A (very) Critical Review of Nicholas Healy(‘s book)

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 those arguments. 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 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 powerful sociopath but their work is entirely distinct from this. No, who a person is has no 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 typology 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 one 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 combines 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 mixed 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 – in my view problematically – it 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 ages past when someone wanted to give a systematic presentation of an author’s entire life’s work they discussed at length the 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 schema within which an author may be placed. So for Healy, Hauerwas’s work is not traditional because it breaks with the “theocentric” strain of theology and instead advances the “ecclesiocentric” model typified by at least one old German dude. This problematizes Healy’s entire project because synthetic descriptions of other’s work are most faithful when they are 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 informs 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.

In conclusion, 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 in this review have been taken directly from his book.

A person who came to Healy without knowing Hauerwas would learn very little about Hauerwas. This is reason enough to criticize the book. But that it also succumbs to the aforementioned problems, makes it so that I cannot recommend this book at all.