Evaluating the Theology of Hauerwas: It Begins with Church

In 2001 Time magazine named Stanley Hauerwas, recently retired professor at Duke Divinity School, “America’s Best Theologian.” But Nicholas M. Healy, in his new book Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction, questions whether Hauerwas’ theology is sufficient to prop up Hauerwas’ ethics. The book is published in Conor Cunningham’s Interventions series and this book will become not only the first but an enduring evaluation of the work of Hauerwas.

In spite of his protestations, Healy could well have interacted with Hauerwas for his major critiques and proposals but he chose not to — and this, so I think, not only diminishes the value of the book but will create a response by Hauerwas that would have taken care of some of Healy’s proposals and now will lead either to a second edition by Healy or a need for critical thinking to know both Healy and Hauerwas’ (future) interventions. Hauerwas’ style, if I read him aright (and I’m not expert on Hauerwas), almost requires personal interaction or having listened to his more public responses over the years. Nonetheless, his pertains to what is not in the book but not what is in it, which gives us plenty to talk about.

Healy focuses on Hauerwas’ general and particular agendas. In general, he wants to bring about changes in churches by shifting away from ethics as abstract and universal and method and principle (love, responsibility) to an embodied, ecclesial existence focusing on character formation through liturgical practices. Hauerwas’ focus is not a system of beliefs but more on the connection of living faith and obedient living. His particular agenda is more central: Hauerwas “seeks to bring the churches to agree that pacifism is the central Christian norm, that all forms of Constantinianism must be rejected, that liberalism and other traditions have no place in Christian thinking and practice since Christianity has its own rationality…” (7). Hauerwas’ approach, Healy argues, makes “his way as the only way” (8) so that “his rhetoric is usually closer… to the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX than it it is to some of the texts of the Second Vatican Council” (8). Healey overall then contends his method, his socio-theoretical assumptions and his theology at work in his particular agenda cast doubt on his more general agenda. Pow. He is, in other words, less a theologian and more a “Christian intellectual” (9).

To see where Healy is headed, here’s an opening accusation: “Hauerwas’s church is the one he worship in, but he seems to prefer, and talk more about, the one he constructs for himself” (10) and his “overriding concern for ethics (and, to a lesser degree, apologetics) so dominates his treatment of Christian doctrine that he treats doctrine inadequately and/or systematically distorts it” (16). Or, his “ecclesiocentric thinking distorts to the extent that it fails to be sufficiently theocentric” (16).

Hauerwas’ theology is ecclesiocentric — and radically so. Here are major claims:

Formation is a communal action.
Christian formation can only happen within the church.

Character is at the heart of it, deeper than ratiocination or morally free agent decisions and actions.
Characters come from living in a community.
Ethics require community.
Christian ethics require the church community.
These ethics are formed through embodied liturgical practices.
The church is a social ethic and every church requires a narrative.
Salvation is entering into the narrative-shaped practices of a church.
Constantinianism is when the church lets the world be formative.

Hence, Hauerwas operates with a distinctive narrative, distinctive identity, distinctive practices and a distinctive people.

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