Stanley Hauerwas tells Wycliffe College how to write a good sentence

American theologian Stanley Hauerwas spoke at Wycliffe about the importance of writing "good theological sentences." Photo: André Forget
American theologian Stanley Hauerwas spoke at Wycliffe about the importance of writing "good theological sentences." Photo: André Forget
Published December 4, 2015

“I want to write about how to write theology,” the celebrated American theologian Stanley Hauerwas said to a standing-room-only crowd at Wycliffe College in Toronto on November 30. “I want to write about how to write theology, because I think we have not thought hard enough about why it’s hard to write theologically, and by ‘we’ I mean those of us who self-identify as theologians.”

Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina and author of dozens of books on Christian theology, ethics, and the church. He is known as much for his principled stands on pacifism and the relationship of the church to the state as for the often acerbic style in which he delivers them-after Time Magazine named him “America’s Best Theologian in 2001, for example, he replied by saying that “best is not a theological category.”

Over the past 40 years, Hauerwas has made a name for himself by challenging both liberal and fundamentalist strains of Christian thought. True to form, his lecture at Wycliffe College was a mix of rigorous theology, stringent critique and dry humour that tackled head-on what he perceived as being a reticence among theologians to be up front about their Christian convictions, and argued that a closer attention to the meaning contained in the grammar of good sentences was one way to get theology back on the rails.

Beginning with a denunciation of the way in which many contemporary theologians “often confuse writing about theology with writing theology,” Hauerwas said that theologians need to seriously engage with what it would mean to “write a theological sentence that has the potential to make a reader stop and rethink how they ought to think.”

Contending that “a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange,” Hauerwas lamented that most modern theology “has been the attempt to show that the familiar is just that-familiar,” and therefore still has a place in the academic world. In order to make their work seem similar to the work of any other academic discipline, theologians have limited themselves to “writing about what theologians may or may not have said about God, rather than writing about God.”

Hauerwas is having none of it. Instead, he celebrates academic theology’s loss of credibility in the mainstream university: “Theologians now have nothing to lose, so we can do our work with the freedom that comes to those who have nothing to lose,” he said. “We can write without apology-at the very least, that means we do not have to try to make what we believe acceptable to those who have decided that what we believe cannot be true.”

This, he explained, is why he wants to get back to the idea of what it means to write a good theological sentence. He held up a sentence from the first volume of American theologian Robert Jenson‘s Systematic Theology as being exemplary of what a theological sentence should do. Jenson says that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt,” and Hauerwas argues that it is precisely in the way the grammar of the sentence reverses the traditional philosophical order of reasoning about God’s existence, which first argues that there needs to be a god and moves forward from there to argue that that god is the Christian God. For Hauerwas, good theological writing starts with the experience of God in history and works from there.

Using as a jumping-off point a book called How to Write a Good Sentence: And How to Read One, written by his friend and erstwhile Duke colleague Stanley Fish, Hauerwas argues that a good theological sentence understands that it cannot capture the absolute truth about God. Instead, it brings grammatical form and content together to reveal truths about how God relates to the world.

For example, in Hauerwas’s reading of Jenson’s sentence, the use of “whoever,” he said, “resists the commonplace assumption that when someone says ‘God’ they know what they are talking about.” This serves as a reminder that the Christian God is not an abstract God, but one who has been revealed through actions. It also says something about the communal way in which this God must be followed.

“‘Whoever’ indicates that the church is necessary,” he said, “because the God who can be known only as the God who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt, is known only through witnesses.”

It is the job of the church, Hauerwas said, to train up believers who are capable of understanding the truths transmitted by good theological sentences.

“Good sentences, and our ability to read them, do not drop from the sky. Rather, they are the result of a lifetime of training necessary to produce a soul capable of seeing through the sentimentalities we use to hide our mortality.”

The lecture was the third instalment of a weekend-long speaking engagement co-sponsored by Cathedral Church of St. James and Wycliffe College that saw Hauerwas give a talk at the cathedral on November 28 and a sermon on the 29th. His topic was taken from the essay “How to Write a Theological Sentence,” in his book The Work of Theology, published in July 2015.


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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