Review Essay: Four Complimentary Complaints about Unsettling Arguments: A Festschrift on the Occasion of Stanley Hauerwas’s 70th Birthday

[1] For 40 years, Stanley Hauerwas has been a force to be reckoned with in Christian ethics. Yet too often that reckoning fails to occur, either because pejorative categories impede vigorous debate, or because shared convictions are left unexamined. As an example of the former, notice how “sectarian” is never a reflective conclusion earned by careful argumentation, but always a preempting prejudice that discolors engagement. This is typically a failing of Hauerwas’s critics. Exemplifying Review Essay: The Revolution Ate Its Children — Two New Essay Collections Address the Embodied Politic by Bert Stablerthe latter failing, Hauerwas’s students and friends (among whom I count myself) have too frequently accepted his dicta — e.g., “the church doesn’t have a social ethic, it is a social ethic,” “liturgy is ethics,” “Jesus precedes story,” — as axioms from which to work, rather than as arrows pointing to fields of research and reflection.

[2] Unsettling Arguments is a treasure because it reckons critically and collegially with Hauerwas for more than 300 pages. Eighteen of his former students take an “important trajectory” in Hauerwas’s thought and subject it to “the best and most trenchant criticism available” (xv). Clear delineations are nigh impossible with a thinker as synthetic as Hauerwas, but the editors do manage to organize the engagements into four sections: “Influences” shows how various thinkers and traditions have sometimes helped, sometimes hindered, his thinking; “Politics” includes challenges and developments of his critiques of democracy, war, bioethics and justice; “Bodies” explores his silences around feminism, race, the natural good of family, and the Jews; “Practices” corrects and extends his expositions of friendship, reading, worship, discipleship as a craft, and university education.

[3] The surpassing value of Unsettling Arguments, however, is not its critical engagement with an important teacher, but its dogged pursuit of truth for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the editors affirm, “we want to unsettle any of his arguments that seem to be out of step with the gospel” (xv). Since the gospel is finally that unsettlingly powerful word of grace that draws us into God’s own life, making it the focus of gracious tributes to a beloved teacher is the proper way to serve God and honor Hauerwas.

[4] This review will work in that same vein, offering three further complaints that should be regarded as appreciative critique of Unsettling Arguments.

[5] In “Capitalism and Fetishizing the Particular: Is Hauerwas a Nominalist?” Steve Long shows that although Hauerwas is not a nominalist, he can be read as one. This is largely because Hauerwas has eschewed engagement with Christian doctrine, and the Trinitarian metaphysics it implies. There is a similar structure in Dan Bell’s “The Way of God with the World: Hauerwas on War.” It displays the unstated doctrinal presupposition of Hauerwas’ refusal of just war: it is a Trinitarian heresy. Similarly, in “Carrying on with Family,” David McCarthy redeems the natural by offering a sacramental (that is, explicitly theological) account of marriage, something that Hauerwas has unremittingly refused to do, to the detriment of his ethic of family.

[6] What each of these fine essays argues is that Hauerwas has too frequently stopped short of the doctrinal work that his positions demand. This may root in Hauerwas’s rightful claim that Christian convictions are falsified whenever they are abstracted from ecclesial life. But that warning does not justify avoiding the necessarily discursive work of doctrine proper. Steve Long’s hortatory question, specifically directed toward the Trinitarian sourcing of Hauerwas’s politics, can fittingly be addressed to his oeuvre as a whole: “Why doesn’t he speak more specifically about Christian doctrine and the metaphysical framework it implies?” (52).

[7] As with their teacher, so with a number of the pupils. Some of the essays give the impression, at least rhetorically, that what we really need to get right is not our theology, but our philosophy and critical theory. And two essays chasten Hauerwas for being too theological. Michael Baxter argues that a theological politics is insufficient; the church does and must engage in “plain politics,” which is largely a-theological. And it will be this plain politics that mostly describes and determines our prudential daily politics.

