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Hauerwas Represented: A Response to Muray

by Charles Pinches

Charles Pinches teaches theology at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 95-101, Vol. 18, Number 2, Summer, 1989. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If one wishes to dialogue with, say, Islam, the thing to do is to talk with a Muslim. Depending on where one lives, this task is either difficult or easy; but in any case one knows whom one seeks. For Muslims are theologically and sociologically identifiable: they visit a mosque, hold certain beliefs about Allah and Muhammad, pray daily facing Mecca and so on.

But suppose one wishes to dialogue with the thought of Stanley Hauerwas. Whom should one talk to? An obvious first choice would be Hauerwas himself. But suppose he is unavailable. Are there such things as "Hauerwasians?" If so, what do they look like? Where are they to be found? What distinguishes them from other run-of-the-mill philosophers and theologians?

I have on occasion been called a Hauerwasian, but I must confess to an uncertainty about what this means. Hauerwas was my teacher in graduate school and remains a close friend and intellectual conversation partner. Yet I have significant disagreements with him, and I know as well that he has significant disagreements with himself, particularly as he looks back to things he wrote at the beginning of his prolific career. (Perhaps even Hauerwas himself is not a Hauerwasian!)

It is important for me to say this before responding in any detail to Leslie Muray’s paper, for at least two reasons. First, I wish to make clear that I do not speak for Hauerwas or even as a Hauerwasian but rather as one who is familiar with Hauerwas’ thought and sympathetic with many of its basic thrusts. I also speak as a fellow theologian with Muray who has been asked critically to respond to his paper. Secondly, I wish to register further that in this respect there appears to be something of a formal dissimilarity between myself and Muray. For frequently he refers to "process thought" which has "basic tenets" (88), or to "process thinkers" (89), or "a process understanding" (91). So Muray appears to speak for a school of thought, whereas I in this response do not.

This second point leaves me in something of a predicament. For Muray’s paper is a good bit taken up not so much with Hauerwas’ ideas but with Muray’s own positive proposals regarding character, virtue and the like that he means to put forward as appropriate extensions of process thought. If I am not a Hauerwasian, I am even less a process-relational thinker; hence I am ill-equipped to judge the merits of these proposals on the basis of their coherence with certain basic tenets of process-relational thought -- which seems to be the main basis upon which Muray wishes them to be judged since his paper is otherwise fairly thin on more general philosophical or Christian theological arguments for the views he puts forward. (I might say in this context that I find Muray’s apparent criticism of Hauerwas on the point that the latter focuses too much on Christianity’s "internal criteria of truth without reference to publicly accessible criteria of common human experience and rational inquiry" (87) somewhat ironic.)

I take it as my task as a respondent selected because of my association with Hauerwas to respond particularly to Muray’s appropriation and criticism of his theology and ethics. So I shall reserve more space -- roughly section B -- for comment on those passages in Muray’s text that are given over specifically to that. It does not appear to me that Muray’s positive proposals depend in any direct way on Hauerwas; he seems rather to wish to put forward a process treatment of some of the general themes Hauerwas has emphasized. As such he does not so much build on as offer an alternative to Hauerwas’ thinking about virtue, character and Christian theology.

But I do not mean to short-change Muray here. If I am ill-equipped to respond to these proposals as process proposals, perhaps I can say something briefly about them from my own and what I take to be Hauerwas’ perspective. Thus, in section 1 of this response I attempt to lodge a critical point or two against Muray’s positive account. Deliberately I choose points that I think display the differences between Hauerwas’ thought and Muray’s. My hope is that this will contribute to the dialogue we are attempting here and, perhaps, challenge those who speak from a process perspective on points where a challenge can prove profitable.

I

I do not find significant disagreement between myself and Muray on what appear to be the conclusions of his investigation into virtue. I think it is important and good for Christians (and others as well) to cultivate their capacities to be empathetic, sensitive, compassionate, receptive, creative, gentle and so on. Hauerwas would agree as well, I’m sure. However, it does strike me that what Muray appears to be up to in these sections where he develops his own account of the virtues -- not so much the conclusions he reaches but how he goes about moving toward them -- is profoundly "un-Hauerwasian," if that term has meaning. And this is not just a matter of style, but of philosophical and theological substance.

