Stanley Hauerwas: Why So Asinine?

I know Stanley Hauerwas is a provocateur who is often given to hyperbole, but I am having real trouble with something that he said at the 2003 Emergent Convention. The recording of the lecture is the latest download from the Emergent Village podast. I won’t attempt to critique the entire talk, but there was one sentence that jumped out to me:

To suggest that hope in afterlife is a way to deal with death is about as stupid as suggesting we ought to have children because they’re our hope in our future (Stanley Hauerwas, 2003 Emergent Convention).

Is Hauerwas really suggesting that hope in an afterlife is sub-Christian behavior? Does he really want to say that Christians should not war against the dread of death by remembering the promises of future grace that are available to us in the gospel?

Was it not the apostle Paul, after all, who time and again exhorted Christians to do the very thing that Hauerwas says is “stupid”? I have in mind a whole truckload of texts to this effect, but consider for example 2 Corinthians 1:9-10:

9 We had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a [peril of] death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us.

It is clear in this text that Paul and his companions were looking death in the face. Indeed they had already “despaired of life” (v. 8 ), having given up all hope that they would escape their persecution with their lives intact. Yet Paul saw his way through the terror of death by believing in a God who promises an afterlife. Or, to put it like N. T. Wright, he believed in a God who promises life after life after death.

In other words, Paul overcame the despair of death because he trusted in a God who “raises the dead.” God had powerfully raised Jesus bodily from the grave, and Paul had seen the resurrected Christ with his own eyes (Acts 9). Paul knew that Christ’s resurrection was the prototype and promise of his own resurrection from the dead. Jesus Christ’s resurrection had already shown that believers had nothing to fear from death. There might be a sting, but there would be no poison (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
To say that hoping in an “afterlife” is “stupid” goes beyond the pale of acceptable hyperbole. As a matter of fact it’s downright asinine. We all use overstatement. I just hope our overstatements will have a trajectory toward the gospel and not away from it.

One Comment

  • Joe James

    Hello. I appreciate your struggle with Hauerwas’ words. In fact, I think that your assessment of Hauerwas as a provocateur is correct – and he says what he says to force you to have struggles that you and I need to have. (I might add that this is in pure “Jesus fashion” – remember Jesus saying things like, you have to hate money or you’ll hate God, and if you don’t hate your family then you’re not worthy of him? Prophets tend to poke at our allegiances and assumptions).

    I know that it would be a lot of work for you to critique an entire Hauerwas speech (who has the brains for that, right?) but you’re doing him great injustice here by snatching this one phrase out and setting him up as a “Death & God” theologian that has no use for a hope in afterlife.

    More than just taking this one phrase out of context, you’ve even missed the point of this one phrase standing alone. What Hauerwas said is that using a hope in afterlife as the only way to deal with death (referring to us still alive) is ridiculous to him. Now to you it may not be. But I myself see his point. There are many other very Christian ways to deal with death that we good ole Christians often ignore. And I think the afterlife thing, has taken on a weird tone (in some places and cases) that subconsciously communicates to Christian mourners that they aren’t allowed to do things like: be angry with God, spill their heart out in sorrow, and weep with passion over their loss. These are long inherited ways of dealing with death that have been handed down to us from Israel, (see the psalms – especiall Ps. 88). I think, when you listen to Hauerwas’ full speech this is what you come away with. You definitely don’t get that he is opposed to hope in afterlife.

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