I’m not honestly sure how well known Stanley Hauerwas is here in the UK. He has been referred to as America’s most celebrated living theologian, and has also been described as “one of the world’s most influential living theologians”. Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University, and during his illustrious career has penned well over 40 books.
I am mainly aware of Hauerwas because I have a good number of theologically minded American friends. I have The Hauerwas Reader on my shelf and dip into it from time to time, but up to now had not read any substantive work of his from cover to cover. (I had read his Cross-Shattered Christ, but that is a devotional rather than a scholarly work of theology.) Being something of an armchair theologian, when I saw that he had a new book coming out titled The Work of Theology, I was keen to read it to see what useful lessons I could learn from Hauerwas’s long and esteemed career as a theologian and public intellectual.
I suppose I expected this book – just from its title – to be some kind of treatise or gathered reflection on what theology is. On one level, I was disappointed, because the book is a lot more complex than that. But on another level, I was very satisfied: it does indeed act as a kind of survey or primer of theology – what it is, why it matters, and what the theological state of affairs is in the world today – just not in the format I expected.
To structure the rest of this brief review, I’ll describe The Work of Theology using three adjectives: academic, referential and practical.
1. Academic: not being a complete virgin when it comes to reading theology, I suppose I rather smugly thought I would be able to read this book in two or three days without breaking a sweat. Within a few short pages, it became clear to me that what we have here is an awful lot of scholarly wisdom condensed into a relatively few innocuous-looking pages. Hauerwas routinely uses terms that require some considerable level of prior knowledge and understanding to decipher. Although he provides plenteous footnotes, he doesn’t devote much time to defining his terms: he seems to rather assume that anyone interested and/or bold enough to read his work will either already be familiar with the associated terminology or will expect to have to do their own leg-work to decrypt it. I therefore found that I spent much longer poring over the book than initially anticipated. And this was no bad thing, for this is not a book to be rushed over.
I suspect this may be partly due to the fact that The Work of Theology is in some ways an end-of-career retrospective rather than a full-orbed work of theology in its own right. Had it been a treatise on some particular and precise topic of theology, I’m guessing the author would have gone to great lengths to define and support all the terms and arguments used. The reality is, however, that it’s more of a helicopter’s-eye view of a number of topics and how Hauerwas has dealt with them over the years.
As a slight aside, it’s worth noting that Hauerwas often seems to assume that anyone versed in theology will also have more than a passing knowledge of philosophy. This made the task a little more challenging for me, since my knowledge of philosophical thinking is sketchy indeed.
2. Referential: given point 1 above, this book contains plenty of references to other works. While the author is not shy about quoting his own earlier work (and why should he be?), he also cites a wide range of other writers. Given the breadth of the subject matter covered (see point 3 below), this means the footnotes – and, in many places, the text itself – contain an abundance of valuable references to other topical material. It thus strikes me that The Work of Theology could act as an excellent jumping-off point for anyone wishing to get to grips in more detail with any of the theological topics explored. Indeed, I expect I will use it as a reference source for my own further reading in the future.
3. Practical: in light of the above two points, you might be surprised to hear me describe The Work of Theology as a practical book. Yet practical it is. Hauerwas spends much of the first chapter explaining his understanding of the notion of “practical reason”. At the most basic level, I take this sustained explanatory effort to indicate that theology, if it is to be at all worthwhile in any meaningful way, cannot be relegated to the domain of purely conceptual thought; it must be translated into lived reality. Indeed, this is why in many places in the book there is no clear dividing line between what one might term “theology proper” and what might rather be termed “ethics”. If theology (what we think about God) cannot be translated into ethics (how we live in light of that understanding), it is surely little more than a vain intellectual pursuit.
Further evidence of the practicality of Hauerwas’s endeavour in this book lies in the very chapter titles themselves: of the 13 chapters (not including the introduction or the postscript), 12 begin with the words “How to…” (and the 13th begins “The ‘How’ of…”). Among the wide variety of topics thus explored are how to tell time theologically, how to write a theological sentence, and even how to be theologically funny. It seems one of the things the author is keen to demonstrate is that theology is relevant to every aspect of human existence.
In summary, I think The Work of Theology is an excellent book for any reader in one of two categories. First, it will be useful for the reader who, like me, has a passing acquaintance with Hauerwas but would like to begin get a handle on the rest of his substantial body of work. And second, it will also be a more than worthwhile read for anyone keen to acquire a career’s worth of distilled and learned insight into the question “What exactly is theology?”
I would only add one caution: this is not a book for the casual reader who thinks theology is a walk in the park, something that can be engaged in without much mental or moral effort. On the contrary, it provides an insight into just how deep, rich and multilayered the world of theology is.
I was provided with a review copy of The Work of Theology by the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.