128 Gifford Lecture Contrasts: Hauerwas & McInerny


                If we believe Time Magazine, Stanley Hauerwas is “America’s best theologian,” indeed, “contemporary theology’s foremost intellectual provocateur.” His stature was recently established when he was invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures in St. Andrews, Scotland. The lectures, given in 2001, are entitled With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, c. 2001). “My aim,” he says, “is nothing less than to tell the theological story of the twentieth century by concentrating on three of the greatest Gifford lecturers — William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. I argue that Karl Barth is the great ‘natural theologian’ of the Gifford Lectures because he rightly understood that natural theology is impossible abstracted from a full doctrine of God” (pp. 9-10).  

                Before turning to this task, Hauerwas tries to explain why someone like himself (who like Karl Barth basically denies the possibility of “natural theology”) would accept the invitation to give the Gifford Lectures.  In self-defense, he notes that another Gifford lecturer, Alasdair MacIntyre, refused to do the “scientific” work mandated by Lord Gifford’s will, which amply endowed the project.  Rather, following the lead of St. Thomas Aquinas, MacIntyre set forth a “natural theology” rooted in the analogy of being, following principles quite different from the “natural theology” shaped by the Enlightenment. 

                The Enlightenment, as Hauerwas has incessantly argued, birthed the “modernity” that has subverted the Christian faith and community.  Citing a recent work by Matthew Bagger, Hauerwas says that “‘the rise of human self-assertion following the breakdown of the medieval world-view captures the central features of modern thought and culture.  Modernity represents the outcomes of a dialectic motivated by contradictions within medieval theology.  Self-assertion requires that humans give themselves the standards of thought and action rather than seeking them from an external source, like God'” (p. 32, quoting Religious Experience, Justification, and History, p. 212).  Consequently, Immanuel “Kant became the exemplary Protestant theologian, and Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone became the great text in Protestant moral theology” (p. 38).  Rooted in Kant, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, Albert Ritschl, and Ernst Troeltsch shaped the “Protestant Liberalism” that has significantly shaped the theology Hauerwas rejects. 

                Though hardly a theologian, William James illustrates the religious sentiments of liberalism–and the religious pragmatism that so distresses Hauerwas.  Under Darwin’s influence, James had discarded the classical Christian doctrine of God and salvation.  He turned, instead, to the Emersonian Transcendentalism so evident in the Boston of his youth.  In a revealing note to a friend, he said “‘You will class me a Methodist, minus a Savior'” (p. 63).  James’s Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, delivered at the beginning of the 20th century, proved both revealing and prescient.  So long as “religious experience” enabled one to deal more effectively with life, James considered it “true” and “good.”  As he earlier wrote, in The Will to Believe, “‘there are then cases where faith creates its own verification.  Believe, and you shall be right, for you shall save yourself; doubt, and you shall again be right, for you shall perish.  The only difference is that to believe is greatly to your advantage'” (p. 57). 

                Such pragmatism, Hauerwas rightly avers, has deeply dyed 20th century Christianity.  Discarding doctrine, under the impression that science has disproved its traditional assertions, modernists easily appropriated James’s approach:  believe whatever helps you cope with life, affirm whatever enables you to succeed, embrace whatever makes you feel good.  Such a “natural theology,” focused upon “natural man,” proposed an optimistic humanism fleshed out for popular consumption by preachers such as Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller.  Reducing theology to psychology, joining arms with secularists in shaping today’s therapeutic culture, the followers of William James are legion.  So to carefully critique James is most helpful.

                Unlike James, Reinhold Niebuhr defines himself as a Christian theologian, though his real concern was social ethics.  Sometimes lumped with “Neo-Orthodox” thinkers, in that he rejected some of the liberalism of his early years, Niebuhr was, Hauerwas insists, fully committed to the liberal agenda.  Indeed, Hauerwas argues, “Neibuhr’s Gifford Lectures [The Nature and Destiny of Man] are but a Christianized version of James’s account of religious experience” (p. 87).  Politically, this was markedly evident in Niebuhr’s support for Norman Thomas (perennially the Socialist Party candidate for President) and alignment with the notoriously left-wing Americans for Democratic Action.  Consequently, Hauerwas caustically observes, “Niebuhr’s theology seems to be a perfect exemplification of Ludwig Feuerbach’s argument that theology, in spite of its pretentious presumption that its subject matter is God, is in fact but a disguised way to talk about humanity” (p. 115). 

