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680 Hauerwas, Our 'Best' Theologian, Shares His Life

At the dawn of this new millennium, Time magazine declared Stanley Hauerwas America’s “Best Theologian,” a label that the tough-talking Texan routinely uses to poke fun at himself. How can anyone rank theologians—like handicapping golfers or giving stars to restaurants! Nevertheless, Time magazine took this task seriously, publishing a profile that described how the “rough speech and pointed views” of this brick-layer’s son sometimes are “scandalous” among academics and religious leaders.

At ReadTheSpirit, we agree that Stanley Hauerwas has a powerful prophetic voice. He is solidly American, solidly Christian and solidly accomplished as one of our greatest scholars—yet he uses that firm foundation to address the world like a latter-day Isaiah, Jeremiah or Micah, crying out for justice and a complete rethinking of our global priorities. To use “Hauerwasian” terms, he’s often telling us to get up off our butts, scrape away the bullshit of convenient, self-centered spirituality—and get our hands dirty in engaging with the real needs of the world.

By the way, here at ReadTheSpirit, that’s the first time we’ve published the 8-letter “b”-word. Hauerwas uses it rarely but very effectively now. After all, he is a master teacher and writer. Time magazine didn’t tag him with this great honor just because he occasionally uses a bit of startling language. Time gave him the prize because he is a uniquely straight-talking, prophetic pioneer.

Time wrote: Before talk of “the virtues” became widespread, Hauerwas wrote about the need for an account of our habits as members of communities. Do these communities sustain virtues? One virtue Hauerwas extols is faithfulness. He urges people to be faithful Roman Catholics or Orthodox Jews or Evangelicals or Muslims. It is faithfulness to a complex tradition that forestalls being overtaken by majoritarianism or convention.

THIS WEEK, to celebrate the publication of Hauerwas’ memoir, “Hannah’s Child,” ReadTheSpirit welcomes the great theologian to our magazine for an in-depth interview—spanning several days—about the provocative themes that have gotten him into so much trouble … and have made him such a shining source of hope.

Among the Best Quotes from Stanley Hauerwas’ Memoir …

ON TIME’S DECLARATION OF “BEST:” If theologians become famous in times like ours, surely they must have betrayed their calling. After all, theology is a discipline whose subject should always put in doubt the very idea that those who practice it know what they are doing.

ON WHY MERE “BELIEF” DOESN’T MATTER MUCH: I believe what I write, or rather, by writing I learn to believe. But then I do not put much stock in “believing in God.” The grammar of “belief” invites a far too rationalistic account of what it means to be a Christian. “Belief” implies propositions about which you get to make up your mind before you know the work they are meant to do. Does that mean I do not believe in God? Of course not, but I am far more interested in what a declaration of belief entails for how I live my life.

ON THE TRAGIC SOCIAL DIVIDES BETWEEN PEOPLE: I have spent my life in buildings built by people like my father, buildings in which the builders have felt they do not belong. … My father was a better bricklayer than I am a theologian.

ON WHY THEOLOGY IS SO POWERFUL (and why many “theologians” settle for impotence): The presumption of many scholars at the time was that the task of theology was to make the language of the faith amenable to the standards set by the world. This could be done by subtraction: “Of course you do not have to believe X or Y”; or, by translation: “When we say X or Y, we really mean …” I was simply  not interested in that project. From my perspective, if the language was not true, then you ought to give it up. I thought the crucial question was not whether Christianity could be made amenable to the world, but could the world be made amenable to what Christians believe? I had not come to the study of theology to play around. I am not sure why I thought like this, but I suspect it had something to do with being (trained as) a bricklayer. I simply did not believe in “cutting corners.”

ON WHY, IN THE END, PRAYER IS THE KEY: I have spent a lifetime learning how to pray. Yet I did not become a theologian to learn how to pray. I became a theologian because I found the work of theology so compelling. Along the way, I discovered that the work of theology is the work of prayer. …. I confess, however, that prayer still never comes easy for me. But I hold no conviction more determinatively than that the belief in prayer names how God becomes present to us and how we can participate in that presence by praying for others.

WELCOME to Stanley Hauerwas! And WELCOME to you—as you read these words! Add a Comment, below. Email this story to friends, below, and invite them to read along with you. Come back each day this week for more!

You can order “Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir” from Amazon now.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com)

Reader Comments (7)

I'll be looking forward to the rest of this

May 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Gallagher

Thank-you! I am really looking forward to reading the Hauerwas interview and these initial quotes from his memoir are great. I anticipate that reading this interview in Read the Spirit will have an important and deepening impact on my week. Thanks, again.

May 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRev. Bob Roth

This is an inspiring piece of work. I look forward to learning more about Hauerwas. He is correct when he talks about the sterility and weakness of mere "belief in God." He points the way to a more activist and world-changing personal and communal faith. Hauerwas sound like he is updating the arguments that Barthe and the Neo-Orthodox fought with the Schliermacher and the late 19th Century German Theologians. But when you think about it, the "passive prejudice disguised as faith" that Fallwell and Pat Robertson preached led to Bush and Cheney and endless war. In the same way, Schliermacher's hint that the German culture and State were the end-all and be-all of Christianity led to the Kaiser going to WWI and later on the the rise of Facism.
Thanks for all you do for all of us.

May 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRev. Rod Reinhart

Thanks for the quotes from Hauerwas. He reminds me that theology is full of polarities, even the subtle ones between belief and faith. We need both sides but at any given moment we focus on one or the other. I resonate with Hauerwas' struggle with prayer which has been one of mine for years. I believe in the efficacy of prayer but it took me fifteen years of preaching before I could say anything real about prayer. I also appreciate the energy in Hauerwas' thinking and writing. He believes in the truth of what he writes. That's always admirable as long as the truth that I profess allows for the truth that my brother or sister carries.

May 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAl Bamsey

The quote from Time about Hauerwas: Before talk of “the virtues” became widespread, Hauerwas wrote about the need for an account of our habits as members of communities. Do these communities sustain virtues? One virtue Hauerwas extols is faithfulness. He urges people to be faithful Roman Catholics or Orthodox Jews or Evangelicals or Muslims. It is faithfulness to a complex tradition that forestalls being overtaken by majoritarianism or convention.
I'd like to hear if "missionary work" and faithfulness intersect. I really like what he says about the virtue of faithfulness.

May 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Cauthorn

I discovered Hauerhas for the first time this morning in the Dallas Morning News. At a terribly low point in my life he came on like gangbusters, describing me perfectly as he told about himself. I'm in the process of an epiphany and am pouring over all I can find on him on the internet. Thankyou for making this possible for me. It is changing my life. ( I wish I knew how to pronounce his name so I could talk about him )

August 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Martin
Hauerwas is grimly (and ironically) correct that Time's bestowal on him of "Best Theologian" is tantamount to an indictment that he has betrayed his calling. After all, the word "theology" itself means "word of, or about, God'" so the Christian theologian should be proclaiming THE TRUTH about God, not reveling in some narcissistic, self-glorying "doubt" and unbelief--much less encouraging faithful Muslims to stay true to their tradition. The Christ in Whom Mr. Hauerwas claims to believe said, unapologetically (and, yes, very narrow-mindedly): "I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man comes to the Father except through Me." (John 14:6). Stanley is right about one other thing: his daddy no doubt laid bricks better than his boy practices theology. Either that, or those in Daddy Hauerwas' edifices should flee for the exits before it's too late.
July 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob Phillips

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