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How I think Hauerwas thinks about theology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 January 2016

Sean Larsen*
High Point University, 833 Montlieu Avenue, High Point, NC 27262,


This paper highlights two aspects of Stanley Hauerwas's thought: philosophical ethics, which consists of second-order methodological claims; and moral theology, which consists of first-order, local, unsystematic moral descriptions. I show how the philosophical ethics relates to the moral theology by proposing a set of rules that constitute a ‘grammar’ of Hauerwas's thought. These rules are asymmetrical in that later rules presuppose earlier rules but earlier rules do not presuppose later rules. Each rule corresponds to texts that Hauerwas recommends and relies upon. The first rule prioritizes MacIntyre's concept of non-foundational ‘practical wisdom’. The second rule, which draws on Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Anscombe and Kovesi to stress the impossibility of separating agent from act, influences the third rule that ethics is moral description. The fourth rule uses ‘postliberal’ theologians and draws on the liturgy alongside Barth and Yoder, in order to redescribe the shape of Christian life in liberal modernity.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 When I refer to the character and the author, I call him Hauerwas and justify my claims based on publicly available evidence. When I refer to him personally, I call him Stanley and draw on personal interactions, though I do not believe that any claim I make is absent from his published work. Nothing I relate is private or arcane.

2 See Cavanaugh, William, ‘Stan the Man: A Thoroughly Biased Account of a Completely Unobjective Person’, in Berkman, John and Cartwright, Michael G. (eds), The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; Hauerwas, Stanley, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010)Google Scholar.

3 Hauerwas, Stanley and Willimon, William H., Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

4 Luke Bretherton made this point about the thick forms of evangelical community.

5 Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘Remembering How and What I Think: A Response to the JRE Articles on Hauerwas’, Journal of Religious Ethics 40/2 (June 2012), p. 297CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Hauerwas, Stanley, A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), p. 145Google Scholar.

7 Nicholas M. Healy uses a spatial metaphor of centre and periphery to order Hauerwasian claims throughout his recent book, Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014).

8 For an explanation of how Hauerwas thinks of the nature of the claims he makes, see the introduction to Hauerwas, Stanley, Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

9 An equivalent to Alasdair MacIntyre's account of the ‘plain person’, who is someone in a 14th-century Scottish fishing village.

10 On the early Christian and Rabbinic practice of reading scripture this way, see Dawson, David, Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See Stout, Jeffrey, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), chs 6 and 7Google Scholar.

12 See e.g. Herdt, Jennifer A., ‘Hauerwas among the Virtues’, Journal of Religious Ethics 40/2 (June 2012), pp. 202–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Werpehowski, William, ‘Talking the Walk and Walking the Talk: Stanley Hauerwas's Contribution to Theological Ethics’, Journal of Religious Ethics 40/2 (June 2012), pp. 228–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Healy, Hauerwas. Cf. Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Connecting Some of the Dots, or an Attempt to Understand Myself’, in A Cross-Shattered Church, pp. 134–56; Hauerwas, Stanley, The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015)Google Scholar.

13 Abrams, M. H., Natural Supernaturalism; Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971)Google Scholar.

14 Hauerwas, Work of Theology, p. 16.

15 Much of Hauerwas's philosophical ethics can be found in one of his first articles: Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘The Self as Story: Religion and Morality from the Agent's Perspective’, Journal of Religious Ethics 1 (1 Oct. 1973), pp. 7385Google Scholar.

16 MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 114Google Scholar.

17 Ibid., p. 119.

18 According to Wepehowski, ‘Talking the Walk’, p. 233: ‘[Hauerwas] contributed to an emerging ‘particularist turn’. . . toward the distinctiveness of a Christian ethic rooted in religious and moral notions that describe a world agents see and inhabit’ by drawing on Murdoch and Kovesi to illuminate the insights of H. R. Niebuhr and Wittgenstein.

19 On moral sources, Hauerwas relies heavily on Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992)Google Scholar. See also Ryan, Mark, The Politics of Practical Reason: Why Theological Ethics Must Change Your Life (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), ch. 2Google Scholar.

20 MacIntyre, Alasdair, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), p. 337Google Scholar.

21 Ibid., p. 367.

22 MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 111.

23 MacIntyre, Whose Justice?, p. 393.

24 MacIntyre, Alasdair, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

25 Hauerwas, ‘Remembering’, p. 296.

26 Reno, R. R., ‘Stanley Hauerwas and the Liberal Protestant Project’, Modern Theology 28/2 (2012), pp. 320–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Hauerwas, ‘Remembering’, p. 296.

