For 40 years, Stanley Hauerwas has challenged Christians to live like Christians. He does not fit neatly into the conservative vs. liberal categories that have dominated discussions of American Christianity since the early fundamentalist vs. modernist controversies. Some call him a "post-liberal" because he urges all Christians to return to historical Christianity and to sharpen their thinking.
In 1970, Hauerwas joined the faculty of Notre Dame University, in 1983, he moved to Duke Divinity School, and earlier this year, he published his memoir, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Eerdmans, April 2010). In some ways, he is a professor of professors—widely read by academics for his creative, forceful, and provocative application of Christian thought to a wide range of issues. But he also appeals to blue-collar readers who sense that this son of a bricklayer is one of them—willing to say that many smart-sounding professors are philosophically incoherent.
Andy Rowell, a doctoral student in theology at Duke Divinity School, spoke with Hauerwas about his life, his work, and his hopes and concerns for his evangelical students.
For 40 years you have been reflecting theologically on the habits, virtues, and vices of Americans. Now you have put yourself under the microscope. Why did you write this memoir? Or is it an autobiography?
An autobiography indicates something closer to a chronology, and I didn't want to be limited to that. A memoir is usually meant to expose one's subjectivity. For me that creates some difficulty as I do not want to privilege the objective-subjective distinction. I wrote this book because people had asked me to do it. I had resisted doing it, partly because it's such an invitation to narcissism. But it turned out I'm just narcissistic enough to do it [Laughs]. When I began to think about it, I thought I saw how to do it. It became an obsession that I had to do. I'm glad I did it. It is a different genre from my other writing. People write me and tell me that different aspects of it have struck them.
You say at the end of your memoir Hannah's Child that the process of writing helped you realize that you are in fact a Christian. Did the process of reflecting on the events of your life give you perspective on the whole?
I don't want to be silly and think that I didn't know I was a Christian prior to writing the book, but what the book hopefully makes candid is how a recognition of one's identity as a Christian has everything to do with how your friends acknowledge what you are. I try to help us see how friendship is constitutive of our ability to claim who we are.
You write about the pressure you felt to go forward at revival services at your childhood United Methodist Church in Texas. You did not feel right about responding insincerely to emotional appeals.
I didn't think one should fake it.
Did books save you? Did the journey of the intellectual life through college, Yale, Notre Dame and Duke keep you a Christian?
I really have lived in books. Books are friends. They are some of the friends that make you who you are. Reading is an exercise for learning how to write and vice versa. I have read myself into being a Christian, but I have also written myself into being a Christian.
Because your first wife Anne was struggling with mental illness, how did you and your son Adam cope?
We did it by having extraordinary friendship with one another. We did it by activity: by throwing Frisbee, by riding our bicycles. We did it by going to church a lot. We did it by having friends that were supportive. I also took up running as a way to deal with the stress of the situation. When Paula and I were getting married, I picked Adam up from college from the airport, he said, "I'm not doing very well." He said, "It's this marriage. You and I were the married couple and we just took care of Mom. This is the divorce." We had to go on and we knew it couldn't be the same, but it is very gratifying to have a son who is as lovely as he is.
The focus of your work is the extraordinary importance of the church but in some ways the churches that you have been apart of look from the outside to be quite ordinary. How did they get it right?
By God's help. I don't think the churches that have made my life so much more than it otherwise could have been have been extraordinary because I don't think the church is extraordinary. Part of what my work has always been about is to show that the apocalyptic character of the gospel makes the everyday possible. It gives us the time that lets us care for one another as we are ill, helps us care for one another as we experience broken relationships, and helps us take the time to worship God in a world of such violence. The church is called to do that as an alternative in a world that doesn't know there is an alternative. The ordinary churches that I've belonged to seemed to have embodied the kind of life that the world so desperately needs.
You started out in a United Methodist Church that was as you say functionally Baptist because it was in Texas. Then you taught at a Lutheran school Augustana, a Roman Catholic institution Notre Dame, and then back to a United Methodist school Duke Divinity. At each stop, you found yourself worshipping with people of that tradition and learning from them appreciatively. Now you worship at an Episcopal church. How do you explain your eclectism or is it ecumenicalism?
I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don't know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that's true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don't think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.
When you just said, "The Episcopal church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about," I think you are referring to a particular congregation and not the denomination as a whole.
I say, "We're all congregationalists now." I don't particularly like it, but we are. How to ensure given that reality that Eucharistic assemblies are not separate from each other is one of the great challenges before us. The role of the bishop is very important to make sure that Eucharistic assemblies are not isolated from one another. There are also other ways to do it. Certainly sending people from one congregation to another helps. But how we recover Christian unity in the world in which we find ourselves is a deep challenge. By "unity," I don't mean just agreement about ecclesial organization; I mean the refusal of Christians to kill one other. I think that the division of the church that has let nationalism define Christian identity is one of the great judgments against the Reformation in particular.
Some people assume that theologians like to pray in public and preach but these were acquired tastes for you in your 50s and 60s. What happened?
Being married to Paula made a lot of difference given her ministerial vocation. [Paula Gilbert is assisting pastor for Parish Life at Church of the Holy Family, Episcopal and an ordained United Methodist clergywoman.] She told me to pray in class before I started to lecture so I started doing that. Being in the Divinity school at Duke put me in an ecclesial context in which I was increasingly asked to preach and I discovered that the thing I most nearly like to do is preach. I find the engagement with Scripture to be the heart of what theological reflection has to be about. It is the most energizing thing I do.
How have you tried to steel the theological spine of students going into pastoral ministry?
I try to give them a sense of what a wonderful thing it is that they are doing by going into the ministry. What an extraordinary privilege to every week be asked by people to preach. Our lives hang on it. I try to give a sense of the marvelous adventure it is to be brought within God's providential care of the world through the every day acts of preaching and Eucharistic celebration.
Your critics say that you want Christians to retreat from the world and just practice the Eucharist. How do you respond?
If I'm asking people to retreat, why are so many people mad at me? [Laughs]. I wouldn't mind retreating, but we're surrounded so there's no place to retreat to. So Christians have to engage the world in which we find ourselves. We're in love with the world because God is in love with the world. Therefore, we want the world to know what God has given us. Of course, I've never asked Christians to refrain from being politically engaged. I just want them to be there as Christians. What it means to be there as Christians is to be shaped by the body and blood of Christ, which has been done for the world. The closing prayer after our Eucharist celebration includes: Send us now into the world in peace and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart through Christ our Lord, Amen. How could that be a retreat? I can't imagine how the Eucharist can be self-containing if you're sent out from it.
You have had a number of your doctoral students become professors at evangelical institutions. What do you hope they bring?
I hope they bring a sense of the corporate character of the church to evangelical life. I admire evangelicals' energy; I admire their love of Jesus. I think often times their energy and love of Jesus is understood in a far too individualistic way that makes the church accidental to their relationship with God. I always want to know who it is you are making your life vulnerable to by reading Scripture. It should be read in context with other people who are Christians. I sometimes worry that evangelicals have a kind of privacy about how they understand their relationship with God that is destructive of the church. So I hope my students help evangelicals recover the ecclesial context that makes Christian convictions intelligible.
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Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
James W. Skillen previously wrote about Stanley Hauerwas for Christianity Today.
Other recent book interviews include:
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Focus on the Females | James Dobson explains his ideas for raising daughters, and life after Focus. (July 14, 2010)
The Authentic Bonhoeffer | Eric Metaxas explains how the German theologian lived a life worth examining. (July 1, 2010)