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Book Review: “With the Grain of the Universe” by Stanley Hauerwas

“With the Grain of the Universe” is an ambitious work by Stanley Hauerwas, professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University.  In it, Hauerwas makes the case that the truly innovative theologian of the 20th Century re: Natural Theology was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who rejected any claim that such a thing as natural theology could exist.

In short, natural theology is the idea that we can get ideas about God through means other than God’s expression of God’s self.  That means we can know some things about God from biology, nature, poetry, politics and so on.  Karl Barth was at the center of a fierce theological debate in the mid-20th Century as to whether natural theology was a good idea or even possible.  Hauerwas contrasts Barth’s position with William James and Reinhold Niebuhr, two very different scholars.

Essentially, Hauerwas’ argument is this:  James and Niebuhr used the insights from psychology and pragmatism to create their natural theology.  But in so doing, they (especially the Christian pastor and ethicist Niebuhr) unintentionally jettisoned all that made Christianity Christian.  In other words, the God discovered through Niebuhr and James is not the God of the Bible.  Therefore, modern people of goodwill can take Niebuhr straight but do not need nor want his theological insights because you can get the same results without committing oneself to following Christ.  Barth, though, begins with God and what God tells us about himself, and therefore is a more useful Christian ethicist.

Still with me?  Okay, good.  Now onto analysis:  Surely, Hauerwas is on to something when he points to the innovation of Karl Barth in rejecting natural theology.  Barth argued with many of the main figures in European theology over this very point because he felt that any allowance for knowledge of God, outside of God’s own revelation, allowed for misinterpretation and misuse.  In the context of mid-20th Century theology, Nazi propaganda pointed to the natural world and the supposed superiority of the Aryan race as signs of God’s favor.  Barth warned all his contemporaries that even a little natural theology could be so exploited.  It is from this perspective that Hauerwas basically claims that Barth is a much more effective Christian witness than Niebuhr.

However, much as I love Hauerwas, I don’t think he plays fair with the theology of Niebuhr in this book.  He only cursorily examines what Niebuhr himself claimed what he was trying to do.  Nowhere does Niebuhr ever claim to be a comprehensive, dogmatic, systematic theologian like Karl Barth.  Instead, he is trying to do theology in the public square.  Although Hauerwas is surely right that much of Niebuhr’s greatest work “The Nature and Destiny of Man”  is pragmatist and humanist, rather than solely Christocentric, one must never forget that Niebuhr was writing to secular men and women who were pragmatists and humanists, as well as Christians!  Barth on the other hand, tellingly entitled his magnum opus, “Church Dogmatics.”  Clearly the two men had different emphases, so it’s hard for me to see why Hauerwas would criticize Niebuhr for failing to promote a church theology, when Niebuhr’s expressed goal was to keep theology out of a churchly ghetto.

Now this is not to say that ghetto-izing theology was Barth’s project.  Quite the contrary.  In chapters 6 through 8, Hauerwas makes it clear that his criteria for an effective theology is a clear throated witness to Jesus Christ.  And he’s right that Barth has no peer in this arena.  Barth is a great witness to Jesus Christ and certainly the greatest theological witness the Protestant Church had in the last century.  However, when you crack apart Hauerwas’ main thesis–that Niebuhr’s witness is weak and Barth’s strong–once you leave the realm of academia and the seminary there is some bumpy road ahead.  What does one do with Niebuhr’s powerful Cold War anticommunism?  Isn’t that a great witness to freedom through Christ and against totalitarianism?  How come Barth’s witness falls so short when dealing with gender roles and marriage–which are the weakest parts of Barth’s theological system?  Hauerwas is strangely quiet on the more explicitly Christian parts of Niebuhr’s theology, putting a lot of weight on the apologetic sections.

Perhaps the most unsatisfying part of the book is its conclusion.  To show how witness works in Barth’s ethics and how it is superior to Neibuhr, Hauerwas cites two non-Barthians, John Howard Yoder and Pope John Paul II.  This left me scratching my head because after many pages of critiquing Niebuhr’s natural theology, Hauerwas chooses two theologians, who Barth would never accept in his theological system.  For they both allow pragmatic, humanist, naturalist arguments about the nature of God and theology (admittedly Pope John Paul did this much more than Yoder).  Why would you bring in these two heavy hitters to show that Barth’s method is superior, when, well, they didn’t use Barth’s method?

This is a good book to read but it is not an easy one.  I found myself reading it with lots of other texts open beside me to further find quotes and ideas.  And Hauerwas’ chapter on Barth and the controversy of Natural Theology is one of the best deliniations of the issues.  Though I think Barth was wrong here, it is good to study this and Hauerwas explains it very well.

What to listen to when reading this book:  easy, Barth’s favorite composer, W.A. Mozart!


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