I think I can best and most succinctly display why this is so by focusing on two brief passages which appear almost as asides in the midst of Muray’s own positive account: (1) "While these notions seem terribly abstract, nevertheless, in the case of Christianity, we see them operating as we acknowledge the disharmony as well as deprivation of greater richness in the sexism, racism and anti-Judaism of its inherited tradition" (93). (2) "Confessional postmodernism, with its emphasis on images and narrative, which are more evocative and efficacious than concepts, touching deeper recesses of our psyches, fleshes out what tends to be rather abstract in the process-relational vision which, on the other hand, provides the former with a cosmological complement" (90).

Both quotes confess that the language Muray uses throughout is "terribly abstract." With this I heartily agree. For example. I have a great deal of difficulty even imagining what sentences such as the following could mean: "Beauty is the balance between harmony and intensity; their opposites, disharmony and the trivialization of experience, are manifestations of evil" (89). What is "harmony," "intensity," "the trivialization of experience?" How can I know I am seeing these (do I see them?) when I do? Muray tells me that a necessary (but not sufficient?) condition of "intensity" is that "a pattern of contrast needs to be present?" (88). But what does this mean? What would be an example of something in which no pattern of contrast is present?

I recognize, of course, that a good deal of Whiteheadian metaphysics is presumed here; but if Muray is interested in speaking to people who are not Whiteheadian metaphysicians then he needs to do some explaining, to give examples, to tie this language down, convincing the rest of us that something in fact is being said here. He is to be credited with recognizing that his language is unduly abstract, but I do not see that this recognition has led to any attempt toward correction.

Interestingly the second quotation above suggests that Muray hopes Hauerwas’ "confessional post-modernism" can be of help just on this point. Yet I am not so hopeful. Indeed, I suspect that the supposition that it can betrays a misconstrual of Hauerwas’ thought. For the latter does not emphasize "images and narrative" as a sort of strategy to be more "evocative or efficacious." While others may treat them in this way, for Hauerwas stories are not enfleshed propositions, Whiteheadian or otherwise. As he has put it,

"[W]e tend to think of "stories" as illustrations of some deeper truth that we can and should learn to articulate in a non-narrative mode . . . . I think this is a dire misunderstanding of the narrative character of Christian convictions. My contention is that the narrative mode is neither incidental nor accidental to Christian belief. There is no more fundamental way to talk of God than in a story." (PK 25)

My impression is that this is a very difficult point for process thinkers to see, as is a second point linked to it that also emerges in what I have quoted from Muray above. Note that he speaks of Christianity as a "case" in which certain notions operate. This is language Hauerwas would also reject. If we extend the above thinking about the importance of stories, we see that the Christian story is not something we hop in and out of. We are story-formed, and those of us who are Christians are formed (or transformed) by the Christian story. To suppose that we can and should hold Christianity at arm’s length and make value judgments about it from a perspective entirely independent of it -- so that it becomes a "case" of something or other -- is to make an epistemological error that is nothing more nor less than the error of "modernism" which "post-modernists" are lately seizing upon. Hauerwas prefers to identify this as an error of "liberalism" or of the Enlightenment and is not predisposed to refer to his own thought as "post-modernism," which is Muray’s label. While there are similarities between what is generally called post-modernism -- say, the thought of Rorty, Foucault or Derrida -- and that of Hauerwas and other Christian theologians like him, I think it is improper to link them directly, for two reasons. First, Hauerwas learned his emphasis on narrative primarily from Christian theologians such as H. R. Niebuhr and Hans Frei, and only secondarily from (secular) literary criticism. Hence, and this is the second point, it is not a truth-relativizing category for Hauerwas at all, as it is for these other thinkers. Hauerwas has never wavered from declaring that Christian convictions -- which are necessarily in the narrative mode -- are true. And so we can understand the ever-present normative thrust of his work, as we cannot understand it in these other "post-modern" thinkers.

