Nicholas M. HEALY. Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014. pp. 142+xii. $23.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-2599-5. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Mercy College, Des Moines, IA 50309
More books like Nicholas Healy’s Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction should be written. Healy writes with lucidity and conciseness about one of the most influential theologians of recent decades, Stanley Hauerwas. While a number of Hauerwas’ students and friends have released studies of his thought (e.g., Samuel Wells, Transforming Fate into Destiny; and God, Truth, and Witness, edited by L. Gregory Jones, et al.), far less has been published in the way of sustained critical analysis. At the start of his work, Healy highlights this lacuna: “In my opinion, Hauerwas’s work has not as yet been subjected to the kind of exacting critical analysis that is appropriate for such a well-known and controversial thinker… Those who have engaged in book-length discussions of Hauerwas’s work have sometimes been critical, but not, I think, sufficiently so, and have generally been content to propose modifications at most” (1). Healy’s goal is more ambitious: rather than proposing slight modifications to Hauerwas’ project, Healy believes that Hauerwas’ theological outlook “needs to be challenged in a comprehensive way” (9).
In specific, Healy argues that Hauerwas’ argument has significant weaknesses in three main areas: methodological, social-theoretical, and theological. Methodologically, Hauerwas errs, in Healy’s view, by adopting an ecclesiocentric approach that “inhibits a satisfactory account of Christian doctrine and practice” (40). Ironically, in this respect Hauerwas resembles the great German intellectual and champion of liberal Protestantism, Friedrich Schleiermacher, of whom he has been staunchly critical. In short, Healy argues that with his ecclesiocentric methodology Hauerwas adopts a thoroughly modern form of theological inquiry. The antidote, Healy believes, would entail Hauerwas returning to a more “traditional” (i.e., theocentric) theological starting point, though Healy recognizes that it would be a mistake—and virtually impossible—to try to resurrect a wholly premodern perspective. Healy is clearly sensitive to Hauerwas’ concern that the theological discipline remain grounded in the life of the church, but Healy also believes that this can be accomplished without falling into the kind of “ecclesism”—“a distortion of Christianity consequent upon a reductive focus upon the church as the central and structuring locus for all theological inquiry” (40)—that characterizes Hauerwas’ work.
In terms of social-theoretical issues, Healy claims that Hauerwas’ argument falls short in that his “contrastive account of the church” does not match up with the reality of what church life is actually like. That is to say, empirical descriptions of congregations present a vastly different picture from the one that Hauerwas paints. This disparity would not be so much of a problem if Hauerwas was simply calling Christians to more faithful forms of practice. But, because of the ecclesiocentric nature of his method, Hauerwas appears to be doing something different by setting up the church as a “conditio sine qua non for the fulfillment of God’s salvific plan” (73). According to this logic, one could then ask: if the church in its actual life fails to embody the contrastive identity that Hauerwas describes, does this somehow mean that God’s plan of salvation has failed? Furthermore, it’s somewhat unclear how theologians would even put Hauerwas’ ecclesiology to the test. “To be sure,” Healy concedes, “there is an element of truth” to the idea that “the truth of Christianity… is displayed by the truthfulness of the church’s way of life as an alternative community” (97). This concession, however, immediately raises another question: “But whose truth and which church community? The Anabaptist or the Catholic? The Barthian or the Harnackian? The Rhanerian or the Balthasarian” (ibid.)? Along these lines, it seems that Hauerwas, over the course of his career, could have provided greater coherency to his theology by securely locating himself in a visible Christian body and then going about the theological task with that specific body in view. This move would have helped to mitigate Healy’s charge that Hauerwas offers a somewhat idealistic vision of the church.
The final chapter of Healy’s book draws together the various stands of the critical analysis from the preceding chapters in order to address some of the main weaknesses that Healy sees in Hauerwas’ theology. Given what has been said above regarding Hauerwas’ ecclesiocentrism, the reader can likely guess the direction of some of Healy’s criticisms. For example, Healy charges Hauerwas with veering dangerously close to Pelagianism. Yes, grace is present in Hauerwas’ construal of following Christ, in that grace convinces us that the distinctive way of life made possible by the story of Jesus is right. But, then it seems that the rest is up to us: “The community works hard to display the benefits of its way of life by embodying and continuing the story [of Jesus]. When it does not do this successfully, it has not achieved its function. Everything rides upon the church’s success or failure” (129). If Healy here presents an accurate description of where Hauerwas’ theology leads—and, to be fair, some of Hauerwas’ defenders would ardently dispute this point—then Hauerwas’ project would stand in need of a major overhaul.This review began with the claim that more books like Healy’s critical introduction need to be published. I made this claim not because I agree in substance with every facet of Healy’s criticisms. By way of admission, I found Healy’s evaluation of Hauerwas’ methodology in chapters two and three far more convincing than his step-by-step critique of Hauerwas’ theology in chapter five. My praise of Healy’s work, therefore, does not mean that I see eye-to-eye with him on every point of criticism leveled in this work. Rather, I offer this praise because I believe that monographs in this vein do the most work to advance theological debate. In Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction, Healy has joined a careful reading of Hauerwas’ work with a substantive critique of those elements of Hauerwas’ project that Healy finds inadequate. Given Hauerwas’ esteem for Alisdair MacIntyre, I’m guessing that Hauerwas, as far as he is aware of it, has been appreciative of Healy’s critical analysis, even if wanting to defend himself against specific criticisms. That is because Healy’s book presents an excellent example of sharpening a living theological tradition, according to the understanding of tradition as, in MacIntyre’s terms, “an argument extended through time” (MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 12). Let the argument endure, I say, and may we continue to be blessed with contributors to it who are as careful and probing as Healy.