July 24, 2014
Hauerwas: a (very) critical introduction
by: Nicholas M. Healy
Reviewed by Tony Hunt
My thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy
Why write a very critical review of Nicholas Healy’s very critical introduction to Stanley Hauerwas? In my opinion, Healy’s book has not as yet been subjected to the kind of exacting critical analysis that is appropriate for a supposedly systematic review of an entire life’s corpus. There have been a few good summaries of his main points, with several somewhat critical interjections, true, but none have as yet taken as hard a line as I wish to take.
I should clarify, though, that this is not a review of the entirety of Healy’s book. I only want to get a handle on the book as a whole and assess it as such. I will not discuss even those chapters that are rightly judged to be important or especially insightful, such as the chapter advancing the crude analogy between Hauerwas and Schleiermacher. For one thing, I do not have the expertise to be able to say anything of special interest about such matters. For another, although these are central chapters to his main arguments, I do not think they actually contribute all that much to them. Thus the entirety of chapters 3 and 4 have been left out of the scope of this essay.
Now I do hope that this is not seen as criticism of Healy as a person. From what I’ve been able to gather he is an amiable fellow. I have not met him in person and have purposely gone to some length not to contact him, lest talking to him taint my interpretation of his work. That is the last thing I would want. Clarifications of his arguments, or elaborations of his summary points would only disturb the picture I have of Healy’s book as it stands. I would like here to introduce my first distinction, that between the work and the person. A theologian could be a massive jerk but their work is entirely distinct from this. No character flaws, no hypocrisy, no flagrant disregard for common decency has any bearing on the much clearer and straightforward message of the author’s texts on their own terms.
But before proceeding further I think it is important to understand just what kind of work Healy’s is. To do this I need to elaborate somebody else’s typological scheme at some length, assume its authority, and locate Healy’s work on it. Rowan Williams, in his book “On Christian Theology,” claims that theology operates in three registers: The celebratory, the communicative and the critical. Celebratory theology is “an attempt to draw out and display connections of thought and image so as to exhibit the fullest possible range of significance in the language used. It is typically the language of hymnody and preaching.” (p.xiii)
Communicative theology, on the other hand, “seeks to persuade or commend, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than once cultural environment, and to display enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thought.” (p.xiv)
Finally, critical theology works in at least two different ways. “The critical impulse may issue in agnosticism, even nihilism;” But it may also dialectically move back toward the celebratory “by hinting at the gratuitous mysteriousness of what theology deals with.” (p.xv)
Why it is necessary to locate Healy on this schema may not be readily apparent but trust me, it’s important enough to dedicate three whole paragraphs and a series of criticisms to it. In fact I’ll probably keep referring back to Williams’ typology for the rest of this review. At any rate Healy can’t be found clearly in any one style and it’s perfectly natural that a work would move between registers anyway. On the other hand, that Healy navigates and sometimes conflates the three categories of theology as organized by Rowan Williams probably is a kind of indictment, because problems arise when the three are conflated. The celebratory ceases to function well when it is admixed with the communicative, etc.
In the next section of my review I will elaborate further what kind of book Healy’s is. We have already seen that it – in my view problematically – does not fall distinctly into one of the three varieties of theology that Rowan Williams describes. Now we will attempt to get at the core of Healy’s style. Introductions to authors traditionally work by what I would like to call an “exegeticocentric” method. That is, for thousands of years when someone wanted to give a systematic presentation of an author’s entire life’s work they discussed at length the actual arguments of the texts, usually situating them in an historical context and relating them to the author’s influences and conversation partners. Healy takes a different route. His is a “typologicocentric” book, wherein what is important is to elaborate novel and extensive categorical schemata within which an author may be placed. So, for instance, for Healy, Hauerwas’s work is not traditional because it breaks with the “theocentric” strain of theology (I keep looking for this label in historic theological works but have yet to find it) and instead advances the “ecclesiocentric” model typified by at least one old German dude (I also looked, alas, in vain for this word in the works of old German dudes). This problematizes Healy’s entire project because synthetic descriptions of other’s work is most faithful when it is exegeticocentric rather than typologicocentric.
