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Called to faithfulness

The prophetic theology of Stanley Hauerwas

People worth knowing
What does today’s theological landscape look like? Who is influencing modern churches? This is the fourth of five in our series on contemporary Christian theologians. Each piece will introduce a major figure in the theological world and explore his or her sphere of influence, most well-known works and most helpful insight on God’s word.

Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, was born in Texas to a working class family of bricklayers. It was this blue collar upbringing that helped him to develop a strong work ethic and an awareness of what it is like to live outside of wealth and privilege. This left a Texas-sized chip on his shoulder that he has harnessed to challenge the cultural and religious power structures of the American version of Christendom – the accommodation of Christianity to the dominant beliefs and social patterns of American culture. He is a strong advocate for Christian pacifism, challenging the church’s support of U.S. military power. He is critical of attempts by the North American church to become culturally relevant through new forms and practices that are obsessed with efficiency and effectiveness. In his essay “Leaving Ruins: The Gospel and Cultural Formations,” Hauerwas makes the case that boarded up churches, like the monastery ruins of Ireland, should be seen as signs to remind us of the faithfulness of Christians in different historical and cultural situations. His popular book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, which he co-authored with Will Willimon, is a reminder to Christians that the gospel does not call us to be “successful” or “effective” – the gospel calls us to live in the world as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

God acts first
Hauerwas is a combination of what on the surface seem like incompatible theological traditions. Karl Barth’s reformed theology provides him with a way of speaking about God’s action in the world. God is not the highest form of human thought, nor is God known through natural theology – as if all humans had to do was pay attention to the wind, the waves or the mountains to experience God. For Hauerwas, God is radically other, which is to say that God is holy. True knowledge of God is not found in human culture; knowledge of God, and of God’s action in the world, is revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

It’s easy to see how Karl Barth’s theology has influenced his views on morality and ethics. Barth strongly opposed the liberal theology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that tried to equate the Kingdom of God with the ideals of Western culture. Barth’s emphasis on the Reformed doctrines of election and justification emphasize God’s action, which means that revelation is the primary way humanity knows God. God is the one who acts first – saving, calling, creating and justifying – while human action is always a response to this revelation. This leads Hauerwas to see the practical life of the church, grounded in the memory of God’s action in Jesus, as the place to talk about morality and ethics. Morality is not the product of human reason, it is revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the practical life of the Christian community. For Hauerwas, morality and ethics are not ideas that we think about; they are a Christian way of life that is lived in response to God’s Word.

Shaped by stories
While teaching at Notre Dame Hauerwas sought out and befriended the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder. Through his relationship with Yoder he came to a deeper understanding of the peaceful, non-violent, nature of the Kingdom of God. Yoder’s view of nonviolence is never an excuse to withdraw from the world; instead, it is a call for the Christian community to live in and for the world as a sign of God’s love and redemption. Many within the broader Reformed community are opposed to Christian pacifism, because they believe it does not take God’s call for justice and the doctrine of sin seriously. However, it is important to see the connection between Barth’s emphasis on the difference between the kingdom of God and the world, and Hauerwas’ belief that the Christian community is called to embrace the moral and ethical life of what he calls the “peaceable” Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

A third influence is the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, specifically his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. MacIntyre argues for a view of morality that is grounded in the practical life of community: the practices, stories and traditions that shape our identity. This practical life is anchored in the telos, or goal, toward which human life is directed. It is this telos or goal that allows us to speak about truth and the higher good. Theologically, for Hauerwas, a Christian approach to ethics and morality is grounded in the truth of the Kingdom of God – the telos, or future, of new creation revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is through the practices and stories of the Christian community, grounded in the revelation of human identity in Jesus Christ, that we are able to speak confidently about truth and morality.

Not called to ‘conquer’
All of these influences form a theological approach that is neither modern – with an over-emphasis on reason and human experience – or postmodern – denying the possibility of claiming higher forms of truth or the good. Hauerwas makes it possible for the Christian community to hold to a Christian approach to morality and ethics in a way that takes seriously the revelation of God’s action in Jesus Christ, and the gospel story about the kingdom and reign of God. More importantly, Hauerwas challenges the Christian community to live as a prophetic sign of this kingdom as it confronts every power and authority with the proclamation of God’s redeeming love for the world.

Even for those who disagree with his theology, Stanley Hauerwas provides an important corrective. Like an Old Testament prophet Hauerwas reminds us that violence, oppression and control are not the norm. He points to Jesus’ own words in John’s gospel where Pilate is told that his kingdom is radically different from God’s kingdom. He reminds us of the importance of living as the Christian community, allowing the memories, stories and practices of the community to create a Christian way of living in the world. Finally, Hauerwas provides a corrective to the triumphal tendencies of the church, reminding us that we are not called to conquer the world; we are called to live as a sign of God’s love for the world. This is what makes Stanley Hauerwas a prophetic theological voice for the North American church as it seeks to faithfully live out the call of the gospel and the kingdom of God.

  • Jason Lief is an Associate Professor of Theology at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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