28 Healy mostly ignores the pattern and tries to reconstruct Hauerwas abstractly. He concludes that Hauerwas is a liberal Protestant, but his reasons for thinking so differ from mine. I have located several places where our readings diverge. (1) Healy reads Hauerwas straight and at ‘face value’. He artificially limits the interpretive options. Either statements are ‘rhetorical flourishes that Hauerwas does not really mean’, in which case, Hauerwas is a ‘pamphleteer’, or we should take him ‘at his word’ (p. 63). This reading strategy yields the conclusion that Hauerwas opposes the practice of reading the Bible for individual devotion. Healy ignores the historical conditions of the claim's intelligibility against a liberal Protestant background. (2) Healy argues that the particularities of Hauerwas's context do not matter for interpreting his writing. He conflates Hauerwas's personal experiences and ‘authorial intention’ with the background presumptions against which he writes and then claims that ‘we can and should understand and critique their texts, insofar as they constitute a theological proposal, without knowing such things, or by ignoring them if we do’ (p. 14). Sometimes, however, Healy draws on Hauerwas's context, and he even gives indirect warrant for doing so (e.g. p. 93; cf. p. 57, n. 22). This sort of abstraction of speech and argument from history and rhetoric is implausible to me, and it confuses the genre of Hauerwas's writing for a formal treatise. (3) Healy sometimes reads into silences and so presents weakened versions of Hauerwas's positions. The predictive power of Healy's reading suffers as a result. One example of this is when Healy proposes an account of the social theory underlying Hauerwas's understanding of social formation in the church. His proposed theory unnecessarily weakens Hauerwas's position and ignores Hauerwas's liberal Protestant backdrop (95). Generally, I disagree with Healy's interpretive framework because the hermeneutic, the use of arguments from silence, and the ‘straight’ reading together produce a highly implausible version of Hauerwas's thought, one that loses the power to predict how Hauerwas might respond. It thus fails the Wittgensteinian test of helping the reader to ‘go on’.

29 For an example of a mainstream liberal conclusion via a traditionalist argument, see Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘Virtue, Description and Friendship: A Thought Experiment in Catholic Moral Theology’, Irish Theological Quarterly 62/2–3 (1 June 1996), pp. 170–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 See Wells, Samuel and Quash, Ben, Introducing Christian Ethics (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 146–79Google Scholar.

31 By contrast, a skill (like piano playing) is a habit ordered to producing some specific external product or artefact (a piece of music) under a variety of conditions.

32 San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 1975.

33 Trans. Clare Carlisle and Mark Sinclaire (London and New York: Continuum, 2008).

34 Jennifer Herdt lays out with much more nuance the situation in the field of religious ethics at the beginning of Hauerwas's career and helpfully frames Hauerwas's work in light of it in ‘Hauerwas among the Virtues’.

35 London: Routledge, 2001/New York: Penguin, 1992.

36 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

37 London: Routledge, 1967.

38 Kovesi, Moral Notions, p. 111. This ‘anyone’ refers to human nature. No tradition-transcending, non-contingent access to human nature exists.

39 Hauerwas, Stanley, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011)Google Scholar.

40 See Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘The Significance of Vision: Toward an Aesthetic Ethic’, Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 2/1 (1 June 1972), pp. 3649CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘Situation Ethics, Moral Notions, and Moral Theology’, Irish Theological Quarterly 38/3 (1 July 1971), pp. 242–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Healy argues that since ‘answering the question, “What are you doing?” requires us to give a description that reflects the logic of our beliefs about God’ (p. 115), it follows that the intentionality of an action depends on the logic of belief. Therefore, Healy argues, Hauerwas's failures as a doctrinal theologian compromise his success as a moral theologian. But while doctrines certainly make intentional acts intelligible, the doctrines are functions of a community's social logic rather than an individual's cognitive awareness. Trustworthy faith requires reliable authority, not doctrinal understanding. An individual need not articulate the conditions of intelligibility. The relationship between particular doctrines and moral description is rather more complicated.

43 See Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘The Virtues and our Communities’, in A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 111–28Google Scholar.

