by Michael J. Quirk

MICHAEL J. QUIRK teaches in the Adult Division at New School University and Hofstra University. He is working on a collection of essays entitled The Rule of Practice.

One often hears the complaint that Stanley M. Hauerwas -- Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at the Duke University Divinity School, Gifford Lecturer for the year 2001, author of over twenty books and the recently published Hauerwas Reader, and Time magazine's current choice as the "best of" today's theologians -- is "difficult to take seriously." In the face of these and other assorted accomplishments and accolades, that charge itself seems hard to take seriously. But Hauerwas often makes it easy for his critics to be dismissive. The theological stands he takes are meticulously argued and thoroughly researched. However the conclusions he reaches seem, to many theologians (whether conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between), to be so over the top that they assume the man must have wandered off the highway of sweet reason somewhere into the thickets of crankdom. Can anyone who enlists folks as different as John Howard Yoder, Pope John Paul II, Stanley Fish, and Michel Foucault in the cause of overcoming modernity and establishing the Church in its place really know what he is doing? Can anyone that cantankerous really be at the same time a serious pacifist? Can anyone as resolutely "traditional" as Hauerwas on the subject of marriage and sexual fidelity not see the contradiction when he quips that "Gays, as a group, are morally superior to Christians, as a group" simply because they have managed to be ostracized by the U.S. military on account of their sexuality? And could anyone seriously think that liberal democracy is all that bad?

This "aw, come off it" dismissiveness seems to me to say more about Hauerwas's critics than Hauerwas himself. For Hauerwas does sweat the details. While his favored form of writing is the short essay rather than the standard-issue scholarly book, his work is scholarly, in the best sense of the word: well-acquainted with the relevant theological literature, and enriched by his proficiency in understanding other genres of writing, such as philosophy, social criticism, and the novel. The craftsmanlike character of his piecework prose (which he attributes, in part, to his earlier apprenticeship as a bricklayer) dares his readership to take him seriously, because he is serious. But to accept that challenge would be to lead one to place in question certain intellectual -- and moral -- habits that one might find too comforting to give up. Thus Hauerwas suggests that, contrary to the received wisdom, honest fellowship with gays and lesbians may require rather than prohibit loyalty to the virtue of monogamous fidelity, and that pacifism may require that one air one's disagreements publicly and unflinchingly, rather than to try to smooth them over with a false "tolerance" that is more manipulative than it seems on first blush. And, yes, perhaps liberal democracy is all that bad, if it hampers the quest to form good people in decent societies, as Hauerwas insists it does. (It is important to note that for Hauerwas "liberalism" names not just -- and not primarily -- the politics of those labeled "liberal" in contemporary America, but an entire grand tradition of Western political thought and practice that runs from Hobbes and Locke down to Rawls and Nozick. Contemporary "conservatives" are just as much under fire from his critique as contemporary "liberals." Neither camp can take comfort in his judgments.) In sum, Hauerwas is intentionally disconcerting. That can be an unpleasant experience. Hence, the reluctance, on the part of many theologians and religious scholars, to give him his due.

To give Hauerwas his due is not to say that one must agree with him all the way down the line. This is certainly true in my own case. I have known Stan for the past fourteen years and have carried on a lively and lengthy correspondence with him, through letters and e-mail. Our differences are significant: he is a Pacifist Christian, while I am a "reform Aristotelian" philosopher who adheres to the possibility, if not the likelihood nowadays, of the just war. He believes in the reality of sin; I believe in the dangers of vice. He vouches for the reality of grace, I for the possibility of a virtuous life in trying circumstances. He embraces the Church as the medium of God's lordship in time, I embrace philosophy, and its community of inquiry, as a vocation that makes one's life worthy and worthwhile. (If it was good enough for Socrates, it's good enough for me. . .) And so on. Even our "insignificant" differences are significant. He is a Texan, I am a New Yorker. He likes the Braves, the Cubs, and the Durham Bulls; I root for the Mets, the Yankees, and the Brooklyn Cyclones (in roughly that order).

