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Jeremy M. Bergen

The Conrad Grebel Review 20 no. 3 (Fall 2002)

Stanley Hauerwas. The Hauerwas Reader: Stanley Hauerwas. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, eds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

Stanley Hauerwas is a provocative, prolific Christian ethicist whose dozens of books and hundreds of scholarly articles range over a variety of topics. Most of his published work is in the form of the occasional essay, in which he tries to argue for and display a new language for the church and for Christian ethics. The ad hoc character of much of his work is indicative of his view that theology is an ongoing practice of the church, explicating what the church thinks and does, and is thus of a piece with the messiness of actual church life. By contrast, a desire for comprehensiveness is the legacy of a Christian ethics that mistakenly thinks itself responsible for American society. The nature of Hauerwas’s project and the volume of his work make the “reader” format especially welcome.

The first of this book’s three main parts, “Editorial Introductions,” contains an engaging biographical essay by William Cavanaugh. This “Thoroughly Biased Account of a Completely Unobjective Person” offers a starting point for gaining a sense of the accent in which Hauerwas’s essays speak.

The second section, “Reframing Theological Ethics,” includes eighteen
essays organized under the categories of the Christian story, the nature of
Christian discipleship, and examples of Christian discipleship. The story in
need of reframing is that of a Christian faith that seeks to provide a general account of ethics which any reasonable nonreligious person can accept and thus form a basis for American political life. Hauerwas’s reframing, drawing from John Howard Yoder, begins with the church as the community formed by the story of God’s saving action and marked by distinct practices. The life of this community is a new language which forms people to hear God’s word rightly, be truthful, negotiate specific social issues, and display a real Christian difference.

The third section, “New Intersections in Theological Ethics,” explores
what this ecclesial reframing means for social ethics or “public theology” and medical ethics. Eight essays address topics such as war, American democracy, and sex. In one fascinating essay, “Should War Be Eliminated? A Thought Experiment,” Hauerwas considers the ambivalence towards both just war and pacifism displayed in a statement by U.S. Catholic bishops. Since a particular morality is already implied by naming some violence “war,” Hauerwas presents a strong case for war based on cooperation in pursuit of social goals over individual ones which is nearly incompatible with the bishops’ simultaneous assertion of peace and nonviolence as the ideal form of human relations. This serious interrogation of common but inconsistent moral assumptions juxtaposed with the radical social-political dimensions of the Christian faith — in this case that the elimination of war is a false issue because “war has been eliminated for those who participate in God’s history” (424) — is typical of essays collected here. The final five essays suggest that “given the particular demands put on
those who care for the ill, something very much like a church is necessary to sustain that care” (548). This provides a way of talking Christianly about suffering, abortion, and euthanasia, and about how to be a patient in ways that a mechanized view of medicine as purely instrumental or as a new savior fails to do.

This exceptionally well-organized book makes good use of the “reader” format, such as a selected annotated bibliography and a “how to read the author” essay. The lamentable but necessary exclusion of frequent Hauerwas topics, such as the university, friendship, post-modernity, race, gender, John H. Yoder, and Alasdair MacIntyre, preserves the book’s thematic unity. The reader also sees how Hauerwas’s thought has changed over thirty years, moving from categories of narrative, character, and virtue to more particular reflection on church practice. Demonstrating the perpetually unfinished nature of this project, some essays have been clarified, shortened or consist in the author’s conversation with earlier work. As “an entryway into Hauerwas’s thought for theologians and graduate students in theology and ethics” (6) with special attention to undergraduates and seminarians without extensive theological training, this volume will serve its intended audience admirably. I recommend it also for serious study groups, although its length (729 pages) may call for occasional rather than comprehensive use.

Jeremy M. Bergen, Toronto School of Theology