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Alan Jacobs

Whose Natural Theology?

Occasionally, when taking a train to or from Chicago, I'll notice through the buzz of commuters a recorded message. Among other things, the disembodied voice instructs me that "emergency exits are to be used in case of power loss." I have heard this message dozens of times, and yet every time—every time—the voice penetrates my consciousness, I somehow hear, "emergency exits are to be used in case of Hauerwas." And I twitch for a moment before realizing what the voice really said.

This quirk of mine suggests that I've got some faulty wiring—and, yes, I've spent too much of my life in academic precincts—but it also tells a story about the workings of reputation. For Stanley Hauerwas is known, especially to people who haven't read a word he's written, as a provocateur, a prankster with a penchant for the outrageous—the sort of person who might well send the weak of heart and delicate of sensibility scrambling for an emergency exit. Has Hauerwas done anything to earn such a reputation? Certainly. ("Justice is a bad idea for Christians," he says in one essay; Bill Clinton "is incapable of lying," he declares in another. This list could be extended, and colorful supplementary anecdotes provided.) Is the reputation fair to Hauerwas? No. But it is the fate of a paradoxical theologian to be misunderstood.

Hauerwas' reliance on paradox has attracted much attention—it had a lot to do with Time magazine calling him "America's best theologian"—but it has also led some to question his intellectual seriousness. Such skepticism is simply mistaken, as it was when it was directed, decades ago, at G. K. Chesterton. Yes, "paradox," like "mystery," is a term too easily invoked, often used to cover a reluctance to think hard thoughts; but true paradox is a powerful mode of thinking, a way of calling attention to the inadequacies of our conventional categories and suggesting alternatives to them. (See Hugh Kenner's Paradox in Chesterton—now, alas, long out of print—for a compelling survey of this territory.)

Still, however wrong-headed such accusations of frivolity may be, it's hard to imagine that Hauerwas hasn't noticed them. And in his account of natural theology, With the Grain of the Universe, he seems to abandon his habitual rhetorical mode. The book is far more expository than we are accustomed to seeing from him, and more heavily documented; the argument is even a bit dry at times, something I never thought I'd say about anything by Hauerwas. Yet these appearances are at least somewhat deceptive. In the preface, Hauerwas warns his readers not to expect this to be "the 'big book' that many of my friends and critics have suggested I should write," and adds: "I do not think theologians, particularly in our day, can or should write 'big books' that 'pull it all together.' "

So if With the Grain of the Universe is not that kind of book, and not a typical Hauerwas performance either, what is it? I suggest that it is a disassembled paradox; the magic box of Hauerwasian style is here broken open, its parts laid out before us as in an exploded diagram. The effect is simultaneously impressive—one sees more clearly than ever how much learning is needed to produce Hauerwas' insights—and a bit disenchanting: I'm not sure I want to know how the magician does it. But no one reading this book can say that Hauerwas hasn't done his homework.

There is, very clearly, a paradox at the heart of this book, and it is the claim that Karl Barth is the greatest modern exponent of natural theology. This is an evidently strange claim, because if there's anything that people know (or think they know) about Barth it is that he repudiated natural theology—that is, the project of articulating and defending at least some Christian beliefs on the basis of what can be known from "nature," or general revelation. (Arguments for intelligent design, for example, are a form of natural theology.) The tradition originates, for Christians, in St. Paul's claim that some of the "invisible attributes" of God can be discerned in the things he has made (Rom. 1:20); but theologians have never agreed on just how much of what Christians believe can be inferred from an investigation of the Creation itself without the aid of Scripture. Karl Brunner, in his 1934 book Nature and Grace, argued that, because humans are made in the image of God, there is a substantial "point of contact" between the human and divine that can be readily understood and developed. The blunt force of Barth's rejoinder to Brunner is captured in its title: Nein! Little could anger Barth more than a claim that we humans can in any way move towards God (either morally or epistemologically) by our own power. How could such a thinker be an ideal representative of natural theology?

There's something else curious about this claim: Hauerwas makes it in the Gifford Lectures he gave at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (of which this book constitutes the final version)—and, as he notes, Lord Adam Gifford established his lectures, more than a century ago, with the goal of "Promoting, Advancing, Teaching, and Diffusing the Study of Natural Theology." But Hauerwas is well aware of the problem of "keeping faith with Adam Gifford," and one could do worse than describe the book as an attempt to ask just what such faith-keeping would have to be. Hauerwas discusses four previous Gifford lecturers at some length in this book: one (William James) who was thoroughly at ease with the Giffordian understanding of natural theology; a second (Reinhold Niebuhr) who might seem to be more narrowly Christian but, argues Hauerwas, is scarcely less comfortable than James; and two others (Alasdair MacIntyre and Barth himself—whose idea was it to invite him?) who have serious, though quite different, reservations about the whole idea. MacIntyre's doubts became the very subject of his talks, later published as Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, and Hauerwas is following MacIntyre in making his book self-reflexive: Gifford Lectures about the Gifford Lectures.

Hauerwas' conclusion is that there's nothing wrong with natural theology, as long we define it in a Barthian way rather than in Lord Gifford's or William James' way—and as long as we don't try to dress up a highly generalized theism in Christian clothing, as Hauerwas believes Niebuhr did. "Do we have anything more in Niebuhr than a complex humanism disguised in the language of the Christian faith?" he asks, and his answer is, "Probably not." The warning signs come early, Hauerwas believes: "The first hint in Niebuhr's Gifford Lectures that his theology is in fact anthropology is that he does not begin The Nature and Destiny of Man with an account of our sinfulness but with the generalized anthropological observation that 'man has always been his own most vexing problem.' " And later he quotes approvingly Robert Song's claim that, while Niebuhr uses trinitarian language, the God he describes is functionally unitarian—a rather vague deity, not truly and intrinsically Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I am a bit confused by Hauerwas' argument here. The existentialist language of "anxiety" was cutting-edge at the time that Niebuhr gave his lectures (1939), and indeed the great popularity of the book was largely a function of Niebuhr's ability to present the Christian faith as a set of answers to the most pressing questions of the day. Was it really impermissible, from a seriously Christian point of view, for him to start with those questions? Or could that strategy have been justified if Niebuhr had pushed through his existentialist lingo to a fully orthodox theological anthropology and doctrine of God? In any case, if Hauerwas is right to argue that Niebuhr never truly went beyond a kind of disguised humanism (and I think he is), then a major problem with natural theology is illuminated: one can begin with what unbelievers already know, already believe, but how does one get from that realm to the realm of revealed biblical truth?

Ultimately, I believe, Hauerwas is saying that that danger is too great, and that therefore natural theology should never be first theology. Barth discovered early in his career that the great error of 19th-century Protestant theology was its decision to think that human "religious experience" was an appropriate first principle of Christian theology. Indeed, some of the strongest opponents of Christianity—notably Feuerbach and Nietzsche—realized that a theologian who began with "religious experience" had already given up the game; Barth learned from them not to make that mistake, and to insist instead on the priority of God's revelation, no matter how dissonantly it might ring in the secular ear. Hauerwas the provocateur recognizes a kindred spirit: "one almost begins to think that the more absurd the doctrine from the perspective of modernity, the more Barth enjoyed showing why and how it must stand at the beginning of theology."

But in that case what becomes of natural theology? Hauerwas contends that in the latter part of his career Barth came to recognize that his Nein to Brunner had been, if not wrong, at least inadequate; he further contends that Barth learned this from studying Thomas Aquinas, whose commitment to the role of analogy in theology—to the recognition that what we say about God bears an analogical relationship to what we say about human beings—Barth came, at least in part, to share. For Aquinas the analogical principle does much to make natural theology possible—but it is a principle grounded in the nature of God as revealed in Scripture, and this is what makes Aquinas' view acceptable to Barth. In the end, we are called upon to be the witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world, and however we choose to bear that witness, we must remember this (Hauerwas is summarizing Barth but it is his view too):

The Christian … cannot address the non-Christian on the basis of a general or human responsibility interpreted as the responsibility to conscience or to supposed or real orders and forces of the cosmos. Rather, every person is to be addressed as one who exists and stands in the light of Jesus Christ.

A last word about this powerful and important book: it is telling that Hauerwas chose to have it published, not by a university press or a trade house (as have been the choices of most Gifford lecturers of the past), but by a Christian publishing company, Brazos Press. It matters that this most "academic" of Hauerwas' books comes to us with the imprint of a company dedicated—like Stanley Hauerwas' career—to the life and health of Christ's Church.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Westview).

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