A few examples may be appropriate. If Healy were using the traditional exegeticocentric method, he would have needed to include a discussion about the sizable influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Hauerwas, noting how Wittgenstein’s account of the acquisition of language and its use bears on the relationship between the liturgy, scripture reading, sacraments, and discipleship; a relationship Healy feels Hauerwas gets wrong. Then again, for Healy, Hauerwas may have his unique influences, but we do not need to know them to understand and assess his theological arguments. (Although it may have modified Healy’s argument that MacIntyre lies at the root of Hauerwas‘ understanding of tradition) Or again, when criticizing Hauerwas for the apparent disparity between the church he proclaims and the empirical church, Healy would have needed to bring in the importance of eschatology for Hauerwas’ work. But with Healy’s typologicocentric method, neither Wittgenstein nor eschatology receive a single mention. Indeed Yoder himself is only brought into the book in passing.
Now if, after reading this far, you have learned very little about the content of Healy’s book; if you’ve found a disproportionate amount of space in this review dedicated to measuring the book by arbitrary organizational schemes; if you’ve been introduced to novel, vague, and misleading neologisms; if you’ve been surprised by the fact that I left out central chapters for consideration; if you feel that systematically introducing a life’s corpus should include locating the works in the context of primary influences and conversation partners – If all of this is bothersome for you, you will be equally frustrated by Healy. Indeed more than a few sentences here have been taken directly from his book.
A person who came to Healy without knowing Hauerwas will learn very little about Hauerwas. This is reason enough to criticize the book. But that it also succumbs to the aforementioned problems, among other more minor quibbles, makes it so that I cannot recommend this book at all.
I am still working through other people’s end of year lists, and so this can only be considered provisional. (Check some out -David Congdon, NPR, Pitchfork, Metacritic, MPR) Nevertheless, here is the next in what is probably my longest running blog series. Links are to exemplary tunes. (* Marks an album especially worth checking out)
Albums I Wanted To Like:
Savages, Silence Yourself
Best Electronica – Dance, Pop, Instrumental, w/ Singing, Dark, Mixed, and Otherwise:
Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe*
Tegan And Sarah, Heartthrob
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories*
Gold Panda, Half of Where You Live
Jon Hopkins, Immunity*
Classixx, Hanging Gardens
Daniel Avery, Drone Logic
Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
Best Mix of Surfy Dream Pop and Black Metal That Reminds Me of Zao’s Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest:
Best Old-Timey New Music:
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, The Jazz Age*
– Also winner of sexiest song
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, That’s It!
Mavis Staples, One True Vine
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads
Glen Jones, My Garden State
Best, uuuhhhh, Indie Stuff(?):
Local Natives, Hummingbird
Low, The Invisible Way
Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito
The National, Trouble Will Find Me
Keaton Henson, Birthdays
Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero
Beach Fossils, Clash the Truth
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Volcano Choir, Repave*
Owen, L’Ami du Peuple
Arcade Fire, Reflektor*
Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold + All The Things That You Broke
Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia
Washed Out, Paracosm
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City*
Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia
Best Album By a Trio of Sisters Rockin Guitars and Harmonies:
Haim, Days Are Gone*
Best Guilty Pleasure:
Lissie, Back To Forever
Best Folk & Country:
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Jason Isbell, Southeastern*
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond*
Best Hip-Hop, R&B:
Caroline Smith, Half About Being a Woman
Mayer Hawthorne, Where Does This Door Go
London Grammar, If You Wait
James Blake, Overgrown
Aby Wolf, Wolf Lords
Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe
Most Heartbreaking And Cathartic Album:
Daughter, If You Leave
Most Trailblazing Album For an Established Band:
Sigur Ros, Kveikur*
No Explanation Needed:
Chris Thile, Bach Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. I*
Favorite Record of the Year:
Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse
I’m not under the illusion that this can somehow lay claim, in an objective sense, to the best album of 2013 – it’s far down on most lists if present at all – but there is something about the weirdness of the record, the uncomfortable beauty, the exploration of in-between spaces, that grips me. It’s explicitly a metaphysical record, a making-the-familiar-odd record, and in that sense an analogical record.
