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HAUERWAS ON NATURAL THEOLOGY AND THE CHURCH: A BOOK REVIEW

With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology. Stanley Hauerwas. Baker Academics, 2013. 263 pp. $24.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-4898-2.

            Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His work cuts across many domains of research, including philosophical theology, philosophical ethics, and politics. Influenced by Karl Barth, he is not uncritical in his usage of Karl Barth’s theology. This book is the edited version of the Gifford lectures that he delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 2001, with a new afterword that was written 12 years after he first presented his lectures. The book includes an index, and a plethora of footnotes that provide the reader with a wealth of references for further study. It is unfortunate that the book does not come with a bibliography.

The Gifford lectures, established by Lord Gifford, have the purpose of engaging, teaching, critiquing, or promoting knowledge of God that can be gleaned from nature by the unaided human intellect. Some of the greatest thinkers, from the late 1800s to the present time, have been invited to give the Gifford lectures. Stanley Hauerwas, in his Gifford lectures, makes two controversial claims, and then sets out to show the truth of these claims by considering, through a survey of the Gifford Lectures of William James, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Karl Barth, the story of theology in the last century.[1] In this book review I will begin by explaining the argument that Hauerwas is presenting, how he argues it, and whether or not I think he is successful. In explaining how he presents his argument I will give a brief outline of the book.

            Hauerwas sets out to show, first of all, that Karl Barth was the greatest natural theologian to give the Gifford lectures, and secondly, that natural theology, as a domain of research, is impossible without a full doctrine of God.[2] In order to demonstrate, or rather illustrate, his two theses, Hauerwas proposes to tell the story of the development of theology in the twentieth century. It is obvious that in order to achieve such a grand experiment, by considering every step in the development of theology, would require more than the 263 pages that contain Hauerwas’s Gifford lectures. As such, Hauerwas proposes to narrate the story by considering the work of the thinkers that he considers to be the three most influential natural theologians of the twentieth century, William James, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Karl Barth, and how they approached the question of natural theology in their Gifford Lectures.[3] Hauerwas explains, in his introductory lecture, chapter 1, that in order to accomplish his purpose he will need to demonstrate that Christians can be no more than witnesses to the only true God, that the modern conception of natural theology resulted from losing a true notion of what the church is, and that ethics cannot be separated from Christian theology.[4] In other words, no true knowledge of this world is possible without the cross of Christ. “In fact, the God we worship and the world God created cannot be truthfully known without the cross, which is why the knowledge of God and ecclesiology – or the politics called church – are interdependent.”[5] Having established what he will be arguing, he spends the rest of his first lecture explaining why the modern conception of natural theology is erroneous. He calls upon Thomas Aquinas as a witness to the limits of human reason and the relation between reason and revelation. In so doing he makes the controversial claim that natural theology, understood as “a philosophical defense of ‘theism’ as a propaedeutic for any further ‘confessional’ claims one might want to make” is an “enterprise that Aquinas would not recognize.”[6]     

In the following chapters Hauerwas considers the work of James, Neibuhr and Barth. Hauerwas begins his consideration of each of these great thinkers by presenting an objective exposition of their thoughts on theology. This positive exposition is then followed by a chapter in which he presents a critical analysis of their views, and how they affected Christian theology in the twentieth century. As such, in chapter 2 he presents William James’ view of Religion, and how his pragmatism influenced his interaction with Christian theology. Chapter 3 is a critical analysis of James’ theories which seeks to show that James’ natural theology only fournishes a reductionist view of Christianity, and religion in general. Chapter 4 gives us an objective survey of Niebuhr’s theological work and influence. In the following chapter Hauerwas demonstrates that Niebuhr’s dependence on James is the primary cause of his liberal and almost idolatrous Christian theology. Hauerwas approaches Barth, in chapters 6 and 7, with great care, as it is difficult to engage all of Barth’s work. He shows that one cannot divorce Barth’s person from his work, and, interestingly, shows some similarities between Aquinas’s and Barth’s work. He concludes with a call to true Christian witness in a post-modern world. The purpose of this narrative of the development of Christian theology in the twentieth century was to demonstrate the negative affect that natural theology, divorced from a robust doctrine of the Christian God, has on Christian theology. If this thesis had been demonstrated, then Hauerwas would have been able to demonstrate the preliminary thesis, that Barth was the greatest natural theologian to give Gifford Lectures.