[8] Alex Sider’s fine and subtle essay suggests that Hauerwas’s account of friendship “short circuits” because it “turns to theology”(76) when it needed a rational moral psychology. When Hauerwas acknowledges difference in friendship, he does not “explore” it, but instead invokes “convictions about Trinitarian difference” or about God befriending humanity in the incarnation (75). Sider concludes: “…we are…. friends with people who are different — do we really need a theological justification for this?” (75). Perhaps not, but a theological account can be given, not by invoking “Trinitarian difference” as the idealization of diversity, but rather by attending to the specific Trinitarian differences of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The problem here wasn’t that Hauerwas did theology when he should have done moral psychology, but that Hauerwas didn’t do theology very well. Sider implicitly knows that a robust Trinitarian theology is needed, even if he cannot articulate it. He quotes a weekly petition in his local congregation: “For all these concerns, and for the cares we cannot speak, the groans too deep for words, we ask your loving kindness, Lord.” The words I have italicized, as well as the general tenor of this praying, allude to the pneumatology of Romans 8, which situates alienation — whether of friendships or of creation as a whole — in the redemptive economy of triune love.

[9] Hauerwas understands himself to be a theologian, and such he is. We are unsettled, and not in the helpful way, by the pupils who have argued or implied here that doing doctrine is an impediment to discovering truth or embodying fidelity. We are indebted to the pupils who have argued here for a more robust and explicit engagement with doctrinal theology by him and by us all.

[10] I wanted from these students a good deal more engagement with Scripture than I found in Unsettling Arguments. Their teacher, after all, has authored a manifesto on ecclesial reading (Unleashing Scripture), a commentary on Matthew (Brazos), several collections of sermons, one of scriptural meditations, as well as co-authoring catechesis on the Decalogue, the Lord’s Prayer, and a primer on preaching before strangers. Yet only three of eighteen essays refer to any of Hauerwas’s engagements with Scripture, and about the same number cite or allude to Scripture. No essay engages the Bible in a direct or substantive way. In this regard, Hauerwas’s students reproduce his own settled pattern of ignoring Scripture in his more academic writing (although attending to it in writing for congregational settings).

[11] These students could and should have unsettled their teacher by engaging Scripture better than he does. I will tentatively try to show what that could look like by engaging Jonathan Tran’s wonderful essay “Time for Hauerwas’s Racism.” In doing so, I hope that I’m not exemplifying what Tran calls “the nervous verbosity of most white theologians” on racism.

[12] The bulk of Tran’s essay is the argument that “in the shadow of the church’s long-standing racism,” Hauerwas’s “silence… is a more interesting option” than is his “various statements about race [which] say too much and have been driven by the academic’s tendency to overcompensate” (250, 251, text reordered). Using Foucault, Tran suggests that “the binary logic of disavowal” may feel good, but it doesn’t work very well — because it emerges from within and colludes with the power that it ostensibly refuses (251–52). There are several subordinate points in Tran’s argument, but its core is that Hauerwas’s silence is good precisely because it is an embodied practice of eschatological patience.

[13] Can that be right? It could certainly be wrong, one more conceptual cover for whites to be, in the words of James Cone, “indifferent to suffering and patient with cruelty.” Silence on racism can certainly be wrong, vicious in character and complicit with evil. Can it also be right, if practiced as fidelity to the gospel? Scripture can help answer the question. Romans 8 speaks of God’s eschatological patience, not as a wordless silence that overpowers our prolixity, but as the Spirit’s sighing joined with our groaning. Perhaps here is a third alternative to pious prolixity or indifferent silence — groaning. Groaning is also wordless, but it speaks in a way that silence does not, communicating eschatological patience in the affective and bodily registers.

[14] Revelation 7:9 has been a touchstone verse of many for a vision in which racism is eschatologically redeemed, not by the evisceration of race, but by its purified inclusion in heavenly worship. Listen to what occurs as we start with this vision, and read across the chapter break:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”…. When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (Rev. 7:9a,10; 8:1)

How much “thicker” might Tran’s accounting for Hauerwas’s silence as eschatological patience become if we were to plumb the depths of the Seer’s vision of an inter-ethnic congregation gathered in doxological sound before the Lamb that was slain, and in patient silence after the unsealing of judgment? I don’t know the answer, but I hope others will engage the text fully enough that we can all find out.

