Talks about himself a lot

Stanley Hauerwas2

The Work of Theology, Stanley Hauerwas, Eerdmans, 2015

Stanley Hauerwas was once a bricklayer, and it is interesting to note that the pre-release cover artwork for this new book featured a bricklayer’s trowel, making a nice correlation with the book’s title, The Work of Theology. The trowel has since been dropped from the cover, and one can only assume that the author asked the publisher to do so in accord with his previous statements that one can make too much of the bricklayer analogy for what Hauerwas does with theology. (Although he has only himself to blame, calling the book The Work of Theology.) The reason the analogy doesn’t quite work is because theology is less like a systematic, solid building-up, and more like a playful conversation.

Hauerwas talks about himself a lot, and this may confirm for some that he has bought into the hype that has him labelled as ‘America’s best theologian’ (a concept Hauerwas is bemused at). But it is quite the opposite. Because he is a prominent theologian, he has attracted his share of criticism and comment, therefore much of Hauerwas’s writing is defensive. He requalifies, elaborates, apologises, restates, argues fiercely – sometimes exasperatedly, sometimes with humour (this book contains a chapter on why theology is funny). His writing confirms Wittgenstein’s point that we can only make our words mean what we want them to mean by continually using other words to clarify.

His career shows that writing theology is difficult, in particular when, in his case, he argues that the church is decidedly alternative to the world, yet must engage with it, a view sometimes misconstrued as retreat from the world. In his book Approaching the End he argues that Christianity can’t claim to exist apart from how it relates to the world. The church’s very being is a reaction to the world and its injustices, and he is therefore critical of church accommodation to the world, whether it be sanctioning war or using the language of business to address the ‘unchurched’ (a word he finds ‘hilarious’) as part of ‘growth strategies’.

He also carefully points out that ‘ethics’ can’t be pulled out of ‘theology’. Theology for Hauerwas can’t be an abstract thing, a matter of theory to be contrasted with practice. Theology must be ‘performed’ in the messiness of life. He is keen to say that being an ethicist is not a specialisation, but is simply part of any Christian’s life, as being a Christian means acting ethically in light of the Gospel. Theology is not primarily an academic activity either. We always start ‘theologising’ on the run, in the midst of whatever we are dealing with in the church at any given time, which is why Hauerwas resists the urge to systematise his theology (though, he points out, he is not against consistency). And again, this is why Hauerwas uses ‘I’ a lot – theology, contrary to some expectations, is a personal endeavour. And lest that seem individualistic, Hauerwas also points repeatedly to ‘us’, the church, as the place where theology is played out.

Neither can there be any final resolution to theology, as Karl Barth’s (unfinished) Church Dogmatics famously demonstrates. Not that Hauerwas makes it explicit in this new book, but we can assume this is also a reason he keeps writing so noticeably in the first person – he realises that a theologian can never make the definitive pronouncement about God as if he were writing about the atomic structure of carbon dioxide or the degree of tilt of the Earth’s axis. Our writing about God is largely metaphorical, as he suggests – we are squeezing God into the limitations of our language – as well as speaking about him in relative terms. This is not to suggest that theology is relativistic, only that there are limitations as to how one person can speak about God (a point also made by Rowan Williams in his last book).

His carefulness here is part of what makes him, perhaps paradoxically, such a good – and exciting – theologian, and why a book of essays such as The Work of Theology is as good or better than a systematic magnum opus at showing how a theologian goes about his or her work.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Journey magazine)

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