by Chris Hildreth
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.
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?
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
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
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
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.