September 19, 2013
A couple months ago, Ben Myers wrote a dandy post against the types of books that force students to read, not the primary sources about which they are supposedly to learn, but books talking about them.
“Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one?”
Spot on. To the “student book” I would like to add another problematic form of writing that does pretty much the same thing, with the results, if anything, being more sinister. This form is common in the same student books but exists outside of them as well: Namely, the organization of theologians and their thought into typologies. Myers again, in a more recent post, lays out a new atonement typology in patristic thought contra Aulen, yet having laid out a more complex scheme says:
“Even from these summaries, one can see that these themes are normally found not as separate ideas but as closely interwoven motifs.”
Myers, I think, sees the work that his typology can do, but in the very act of constructing a new one is able to see the myriad ways his improved scheme falls short of accurately and fully describing the works under discussion.
But it’s not simply that typology cannot accurately represent the works that fall under its sway that riles me up – surely one should be able to accurately summarize a view without it being some kind of betrayal – it’s that once a theologian or work has been typologized and the scheme imbibed into the academic bloodstream, it becomes unnecessary for the student or pastor to bother with the thinkers who fall into the ‘bad’ category. As with the ‘student book,’ we no longer need bother with primary sources, but not having read them, we can roundly dismiss them!
A classic example of this can be found in the way Anselm is routinely marginalized as a proto-evangelical who (from scratch!) came up with “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Here we see not only the influence of Aulen but also the neo-patristic synthesis of modern Orthodox theologians. (One of David Bentley Hart’s lasting labor may be in his multiple defenses of Anselm and Duns Scotus against such typologies)
Speaking of the Orthodox, we also often see typology being used in service of declension narratives; yet using them this way works as a kind of shortcut past the harder work of constructing a disciplined genealogy. Even in the sustained work of Hans Frei or Karl Barth it’s not hard to feel that something is lost in the anti-liberalism – this despite the post-liberal I am.
The surest way around these problems seems to me to be to adhere to this dictum: Primary sources are for everyone, secondary sources are for specialists.
July 31, 2013
“God has called us to unfold a growing message, and not to rehearse a stereotyped tradition” – B.F. Westcott
I have learned a great deal from Ephraim Radner, mostly having to do with Scripture and with attempting to be an academic theologian in a sentimentalist’s theological world, and I’m deeply indebted to him for this – but lord help me, when he ventures onto First Things I’m never sure what to make of his rather incoherent political ramblings. In a recent piece he seemingly assumes that political conservatism necessarily flows from theological ‘orthodoxy,’ or at least ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics. Though his piece is purposely vague, Radner is quite clear that ‘liberal’ theology leads to a relativizing of Scripture’s authority, to ‘dogmatic dissolution’, and to a ‘laissez-faire’ view of ‘human relations.’ (Whether this statement is simply about sexuality is unclear. Does this indict conservative laissez-faire’ economics as well?)
The difficulty in engaging an essay like this goes back to language usage. Is all ‘liberal theology’ intrinsically unorthodox? Or is it, perhaps, that only liberal theology that ends in unorthodoxy is ‘genuinely liberal?’ My problem with Radner’s usage is that it needs some historization, something which, as a distinguished historical theologian, he ought to be doing automatically. In rereading the essay several times I think we should understand Radner to be suggesting something like ‘liberal theology is unorthodox, or at least leads to unorthodoxology. If it is still orthodox, it is not liberal.’ Bracketing, for the sake of discussion, the politics of what counts as ‘orthodox’ and what does not, I would like to assert that what has historically counted as ‘liberal theology’ is not often in direct conflict with traditional affirmations of the Christian faith. Indeed it is rather part and parcel of what is required of theological work attempting to articulate a faithful proclamation of the Church’s witness.
