I recently finished reading With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology, the published text of Stanley Hauerwas’s 2001 Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews. In one sense, this particular iteration of the Gifford Lectures was a failure—but it can hardly be regarded as an authentic failure, because the failure was deliberate.
The Gifford Lectureships were established by Lord Adam Gifford, a wealthy nineteenth-century Scottish lawyer and judge. His stated purpose in endowing the Gifford Lectures had to do with “promoting, advancing, teaching, and diffusing the study of natural theology.”
In these particular lectures, the lecturer is Stanley Hauerwas, and Hauerwas’s theological convictions prevent him from promoting natural theology in any sense that Lord Gifford intended. Hauerwas is able to keep faith with Lord Gifford’s stated goal only by deliberately redefining natural theology in a way that Gifford would never have envisioned. According to Hauerwas, natural theology is “the attempt to witness to the nongodforsakenness of the world even under the condition of sin.” In light of this redefinition of natural theology, what is most natural is not any argument from nature but the “argument” of God’s witness in and through the church. Natural theology is thus—for Hauerwas—necessarily ecclesiological and Christ-centered.
Despite the failure of Hauerwas’s lectures to promote natural theology in any sense that Lord Gifford would have recognized, the results of Hauerwas’s redefined wrestling with natural theology are nothing short of brilliant. His analysis of William James is essential for anyone studying The Varieties of Religious Experience or “The Will to Believe”; his contention that Reinhold Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin never moved beyond the shadow of theological liberalism is incisive.
My interest in With the Grain of the Universe, however, had to do with how Hauerwas’s “natural theology” might reshape apologetics. In some sense, Hauerwas seems to forge a pathway that recognizes—much like presuppositional apologists—that Christianity alone is capable of making sense of the world. Unlike some presuppositionalists, however, Hauerwas never makes this antithesis so absolute that he denies the non-Christian’s capacity to recognize actual truth even on the basis of a non-Christian worldview.
Below are some key quotations from Stanley Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures, with a focus on his contributions to the field of apologetics.
Overturning the World’s Epistemic Priorities
Acquiring a Christian view of the world “calls for a persistent willingness to overturn the epistemic priorities (though not the totality of belief) we would otherwise be inclined to have. In at least this sense, ordering one’s beliefs such that Jesus Christ has unrestricted epistemic primacy requires a change of heart and not simply a change of mind.”
How history is done by Christians will be different from how it is done by those who assume that God has nothing to do with our lives. … In spite of the various meanings of the term “philosophy” and the variety of philosophical systems, there exists a core of philosophical enquiry in which Christians have a stake. … Although the results of [the non-Christian’s] reasoning may be true, they “acquire their true meaning only if they are set within the larger horizon of faith.” … The truths discovered through philosophy must be tested and judged by the truth known through revelation; for the latter is not the product or consummation of arguments devised by human reason but comes to us as the gift of life, Jesus Christ.
Why the Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas Do Not Support Evidentialist Apologetics or Natural Theology
According to [Thomas] Aquinas, … “sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.”
For Aquinas, knowledge attained by “natural reason” is not more certain than that attained by revelation; “natural” and “revelation[al]” do not name epistemological alternatives. Thus, those who attempt in the name of Aquinas to develop a “natural theology”—that is, a philosophical defense of “theism” as a propaedeutic for any further “confessional” claims one might want to make—are engaged in an enterprise that Aquinas would not recognize. … Calling attention to what he calls Aquinas’s “little coda” that ends each of the five ways—“and this everyone understand to be God”—[George] Hendry notes that the problem in the time of Aquinas “was not really to persuade people to believe in God, but to help them relate their belief in God to the nature and conditions of the world and to see that their belief in God and their understanding of the world mutually illumine each other.” In a similar fashion, Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that “the medieval project of natural theology was profoundly different from the Enlightenment project of evidentialist apologetics.” … [John] Locke, according to Wolterstorff, is the great representative of the evidentialist perspective. … Locke sought to defeat the Enthusiasts by developing what Wolterstorff characterizes as a foundationalist theory of justified belief, that is, the theory that a belief can be a rational belief only if it is grounded in certitude, whether immediately or mediately. … From Aquinas’s perspective, if we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist. … What happened so that anyone who [believes in God] must bear the burden of proof? The shorthand answer is something called “modernity,” whose agent is identified as “the Enlightenment.”
The Unavoidable Clash Between Thomism and Modernity
The Thomist … cannot avoid asking what the modern university is for, as well as what particular goods the modern university serves. But those are just the questions, according to [Alasdair] MacIntyre, that the modern university must repress in order to preserve the illusion that the university transcends conflict. Like [William] James’s famous hotel corridor, the modern university has become all things to all people (who have money) by looking away, as James puts it, from “first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and [by] looking toward last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” In contrast, … MacIntyre suggests that we need, as an alternative both to the premodern university of enforced and constrained agreements and to the modern university of alleged unconstrained agreements, a university of constrained disagreements. … Such a result would present to the wider society rival claims, as each university advanced its own inquiries on its own terms and secured agreements to ensure the progress of its inquiries by its own set of exclusions and prohibitions.
William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Centrality of the Church’s Witness
This seems to me to be the simplest possible way of stating the ontological argument, even though it’s not explicitly intended to summarize the ontological argument at all:
For [William] James, … “anything short of God is not rational, anything more than God is not possible.”
How Reinhold Niebuhr influenced American theology:
Under [Reinhold] Niebuhr’s influence, theology—particularly in America—became ethics, and ethics became the investigation of the conditions necessary to make a liberal social order work.
A succinct summary of how the defense of Christian faith has been unhealthily connected to Western cultural constructs:
Attempts to provide justifications of Christian practices in an earlier day tended to regard those practices “as closely bound up with the distinctive achievements of modern Western culture, and so took the development of the West as part of the practical evidence for the truth of Christianity.” … The God we worship and the world God created cannot be truthfully known without the cross, which is why the knowledge of God and ecclesiology—or the politics called church—are interdependent. … The gospel of Jesus Christ, it seems, proclaims a truth which cannot be known unless it is also loved.