In my humble opinion, though he demonstrated that by accepting the naturalistic pragmatism that was latent in William James’ religious psychology Reinhold Neibuhr ended up developing an emasculated natural and Christin theology, and that Barth attempted, somewhat successfully, to bring Christianity back to a robust biblical theology, Hauerwas did not, in any meaning of the word, demonstrate that we must presuppose a full doctrine of Trinitarian Theism in order to engage in any meaningful natural theology.[7] As such, his thesis, that Barth was the greatest natural theologian was not, in my opinion, successfully demonstrated. Rather, an admission that he makes in his introduction essentially predicts the impossibility of proving his thesis that in order to engage in the enterprise of natural theology one must adhere to a full doctrine of God. “The existence of God, then, which can be known by natural reason, is rightly understood as a preamble to the articles of faith, but ‘preamble’ does not mean that the truthfulness of the articles of faith must await for such preambles to be established before their truth can be known.”[8] If the existence of God can be known by natural reason without the aid of divine revelation (the essential claim of natural theology), and thus, without presupposing a full doctrine of God, then it is not necessary to hold a robust doctrine of God in order to do natural theology. If such is the case, then, he did not prove his second thesis, that Barth was the greatest natural theologian.

Though Hauerwas does not succeed, in my humble opinion, in proving his two theses, this does not diminish the value of his book. This book is a joy to read. He gives interesting explanations and critiques of the lives and work of William James, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Karl Barth. Furthermore, this book fully demonstrates the great mind of Stanley Hauerwas, who interacts freely and easily with numerous philosophical and theological traditions. His footnotes are so robust that if he had added them into the main text, the book would have doubled in size. Finally, Hauerwas, in his conclusion, advances notions about the application of Christian theology in our contemporary world that must be considered by anybody who calls themselves a Christian. I would, in fact, highly recommend this book as necessary reading for anyone who is interested in the three great minds that Hauerwas treated, in the natural theology, or in applied Christian ethics.




[1]Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (2001; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 9, 22.

[2]Ibid., 9-10, 15, 20, 39.

[3]It may be a bit of a stretch to call William James a natural theologian, however, his Gifford lectures The Varieties of Religious Experience, as Hauerwas points out, have been extremely influential in the formation of contemporary theology.

[4]Though he distinguishes, in passing, the modern and the ancient notions of natural theology, this distinction does not seem to play a role in his argument. In my humble opinion, once that distinction was made he should have made clear that he was considering primarily the modern conception of natural theology. As his argument is presented we are given the impression (which may, in fact, be the truth of the matter) that he is considering natural theology as an intellectual enterprise, both modern and ancient.

[5]Ibid., 17.

[6]Ibid., 25. He bases most of his claims concerning Aquinas’s view of natural theology on the Summa Theologiae, and commentaries on the Summa Theologiae. Though he presents what seems to be a proper understanding of the arguments concerning God’s existence as they are used in the Summa Theologiae, he does not do justice to the way that these same arguments are used in the Summa Contra Gentiles (which certainly seems to present a true natural theology and rational defense of Christian theism), as well as the metaphysical argument that demonstrates the existence of God in De Ente et Essentia. It is true that, for Aquinas, divine revelation is more certain than human reason, however, it is unfair to Aquinas to present this claim without also keeping in mind that, according to Aquinas, it is frequently necessary to use human reason to convince unbelievers of the truth of the Christian faith, and that this is partially due to the way in which humans acquire knowledge (Cf. SCG, tome 1, ch. 2 & 3).

[7]He did demonstrate, quite well, that in order to engage in any meaningful Christian ethics one must presuppose Christian theism.

[8]Ibid., 30.

By the way, check out Stanley Hauerwas's blog at : 
http://stanleyhauerwas.blogspot.ca/

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