Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015).
There are moments during worship, especially during the consecration of the Eucharist or as the congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer, in which I feel as if I am stumbling upon myself from the outside. It’s as if I become aware of how insane the worshipping community must sound. This realization is different from when I think the liturgy itself is problematic, when our words and symbols seem to fall short and are in need of grace. Instead, this is something akin to empathy with that proverbial non-Christian fly on the wall. I experience an existential vertigo. I’m a fish with a busted internal GPS that just keeps ramming its head into a rock. I don’t know where I am or why I’m doing what I’m doing or if this is a community I’m truly a part of.
During this a-Wesleyan worship experience—in which my heart is strangely chilled—I am not sure I want to go on. This momentary loss of faith has occurred intermittently for most of my life, and being human, I’ve often made this experience about me. The vertigo, I believed, was something to resist, a phenomenon that required pastoral intervention or a recalibration of my faith. I needed to get in there and reboot the software that was running my soul—the presence of others’ fidelity should not make me dizzy.
But in the moment itself, the prayer continues, the bread is broken, and I partake. My desire is broken and then mended; there is a loss and rediscovery of my identification with a way of speaking. This moment, when Christian speech seemed to be breaking down, when the routine repuzzles itself, becoming alien and confusing again, is one way that I have started to understand what it means to mean what I say when I say I am a Christian.
The theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has made a career of trying to help American Christians mean what they say. In his recent book, The Work of Theology, he provides both expected and new angles in this project; familiar themes, one-liners, and conversation partners all make an appearance. He asserts that this work does not aim to be a sterile recycling but both a return and clarification—a response to misunderstandings. He deepens areas where some have said he is deficient (“How the Holy Spirit Works”), clarifies what he sees as his own inadequacy (“How to Remember the Poor”), and expands into new theological territories (“How to be Theologically Ironic”).
At a certain point, the composition of Hauerwas’s theological thought settled into a mixture of Aristotle, John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like a protean piece of concrete, his theology takes many forms, but it is always made of the same materials. New questions are posed and new conversation partners are found, but familiar answers are given. In his more recent work, the ease with which Hauerwas slips into a Barthian register is both impressive and tiresome. The problem is not so much with Barth but in the way Barth is constantly used and reused. Like an overprescribed antibiotic, Barth starts to become ineffective. One gets the feeling that, eventually, the church’s problems will start to develop antibodies to the continual application of the same theological drug.
But this pattern of myopic overprescription is not peculiar to Hauerwas—it’s a problem throughout the discipline of theology. When reading many academic theologians, you can’t help but wonder what their writing means for the Christian life or church. As I have said elsewhere, most theological work often seems the equivalent of a police officer handing out parking tickets in the middle of a riot. Academic theology holds a large ring of keys, but has forgotten what locks they might open.
Even with the unsurprising nature of The Work of Theology, a certain difference still marks Hauerwas’s theological work. Both the man and his writing play a role in this difference, and many aspects of his oddity have received treatment or critique: his ecclesiology, ethics, church/world distinction, Texas drawl, Christology, et cetera. But there is one oddity that, for the most part, remains relatively unexplored: Stanley Hauerwas as an essayist. Unlike many other theologians, Hauerwas doesn’t write academic tomes; instead, in book after book, he simply takes the fine thread of a theme and uses it to bind together many shorter arguments, presentations, and sermons.
With each essay collection, he relates how he has been told to write the big book on ethics, make his position clear, do the “real work” of theology, reveal the method behind his madness. And it’s notable that an academic who failed to write as was expected of him would exercise so much influence over the academic and ecclesial conversation. Hauerwas’s essayistic oddity means something, for, as Benjamin Myers states,
It is one of the casualties of academic culture that theologians today tend to give so little consideration to their own use of language. When the conventions of academic discourse become self-legitimating, we can easily begin to assume that how we talk about God is relatively unproblematic, the only real question being what we say. The result is a sort of linguistic Docetism that tears apart form and content.
Myers draws attention to a general but important point about the unexamined habits that form academic theological speech and talking about God. All speech about God is fraught, tenuous, flirting with idolatry; this means how Hauerwas has said what he has said is important for what he has said. The form and genre of words matter, as truth and falsity can arise just as easily from the form of one’s speech as its content.
Hauerwas himself recognizes this, and in one introduction after another, he gradually argues for the essayistic nature of his work. In his 1977 introduction to Truthfulness and Tragedy Hauerwas asserts that the essay is “the best form for a still developing theological ethic.” At this point, his argument is simple: the essay helps prevent premature closure, allowing for development and recurring acts of self-criticism. This justification resonates with how essayist Charles D’Ambrosio understands the “good essay”:
A good essay seemed to question itself in a way that a novel or short story did not—or perhaps it was simply that the personal essay left its questions on the page, there for everyone to see; it was a forum for self-doubt, for an attempt whose outcome wasn’t assured.