Yet I find these differences and disagreements to be incredibly fertile. This is partly due to the fact that to meaningfully disagree with somebody one must share some substantial agreements in common. In particular, I salute Stan's attempt to integrate, into theological reflection, the holism, historicism, and antifoundationalism that has flourished in philosophy for the past few decades: he is well versed in the ways in which analytic philosophers like Wittgenstein and Kuhn, as well as continentals like Gadamer and Foucault, have challenged the idea of a "universal reason" subsisting apart from particular practices and traditions, and is determined to introduce them, full-strength, into the more nervous precincts of moral theology. As an Aristotelian, I agree with Stan on the need to rehabilitate "thick" conceptions of the virtues of character, as an alternative to the more "thin" notions of obligation that have rendered contemporary versions of Kantianism and Utilitarianism so pale and unconvincing. Finally, I applaud Stan's dogged critique of liberal individualism (and its ugly doppelgänger, "late capitalism"), in part because the latter deprives its citizens of any robust opportunities to debate and deliberate on the nature of the good, and in part because the noisy, relentless triumphalism of the liberal-democratic cheerleaders for "globalism" has grown so tiresome, and is so transparently a front for American corporate interests to colonize and homogenize the world.

Yet our disagreements in themselves are just as important: Stan has kept me on my toes over the years, in more ways than I can count. Stan's "outrageousness," when he's not simply telling the truth, has a wonderfully therapeutic quality that goads one not only into examining one's own intellectual commitments (and conscience), but to respond, to the best of one's abilities, in kind. For Stanley, "peace" names the absence of violence, but not of conflict. Indeed it is the cardinal error of political liberalism to think that conflict on important matters can be domesticated, privatized, smoothed over, without losing something very important in the process -- namely, a sense of the meaning and worthiness of our lives. Argument does not deny but confirms one's faith in the good will of one's interlocutor: to fail to engage one in argument, when it is not simple squeamishness, is often the grossest sign of disrespect, and a missed opportunity to forge a consensus that might enrich the lives of everyone involved. In this sense, being a Texan like Stan and a being New Yorker like myself are two strangely similar modes of being-in-the-world: both Texas and New York harbor distinctive, strong American regional cultures that thrive on argument, bluntness, and putting one's two cents in. They offer at least the possibility of conflict that is not by definition violence.

What follows is not argument, but conversation -- a conversation that centers on Hauerwas's Gifford lectures published by Brazos Press under the title With the Grain of the Universe. In this work, Hauerwas reexamines three previous Gifford lecturers -- William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth -- from an interesting perspective. Questioning whether "natural theology" as Lord Gifford understood it (i.e., as an entirely "rational" effort beholden to no particular religious tradition) is even intelligible, Hauerwas goes on to reconceive natural theology as something not independent of revelation and tradition, but as the effort of redescribing and reimagining the ways in which Christian faith illuminates and truthfully accounts for the world in which we all live. What results is a fascinating, thought provoking -- and, yes, disturbing -- elaboration of the intersection of philosophy and theology in the past century.


Michael J. Quirk: Your Gifford lectures contain critical appraisals of both William James and Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as the astonishing claim that Karl Barth is the most successful natural theologian of the twentieth century. One usually finds Barth depicted as the resolute enemy of all natural theology. Could you explain how you came to this understanding of Barth?

Stanley Hauerwas: It fits as part of my larger argument that a natural theology is unintelligible separated from a full doctrine of God. And of course what a full doctrine of God entails is an understanding, first of all, that God is not part of the metaphysical furniture of the universe. What many of the Gifford lecturers have assumed is what Nicholas Wolterstorff has called an "evidentialist apologetic" that tried to show that God, as an empty signifier, must exist. And I'm trying to show that if you could successfully show that that God must exist then you would have evidence that the Christian God does not exist. Because the Christian God is the God who created gratuitously. So there can be no necessary relationship between creation and God from the Christian point of view. Accordingly, the whole modernist enterprise that the Gifford lectures named was based upon a decisive metaphysical mistake vis-ā-vis the Christian doctrine of God. I am also at the same time trying to argue that the Christian doctrine of God requires a corresponding politics. And the corresponding politics is embodied in the necessity of the Church to exist. Of course I relate that also to the necessity of the Jews to exist. I rather like Frederick the Great's response to the question "How do you know God exists?" -- "the Jews." I think that is exactly the right kind of answer. But that means that at the same time I am trying to make what might be called a metaphysical argument, I must also develop an ongoing critique of how Christian discourse has been politically privatized in modernity.

