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The Grain of the Universe

2000 to 2001
University of St. Andrews

1. God and the Gifford Lectures

This lecture offers a critique of the stated programme of the Gifford Lectureship, because Lord Gifford’s will requested explorations in ‘natural religion’, and instructed lecturers to ‘treat their subject as a strictly natural science’. Hauerwas interprets this as a demand that God’s existence be proved, and responds with the reflection that the God Christians worship is confessed and believed, never demonstrated or proved. No theologian can do more than ‘witness’ to the truth (this category of ‘witness’, introduced in passing here, runs through the argument of the book). The argument of the lectures, then, will not be a demonstration of the existence of the divine or a discussion of such demonstrations; rather, it will concern the necessary interrelation of truth and holiness: theological claims can be considered to be true only insofar as they produce holy lives.

Is this an appropriate theme for the Gifford Lectures? Hauerwas points to Alasdair MacIntyre’s own Gifford Lectures, where MacIntyre notes that, whatever else he may struggle with, he can find common cause with Lord Gifford in the belief that accounts of the ultimate truth of things should be determinative for morality. Hauerwas invokes the same defence.

Why is natural theology, the proof of God’s existence, impossible? Hauerwas follows Aquinas in believing that God cannot be known directly, but only from his works. This is a necessary consequence of asserting that God is ontologically basic, and means that God’s existence can never be proved (Hauerwas never quite states that the effects by which the believer may know God are open to other interpretations from nonbelievers, but this is the implication of his argument).

2. The Faith of William James

William James’ Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, are perhaps the most famous of the series. James is not in the business of proving God’s existence; he rather assumes God’s nonexistence and asks why religion persists. His answer is an account of human nature. Hauerwas first criticises James’ account of religion, which privileges individual reflection and experience. James asserts, but without evidence (as Hauerwas notes), that ceremonial and communal religious practice arises from such individual experience.

Hauerwas interprets The Varieties of Religious Experience, and most of James’s mature work, as an ‘attempt to secure human significance’ (p. 49). Lord Gifford had assumed that the sciences revealed the order and meaning of the universe, but after Darwin, human existence appears merely a result of blind chance. In an earlier work, The Will to Believe, James had argued that we find it empirically (existentially?) impossible to live as if this were true. Religion is our attempt to find meaning in an apparently meaningless universe. However, James does not on this account dismiss religious belief as fantasy: if the only way we can live healthily (to use the categories of The Varieties) is by believing something, that fact tells us something about the universe and our place in it.

3. God and William James

William James identified himself as a pragmatist, and argued (following Peirce) that ideas should only be considered interesting or true if they have practical outworkings, or (and Hauerwas makes much of this) if they stand in certain relations to other truths that do have practical outworkings. James regards most developed Christian doctrines as rendered false by his pragmatism: the doctrine of the Trinity (say) has no practical outworkings, and so is uninteresting. Hauerwas claims that this is simply wrong: a Christian practice of prayer, for example, is deeply affected by the doctrine of the Trinity. He believes, therefore, that James is offering a pragmatic justification for theological beliefs that are in fact derived from elsewhere. Hauerwas suggests that James’ basic objection to Christianity is political: ‘[w]hat really bothered James was not that Christianity seemed to entail false views about the world, but that Christianity challenged the moral and political arrangements necessary to sustain the human project without God’ (pp. 78–79). Hauerwas defends this by pointing to James’ criticism that Christian beliefs are ‘unfair’ at various points, and by asking why (in a Darwinian universe) we should expect reality to be fair. James believes, according to Hauerwas, in the necessary incompatibility of Christianity and democracy. On Hauerwas’ critique, it is precisely because belief in the atoning work of Christ does have pragmatic consequences that James was not prepared to accept it.

4. The Liberalism of Reinhold Niebuhr

Hauerwas states his thesis from the outset: ‘Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures are but a Christianized version of James’s account of religious experience’ (p. 87). The Nature and Destiny of Man, on Hauerwas’ reading, is a demonstration that Christian notions of original sin are not incompatible with ‘liberal culture and politics’. Hauerwas points to Niebuhr’s unpublished B.D. thesis, which attempts an analysis of religious knowledge in the German transcendental tradition, but with a distinct colouring of James’ pragmatism. He then traces hints through Neibuhr’s later works, which indicate a continuing desire to demonstrate the usefulness of Christian doctrine, and so its truth. In a scientific age, this is defended in terms borrowed from Troeltsch: creation is a myth that conveys meaning of permanent value.

5. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Natural Theology

Hauerwas reads Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures in these Jamesian terms, finding a lack of robust theology. God is reduced to a conceptualisation that allows us to make sense of life; salvation is a reorienting of our cognitive apparatus and sin is merely an appropriate chastening of over-optimistic liberalism. Revealingly, Niebuhr constructs the human predicament in terms of a dialectic of finitude and freedom, and there is no place in his theology for the church. Hauerwas accepts that more positive readings of Niebuhr are possible, but wants to sharpen the contrast with his next subject, Karl Barth.

6. The Witness That Was Karl Barth

Hauerwas offers a more extended account of Barth’s biography than he had offered for James or Niebuhr in order to make the point that, rather than interpreting the intellectual culture of his time, Barth sought to overthrow it. If any sort of natural theology is to be found in Barth, it will be a re-narrating of the whole of creation as precisely that—creation, the product of the free action of a sovereign God. This explains his angry rejection of Brunner’s natural theology as well as the positions he took in opposition to Hitler.

7. The Witness of the Church Dogmatics

The massiveness of the Church Dogmatics is a result of Barth’s conviction that under every head, and indeed under every subhead of dogma, the whole of the history of God’s ways with the world must be re-narrated to give an adequate account of the matter. Creation, then, cannot be separated from Trinity, atonement or sanctification, and so we cannot provide a natural theology—a theological account that makes sense of the world—without all these other doctrines. Barth’s conviction is that no other narration of the world makes adequate sense: we do not, and cannot, understand the world in which we live except as the good creation of the God whom Jesus Christ called ‘Father’.

8. The Necessity of Witness

Hauerwas has argued that we cannot reason our way to the existence of God or comprehend religion merely on the basis of its usefulness. How, then, do we know God? The answer is through witness, through the lived-out testimony of those who indwell the Christian story. The book ends with two more biographical sketches, calling attention to the witness of John Howard Yoder and Pope John Paul II. These two are chosen to add a dimension which Hauerwas believes is missing or downplayed in Barth’s theology: the communal life of the church. Human lives shaped by the liturgy and dogma of the church are the only context in which Christian theology is intelligible and rational. That is why Lord Gifford’s instructions must be refused.




With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology

Grands Rapids, MI
Brazos Press
  • St. Andrews