With the Grain of the Universe:
The Church’s Witness and Naural Theology

By Stanley Hauerwas
Brazos. 250 pp. $22..99

Stanley Hauerwas often changes his topic, but he never changes his tune. Christian witness should be Christian; the Church should be churchly; theology should be theological. With the Grain of the Universe , originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures in winter 2001, plays the same melody. The topic is natural theology, which in the modern Christian tradition is often understood as the effort to use reasons available to all in order to establish the basis for a religious outlook. Against this standard approach, Hauerwas insists that natural theology is a dogmatic discipline. The truth of Jesus Christ is the key to the truth about everything else. Or to use the Hauerwasian idiom, learning the Christian language trains us to speak truthfully about the world.

These lapidary formulations can mislead, for Hauerwas is not interested in defining “natural theology” in some abstract way. Instead, he focuses on a practical question. Why is natural theology so important? Why, as he asks in the introductory lecture, did Adam Gifford, a wealthy Scotsman who was concerned about both modern culture and religious belief, endow a series of lectures in this discipline?

As usual, Hauerwas gives a diverse range of answers to this basic question, but those answers can be summarized fairly simply. Natural theology is an instance of the Christian practice of taking intellectual responsibility. For Gifford, this stance of responsibility was important, both to establish the credibility of Christianity and to defend the moral and spiritual values of the modern project. Hauerwas wants to “keep faith with Adam Gifford.” The provocative claim that natural theology is a dogmatic discipline is meant to show the truth of Christianity, as well as to give aid to modern intellectual, moral, and political life. Here is how I think Hauerwas goes about accomplishing both goals.

The first act of assistance is criticism. Hauerwas argues that standard modern assumptions undermine our capacity to take responsibility”for Christianity as much as for contemporary culture. He draws attention to the modern quest for a universal and executive rationality that will, once found, properly adjudicate between conflicting claims by appealing to reasons and principles that all people accept as true. In view of this quest, we should be responsible by placing our loyalty in this soon to be discovered universal rationality. Such was Adam Gifford’s hope.

Of course, we are all now epistemologically sophisticated. We deny that this universal rationality is possible. However, we do not give up on the ideal of impartial universality. But what, exactly, does the ideal of impartiality look like when we lose confidence in the prospect of finding a universal rationality by which to guide our judgments? What kind of undertaking is “natural theology” without a substantive view of the constraints and dictates of “reason”?

Hauerwas’ two chapters on William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience is perhaps the most popular and widely read of all the Gifford Lectures, take up this question. James is important because, as a pragmatist writing at the turn of the century, he anticipates the twentieth-century turn away from an Enlightenment confidence in reason. Following James, we shift from the epistemological to a moral or political form of impartiality. A college degree is nothing if not a four-year exhortation to “think critically.” We must learn to “step back” from our particular attachments in order to enter into the sacred realm of free and open debate. James advocates this approach in the place of a substantive account of rationality. If we cannot wrest from reason her mysteries, at least we can adopt proper forms and practices that serve her sacred purpose.

On Hauerwas’ reading, this means that James shifts from truth to fairness as the determining basis for responsible intellectual life. In other words, impartiality is not based upon a larger, more universal truth. Instead, it depends on adopting certain habits that block presumptive allegiances and prejudices. This seems so self-evident to most of us that we can hardly object. But Hauerwas presses his case. James was keenly aware that the practices of modern science make our individual lives terribly small. He anticipated Carl Sagan’s famous reminder that, from the perspective of modern physics, humanity takes up but a moment on the cosmic timeline. James wished to save us from this conclusion by defending our right to adopt a religious and moral stance that connects us to the transcendent. As James argued, the will to believe, prejudice by another name, gives weight to personal life, even amidst the reductive logic of modern science.

Yet, as Hauerwas points out, faced with a potential conflict of beliefs”my transcendent versus yours”James must introduce deflationary strategies. We must believe, but not too strongly; otherwise, we cannot sustain free and open debate. The burdens of conviction hinder, and one moves much more lightly through the rigors of inquiry and deliberation as a sensitive pluralist who knows how to juggle beliefs with critical skill. Thus, by James’ logic, to become more impartial and fair we must become more critically detached from the very beliefs that give our lives consequence and purpose. So, we are caught in a zero-sum game. The more we believe, the more we overcome the reductionistic tendencies of modernity, but at the same time, the less responsible we are as intellectual and moral agents in a modern, pluralistic world. And conversely, the more responsible we are, the less attached we are to our religious and moral convictions, and the less able we are to overcome purely scientific and technical analyses of our situation. James can balance belief and the modern project, but he cannot harmonize them.

Of course, responsibility is not merely intellectual responsibility; it is also social and political. Thus, Hauerwas shifts from the cerebral James to the practical Niebuhr. Reinhold Niebuhr was the most well known Christian political thinker in the twentieth century, and his Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man , are second only to James’ Varieties in popularity and influence. That influence rests in his promise to make Christianity socially responsible, and by Hauerwas’ account, he did so by taking up the same modern task of seeking “critical detachment.”

In Niebuhr’s hands, justification by faith becomes the “Protestant Principle.” All particular claims of authority and sanctity must be relativized; otherwise, one becomes the victim of “spiritual arrogance” and “pharisaic pride.” The true believer is the person who rejects the compulsive authority of all beliefs”except the belief that no belief has a right to claim absolute authority. Therefore, like the Jamesian seeker, the Niebuhrian activist must tread lightly. As Niebuhr knows, when the “pride” of truth is defeated, men will approach politics much more “realistically.” Relieved of the burden of apostolic authority, the critically detached person makes more responsible decisions, decisions that do not try, foolishly, to resist the weight of events.