I wonder, actually, just how process thinkers such as Muray will escape this point. How is process thought unlike the modernism post-modernism means to criticize? (This is not to say "post-modernism" has won the day. It seems to me that the thing for process theologians to do, as for example does my friend Philip Devenish, is defend the Enlightenment vision Hauerwas disparages and criticize his narrative talk on its basis.) As thinkers in moral philosophy such as Bernard Williams and Alisdair MacIntyre -- upon whom Hauerwas draws extensively -- contend, there is no Archimedean point, no tradition-independent perspective from which value judgments of the sort implied by Muray’s charges of sexism, racism and anti-Judaism can be made. This is not to say no value judgments can be made, nor that Christianity has not sometimes fallen into these moral errors. Rather it is to say that it is a mistake to think, as Muray appears to think, that it is possible to identify them as moral errors from some abstract point of view such as "fundamental reality itself" (91), or "whatever contributes to the enhancement of relationality and creativity" (92) of this reality or even such a pseudo-concretization as "the challenges of today" (92).

This point can be made more directly and theologically as a criticism of process theology. Is process theology essentially or incidentally Christian? That is, does the Christian story (or Christian doctrines, if one prefers) nicely illustrate the truths of process theology -- truths which could and have been illustrated differently without crucial loss -- or are the Christian story and these truths absolutely inseparable? I suspect the answer is the former. If it is, this question follows: Out of what tradition do process theologians speak?’ Or -- what comes to the same question -- on what basis do process theologians (like Muray) decide what "contemporary needs" should be met or from which part of its past Christianity "needs to be liberated" (93)?

II

Muray’s specific treatment of Hauerwas’ work, while brief and somewhat sketchy, is pleasingly arranged around three points -- what he calls Hauerwas’ "tripod" -- and three corresponding critical characterizations, namely that Hauerwas is a "substantialist" about the self, an "essentialist" about Christianity and a "separatist" about the Christian church. I shall in a moment comment on the relations Muray claims to have found between the legs of the tripod and on each of the critical characterizations. Before doing so, however, I should like to make a general point about the nature of Muray’s critical strategy. Suppose he is right that Hauerwas is a substantialist, an essentialist and a separatist -- and suppose we are all clear about what it means to be these things. What’s wrong with substantialism, essentialism and/or separatism other than that they are "inadequate and counterproductive for process-relational thought" (94)? Besides this Muray gives us no clear reasons why we should reject them.

Please do not misunderstand me. Given a certain understanding of each of these I can think of a number of things I take to be wrong with them. But I do not know if Muray’s reasons for rejecting these are anything like mine, for he does not tell us why he thinks they are not so good; he merely uses the terms as if they were obviously pejorative, like the term "racism." They may be pejorative for process thinkers, but not necessarily for the rest of us.

Setting this general point aside and concentrating on the sections of the paper where Hauerwas’ work is explicitly taken up, I think there is much to say for Muray’s explication in terms of the tripod he discovers there. He helpfully assembles a string of quotes from A Community of Character (84). It seems to me that both Against the Nations and The Peaceable Kingdom, the two books Hauerwas has published since which directly develop his views in Christian theology (he has published other books in the time on other topics), can be read in the light of them. For the burning question for Hauerwas is now clearly this one: How can the Christian church live with integrity and in faithful witness to the God revealed to it in the history of Israel and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the midst of modern liberal society where narcissism and nationalism threaten its very existence? The Peaceable Kingdom is an account of what it means for the church to live faithful to its God. while Against the Nations is an extended theological critique of the liberal society in which the church currently lives, at least in the first world.

Connecting the first and second leg of the "tripod" is also a helpful service performed by Muray. Indeed, if we were to attend to the historical development of Hauerwas’ thought we would discover that his early emphasis upon virtue and character led him to ask questions about just what sort of character we should strive after and, further, how it is that we can acquire it.2 And the answer which emerges is, of course, that we must be formed after the character of our God by the remembering and enacting of the Christian story in the community (the church) which calls us to and nurtures us in this (trans)formation of character.

While the movement from the first to the second leg of the tripod is nicely done, I do not think Muray’ s characterization or development of the third leg is correct. Here is where he criticizes Hauerwas for being a "separatist." It is correct, of course, that Hauerwas employs the language of "separateness" frequently, but attending carefully to how he does this and what are the reasons for the "separateness" he recommends is crucial. This Muray fails to do.

