Monday, November 09, 2015

The Work of Theology (Stanley Hauerwas): A Review

THE WORK OF THEOLOGY. By Stanley Hauerwas. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. Xi + 293 pages.

                It is often said that if we think about God, then we are theologians. That is true in part, but there are some who devote their lives to diving deep into questions about God and God’s interactions with creation. Many of these persons live within the academic world, though some of us have found a home within congregational ministry. The church benefits from the ministry of those who choose to think deeply about these matters, and in recent years a much more diverse cadre of theological writers has emerged. Whereas a generation or so in the past the leading theologians were white Euro-American males, that is changing. Nonetheless there are still many theologians who are white and male, even as we continue to learn from Dead White Male theologians like Karl Barth and John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. Among the living white male theologians who continues to leave a mark on our conversations is Stanley Hauerwas, now emeritus professor of divinity and law at Duke University. Hauerwas has been recognized as one of America’s most influential theologians and thinkers by among others Time Magazine. While I do not number myself among the followers of Stanley Hauerwas, I have found him provocative and thus a contributor to my own theological development.

The Work of Theology is by the author's own admission a collection of essays. It serves as an opportunity for Hauerwas to explore his own theology and the way in which that theology has emerged over time. Although there is a pattern to the book, the elements that make up the book are occasional pieces. Therefore, one could pick and choose different essays and not miss a beat. At the same time, by reading it cover to cover one becomes more familiar with the author’s perspective and even theological methodology. Late in the book he speaks of the unsystematic nature of his own theological work, but he notes that he is in good company since one of the primary influencers of his theology, Karl Barth, was less than systematic. Hauerwas is best known for his work in ethics, and perhaps that is why he is both controversial and provocative. His writings tend to engage the lived world and not the abstract world—not that his work can’t enter the abstract. Hauerwas writes this book in part to dispel what he believes are misunderstandings of his theological and ethical work. Indeed, he confesses in the introduction to be writing the book to help him understand himself. With this in mind, it should not surprise one that Hauerwas is interested in language and how it works. He has an entire essay in the book that speaks to how one should write a theological sentence. He is concerned about language but admits also to being an enemy of theory. Theology is for him an exercise in practical reason.

While there isn't a necessary movement from beginning to end, each of the thirteen essays in the book reflect in one way or another on the work of theology. Hauerwas writes that if one starts from the beginning, the reader will notice that the early chapters focus on more on methodology than do the later chapters. Whereas the later chapters focus more on the social and political implications of doing theology. He writes essays dealing with politics, a point on which I have had some disagreements—if not with him, with some of those who see themselves as his disciples.  He also writes about theology and ministry. He laments that we may have gotten to a point where we have forgotten why ministry needs theology. There was a time, under Christendom, when it was assumed that one needn’t know much about Christianity to be a Christian. It was in the water, you might say. The priest said mass and the laity were only expected to “pray, obey, and pay” (p. 105). That often describes the way the church functions, but it can no longer do so and remain healthy. We have come to the point, he fears, when we have “a laity who have little understanding of the Christian tradition but believe they get to make Christianity up because what it means to be a Christian is to have a personal relationship with God” (p. 105).  The problem here is that without some theological sophistication among clergy and people, the church loses its ability to shape lives. 

Much of the book is heavy. It is deep theological reflection. It is challenging. So, we can be appreciative for the “present” that he leaves with near the end of the book—an essay titled "How to be Theologically Funny."

I do believe this is an important book written by a very influential theologian. Perhaps he is America’s best theologian, but that is a judgment call. But whether you agree with him or not, he does push our theological and ecclesiological buttons. He reminds us that the church has an important role to play in Christian life, whether or not we live up to our calling. In the postscript to the book, a chapter where he responds to one of his critics, he admits that he conflates belief with living out of one’s beliefs. That is, he doesn’t see beliefs as simply being abstract principles. They have meaning when lived.  While I don’t agree at every point, and my Niebuhrian side reacts to his neo-Anabaptist side, especially when it comes to politics and faith, I found the book to be an important read because challenges to wrestle with the importance of doing theology in the church. Too often theology is done an academic vacuum, but theology is not theology unless it connects with Christian life. It is an important book because it reminds us that, as Barth discovered or exemplified, theology never has an end point.  He writes in the opening essay: "If theology is understood as something like the writing of letters, then it should be clear that there is no place to begin or end the work of theology. Rather you always begin in the middle" (p. 24). 

Hauerwas is known as a teacher and writer on Christian ethics, and so it will not surprise one to find much ethical reflection emerging from the essays. He wrestles with politics, the call for recognition of rights (he’s not sure he finds this a useful category), and the poor. As noted before he reflects on humor but also on irony. In a final essay (before a postscript in which he responds to Nicholas Healy's critical introduction to Hauerwas' work) he writes about "how (not) to retire theologically." While Hauerwas, now in his 70s, has retired from teaching, he doesn't think one can retire from being a theologian. With that I agree. He declares: "The good news, at least for me, is I am not dead yet, so I continue to have good work to do. But even more important is the fact that I have been joined by some who graciously describe themselves as 'my students' who can do the work of theology far better than I have done" (p. 265). Until we die, we continue to do the work of theology. I like that!

When I was a seminary student I studied theology with a professor (Colin Brown) who did not believe that there was simply one system of theology. As a result, he had us explore doctrines from a variety of perspectives, beginning with scripture and then moving through history. As historical theologian, this appeals to me. It makes sense. Therefore, as Hauerwas demonstrates, theology is often an occasional discipline. It is an intriguing book. It offers much to consider regarding method and more. Perhaps responding to the ongoing debate about whether we should focus on orthopraxis or orthodoxy, he notes that he does indeed conflate the "logic of belief" with the "logic of out our beliefs." While I don't see him conflating the kingdom with the church, he does emphasize the church as the locus of God's work.  

This is not a popularly written book. It’s written for professional theologians and hopefully clergy. It is after all a collection of theological essays. Whether you are a Hauerwasian or not, I think The Work of Theology should prove to be a most useful book for those engaged in theological work, especially those who work from within the church. 

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