is the first non-Constantinian Pope, for example! But the main point about Hauerwas is that he always makes you think, and he always returns you to the core of what faith means. For that we should all be abidingly grateful.

Back To Top