As its etymology indicates—essay partially comes from the French essai, which can mean “to try or attempt”— literary pliancy is part of the essay’s DNA. Openly dedicated to the “pathways” of a particular mind, its “humble mutability of tone” can help ensure that the questions keep breathing, allowing for the inadequacy of answers to be recognized and revisited.
Then, twenty years later, in Sanctify Them in the Truth, Hauerwas’s argument for the essay is refined, becoming more contextual. He argues,
That much of my work is done in the form of essays is, therefore, not accidental. Composing essays is something like doing theology one brick at a time. Just as laying bricks requires as well as allows for exploration and experimentation, so does the writing of essays. Having to work in such an experimental yet conscientious fashion seems to me to be particularly appropriate, given the ecclesial challenges before us.”
The essay is a situational necessity, something that emerges from the current context where the church finds itself. Attentive to the landscape it is built within, the essay enables the still developing theological ethic lay its bricks in response to the specific challenges facing the church.
Hauerwas provides the most robust defense of the essay in 2015’s The Work of Theology. In “How I Think I Learned to Think Theologically,” Hauerwas draws on David Starling’s interaction with his own work on the form theology should take, stating the following,
David Starling . . . has called attention to my injudicious claim in After Christendom that “the very idea of systematic theology was a result of a church with hegemonic power that belied the very substance that made it the church to begin with.” Starling charitably observes that I am not dismissing theology per se, but rather the judgment I make about systematic theology reflects my general concern that Christian theology not be treated as a timeless system of belief (23).
From Starling’s reflections, Hauerwas compares his use of the essay with Paul’s letters—they are “occasional,” yet they cohere around “what makes the church the church” (24). Like Paul’s letters, the essayistic form both resists and critiques the theological dangers and errors present within certain forms of systematic theology. If Hauerwas’s words often critique how American Christianity is carried out, then the essayistic nature of his writing attacks how theology is done.
According to Hauerwas, problematic systematic theology began when doctrine “became an end in itself” and discussions of theological method became the prerequisite for theological speech—think of the ever-expanding prolegomena of the nineteenth and twentieth century (24). Unsurprisingly, Hauerwas views the personal panopticons of systematic theology as a late-blooming, diseased gift of Christendom. The politics of Christendom allowed for systematic theology to engage in idolatrous abstractions that were decoupled from the life of the church—it is a way of theology that emerged from and supports empire. More specifically, Hauerwas connects systematic theology’s more problematic forms with the post-Reformation’s articulation of doctrine for doctrine’s sake and the academic specialization of the modern research university. Taken together these historical inputs—Christendom, the post-Reformation doctrinal turn, and academic specialization—imprison theology within theoretical and methodological concerns, creating the conversational habits that Hauerwas hopes to resist.
Throughout its development as a form of writing, the essay has been used as an opportunity for both personal reflection and persuasive argument. The essay doesn’t require an attempt to edit yourself out of it; the I can remain on the page. It is a form of writing with practices friendly to particularity and resistant to abstraction. On the essay’s resistance to prioritizations of method and systems, the philosopher and sociologist Theodore Adorno has argued,
With regard to scientific procedure and its philosophic grounding as method, the essay, in accordance with its idea, draws the fullest consequences from the critique of the system. . . . Doubt about the unconditional priority of method was raised, in the actual process of thought, almost exclusively by the essay. It does justice to the consciousness of non-identity, without needing to say so, radically un-radical in refraining from any reduction to a principle, in accentuating the fragmentary, the partial rather than the total. . . . If truth has a temporal core, then the full historical content becomes an integral moment in truth.
Like anything, the essay can be abused, but from Michel de Montaigne to Joan Didion, from Stanley Hauerwas to W. E. B. Du Bois, there is a transparency regarding the “temporal core” and incompleteness of every essay.
While forms of systematic theology provide false closure and are a way for theological speech to forget the incomplete creatureliness of human speech, the essay starts at a different place. It begins with contingency, emerges from where you are. To borrow a phrase from Edwin Muir, the format of the essay provides one possible way out of the “hygienic prison” of academic speech and sheer doctrine. The essay is allergic to the false sterility of certain forms of academic speech—long attempts to deny the self—and if you try to wipe it clean of the personal, the form begins to break down.
However, the essay allows for more than just resistance to the Babelesque hopes of systematic theology. Hauerwas has repeatedly stated that his work is about helping the church to speak faithfully, helping Christians “try to mean what we say” (115). This is not to say that Christianity is all words but that the life of faith depends on witnessing to and embodying the story of Christ. The church is both an embodied proclaimer and participant in this story, and truthful speech and an intelligible story requires lives conformed to the way and truth of Christ. Christian communities act as a place of worship, a language school for faithful speech, the setting where we learn to practice the way of Christ. And theology, especially the theological essay, exists for the church; it exists to provide a particular way of teaching Christians how to speak Christian.