MJQ: So, on the metaphysical side of the issue, to put the political aspect aside for the moment, it seems that one of the key texts here must be Barth's essay on St. Anselm's Proslogion, where he construes this text not as an independent philosophical proof of the Christian God, but as an explication of that God as God has chosen to reveal himself to the Church. And this cuts across the standard philosophical way of reading Anselm's fides quaerens intellectum -- that is, of philosophical reason, in and of itself, establishing through a priori argument truths about God that revelation also provides, but in a less universal and necessary manner.

SH: Right. Of course it's very important that the story I tell about the Giffords begins with William James, because I want to show that James's account of rationality won't give you a phrase like "reason in and of itself," where reason becomes an autonomous thing that can be made separate from the practices of a community.

MJQ: In other words, James understood that the prevailing self-image of philosophy -- as the discipline that supplies, in Leibnizian fashion, the bedrock, universally necessary "truths of reason" -- is deceptive, and that any attempt to prove God's existence and nature in that fashion will not work. Doesn't James make a similar mistake, however, to the extent that he replaces the appeal to "reason in and of itself" with radical empiricism, or "experience in and of itself"?

SH: Yeah, that's tricky, though. James sometimes does mistakenly seem to think that experience qua experience is an intelligible notion, although I don't develop this line of criticism extensively in my Giffords. But if James followed his own best insights in the Principles of Psychology, where he sees that "experience" is the naming of habituation, which is inseparable from forming beliefs, he'd have come off much better.

MJQ: The other possible problem with James is that he doesn't view experience as itself a political concept -- by which I mean that experience is always experience shaped by certain practices that can themselves be called into question, reaffirmed, or revised by a community that is in pursuit of a determinate vision of the good. James seems, to me at least, to view experience as ultimately just radical experience, not necessarily a function of political practice.

SH: Right. Along similar lines, the other argument I make is that James has no methodological reason to distinguish between experience and what he calls overbeliefs. And his holding on to that distinction in effect just serves to reproduce democratic capitalism's distinction between the public and the private.

MJQ: Could you expand on that a little bit?

SH: James thought, in the Varieties of Religious Experience, that the experience qua experience of the founders of the various religions really constituted the core of what we later call Judaism, or Christianity, or Hinduism or Buddhism -- and everything else was secondhand. These secondary overbeliefs name -- and remember James said overbeliefs are the most important things about us -- things like God-as-Trinity, which James understood as attempts to go beyond the experience itself. This just strikes me as wrong. I see no reason, on his own understanding of beliefs as habits, for him to take this tack. I read James in an Aristotelian fashion -- I don't think he was a voluntarist. "The Will to Believe" is a very Aristotelian text. So I don't think he should have distinguished between experience and overbeliefs. I think that distinction came from the continuing influence of Emerson on James -- Emerson just thinking that these Christian "doctrines" were just so much balderdash. I have tried to show that James's understanding of Christianity -- and really his distaste for it -- was not because of his fundamental philosophical views, but because he continued to confuse his philosophical views with an Emersonian account of Christianity -- the Emersonian rejection of doctrinal "overbeliefs" as inessential.

MJQ: The other key figure in your narrative, besides Barth and James, is Reinhold Niebuhr. Is the more explicitly Christian, more pessimistic, more "realistic" Niebuhr an advance on James?

SH: No. I hope that the chapters on James will not be overlooked in the overall narrative I tell in the book, because it's very important to see that Niebuhr's account was not as good as James's account. He thought he was borrowing from James, as I show from references to his 1914 B.D. thesis, and he always stayed within James's naturalistic presuppositions about the way things are. He thought that in doing so he was being a pragmatist. But I don't think that Niebuhr ever understood James's claim that truth is something that happens to a proposition. Still, he certainly always tried to stay within a kind of Jamesian framework, so Christianity becomes "powerful symbols" that give you a provocative account of "the human condition."