[15] Hauerwas was in the vanguard of theologians who rediscovered the intrinsic link of worship to ethics. For Hauerwas, that connection is not peripheral but central to the Christian life — indeed, the Christian life is worship, and thus worship is ethics. In the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, he and Sam Wells state that “All that Christians do and do not do thus finds its intelligibility in the worship of God.”1 Similarly, in Hannah’s Child, Hauerwas writes that “the most important training [his] students received” from him was not in his graduate seminars, but in helping him teach introductory ethics classes, which were structured by the claim that worship-is-ethics.2 You mostly couldn’t prove or even infer these claims by the argumentation of Unsettling Arguments.

[16] The two most significant exceptions to this complaint are Kelly Johnson’s “Worshiping in Spirit and Truth,” and Joel Shuman’s “Discipleship as Craft: Crafting the Christian Body.” Ironically, these two direct engagements with worship have such very different perspectives that they are almost point and counter-point.

[17] Johnson says Hauerwas hasn’t been telling us the whole truth “about what is happening in liturgy” (302). His emphasis on the “particular, local, and visible practice” (203) of Christian worship has three detrimental consequences: his published prayers turn us toward Hauerwas, rather than God (302–04); he won’t talk about God’s agency in worship (306–09); and he avoids the ecumenical challenge of Eucharistic division (309–11). “And then there’s the real problem,” Johnson tells us (311–13). Despite his assertions about the formative power of liturgy, there is “considerable evidence that regular participation in liturgy does not make people virtuous or even more aware of what a virtuous life should be” (311).3

[18] Things hardly seem so desperate in Shuman’s account. His essay places Hauerwas into “conversation with some of the [best] literature concerning craft” in order to show that “….for Hauerwas learning and practicing a craft is not merely like moral formation, it is moral formation….” (317). Worship isn’t just analogous, it “is a kind of craft in some fairly significant ways” (325, my emphasis). He acknowledges “that regular…. participation in Christian worship is no absolute guarantee of Christian faithfulness” (Shuman, 330), but that doesn’t vex him the way it does Johnson.

[19] Thinking from the site of the broken Eucharistic table and failed liturgical formation, Johnson finds Hauerwas considerably wanting. Thinking from the angle of moral formation into a craft, Shuman finds Hauerwas almost entirely confirmed. Nothing shows their difference more than their conclusions: Shuman argues that liturgy forms us for life; Johnson that “….Christian life is preparation for liturgy” (312).

[20] I think Shuman has over-reached, and that Johnson has over-reacted, both in ways that are correctable with some help from our friends the liturgists. First, Shuman should amend this overstatement: “Beyond analogy, Christians who gather are (collectively) apprenticed to a single master, the triune God in whose name they gather” (326). No, this is at best analogy, inasmuch as real apprenticeship is an embodied practice. Peter, Mary, James and John all apprenticed under Jesus beyond analogy; we don’t, precisely because formation is a matter of flesh and blood, sweat and tears, language and gesture.

[21] Yet the problem is more than mistaking an analogy for a reality. In making our apprenticeship to the Triune God a matter of learning to imitate Jesus, Shuman construes worship in a way that James Torrance has demonstrated is Unitarian rather than Trinitarian. A Unitarian account of worship imagines that in worship we’re over here lobbing our prayers and praises toward the triune God over there. What makes it Unitarian is not whether we understand God to be one person or three hypostases, but the structure of the worshiping relationship: us – God. Trinitarian worship, on the other hand, “is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father.”4 This is precisely the account of worship that Johnson gives in her interpretation of Hauerwas’s claims that the church and we can become “God’s prayers.”5

[22] If Johnson can help correct Shuman’s over-reach, perhaps Shuman can return the favor on the matter of worship’s failure as formation. Shuman suggests this happens because liturgical formation “demands our assent”; we can resist it (330). True enough, but to say only that underestimates the scope and power of counter-liturgies like capitalism and entertainment, which exist prior to our assent and often beneath our consciousness. Moreover, faith’s assent to the formative power of liturgy requires understanding, the kind of practical wisdom offered in fourth-century mystagogia and contemporary catechesis. As liturgist Ed Phillips reminds us, “ritual is inherently ambiguous, and perhaps it is most ambiguous to those who participate in it regularly. Therefore, today, as in the fourth century, the ethical relevance of liturgy must be periodically explained in order for worshipping Christians to make the connection.”6

