The limits of Stan the Man Hauerwas

Sep 29, 2014 by

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When I was in seminary, I got drunk on Stanley Hauerwas. His polemic works against modernity, Christendom, liberalism, individualism, etc., struck a chord with me, and gave me a certain set of diagnostic lenses to see “how stuff works” in our late modern world. For all that I learned from Hauerwas and will no doubt continue to learn, I am in his debt.

ResizeImageHandlerYet even while I was stumbling drunk on his work, there were moments of clarity where I saw something lacking. In his hyperbolic assertion that Christianity hangs or falls on the fidelity of the Church as a concrete social/political body, understood as an alternative to “the world” — this all seemed to at least downplay or, worse, denigrate things like personal piety or spiritual formation. The self was lost in that elusive, fugitive “we/us” of the capital-C Church.

So for all kinds of good reasons I remain generally positive on Hauerwas, but I’m also grateful for folks smarter than me doing critical engagement on his work, because it might give me better handles on where the limits of his work lie, and where I might mark out points of departure. The most recent, and what looks to be very intelligent, entry in this field is Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction
, by Nicholas M. Healy
, published by Eerdmans. And First Things has a helpful review of the book up from John Webster, tellingly entitled “Ecclesiocentrism.” It’s short and sweet, so give it a look if you love or hate Stan.

Here’s a great summary by Webster of the Healy’s claims:

[He argues] that Hauerwas is a “splendid social ethicist” whose theology is “surprisingly thin.” It says little about divine being and action, justification, the Spirit’s grace, or the life of virtue as orientation to God, Healy concludes. In short, if Hauerwas’ rendering of the Christian lifework is not adequate, it is because it does not place Church and morals sub ratione Dei (under the aspect of God).

That first sentence might be the clearest articulation of my felt-sense of reading a decently modest amount (but probably more than most) of Hauerwas on and off for the past five years. Hauerwas (and John Howard Yoder before him) have both been accused of being so heavily focused on ethics that spirituality, or God’s supernatural work in our lives individually and perhaps even corporately, kind of gets lost in all this focus on theologically correct doing.

And it’s precisely here where I see the Schwarzenau Brethren tradition’s claiming of Pietism with Anabaptism to be a boon, and not a liability. The spiritual life of selves in relation to/with God is important theologically, and practically worthwhile. Yes, of course, to selves understood as being constituted by tradition- or narrative-based communities and all that social-political-ethical Yoderwas/MacIntyre stuff, sure. And yes, we get baggage from both Anabaptism (that Hauerwas likes to cherry-pick from but also make fun of) and Pietism (that both Hauerwas and Yoder seemed to hate), but that’s life.

So it seems I’m waking from my Hauerwasian hangover. Or, to switch metaphors, my friend Ric Hudgens pointed out in Facebook conversation…

I do hope . . . that it is time for the initial romance of Hauerwasian theology to fade so that we can come to a mature assessment that can both affirm and deny varying parts of his contribution. The current Christian Century series on Resident Aliens points in that direction too.

Which reminded me that I have more reading to do. . . .

Brian R. Gumm is a bi-vocational minister in the Church of the Brethren. Based in Toledo, Iowa, Brian works in educational technology for Eastern Mennonite University and is exploring church-planting and community peacebuilding initiatives in his local community. He writes at Restorative Theology, where this blog post originally appeared.


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  • Jeremy Yoder

    William Faulkner famously wrote, “‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Perhaps the same is true for theology. Sometimes it seems that those of us who care and read theology end up engaging in hero worship. I think part of spiritual growth is the ability to look at our heroes critically and to see the limits of their arguments. Good post, Brian.

  • Berry Friesen

    I began reading Hauerwas in ’83 or ’84 and have twenty of his volumes on my shelf. I find it astonishing that Gumm would suggest that Hauerwas “denigrates . . . spiritual formation.” Personal piety, yes, but Hauerwas actually emphasizes spiritual formation.

    As for Webster’s review in First Things, well, it applies equally well to the Bible with its relentless focus on “the people of God” and insistence we will come into the presence of YHWH as we exercise faith. You should read what the Bible says about YHWH’s contempt for personal piety! So Hauerwas sounds too much like the Bible for the tastes of Gumm and Webster? Hmmm.

    It’s healthy to critique Hauerwas, to be sure, but when it’s because he’s not adequately gnostic and metaphysical, I for one won’t be persuaded.

    Best I recall, “church” got a chapter in virtually every book Hauerwas’ wrote but it was never the center of what he said. Instead, Hauerwas wrote much about Jesus, a man whose name doesn’t appear in Gumm’s post and only once in Webster’s with their preference for someone they call “god.”

    • Brian R. Gumm

      Thanks for the push-back, Berry. It sounds like you might track w/ the “theology without metaphysics” crowd, and that’s certainly something I’ve tried to pay attention to. Kevin Hector has some interesting stuff there, though it’s more philosophical theology in terms of genre. And for as much as I like philosophy, I’ve found it a bit hard to track with (above my pay grade).

      I guess I’m not really afraid of metaphysics like I know some Anabaptists are…so yeah, call it the Pietist in me. – Gnosticism, not really. And that I didn’t mention Jesus shouldn’t be a reflection of my own theology (I love Yoder’s term “Jesulogical Christocentrism” when talking of Christology), but rather the limits of a very brief post with some rather from-the-hip reflections on a review of a book that I haven’t read. Ah, the internet… :)

  • Spencer Bradford

    Hauerwas is strongly engaged with and committed to spiritual formation, but in terms of participation in and formation by the eucharistic liturgy as the primary site of the Spirit’s activity. In sacramental worship, the enlivening action of the Spirit of Jesus is precisely connected with participation in the community of disciples. This is a different frame for spirituality than Protestant pietism is equipped to engage, perhaps, but with his three decades of writing directly referring to and reflecting upon the indissolubility of worship and ethics (perhaps culminating in the design of the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics), only a thoroughly individualist pietism would not recognize Hauerwas’ engagement with the life of the Spirit and its relationship to personal character. That said, Healy’s own critique of theological thin-ness in areas of Hauerwas’ work has some resonance on other counts I can recognize, But you know, if a shortstop can hit .390 for the season, I’m going to cut him some slack on his base-stealing and how quickly he can turn a double play.