                That Hauerwas may not be overly severe in his criticism finds support in a 1947 letter John Dewey wrote.  An atheist, fully committed to his own version of pragmatism, Dewey was a reasonably dispassionate critic.  He noted that both Niebuhr and Kierkegaard “‘have completely lost faith in traditional statements of Christianity, haven’t got any modern substitute and so are making up, off the bat, something which supplies to them the gist of Christianity–what they find significant in it and what they approve of in modern thought–as when two newspapers are joined.  The new organ says “retaining the best features of both”‘” (p. 97). 

                So Niebuhr, Hauerwas says, shares James’s pragmatic approach and fails to uphold authentic Christianity.  His critique of liberalism fails because he never really abandoned liberalism.  Having myself recently read The Nature and Destiny of Man, however, I suspect Hauerwas protests too much!  While Niebuhr’s “theology” may be faulted for various failures, he is primarily a social ethicist and apparently had little aptitude for or interest in the classical issues of theology.   I suspect Hauerwas dislikes Niebuhr’s politics, particularly his approval of America, as much as his theology.

                Repudiating the approach of James and Niebuhr, both of whom certainly set forth a form of “natural theology,” Hauerwas appropriates, as an ally, Karl Barth, well known for his staunch “Nein!” to Emile Brunner’s defense of natural theology.  In Barth Hauerwas finds the man, and the theology, worth celebrating.  Amazingly, Hauerwas endeavors to show that Barth rightly set forth a “natural theology.”  He says this despite Barth’s vehement opposition to such!  He claims Barth “provides the resources necessary for developing an adequate theological metaphysics, or, in other words, a natural theology.  Of course, I assume that ‘natural theology’ simply names how Christian convictions work to describe all that is as God’s good creation” (p. 142).  However problematic, this “assumption” allows Hauerwas to build his case!

                This leads Hauerwas to an intricately detailed discussion, rooted in an appreciative  reading of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, designed to show why–and in what ways–he is remarkably akin to Thomas Aquinas!  This is because both men, Hauerwas insists, relied upon the analogia fidei, the analogy of faith.  We can think about God only in terms of “like” and “as,” taking clues from visible realities discern invisible Reality.  Moving from the created world, the natural world, to the Creator, involves thinking analogically.  Barth’s understanding of God, derived from Revelation, works itself out, Hauerwas says, in metaphysical categories and ethical imperatives. 

                Both Barth himself and his Dogmatics were “witnesses” to this endeavor, Hauerwas says.  This leads him, in the book’s eighth and final chapter, to set forth his own position, “The Necessity of Witness.”  Here familiar Hauerwas themes appear.  Whereas Barth was mainly concerned that we “let God be God,” Hauerwas’s message is “let the church must be the church,” living out the radical imperatives of the Gospel.  In an authentic community of faith, worship and praise incubate and shape theological reflection.  He cites John Howard Yoder and Pope John Paul II as demonstrations as to how this is done in our day–especially insofar as they espouse non-violence (Hauerwas’s special passion).   

                This book’s value, in my judgment, lies in its probing, richly footnoted discussion of James, Niebuhr and Barth.  Though Hauerwas’s interpretations can never be taken at face value, they prod one to think and see new dimensions to these thinkers.  When he sets forth his own views, however, things turn more problematic.  Take, for instance, his contention that “witness” is crucial for the church.  There must be no disparity between one’s beliefs and acts.  Thus he sternly rebukes allegedly “Christian universities” for failing to be Christian.  Indeed, he declares, “we should not be surprised that the most significant intellectual work in our time may well take place outside the university” (p. 232).  Yet, one must remember, Professor Hauerwas himself teaches at DukeUniversity, where he is lavishly paid for propounding his “countercultural” views. 