44 New York: Continuum, 2003. McCabe's book, the only one written by a theologian in this section, connects action, law, nature, language, description, eschatology and christology from a Wittgensteinian Thomist perspective. Hauerwas calls McCabe's book ‘one of the most important books to have been written in ethics and theology in the last century’ and an ‘accomplishment . . . as important as MacIntyre's work’. He claims that it shows his own work to be ‘unoriginal’: ‘Most of what I have said was said by Herbert in 1968.’ Both McCabe and Kovesi (Hauerwas compares them) ‘made description the center of ethical reflection’. Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘An Unpublished Foreword’, New Blackfriars 86/1003 (1 May 2005), pp. 291–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 McCabe, Law, Love and Language, p. 67.

46 Ibid., p. 90.

47 Ibid., p. 100.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984. Lindbeck relies heavily on the anthropological theory of Clifford Geertz. See Dehart, Paul, Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Lindbeck, Nature, pp. 32–41.

52 Ibid., p. 64.

53 E.g. see Hauerwas, Stanley, After Christendom? How the Church Should Behave if Justice, Freedom, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), pp. 107–11Google Scholar.

54 Among Stanley's most cutting insults is the label ‘conventional’.

55 Hauerwas, Stanley, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), pp. 141241Google Scholar.

56 Werpehowski, ‘Talking the Walk’, p. 240.

57 Barth, Karl, ‘The Strange New World within the Bible’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man (New York: Harper, 1957), pp. 2850Google Scholar.

58 See especially Hauerwas, Stanley, The Peacable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983)Google Scholar. For Hauerwas's relation to Hans Frei, see ‘The Church as God's New Language’, in Hauerwas, Stanley, The Hauerwas Reader, ed. Berkman, John and Cartwright, Michael G (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 142–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 Healy reads Hauerwas as a (failed) doctrinal theologian and critiques him because he conflates formal theological logics. Hauerwas's contributions to theology are primarily by way of creative redescription of the Christian life and second-order philosophical analysis, and thus not strictly ‘doctrinal’ in Healy's sense. Healy might have more productively criticised Hauerwas's univocal, untroubled, reified and often selective appeal to ‘tradition’.

60 The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994).

61 Ibid., ch. 7.

62 Healy draws attention to Hauerwas's redefinition of salvation (as formation for moral healing), but his analysis of Hauerwas's exclusivism and lack of concern for the fate of individual souls neglects Hauerwas's quasi-universalistic assumptions, which are common in liberal Protestant circles.

63 See especially Yoder, Politics of Jesus, ch. 12.

64 Herdt argues that Hauerwas ‘remains ambivalent between exclusive and comprehensive particularism’ in ‘Hauerwas among the Virtues’, p. 220. The grammar I suggest weighs towards ‘comprehensive’ particularism. Part of the meaning of the church/world distinction is that, because God made us with these bodies for this world, truth is available everywhere, even if it is not reliably known or unambiguously accessible because of sin and limitation. It is odd to construe the church/world distinction as a sectarian claim about where truth is available.

65 It does not follow that one can identify the concrete practices of any particular community with ‘the church’. Though Healy rightly attends to the limits of liturgical formation, I do not know the extent to which Hauerwas's work is concerned with the pastoral mechanics of the relationship between agent-formation and moral improvement. Hauerwas's point seems to be not that moral problems would be solved if people would only go to churches that worship rightly, but rather that, if more people did worship rightly, such liturgically formed subjects would be different kinds of agents, whose liturgical practice provides a new, prophetic, immanent critique of their moral failings. See Healy, Hauerwas, pp. 73–99.

66 Various recent Augustinian approaches to political engagement follow Hauerwas's turn to epistemic particularity but interpret liberalism differently. See Mathewes, Charles T., A Theology of Public Life (New York: CUP, 2008)Google Scholar; Gregory, Eric, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Bretherton, Luke, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)Google Scholar.

67 Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 33/1 (2013), pp. 3–20.

68 New York: Viking, 2003.

69 Sider, J. Alexander, To See History Doxologically: History and Holiness in John Howard Yoder's Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011)Google Scholar.

70 Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘Constancy and Forgiveness: The Novel as a School for Virtue’, Notre Dame English Journal 15/3 (1 July 1983), pp. 2354Google Scholar.

71 Herdt is surely right that ‘the genius of his thought is its capaciousness, the way in which it is constantly being informed and enlivened by new categories, which are brought into creative relation with what he has been doing up to that point and developed in such a way that a new unity appears’. ‘Hauerwas Among the Virtues’, p. 221.

72 Thanks to Stanley Hauerwas, Charles Mathewes, Ben Dillon, Natalie Carnes, Allesandro Rovati and Brian Lee for comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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