As an undergraduate several years ago at the University of Illinois, I participated in an informal discussion on non-violence led by a theologian whose name I did not recognize at the time, but was destined to become very familiar by the end of my studies: Stanley Hauerwas. And as a student unfamiliar with the person of Stanley Hauerwas, I came away from this discussion rather annoyed, confused, and possibly a bit jealous because of what I had experienced. It was no regular day in the U of I Religious Studies Department.
At the time, I took great pride in my subversive mentality. My sense of self-importance as a “Christian among the secularists” made me confident in my assumption that I was on the side of Christ. I do not know at what point Hauerwas destroyed this self-image. All I know is that it began to happen the moment I left the meeting.
In the preface to his recent book Approaching the End (Eerdmans 2014), Hauerwas informs us that he understands himself to be a teacher, first and foremost, and that he hopes to be remembered as a teacher in the future. A teacher knows, he writes, that “every interaction with students… involves exchanges that are formative,” including interactions about important matters like baseball (viii). Had he talked about baseball at this meeting I attended, I highly doubt I would have understood the point he was making. What I did understand was that Hauerwas was different and different in a way that made Christianity strange to me. Put simply, Hauerwas revealed to me that my Christianity was ordinary. It was less than just ordinary; he showed me that how I—and most Americans—think about our faith is downright boring.
My brief encounter with Hauerwas marked a turning point in my life, but that is because through Hauerwas I encountered another story. It was a story that yes, I had claimed to belong to… but how strange this story then
appeared during the minutes of that meeting! Hence my confusion, annoyance, and jealously, which quite possibly reveals the end for which God created Hauerwas: to shake up presumptuous Americans by scaring the hell out of their Christianity.
And so he did, and so he does. Approaching the End tackles questions of eschatology and the life of faith in the itinerant style for which Hauerwas is (in)famous. No single thread or thesis ties Approaching the End together, but that plays into the hands of Hauerwas who calls systematic analysis into question. It may be that faithful witness requires adopting a variety of approaches, so that Christians never grow too confident about where they are going. This raises a curious issue for a book on eschatology. How can Hauerwas talk about the future, or the end, without knowing where Christians are going or even where they are? The ground is thereby undercut for prediction and speculation, forcing Christians to fall back upon their best guesses and sincere wishes.
But not quite. As Hauerwas reminds us in this book, to so define Christian eschatology in terms of the future only is to overlook its foundation in the past and the present. Christian eschatology takes its departure from the Christ-event which transforms our understanding of the nature of reality. To talk about “the end” is thus to talk about “the beginning,” says Hauerwas, for both beginning and end remain objects of Christian faith. In formal terms, this means eschatology must be approached through Christology. Hauerwas refuses to fix his gaze upon a murky and doubtful future, for the end of things has already arrived for Christians in the person and work of Christ.
This approach places Hauerwas squarely in line with Barth, and thus extends his Barthian reflections begun in With the Grain of the Universe (Brazos, 2001). Along with Barth, Hauerwas is critical of recent approaches to natural law theory (e.g. Jean Porter’s approach) that attempt to use “creation” as a foundation-stone for ethics. The problem here is that natural law theorists, though they make much of creation’s significance, fail to demonstrate the material difference that a belief in creation makes (18). Once shorn of its connection to the claims of Christology, natural law theory retains a tenuous link to the Christian narrative itself. It thus fails to say something distinctive about the Christian belief in creation that could pose any serious challenge to its secular counterpart.
Not that the goal of Christian ethics is to antagonize rival enquiries, but a Christian ethics that fails to be Christian rather misses the point. If Hauerwas is right, then “creation” cannot be conceived apart from the cross, and thus Christians have no “ethic” that does not pass through the cross. For the last thing Christians want, certainly the last thing Hauerwas wants, is to make Christian ethics “useful” to the agendas of the world. But for Hauerwas, this does not intend to elevate the Christian above the non-Christian; rather, it forces Christians to take seriously what they claim to believe in. The challenge is perfectly captured in a classic Hauerwasian line: “For I take it to be crucial that Christians must live in such a manner that their lives are unintelligible if the God we worship in Jesus Christ does not exist” (67). For Hauerwas, this must mean not baptized secular ethics, not more “beliefs” sincerely held and proclaimed, but a call to faithful witness through a pacifist commitment: the renunciation of violence in the name of Jesus Christ.
According to Hauerwas, Christians witness to the truth not by witnessing to their beliefs, but by leading lives that show the world the truth of their beliefs. In an important essay addressing the role and necessity of witness, Hauerwas defends the provocative twofold claim that God “requires witnesses” (37), and that if God can be known without witnesses then the Christian God does not exist. Citing Kavin Rowe’s (2009) account of the early Christian martyrs, Hauerwas contends that Christian witness turns the pagan world “upside down” (the title of Rowe’s book) by re-narrating the entire universe as a story about God. Thus in light of the cross of Christ, everything must change. It is not simply for the sake of change that change must come about; Christ overturns entrenched assumptions about what it means to be human. Now, through the transformation Christ effects through the Church, Christians stand at the opposite end of the prevailing powers-that-be. For Christians, faithful witness takes on eschatological significance to the extent that Christ defeated death and brought an end to the need for sacrifice. He brought an end to the sacrificial order at the heart of worldly power, such that Christians must now protest that power through commitment to non-violence. Revisiting themes of war and pacifism that have marked his career, Hauerwas invites us to think again about the implications of Christian faith if Christ truly is alive in the manner that Christians proclaim.
