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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 241–243 

Book Review

With the Grain of the Universe

Stanley Hauerwas. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001. 249 pages.

Reviewed by Kent Dunnington

In this manuscript of his 2001 Gifford Lectures, Stanley Hauerwas presents an argument for an alternative understanding of “natural theology” by telling a story about how theology went wrong—then right—in the thought of three twentieth-century Gifford lecturers. Currently Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University, Hauerwas writes with a welcome combination of verve and precision. This book is highly technical (both philosophically and theologically) and heavily footnoted but nevertheless gripping and readable.

Hauerwas’s thesis is that “natural theology is impossibly abstracted from a full doctrine of God” (9). This thesis is advanced over against founder Lord Adam Gifford’s vision for the Lectures according to which religion would be treated “as a natural science—without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation” (26). The heart of Hauerwas’s argument is that Lord Gifford, along with most of twentieth-century theology, failed to recognize that there is no neutral rationality that could serve to make theology less “dogmatic” and more “scientific.” “ ‘Natural’ and ‘revelation’ do not name epistemological alternatives” (25) because there is no such thing as natural reason simpliciter. Hence, the current picture of natural theology preparing the way for dogmatic theology by establishing theism as prolegomenon to Christianity becomes unintelligible. “ ‘Natural theology’ simply names how Christian convictions work to describe all that is God’s good creation” (142); it is nothing more than “the attempt to witness to the nongodforsakenness of the world even under the conditions of sin” (20).

Hauerwas begins his story with William James, not least because he is the Gifford lecturer who seems to have most adequately fulfilled Lord Gifford’s proclaimed vision. The most determinative theme of James’ lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience, Hauerwas contends, is their presumption that the proper object of religious inquiry is humanity, as evidenced by the subtitle, A Study in Human Nature. In his attempt to adduce essential characteristics of religion from a mass of reported religious experiences, James arrives at a diluted theism that comes to nothing more than a religious version of humanism. “For James, theism does not involve the claim that something like God exists, but rather that no account of the world is adequate that denies the aspect of human existence that led us to believe in a god” (60).


It was only because the world that James envisioned became a reality—a world wherein natural science dictated metaphysics and democratic humanism dictated ethics—that another famous Gifford lecturer, Reinhold Niebuhr, could appear as a Christian alternative to James. Niebuhr merely represents a continuation of James’s humanism since he treats Christianity as a tool that can repair a problem specified by secular modernity as “the human dilemma” (116) rather than as the Truth which tells us both what the problem is and also what has been done about it. Thus Niebuhr could write, “there are resources in the Christian religion which make it the inevitable basis of any spiritual regeneration of Western civilization” (108). Insofar as “human nature” and “Western civilization” delineate the categories of inquiry for James and Niebuhr, “Christianity is nothing more than a disguised humanism, and theology is really anthropology” (116).

The hero of the story is Karl Barth for the startlingly simple reason that Barth took the object of theological investigation to be God rather than humanity. Barth becomes the Gifford Lectures’ true “natural theologian” precisely because he develops “a massive theological metaphysics that provides an alternative to the world in which Lord Gifford’s understanding of natural theology seems reasonable” (39). Hauerwas attempts to show that Barth “not only helps Christians recover a confidence in Christian speech, but also exemplifies how Christian language works” (143).

For example, only when we understand the centrality of the Christian conviction that in the triune God “the Son witnesses to the Father” can we understand what follows from this, that “the Spirit makes us witnesses to the Son so that the world may know the Father” (207). Only when we grant theology the position to tell us the way the world is and, therefore, how to live “with the grain of the universe” (17) do we grasp that “witness” names the proper form of Christian argument and apologetic. Witness is the supreme form of Christian apologetic because it reminds the world that there is something more ultimate than our questions, our categories, our arguments. Very simply, witness is the essential form of Christian argument because God creates freely, not necessarily, and because the central Truth of the universe has been revealed rather than discovered. In the last chapter, Hauerwas explores the lives of John Howard Yoder and Pope John Paul II to demonstrate how Christian speech (theology) is therefore inseparable from Christian living (witness).

Although the intrigue of Hauerwas’s argument derives from the fact that James, Niebuhr, and Barth were all Gifford lecturers, this fact also {243} constitutes a weakness. For though it is evident that Barth provides a stark alternative to the disguised anthropology of James and Niebuhr, his thought does not afford Hauerwas the inroads needed to make clear the appropriate relationship between theology and philosophy, beyond the oft-repeated claim for the priority of theology. Hauerwas seems aware that both Aquinas and John Paul II envision a more decisive role for philosophy than Barth (235), but he lacks the time and space needed to mine their positions for a more thorough account of what it means to do theology within the context of a full doctrine of God, that is, to do natural theology.

Kent Dunnington
Graduate Student, Department of Philosophy
Texas A & M University, College Station, Texas

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