MJQ: So would you think it fair to say that in Niebuhr James's political chickens come home to roost -- that James's account of radical experience was empty enough to be filled with a "political realism" of which James himself would likely disapprove?

SH: Right. What's really crucial for me about Niebuhr is that he represents what I regard, in another essay I wrote some time ago, as "the democratic policing of Christianity." Democracy in James was a rather vague set of notions, never really worked out in any institutionalized sense. Niebuhr's account viewed democracy as equally vague, but you can see that, because of his strong political realism, Christianity was, in a determinative way, political for Niebuhr. In Niebuhr you get Christianity commended primarily as what's very, very good for the kind of realism that you need to sustain a democratic social order. And so I really am serious when I claim that Christianity has died as a result of its love affair with liberal democracy. I think that liberal democracy, in many ways, took as its fundamental task to kill Christianity by domesticating its strongest views. And it's done that! I'm not mad at liberals, in any way, for that. I get angry at Christians for their failure to see that that's what's been happening to us for the last two hundred years.

MJQ: If that's the case, then it's not particularly clear what Christians need to do other than just hang together as Christians. And how does that work itself out in practical terms? For instance, a recent article in Commonweal by Eugene McCarraher on "Radical Orthodoxy" expressed broad sympathy toward its critique of liberal capitalist democracies, but lamented its lack of concrete proposals as to how to live out the full-strength Christianity it advocates. Since you share with the Radical Orthodoxy group the conviction that Christians blew it regarding liberal democracy, what ought Christians to do, as opposed to merely think or believe?

SH: Well, first of all, what you do is quit trying to save liberal democracy. Don't let your imaginations be seized by "public policy issues." "Public policy issues" is always conservative politics within a liberal democratic regime. I am very sympathetic with people in the C. B. MacPherson school of political theory -- people like Peter Euben, Ronald Beiner, and Jean Bethke Elshtain -- who have seen how liberal democracy, particularly exemplified in people like Rawls, is really the end of politics. Because, in a funny way, liberalism doesn't want to deal with the conflict that is necessarily part of the political.

MJQ: Meaning that it wants to steer conflict into those issues that prescind from any "thick conception of the good," seeking to establish some "thin" conception of the good as the limiting framework for political argument and deliberation? But the problem here, as I see it, is that you can't have a thin conception without presupposing a thick conception to begin with.

SH: Right. And so I am not unsympathetic with those who are trying to develop some accounts of deliberative [as opposed to procedural] democracy. But then when you start thinking about deliberative democracy what I'm always curious about is, institutionally, where can that be found? It sure as hell can't be found in Washington, D.C. I think of it as at home, for example, among members of my congregation in Aldersgate United Methodist Church, when we have to make decisions about our new pastor's housing and the like. We have a Pastoral Staff Relations Committee where we hammer all that out. That's deliberative democracy! You really are trying to make concrete decisions in the light of a good that the community names. Namely: we need pastoral leadership for the right administration of the sacraments and the good preaching of the word. That's real politics!

MJQ: Interestingly, this seems to be John Dewey's conception of democracy, especially in light of his critique of what he called the "old" liberalism -- an individualistic, procedural doctrine that left deliberation of "ends" to the "private" sphere. If I am hearing you correctly, you're saying that folks like Dewey were looking in the wrong place for democracy. You won't find it in legislatures or polling places. You're more likely to find it in, say, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops debating war or the economy, or Torah scholars debating the fine points of the Law, than in the secular politics of the nation-state. Quite an irony for Dewey, the unabashed secularist.

SH: Yes. And Dewey had such a high regard for social science. Now there's nothing about Dewey that's stupid, but I do think that his understanding of the moral character of the social sciences has proven very hard to sustain within the regimes of knowledges in the modern university. Social science now becomes "rational choice methodology."

MJQ: Which is something that would've given Dewey the creeps.

