Brozos Press has become the House of Hauerwas. That is not such a bad thing, given that Stanley’s theological mansion contains many rooms. No other contemporary theologian has put his personal touch on so many issues with such persistent creativity. This is not to say Hauerwas’ work is a simple matter. His thought is capacious, but his style can be garish and loud. You can check into Hotel Hauerwas any time you like, but he may not let you leave.
Brazos’ latest festschrift, God, Truth, and Witness: Essays in Conversation with Stanley Hauerwas, is testimony to the remarkable way Hauerwas makes friends by arguing with people. That is an exceedingly rare skill in today’s academic climate, where arguments break out like thunderstorms and then are allowed to blow over before they do any lasting damage. Hauerwas grabs you with the power of his thinking and will not let you go until you say why you disagree with him. His prose swaggers on the page, but in person you see the glint in his eyes that tells you to relax and enjoy the argument.
Years ago, liberal theologians outdid themselves in scrambling to write on the topic of metaphor, because it seemed the perfect trope for conveying the piety of moral relativism. They called themselves revisionists, because they were inspired by the elasticity of metaphor to replace systematic and historical theology with constructive religious thought. Along the way, they converted dogma into poetry and belief into make-believe. They even went so far as to fuse the divine with poetic license, since they took the inexhaustibility of the metaphorical imagination to suggest that God is but another name for the way everything is connected to everything else.
Then along came Hauerwas. His Texas slang ran roughshod over the pretty doodles of the spiritual fashion designers. While those mesmerized by metaphor wanted to picture God anew, Hauerwas struggled to secure the conditions necessary for truthful Christian speech. His voice is hyperbolic rather than metaphorical, stressing differences rather than similarities while imposing clarity on recalcitrant theological topics. I speak from personal experience when I say that many theologians have come to understand what they think about a particular topic only when confronted with a Hauerwasian exaggeration. When Hauerwas is wrong, he is so wrong that he clears the way for forceful restatements of Christian truths.
Nowhere was Hauerwas more wrong than in his understanding of the relation between Christianity and politics, and it takes a very good group of friends to point this out without sounding like they are rejecting everything that makes him so much fun to read. Among the essayists in God, Truth, and Witness, Robert Wilken, Robert Jenson, Tristram Engelhardt, and Robert Bellah are at the top of their game, and the hardball they play with Hauerwas is exciting to watch.
Hauerwas often writes as if he were looking for a fight, and who better to pick a fight with than the greatest Christian ruler of all time? Constantine thought of himself as Christianity’s best friend, but Hauerwas portrays him as the great bully of the early Church. I can think only that Hauerwas does this because he values friendship so highly, since he writes as if he were personally betrayed by Constantine’s ruse. Wilken deftly defends Constantine by shifting attention to St. Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose certainly helped orchestrate the coordination of civic life with the Christian narrative, but this was no plot to Christianize society from above. It was the people of Milan who desperately conspired to turn Christianity into public policy. Ambrose obliged them, but he qualified his cooperation by maintaining appropriate borders around the Church. If the empire had not become Christian, Ambrose could not have been so bold in challenging the emperor.
Jenson turns Wilken’s story of St. Ambrose into explicit argument. When Constantine cast his lot with the Christians, he asks, “Could charity have refused the empire’s call for help?” Jenson’s answer is no. He goes on to explain that Christianity has a stake in building culture. The Church is a culture, as is the Trinity, which is the highest conceivable culture. Between the two lie the significant cultural achievements of Western Christian civilization. For much of the history of the West, becoming Christian and becoming civilized were identical processes. Modernity can be defined as a rebellion against God that is lightly disguised as a revolt against high culture. The cultural treasures that the Church has shared with Western civilization may now be defaced, but that does not mean they should be abandoned to the new barbarian hordes of secular relativists. This is no time for the Church to be selfish about its cultural achievements.
Tristram Engelhardt pushes Jenson’s argument even further. His essay is the most powerful in the book, because he mimics Hauerwas’ style in a playfully aggressive way. Engelhardt is an Orthodox theologian, and he demonstrates just how Western—and Protestant—Hauerwas is. For Eastern Christians, Constantine was both a saint and a great man, and his rule was one of the splendors of the Church. Apostolic Christianity flourished, and freed from persecution, countless men and women were able to pursue a monastic life of total dedication to Christ. The exchange of honors between Christological and imperial titles enabled Christians for the first time to envision the whole universe as filled by the Logos. Christians could recognize Christ as truly Lord of this world, and they could also expect the emperors to be shepherds and peacemakers.
