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With the Grain of the Universe

The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology

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This major work by one of the world's top theologians offers a provocative and closely argued perspective on natural theology. Stanley Hauerwas shows how natural theology, divorced from a confessional doctrine of God, inevitably distorts our understanding of God's character and the world in which we live. This critically acclaimed book, winner of a Christianity Today Book Award, is now in paper. It includes a new afterword that sets the book in contemporary context and responds to critics.

1. God and the Gifford Lectures
2. The Faith of William James
3. God and William James
4. The Liberalism of Reinhold Niebuhr
5. Reinhold Niebuhr's Natural Theology
6. The Witness That Was Karl Barth
7. The Witness of the Church Dogmatics
8. The Necessity of Witness


"One way of telling the story of modern theology would be to trace the alienation of the task of natural theology from the task of articulating a richly Christian doctrine of God; one way of healing some of the unhappy divisions of modern theology would be to reintegrate those two tasks. Hauerwas's Giffords set out to do just that, and to do so with grace, wit, intellectual energy, and spiritual cogency. In its animated conversations with William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth and in its constructive proposals, this book makes for fine reading and ought to stir up some new and serious debate about what the church's confession has to say about natural reality."

John Webster, Oxford University

"An unexpected threesome, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth make for a surprising story and an original book. In Hauerwas's fresh interpretation of American intellectual history, Niebuhr, the neo-orthodox theologian, appears not as the Christian alternative to James's pragmatism but a thin religious version of the same, packaged in the vocabulary of Christian theology. Against this backdrop, Hauerwas draws on Karl Barth to set forth a 'theology without reservation' that takes modernity seriously but meets it not on modernity's terms but on the church's terms as witnessed by Christian thinkers such as John Howard Yoder and John Paul II. This is a book we have long awaited: Hauerwas's account of what went wrong and what went right with theology in the twentieth century. With the Grain of the Universe is Hauerwas in full sail."

Robert Louis Wilken, University of Virginia

"In this stunning book, the great Christian ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, offers the comprehensive theological argument we have long requested. Of course, if we were worthier students, we would have known that this could not come in the form of a conceptual system. Like Barth, whom he makes the hero of this book, Hauerwas teaches that Christian theological argument begins not with our own rational constructs, but by bearing witness to God's life among us. The argument proceeds not by speculating on what God's life might mean, but by narrating how it is in fact imitated by sanctified lives here in this created world. The argument ends not by framing doctrines, but by warning us of the error, violence, suffering, and death that remain in this world, and it calls us, in imitation of God's life, to help heal this world and to work for its final redemption. For those whose habit is to call this world 'nature,' Hauerwas's theological argument may be dubbed 'natural theology,' and the consequence will be a radical change in what we take natural theology to be: the story of God's life as it is lived, visibly, in this world; as its meaning is disclosed to the community of those who inquire after it; and as its truth is displayed through its visible effects in transforming this world into the one it would be and will be."

Peter Ochs, Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies, University of Virginia

"Never adverse to barking at a hand that ostensibly supports him, Hauerwas seizes the occasion of the Gifford Lectures to contend that the natural theology Lord Gifford advocated contradicts itself. At a minimum, Hauerwas meets his own criterion that he would 'rather be wrong than "profoundly boring,"' and offers a highly informed account of his claim that Karl Barth understood what two other equally famous Gifford lecturers--William James and Reinhold Niebuhr--did not: that natural theology is intelligible only as part of the whole doctrine of God revealed in Christ. Whether or not one agrees with Hauerwas--I do not--this book will rightly set the agenda for future discussion about the sources and authorities by which 'natural theology' may proceed."

Harlan Beckley, Fletcher Otey Thomas Professor of Religion, Washington and Lee University

The Author

  1. Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas

    Stanley Hauerwas (PhD, Yale University) professor emeritus of divinity and law at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of over forty books, including Cross-Shattered Christ, A Cross-Shattered Church, War and the American Difference, and...