But what is ‘liberal theology?’ Rather than answer this straightforwardly, I think it would be more fruitful to point to theologians who have consistently been called liberal. Classic examples from Germany include von Harnack, Schleiermacher, and Bultmann; in the contemporary anglophone world, J.A.T. Robinson, Raymond Brown, or Marcus Borg. But a great deal more than these have been considered ‘liberal,’ at least by their contemporaries, yet their insights have often been normalized and their reputations vindicated through time. Since Dr. Radner and I are both Episcopalians, I think some Anglican examples are apropos.
Bishop Charles Gore comes to mind, obviously, being considered the father of ‘liberal catholicism;’ So also does the Cambridge trio Westcott, Hort, and Lightfoot, whose work on the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers can hardly be overestimated (Brown touted the genius of Westcott’s commentary on John in his NT Introduction). We might rightly add the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who, like liberal catholics before him, wasn’t afraid to incorporate historical criticism in his exegesis. With perhaps Gore only excepted (for his creative exploration of kenosis), there is hardly any thought that these scholars are not ‘orthodox,’ and while they may not now be considered ‘liberal’ generally, all wrote works that were controversial in their day using liberal methods. Just think of the stink around the usurpation of the Textus Receptus and the revised translation based on the critical text.
Liberal theology is responsible for critical editions of the Bible, for advancements in historical work, for experimental integration of science and religion, for feminist theology, and a great many other things that have proved invaluable for Christians. It is doubtful whether conservative theology, left to its own devices, would ever have done as much. That liberals can err is no more remarkable than that conservatives can err, and no more clear evidence that they are fundamentally askew than that all conservatives fall prey to arianesque traditionalism. The continuing task of theology will require renewed pressing at the edges of what is respectable language. The tradition, in other words, should be non-identically repeated. I don’t think we need liberal parties, or liberal identity policing (what is authentically liberal?), but we need the openness to the strangeness and newness of our encounter with God’s active grace; openness to the possibility that some assumed beliefs have grown wild and must be hacked off; that certain traditions cannot be maintained because they are actively harming people. “Christianity is not an uniform and monotonous tradition, but can be learned only by successive steps of life.” F.J.A. Hort
June 26, 2013
As Adam Kotsko has said, learning a language is not hard, it just takes hundreds of hours of work. There’s pretty much no way around that fundamental aspect. Even once you understand the underlying rules of syntax, you still have to memorize morphology, vocab, and exceptions for any new language. This assumes one actually wants to have a reliable working knowledge of a language and not just the foundation for future half-remembered phrases.
To that end teachers have long found creative ways to make learning a language easier and more enjoyable. Take, for instance, the songs and poems that my Latin teacher learned as a boy in English schools. Or the work of Clyde Pharr on Virgil and Homer. But what about contemporary technology? Can it aid in this learning?
I was just introduced by a friend to a phone app called Duolingo. The app is free. They also have a website, so one doesn’t even need a smartphone to use it. I’ve found it so helpful and fun that I’ve inadvertently decided to use this Summer to beef up my German. By working through a “skill tree,” competing against yourself and friends, acquiring points, and advancing levels, the system practically makes you want to learn. That it uses all major language-teaching immersion methods – German to English and English to German translation, hearing German, speaking German, reading German, and so on – makes it effective.
What it has done is allowed me to utilize free time – waiting in line, riding a bus, fooling around at night – as time spent learning the language. That is, it makes me put in the time necessary to learn German. What’s more, this is how we ‘young people’ actually use technology. Ultimately there’s no way around the time, so just creating new technology cannot nor will it ever be a quick fix. But if you can integrate it with how technology is actually intuitively used, I think you might be on the right track.