It seems to me that the first thing to consider about "separatism" is what I have already said: Just what is so wrong about it? Consider that if we are to form our characters in a certain way to embody certain crucial virtues (tripod leg number one) and if this formation demands that we participate in a community that seeks to live out in its corporate life the very life of God, i.e., the life lived out for us in the stories of Israel and Jesus (tripod leg number two), then why is it not quite appropriate for us to live a life of separateness in this community?

But now here is where we must attend to Hauerwas’ position carefully, for he does have a strong answer to the question about the wrongs of separatism -- but it is an essentially theological one rather than the one we might expect from a liberal trained in the insipid virtue of "tolerance" we moderns love so well. For we discover in the story of Israel and Jesus that God does not separate Godself from the world; God loves the world and seeks to redeem it, to restore within it God’s peace -- to the point even of dying for it. God’s presence in the church is measured just in the degree that as a people it is ready to follow this pattern of life in all of its activities, to be a peaceable people not apart from but in the midst of a warring world.

Talk of separateness for Hauerwas always has this context. Sometimes conditions are such that the church must "separate" itself from the world, but it does so not for the sake of separateness itself but for the sake of faithfulness to God and for the sake of the world God loves. In this light, Muray’s third quotation from Hauerwas is apropos: ". . . if the church is to serve our liberal society or any society, it is crucial for Christians to regain an appropriate sense of separateness from that society" (84). What Muray fails to appreciate is the first clause of this quotation. Indeed, when he uses it again (87) he entirely leaves it out!

This misreading of Hauerwas’ separatism combines with Muray’s earlier charges of "essentialism" to lead him to what I consider the most ill-advised criticism of Hauerwas he makes. As he puts it, "In effect, the ‘essence’ of Christianity for Hauerwas, in my view, is separation from the world" (87). Aside from the fact that, as I have just argued, Hauerwas is decidedly not interested in separation for separation’s sake, this charge leaves me puzzling about just what "essentialism" could mean for Muray. For I am sympathetic, as is Hauerwas, to criticisms of views of Christianity which attempt to distill it into a single, exact, and (usually) propositional essence. His emphasis upon narrative should be understood just in this context. But I am beginning to gather from statements in Muray’s paper -- such as that Hauerwas thinks "there is an unchanging core to the tradition" (86), which he means as a criticism -- that Muray’s anti-essentialism affirms that in fact there is nothing very definite to Christianity at all, meaning, I should think, that it is either everything or nothing -- which in the end comes to the same thing. This seems to me to be an absurd view. I can only answer it with the following rhetorical question. Suppose you return in 1000 years to earth to find a group of religious people who call themselves "Christians." You strike up a conversation with them about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but they look puzzled and ask curiously "Who’s that?" Now, is what they believe and practice Christianity?

Given this extremely strong anti-essentialism which apparently Muray holds, I have yet further difficulty understanding his criticism as it is put here. For suppose someone (not Hauerwas) did think that "separation from the world" was the fixed essence of Christianity. The world, presumably, changes -- constantly and eternally. And so also (it seems) would separation from it. Where, then, is the fixed essence?

I am worried that there are some very deep confusions here.

But let us leave the criticism of Hauerwas’ work as "essentialist" and "separatist" and turn to the first leg of Muray’s critical response to Hauerwas’ tripod, namely that of "substantialism" regarding the self. Here I think is where Muray’ s critical points are best made. I think he is right to say that "while Hauerwas goes to great lengths to show that humans are self-determining agents, just how they are free and self-creative is never described" (85). And his suggestion that "a conceptual elaboration of the relationship between efficient and final casualty would have been helpful in clarifying the issue" (85) is, I think, quite promising. (It should be said, however, that it is far from the case that Hauerwas makes no attempts to deal with this problem, that is, the problem of just how we should understand the free and creative self; and it should be noted just what a perplexing problem it is -- one I do not think anyone has solved. Indeed for Hauerwas it is an enduring problem, and one he has worked on imaginatively, even if sometimes rather unsystematically?)