                Still more, it seems to me that as one considers Hauerwas’s allegedly “radical” positions, it becomes clear that he almost unfailingly appeases the modern academic intelligentsia, of which he is a celebrated insider.  To criticize liberalism, in today’s post-modern academic environs, costs one very little.  To share Stanley Fish’s constructivist, reader response approach to hermeneutics, places one comfortably at the center of today’s triumphant secularism.  To trumpet one’s Anti-Americanism, as Hauerwas routinely does, enables one to garner accolades from university colleagues.  To support pacifism, multiculturalism, feminism, socialism, etc. hardly severs connections with the liberal establishment. 

                Finally, though Hauerwas condemns James and Niebuhr for their pragmatism, his own approach to the Christian faith is ultimately pragmatic.  Faith, to Hauerwas, works!  It works in different ways for him than for James and Niebuhr.  Whereas to James faith is personal, and what works brings personal satisfaction, to Hauerwas faith is corporate.  The community, above all, is what matters.  What the worshiping community discerns as true and good, what enables the community to function well, is what counts.  For Hauerwas, the church community validates itself in non-violence, in social justice, in Anabaptist separation from political powers.  But, ultimately, “witness” means validating one’s faith, not testifying to the Risen Lord Jesus!

                Unlike Hauerwas, the 1999-2000 Gifford lecturer, Ralph McInerny, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University (as well as the author of the “Father Dowling” mystery stories which were serialized in a television series several years ago), cheerfully embraced the calling to do “natural theology” in Characters in Search of Their Author (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, c. 2001).  He writes clearly, directly, determined to uphold the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Whereas Hauerwas employs irony, polemic, sometimes tortuous expositions, McInerny writes with a certain structured serenity.  In part, as he says, “There are two kinds of philosopher:  one kind denies the obvious, the other kind states the obvious.  I am of the latter kind” (p. 119).

                The book’s title is explained thusly:   “It has been said that life is a book in which we set out to write one story and end by writing another.  Deflective surprises are due to chance or, as men have thought from time immemorial, to another author in whose drama we are but players.  A play within a play.  How can we not be in search of our author?” (p. 3).  There is an Ultimate Playwright, McInerny believes, and “We are to God as characters to their author” (p. 4).  To grasp the plot, the follow the action, much can be learned through a careful study of the natural world he has made. 

                Trusting one’s reason, upholding the dignity of traditional philosophy, puts one in a counter-cultural position today.  Since Rene Descartes shifted philosophers’ attention from the external to the internal world in the 17th century, increasing numbers of thinkers have assumed that “There is no reality sans phrase, only interpreted reality, what we make of it” (p. 43).  Descartes’ stance undergirds a “fashionable nihilism among influential philosophers,” markedly akin to the “radical chic” Thomas Wolfe detailed in the plush Manhattan parties which celebrated terrorists of various sorts.  Black Panthers, paroled murderers, Weatherman renegades–all enjoyed the embrace of luminaries like Norman Mailer!  Amazingly, McInerny says, having abandoned its traditional pursuit of truth and wisdom, “Philosophy itself has now become a form of Radical Chic” (p. 44).  Consequently, McInerny laments, “Philosophy has become a bone yard.  Having passed through the abattoir of doubt, linguistic reduction, and nihilism, philosophy is but a skeleton of its former self” (p. 73). 

                Noting the same pragmatic tendencies Hauerwas condemns, McInerny says that for great numbers of thinkers today “Language is no longer the sign of thought and thought is no longer the grasp of nature, of essence, of the way things are.  We are thrown back on language itself, and to language is assigned the great task of constructing the self we are and the world in which we live.  Language is a set of rules we adopt for purely pragmatic or utilitarian reasons.  We no longer seek to achieve the true and avoid the false.  Forget about both of those.  The only question is, does it work, is it successful” (p. 26).  Ultimately, this relativistic, nihilistic view, clearly evident in Nietzsche, cannot endure, for it conflicts with reality.  But it is difficult to rationally refute because its proponents deny the legitimacy of reason! 

                Ironically, he says, facing the nihilistic irrationalism of post-modernism, Catholic philosophers like himself are called to uphold the integrity of the mind and the natural ability of man to know truth, even truth about God.  As John Paul II said, in his great encyclical, Fides et ratio: “”One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth'” (p. 121).  Ultimately, this means, as the Second Vatican Council affirmed, that “Human dignity rests above all on the fact that man is called to communion with God.  This invitation to converse with God is issued to a man as soon as he is born, for he only exists because God has created him with love and through love continues to keep him in existence.  He cannot live fully in the truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator” (p. 30, citing Gaudium et Spes, n. 19). 

