The Magazine

Stanley Hauerwas's Pacifism

The radical gospel.

May 13, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 34 • By THOMAS HIBBS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

With the Grain of the Universe
The Church's Witness and Natural Theology
by Stanley Hauerwas
Brazos, 249 pp., $22.99

The Hauerwas Reader
edited by John Berkman and Michael G. Cartwright
Duke University Press, 744 pp., $27.95

WHAT DO THE POPE, a Mennonite pacifist, and the founder of the left-leaning Catholic Worker movement have in common?

They all play central roles in the thought of Stanley Hauerwas, the Methodist thinker and Duke University professor whom Time magazine has named "America's best theologian" and one of the most important figures in American thought over the last decade. For Hauerwas, these three twentieth-century figures--John Paul II, John Howard Yoder, and Dorothy Day--run counter to the most prevalent tendencies of modern theology. By their teachings and, even more, by their lives, they oppose what the theologian John Milbank calls the "false humility" of modern theology: its unwillingness or inability to provide a comprehensive vision of the world.

Hauerwas is the last person anyone would accuse of false humility. A Texan born in 1940, he is famous among academics for his love of bawdy humor, his hunger for Mexican food, his large personality, his ceaseless work schedule, and his profanity-larded speech. (One author tells the story of being awakened by a phone call just before 7 A.M. that began, "I'm a professor at Duke named Stan Hauerwas, and I just wanted to say that was a great f--ing piece you just published.") Hauerwas is famous as well for reading literally everything published in every field of theology, for his massive correspondence, and for the number of devoted students he's turned out--especially the graduate students, who, perhaps even more than his writing, have made him the most influential theologian in the nation.

Recent months have seen the publication of two books from Hauerwas: "With the Grain of the Universe" (his Gifford lectures, the most distinguished international lecture series in philosophy and theology, which he gave in 2001) and a retrospective compilation of his essays called "The Hauerwas Reader."

In the Gifford lectures, Hauerwas traces the decline of Christian theology and demands its liberation from political liberalism. To make his case, he looks, in particular, at the work of William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth--all three of whom preceded Hauerwas as Gifford lecturers.

IN "THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE" and elsewhere, James argues that, given modern science, theology can no longer tell us anything about the way things are--and yet we are beset at the same time by a need for a vision of our place in the universe that science cannot supply. By helping us "reclaim the human from the impersonality of chance," religion sustains hope and supports human endeavor in the face of the apparent meaninglessness of the world. Religion for James is thus very limited. It principally concerns the "feelings" of isolated individuals and thus excludes the institutional and communal context of religious practice by pushing doctrine to the margins of religious life.

Reinhold Niebuhr's theology is usually contrasted with James's. Niebuhr's insistence on the reality of original sin and his rejection of pacifism in the face of the Nazi threat are often seen as a public reassertion of distinctively Christian doctrines. Hauerwas strongly disagrees. Since Niebuhr thinks the effects of original sin are obvious, he can deploy the notion of original sin as the basis for promoting a general virtue of humility, understood as liberal toleration. Niebuhr's project is thus only another means (like James's) for constructing a "liberal Christianity acceptable to liberal culture and politics." Theology becomes "ethics and ethics becomes an investigation of the conditions to make liberal society work." Like James before him, Niebuhr ends up confirming the atheistic thesis--put most famously by the nineteenth-century philosopher Feuerbach--that "theology is a disguised way of talking about humanity." The result may never quite become full-blown atheism, but modern theology seems determined, as Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, to give "atheists less and less to disbelieve."

There is, however, another route: the path blazed by Karl Barth. For Hauerwas, Barth is the key twentieth-century theologian, because he turns "Feuerbach on his head." Barth reasserts the claim that a proper understanding of the Christian life requires an assertion of Christianity as a universal vision about the way things are. Indeed, the truth-claims of Christianity are embodied in the witnesses of individuals as participants in the practices of the church. As for the canard that this sort of Christianity renders one indifferent to injustice and worldly politics, Hauerwas notes that Barth himself issued the famous Barmen Declaration and refused to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler.