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From pragmatism to the practical: reflections on the Stout, Rorty, Hauerwas debate

July 24, 2010 5 comments

What’s interesting to me about Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, and his rebuttals to the critical responses of West, Rorty, and Hauerwas in the panel discussion published in the recent JAAR volume, is not so much his commitment to pragmatism (which is, notably, complicated by his recogntition of the  plurivocity of this term) but rather his evident insistence upon being practical

The former, I take it, has considerable positive content.  Stout and Rorty disagree precisely on whether a preference for secularity is essential to this content.  Stout thinks no strong preference of this kind is entailed.  Rorty–insofar as he remains worried about the authoritarian implications of metaphysical (or metaphysical-like) theories of truth, including Christian, Platonic, Cartesian, and others–continues to argue for the importance of such a preference, even though he interestingly suggests (citing Wolterstorff) that theists can legitimately speak from their own points-of-view in the public square.  

But, as Hauerwas’ line of questioning makes clear, and as Stout himself emphasizes, an account of pragmatism which is less restrictive than Rorty’s is not, for this reason, lacking in certain commitments, which constitute a positive tradition.  The main challenge which Hauerwas poses to Stout, as I see it, is that the compatibility of Stout’s more inclusive but still somewhat positive version of pragmatism with the radical demands of Christian discipleship is not a foregone conclusion.  Stout’s hospitality to the Christian other, however welcome and welcoming it is, however refreshingly different from Rorty’s performatively dogmatic secularism, nevertheless may not be able to embrace this other as such, absolutely, without qualification.  A Stoutian society may still be one in which Christians have got to compromise themselves, to some extent, albeit to a much lesser extent than Rorty would ultimately want.

In the end, the question is this: If one wants to be more than a Christian pragmatist (a position which, thanks to West and others, as Stout contends, need not be construed as oxymoronic) and become, above all else, and without compromise, a Christian simpliciter (a disciple of Christ and not Emerson, James, Dewey, etc.), does this desire commit one to becoming impractical?  To be practical would entail minimally taking seriously in some way or another the pluralistic fact of humanity, because such is the state of the real world in which action is possible, in which alone discipleship can be embodied and not merely envisioned.  This is the challenge which Stout poses to Hauerwas, but also to Christians more generally.  Stout also makes a recommendation, in the form of a (revisionist-)pragmatist account of the practical.  But it seems to me that the space for future dialogue is precisely the practical as such, which includes the given constraints of profound human diversity, but which is not necessarily in every respect identifiable with a pragmatist account of the practical, even of a Stoutian variety. 

The logic of Stout’s work and the intelligibility of Hauerwas’ response to it seem to be pushing in this direction.  Away from pragmatism as the condition of dialogue (though it remains in the dialogue) and toward a more general framework of concern, not structurally positioned (in any respect) against the theological but not explicitly entailing it either: a framework which I’m calling here “the practical.”

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Hauerwas and the Mennonites

July 19, 2010 1 comment

I just received the latest issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review in the mail (84.3, July 2010), which is cast as a tribute to Stanley Hauerwas on his 70th birthday. Most of the essays come from Mennonite former students of his: Chris Huebner (now of CMU), Peter Dula (EMU), and Alex Sider (Bluffton). There’s also an essay by Mark Thiessen Nation, and a print version of Hauerwas’s recent commencement address at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

Most exciting of all is the very first entry: “A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Writings of Stanley Hauerwas,” spanning 46 pages and 41 years worth of work—books, miscellaneous essays, reviews, sermons, and interviews. This painstaking work of love was performed by Angus Paddison of the University of Winchester and Darren Sarisky of Cambridge. It’s absolutely fascinating to read. The first two entries, editorals from 1969 and 1970, hearken back to a day before Hauerwas had become Hauerwas: “The Ethics of Black Power” and “The Ethics of Population and Pollution.” The compilers’ greatest contribution is to have tracked down the innumerable short, popular writings Hauerwas has done over the years. He wrote surprisingly often, for example, for the Notre Dame Magazine while he worked here—the quarterly publication the school produces for its alumni and devotees. I’m going to get my hands on some of these as soon as possible, like “Notes by a Non-Catholic” from 1974 and “Rev. Falwell and Dr. King” from 1981.

The relation between Hauerwas and Mennonites is extremely interesting, and I think even “productive” for theology in general. In Peter Dula’s contribution, for example (my favorite of the bunch), titled “For and Against Hauerwas Against Mennonites,” Hauerwas’s claim to be a “high-church Mennonite” is taken seriously as a critique of Mennonite ecclesiology. It seems to me that in the work (maybe in the person) of Stanley Hauerwas, more than almost anywhere else, the similarities and specific differences between “high” and “low” church ecclesiologies make themselves evident. That confrontation is not only crucial to an understanding of Hauerwas, but also one that has lain all too quietly beneath the surface of the growing popularity of high church traditions—manifested in the number of recent conversions and the phenomenon of quasi-Catholicisim—which has gone on without very much theorizing of the low-church end at all. This new generation of Mennonite scholars is starting to remedy that nicely. (Another major example among Mennonites is the work of Fernando Enns, who has made important inroads, occasionally criss-crossed with those blazed by Hauerwas, into the relation between ecclesiology and nonviolence.)

All this to say: the recent issue of MQR is highly recommended, as, along the same lines, are The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation (eds. Chris Huebner and Tripp York) and Unsettling Arguments (eds. Charles R. Pinches, Kelly S. Johnson, Charles M. Collier), a new festschrift for Hauerwas that includes essays by many of the same authors in this issue.

Hauerwas on bishops

March 18, 2010 6 comments

I’m increasingly suspicious that Hauerwas’s “ambiguous ecclesial position,” which he obviously knows is a problem for him, means more theological trouble for him than he realizes. Take this quote, from his response to Stout’s Democracy & Tradition in Performing the Faith:

We betray the very gospel we are to serve if we have “positions” that become substitutes for what the church is about. Put in Catholic terms that Yoder would not have liked (though John often said his only problem with bishops is that they did and do not act like bishops), the bishop remains the theological heart of the church. That is why theologians are subordinate to the bishop and should be disciplined by the bishop if our work threatens the unity and holiness of the church. (233)

This amounts to a total reversal of what it means for a theologian to be accountable to the church—a matter of subordination to the community’s most powerful member, and not, as for Yoder, “subordination” to the weakest. Does he think it’s possible to make this kind of claim while leaving the bulk of his dependence on Yoder intact? Does he think that Yoder’s refusal of a clergy/laity distinction, or of any fixed hierarchy in the community, is finally unrelated to Yoder’s pacifism, his ecclesiology, his Christology?