                This is, of course, no new task!  In the ancient world, Sophists propounded versions of nihilism, relativism, subjectivism.  Protagoras, the Sophist who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” was the “first of the Pragmatists as well” (p. 45).  In his dialogue entitled Cratylus, Plato recorded that Protagoras taught “that as things appear to me, then, so they actually are for me, and as they appear to you, so they actually are for you” (p. 45).  Strongly reacting to such teachers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle carefully carved out the lineaments for classical philosophy, a perennial philosophy ever ancient, ever new.

                Centuries later, St. Augustine faced the same challenge — skeptical, nihilistic philosophers — and “wrote the Contra academicos to confront thinkers who held that nothing could be known. It is significant that Augustine as a believer saw the importance of addressing this attack on reason” (p. 45). Thinking rightly, he knew, means bringing one’s mind into alignment with the world that is. Right thinking, logic, reflects the logos, the Word enstructuring the world.

                Aristotle, for example, insisted there are inescapable, undeniable “first principles.” So, he said, enunciating the basic laws of thought:

  1. It is impossible to affirm and deny the same thing of the same subject simultaneously and in the same sense.
  2. It is impossible for a proposition and its contradictory to be simultaneously true.
  3. It is impossible for a thing to be and not to be at the same time and in the same respect. (pp. 47-48).

Centuries later, “Thomas Aquinas, like Aristotle, uses these three self-evident principles as if they were synonymous.  When he is speaking of the first principles of practical reasoning, the precepts of Natural Law, he draws an analogy between them and the first principles of reasoning as such.  He gives as the most fundamental judgment reason makes, non est simul affirmare et negare” (p. 48, citing Summa Theologiae, 1-2.94.2).  One cannot affirm and deny that a given thing such as a tree or a wildfire exists. 

                As Aquinas studied various pagan philosophers, he appreciated their understanding of such principles.  By nature, without supernatural assistance, they reasoned rightly.  Still more:  many of them discerned truths identical with biblical truths.  For example, “Aristotle called the philosophical discipline that culminates the lengthy task of philosophy theologia.  It has come to be called metaphysics, and is in effect the  wisdom the seeking of which gives philosophy its name” (p. 77).  Thus, to Aquinas, doing “natural theology” was obviously possible.  So he “coined a phrase to cover these naturally knowable truths about God that had nonetheless been revealed.  He called them praeambula fidei.  They were distinguished from the other sort of truth about God, the kind that dominates Scripture, which he dubbed mysteria fidei (p. 66).   Mysteries are not, however, irrational.  Were we wiser, we would understand the reasonableness–the logos–of our faith.  Indeed, Aquinas thought, “If some of the things that have been revealed can be known to be true–the preambles–then it is reasonable to accept that the others–they mysteries–are, as they claim to be, true” (p. 67).

                Turning to one of the most basic questions in natural theology, McInerny argues that God’s existence is rationally demonstrable.  Rooted in Thomas Aquinas and the common sense tradition, he notes that one thinks well, “not by sweeping away or casting a skeptical eye on the thinking of ordinary folk, but by seeking there the well-springs of human thinking as such.  The amazing assumption is that everybody already knows all sorts of things” (p. 118).  Moving from things any normal person knows, one discovers both the necessary ontological truth that there must be a First Cause of all that is, as well as certain moral “principia per se nota, precepts of natural law” (p. 119). 

                So faith and reason conjoin.  “Thomas Aquinas discusses the act of religious faith in terms of Augustine’s definition of it as “cum assensione cogitare:  thinking with assent” (p. 124).  Assisted by God’s grace, however limited by our human weakness, we can think.  And the more we think rightly the better we grasp certain truths concerning God, man, and salvation.  Richard John Neuhaus’s appraisal of this book in First Things merits repeating:  “Ralph McInerny never ceases to amaze.  This book is another such occasion.  Here erudition is joined by wit and lucidity in examining fundamental questions of human existence in a manner that is both accessible to the general reader and an intellectual challenge to the specialist.  Prof. McInerny provides a reliable, and enjoyable, guide to reasoned faith and faithful reason.”