Theology Has No Essence, But it Does Have a Story (Hauerwas on Ethics)

Theology Has No Essence, But it Does Have a Story (Hauerwas on Ethics) October 12, 2015

Stanley Hauerwas, one of America’s most prominent living Christian theologians and ethicists, represents an approach to Christian Ethics that underscores the essential role of narrative in ethics and in the formation of character.

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the LeperCosimo Rosselli, 1481
Cosimo Rosselli’s Sermon on the Mount (1481)

For Hauerwas, morality is narrative-dependent, and to do Christian ethics adequately is to attend to the complex ways in which stories shape behavior. Stories form religious communities and, as practitioners of religions reflect on their formational stories, that reflection gives rise to theological concepts. But more importantly, theological concepts interplay with the narratives in spinning out specific ways of being and acting in the world.

The core convictions of Hauerwas’ approach to Christian Ethics are evident in The Peaceable Kingdom, published in 1991. While nearly 35 years old, the book lays out the post-liberal narrative approach (in the vein of Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, John Howard Yoder, James McClendon, etc.) which still distinguishes Hauerwas from “natural law” approaches and from more existential approaches.

In the following quote, Hauerwas engages approvingly with Alasdair MacIntyre’s tradition/narrative dependent approach to the history of Christian ethics, to argue that, for Christian ethics, narrative is indispensable:

To reiterate a point, recent attempts to identify Christian ethics with a universal human ethic fail to recognize that all accounts of the moral life are narrative dependent. We must recognize that, in MacIntyre’s words, “action itself has a basically historical character. It is because we all live out narratives in our lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of narratives that we live out that the form of narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. Stories are lived before they are told–except in the case of fiction”…

Christian ethics involves the extraordinary claim that by learning to be faithful to the way of life inaugurated by Jesus of Nazareth, we have, in fact, become part of the shared history that God intends for his whole creation…

There is no point outside our history where we can secure a place to anchor our moral convictions. We must begin in the middle, that is, we must begin within a narrative. Christianity offers a narrative about God’s relationship to creation that gives us the means to recognize we are God’s creatures. Thus it is certainly true that the God we find in the story of Jesus is the same God we find in creation–namely, the God who wills us to share in his life. We have a saving God, and we are saved by being invited to share in the work of the kingdom through the history God has created in Israel and the work of Jesus. Such a history completes our nature as well as our particular history by placing us within an adventure which we claim is nothing less than God’s purposes for all of creation.

This implies, moreover, that Christian ethics does not, methodologically, have a starting point. The dilemma of whether we must do Christian ethics out of a doctrine of God or of [humanity] is a false one. For Christian ethics begins in a community that carries the story of the God who wills us to participate in a kingdom established in and through Jesus of Nazareth. No matter where it begins theologically, if it tries to do more or less than remind us of the significance of that story it has lost its way. Theology has no essence, but rather is the imaginative endeavor to explicate the stories of God by showing how one claim illuminates another (61-62).

Soon I’d like to follow up these Hauerwas’ quotes with a blog post which raises the following question:  To what extent should the particularities (narratives, symbols, theological concepts) of the many religions represented in our democracy be intentionally utilized toward the promotion of social transformation? In my view, this is one of the more important questions for public theology in our time.


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