Muray is to be lauded early on in his essay for putting his criticism on this point carefully. Since, he says, Hauerwas is a bit unclear on just how the self is free and self-creative "his view of the self is prone to a substantialist interpretation" or "lends itself to a substantialist interpretation" (85, emphasis added). (Substantialism is for Muray roughly the view that the self is a substance to which certain properties, such as that the self is in community, only accidentally adhere.) Here it is not that Hauerwas is a substantialist about the self -- indeed, it should be obvious to anyone who reads him carefully that substantialism about the self is just what he wishes to break free of -- but rather that since his escape from substantialism is less clear than it might be he yet leaves room for its reemergence. And all this might be quite correct. However, nearer the end of his essay (e.g., 90, 94) his tone subtly changes and he begins to write as if Hauerwas is a substantialist to which the process-relational, non-substantialist view is to be contrasted. This contrast is unwarranted, for Muray has not shown -- neither is it possible to show from Hauerwas’ writing -- that he has anything like a substantialist view of the self. Indeed, while he might not put it just like this, I think Hauerwas would wish quite strongly to agree with Muray’s own affirmation that "the self is a relational or social self . . . Any human is constituted by his or her personal past, the past of the universe, and more immediately the cultures and environments of which we are a part" (91).

III

Perhaps this last critical point, i.e.’ that Muray overstates the substantialism in Hauerwas, allows us to end on a somewhat hopeful note about the future of dialogue between those of us who are strongly influenced by and continue to work in the light of the writings of Stanley Hauerwas and those who call themselves process theologians. It would be a mistake to minimize our differences; indeed, I have tried not to do this in my response to Muray. But there are two points at least that emerge in this essay -- and perhaps a third -- that I consider to hold promise for future discussion. Beginning with the point just mentioned, these are:

(1) The attempt on the part of both process and Christian virtue thinkers of Hauerwas’ ilk to struggle anew with questions of the self and to shed the Cartesianism (substantialism?) that has led us to think for the past three hundred years that we are primarily and fundamentally individual, isolated selves.

(2) The commitment in both camps to reunderstand God’s agency and power as essentially noncoercive. Nicely, Muray has already spotted this affinity (90). Our question to each other should perhaps now be: where concretely does this commitment lead? For Hauerwas it has led to an affirmation of the truth of Christian pacifism. Perhaps for process thinkers it will lead to something like this as well.4

(3) Muray in this essay seems to be seeking a basis for a radical critique of modernity, something that Hauerwas quite evidently also seeks, and thinks he has found. I do not find this so strongly in other process thinkers, and insofar as Muray will not be more specific than that the criterion for reconstituting a tradition is "whatever contributes to the enhancement of relationality and creativity that are true of the fundamental character of reality itself" (93), I do not think he will much like the basis of Hauerwas’ critique, namely the stories of the history of Israel and Jesus as they continue to be remembered and enacted in the Christian church. But we should be careful here and elsewhere not to shut off the conversation before it has begun -- and to hope that in fact it will turn out to go further than either camp might have at first expected.

 

Notes

1For the meaning I wish ‘tradition" to have, consider MacIntyre’s definition: "A tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretative debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is Constituted." Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 12.

2 It is helpful to refer to the publication dates of Hauerwas’ books listed at the end of Muray’s article to get a sense of the historical development of his thought; although the important qualification must be added that Vision And Virtue was actually published first in 1974 and therefore, besides Character and the Christian Life (which Muray does not mention), was the first of his books. At the time of its writing Hauerwas had only just begun to read John H. Yoder, who became a pivotal influence. It was from Yoder that Hauerwas learned to think ecclesiologically, which in turn provided him a way to see his nascent pacifism (which he also learned from Yoder) as a radical Christian politics which stands over against the politics of liberalism. These themes of course emerge strongly in his later work.

3Virtually every major book Hauerwas has written has a chapter dealing specifically with problems of the self as he has struggled to see more clearly what it might mean to think of "The Self as Story" -- which is the title of a seminal chapter in Vision and Virtue. Consider, for example, "The Idea of Character" in Character and the Christian Life, "Character, Narrative and Growth" in A Community of Character, or "On Being Historic: Agency, Character and Sin" in The Peaceable Kingdom.

4 See my "Christian Pacifism and Theodicy," Modern Theology 5, no. 3 (April, 1989): 239-255, for a treatment of how the pacifism of John H. Yoder opens to a specifically Christian account of God’s power as essentially noncoercive,


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