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The Work of Theology – Stanley Hauwerwas

July 9, 2018

TWOTOnce named by Time magazine as the “best theologian in America,” Stanley Hauerwas addresses the “how to” of theology in this book. Revisiting (because he believes that ‘retirement is not an option for a theologian’, some of his earliest philosophical and theological views in order to clarify his previous work — and to correct mistaken characterizations of him and his work — Hauerwas here explores theological reflection as an exercise in practical reason.

Hauerwas discusses a wide array of topics in such chapters as:

  • “How I Think I Learned to Think Theologically”
  • “How to Do or Not to Do Protestant Ethics”
  • “The `How’ of Theology and the Ministry”
  • “How to Write a Theological Sentence”
  • “How to Be Theologically Funny”
  • “How (Not) to Retire Theologically”

In a postscript he responds to Nicholas M. Healy’s 2014 book Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction.

 The Work of Theology is Hauerwas discussing Hauerwas, but in a very different register from that of his memoir Hannah’s Child. Each chapter treats a domain within Hauerwas’s theology—humour, writing, irony, being Protestant, and so forth—and considers how practical reasoning has worked in those domains. We are meant to understand practical reasoning not as an abstract topic, but as a Christian virtue honed in a particular person’s life, in conversation with many others—in many cases people who are Hauerwas’s friends. Friendship has long been a central theme in Hauerwas’s thought: through friendship virtues are formed and people are transformed. “How one reasons cannot be abstracted from who is doing the reasoning.”

Female scholars make up around 29 percent of religion and theology faculty, according to recent figures from the American Academy of Reli­gion. Compare that to the 11 percent of female interlocutors in The Work of Theology. But Hauerwas is a broad thinker, engaging scholarship from across the humanities. Perhaps the gender discrepancy is simply a function of the imbalance in other humanities disciplines? Yet according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, female scholars make up around 25 percent of philosophy faculty—more than twice the representation than they receive in the pages of The Work of Theology. And philosophy is the most male-dominated discipline listed. What about race? Sixteen percent of theology and religion faculty are people of color. Not great, but compare that to The Work of Theology, in which around 6 percent of references come from black people.

Hauerwas approvingly cites this warning from John Milbank: if women alone are given exclusive “rights” over a foetus, says Milbank, men will exercise their implied rights to have nothing to do with their children. No disrespect to Milbank, but why is he the one holding the microphone at that precise moment in the conversation? And why is the topic given drive-by treatment? Why not dwell on the matter a bit longer and cite Margaret Farley, Julie Hanlon Rubio, M. Shawn Cope­land, or Lisa Sowle Cahill—all theological ethicists who have written about family, reproduction, and motherhood?

In a chapter called “How to ‘Remember the Poor,’” Hauerwas rightly cautions against turning “the poor” into objects or abstractions. To counteract this tendency, he recommends listening to the poor. For, he says, “to listen to the poor is an exercise of great discipline. . . . We must listen to the stories the poor have to tell because only by listening to such stories do we have the means to know how to go on.” After I read that, I expected that I was a paragraph or two away from reading “the stories the poor have to tell.” But I found no such stories. Why are they not there? Linda Tirado’s recent book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America tells her firsthand experiences of poverty. One could also consult the stories and interviews in Sasha Abramsky’s The Amer­ican Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. Or for a more explicitly theological treatment, what about Keri Day’s Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America? Though not an autobiographical account, Day’s volume draws on data and narratives showing how poverty is racialized, and how racism works by keeping people poor. Any of these would have helped the chapter tremendously.

In a chapter called “How to ‘Remember the Poor,’” Hauerwas rightly cautions against turning “the poor” into objects or abstractions. To counteract this tendency, he recommends listening to the poor. For, he says, “to listen to the poor is an exercise of great discipline. . . . We must listen to the stories the poor have to tell because only by listening to such stories do we have the means to know how to go on.” After I read that, I expected that I was a paragraph or two away from reading “the stories the poor have to tell.” But I found no such stories. Why are they not there? Linda Tirado’s recent book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America tells her firsthand experiences of poverty. One could also consult the stories and interviews in Sasha Abramsky’s The Amer­ican Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. Or for a more explicitly theological treatment, what about Keri Day’s Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America? Though not an autobiographical account, Day’s volume draws on data and narratives showing how poverty is racialized, and how racism works by keeping people poor. Any of these would have helped the chapter tremendously.

I never knew before that there were two Niebuhrs:

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 –1971) was one of America’s leading public intellectuals for several decades of the 20th century.

Richard Niebuhr (1894 – 1962) is considered one of the most important Christian theological ethicists in 20th century America, his younger brother.

Quotations;

“seeing connections makes all the difference, and practical reason is all about seeing connections”

“is a communal work…to help us find one another so that we will not suffer the fears and anxieties that fuel the violence derived from being alone”

to “rightly [understand] the relation between the persons of the Trinity” we must recognize that the “they do not need the gifts they give one another, but the gifts they give to one another constitute their unity”

When we pray “we are caught up in the triune activity itself…[when] we ask the Spirit ‘to pray for us’…[and] with that prayer we are transfigured by the Spirit”

being “possessed by the Holy Spirit is surely a frightening prospect”

“as odd as it may seem, it is not at all clear we know yet what happened five hundred years ago, even though what did happen resulted in some of us now being known as ‘Protestants’”

“whether the habits of Constantinian Christianity should be continued”

his way of “doing ethics is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but somehow is both”

“prayer is a crucial practice to sustain the moral life…to learn the language of prayer may make it possible for us to speak the truth to one another…”

“Our agency depends on our being people of character, and our character depends on the development of those habits we call the virtues…”

“character is not the qualification of our agency, but our character constitutes our agency”

we “need to be incorporated into a community of practices that can provide the formation of our agency through a truthful narrative” .

the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the event upon which “all history and nature turn”

Because of this, “the eternal ‘is not less like time, but more like time’…The God of the bible is not timeless”

liturgy is the means by which “the Lord can remind us that we have been given all the time that we need to be reconciled to one another and thus to God” .

“the worst of all possible worlds, that is 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”.

“Christian East’s understanding of the theologian as a person of prayer continues to be a challenge to the dominant forms of theology developed since the Reformation”

the importance of theology to aid in teaching people “how to speak Christian”

‘we find our life fated in the language of our ancestors, in the language we inherit from them…Hence to understand what our words mean we must understand what those who use them mean’…”

“a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange”

“irony is a necessary stance in life that must find theological expression if theology is one of the gifts we have been given as Christians to enable us to live lives of truth”

“Irony isolated from truthfulness and humility threatens to be vicious in a manner that corrupts how it might be a means to sustain our ability to be truthful and humble…internal to the gospel is an ironic grammar that is necessary in order to grasp what it means to be a disciple of Christ…”

he “[refuses] any reduction of politics to statecraft in order to emphasize the political character of the church as a political space in its own right”

“the church is God’s politics for the world…[they are] to serve the world well by developing an ‘ecclesial squint’…to serve their neighbor by helping us to see ‘it did not have to be’…”

“a broadside critique of what [he] can only regard as the overdependence on rights language in our culture”

“When rights become a more basic moral description than murder, you have an indication that your language has gone on a holiday…Once rights are divorced from the practices that they depend upon for their intelligibility, they multiply faster than rabbits.”

Simone Weil and “her refusal to turn rights into abstractions”

Jean Vanier, who “…never use[s] the language of rights …[Hauerwas] suspect[s] [Vanier] does not use the language of rights because that language may prevent him from recognizing the full bodily reality of the human beings who share their lives with him”

“Rights…are best understood as reminder claims to help us remember the thick moral relationships our bodies make possible and necessary”

alternative ways of “building community…[that] can be a form of charity that is not toxic…”

“for the church, the care of the poor cannot be separated from worship of God. Worship makes possible the time Christians have to be with the poor…Put even more strongly, in and by worship Christians can imagine being poor”

he has tried to “defy the assumption” that “if you want what you have to say to be entertaining then what you have to say cannot be serious”

Instead, Hauerwas thinks that “by paying close attention to jokes we will be better able to understand that jokes are not a joking matter”

“Jokes often have a subversive character that cannot be acknowledged exactly because subversion is betrayed by being acknowledged”

Barth thought that “we must first laugh at ourselves so that we can laugh at others, making possible the final test of being laughed at by them…[and]…Of humor, too, one may say that it is genuine when it is the child of suffering”

“the resulting isolation of the elderly is an indication that we now live in a culture that believes we have no stake in developing people of wisdom and memory necessary for the sustaining of good social order”

“The work of theology is never done…”

“God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt”

“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”

“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”

“parts [of theology] fit together” in a way that does not divorce doctrine from the “ways of life in which doctrine does work”

David Starling . . . has called attention to my injudicious claim in After Christendom that “the very idea of systematic theology was a result of a church with hegemonic power that belied the very substance that made it the church to begin with.” Starling charitably observes that I am not dismissing theology per se, but rather the judgment I make about systematic theology reflects my general concern that Christian theology not be treated as a timeless system of belief

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. The demand for “method” is often an attempt to avoid this conclusion, but there is no method that can free theology of the necessity to respond to the challenges of trying to discern what being a Christian entails in this place and time. There is no prolegomena for all future theology. Indeed, there is no prolegomena period. It is performance all the way down. Thus, my presumption that letters, sermons, and essays may well be the central genres for theological reflection

I confess my first reaction to the theme “The Place of Theology in Ministry” was one of disorientation. What has happened that we now need to ask what role theology may have for those in the ministry? I have always assumed that theology and the ministry were joined at the hip. You cannot have one without the other. Of course everything depends on what you understand theology to be as well as what you think ordination entails for those who bear the title of minister or priest.

My disorientation can be illustrated by a story Methodists tell to suggest their confusions about the relation of theology and the ministry. I like the story very much but I am not prepared to stand behind its veracity. It may in general be true but some of the details may be not quite right. The story goes like this. An elderly Methodist minister was attending what Methodists in America call the Annual Conference. This was a man who over many years had faithfully obeyed his bishop. That meant he had been moved to one church after another in the state of New York. He was not a scholar but he was a good minister. This annual conference was embroiled in a theological debate concerning whether a theologian who taught at the seminary at Boston University should be disciplined because he did not believe in original sin. The debate raged on for some time, which tried the patience of our elderly pastor. Finally, unable to listen to one more argument for or against original sin, he rose declaring that he had had it with all this theological hair-splitting. After all, he said, little depends on theological opinions because, as they all know, most of theology is bunk. What they must do, he argued, is forget theology and preach Christ and him crucified.

It is a well-known fact that Methodists are not people with a gift for irony, but this elderly minister seems to represent an extreme example of the absence of irony among Methodists. It simply did not occur to him that to preach Christ and him crucified represented a strong theological claim with profound moral and political implications. His intervention reflected the general presumption among Americans that theology is not all that important for the everyday life of a minister or the people the minister serves. The elderly gentleman’s comment may even suggest that theology may be dangerous for those who are in the ministry. Thus the oft-made comment that this or that person who was going into the ministry was quite promising before going to seminary, where the courses she took made the ministerial candidate so confused she could not seek ordination.

I am not sure where to begin if the given task is to convince ministers that the ministry cannot be made intelligible without some theological rationale. I feel somewhat like the Texas football coach whose football team was behind at halftime seventy-two to nothing. The coach walked into the locker room holding a football over his head and said, “Gentlemen, we need to start at the beginning. This is a football.” I am not sure we are behind seventy-two to nothing, but it is not clear to me how to even start trying to show the role theology should have for the ministry.

I quite appreciate, however, that the question of the place of theology for the ministry may well reflect the loss of an educated public that seems to have little if any knowledge of the basics of the Christian faith. My Dean, Richard Hays, tells the story of his visit to Western Australia to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. He found himself on a bus sitting next to a person who asked him why he had come to Australia. He explained he had come for a conference of people who study the New Testament. After a long pause his seatmate asked, “The New Testament? Does that have anything to do with a religion?” You need to be careful using such examples because they can invite the presumption that in the past Christians and non-Christians were more knowledgeable about what made them Christian than in fact they were. Yet it is also the case that many Christians and non-Christians currently have little idea of what makes Christianity tick.

There was a time, let us call it Christendom, when it was assumed that people, lay or ordained, did not need to know much about Christianity to be a Christian. The priest needed to know how to say mass. The laity, at least the laity of the lower classes, needed to pray, obey, and pay. After the Reformation — as well as the democratic revolution — it was assumed that priest and laity should have some theological sophistication. The result I fear has given us the worst of all possible worlds, that is, 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. Of course that is oversimplistic, but it is a reminder that the question of the role of theology for the ministry will be a different question — and the answer will be different — in different times and places. If we are living, as I believe we are, in an awkward time between the loss of Christendom and a yet-to-be-determined future, then I think there is no question that those in the ministry will need to be theologically astute. The burden of proof is now on us as Christians, and I take that to be a good thing.

In an awkward time the temptation will be to try to attract people who do not know what the New Testament is by providing a truncated and simplistic account of the gospel. Those who use such strategies will be impatient with theologians who then criticize them for being simplistic. When you are struggling for survival the demand for theological integrity may seem to be a burden rather than an aid and support. In the world in which we find ourselves, a world in which the church has lost the ability to shape the lives of people who identify as Christian, it is hard to be critical of those in the ministry who seek to build their churches around what people think they need rather than what the gospel tells us we should want.

The disposition of those in the ministry to avoid strong theological claims can sometimes even be found to also be true of those who teach in seminaries. I once had a colleague who preached the closing sermon for the graduating seniors at Duke Divinity School. The sermon was organized around this piece of advice: “They do not care what you know. They want to know you care.” Though I am a pacifist I wanted to kill her on the spot. As a faculty we had worked hard to instill in these students a sense of the significance of theology for the work of the ministry, but just as they were graduating they were told the work they had done in seminary was not going to be all that important for the souls they were charged to care for. If what you know no longer matters, the ministry cannot help but be another “helping profession” whose task is to attract people to church because of the appealing personality of the minister and the friendliness of the congregation.

