The church needs theology more than ever

workoftheology-hauerwasThe Work of Theology
Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is retiring… well, kind of. Actually, it turns out that retirement is a non-biblical concept that demonstrates that “we now live in a culture that believes we have no stake in developing people of wisdom and memory.” Such is the joy of reading Hauerwas; one is inspired, provoked, confused and challenged – sometimes all on the same page.

The Work of Theology is a collection of essays in which a highly influential theologian ponders his work as his professional career draws to a close. The tone is self-reflective but not autobiographical; indeed, most of the essays are directed at an academic audience. But on each topic, Hauerwas reflects on how he would like his voice to be heard and this is what makes this book unique.

Talking about God

In one essay, Hauerwas does what many wish more theologians would do – he condenses his work down to one sentence. “In the shadows of a dying Christendom the challenge is how to recover a strong theological voice without that voice betraying the appropriate fragility of all speech – but particularly speech about God.”

According to Hauerwas, our first question when confronted with any challenge shouldn’t be “What should I do?” but rather, “What is going on?” For Hauerwas, what is going on is the death of Christendom, by which he means the church’s protracted loss of privilege and influence. In this kind of world, Hauerwas argues, the church has the opportunity to rediscover itself. It will no longer be able to lean on a nominally Christian culture for support; it will need to reimagine itself as an alternative community (a prospect that should resonate with Anabaptists).

“Too often I fear that ‘Christian ethics’ is simply the name for a way of doing Christian theology without taking theology all that seriously.”

But Hauerwas also believes that the church has lost its theological voice and has been captured by other vocabularies that belong to other stories – primarily those of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism. We have bought into the notion that the church is a “competitor” within the religious marketplace and that our job is to define our brand and to market it consistently to self-interested individuals. If we do this, we can (maybe) maintain our market share.

For Hauerwas, this is a betrayal because it fails to recognize that the church is called to be a distinct community and to employ a coherent vocabulary if it is to have integrity. The “fragility” of speech means there is no neutral vocabulary – words have meaning only within communities and as part of larger stories.

So if the church is to be the church, it must use language that belongs to the story it tells – not in the sense of parroting words from the Bible but in taking our categories of thought and speech from the biblical narrative. In Hauerwas’ words, “One of the essential tasks of the theologian is…to teach Christians how to speak Christian.”

Relevance for ministry

One essay from this collection is uniquely relevant for Canadian MBs. In “The ‘How’ of Theology and the Ministry,” Hauerwas addresses the question of how (or whether) theology is relevant for ministry. He is responding here to the suspicion that theology might not add much to the actual work of ministry in the church (and may even be a distraction).

If we are living “in the shadows of a dying Christendom” where biblical and theological vocabulary is increasingly foreign, both to those inside and outside the church, can we seriously imagine that theology is a luxury we can afford to outsource or dispense with altogether? Or is the need for clarity and consistency uniquely urgent?

“Most people do not have to become theologians to become a Christian but I probably did.”

Hauerwas is honest enough to admit that theologians have not always been helpful – particularly those who are preoccupied with methodology as a way of securing academic respectability.

However, he wonders if our anxiety around the decline of the church is behind our ambivalence toward theology. An anxious church is often tempted toward simplistic theologies that will produce “results,” but this can come at the expense of the fullness of the story the Bible tells. “When you are struggling for survival,” Hauerwas observes, “the demand for theological integrity may seem to be a burden rather than an aid and support.”

I would suggest that Hauerwas’ diagnosis is relevant for us as Canadian Mennonite Brethren. We are simultaneously aware of our theological diversity and nervous about the potential for conflict. As a result, we tend to treat our convictions as settled and focus on more “practical” matters. Hauerwas’ words are a bracing reminder that the church exists as a community of conviction, so the church’s identity can only be theological. If that identity is rarely articulated or discussed it will fade from view and we will rightly wonder what actually holds us together.

As with any collection of essays, The Work of Theology has hits and misses and this is still an academic piece that will not be helpful for all. But for those who care about the place of theology within our community (and especially for those who don’t!), these essays will offer an opportunity for self-reflection. Hauerwas is insistent that theology is a necessary practice of the church and we would do well to ponder this vital connection.

—Gil Dueck is a former instructor at Bethany College and is currently completing doctoral work on the connection between theological anthropology and faith development among young adults. He lives in Hepburn, Sask.  

Memorable Hauerwas one-liners

“I come out of the belly of the beast that bears the name ‘pietism.’”

“Liberalism names the project of modernity to create people who have no story except the story they chose when they had no story.”

“The church…seems incapable of making up its mind [about whether] to be a welfare agency at best or one of the last hedges we have against loneliness.”

“Priests and ministers have been to seminary, which usually means they have some sense of where some of the bodies in the Christian tradition are buried.”

“Christians are obligated to love one another – even if they are married.”

“When rights become a more basic moral description than murder, you have an indication that your language has gone on a holiday.”

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