"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Alexander Schmemann and Stanley Hauerwas

As I noted previously, Stanley Hauerwas is one of the most significant figures in the North American theological landscape. Now some of his former students have come out with a Festschrift for him on his 70th birthday:

Charles Pinches et al., eds., Unsettling Arguments: a Festschrift on the Occasion of Stanley Hauerwas's 70th Birthday (Cascade Books, 2010), 356pp.

Festschriften are often notoriously shallow books as academics (especially young ones) get another publication on their CV without the rigors of peer-review, or the discipline imposed by long-form writing of monographs. It is easy to dash off something grateful and appreciative--even sycophantic--about a mentor or colleague, but such tributes, however sincere, can sometimes be superficial and tedious to anyone not interested in the honoree. This volume very commendably avoids that problem in part by a strong focus on the public implications of Hauerwas's moral theology for modern America. Hauerwas, heavily influenced by the late Mennonite John Howard Yoder, has perhaps emerged today as the most prominent Christian "pacifist" and one of the most prominent critics of all the pomps and works of the nation-state and the wars so often committed in its name. 

Not all the articles are of the same quality. Some say little; and at least one in particular should never have seen the light of day--full of the tendentious sloganeering and jargon-laden self-righteous preening that so rightly cause so many people to roll their eyes when some academics begin their tiresome pontifications on topics like "race."

One in particular will be of particular interest to Eastern Christians: "Worshiping in Spirit and Truth" by Kelly S. Johnson of the University of Dayton. She looks at Hauerwas's oft-stated claim that the first task of the Church is to be the Church, and the subsequent claim that the most important thing Christians can do is celebrate the liturgy. Hauerwas is not formally a liturgical theologian, and she notes that his "writing on the liturgy ought not to be taken as unproblematic; a great deal of work remains to be done" (302). Much of the work, she later notes, is twofold: grappling with the question of how liturgy can be so central when it is precisely in the liturgy, at the eucharistic table, that Christians are still most noticeably divided (310). The other issue she notes is that there is "considerable evidence that regular participation in liturgy does not make people virtuous or even more aware of what a virtuous life should be" (311). Anyone who knows anything about parish life in Eastern Christian churches can surely agree with this statement. 

Johnson goes on to note that Hauerwas "turns uncharacteristically reticent when...talking about God's role in liturgy" (307). She compares his thoughts on liturgy with the great--arguably greatest--Orthodox liturgical theologian of the twentieth century, Alexander Schmemann, especially in his book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Johnson argues that Hauerwas shares with Schmemann a sense that "liturgy is participation in the divine life. But it's also clear that he finds such a thing difficult to write about." Perhaps, I might add, that is not necessarily a weakness but could perhaps be considered an example, perhaps unwitting, of the apophaticism that some recent scholars have traced back to Clement of Alexandria, but which is today increasingly being found in Western theologians and philosophers.

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