So the question this has raised for me is can Duolingo or something like it be helpful for the Classical languages? Here’s where I think we might brush up against some problems, given the complexity of Classical syntax. I’m not sure one could “learn Greek” on an app. But I think that if done after the manner of Duolingo, the hard memorization of vocab, morphology, and basic syntax could be aided significantly by such technology, even if it was only supplementary to a course. Perhaps it could be structured to follow along with a classic textbook?
Preached 9 June 2013, Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, Albuquerque
You may have heard the variation of that old joke about the wife who is trying to get her husband out of bed on Sunday morning. He’s says, “I don’t want to go church this morning.” And the wife says, “I really think you should.” And the husband says, “Why” And the wife says, “Because I really think you need to hear the sermon this morning.” The husband says, “How do you know?” And she says, “You left it open on the computer when you finished writing it last night.”
I can assure you Deborah didn’t have any trouble getting me out of bed this morning. I am excited to be here, but after reading it over again this morning I realize this sermon is definitely something I need to hear.
When hearing these lessons, the thing that my mind goes to right away is the pain that these mothers, these widows must have felt at the death of the children. In the reading from 1 Kings, we have a widow, who in the passage just previous to ours was preparing a final meal for her and her son, expecting that after that last meal they would die of starvation. Elijah comes along, asks her to make him some food. When she does, her supplies are miraculously multiplied and she and her son are saved from starvation. And, then, just like that, her son dies. And she turns to Elijah and says, “Is this some cruel joke? Did God save my son from starvation just to have him die?
As a father of one, with another child on the way, as someone who in the past has felt the pain of miscarriage, as someone who has stood by as people very close to me have dealt with infertility, I can only just begin to understand the devastation of losing a child, or of not being able to have children. It is a devastation that I couldn’t adequately put into words even if I wanted to. But it is an important aspect of our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning. The biblical writers only hint at the agony these mothers, these two widows, must have felt at the death of their children.
These two readings remind me of another story, found in 2 Kings, in which Elijah’s protégé, Elisha, encounters another woman who extends hospitality toward him, and when he finds out that she and her husband cannot have children, he prays and she conceives and gives birth to a son, only to have that son die several years later. And there again is that heart-rending question, why? Why God did you give me this gift only to take it away? In fact the Bible is full of these stories, having to do with children, of couples who have trouble conceiving, of children nearly dying, or dying, of sometimes getting raised back to life, and sometimes not. There are literally dozens of stories like this in both the old and new testaments. What does all this say about us, about children, and about God?
As mentioned earlier, my wife and I are expecting our second child, so I have been brooding about these questions for some time before I began preparing this sermon. I have been experiencing what is hopefully a normal phenomena; I call it world-nesting, where I not only want to make a place for my unborn daughter in our home, I want to make a place for her in the world, meaning I feel compelled to solve all the world’s problems for her, make everything perfect; you know real quick, I’ll just figure out a way to end violence in our schools in between painting the nursery and buying a new crib. Ask Deborah, when she is pregnant, I become the recycling Nazi, because I don’t want the world my little girl grows up in to be a dump. The morning paper becomes my to-do list for things in the world that need fixing before it is safe to bring my daughter into it. And of course I can’t get past the first headline. And then a few weeks ago, I ran across an interview with the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas. Dr. Hauerwas was asked about radical Christianity, radical in the sense of counter the culture of this world, radical in the sense of living into the strange and revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God. He was asked, what was the most radical thing a Christian could do? Here was his answer:
“One of the most radical things that being Christian commits you to is the willingness to have the patience to have children. It’s very radical. What it means to have a child is to learn to live without control. And to learn to live out of control. We try to become very good at controlling the world, to make the world safe for children. And as soon as you try to make sure that your children are not at risk, because you want to make sure they can get out of life alive, then you do them a disservice. This is a dangerous world. And by being a Christian, it makes it more dangerous.”
