Stanley Hauerwas is the most immediately likable bombthrower I have ever met. I first encountered him and his essays during that part of the 1970s I spent in the newly hatched field of bioethics. His later books The Peaceable Kingdom (1983) and Against the Nations (1985) had a considerable impact on my thinking, even when, or perhaps especially when, I could not agree with them.

The impact on me was nothing compared to Hauerwas’s impact on Christian ethics and Christian theology generally. In 2000–01, when he delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, he achieved a kind of celebrity status. The September 2001 issue of Lingua Franca, the now deceased but then “hot” journal of academic trends, ran a lengthy profile on him. Time magazine’s issue of September 10, 2001, dubbed him the “best theologian in America.” By noontime the next day, of course, Hauerwas’s outspoken pacifism made him a somewhat more problematic figure. Celebrity aside, Hauerwas’s influence on younger scholars and many church leaders has been substantial, something that he jocularly shrugs off, perhaps because he knows that his influence is decried as well as welcomed.

The influence is not hard to explain. His working-class Texan persona, complete with twang and legendary profanity (Lingua Franca’s cover announced him as “America’s Most Foul-Mouthed Theologian”) has made him stand out in academia. By numerous accounts, he is a winning teacher and a devoted mentor of a legion of graduate students who are certainly not clones but whose views bear a strong family resemblance to his own. Ultimately, however, those views are what count.

Hauerwas has repeatedly said that he finds the question of whether God exists uninteresting. The important question is which God exists, and the answer is the God who led Israel out of the land of Egypt and inaugurated, in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, a new kingdom, to which all are invited. Christians are a distinctive people formed around the story of the God of these liberating actions. That narrative is the ultimate ground of all that they know and do; as church, they keep the story alive, embodying it, enacting it, reinterpreting it, learning the virtues and skills to be the kind of people who witness to it.

For Hauerwas, this narrative is not anchored or validated in some prior proofs or philosophical foundation or in anthropological or psychological or (more recently) genetic claims about humanity’s natural religiosity; nor can the central narrative be translated into nonreligious, nonbiblical beliefs about human nature, community, ethics, or politics. Christian theology explores the meaning of that narrative for and with the church; it is not a subset of academic thinking about religion. Likewise Christian ethics is not a subset of a general ethics; it cannot be separated from Christian theology and Christian convictions; it addresses how they are to be lived out, or “performed,” in the church.

Hauerwas, in sum, insists on “the Christian difference.” Christians believe in a distinctive story, must form a distinctive community, and should live distinctive lives, ultimately convinced that control is not in their hands but in those of the God of Jesus, of Cross and Resurrection. They should be eager to change the world but, first of all, by their witness to an alternative way of living, refusing to water down that distinctiveness into some religiously dressed up humanitarianism, ideology, or politics.

The church is always tempted by new forms of “Constantinianism”—of accommodating Christianity to “a world of violence and lies,” a world that often retains or is exposed to just enough “soft Christianity” to inoculate it against the real thing.

Hauerwas, it should be obvious, is against a lot of things: apologetics, foundationalism, natural theology, natural law, and establishments in church and society, whether liberal or conservative; he is against individualism, liberalism, capitalism, war, and, well, most of the Enlightenment and modern culture. For starters.

One could also make a long list of all the things Hauerwas is for: Jesus, church, Scripture, liturgy, narrative, peace, truthfulness, and so on. But it is the opposition that gives his thought its muscle and energy.

Hauerwas is an excellent writer, direct, often witty. He squeezes his dichotomous thinking into epigrams (“The first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world,” or “The church does not have a social ethic. Rather the church is a social ethic”). He gives his talks, essays, and books subversive titles and subtitles like “The Non-Violent Terrorist: In Defense of Christian Fanaticism” or “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)” or “Why Justice Is a Bad Idea for Christians.” He makes extraordinary generalizations about matters small (“Over the years I have come to the judgment that Southern civility is one of the most calculated forms of cruelty”), or large (“The central problem for our church, its theology and its ethics is that it is simply atheistic”).

All this can be galvanizing. Certainly it was galvanizing to me. As a Catholic I was naturally attuned to his emphasis on church and liturgy. Tutored by the civil-rights and antiwar movements to question “the system,” I shared his unhappiness with theories of interest-group pluralism, procedural democracy, and liberalism understood as neutrality about how we should live. I was dissatisfied with moral reasoning fixated on rules and quandaries; and though I could have discovered from others the contrasting focus on character and virtue, in fact I was introduced to it largely by Hauerwas, as well as to nonfoundationalism and to the primacy of narrative, rather than demonstration or argument, in theology. Whether in bioethics, political analysis, or later the university, I found myself, like Hauerwas, at odds with secular pressures to subordinate or exclude religious identity and discourse.

At the same time I balked at his critique of natural law, his indiscriminate and incessant dismissals of liberalism, and his denunciations of modernity—all of which were tied tightly to his pacifism. While I did my share of demonstrating and editorializing against the war in Vietnam, nuclear armaments, and other U.S. military ventures, I concluded that pacifism too had its moral deficits.

So though I remained grateful for his repeated stirring of the theological pot—easy for me, of course, as a nontheologian—the power of his stark warning about living as though the God of Cross and Resurrection did not exist gradually gave way to an increasing resistance to what often felt like Hauerwas “shtick.”

That is the background I brought to Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, $24.99, 300 pp.). Others, especially those in Christian ethics and theology, may approach it with different interests and questions. I hope they find it as absorbing and moving as I did.

It begins, like most memoirs, with the picture of family and upbringing, by church people in Pleasant Grove, Texas. His mother, desperate to have a child, took up the prayer, in the First Book of Samuel, of childless Hannah, who vowed that if given a son, she would dedicate him to God. But the memoir could as well have been titled The Bricklayer’s Son. Hauerwas’s description of his father’s (and five uncles’) occupation, into which he was initiated around age seven or eight and in which he eventually became truly proficient, is as powerful a description of the craft and camaraderie of honest labor as I can recall. It bequeathed to young Stanley a lifelong zest for hard work and colorful vocabulary.

The second story in Hannah’s Child is that of Hauerwas’s search for theological truth, especially at Yale Divinity School and at the University of Notre Dame. He went to Yale unaware that the point of the place was to train ministers. Hauerwas simply wanted to explore “whether this stuff was true or not.” His enthusiastic course-by-course recounting of his Yale education may mean more to those who know all the players; it is in any case a testimony to the power of good teachers.

If there is a set of rules for untenured professors, Hauerwas broke every one of them in his first, tumultuous teaching position at Augustana College, but was rescued by an invitation from Notre Dame. There he discovered that “Catholicism is a world.” He discovered a host of scholars whose names are familiar to this magazine, and he also became a disciple of the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. The fourteen years Hauerwas spent in South Bend before a nasty quarrel with theologian Richard McBrien sent him to Duke left a positive mark. “I had been trained to be a theologian at Yale,” he writes. “At Notre Dame, I began the slow, agonizing, and happy process that has made me a Christian.”

The third story in Hannah’s Child is the heart-rending one of a misbegotten marriage to a senior-year college sweetheart. “We drove straight to New Haven and into hell,” Hauerwas writes. Anne Harley hated her own troubled and pious mother, hated the church, and soon extended those feelings to her husband. Anger and uncertainty about her own life and work—echoes here of feminist icon Betty Friedan’s “problem without a name”—graduated into full-blown psychotic breaks and rounds of cruel and bizarre behavior that left Hauerwas to raise their son and keep a vigilant medical watch. After twenty-four years of marriage she left him at Duke and returned to South Bend, caught up in a recurring obsession with marrying (of all people) James Burtchaell. Years later, in Lansing, Michigan, she died a pitiable death.