[23] Besides attending to the counter-liturgies that inculcate false gospels, we will also need more attention to the politics of apprenticeship in worship. An example: recently an energetic five-year old and a harried grandmother sat behind me in church. It was a rough morning for both of them, a constant dialectic of his noise-making and her shushing. Rather than a hearty “Thanks be to God” at the end of the service, I heard grandma whisper “thank God next Sunday you’ll be in the nursery.” My point is simple — that, too, is a type of apprenticeship, and not a good one. A child of the church was being formed to dislike worship rather than offer praise, to listen to shushing commands rather than listen for the words of gospel promise. If liturgy doesn’t “work,” it may well be that we have expected it to do so apart from intentionality about apprenticeship in its form and substance. Properly formational worship is not something that simply “happens.” It requires a reshaping of the politics of baptism, of Lord’s Day worship; indeed, it may well require the elimination of the nursery!

[24] In the final paragraphs of his splendid essay on Hauerwas the reader, Chris Huebner concludes that sometimes Hauerwas forgets the fragmentary and unfinished character of his best insights, succumbing to the temptation to explain or offer a sweeping generalization. At such points, Huebner declares, Hauerwas is “speaking in ways that might be described as carelessly articulate” (299, emphasis added). What typically saves him from this careless articulacy, Huebner suggests, are two things: Hauerwas reads charitably, and Hauerwas keeps reading, because “the work of reading is never finished” (299).

[25] Unsettling Arguments is a lovely embodiment of charitable reading. There is no sycophancy here, only the deep respect of taking one’s teacher seriously enough to show “him where he might have gotten it wrong” (xvi). What is good for the teacher is also good for his opponents: with respect and care they are read charitably in order to show them, too, where they may have gotten it — not Hauerwas, but the truth of the gospel — wrong. This overall tone can serve a further purpose in the field of Christian ethics, which Sam Wells and Ben Quash recently described by a threefold typology: universal, subversive and ecclesial (Hauerwas fits here). Wells and Quash noted with regret that “some proponents of [the ecclesial] strand have been associated with abrasive, not to say dismissive, regard for the other two strands….”7 Unsettling Arguments is a lovely demonstration that “the mode of polemical stridency”8 is not intrinsic to ecclesial ethics. Instead, an ethic rooted in peaceableness is always irenic in spirit and usually should be in tone.

[26] This review hopes to have avoided “careless articulacy” in its appreciative criticisms of Unsettling Arguments. My arguments here are not a finished reading of the book, only a reduplication of the force of the book itself, which invites us all to keep reading. Keep reading Hauerwas, and with him keep reading theology, Scripture, liturgy, the work of his students, and the signs of the times. Keep reading because the unsettling, justifying gospel is the most interesting Word in all the world.


1. Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Blackwell, 2006), 50.

2. Hannah’s Child (Eerdmans, 2010) 196.

3. Here she echoes the point made by Don Saliers in “Afterword: Liturgy and Ethics Revisited,” in Anderson and Morrill, eds., Liturgy and the Moral Self: Humanity at Full Stretch before God (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998) 216–18.

4. James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (IVP, 1996) 20. Mark Searle writes, “It is a fundamental but rarely mentioned truth of the Catholic faith that no one can have access to God except in and through Christ…. In thinking of Christ’s mediatorial role, therefore, we should not think of Christ as coming between us and God, as a go-between accentuating our continuing distance from God even as he bridges it. Rather we come to God in Christ, where Christ is the holy ground, the very place of encounter, the way into the abyss of the mystery of God.” Called to Participate: Theological, Ritual, and Social Perspectives (Liturgical Press, 2006) 40–41.

5. “This only makes sense as reference to a Trinitarian account of prayer… a person is, through the non-competitive and freedom-making work of the Holy Spirit, joined to the second person of the Trinity, as he offers intercession to God the Father” (309).

6. L. Edward Phillips, “Liturgy and Ethics,” in Paul Bradshaw and Bryan Spinks, eds., Liturgy in Dialogue: Essays in Memory of Ronald Jasper (Liturgical Press, 1993) 88–101; 99.

7. Samuel Wells and Ben Quash, Introducing Christian Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) x–xi.

8. Wells and Quash, Introducing Christian Ethics, xi.

D. Brent Laytham

D. Brent Laytham is Professor of Theology and Ethics at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois.