Hauerwas: a (very) critical introduction Nicholas M Healey Eerdmans, pb, £16.99
How (Not) To Be Secular James KA Smith Eerdmans, pb, £10.99
Stanley Hauerwas has been described by Time as America’s leading theologian. This makes him all the more tempting as a target for critical study. Following Karen Kilby’s shrewd critical study of Balthasar, the ‘Interventions’ series edited by Connor Cunningham of the Nottingham Centre for the Study of Theology and Philosophy has now produced a short, critical study of Hauerwas by the British-born Catholic theologian Nicholas M Healey.
This is a book worthy to stand beside Karen Kilby’s work on Balthasar. If the rest of the books in the series are as good as these it will be a very good series indeed.
In the past Healey has written on ecclesiology so it is not surprising that he scores some of his biggest hits against Hauerwas in this area. This is all the more significant in the light of the role the church plays in Hauerwas’ thinking. In fact one of the chief criticisms Healey levels against Hauerwas is that he is more concerned with the church than with God. He draws a parallel with Schliemacher who was accused by Barth of concentrating on piety and religious experience rather than on God who became ‘the whence of human experience’.
Healey is able to quote words of Hauerwas himself to highlight the problem. Most modern theology, Hauerwas has written, is “more about ‘us’ than God.”
Hauerwas places great emphasis on the way the church shapes Christian identity. Healey claims other factors are important, including place, time and background. He argues that Hauerwas’ own pacificism and polemics against American political and cultural hegemony may have something to do with the fact that he came to maturity in the 1960s.
Healey points out that it is remarkably easy for a middle class American to be a pacifist. Hauerwas will probably respond, with some justice, that his reasons for being a pacifist deserve more attention than Healey gives them.
Hauerwas makes much of the church but he says little about the questions that are discussed in ecclesiology. He sits fairly lightly on church affiliation, currently worshipping as an Anglican although he has also worshipped with Catholics and has long-term ties to Methodism. What he is really interested in is that the church witnesses to the values of the gospel. The church is meant to be different, to be prophetic, to stand out from the world.
Unfortunately it doesn’t always live up to this calling and Hauerwas never seems to recognise that many church members do not share his high ideals. As Healey recognises, church members are a mixed bag and Hauerwas seems to have little place for believers who are less than heroic. There are quite a number of them because, as someone once said, the church is more of a school for sinners than a museum of saints.
Parish clergy know only too well that the life of a congregation often fails to match up to the message it proclaims. As Healey puts it: “Jesus is always more appealing and truthful than the very best church. Jesus, we might say, displays the truth of the gospel sufficiently to cover all the inadequacies of the church’s attempt to follow him.”
Hauerwas and those who think like him have had an impact on how Christians think about evangelism. The late Lesslie Newbigin used to argue that it was the witness of a Christian community that really attracted and converted unbelievers. Church life is important but the church needs to do more that seek to draw people into its life.
Pentecostal theologian and philosopher James KA Smith has written a work that sets out to expound the thinking of Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, on what it means to be secular. Smith does offer some criticisms of Taylor but for the most part he aims to help readers understand what Taylor has to say in his important work A Secular Age.
Smith writes well. This is a rare book by a theologian because it is a joy to read. It is hard to summarise a book that is itself the summary of a major work of over 800 pages but I know of no better guide to one of the most significant works of our time. It helps that Smith is able to make good use of modern literature and culture to illustrate his points. Even Steve Jobs makes an appearance.