Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

With Friends like These

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

With Friends like These

Article excerpt

With Friends Like These GOD, TRUTH, AND WITNESS: ESSAYS IN CONVERSATION WITH STANLEY HAUERWAS edited by L. Gregory Jones, Reinnard Huetter, and C. Rosalee Velloso Ewell Brazos, 336 pages, $39.99

BRAZOS PRESS HAS BECOME the House of Hauerwas. That is not such a bad thing, given that Stanley's theological mansion contains many rooms. No other contemporary theologian has put his personal touch on so many issues with such persistent creativity. This is not to say Hauerwas' work is a simple matter. His thought is capacious, but his style can be garish and loud. You can check into hotel Hauerwas any time you like, but he may not let you leave.

Brazos' latest festschrift, God, Truth, and Witness: Essays in Conversation with Stanley Hauerwas, is testimony to the remarkable way Hauerwas makes friends by arguing with people. That is an exceedingly rare skill in today's academic climate, where arguments break out like thunderstorms and then are allowed to blow over before they do any lasting damage. Hauerwas grabs you with the power of his thinking and will not let you go until you say why you disagree with him. His prose swaggers on the page, but in person you see the glint in his eyes that tells you to relax and enjoy the argument.

Years ago, liberal theologians outdid themselves in scrambling to write on the topic of metaphor, because it seemed the perfect trope for conveying the piety of moral relativism. They called themselves revisionists, because they were inspired by the elasticity of metaphor to replace systematic and historical theology with constructive religious thought. Along the way, they converted dogma into poetry and belief into make-believe. They even went so far as to fuse the divine with poetic license, since they took the inexhaustibility of the metaphorical imagination to suggest that God is but another name for the way everything is connected to everything else.

Then along came Hauerwas. His Texas slang ran roughshod over the pretty doodles of the spiritual fashion designers. While those mesmerized by metaphor wanted to picture God anew, Hauerwas struggled to secure the conditions necessary for truthful Christian speech. His voice is hyperbolic rather than metaphorical, stressing differences rather than similarities while imposing clarity on recalcitrant theological topics. I speak from personal experience when I say that many theologians have come to understand what they think about a particular topic only when confronted with a Hauerwasian exaggeration. When Hauerwas is wrong, he is so wrong that he clears the way for forceful restatements of Christian truths.

NOWHERE is HAUERWAS more wrong than in his understanding of the relation between Christianity and politics, and it takes a very good group of friends to point this out without sounding like they are rejecting everything that makes him so much fun to read. Among the essayists in God, Truth, and Witness, Robert Wilken, Robert Jenson, Tristram Engelhardt, and Robert Bellah are at the top of their game, and the hardball they play with Hauerwas is exciting to watch.

Hauerwas often writes as if he were looking for a fight, and who better to pick a fight with than the greatest Christian ruler of all time? Constantine thought of himself as Christianity's best friend, but Hauerwas portrays him as the great bully of the early Church. I can think only that Hauerwas does this because he values friendship so highly, since he writes as if he were personally betrayed by Constantme's ruse. Wilken deftly defends Constantine by shifting attention to St. Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose certainly helped orchestrate the coordination of civic life with the Christian narrative, but this was no plot to Christianize society from above. It was the people of Milan who desperately conspired to turn Christianity into public policy. Ambrose obliged them, but he qualified his cooperation by maintaining appropriate borders around the Church. If the empire had not become Christian, Ambrose could not have been so bold in challenging the emperor. …

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