Hauerwas in (Very Broad) Perspective

About the Author
David Wagschal

Stanley Hauerwas’ work is usually read as a reaction to the theological liberalism of the 19th and early 20th C. Hauerwas situates his own work this way, and this is how he is mostly characterized in the academy. He is a “post-liberal” concerned with re-asserting the particularity and distinctiveness of Christian belief over and against liberal theologies that sought to harmonize or reconcile Christian theology with Enlightenment and humanist beliefs.

Such a contextualization of Hauerwas’ work is both accurate and useful. But it may be a bit narrow. What happens if we place Hauerwas’ work in a broader perspective?

Resurrecting the Imperial Church

For me, as a historian trained in late antique and Byzantine culture, what immediately jumps out from the pages of Hauerwas is the extent to which he can be read as resurrecting the key tenets of the pre-modern “imperial” Christian synthesis. This is the 3rd and 4th C “Great Church” synthesis of doctrine and practice that congealed into the official religion of the Roman Empire and broadly became the basis of all historic branches of Christianity.

Hauerwas’ revival of this synthesis is not particularly explicit, and may not even be conscious – but this makes it all the more profound. Hauerwas is not simply and superficially recollecting and reviving this or that doctrine, but is unearthing some of the deepest conceptual foundations of the Greco-Roman church:

  • the central place of virtue/vice, and training for virtue (i.e. the all-important paideia)
  • an emphasis on imitation/mimesis
  • the role of the church as the essential context of salvation, not least because of its function as a “school” of ethical philosophy
  • the importance of holy people (saints) to teach the right life.
  • a pervasive emphasis on obedience, control, discipline, and order
  • the conceptualization of the church as fundamentally an exegetical community centered around a divinely authoritative Scripture (although this is a little dimmed in Hauerwas compared to other post-liberals)
  • a huge emphasis on action and ethics as absolutely central to the Gospel – it’s all about living right, since orthodoxy and orthopraxy are fused: to be good is to do good, to know truly is to live truly. You must have the truth to live properly, and you must live properly to know the truth. Holiness and truth go hand in hand.
  • a very strong focus on the literal and political continuity of the church with Israel. The church is the New Israel – a new kingdom, a new polity upon earth, and perhaps most importantly, God’s special elect community, qualitatively different from all others.

Fascinatingly, Hauerwas can even become a proponent of bits of one of the most radical, and Hellenized, elements of the old synthesis: asceticism/monasticism. For example, in “Character, Narrative and Growth in the Christian Life” (1980), he asserts the critical importance of “masters” in the spiritual life (!) – i.e. of a spiritual elite, to whom (lesser) Christians must subject themselves to make philosophical progress in the Christian life. Here the old Greco-Roman sage/ascetic/gnostic master  – and his  stratified religious universe – have returned in force. (See also this recent article – where he proposes a truly monastic level of control over Christian lives.)

A Bit Ironic

The irony in all of this is that Hauerwas is basically re-inventing the Constantinian church. The above tenets are simply a description of Christianity as it developed as a mainstream element of Greco-Roman society in roughly the time of Constantine and his late antique successors.

This is ironic because Hauerwas is known precisely for his opposition to “Constantinianism”.

Now, admittedly, Constantinianism for Hauerwas refers not so much to the 4th C church as to any attempt to dilute or harmonize the particularity and distinctiveness of Christianity with mainstream cultural values. Constantinianism, for him, is any selling-out to the cultural establishment – a dissolving of Christian identity into the broader culture. (This subsumes the more conventional definition of Constantinianism as any attempt by the church to fuse with the political establishment.) Hauerwas accuses theological liberals of doing exactly this in their attempts to reconcile Christian theology with Enlightenment/humanist philosophy in the 19th C and beyond.

But it’s still a bit ironic that Hauerwas is apparently confronting the liberals by simply turning around and adopting an older mainstream, domesticated cultural Christianity that was extremely assimilated into its surrounding society. (The above tenets, with the exception of the bit about Israel, are off-the-shelf borrowings from Hellenistic culture.) And it is not a little humorous that the great opponent of “Constantinianism” ends up as a major proponent of the theology of the actual Constantinian church!

Now, to be fair, Hauerwas has made some significant modifications to the historic Constantinian synthesis – particularly with his radical pacifism and ecclesial separatism (i.e. he is much less interested in Christianity taking over the world as in Christianity separating from the world in order to properly witness to that world). Still, much of his theology is structurally a 4th C re-boot.

Playing with Fire?

So what’s the problem with this? There are at least two.

First – though I leave this argument for Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox to press in detail – Hauerwas is largely reinventing the wheel. He ends up advocating for theological positions that have a long, rich and organic development in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches. But his project is constructed with relatively little sustained engagement with the whole of these traditions. He mostly develops his theology de novo. This is again ironic, because this is a very Enlightenment move.  Hauerwas seems to be largely developing his theology tabula rasa instead of working within a tradition/story (one of his great themes).

This is worrying. These older traditions have many important ways of moderating, “digesting” and updating the ancient synthesis. From a Lutheran perspective, this critically includes ways in which they inject the Gospel of grace back into the works-righteousness religious culture of the ancient world. For example, the Byzantine liturgical texts of Orthodox Holy Week contain radical assertions of grace. Roman Catholic spirituality and mysticism stress the experience of God’s radical love to the point that notions of reciprocity are rendered virtually meaningless. The Anglican ethos of inclusivity sends an implicit message that God’s grace is bigger than anyone’s “truth”. And in all of these traditions, the sacramental system is itself a key way that grace is communicated (you simply physically partake – and God’s power “works” on you). But Hauerwas’ Greco-Roman theology is stripped of these traditional overlays. It’s quite “bare” – and, thus, I think, rather dangerous.

The second, and my more substantive, critique is: what has happened to the Reformation? That Hauerwas wishes to advocate for the old synthesis is fine. But where is his engagement with the fundamental critique of that older synthesis – i.e. with the Reformation, and particularly the Lutheran Reformation? Where does he engage with the Reformers’ critique of the old ideas about the church? of virtue? of imitation? of monasticism? Where does he contend with Luther favouring of “gift” over “imitation”? Or Luther’s massive attack on any type of religious elitism? Or Luther’s theology of sin that thoroughly dis-enchants human virtue and the church?  Such discussion seems almost entirely missing. This is bizarre. To assert his theology without engaging with the key substantive critiques and positive contributions of earlier Reformation thought – and instead only attacking the 19th and 20th C liberal tradition – would be like me reading one of his books and then writing a refutation based entirely on a few footnotes, or perhaps a review or two. It’s truly odd. Is this a naiveté? Does Hauerwas not realize that there were some serious issues at stake in the Reformation? Does he not realize that there is a huge “world of critique” of each one of the above tenets, critiques that developed for very serious doctrinal, existential and, yes, ethical reasons? Maybe he doesn’t. I don’t know. But I almost despair of knowing where to begin in pointing out the problems. It’s like he’s doing theology by tightly closing his eyes and hoping the central historical challenges to his positions will just disappear. It’s neither inspiring nor convincing.

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