Review: The Making of Stanley Hauerwas


The Making of Stanley Hauerwas (New Explorations in Theology), David B. Hunsicker, foreword by Stanley Hauerwas. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and the apparently contrary threads of being characterized as both Barthian, and a postliberal theologian.

Stanley Hauerwas has been one of the most visible and discussed theologians of the last forty years. His challenging work on the nature of the church, his assertion of the church as a political structure, and his social ethics has evoked much discussion. In this work, David B. Hunsicker focuses on two apparently contrary aspects of Hauerwas theological work–his claim to be a Barthian, and the postliberal character of his theology, focusing on narrative interpretation of scripture and emphasizing ecclesiology instead of Christology.

Hunsicker begins by tracing Hauerwas biography and the Barthian influences in his thought–particularly in rejecting the divorce of theology and ethics, and in rejecting theological liberalism. He then offers a case study of how each of them approached abortion, how both reject natural theology approaches arguing from universal reasons, but how Hauerwas parts in grounding his exploration in ecclesiology and how the church functions in moral formation. He concludes in the first part that Hauerwas was indirectly influenced by Barth, and that his post liberalism expands the idea of what it means to be a “Barthian.”

In part two, Hunsicker considers the claim that Hauerwas learned to keep theology and ethics together from Barth. The discussion revolves around a key difference–Barth’s rejection of a casuistic approach ethics. Hauerwas reintroduces casuistry in his ecclesiological approach but the differences are reconciled in Hauerwas’ narrative approach to Christology, with the ethics of the church formed by its imitation of Christ.

In the final part, Hunsicker takes on the question of whether Hauerwas is more Ritschlian than Barthian in that his use of scripture is sociological rather than theological. Hunsicker contends that while Hauerwas goes beyond Barth in his focus on the church, his theology of the church is consistent with that of Barth. The conclusion includes some of Hunsicker’s ideas of helpful clarifications Hauerwas could make to resolve the apparent contradictions.

One question I wonder about beyond academic curiosity is why this all matters? One of the things this work underscored is the critical connection between Christ and the church, that our encounter with Christ is embodied and lived out through the church into the world. Through the church, we are both formed in Christ and engaged with the world. This work also helps explicate the way Hauerwas departs from liberal theology and the creative tension in his work in its Barthian and postliberal aspects. Finally, it underscores Hauerwas critique that Christian ethics in Twentieth century America was more American than Christian, and Hauerwas effort to recover a church more Christian than American.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Living Gently in a Violent World

Living Gently

Living Gently in a Violent WorldStanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Essays by the two authors reflecting on the practice of gentleness in the L’Arche communities where assistants and the disabled live in community, and the theological and political significance of this witness in a violent world.

Stanley Hauerwas has been named “America’s best theologian” by Time magazine, known for his advocacy that the church embody its social ethic, that it be itself, in its communal life, and for his critique of liberal democracy, capitalism, and militarism, and the church’s often unthinking endorsement and adoption of these ideologies. Jean Vanier, deceased in 2019, was the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities where helpers and the disabled live and share life together in “houses” or communities. Until 2006, they had never met, although Hauerwas had commended the work of L’Arche. They were invited to a conference by the Center for Spirituality, Health, and Disability at the University of Aberdeen, where they spent two days conversing and speaking. This book, recently reissued in an expanded edition with study guide, reflects those conversations.

Other than introductory and concluding essays by John Swinton, this book consists of  four alternating essays by Vanier and Hauerwas. The first, by Vanier is a narrative of the beginnings and development of L’Arche. Drawn by the work of Father Thomas Philippe with the disabled in France, he moved there, began to live with two disabled men who had been institutionalized, and soon found himself leading the community. He describes L’Arche as fragile, subject to government regulations and the question of whether people will always choose to live with them. He also describes L’Arche as a place of transformation, both for assistants and the disabled, transformations that reflect the mystery of the Spirit’s work. He describes three crucial activities in their community, all requiring gentleness and patience: meals together, prayer and communion, and celebration of everything from birthdays and holidays to deaths of members. The message in all of this is, “You are a gift. You’re a gift to the community.”

Hauerwas responds by discussing how L’Arche is a “modest proposal” in a violent world that is a witness to the church of its call to gentleness and non-violence. It is a witness of care for those who cannot be cured, of patience in a particular place. For this reason, Hauerwas also believes that L’Arche needs the church as a reminder that they need to worship with the larger body that is not L’Arche. It is not only as a witness to the church, amplified through the church, but also support and sustenance from the church that makes its life possible.

Vanier then writes of L’Arche as a place that in a small way addresses the woundedness of the world by recognizing in weakness and wounds a way to God. He speaks of the connection of fear and violence, and the power of surrendering our fears to love–the love of God and the present love of the community, both the abled and the disabled. Grieving the sentiment that would abort all those with Down syndrome and the message that leaves the disabled feeling, “I am no good” Vanier writes:

“The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, ‘I am glad you exist.’ And the proof that we are glad that they exist is that we stay with them for a long time. We are together, we can have fun together. ‘I am glad you exist’ is translated into physical presence” (p. 69).

Hauerwas’s concluding essay explores the politics of gentleness in an extended engagement with the thought of John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, both who labored to articulate a rationale for the rights of the disabled to help. He summarizes how L’Arche went beyond this:

“Nussbaum wants to give Jean justifications for helping the disabled. What she can’t do is give him a reason to live with them. But that is exactly what Jean says he needed. He had to be taught how to be gentle. It is not easy to learn to be gentle with the mentally disabled. As Jean has already said, they also suffer from the wound of loneliness. They can ask for too much. Which means gentleness requires the slow and patient work necessary to create trust. Crucial for the development of trust is that assistants in L’Arche discover the darkness, brokenness, and selfishness shaped by their own loneliness…. According to Jean, through the struggle to discover we are wounded like the mentally disabled, we discover how much ‘we need Jesus and his Paraclete…” (p. 90).

There is a gentleness that flows out of this awareness before God of our mutual weakness, exemplified in the practice of mutually washing one another’s feet, transformative to assistants and disabled alike, that is a witness in a violent world.

This slim volume is an extraordinary testament, a witness as it were, to the power of gentleness that flows from weakness, both in its description of the quiet wonder taking place within L’Arche, and the record of the conversation between Vanier and Hauerwas, as they opened minds and hearts to each other to explore the significance of the “modest proposal” that is L’Arche in an impatient and violent world.

Review: Christian Political Witness

Christian Political WitnessWe were once told by a friend that she would not consider joining our church because it would mean she would have to change her political affiliation. Thankfully, if that ever was true, it is no longer. Yet when some hear the phrase “Christian political witness” it conjures up ideas of church support of a particular political agenda of one of the major political parties or an effort to gain political leverage to impose an agenda on a dissenting public. For many, that is alienating and smacks of the polarized politics so many of us detest.

I found that this volume, consisting of a collection of papers from the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference, explores a very different, and much more nuanced political engagement. Stanley Hauerwas’ opening paper set a tone for the volume challenging the church to think of itself neither as allied with the state in some form of re-constituted Christendom nor simply a marginalized, privatized community in a secular culture but rather its own polis that exists as a public, material witness to the Lordship of Jesus over and against all other powers. The collection returns to this theme at the end as former Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya, David Gitari, in his account of his own courageous witness confronting Daniel arap Moi, proposes an analogy between politics and fire. He writes,

“Our relationship with powers that be should be like our relationship with fire. If you get too close to the fire you get burnt, and if you go too far away you will freeze. Hence stay in a strategic place so that you can be of help. You can support the authority, but when they become corrupt you can criticize fearlessly.”

In between these “bookends” ten other scholars explored various aspects of this topic. Mark Noll looks at the antebellum use of scripture around the issue of slavery as a warning about our use of scripture in political witness, including an example of a more careful hermeneutic. Scot McKnight explores the idea of the kingdom and comes down against popular fashion in arguing that the presence of the kingdom is most visibly expressed through the church.  Timothy Gombis considers the political witness of Paul while George Kalantzis recounts the political engagement of the pre-Constantinian early church with Rome, particularly its refusal to engage in pagan sacrifice and of military service.

The following papers turned to more contemporary issues. Jana Marguerite Bennett suggests that the existence of the church challenges the public/private split and the relegation of family to the private sphere. William T. Cavanaugh explores the Citizens United decision that defines business corporations as persons. His objection to this decision is not the defining of corporations as “person” but the exclusive application of this to business, ignoring the long-standing idea of Christian communities seeing themselves as “bodies” in which individuals exist as part of a larger corporate whole. Peter Leithart turns to the often contested concerns about violence and God’s actions to destroy enemies, which he distinguishes from the unjust and sinful use of force, which he would define as violence.

The next two papers were, for me, the most thought-provoking. Daniel Bell gives us a fresh take on “just war” theory that moves beyond the “public policy checklist” approach to a “Christian discipleship” approach that considers the virtues the church nurtures related to just war criteria. Following this, Jennifer McBride challenges the triumphal and self-righteous approach often taken by churches with a repentance-based approach that acknowledges our own complicity in sin and invites others to join us in turning from it toward God.

The penultimate paper by David P. Gushee observes the absence in evangelicalism of a social teaching tradition similar to that found in Roman Catholicism or mainline Protestantism. He proposes a “social ethics of costly practical solidarity with the oppressed” and works out in brief form how this might apply to ten contemporary issues.

The question of how one engages or does not engage our political and power structures is unavoidable for any thoughtful citizen, believing or not. What ethic will inform that engagement? What ends will one pursue? The papers in this book provided helpful perspectives toward political engagements and structures that foster flourishing societies while resisting church or state tyranny and corruption.