It is here of course that Hauerwas, having brought to prominence an important debate regarding Christianity and the state, has proved his most controversial among contemporary theologians. He shows no signs of backing down from his pacifist commitment, and continues to deliver jarring critiques of the prevailing neoliberal order that fosters public complacency in the face of state violence. For example,
Liberalism may well result in the production of a banal and flattened account of human existence, but such a form of life seems necessary if we are to be at peace with one another. Liberalism as a way of life depends on the creation of people who think there is nothing for which it is worth dying. Such a way of life was exemplified by President Bush, who suggested that the duty of Americans after September 11, 2001, was to go shopping. (70)
There is no neutral space in the Hauerwasian universe, and this includes the common presumption that Americans must rule the world. To up the ante, Hauerwas further argues that the “modern nation-state,” of which America is exemplary, necessitates sacrifices of the highest order in order to legitimate its existence. The nation-state has “stepped into the place of religious belief,” such that “[w]ar becomes the act of sacrifice by which the state sustains the assumption that, though we die, [the state] can and will continue to exist without end” (70). Forming a people whose self-understanding barely transcends their consumerist impulses, the modern nation-state creates the conditions that render warfare inevitable, while channeling this inevitability to sustain the state’s existence, indeed its inevitability. Based on these remarks, it is not surprising that critics accuse Hauerwas of being careless. Whether or not he fully deserves the charge of being a “fideistic, sectarian tribalist” (70), Hauerwas speaks to things that no faithful Christian can stand to ignore and remain faithful. Eschatologically speaking, he reminds Christians that all have views about the future, and that the methods for securing those futures tell us who we are, and what we believe in.
Is Hauerwas extreme? Undoubtedly so, and if that is our only response to him, he has fulfilled his initial purpose. But to walk away from Hauerwas after having labeled him “extreme” is to abandon the conversation at the critical point. The extreme irrelevance of a crucified Lord ever remains for him the starting point. Whatever Christians believe in, surely they believe in this. In the world’s eyes, Christ’s death meant he failed to achieve his mission. Though Christians believe Christ sits triumphant at the right hand of the Father (Col. 3:1), the world can only “see” this truth through the witness of the Church.
The impetus behind this is John Howard Yoder. Through Yoder, Hauerwas became entranced with a vision of Christian faith whose instantiation takes visible form in the practices of the Church. Yoder taught Hauerwas that Christian pacifism is eschatologically determined, shaped by the cruciform narrative of God’s victory in Christ. “Yoder represents a form of pacifism that assumes that a Christian understanding of war draws on an eschatological perspective unavailable to those who do not share the Christian worship of Christ” (135). What Christians do and refuse to do in the name of Jesus Christ, transforms eschatology from an academic study into a visible presence. There is no need to seek out conflict with the powers-that-be, no need to slink away to a Christian ghetto waiting the end times. The powers-that-be have Christians surrounded and earnestly demand their allegiance, and the fact that Christians are giving it shows the struggle that still remains.
But what of the victory Christ already secures over the powers-that-be? Is it only through the Church that God accomplishes his purpose? Though for Hauerwas the starting point is the cross of Jesus Christ, one wonders whether the resurrection does not alter the shape of the narrative. There is not much resurrection in Approaching the End. Where it does appear, it serves to illuminate the “ironic logic” of the Christian’s existence: that because Christ is risen, Christian martyrdom “remains a consistent possibility” (61). This appears to lay the emphasis on crucifixion, not resurrection, as the event that determines the nature of Christian witness to the world. Must it be so? The resurrection, after all, marks the inauguration of the “new creation,” pointing the way toward the restoration of the world that God created. For Hauerwas, by contrast perhaps, our kinship with God comes not yet through a restored humanity, but through an embrace of our mortality. This would explain his return to questions surrounding suffering, disability, and death, which occupy the later portions of Approaching the End. According to Hauerwas, Christianity offers no program to improve the world, but teaches Christians how to die in the hope of a new future. Yet whether this gives due weight to the significance of resurrection, to somewhat reverse the charge that Hauerwas levels at Jean Porter, remains ambiguous within Hauerwas’s assessment of the Christian vocation.
That being said, Hauerwas’s account of what it means to “learn how to die” proves a powerful and challenging witness to the road that is the cross. In a moving chapter called “Bearing Reality” in which he explores the cruciform life, Hauerwas channels Gillian Rose in order to sum up his career. “If I could choose any epigraph that might summarize what my work has been about, it would be ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not’” (155). Despair not, of course, because despair is a sin. But keep your mind in hell? As a matter of fact, yes. The easiest thing in the world is to obscure the face of the world: to wipe away the hellish circumstances that implicate us all. Or to put it the way Rowan Williams does, in a quote Hauerwas loves: “the hardest thing in the world is to be where we are.”
For Hauerwas, the greatest enemy of Christian witness is sentimentalism, the tendency to shower our situation with sanctimonious cant (to borrow a phrase from David Bentley Hart). If Christians are called to anything, it is to bear the truth of reality by not retreating to where we want to be, but inhabiting where we are. To stare into the void of life in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit is to participate in Christ’s suffering as it overcomes the world. Hauerwas puts it thus: “The church cannot make the difficulty of reality less difficult. What I hope the church can do, a hope I think is the heart of Yoder’s work, is help us bear the difficulty without engaging in false hopes” (157).
Hauerwas’s legacy, for many readers, consists in precisely this call to reality, telling the truth of “what is” through lives of faithful witness. Approaching the End continues a conversation Hauerwas started many years ago, which has led many American Christians to re-think their Christianity and to recapture its strangeness for the next generation. There is much I wish to ask Hauerwas now that my journey is underway. I hope he’s right that this book is not the “end” of his writing, but a further step to engaging the questions that his legacy provokes. Those questions are not the kinds of questions one answers in this life, but they are ones we must learn to live through while approaching the end.
Ian Clausen is a Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and Arts at Valparaiso University.