APPROACHING THE END: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and Life. By Stanley Hauerwas. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013. Xvii + 251 pages.
Stanley Hauerwas has been named America’s best theologian by Time Magazine. While many would disagree, Hauerwas has been one of the most influential theologians and Christian social ethicists of our time. He has drawn to himself a wide array of followers with his call for the church to step out of its embrace of American cultural/political life and engage in a much more counter-cultural sense of purpose.
Hauerwas has his fans and his detractors, but like his opposite Reinhold Niebuhr, he can’t be ignored. I'm not in the Hauerwas camp. In many ways I’m much closer to Niebuhr than to him, but his call for the church to be careful about its entanglements with the state needs to be heard. Both Hauerwas and Niebuhr are/were committed to the pursuit of justice in society – but they’re separated by where their confidence in the political process. Not surprisingly, Hauerwas like his friend and former colleague, the late John Howard Yoder, is a pacifist, while Niebuhr wasn’t.
Whether you’re a follower of his or not, Stanley Hauerwas is a theological voice that can’t be ignored. In Approaching the End, we have before us another collection of Hauerwas’ essays, this time addressing matters eschatological. More specifically, he addresses matters of church, politics, life and death from an eschatological perspective. Although there is a thematic unity to the book, the essays don’t build upon each other. Therefore, you can pick and choose which essays to read and where to start. Hauerwas does group the essays into three categories: theology, church and politics, and life and death. Although it might be helpful to begin with the essays on theology, so that you can get a sense of his perspective, especially if you’re new to Hauerwas, this isn’t necessary. But, read the introduction first so as to get the lay of the land.
Like many of his collections, this one is written for a theologically sophisticated audience. It’s not a book for theological novices. In fact, reading his memoir Hannah’s Child, before taking up a collection like this is probably wise. In the course of the book one will encounter theologians and philosophers including Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. But one will also interact with modern science and medicine. Indeed, Hauerwas considers the benefits of a Christian medicine – for much modern medicine is much too mechanistic and doesn’t leave room for the Spirit.
As he engages his eschatological sensitivities and looks into the future as we move toward God’s end, he writes with great concern about the state of the church, for it is too enmeshed in modern consumerism. He’s not unhappy, however, with the near demise of Christendom, for it can allow for “the recovery of the eschatological character of the gospel” (p. xi). In his vision, the church’s purpose is not to make the world good, but to hold a mirror so that world sees itself as it truly is.
In the first section of the book – dealing with theology – Hauerwas begins with a conversation about the relationship between creation and the apocalyptic. This is, if there is one, his methodological chapter. In this chapter he not only discusses creation, but natural law, and culture. From there he moves to a discussion of sacrifice and apocalyptic politics, and witness, a topic that includes thoughts on martyrdom.
The second section develops the relationship of church and politics. Among the topics discussed here are the relationship between faith and politics, which Hauerwas is extremely wary of – calling on the church to engage in its witness apart from state or even partisan entanglements. In that regard, he ponders the demise of Protestantism and the goal of unity. On the latter he describes himself as a Congregationalist with Catholic sensibilities. In other words, he has little use for mediating structures. The final essay in this section deals with war and peace. Here Hauerwas develops more fully his pacifist vision, with the Christian alternative to war being the Eucharist, for Christ is the end of all sacrifices.
In the final section, Hauerwas wrestles with final matters – life and death. Life is difficult – that is our reality and we must recognize this truth and bear it. As we engage life, we develop habits. The calling of the Christian is to develop good habits, for they are the embodiment of the virtues. This habit formation offers hope, for we are not determined by our past. We are, he says, “hardwired by our bodies to be people of hope.” With that being the case we develop habits that reflect this truth (p. 175). In the remaining chapters is this section he reflects suffering, the possibility of human cloning (he’s not a fan), the issue of what is required medically – suggesting “doing nothing gallantly,” and finally making sense of disability.
Once again Hauerwas forces we who are Christians to consider our place in the world. He is committed to justice, but he places no faith in the state or society at large. The church has been implicated by its complacency as the religious voice of Christendom, but there is hope for those faith communities willing to break free of the bonds and follow Jesus in a very counter-cultural eschatological pursuit of God’s realm. While I’m still not a convert to the Hauerwas team, this is a book to wrestle with, and thus to be recommended. What I appreciate most is the encouragement to look at life eschatologically.