The willingness to have the patience to have children, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. As much as I like to be in control, or more accurately, as much as I enjoy the quaint illusion that I are in control, I cannot hold onto that as a parent, and we cannot hold on to that as followers of Jesus. We are not in control. That is the first message of the stories of the two widows who lost their sons. The world is a dangerous place, and none of us, and none of our loved ones can make it out of life alive.
So why, why does God give us children, why does God give us anyone to love, why does God give us a caring community, only for it all to go away? It is easy to give in to fear, to become pessimistic, or nihilistic. It’s easy to wonder what the point of it all is. But then we come to the second message of our two readings. I like how Hauerwas puts it:
“Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories. It is our baptismal responsibility to tell this story to our young, to live it before them, to take time to be parents in a world that (although intent on blowing itself to bits) is God’s creation (a fact we could not know without this story). We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living—and not because ‘Children are the hope of the future,” but because God is the hope of the future.
Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world. Because we have confidence in God, we find the confidence in ourselves to bring new life into this world.”
That is why children were the most important people to Jesus. Why he had compassion on the widow and raised her son from the dead. That is why we must have the faith of a child to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. That is why our most important job as Christians is to be patient and caring toward our children, and not just our own children, but the children in our church and our wider community. In fact, it is why we must be patient and caring toward all those who do not have anything to offer in return, because that act bears witness to the grace and compassion of a God who, in our weakness, came among us, became weak with us, and showed us a better way, a way of redemption and reconciliation and peace for all. When Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead, the people exclaimed, “God has visited his people.” God has not abandoned the world, quite to the contrary, Christ on the cross abandoned himself to the world, and for the world.
And so we must be patient. And that after all is what ordinary time is about. If Easter is about Resurrection, about Christ conquering death, if Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the church, then Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost, is about patience. Patience means trusting in the promise of Easter in the face of everyday life, both its mundane parts, and its incredibly painful parts. Patience belongs to the ones who accept that they are not in control, the ones who know that through patient caring for one another, for the weak and for the vulnerable, we can live into what we are destined to be as the church: a sign that God has not abandoned the world. Amen.
June 5, 2013
Wednesday, June 5th 2028 -
Today the Episcopal General Convention discussed a recent blog post from 2013 stating that young people are leaving Facebook at a startlingly high rate. Several Boomer priests concerned about the continued loss of financial benefactors, or ‘parishoners’, proposed that a committee be formed to study if young people are indeed leaving Facebook. The Committee to Maintain Cultural Relevance Among Young People or C2MCRAP would release their findings via group email one month before the next General Convention in 2031, along with some suggestions on what The Episcopal Church should do about it.
Debate was fierce on the floor. Fr. Jim Jefferson, well known for his blog ThinkingProgressivelyBetterThanOtherAnglicansEspeciallyTwoThirdsWorldOnes.com, was fired up, saying that young people are leaving Facebook and TEC because of tired old stale orthodoxies that just don’t make sense in a 2020’s world. “Why are we saying that Jesus rose from the dead? Twitter is 22 years old. Get with the program!”
Fr. Jeff Jimmerson, himself famous for StandingFirmLikeAStickInYourAss.com, decried the conversation, saying that the reason young people are leaving Facebook and TEC is because the church abandoned the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. “None of this would ever have happened if we had stuck with Eucharistic Prayer C.” When it was pointed out that Fr. Jimmerson wasn’t even in TEC anymore but in a random splinter-cell that used a mixture of the 1549, 1928, 1979 BCPs and the Roman Missal, he started screaming something incoherent about apostolic succession until escorted out by security.
Shortly after that the Super Ultra Very Right Rev Dr Feff Fifferson told a very moving story about a young person in his diocese which, while sentimental, had almost nothing to do with the topic at hand, though somehow everyone felt moved to “be more missional” after his speech.
As debate rose to a fever pitch eyes turned to the young Rev. Sarah Evans, aged 42, as everyone demanded to know why young people like her weren’t coming to church anymore. When she said she’d love to stay and chat but had to go pick up her 15 year old daughter from school, murmurs of “kids these days” filled the arena.