One chapter of Hannah’s Child is titled “Surviving” and another “Enduring,” and the key to both is the book’s fourth story—of Hauerwas’s many deep friendships. “My hunger for friendship may be pathological,” he confesses, but in fact it seems entirely admirable. The culminating friendship was, of course, with Paula Gilbert, the ordained Methodist minister and Duke administrator whom Hauerwas married in 1989, giving his memoir very much a classical happy ending.

Like most good memoirs, Hannah’s Child is a search for self-understanding: How did Stanley Hauerwas become “Stanley Hauerwas”? Basically, all his life he has been driven by a passion for truth. “I do not want to lie to others or myself.” “I simply lack patience with cant”—or, as he says more often, with “bullshit.”

This is the Hauerwas—or the “Hauerwas”— that readers know and either admire or resent: the Truth Enforcer. Actually, the terms he prefers are “truthful” and “truthfulness” (an early book was Truthfulness and Tragedy); and they are freighted with connotations of personal integrity. Truth and truthfulness are not opposed to error or lack of knowledge as much as to lies and cant. To fail to be truthful is not to be wrong, confused, or mistaken; it is to be deluded or dishonest, trapped in compromise and self-deception. The chief obstacle to truthfulness is not obscurity, complexity, or ignorance but accommodation.

Joined to Hauerwas’s irrepressible contrarianism, this way of putting things casts a certain shadow on disagreeing with him. You are told not only that the truth is quite different from what you assumed but that it is your moral failure, or more likely the church’s, that has kept you from seeing that.

Hauerwas does not exempt himself from these failures. His writings are peppered with self-deprecating remarks and confessions of his own failings, starting with the admission that “I am a card-carrying citizen of ‘our age.’ I live most of my life as if God does not exist.” He does not play the prophet, recognizing that prophets don’t enjoy the salary of a full professor at Duke. Nor are his polemics personal. With the exception of the two administrators he tangled with at Notre Dame and Duke, he is conspicuously generous toward individuals, at least living ones, with whom he disagrees. He targets ideas, institutions, and dead white males.

Hannah’s Child reveals other vulnerabilities behind the “Hauerwas” persona, the chief one of course being the deep wound of his marriage to Anne, about which, in an extraordinary moment of introspection, he even dares to ask whether it could have been the “critical edge” needed for his work.

The memoir reveals the extent to which Hauerwas’s thinking has been framed by a lifelong struggle with liberal Protestant theology and with the complacency of Protestant churches in the United States. Probably this was always obvious to Protestants and theologians; but to me, who am neither, it helped explain why, without necessarily disagreeing with Hauerwas’s thought, I had come to feel that it just spoke less and less to my own. Over a hundred pages pass before there is even a mention of Vatican II, and his comments on Catholic theology, positive or negative, are almost always shaped by that struggle with liberal Protestantism. (“If you want to know where Protestant liberal theology went to die, you need to look no further than the work of some Catholic theologians.”)

Then there was our different experience of the sixties. Just a year younger, I too spent much of that decade pursuing graduate studies, married, soon a parent, and distant from the counterculture’s experiments in utopian or ecstatic lifestyles. But nothing in his book took me by surprise as much as his statement that as of 1968 he “did not know how to think about the war” in Vietnam.

Until then, he was content with one professor’s explanation that Vietnam met just-war criteria. Indeed, he had notified his Dallas draft board that he did not qualify for either a ministerial or student deferment. In due time, although married and the father of a toddler, he was reclassified as I-A, readily draftable.

What staggered me about this episode was not that Hauerwas once approved of the war and later became a pacifist—lots of people followed that course—but how different this was from my own immersion, on Commonweal’s small staff, in grappling with the question of the war in Vietnam and its morality and what should be said about it and in what kind of language. The traditional just-war criteria that Hauerwas encountered at Yale were our working framework, but they demanded intense attention to clashing reports from Southeast Asia and Washington; extensive reading in the history and sociology of Vietnam, of American policymaking, and of the Cold War; and reasoning as best one could about the likely outcomes of this or that escalation or peace proposal. This was not the detached strategizing of a think tank. Along with the likes of Jean Lacouture, Bernard Fall, I. F. Stone, Hans Morgenthau, and William Pfaff (contributing a major report from Vietnam), the voices we pondered (and sometimes published) included draft resisters, the Berrigans, Buddhist monks, witnesses to atrocities (on both sides), Abraham Joshua Heschel, Paul Ramsey, a few (very few) bishops, two popes—and, both directly and indirectly, Aquinas, Augustine, and Jesus.