Bellah, the authority on civil religion, also rejects the idea that Constantinianism is foreign to Christian history. He argues that nations are naturally religious, because gods and kings emerged together. When God rescued the Israelites from Egypt, the office of the prophet came between pharaoh and the divine. Nonetheless, even at this early stage of Israel’s history, kingship was not entirely absent, since Moses fulfilled many of the tasks of a military commander. Israel was always a nation with the soul of a state. If it is true that the political tends to take a religious shape, then Christians should strive to make their nation-states as Christian as they can.
Civil religion is risky business, but the Christian impulse for social transformation makes some version of it in a democracy like America all but inevitable. This is a point that nowadays is associated with political conservatives. Yet Bellah ends his essay with a tirade against President Bush. He says nothing one could not hear in a faculty dining room at any secular college in America—and along the way, the subtlety of his analysis of the interaction between Christianity and democracy vanishes. Contrary to his intentions, he helps me to see how the House of Hauerwas, in order to demythologize the nation-state, is willing to pay the high price of politicizing the Church.
God, Truth, and Witness contains several essays by those who basically agree with Hauerwas, but the man goes down best when he makes you grimace. That is what makes the essay by Hans S. Reinders so brilliant. Reinders returns Hauerwas’ gift of friendship by reflecting on the unique challenge of befriending the intellectually disabled. One of Hauerwas’ favorite theories is that the modern notion of autonomy fails to make sense of the lives of those who are helplessly dependent on the care of others. To compensate for that failure, he argues, philosophers must produce rational justifications for the care of the disabled, but that implies that the lives of the disabled are not intelligible on their own terms. Only Christianity can account for the dignity of the disabled by demonstrating how dependency, not autonomy, is the truest description of our lives.
There are many problems with this argument, beginning with the question of its status. Is this apologetics, anthropology, or ontology? Though his writings are scattershot with ethical theories about moral agency, Hauerwas is best known for his theories about why ethicists should eschew theories. I guess the most one can say is that it is part of Hauerwas’ charm that his rhetoric, which is flagrantly dismissive of all things theoretical, cannot account for his practice of promiscuous theorizing.
When Hauerwas is forced to admit that ethicists sometimes need a theory or two, he insists that theories should emerge strictly from moral practice. Knowing, for Hauerwas, is a practical and relational activity. By implication, as Reinders points out, you cannot write about the handicapped unless you are friends with them, but if you are friends with them, you will not try to justify their existence by showing how they can contribute to a better understanding of Christianity. Yet Hauerwas has done exactly that. “I have used the mentally handicapped,” he writes, “as material markers to show that Christian speech can and in fact does make claims about the way things are.” If the Christian narrative is sufficient to nourish practices of compassion, then why do we need this strenuous rational justification? By Hauerwas’ own logic, thinking about the disabled is not something you do if you care about them. Hauerwas has backed himself into a corner of his own construction.
Reinders is such a true friend to Hauerwas that he makes these points more gently than I have. He observes how Hauerwas has grown increasingly uncomfortable about writing about the mentally handicapped because his friendship with them is now just a memory. Hauerwas feels bad that he no longer has handicapped friends, but Reinders does not let him off the hook. Any Christian conception of friendship, Reinders argues, must dwell on the inevitable failure of our ability to be true friends—to anyone. Hanging around with the mentally disabled just makes this more obvious.
Reinders tells the story of his own friendship with a mentally disabled person, and he does not gloss over the difficulties. Reinders intends by this story to suggest that Hauerwas has his epistemology all wrong. If you make your theory dependent on your practice, then you are liable to idealize your practice in order to make it fit your theory. Rather than insist that one can theorize about the intellectually disabled only when one is their friend, Hauerwas should recognize that such friendships are valuable precisely because they are so nearly impossible. Theory begins where practices fail, not where they succeed. For Christians, friendship is always incomplete and inadequate, and it is made possible only by the confession of fault.
Most of the essays in God, Truth, and Witness are confessions of the risk involved in being a friend of Hauerwas. That makes them theology of a very high order. If Stanley Hauerwas made better arguments, he would not have so many friends.
Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence, The Divine Voice, Good Eating, and Taking Religion to School.