Throughout his career, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has regularly proven provocative, outrageous, counterintuitive and -- often enough to influence even his critics -- suggestive or maybe even right. Writing early in his career on character and practices, Hauerwas probably did more than any one thinker to draw attention to the neglect of virtue ethics in the guild of Christian ethicists. Less widely accepted are his bitter critiques of Enlightenment liberalism, his goading reminders that Christian ethics is first of all for Christians not America, his paired championing of Catholic and Mennonite traditions of moral discourse, and his Christian pacifism. Yet Hauerwas has a way of leaving clues that others find they must pursue, like him or not.
With the Grain of the Universe offers many such clues, and one of them is huge: Natural theology, natural law, and theology of creation must reside conceptually within Christology, or else they are speaking of a god who is not "the God who exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (15).
The counterintuitives spread throughout this book are not simply the idiosyncrasies of Hauerwas's cantankerous mind; they are vital for recognizing its argument. Here are a few: In order to trace what has happened to natural theology in the twentieth century, one must examine Protestants William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth, even though natural theology and natural law would seem to be the domain of Roman Catholics. Though known for his early and categorical rejection of natural theology, Barth in fact became "the great natural theologian of the Gifford lectures" (39). Though working in different ways in different circumstances, Aquinas and Barth were far more alike than standard caricatures would have it, insofar as both endeavored to train us to speak in the language of faith that we need to recognize the world for what it is. (Thus, Aquinas' starting point was no more some raw datum of nature or natural reason than it was for Barth, while Barth's Church Dogmatics is a "theological metaphysics" after all .) And if then the most foundational "proofs" of God that Christians can offer are the witness of lives that embody gratitude to their Creator and Redeemer, then another counterintuitive becomes imaginable -- Hauerwas's closing juxtaposition of examples, in the witness of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and the recovery of martyrdom for ordinary Christian practice by Pope John Paul II. If natural theology requires a full doctrine of God, insists Hauerwas, then a corresponding politics is required to demonstrate both, and that politics is the witnessing Church.
Yoder's affirmation that the bearing of crosses runs "with the grain of the universe" (6, 218) has supplied the title of Hauerwas's book, but Barth has supplied the argument as to why. The pivotal passage of the entire book is probably the subsection of chapter 6, entitled "Barth's Christological Recovery of Natural Theology." Barth had burst onto the theological stage stressing the distance between eternity and time, revelation and religion, God and humanity; but what in the context of 19th century Protestant liberalism was a salutary warning against human pretensions to know God risked implying a metaphysic wherein God could not come near to humanity. Already in 1924, however, Barth made a "momentous discovery" in an obscure source. It was "the anhypostatic-enhypostatic Christological doctrine of the ancient church, that is, the doctrine that the humanity of Christ was without substance, or rather, that the substance of Christ's humanity was wholly dependent on his union with the Father" (159-60).
This was the patristic way "to account for the full humanity of Christ without compromising the distance between God and God's creation, that is, without compromising that our very existence is grace" (160). As Hauerwas unpacks Barth's argument, this also turns out to be the way to place natural theology properly into relationship with, or rather, within Christology. "The truth that is Jesus Christ is ... not one truth among others.... Christ is the truth by which all other truth is to be judged" (162-63). A running commentary in the footnotes of these pages strengthens Hauerwas's case that in rejecting Protestant natural theology, Barth was in fact defending Roman Catholic understandings and largely agreeing with Aquinas: even when reason rises to the knowledge of God, its guarantor is revelation and in retrospect it must recognize grace as having made possible its very operation.
There is certainly very much else in With the Grain of the Universe. Characteristically, Hauerwas' argument takes narrative form as he devotes two chapters each to previous Gifford lecturers James, Niebuhr, and then Barth. Hauerwas finds James "unconvincing" yet "haunting" (44) for the way in which he persuaded so many by naming what "God" was becoming in modernity -- the object of human longing that may not exist but that issues in the religious subjectivity needed "to sustain a modest humanism" (63). Niebuhr then illustrates how seductive this natural-theology-turned-religious-psychology proves to be; for despite Niebuhr's apparent return to orthodox theism, his reliance on Jamesian pragmatism in defense of Christian doctrines begins in a "methodologically atheist approach to theism" (205), marginalizes the Church, and ends by emptying Christology of virtually all content except the fulfillment of human needs. Barth's recovery of a theology that properly begins with God not humanity is then the recovery of the Christian language needed to know and to name the world as it truly is. But in the end James was right in one way: We will know the truth through the living practices of those who are truthful.
Roman Catholic thinkers may be ambivalent about Hauerwas, but one may expect more of them to pursue the clues he has left than to cite him for evidence. One of the large debates in Roman Catholic thought throughout the last century, after all, has been whether the center of gravity in Catholic theology should lie in philosophical and natural law considerations or biblical and Christological ones. The Catholic intuition, of course, is that Christians need not choose between such alternatives. The clue that Hauerwas offers in With the Grain of the Universe is a fresh way not to do so.