A comparative point is necessary here. In Christian Existence Today, Hauerwas connects the form of Barth’s Church Dogmatics to the linguistic work it does for Christian speech:
Therefore, the style of Barth’s Dogmatics is integral to Barth’s theological position. For by his lengthy and leisurely unfolding of Christian language Barth was attempting to “re-create a universe of discourse, and he had to put the reader in the middle of that world, instructing him in the use of that language by showing him how—extensively, and not only by stating the rules or principles of discourse.”
Language does more than describe the world; it creates and orders worlds, shaping both what and how life is encountered. Systematic theology, with its seemingly bottomless concerns about method and atemporal pretensions, can act as a language school that malforms its students. In the Dogmatics, instead of providing an infinite prolegomenon—becoming stuck in the act of constructing a foundation upon which to ground theological speech—Barth attempts to simply speak fluent Christian, performing the language of the faith one topic at a time.
More stylistically similar to Martin Luther in style than Barth, Hauerwas doesn’t create a universe of discourse but instead shows one essay at a time how we can go on speaking as Christians as certain forms of Christendom die. As it becomes a post-Christian body politic, America continues to invite Christians into a way of life which takes us off the path that our words about Christ require. Amid this shift, Hauerwas’s words hope to demonstrate that Christian speech is still possible, one act and one repetition after another. The good practices of the church should go on; the pilgrim should continue walking.
Ultimately, it is the story of Christ that guides the Christian pilgrim in the act of “going on.” This story is what provides the church with the direction, the sense of where we are walking to and why we are walking. Yet we need more than a story. We don’t just tell the story—we must reflect on it—and the essay is a genre especially fit for reflecting on the story and assisting with the act of going on. It is a form of speech, a mode of theology, appropriate for the Christian sojourner, the pilgrim. As Alan Jacobs states, “I love the essay primarily because it is the genre par excellence of wayfaring. An old phrase holds that to be a Christian is to be homo viator: the human being as wayfarer, as pilgrim.”
Through the essay, Hauerwas hopes to remind the church that it can go on as Christian sojourners because of its constellation of habits and practices, its grammar and rules that guide the formative words and work of good repetition. This is the Wittgensteinian angle to his use of the essay. The grammar of the faith enables us to continue in our worship and witness—we pilgrims can press on, discovering how to live truthfully in the contingency of who we are and what we have received. And this use of the essay reveals that contrary to many of his detractors, Hauerwas writes not for the sectarian clique but for the pilgrim church.
The theological essay emerges from and speaks to a particular time and local community, a specific point along the journey. As Hauerwas says,
If theology is understood as something like the writing of letters, then it should be clear that there is no place to begin or end the work of theology. Rather you always begin in the middle. The demand for “method” is often an attempt to avoid this conclusion, but there is no method that can free theology of the necessity to respond to the challenges of trying to discern what being a Christian entails in this place and time. There is no prolegomena for all future theology. Indeed, there is no prolegomena period. It is performance all the way down. Thus, my presumption that letters, sermons, and essays may well be the central genres for theological reflection (24).
Just as there is no prolegomena in life, there is none in theology. The story never starts with us, and there is no need for an unshakable epistemological foundation, because we are part of an ongoing pilgrimage. We do not need epistemological temples; we instead require tents. We need no new beginnings but simply a theology that keeps us accountable to the journey we are already on. Therefore, the essay is, to use Nicholas Lash’s words about the Eucharist, “travellers’ fare”—“The food we need is travellers’ fare, because we are in via, living between the times.”
Sustenance and sanctification are oddly similar events for the pilgrim. And sanctification, especially the sanctification of our speech, doesn’t occur through the adoption of a position or through the ossification of a space in the church or the academy. Sanctification is God’s act on us, but in this it is a velocity, something kinetic, a transformation on the move, the ability to go on, to abide. It leads to voices singing old songs, eyes seeing old things anew, feet falling in new places.
Christians, as sojourners, begin with what we are given, and what we have been given is often what we need. This is not to deny there are false givens (e.g., white supremacy) or moments when we must resist our formation and reject the fare we have received. During my a-Wesleyan worship experiences—when the familiar becomes strange and then familiar again—it’s almost as if I’m relearning what it means to keep going, reacquiring the capacity to follow the way of faith. The given becomes regiven; I can go on.
As Hauerwas uses it, the theological essay—and the essays in The Work of Theology are no different—is about making what we have been given possible, sustainable, and maybe even faithful to where we find ourselves.