Time magazine has called Stanley Hauerwas “America’s Best Theologian.” This is like the Chaucer Review giving Gabriel García Márquez an award for Best Sci-Fi Novelist, but Hauerwas deserves the attention—especially because his critics continue to denounce him as a foul-mouthed loose cannon prone to indefensible sound bites. How can he seriously attack the idea of democracy, as he apparently does, or defend a militantly nonviolent reading of Christian ethics in the face of 9/11? And why won’t he stay put, intellectually—coming on like a postmodernist one minute, attacking relativism the next; defending gay Catholics while rejecting the sexual revolution; condemning war while attacking “liberalism”? But readers who struggle through their initial puzzlement often find Hauerwas an indispensable guide to the unstated assumptions binding modern liberals and conservatives together.
Hauerwas is known for his one-liners (“God is killing the church and we God-damn well deserve it”), but his newest book—an investigation into the thought of German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer—is more nuanced than quippy. He focuses on Bonhoeffer’s dictum that “a community of peace can only exist if it does not rest on lies and injustice.” Hauerwas accordingly rejects the American tendency to put niceness ahead of honesty—within the “civil” public square created by such political behavior, questions of truth and value are forever deferred. He argues we must learn the “skill” of being forgiven so we can “live acknowledging the violence of [our] past,” and challenges Christians in an America terrorized by 9/11 to model such truthful politics as an alternative to the muddled concept of “war on terror.” Living truthfully isn’t simple, Hauerwas declares. It involves accepting that our lives are “contingent all the way down,” that truth “cannot be secured by a theory” but is an “ongoing effort” to name lies in which we’re already implicated.
If there’s no truth-finding method more basic than the narrative we live—be it the New Testament, a civics textbook or Soul on Ice—then truth must be discovered piecemeal. Thus Hauerwas proceeds, as Kierkegaard did, like a man tunneling through the dark with flashlight and pickaxe, each book answering some questions and raising more. Readers who reject his Christianity often like him anyway; his tunneling has brought him an eager, ecumenical audience.