An ornery, angry, theologian ethicist has a bone to pick with American Christianity, says David Hunsicker. And that’s why he’s important.
Jason Micheli, host of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast, spoke with theologian David Hunsicker on the influential theologian Stanley Hauerwas, of United Methodist affiliated Duke Divinity School, on November 15, 2019. Hunsicker defended Hauerwas’ loud and angry style, citing author Flannery O’Connor: “For the deaf, you must yell.” The deaf, for Hauerwas, is the American church. Hauerwas takes it upon himself to do the yelling.
Hunsicker, then, compares Hauerwas to Karl Barth. While they may appear dissimilar, both critique Protestant liberalism, and look for a theology that reflects God and who God is. Stanley Hauerwas is, according to Hunsicker, a theologian on par with Søren Kierkegaard: someone who helps people make sense of the world and respond theologically.
After comparing Barth and Hauerwas, Hunsicker defends the theologian against claims that he lacks a doctrine of God. If you read his sermons, Hunsicker says, you’ll find a well-ordered, tripartite doctrine. The first order is praise of God: Hauerwas talks about God in the context of worship, i.e. preaching, praying, etc. The second order is found in Hauerwas’ essays. These lay out grammatical rules for how you speak about God. The third order addresses philosophical underpinnings, such as Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard.
Micheli then moves on to praise Hunsicker’s new book, also titled The Making of Stanley Hauerwas: Bridging Barth and Postliberalism, noting especially his mention of Barth’s own law/Gospel distinction, which helps interpret Hauerwas. Within the Reformed tradition, after salvation and the Gospel, the intention to follow law (and thus, God) comes. This intention, to hear and obey, is sanctification and contrasts Luther’s interpretation, which saw the law as primarily dialectic and an agent to convict. The law, Barth noticed (and Hunsicker wrote), is convicting, and thus sanctifying.
In a move away from Christian culture, Hunsicker argues that salvation is corporate. Individualism of modern America has crept into the church and suggested each person is responsible for themselves in a way dangerous to Christianity, such as interpretation of Scripture and the need for Christian community.
Civil religion, too, is a theme of contention for Hunsicker. His old church had a tradition of singing “America” after the doxology. Slowly, Hunsicker removed that tradition by taking it away at Advent, then Lent, etc. Micheli pointed out, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, the difference between “national time” (regular months of the year) and “holy weeks” (Advent, for example). Hunsicker also condemned “anything next to the cross” as “idolatry,” referring to the American flag.
Speaking on civil religion from the pulpit, Hunsicker questioned the silence of pastors on events like the May shooting of a synagogue by a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination. His pastor, the Rev. Mika Edmondson, wrote a statement acknowledging the church’s failure and the tragedy. Hunsicker, however, wonders about the silence of the church at-large in the wake of events like this: Christianity is not just Sunday morning. There should be no knee-jerk reactions to events, but pulpits are too silent during these tragedies. Without an entire dedicated sermon, there is a way to speak on these problems from the pulpit, to admit the failure of a tradition. Micheli responded with his reaction to a typical Facebook comment on a tragedy, which is usually something like: “If your pastor isn’t preaching on this on Sunday, you’re at the wrong church.” Micheli suggested, “If your pastor isn’t preaching the Gospel, you’re at the wrong church.” A middle ground between speaking on every tragedy, and ignoring external events, must be found.
The final topic of discussion was seminaries, churches, and the trust between the two. Churches trust their clergy have learned enough material, and the right material, at seminary. Seminary, says Hunsicker, is equipping for the moment, without training for the long haul. Relatedly, seminaries graduate pastors who can occasionally be found “firing hot takes all over Twitter without having been formed to see the things they’re trying to say.” To clarify, Hunsicker references Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev. The titular character wants to learn to paint from a master, but the master sends him to a museum to copy the old works – their brushstrokes, their styles, etc. The student becomes frustrated. The master explains, “Art and painting is a religion.” You must learn the tradition before you can add to it, or rebel against it. A fine example of this is Alasdair MacIntyre.
To hear the podcast in its entirety, and to hear Hunsicker’s answers to questions like what his favorite (and least favorite) word is, and what sounds he likes and dislikes, visit http://tamedcynic.org/episode-234-david-hunsicker-the-making-of-stanley-hauerwas-bridging-barth-and-postliberalism/