    Continue reading about Stanley Hauerwas


Christianity Today 2002 Book Award Winner

"Hauerwas's more traditional Christian view will certainly not be accepted by everyone, but it is a well-reasoned argument. Recommended for seminary and larger public libraries."

Library Journal

"This is a book to delight and to educate the reader. As always, Hauerwas is wonderfully worth reading, and here the wide-screen scale of his vision is at full stretch. I cannot imagine any reader of this book not benefiting in all sorts of tangential ways from its densely packed route through some of the highways and by-ways of twentieth-century theology."

Richard S. Briggs,

Heythrop Journal

"Stanley Hauerwas often changes his topic, but he never changes his tune. Christian witness should be Christian; the Church should be churchly; theology should be theological. With the Grain of the Universe, originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures in winter 2001, plays the same melody. The topic is natural theology, which in the modern Christian tradition is often understood as the effort to use reasons available to all in order to establish the basis for a religious outlook. Against this standard approach, Hauerwas insists that natural theology is a dogmatic discipline. The truth of Jesus Christ is the key to the truth about everything else. Or to use the Hauerwasian idiom, learning the Christian language trains us to speak truthfully about the world. . . . Hauerwas' analysis of James and Niebuhr is important. James made no claim to speak as a Christian; Niebuhr was ever the churchman. Yet, by advocating a stance of responsibility that undermines the sharp outlines and authoritative weight of particular truth claims, both exemplify habits of thought that make Christianity increasingly invisible and weightless. . . . By Hauerwas' lights, then, we must take a very different tack. Instead of stepping back, we must step forward. To explain this move, Hauerwas' turns to Karl Barth. . . . Hauerwas intends to commend Barth's ambition. Barth is, says Hauerwas, the greatest natural theologian of the twentieth century. Barth took responsibility, and he did so in the right, intra-Christian way of insisting that faith has sufficient heft to generate judgment about all manner of things. . . . Jesus did not promise the Holy Spirit to the nations. Only the Church, Hauerwas insists, can secure a fully and finally responsible place to stand. One can be a citizen, just as one can be a critical thinker, or a scientific inquirer. But we can only assume these roles responsibly if we do so in the service of the truth. And as Hauerwas never tires of reminding us, only in the Church can we reliably find the teachings and habits to guide us toward such service."

First Things

"What does Christian witness mean in today's world? Stanley Hauerwas . . . answers this question by developing a highly original approach to natural theology. Through imaginative and often provocative arguments, Hauerwas challenges and often inverts many conventional assumptions in Christian theology and ethics. Written for the Gifford Lectures, this is an academic book. But anyone broadly conversant with Christian theology will be able to follow the main ideas here and will be richly stimulated by one of the leading theologians writing today."


"According to Hauerwas, America and Catholicism are not quite as compatible as we like to think. With the Grain of the Universe is Hauerwas's most important work yet for those concerned with such matters. . . . Past readers of Hauerwas will find the book a bit of a departure, in that it is a sustained argument rather than a collection of essays. Though the work is atypically academic in tone, the usual Hauerwas virtues and vices are to be found. In presenting James and Niebuhr, Hauerwas seems genuinely appreciative of the intellectual achievements of those with whom he disagrees. Of course, Hauerwas is never boring, sometimes gracing the reader with entertaining asides and histories, especially in the extensive footnotes (see pp. 35-36 to learn how the invention of the clock marginalized the church). He also displays his usual penchant for the one-liner, a habit at once amusing and infuriating. He sums up James's New England religious environment as 'Calvinism shorn of Calvin's Christ'--a phrase he has used in the past to more-or-less accurately describe the work of his teacher, James Gustafson. Here it is more pithy than accurate. Nonetheless, the story as a whole holds together and serves as a challenge to those who hold forth natural law as an autonomous source of moral authority when separated from the revealed doctrines of the church."


