Reading reviews of books by Stanley Hauerwas is almost as much fun as reading the books themselves. For Hauerwas, who says he would rather "be wrong than boring," and who believes that theology which fails to entertain its readers has somehow been false to its subject matter, always arouses lively reactions. First Things notes that he "often changes his topic, but he never changes his tune." Time calls him "contemporary theology's foremost intellectual provocateur." And Harlan Beckley notes that Hauerwas" seizes the occasion of the Gifford Lectures to contend that the natural theology Lord Gifford advocated contradicts itself." Any book that manages to put a twinkle in the eye of people who write book reviews for a living must be worth reading—maybe twice.
Hauerwas tells us that "the heart of [my] argument...is that natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves." But the "argument" comes, as it so often does with Hauerwas, in the form of a story, in this case the story of three great Gifford Lecturers of yore: William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. Hauerwas shows that James and Niebuhr did divorce natural theology from a robustly trinitarian doctrine of God—James, by concentrating on the phenomenology of religious experience while eschewing any dogmatic claims about the existence or nature of the deity whom religious people claim to experience, and Niebuhr by transposing Christian doctrines into an apologia for modern liberal democracy. Barth then emerges as the "hero" of the story. For he refused to bracket out the question of the truthfulness of Christian convictions about God, denied that such truthfulness can be established according to non-theological criteria, and insisted that the God whom Christians believe to be the Creator of the Universe can only be rightly known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That Hauerwas endorses Barth's position is just what makes these lectures both so "entertaining" and so "provocative." Such unapologetic confessionalism flatly contradicts the basic tenets of Lord Gifford's will, and thus, as Hauerwas wryly observes, raises the question of "whether or not the lectures I am about to give are in fact the Gifford Lectures." But at a deeper level, it contradicts many of the fundamental assumptions of modern and postmodern philosophy and theology. Against all forms of modernist foundationalism, Hauerwas contends that the plausibility of Christian convictions cannot be established by appeal to metaphysical and/or ethical principles extrinsic to the word of God. But against all forms of postmodern particularism, Hauerwas insists that "the truth that makes Christians distinct is not a truth that is peculiar to them. It is not their truth but the truth for everyone." Hence, for Hauerwas, as for Barth, the proper work of the Christian community is precisely to bear witness to God's self-revelation in Christ.
Yet Hauerwas is no fideist. He does not think that the primary task of witness-bearing somehow exempts Christians from the obligation to give a reasoned account of their faith. Rather, he thinks that witness-bearing is the distinctively Christian form of rational argument, or at least the indispensable prerequisite for it. To show the truth of the Christian story is not merely to tell it in sermons and liturgies, but also to give it robust instantiation and dramatic display in well-lived lives. Here Hauerwas moves a step beyond Barth, whose Reformed proclivities always made him shy of placing too much theological weight on the ethical performances of the faithful. For Hauerwas, the veracity of the gospel is manifest in its capacity to sanctify those who believe it, that is, in its capacity to equip Christians to stand against "the worldliness of the world," while simultaneously motivating them to love the world enough to give their lives for its salvation. Thus Hauerwas ends his Gifford Lectures with his familiar "tune," a hymn of praise for some of the saints whose lives of witness provide particularly compelling arguments for Christian truth: John Howard Yoder, John Paul II, and Dorothy Day.
As always, Hauerwas writes lucid and vigorous prose: the original lectures must have been a delight to hear, especially for a Scottish audience unaccustomed to his West Texan dialect. Some readers, however, may be put off by the voluminousness of his footnotes, which certainly display his enormous erudition and intellectual gregariousness, but too often interrupt the thrilling tale he tells. My suggestion would be to ignore them on the book's first reading—for as I said, the book deserves two readings in any case.