Friday, September 27, 2013

Hart vs Hauerwas?

I say this tentatively, but it is often hard to discern what Stanley Hauerwas believes about God. It is easy to get the impression that God (the God revealed to us in Jesus by Karl Barth) is a presupposition in Hauerwas's theology, as opposed to its beginning and end.* This itself is not necessarily wrong, however, for one could potentially say the same thing regarding the apostle Paul's way of theologizing (without the Barth bit). These are, to borrow Hays' word, ecclesiocentric thinkers.

Reading this passage from David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea left me wondering what Hauerwas (who, if I remember correctly, was once Hart's philosophy teacher, and who wrote in his memoir that even then Hart knew more than him) would think of it:

...if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.

On the surface at least this seems to contradict some of Hauerwas's work, which is about taking up suffering and death into our Christian discipleship. But Hart is inescapably right: Jesus didn't "suffer with" those he encountered with illnesses and disabilities - he healed them. His presence was not just a being there; it came with a power that we can scarcely believe in any more, so mythical and fantastical does it appear. Indeed, it is almost offensive to Christian sensibilities, for it seems to think that there is something wrong with disabled people that needs to be urgently righted.

Some of Hauerwas's work sounds like a call for Christians to reconcile themselves with suffering and death, but it is hard to see how this squares with the Christian conviction that God is life and death His greatest enemy - an enemy not to be embraced, but once for all defeated. Hart therefore refuses to allow suffering and death a place in God, but sees in the cross the definitive instance of divine power whereby death is subverted, indeed, shattered by the power of an infinite and immutable love that makes a way through death into new life. Jesus did not die well, with friends by his side. He died abandoned by most of his friends, and until Easter their response to his death was fear and disappointment.

As for suffering, the New Testament accords a positive place for it (one which Hart seems not to acknowledge at all), but this is never just suffering in general. It is, I think, always the suffering that follows obedience. The NT gives us no warrant to believe that a parent suffering the death of their child will become more than they would be without that death, or that the abuse that a woman suffers at the hands of her husband will eventually contribute to her personal development. This is not the kind of suffering that God uses for his glory; it is the kind that only the glory of God can overcome, as light overcomes darkness.

And yet, if this haphazard opposition is any way close to being accurate, it is hard to shake the conviction that Hauerwas has a point. Paul, it would seem, died well, and the thorn in his flesh was a constant occasion of divine grace.

* To go some way towards validating this observation, Hauerwas recently talked through four of his favour theological sentences that he has written. The subject of all of these sentences is not God, but the Church. That said, the prayer at the end (which is most definitely addressed to God!) is a wonderful insight into Hauerwas's theo-logy.

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