The strategies to attract “the unchurched” through the manipulative practices associated with church-growth advocates I take to be a desperate attempt to “save” Christianity. From my perspective, church-growth strategies are but the gurgles of a dying Christendom. The church-growth strategy to simplify the gospel for persons like the one seated next to my Dean, ironically, is a version of the liberal Protestant theological presumption that the basic language of the faith is a description of our experience rather than being about God. The only difference between Protestant liberals and church-growth strategists is the latter tend to make a fetish of the Bible.

The loss of an educated public for sustaining the work of the church has been long in coming but it is now a clear reality. I am quite aware that the language of “educated public” may sound elitist but that is a description I accept. Any organization that is morally serious will have elites. The work of theology is done by people who have the means to recognize the elites that constitute the church. The elite that is the first authority for Christians is, of course, the saints. Theologians are seldom saints, but their task is to help the church recognize the difficult and often unpleasant people who turn out to be saints. That task requires theologians to be agents of memory so we do not forget what God has done and continues to do to make us a people of time.

“Most people do not have to become theologians to become a Christian but I probably did.”

“Too often I fear that ‘Christian ethics’ is simply the name for a way of doing Christian theology without taking theology all that seriously.”

“I come out of the belly of the beast that bears the name ‘pietism.’”

“Liberalism names the project of modernity to create people who have no story except the story they chose when they had no story.”

“The church…seems incapable of making up its mind [about whether] to be a welfare agency at best or one of the last hedges we have against loneliness.”

“Priests and ministers have been to seminary, which usually means they have some sense of where some of the bodies in the Christian tradition are buried.”

“Christians are obligated to love one another – even if they are married.”

the manipulative practices associated with church-growth advocates I take to be a desperate attempt to “save” Christianity.’ From my perspective, church-growth strategies are but the gurgles of a dying Christendom.

You do not need to read Plato or Kant to be a Christian. It is not a bad idea for anyone to read Plato and Kant; it just is not necessary if to follow Christ. But someone in the church should be charged with thr responsibility of reading Plato and Kant. They should read Plato because Plato and Kant are such serious minds who did not disdain hard work necessary to discern what is true from what is false.

Theology is an ongoing attempt to make connections that are at once as strong and fragile as a spider web.’ Often you discover how to make articulate some of the connections, but you forget how the connections were made because now that the connection is made you do not need to return to the process that made the conclusion possible. Results can seem to make memory unnecessary (at least for a while) with the result that the work necessary to get the result is forgotten-. The result becomes less than it was when first discovered.

That Barth so understood the theological task helps account for his lack of concern over not finishing the Church Dogmatics. In the “Preface” to Church Dogmatics IV/ 4 he begins by reporting that over the last years he has been asked often about the nonappearance of the remaining parts of the Church Dogmatics. He responds by calling attention to the “incon­siderable bulk” of the Church Dogmatics that already exists as an opus im­perfectum. He continues, noting that some of the subjects he was to treat in the proposed volumes have been given some space in earlier volumes. And he acknowledges that the Dogmatics will remain incomplete. Yet he notes that most of the medieval Summae as well as many cathedrals were never finished. Even Mozart, Barth observes, due to his untimely death, was unable to finish his Requiem. So not to finish is a testimony to our finitude. Barth concludes by pointing out he had argued in Church Dogmatics 11/2 that perfection or completeness is an attribute that can only be ascribed to God, which means that “it is better not to seek or to imitate perfection in a human work.’

In the “Preface” to Church Dogmatics IV/4 Barth observes that in 1962 he retired and was made “professor emeritus.” Barth is clearly not sure what to make of that title, observing that “emeritus” is an amusing word. Barth acknowledges that the title indicates that his work as a university professor has come to an end, but that does not mean he retired from being a theologian.’ Yet we should not assume we know what Barth meant when he identified himself as a theologian. For example, in an interview close to the end of his life, an interview included in a book titled Final Testimonies, Barth responded to a question about the relation of his theology to Mozart by declaring, “I am not ultimately at home in theology, in the political world, or even in the church. These are all preparatory matters. They are serious, but preparatory. We have to learn to stand in them, but we have also to learn to look beyond them.”‘

A number of times, when being introduced before giving a lecture, the story is told of my encounter with a student at Harvard. It seems I was walking across Harvard looking for the library.  Not sure I was going in the right direction, I asked an undergrad if he could tell me where the library is at. He responded by observing, At Harvard we do not end sentences with a preposition.” I am said to havee responded, “Can you tell me where the library is at, asshole?” There just one problem with that story: it did not happen. However, the story w seems to have reached a canonical stage, so it makes no difference ether it happened because the story confirms for many both negative and positive judgments about me.

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