Through twists and turns it all led to a 1966 editorial declaring Vietnam an “unjust” and “immoral” war, “a crime and a sin,” which led in turn to more arguments, analyses, and public actions. My point is not the wisdom of what we did—perhaps that conclusion in that language should have been written earlier—but the sheer factual, analytical, and moral density of our search for a truthful understanding of the war. I can imagine Hauerwas contending that we went about it all wrong. But how we went about it was very different from what he experienced at Yale Divinity School.

This difference was manifest in my graduate studies in European history as well. I wish I could write such wonderful things about as many of my professors as Hauerwas can. I envy his fine theological education. But his memoir makes clear the difference between studying history and theology. The latter preponderantly focuses on ideas and the fate of the church. When Hauerwas promiscuously lumps modernity, capitalism, nationalism, etc., under the term “liberalism,” his key reference points are the likes of Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Schleiermacher, and Ritschl, but not Newton, Boyle, Boulton, Watt, Arkwright, steam power, population growth, industrialization, railroads, urbanization, mass schooling, and workers’ movements, to say nothing of struggles to obtain the vote, equal justice, and freedom of speech. He makes Karl Barth’s stand against the Third Reich and liberal Protestant accommodation a pivotal moment for his own thinking, but he does not widen his lens to examine what Catholic or secular socialist leaders did, or to spot the roots of Nazism and the Holocaust in Völkisch denunciation of liberalism and modernity, inter-war economics, or the failure of diplomacy and military policy.

Again, my point is not the superiority of one field over another. It is simply the difference between mental landscapes, and if I had been pursuing medical studies it would have been all the greater. Hauerwas repeatedly chastises ethicists for being abstract; but from my perspective many of his own challenging formulations come across as, well, abstract.

What concretely does it mean to “speak Christian,” or be an alternative culture and alternative politics, or stand under authority, or maintain a discipline? As someone who wrote a book examining the collapse of Catholic “infrastructure” out of alarm that the church was undergoing “a soft slide into nominal Catholicism,” I am eager to learn. Too often, instead of being genuinely fleshed out, these demands remain rhetorical or illustrated with a catchy example or anecdote. Hauerwas, incidentally, is deeply interested in social theory; of empirical social science, he is innocent if not scornful.

For years Hauerwas has acknowledged that his emphasis on church as the community where the faith must be lived raised questions about his own nebulous ecclesial status. Methodist? Mennonite? Catholic? Yalie? “I try to be a church theologian,” he writes. “I am not interested in what I believe. I am not even sure what I believe. I am much more interested in what the church believes.” To the skeptical question, “Which church?” Hauerwas replies, “The church that has made my life possible”—and names the Methodist congregations he belonged to in Texas, South Bend, and Chapel Hill, the Episcopal one where he now worships, and Lutheran and Catholic ones along the way.

He paints very touching portraits of these congregations and hopes that somehow his ecclesiastical homelessness “may be in service to Christian unity.” Yet it seems to me, and I suspect to him, that his very American church shopping skirts many of the concrete difficulties of his own vision of being church.

The one thing, of course, that is utterly concrete in Hauerwas’s vision is his pacifism. It lends fierce moral energy to his denunciations of modernity, liberalism, democratic hypocrisy, the nation-state, civil religion, and “the world”; and it leaves no doubt about a “Christian difference.” This is not the place to explain why, although allied with Hauerwas on many particular cases of the use of force, I remain unpersuaded that standing aside and allowing Hitler to exterminate the remaining half of Europe’s Jews and colonize Europe as well as other parts of the world, or not stopping further hundreds of thousands or even millions of people from being raped, mutilated, displaced, or slaughtered in Darfur or Eastern Congo if military force could help, somehow witnesses to the kingdom of God and the kind of patience it teaches.