SH: I can't believe that he wouldn't have gone berserk. Because "rational choice methodology" is just the institutionalization of capitalist exchange models now seen as "explaining" every form of human relations. But it gives a kind of predictability that social sciences so desire to make them seem "scientific."

MJQ: As long as we are on the subject of democracy, Jeffrey Stout, in a new edition of Ethics After Babel, has argued that your critique of that book betrays antidemocratic sympathies. Could you respond to this charge?

SH: Jeff wants democracy to be a kind of Whitmanesque democratic expression. And I have to say that I'm not terribly impressed with self-expression. I know that Whitman has "brotherhood" as well, but I think there is a deep tension between those expressive modes of philosophical psychology associated with those accounts and any attempt at naming goods that I think are crucial to any genuine deliberative body. Basically, I think Jeff is mad at MacIntyre and myself because we don't like what he likes. He thinks we're sloppy -- well, he thinks I'm sloppy, not necessarily Alasdair -- about words like "justice." But I don't think that "justice" is a straight-up virtue. I think it's dependent upon more determinative notions of the good. Because I don't want "justice" becoming the all-determining virtue -- and of course the way liberals handle "justice" it isn't even a virtue -- that determines the content of all the other virtues. I am classically Aristotelian on this score.

MJQ: I know what you mean. The chapter on justice in the Nicomachean Ethics, if you read it out of context apart from Aristotle's treatment of all the other virtues, makes no sense at all. It seems to be a mixture of obscure pronouncements on "proportion" in distribution and retribution, coupled with platitudes about "giving each his or her due." Yet the goods that justice must secure are described in detail in his treatment of the other virtues and their constitutive role in the common good of the polis. Read in context, his account of justice makes perfect sense.

SH: That's right. But political liberals assume that the primary political task is to secure cooperative agreement between people who share nothing in common other than the fear of death. And they call that cooperative agreement "justice," which derives from the necessity of our respecting one another, for the very achievement of those kinds of cooperative agreements. I just think that such an account already envisions a social order that is less than good, because it doesn't produce good people. Such an account becomes peculiarly problematic within a capitalist economy, in which "justice" names the pursuit of interests without any determination of the content of those interests.

MJQ: It seems to me that both liberal theologians and conservative theologians don't "get" you. The liberals tend to read you as one who rejects the liberatory potential of Christianity and withdraws into a kind of pietistic sect, and will not "get real" and engage the world, especially the political world, on its own terms in such a way that "Christ transforms culture." For their part, the conservatives (e.g., quite a few First Things articles on you) cannot see how you can coherently combine your orthodox views on, say, the trinity or Christology with the antifoundationalist, postmodern, Stanley-Fish-esque stuff, not to mention your views on, say, gays, war, capitalism, the United States of America, etc. In fact, on some of the latter issues, you seem a lot closer to left-wing radicals like Noam Chomsky, while on others you seem close to "paleoconservatives" like Robert Nisbet, without the former's dogmatic secularism and the latter's Burkean views on tradition and the sacredness of nation. I would like to know how you react to this curious lack of understanding.

SH: I think the theological liberals are right to hate me, because I represent for them a recovery of unapologetic Christian speech that's doing work. I have tried to name the politics that is necessary for it to do work, and it's not their politics. Theological liberalism is Protestant pietism gone to seed. Basically, the theological liberals think that every individual needs some kind of determinative relationship with God which they might find expressed in a communal body called the Church, maybe. And of course I'm just thoroughly Catholic in this regard. I think salvation is necessarily mediated across time by a body of people, and if you don't have that body of people then you don't have that salvation. So there's just some very sharp differences between myself and what I regard as the project of Protestant liberal theology. The latter wanted to show that you could redescribe the Christian faith in languages that make it sound like you're still talking about what Christians talked about in the past but in fact you're not. And Reinhold Niebuhr is of course the classic example of that.

MJQ: Despite his reputation of being neo-orthodox?

SH: Yes -- you know, the whole point of how he was fond of quoting the London Times that original sin was the only Christian doctrine that was empirically verifiable. Well that's false. "Original Sin" is not a description of something called "the human condition."

