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David Tracy was my advisor at the University of Chicago Divinity School at the time he was developing the idea of the analogical imagination. The way he wove together all aspects of religious thought into an intricate fabric inspired me, even though my evangelical Protestant instincts kept me from embracing it entirely. Perhaps I was intimidated to find that Tracy had managed to weave even my own dialectical predilections into his multicolored coat, making my theology look patched and worn by comparison. I kept looking for a loose thread to pull, but Tracy had managed to tie his arguments too neatly together.

Nobody read Barth much at Chicago in those days, but what I needed was an American version of Barth’s thundering voice. Barth, of course, was more than a loose thread; he threatened to rip the garment of modern theology into shreds. An American Barth, however, would say “No!” to secular liberalism not from the vantage point of the utter transcendence of God but from the more modest perspective of a Church out of sync with the world, unable and unwilling to do for modern culture what that culture could not do for itself.

Stanley Hauerwas was that voice, although it took me years until I could hear him. Now I wonder how I could have kept from hearing him all along. Many theologians do not have much of a voice in their texts; you have to hear them speak in person to get a sense of who they are. They do not write like they speak, or, if they do, it is because they speak like they write—in a formal, analytical, and dry style. Hauerwas is an exception to this general rule: you don’t have to meet Stanley to know him. And for many people, reading him is as close as they ever want to get.

Like all voices that are distinctive and sharp, his can be irritating and annoying. It can also be very appropriate. I teach at a secular institution, and my colleagues really cannot imagine that their liberal assumptions are capable of being challenged. Hauerwas has helped me to be more confident in articulating my differences from them. I should also note that Hauerwas is not just a polemicist. More than any theologian I know, he not only defends the importance of friendship for theological conversation but also practices what he preaches. He promptly answers his mail with long letters, generously giving his time to friends and strangers alike.

While he writes too much, Hauerwas can still be as surprising as he is predictable. He always seems to be trying to get the words right in order to say the one thing that is necessary to be said, and yet he never quite says it. This is due in part to his insistence on the irreducibility of the particular, which leads him to be more contextual than systematic. Indeed, much of the power of his prose comes from his cleverly constructed mistrust of the very rationality that he so beautifully showcases.

Hauerwas speaks from the whirlwind of hyperbole—the trope of prophets—and his rhetoric is as intentional as Barth’s. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “When you are talking to the hard of hearing, sometimes you have to shout.” Hauerwas’ hyperbole, however, has a more clipped and sarcastic bite than Barth’s Teutonic proclamations. If Barth threw a bomb into the playground of liberal theologians, Hauerwas, in his shadow, keeps throwing firecrackers to keep liberals on their toes.

Understandably, his liberal victims never seem to appreciate his provocations, but they could do a better job of reading him. They take him both too seriously and not seriously enough. They take him literally, and thus they are outraged by his jibes and generalizations. Readers who think his criticisms are indiscriminate forget that liberalism is such a pervasive phenomenon that even the wildest of swings is bound to hit its target. But if his critics would acknowledge the rhetorical construction of his work, they could better understand how Hauerwas has already anticipated their reactions. Asking Hauerwas to modify his critique of liberalism is like asking Jim Carrey to tone down his facial tics. A Hauerwas essay without antiliberal jeremiads might count as more nuanced and careful scholarship, but it would not sound a thing like Stanley Hauerwas—and it would be a lot less fun to read.

Over the years I have become convinced that Hauerwas is right more often than he is wrong, but it is the way in which he is wrong that makes him so interesting. His hyperboles can let evangelicals off the hook from thinking about the critical issues liberal academics raise, and they can soothe the consciences of academics (like me) who are alienated from their liberal colleagues. Hyperbole is a seductive trope. It is so excessive that you can think you have done what it demands just by speaking it. But saying something does not make it so. Indeed, Hauerwas is so persuasive that his theology sounds too good to be true. That’s because it is. Such rhetoric sounds good to those of us who believe that the Church has lost much of its integrity in the modern world. Precisely because it is so pleasing to the quasi-evangelical ear, this rhetoric can become a substitute for thinking through the hard decisions that the modern world forces upon Christians. It is easy to see the world through Hauerwas’ eyes while forgetting the fact that he describes a Church that does not exist and a world whose existence cannot be so easily denied.