How much of Hauerwas’s thought unravels if one is not convinced of his pacifism? And what are the implications if one is? He is understandably irritated by being dismissed as “sectarian.” It is true that he does not advocate “withdrawal” from the public square. Drawing on the thought of Yoder, he continues to refine his ideas about nonviolence, war, and coercion, although without the distinctions and clarity I hope for; and his efforts to justify vigorous participation in political life still strike me as evading the extent to which law and civic action rest on the potential resort to coercion. We cannot have universal health-care coverage, clean air, or safe coal mines without penalties, ultimately enforced by police power, for those who refuse to abide by the law or pay their share.

There are blank spaces in Hannah’s Child. Hauerwas is appropriately reserved in his account of his first marriage, but amid the spare facts of episodes, medication, and psychiatric help, I longed for more of his own responses as a Christian over those years of suffering. What prayers did he stutter on the many hard mornings? How did God matter?

He is also not forthcoming about his years on the board of First Things, a journal patently aligned with neoconservative affirmations of the goodness of American power and the need to exercise it forcefully. Hauerwas resigned after 9/11 when the magazine declared that pacifists like himself “have no legitimate part in the discussion” of how the United States might respond militarily. Didn’t he see this coming? Was this a matter of personal friendship? (He relates how his son was treated kindly by Richard John Neuhaus on a trip to New York.) Or was it a case of the enemy of my enemy—liberalism—being my friend?

Hannah’s Child spurred me to start reading Hauerwas again, picking up the volumes like With the Grain of the Universe (his Gifford Lectures) that I had dutifully accumulated out of respect for him but left unread. I reread The Peaceable Kingdom and Against the Nations. I read Resident Aliens, Where Resident Aliens Live, and portions of seven other books as well as various essays and interviews not yet collected. A few of these were frustrating. Many pages of some of the recent books resemble law-review articles, with two or three inches of footnotes, sometimes to Hauerwas’s previous essays but largely reflecting his prodigious reading, especially of books by former students or fellow travelers. The argument of the text, scrolling along the top and constantly interrupted by the notes, often seems to be a basketball being passed back and forth among a four-man team consisting of Yoder, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, and Hauerwas himself. Scholars deeply invested in these interlocutors will no doubt feel otherwise, but I found these discussions claustrophobic, if not hermetic. Other writings, however, have been richly rewarding and of course disturbing, occasionally maddening. Hannah’s Child has helped me clarify my vision of Hauerwas’s vision, the way lenses snapped into place by the optometrist clarify the eye chart. I am continuing to be enlightened and changed.

If Hannah’s Child contains four different stories, these are all part of a larger one: the story of Hauerwas’s lifelong conversion. In high school, the more he learned about being a Christian, the more he wondered whether he wanted to be one. In college he thought of himself as definitely not one, though he eventually began to go to church again. At Yale he thought he was a Christian but was not sure what that meant. He never found it easy to pray. God, he says, is often just not “there” for him. But by the time he lives his way to the end of this account, he has started composing prayers for his classes, he has come to love preaching, he has grown less hesitant in speaking about God. “Could it be that after all these years of writing and teaching about theology and the church, I have come to believe in God with sufficient intensity that others can now see in me a faith I did not even know I had?” He has come a long way from Pleasant Grove. “Most people do not have to become a theologian to become a Christian, but I probably did.”

He lives at peace with “Stanley Hauerwas.” “I am a Christian,” he concludes. “How interesting.”



Related: Terrence W. Tilley reviews Hauerwas's Performing the Faith
God-obsessed
by David Gibson: a profile of David Tracy
In Defense of Desire by Christopher Ruddy: a profile of James Alison

Published in the 2010-05-07 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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