MJQ: To say that "people tend to be bad" is not the same as endorsing the doctrine of original sin. . .

SH: Not at all. If we're shits, we're shits: that's not the same thing as saying we're sinners. I mean, you cannot have sin without the Christian understanding of God, or the Jewish understanding of God.

MJQ: So much for theological liberals. How about the conservatives?

SH: The conservatives, I think, continue to let their views about Christian salvation be policed by their democratic presuppositions. And so they want to have their Jesus without the implications, for example, for living nonviolently. And I just don't think you can do that. And philosophically, as far as I'm concerned, they just don't get it. When they hear me, they keep saying "Well how do you defeat relativism?" They assume if you don't have a theory about how you defeat relativism, then the Nazis are around the corner.

MJQ: It's as if Wittgenstein or Gadamer never existed. . .

SH: Exactly. And I want to say, Look, where you go wrong is beginning to think that you know what relativism is, which you then need to defeat.

MJQ: Or that to defeat the relativist, or the Nazi, they think you need. . .

SH: They think you need a theory! That's absolutely crazy. And what's interesting is that those philosophical moves have extraordinary theological implications. If you say you need a theory to know if it might be true that God raised Jesus from the dead, worship that theory, don't worship the crucified and risen Jesus. So in an odd way, philosophical commitments that aim to defeat something called relativism can lead very quickly to a reductionistic Christology. Which theological conservatives don't do because they somehow keep the Christology "in church." I don't want to just keep it "in church."

MJQ: Your mention of "relativism" and the various philosophical responses to it brings to mind a very different intellectual figure, Richard Rorty. There are curious points of contact between your own project and his. Both of you are antifoundationalists, both of you reject the idea that knowledge needs to be grounded in truths that are immediately available to all rational beings, both of you acknowledge the historicity of all theory and practice. But Rorty is an atheist -- in fact, a no-nonsense atheist who has no patience with those who want to make religious claims palatable to unbelievers -- and you are Christian. Rorty thinks that his atheism naturally flows from the sort of antifoundationalist, historicist attitude that characterizes his philosophy, and you think that Christianity is the most historicist, antifoundationalist system of belief and practice there is. Moreover, Rorty is a liberal who has endeavored to show that nonfoundational, indeed un-philosophical liberalism is the politics that best fits his kind of philosophy, and you are an antiliberal who claims that any form of liberalism will not fit this kind of philosophy, or in your case, theology. How would you account for these differences?

SH: I don't think my antifoundationalism is altogether the same as Rorty's. People have confused having antifoundationalist views with also being a kind of linguistic idealist, and I am not -- I am a Wittgensteinian realist. Rorty may be too, in that respect, but it's not quite clear that he is. But I think the deepest disagreement between myself and Rorty is, as with Stout, that he likes what I dislike. Rorty wants to destroy Christianity. I like his candor in that respect. I'm always interested, though, in what parts of Christianity atheists like Rorty want to continue.

MJQ: Rorty has unapologetically described himself as a "freeloading" atheist with respect to Christianity. That seems to me to suggest an extraordinarily ahistorical way for a professed historicist to deal with Christianity -- as if it were a menu of moral items from which one can pick and choose without fear of incoherence. That you can junk Trinitarianism and Christology but still hold on to the Sermon on the Mount. . .

SH: Yeah, he wants that as politics but he hates, of course, Christian concerns about abortion. I don't know where he stands on marriage or monogamous fidelity. He certainly doesn't like any of the sexual ethics that might complicate how to think about gay relationships and so on. That's just, as far as he is concerned.

MJQ: Just private stuff.

SH: Private stuff left over from a bad time, and we'll slowly outgrow all that. Still, I love to read Rorty. I like his imagination and candor. Rorty just thinks that Christianity is false. Where, on his own philosophical grounds, he gets that kind of certainty, is an interesting question.

MJQ: I want to conclude with a question that is of tremendous eschatological importance, and that you are uniquely qualified to answer: Will there ever be another Yankees-Mets subway series before the end of time?

SH: No! No! Never again!

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2002, Vol. 52,  No 1.