Volume 88, No.2, January-February 2002

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Duke Magazine-Faith Fires Back   next >   1 2 3


A pre-eminent theological ethicist grapples with the church, the state, the state of the church, and the responsibility of the religious community.

Stanley Hauerwas
Stanley Hauerwas
portraits by Chris Hildreth

or Stanley Hauerwas, 2001 was quite a year. Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School, became the first American theologian in four decades to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The Hauerwas Reader, devoted to "one of the most widely read and oft-cited theologians writing today," was issued by Duke Press. Time magazine named him "America's best theologian." The university and the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church bestowed on him Duke's Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award. And, in a public validation of sorts, Oprah honored him with a television appearance.

A graduate of Yale Divinity School and Yale's graduate school, where he earned his Ph.D., Hauerwas did his undergraduate work at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. He taught for two years at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, before joining the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, where he taught from 1970 until 1984. He joined the Duke faculty in 1984.

This fall, in the inaugural Duke Magazine Campus Forum, Hauerwas had a public conversation with William T. Cavanaugh Ph.D. '96. Cavanaugh, one of Hauerwas' former graduate students, teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This year, he is a visiting fellow at Notre Dame's Kellogg Institute for International Studies. The moderator for the event was Dean of the Divinity School Gregory Jones M.Div.'85, Ph.D.'88, who was also taught by Hauerwas. Jones began by noting that "all this public recognition is but the fruit of many long years of hard intellectual work, creative scholarship, and sustained engagement." Hauerwas, he said, is a deeply committed teacher whose abundant intellectual energy and abiding concern with lives lived virtuously have been impressed on generations of students.

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.


On achieving prominence as a public intellectual

You're an academic, but you're more than just an academic. You have a keen pastoral sense, and you do a lot of things beyond the academic world--now in the media, but before that just talking to little churches here and there. And your writing style is really less academic as well. Can you say a little about that?


More Information
Stanley Hauerwas

Time names Hauerwas America’s Best Theologian

The United Methodist Church

William T. Cavanaugh

If I were any of my colleagues at Duke, I would be very tired of "Hauerwas." In fact, I am very tired of "me." I have no idea how I have suddenly become famous, but I am not happy about it. Indeed, when a theologian, particularly in the kind of world we live in, becomes famous, you have an indication that a mistake has been made. Our subject after all is God.

Of course, to be a writer is an invitation to narcissism. How to escape narcissism is very difficult. The very effort to escape only increases our self-fascination. My only hope is having friends who remind me what I am supposed to be about. Indeed, friendship is very important not only for my life but in how I think about ethics. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that for the upbringing of children as well as for living well, we need a society of good laws that teach us to desire the right goods rightly. But when such practices are absent, we must depend on friends. That seems to me to describe our situation very well.

Which is why one of the tasks I have undertaken is to change how we think about the moral life. I have tried to redirect attention to the importance of the virtues as well as the narratives that make the virtues intelligible for understanding "ethics." Of course, such an emphasis I thought necessary to recover how Christians should think about their lives.

It is so difficult in America for Christians to imagine what it might mean for them to be Christian. We have lost the first-order speech necessary to shape our lives. I have tried to help Christians recover our speech habits by writing little books for laity. I wrote a little book with [Dean of the Chapel] Will Willimon--who said he was going to make me famous--called Resident Aliens, which created a readership I would not normally have as an academic. It turns out Christians were surprised to be told they are odd.

Will and I have tried to follow that book with short books on the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments. These books try to de-familiarize those extraordinary texts in the hopes Christians can appreciate the radical character of our faith. I have even written a little book called Prayers Plain Spoken to try to show that, when we pray, about the worst thing we can do is try to be pious. I hate prayers that begin, "Oh, God, we just ask you..." About the worst thing Christians can do is try to protect God when we pray. Read the Psalms. You do not have to protect God. That is why God is God and we are not.

You're also famous pedagogically. One of the famous pedagogical tricks that I like is not explaining things, letting the audience figure it out.

I do not know if not explaining is a "trick," but I do try to say some things in a way that invites resistance and further reflection. I think I learned the importance of that way of working from Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein teaches you that the unsaid must remain unsaid. You only discover what must be left unsaid by thinking hard about what you have learned to say. I also try to develop epigrams that have been forced on me by positions I have taken whose implications I slowly come to understand.

For example, I say, "The first task of the church is not to make the world just. The first task of the church is to make the world the world." I know that sounds offensive to most people, Christian and non-Christian. Of course, I want it to be offensive. I am trying to challenge the assumption that Christianity is acceptable in modernity as long as it supports moral and political causes most people assume anyone should support--e.g., democracy. Such a view assumes that God can be entertained as a possibility as long as we keep it to ourselves. So I try to remind Christians by such an epigram that--as Augustine maintained--the church's first political task is to worship the true God truly.

On the aesthetics of religion

It occurs to me, the way you're talking, that your attention to aesthetics is underappreciated. You really have a very keen aesthetic sense. You're constantly thinking about the attraction of it, and that it's got to be an attractive message that lures people into it by its beauty, in a sense. And oftentimes its beauty comes in its brokenness.

Beauty is the heart of goodness and the moral life. I learned that originally from Plato and later from Iris Murdoch. I do not write about "aesthetics," but rather I try to remind us of the beauty we no longer notice because we have lost the wonder to the everyday. I have recently written a piece for the Catholic Liturgical Society, "Suffering Beauty," in which I suggest that just to the extent beauty calls us beyond ourselves we "suffer."

The Catholics had asked me to speak about liturgy as moral formation, but I thought that very way of putting the matter was a mistake. Liturgy is not something done to provide moral motivation. The liturgy is how the church worships God and how from such worship we become a people capable of being an alternative to the world. That is why the language of the liturgy is so important. Nothing betrays the love of God more than the inelegance of the language Christians use in their worship. Some Christians seem to think we can attract people back to Christianity if we try to compete with TV, but when you do that you have already lost. The only result is that Christian worship becomes as banal and ugly as the rest of our lives.

I think it would be terrific if on entering a church people would think, "This is very frightening." God, after all, is frightening. Recently, I had a debate about the interpretation of the Bible at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest. One of my graduate students, a Roman Catholic, went with me. When we entered the church where the debate was to be held, she said, "Wow, is this someone's living room?" So "fundamentalists" want to make people feel at home--a home, moreover, that looks more like the living rooms of the 1950s. It is no wonder you are tempted to put an American flag in such "sanctuaries," because at least the flag adds some color. Unfortunately, the colors, at least when they are part of the same piece of cloth, are not liturgically appropriate.

On the modern church

One of the things that makes it hard for a lot of Christians to swallow your message is that you say the church doesn't have a social ethic, it is a social ethic. How do you deal with the division between what is and what ought to be?

God's given us all the time we need to patiently help our congregations be what they can be. That's the way you want people formed, because that's the way the Spirit operates. If you help people discover the violence in their lives, though, don't expect to be honored. One of my favorite epigrams is that Christians are not nonviolent because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, even though, of course, we want to make the world less violent. But rather, Christians are nonviolent in a world of war because we cannot image anything else as faithful followers of Christ.

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