Stanley Hauerwas. The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2007.
In May 1971, The Cresset published an article by Stanley Hauerwas on the “Problematics of a ‘Christian College.’” This article marked the beginning of almost four decades of thinking through the difficult issues at the intersection of Christianity and liberal education. Hauerwas’s most recent work, The State of the University, as the author admits, is his “first sustained attempt” at an articulation of this thinking.
As with much of Hauerwas’s published work, this book consists of lectures, articles, and even homilies written for diverse occasions and dedicated to far-ranging personalities. The grounding force in this multiplicity is theology, which appears in two modes: first as a “form of [academic] knowledge” in its own right, but also as the instrument which dictates the distinctly Christian character of other “forms of knowledge” within the university.
In the background of these reflections rests a common assumption that theology is superfluous in the modern university. Taking comments by Yale University President Richard Levin as the classic expression of this attitude, Hauerwas sets out to demonstrate the interconnectedness of theology with disciplines such as history, ethics, and metaphysics, thereby advocating theology’s inclusion in any university that presumes coherence among its faculties. Ultimately, however, Hauerwas resists the temptation to legitimate theology by reference to external criteria. In a move he learned from Karl Barth, Hauerwas demands that the message of theology—and the “joy and confidence”(32) that this message cultivates—stands for itself. Indeed, “theology” for Hauerwas is always determined by church practice, and by the individuals that church practice produces. Hauerwas even goes so far as to say that the lives of the figures about whom and for whom he writes are necessary for the validity of his argument.
A wonderful gem in the center of Hauerwas’s book is his chapter inspired by Wendell Berry (Chapter Six). Academics usually think of Berry primarily as an authority only regarding matters agricultural. While this is the sector in which Berry would confess he is most confident, his writings contain a vast treasure of solid thinking on many subjects. Readers outside of the academy long have found these insights provocative and fruitful. Now Hauerwas calls on professional theologians to do the same.
Hauerwas capitalizes on an early essay by Berry in order to voice a critique of abstract speech in the modern university. “Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found” (94, quoting Berry). By “abstraction,” Berry means the lack of three determining criteria: 1) precise designation of an object, 2) accountability on behalf of the speaker, and 3) conventionality—the ability of the speaker’s community to recognize the first two criteria. In opposition to the tendency to abstraction, Berry offers an ethic of responsible speech that grounds one’s words in one’s immediate community. What Hauerwas adds to Berry’s intuition is a definition of community (“the church”) that fulfills Berry’s ethical requirements. For Hauerwas, the church is that group of people for whom the concrete words of the Gospel place a check on unwarranted theological impulses to abstraction. To support this move, Hauerwas brings his well-versed conception of Christian witness to bear on the problem that John Howard Yoder deemed “Constantinianism,” a problem which Hauerwas construes as an identification of the church with the abstract concept “state” (103).
Hauerwas’s discussion of Berry revolves around the idea of a Christian university. This is, nevertheless, only one aspect of a larger matter, that of Christianity in general and the university. Recent times have seen a renaissance of scholarship around this topic. The style of this book does not, however, follow that of other recent works. Hauerwas draws attention to recent volumes of a theoretical nature by George Marsden (1996) and James Burtchaell (1998), and to those that take an historical line of inquiry, such as Thomas Albert Howard’s monograph (2006). The approach one discovers in The State of the University is consistent with the bulk of Hauerwas’s thinking; it is practical and personal. Yet the material is sufficiently sophisticated to be demanding for many readers, particularly those who are not professional academics.
Such sophistication achieves its fullest expression in three chapters (nine, ten and eleven) toward the end of the book. These chapters consider the university’s relation to and place within the modern nation-state. This theme comes to a head in Chapter Eleven, in which Hauerwas defends a claim that he has been dancing around since the introduction: the university’s power lies in its ability to legitimate a secular politics by feigning this politics’ “inevitability” (170).
Here Hauerwas’s use of Yoder finds its payoff. To execute his defense, Hauerwas fully explicates Yoder’s concept of “Constantinianism” and includes an excellent analysis of the nature of “secularism,” as understood by Charles Taylor and others. The result is an identification of the modern nation-state as a Constantinian entity that wields secular discourse to purge the university of “unnecessary” subject-areas. In order to combat this trend, Hauerwas advises, on a theoretical level, that theology reclaim its power to demand “the church exist as an alternative to the state” (179). On a practical level, Hauerwas prescribes prayer. Prayer, he explains, is a practice which presupposes an arrangement of reality contrary to that of the modern nation-state.
Beside the usual suspects (Yoder, Jeffrey Stout, Alasdair MacIntyre), Hauerwas also gives attention to more exotic thinkers, such as Gregory Nazianzen, a fourth-century theologian and rhetor. Adopting Gregory as its exemplar, the final full chapter in The State of the University advances an even more concrete picture of the sort of “alternative” to the secular university that the church is called to embody. The church is called to love the poor, not merely diagnose, treat, and dismiss the poor. On Hauerwas’s reading, this contrast—between the promise to “eradicate poverty” (10) and the extension of community to those currently afflicted by poverty—distinguishes the Christian faith from a more secular mindset and becomes possible through the orations of Gregory of Nazianzus.
Finally, one notes that, in contrast to some of Hauerwas’s earlier writings, the current book is written in a more typical scholarly form. The meticulously researched argument is seasoned with long and comprehensive footnotes. Yet, the graciousness with which the author (generally) regards his sources and the self-consciousness with which he regards his own ideas yield a discussion with strikingly communal overtones: one feels as though one is invited to ruminate alongside the author. The Latin verb rumino meant originally “to chew over again.” Truly, food for thought is precisely what The State of the University offers.
Yale Divinity School