"[This book] is a disassembled paradox; the magic box of Hauerwasian style is here broken open, its parts laid out before us in an exploded diagram. The effect is simultaneously impressive--one sees more clearly than ever how much learning is needed to produce Hauerwas' insights--and a bit disenchanting: I'm not sure I want to know how the magician does it. But no one reading this book can say Hauerwas hasn't done his homework. . . . A last word about this powerful and important book: it is telling that Hauerwas chose to have it published, not by a university press or a trade house . . . but by a Christian publishing company, Brazos Press. It matters that this most 'academic' of Hauerwas' books comes to us with the imprint of a company dedicated--like Stanley Hauerwas' career--to the life and health of Christ's Church."

Alan Jacobs,

Books & Culture

"This is a substantial work, one that should be read even by those who already have their minds made up for or against Hauerwas. Minds may not be changed in the reading, but all will benefit by his discussion of James, Niebuhr, and Barth, with its illuminating insights into the present status of American theology, even if many will demur from the details of his characterizations and conclusions. Those who differ with him, however, should do so only if they are prepared to match the exhaustive and exhausting work that Hauerwas has produced here."

Mark Alan Bowald,

Toronto Journal of Theology

"Stanley Hauerwas is certainly the most important theological ethicist working in the English-speaking world. As such, he is a natural choice to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures, theology's equivalent to a Nobel Prize. . . . In With the Grain of the Universe, Hauerwas gives us a tour de force that redefines natural theology while providing his most sustained theological argument and most comprehensive intellectual story ever. . . . A remarkable achievement by a wonderful theologian."

D. Brent Laytham,

Covenant Quarterly

"Few theologians are as punchy and readable as Hauerwas. Though he may generate more heat than light at times, he practices in academia what he preaches--that the church should be a visible witness to the God of Jesus Christ who redeems the world on his own terms."

Mark Coffey,


"In this formidable and fascinating book Stanley Hauerwas sets himself a task which seems a contradiction in terms: to be true to his commission as Gifford lecturer in producing a work of natural theology according to the terms set down by that commission, and at the same time to show that it is impossible to do natural theology as Lord Gifford understood it--or rather, that natural theology on these terms is itself an impossibility. To perform this seemingly impossible feat is a task worthy of a writer whose mental agility and wit are legendary."

Sue Patterson,

Journal of Theological Studies

"Hauerwas is keen on telling stories, and in this text he tells the story of natural theology through the lives and lectures of William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. . . . Adventists would do well to learn the art of storytelling in the deliberate manner in which Hauerwas proceeds in all his theological works. Our story is profound; it deserves to be told well, and when it is, it will serve as a witness to the God of creation."

Mark Carr,

Andrews University Seminary Studies

"Hauerwas's characteristically thought-provoking and challenging ideas are again richly displayed in these lectures and, Hauerwas admits, in more 'thoughtful and fully argued' fashion than usual."

The Front Table

"In his Gifford lecture series Hauerwas expounds his thesis that natural theology divorced from the full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves. . . . Hauerwas explains his view by discussing the lives and works of three of the greatest Gifford lecturers--William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. . . . Hauerwas's brilliant interaction with these three 20th century thinkers ought to stir serious debate about the meaning of natural theology among evangelical and Reformed ethicists and theologians."

Christian Renewal

"September 11th has made Hauerwas's book required reading for all thinking Christians, whether one is more persuaded by O'Donovan or Yoder! It is well written, witty, informative, wholly lacking in pomposity. A great book."

Regents Reviews

"Hauerwas' story is a simple one--and this is his most sophisticated, and convincing, telling of it. The story is that ethics--theology--is about God. He goes on telling it for an even simpler reason. The reason is this: most of his colleagues in the Church, whom he longs--as Barth longed--to be witnesses, continue instead to believe, bewilderingly, that ethics and theology are not about God; they are about America."

Science & Theology News

"In these, his Gifford lectures, Stanley Hauerwas offers up a tale of fidelity and betrayal. Like all good storytellers, Hauerwas tells his story with relish."

David True,

Equinox Publishing Ltd.