Perhaps the key to the reception of his work is his anti-Americanism. Hauerwas has given rise to a whole generation of theologians who make quick work of consumerism, patriotism, nationalism, and popular culture. Some of his students have told me that they are so alienated from American politics that they no longer vote. Nevertheless, his critique of all things American is what makes Hauerwas look more at home with liberals than conservatives. By continuously thumping on that theme, he is able to gain a larger academic audience than would ever listen to a more traditionally evangelical theologian. Indeed, without his constant critique of everything American, he would be in danger of looking like just another evangelical theologian.

Hauerwas thus pushes the intellectual elite to take traditional theological claims seriously while at the same time assuring them that many of their left-leaning cultural and political assumptions will remain untroubled. Can you really enter theology from the right and exit at the left? That trick seems less plausible in the light of September 11. Hauerwas recently has spoken about how isolated he feels in sticking to his pacifism during the war on terrorism. During this time of crisis, his barbed rhetoric seems less helpful. Now it does not seem so wise to work so hard to isolate Christianity from America—and the West. Modernity, after all, is the bastard child of Christianity, and Christians still have some parental responsibilities. This is a time for a more prudent rhetoric about America’s moral and political responsibilities in a world divided by poverty and hatred.

Hauerwas’ recently published Gifford Lectures, With the Grain of the Universe (an odd title for someone who goes so much against the grain), can be read as a response to critics who think he is too reckless in his scholarship. It is also a response to those who clamor for a masterwork. With the Grain fails to live up to this expectation, however, because it swings too hard from polemic to commentary. Note, for example, the long and involved footnotes, which in many cases take up more of the page than the primary text. Like all great hyperbolists, Hauerwas’ best work is occasional; the prophetic pace of his prose makes him a sprinter, not a long distance runner.

The book is a lesson in Hauerwas’ reading habits rather than an addition to his constructive theology. His meticulous commentary on William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth barely masks his anxiety about who has influenced whom. He protests the most against the very theologians with whom he shares more than he is willing to admit. For example, he blames James for pushing theology down the slippery slope of subjectivity, but Hauerwas too has a pragmatic criterion of truth. Hauerwas extends, rather than reverses, James by making the community, not the individual, the justification of Christian convictions. For example, Hauerwas often argues that you have to be a pacifist in order to understand the Bible. Scripture, then, does not have any inherent meaning. Texts belong to communities, which suggests that their interpretation is determined by the practices of the community that reads them. In making this argument, Hauerwas tries to combine the postmodern hermeneutics of Stanley Fish (“Is there a text in this class?”) with the biblical realism of John Howard Yoder, a precarious synthesis at best.

Hauerwas next turns to Niebuhr, who is the real villain of his book, just as Barth is its hero. Hauerwas has to rebuff Niebuhr for the same reason that Niebuhr so often put down Barth—both are gaining distance on theologians to whom they are closer than they would like to be. This might seem like a surprising claim, but the parallels between Hauerwas and Niebuhr are abundant. Both are ethicists concerned with social questions, rather than systematic or dogmatic topics. Both wrote quickly and boldly for a broad audience, without always playing by the academic rules of the game. Both polemicize against liberalism, and neither does exegetical theology. Both are obsessed with America (even if one thought that America was a nation with the soul of a church and the other thinks that America is soulless). More substantially, Niebuhr did for anthropology, the popular doctrine of his day, what Hauerwas has done for ecclesiology, the doctrine of today. Indeed, Niebuhr doesn’t really develop a full portrait of Christianity, leaving out the doctrine of the Trinity and ecclesiology, for example, while Hauerwas too has not shown much interest in a more systematic presentation of Christian dogma, writing very little, for example, about liturgy and Christology.