Hauerwas’ analysis of James and Niebuhr is important. James made no claim to speak as a Christian; Niebuhr was ever the churchman. Yet, by advocating a stance of responsibility that undermines the sharp outlines and authoritative weight of particular truth claims, both exemplify habits of thought that make Christianity increasingly invisible and weightless. The lesson, then, is obvious. One of the most basic features of modernity, both inside the Church and outside, is a drive toward detachment, and this makes it impossible to fulfill the intent of the Gifford Lectures. By the logic of James’ and Niebuhr’s approaches, we cannot both buttress our loyalty to religious commitments (for that would involve intensifying attachment to a particular vision of the world) and at the same time reinforce our duty to take responsibility for the modern world (which, according to modern assumptions, requires detachment from any particular vision of the world).

By Hauerwas’ lights, then, we must take a very different tack. Instead of stepping back, we must step forward. To explain this move, Hauerwas’ turns to Karl Barth, one of the most remarkable figures of modern Protestant theology, who offered his own Gifford Lectures in a dogmatic mode. Hauerwas’ point is simple. Barth’s Church Dogmatics , a multivolume inquiry into the logic, structure, and consequence of Christian revelation, strikes even the most casual readers as extraordinarily ambitious. Barth always has something to say. This is because Barth loads Christian language with weight”and he throws it around with aplomb, passing judgment on questions metaphysical and moral, epistemological and political. For Barth, the theologian has a positive duty to adopt this expansive stance. Thus, while everything Karl Barth says may be wrong, it can hardly be described as a turn away from “natural theology,” at least not if we understand “natural theology” as the project of taking intellectual responsibility for the many concerns of our age.

Hauerwas intends to commend Barth’s ambition. Barth is, says Hauerwas, the greatest natural theologian of the twentieth century. Barth took responsibility, and he did so in the right, intra-Christian way of insisting that faith has sufficient heft to generate judgment about all manner of things. There is no danger of James’ zero-sum game. For Barth, the more one believes, the more one is able to do what intellectually responsible people should do: make considered and informed judgments. Hauerwas agrees. A weightless Christianity has no contribution to make to modern (or postmodern) intellectual life. The catch-up game of relevance is perpetually a day late. The project of trying to find “meaning” in Christian “symbols” is evaporative. It is difficult to see how natural theology can undertake the reparative project of restoring the credibility of faith and buttressing the moral purposes of modernity when theologians shrink Christianity to a vanishing point.

But Hauerwas does not just agree with Barth; he urges him forward. “Barth was hesitant,” Hauerwas accurately observes, “to provide a fulsome account of the practices necessary for the witness that the Church is.” If we are to have judgment truly and fully informed, then the more of belief must be linked with the more of participation in a visible and distinct form of life. I can well imagine Hauerwas saying to the Calvinist Karl Barth, “The Protestant Principle be damned. We need a sacred politics to combat our detachment from Christianity, and if that entails priestcraft, then let’s have it.”

Sacred politics has always been Hauerwas’ preoccupation. His indifferent and inconclusive closing remarks on the role of Christianity in the contemporary university show how much more concerned Hauerwas is with tikkun olam (healing the world) than with contemplation. The real emphasis of his conclusion falls on two witnesses to the task of faithful “natural theology”: John Howard Yoder and John Paul II. Of course, both no more advance propositions in the discipline of natural theology than does Hauerwas. Instead, both provide clarity about how to take responsibility, not for the world (that is God’s job), but in the world.

Yoder teaches us that Christianity does not need the world in order to have a body. We are given a body in Jesus Christ. To dwell in him, Yoder insists that we must resist the detaching, distancing, and spiritualizing strategies of worldly accommodation. Thus, one of Hauerwas’ great themes is struck. Christianity is at its best when standing in stark contrast to the world. Nothing better hardens and solidifies the faith than galvanizing conflicts with worldly powers. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. The first pole of Adam Gifford’s concerns”the credibility of Christianity”depends upon the visibility of Christian holiness, not juggling the ever-changing prejudices of intellectual respectability.

In Hauerwas’ view, John Paul II teaches the same lesson, but with a twist. For John Paul II, the blood of the martyrs is also the seed of a true humanism. The world, especially our present world, needs a weighty and forceful witness of faith. Thus, as John Paul II reminds us, the Church does not need the world in order to have a body, but the world certainly needs the body of the Church in order to be humane.

Here, Hauerwas addresses the second pole of Adam Gifford’s purpose in endowing his lectures”addressing modernity’s un certainty about its own moral and religious purpose. The modern world does not need ideals and principles. No arguments of natural theology can give stability to modernity. Rather, we need ballast amidst the roiling conflicts of worldly powers. We all feel the need to stand somewhere. This is now evident in the resurgent patriotism that has followed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. We cannot overcome evil by adopting critical detachment, the stance of anywhere and nowhere.

And yet, Jesus did not promise the Holy Spirit to the nations. Only the Church, Hauerwas insists, can secure a fully and finally responsible place to stand. One can be a citizen, just as one can be a critical thinker, or a scientific inquirer. But we can only assume these roles responsibly if we do so in the service of the truth. And as Hauerwas never tires of reminding us, only in the Church can we reliably find the teachings and habits to guide us toward such service.

R.R. Reno is associate professor of theology at Creighton University.

Articles by R. R. Reno