For the past thirty years, Stanley Hauerwas has been our most prolific, provocative, and profound theological essayist. Always stimulating, sometimes exasperating, never boring, Hauerwas challenges us Christians to rethink our easy accommodations with the dominant culture.
The heart of this book is the essay "Performing Faith," co-written with Jim Fodor. Just as texts are not plays and scores are not music unless they are performed, so faith is neither subjective interpretation nor objective text. Christian faith lives, moves, and has its being in the performance called discipleship. Faith is performance.
Performing faith is not the work of individual people. Even virtuoso soloists require a performing community to train them and to sustain their work. Faith is the work of disciples, those disciplined in following Christ, however creative and inventive their performance may be. Performing the faith is not a "quantitative" thing, as if piling up performances increased faith. Rather, the more skilled we become at living in and living out the faith, the deeper and richer our faith is. And for excellent performers, be they actors, dancers, musicians, or Christians, the work plays them as much as they play the work, especially when they engage in that ecstatic improvisation that marks a brilliant performance.
The hallmark of performing the Christian faith is grace in action, as in a dance. The dance steps of faith are formed by the grace sustaining us, especially in the virtue of peaceableness, a necessary work of Christian charity. To be a people of peace is not merely to be nonviolent (though it is that), but to be patient, hopeful, and graceful in living in and living out the faith.
Theology is fundamentally rhetorical performance. It is practical, not theoretical, wisdom. It does not correlate formulated Christian answers with human questions. Doing theology well means knowing how to display and sustain the ways of performing faith. Any novelty in theology is the result of novel circumstances requiring novel proclamation and performance. Theologians are to say and show how the community can perform the faith in the theater of the world, no matter how absurd, challenging, or supportive that world may be.
This idea is supported and expanded by the other essays in Performing the Faith. Two insightful studies of Bonhoeffer begin the book. In them, Hauerwas seeks to reclaim Bonhoeffer from "secular" theologians and situation ethicists. He profitably recognizes Bonhoeffer's efforts to connect politics with truthfulness, not with utility. Hauerwas suggests that Bonhoeffer's participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler was a piece of his theological politics, an enacting of the truth of peaceableness in such a completely bizarre situation. Whether Bonhoeffer felt required to abandon his pacifist commitments in planning to do such violence in serving God's truth is controverted in Bonhoeffer studies.
Other essays pay some overdue debts, especially to the late Victor Preller, renowned scholar of Aquinas and Wittgenstein. Another argues seriously yet playfully with radical orthodoxy about peaceableness as a key virtue in Christian life. Hauerwas reflects thoughtfully on the proper place of punishment in Christian theology and suggests that the tragedy of 9/11 was worsened by turning to war rhetoric, inaugurating a potentially endless, unwinnable "war" on "terrorism." Sometimes pacifists' only responses can be silence, tears of sorrow and horror, and prayers of repentance and for forgiveness of all.
Two essays continue Hauerwas's pattern of distancing his views from the correlational theology associated with Paul Tillich, David Tracy, and their followers. In an essay on narrative theology, he notes that his own work in this area has dwindled. Showing how disciples perform faith, how we can put virtue into practice, requires narrative display and understanding. But narrative is the form of good theology, not a theological topic. When it becomes a central theological topic, we have focused too much on the lamp rather than what the light makes visible.
In an essay on liturgy and ethics, Hauerwas argues that these are not two domains to be connected, but that the liturgy properly enacted forms us into a people of good taste in both. Taste is not merely subjective (as if "different strokes for different folks, different gods for different clods" expressed truth). Taste is cultured in and through guided practice, by performance and appreciation. "Goodness and beauty are rightly matters of taste, but a taste that has been learned from a people trained to worship the true God truly."
A postscript replies appreciatively to Jeffrey Stout's book Democracy and Tradition (excerpted in Commonweal, October 10, 2003), which includes an extensive study of Hauerwas and the "new traditionalists." While Hauerwas disagrees with Stout on numerous issues, he recognizes that Stout, unlike many liberal theorists, takes theology seriously in the conversation about the politics of our commonweal. As always, throughout the volume Hauerwas is in conversation with an amazing number of religious and nonreligious theorists and practitioners.
I strongly agree with Hauerwas that performing faith is the right place to begin and end theology. He neither rails against liberalism nor calls for sectarian withdrawal from the political fray, as some seem to think. Rather, he reminds Christians—sometimes stridently, though not in these essays—that we have no vested interest in liberal politics or economics.
The way we participate in our "secular" life puts our trust not in princes, but in God. No doubt we are embedded in our culture and our nation, and they shape us. Surely we do have and should have some loyalty to them. But our real and ultimate loyalty must be to the God who is truth, beauty, and goodness. Hauerwas warns us not to let comfortable cliches seduce us into thinking that it is good to kill or oppress or marginalize others to preserve our cultural status, or that voting one way or another will help make this a Christian nation (whatever that may be).
As always, I have questions. How are we to think about the structures and officers of the churches? What can we say about the diversity of offices, tasks, and witness within our churches? Do not some of our leaders have "dirty hands" in running the churches? How can we cope with the increasing consumerism even of our religious practices? If faith is also response to revelation as well as grace, what is revelation and how does it properly limit our responses? (Similar questions about the potential vagaries of performance-based interpretation have been addressed to Paul Ricoeur.) And is liberal democracy properly our bete noire, or is liberal capitalism? Hauerwas tends to conflate the two as "liberalism," but I think the challenges from each are different.
I am grateful for nearly thirty years of good-humored and generous, if too infrequent, conversations, in person and in writing, with Stanley Hauerwas. Despite (or because of) his being a Yale-educated Texan, he has challenged our complacency, reshaped our theological discourse, and made a concerted effort to say and show concretely what being Christian can mean for us today. Even when we disagree with him, we owe him much.
Related: "A Bricklayer's Son" by Peter Steinfels