Just as Niebuhr made it safe for atheists to use Christian rhetoric without actually going to church, Hauerwas has taught evangelicals how to employ a hermeneutics of suspicion and critique without accepting the values of the secular academy. Evangelicals-for-Hauerwas are able to shun liberalism while still staking a claim for membership in that most liberal of institutions, the academy. Hauerwas has also made it possible for mainline Christians to sound as angry and alienated as evangelicals or fundamentalists without actually having to inhabit those particular subcultures. In fact, there seem to be two groups of readers that Hauerwas attracts: evangelicals who want to engage with secular culture more critically, and mainline Christians who want to position themselves outside of secular culture without having to become evangelical.

Moreover, just as Hauerwas thinks that Niebuhr secretly legitimates the coercive features of liberal democracies, Hauerwas himself is often accused of encouraging the more conservative elements of the Christian churches. Niebuhr is no more liberal than Hauerwas is conservative. Yet when Niebuhr criticizes the optimism of liberalism or when Hauerwas criticizes the nationalism of conservativism, each thinker ends up being much more implicated in the assumptions of his opponents than he would like to admit. There is no doubt that Niebuhr was a kind of optimist. He thought Christianity could be cleaned up and made presentable to modern liberals. And Hauerwas is a kind of conservative who thinks the Christian Church can stand against decadent secular culture by providing an alternative to liberal forms of socialization. Niebuhr never sheds his optimism or his belief that American democracy is the best, even though limited, vehicle for the achievement of the Kingdom of God. Likewise, something of the American exceptionalism that Hauerwas so vehemently rejects comes back to haunt his ecclesiology, wherein the Church becomes an entity set apart from all other institutions and lacking any obligation to enter into reciprocal relationships out of fear that that would compromise or imperil its moral superiority.

Both Niebuhr and Hauerwas demonstrate to what extent theology is a rhetorical art, a matter of persuading the faithful to rethink the historical and critical context of their commitments. When Hauerwas writes that “the truth of Christian convictions requires a recovery of the confident use of Christian speech about God,” he could be describing Niebuhr’s project as well. One way of thinking about their differences is to look at their rhetorical strategies, rather than their theological conflict. Niebuhr is in debt to the figurative power of irony as much as Hauerwas is to hyperbole. Indeed, Hauerwas is typically American in his insistence that Christian theology be translated into American politics in direct and aggressive form, without much reflection on the various ways in which democratic structures mediate moral action. For Hauerwas, the Church is not a merely passive sign of God’s grace, but an active body that accomplishes God’s will. Hauerwas is missing an ironic sensibility that understands how our best intentions often end up subverting the good we hope to achieve, and how, therefore, even prophetic utterances should normally result in reform, rather than revolution.

In sum, Hauerwas’ utopian view of the Church as self-sufficient and antimodern needs a little Niebuhrian realism. Hauerwas has been very harsh in criticizing Niebuhr’s famous use of the phrase “impossible possibility,” but the language of impossibility is becoming popular in the academy today, thanks to its use by Derrida and negative theologians. Such language is helpful precisely because it reminds us not to take our hyperboles too literally. Americans, as Tocqueville noted long ago, do not trust thinking that does not lead immediately to some kind of action. We are stirred by extravagant rhetoric, and we like to think we can remake the world in the image of our words. We are an impatient people, and we like results. Hauerwas praises the virtue of patience in his work, but he is also drawn to the grand gesture of sacrificial witness and the hope that, even at this late hour, America can still be redeemed by the morally pure. In a word, he wants pacifism to pay. Irony is missing from Hauerwas precisely because, in spite of his many protestations, he is so perfectly American.

Stephen H. Webb is Associate Professor of Religion at Wabash College. His most recent books include Good Eating: Diet, the Bible, and the Proper Love of Animals and Taking Religion to School: Christian Theology and Secular Education , both published by Brazos Press.

Image by Ondřej Žváček licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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