The National Catholic Review
David P. Schmidt

What does Christian witness mean in today’s world? Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University, answers this question by developing a highly original approach to natural theology. Through imaginative and often provocative arguments, Hauerwas challenges and often inverts many conventional assumptions in Christian theology and ethics. Written for the Gifford Lectures, this is an academic book. But anyone broadly conversant with Christian theology will be able to follow the main ideas here and will be richly stimulated by one of the leading theologians writing today.

Hauerwas offers his first sustained formulation of natural theologyan enterprise typically understood as using reason alone to discover truths about God. Thus this book might surprise anyone familiar with the strongly historicist and seemingly sectarian themes of Hauerwas’s previous publications. But it is quickly evident that Hauerwas takes a highly unconventional approach, saying that natural theology requires a robust doctrine of God that displays God’s Trinitarian character.

The author starts by taking on the benefactor of the famed lecture series itself, Lord Gifford, who in his will established the Gifford Lectures for Promoting, Advancing, Teaching, and Diffusing the Study of Natural Theology. Hauerwas describes Gifford as a pre-eminently modern religious person. Thus the Gifford Lectures assume that God is a problem that requires rational proof. In most cases, the kind of God proven by Gifford lecturers tended to be vaguely generic variations of a bland theism. Hauerwas rejects this modern approach to theology, saying that the only kind of God worth talking about for Christians is the fully Trinitarian God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Far from being a problem that Christians have to prove to the world, God’s Trinitarian character is something that Christians ought to witness to the world.

Hauerwas readily acknowledges that his robustly Trinitarian conception is something of an embarrassment, even a scandal, to those theologians who see natural theology as a way to build bridges within a pluralistic modern world. But Hauerwas maintains that his approach can appropriately be called natural theology, in contrast to confessional or sectarian theology. The Christian witness to the God who redeemed the world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus makes claims about the real world (even a pluralistic modern world).

The author supports his claim about Christian witness with an analysis of three seminal thinkers. First, William James is presented as the famed pragmatist who sought to explain why humans matter in a world apparently lacking ultimate meaning. In so doing, James offered important insights into how any people, including Christians, should live their lives. But Hauerwas objects that James’s real focus was on humans, not on God. For James, the persistence of religion in the modern world was interesting only for what it said about human nature. His focus on the feelings of individuals yielded a pietistic humanism. James is attractive for many Christians who are looking for a way to maintain their religious beliefs in a modern world, says Hauerwas. But James said nothing about whether the God of Israel exists or why Christians should conform their lives to such a God.

Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the best-known American Protestant theologian of the 20th century, is the next character in Hauerwas’s analysis. Although Niebuhr is normally viewed as a challenger of James’s pragmatic humanism, Hauerwas presents an electrifying argument that Niebuhr actually perpetuated James’s view of religion and thus produced a misguided Christian theology. Niebuhr’s chief legacy was to show that Christianity provides an ethic important for modern liberal society. Hauerwas says that Niebuhr thought Christianity was true because it confirms universal and timeless humanistic principles and because it counters the egoism of social groups.

The problem of both James and Niebuhr for Hauerwas is that they reduced religion to its utilitarian social value. Thus they lost sight of the fully Trinitarian nature of the God Christians worship, and they also obscured how the church makes any difference today for Christianity. Hauerwas objects that they turned Christianity into general principles that anyone can practice, thereby making it difficult to see what difference being a Christian makes for how one witnesses God’s truth to the world. Hauerwas finds the solution for this problem in his analysis of the Swiss neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth.

Barth began by talking about God, not about human reasons, human religious experience or human scientific discoveries. Hence Barth has been charged with rejecting natural theology and with trying to save religious faith by making it irrational. But Hauerwas explores many detailed facets of Barth’s theological development to argue that, to the contrary, Barth’s work is the best kind of natural theology. Far from being irrational or privately confessional, Barth’s theology confidently and unapologetically made claims about the way the world really is. Moreover, and this point is crucial for Hauerwas, Barth’s theology culminated in ethics, with the requirement that Christians fully engage, not shun, the world. To underscore this point, Hauerwas points to Barth’s brave resistance to Hitler.

Finally, Barth gives Hauerwas the language to show how Christians, operating as members of the church, can witness to God’s reconciling and redeeming work in Jesus Christ. Hauerwas intends to use this language to draw all manner of Christians to a more faithful understanding of witness. Hauerwas is a Protestant whose previous writings have drawn appreciatively on Catholic moral theology to develop themes of character and virtue in the moral life. Here Hauerwas concludes by describing elements in the thought of John Paul II that make him a non-Constantinian Pope whose witness moves with the grain of the universe.

David P. Schmidt is an associate professor of ethics at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn.