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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 ...

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