With the Grain of the Universe | Stanley Hauerwas

It’s been a couple days since I finished reading Hauerwas’ Gifford Lectures and a couple things have happened:

  1. My brain has stopped throbbing.
  2. The issues he dealt with are becoming clearer.

In With the Grain of the Universe (a direct quotation from one of his chief dialogue partners, John Howard Yoder), Hauerwas subverts the original intent of the Gifford Lectures. The lecture series was set up to discuss Natural Theology, defined by the Gifford website as “the part of theology that does not depend on revelation.” Hauerwas spends eight lectures arguing that there is no theology that can be divorced from revelation. A bold move to be sure, but not unexpected given his reputation!

As a way of showing that natural theology cannot be divorced from revelation and witness, Hauerwas allotted the core of his lectures to the lives of three former Gifford speakers: William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. Most people, when confronted with such a list, would lump Niebuhr and Barth together while leaving the lone atheist out. Not Hauerwas—he saw a deeper affinity and capitulation to modernist culture between James and Niebuhr, leaving Barth to be the hero of the lectures. Where the first two understand man to be the fundamental subject of theology, Barthian theology places God at the centre.

Barth never understood any sort of “natural theology” apart from revelation. The Christian God is not first approached by logic and then revealed in full. His self-revelation is always first. God as Trinity is not a later add-on to the faith, but the fundamental core which can only be understood by revelation.

In the last lecture, Hauerwas placed another unlikely trio of characters together to demonstrate Christian witness: John Howard Yoder, Pope John Paul II, and Dorothy Day. Lives like theirs are the truest testimony to God. Lives like theirs are lived with the grain of the universe.

This book was a mental workout. Hauerwas is lucid and direct, but the copious amounts of footnotes (often 1/3 to 1/2 of each page) was a challenge to take in. I think it would be helpful to read the lectures a second time now, ignoring the footnotes, to follow the fundamental argument more closely. The other challenge was reading lectures which presupposed significant knowledge of the lives of James, Niebuhr, and Barth. I admit, my knowledge is lacking in that area. This book had the bonus effect of fleshing out those theologians in my mind.

With the Grain of the Universe is an important challenge to the presumptions of modernity (and post-modernity). It will help you understand the nature of revelation and the necessity of witness.

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