Before digging into the Hauerwas interview, we should note that for those of you waiting for the winners in our contest to win a free copy of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years you can find them here.
In the final installment of our Spring interview series, which has included interviews with Jim Belcher, Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas, and N.T. Wright, we sit down to speak with Stanley Hauerwas about baseball, and a number of other important things including, theology, pacifism, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and most intriguingly, his unique life.
Stanley Hauerwas was named by Time as America’s ” best theologian in September, 2001. The irony of that event is incontestable whether you agree with Hauerwas’ ideas on theology and ethics or not. Yet, as so often happens to academics or theologians, they are understood only for what they say (or what people think they say), rather than as a person whose life has been shaped and determined by any number of circumstances, most of which lie beyond their control. This undoubtedly has special meaning for an ethicist whose specialty lies in coming to terms with the obstacles, moral ambiguities, joys and rewards that life so often throws at us.
For the Christian, what matters is our response to the circumstances God has put before us. In reading Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, one inescapably comes away with this impression. Life is surprising in what it gives us, but as Christians we are called to live faithfully and that means wrestling honestly with the implications of our faith. I think that you will find in the book, and to some extent in this interview, that “being” Stanley Hauerwas means wrestling with life and all it offers.
Books & Baseball
- Matthew: Dr. Hauerwas, normally I ask for a personal profile but given the nature of your book I am not going to do that here. Readers will unavoidably garner a comprehensive picture of your story when they read the book. Rather, what I want to ask is, why did you chose to write a memoir or, as you state in Hannah’s Child (read excerpt), “the non-sequential that make the contingencies of a life intelligible”, as opposed to an auto-biography?
Hauerwas: The difference is somewhat arbitrary, though it is a distinction arising during the 18th century. An autobiography is more “historical” in that it attempts to trace the events of a person’s life in a linear fashion.
A memoir, by contrast, attempts to develop a narrative and is about life and the subjectivities that have shaped the life; it isn’t just about externalities.
I didn’t want to write a book that only talked about what I did, but wanted to write a book about God and how he has sustained my life. It is more intentionally interpretive (though all history is interpretive) than an autobiography that only lays out events.
- Matthew: Throughout Hannah’s Child you mention a number of books that were highly influential on you. What 5 books have been the most influential in your life?
- Matthew: As you indicate in the book, and as is widely known you are a huge baseball fan. Thus, as a life-long baseball fan myself, I have couple questions about this.
Who is your favorite team?
Hauerwas: I am a follower of the Atlanta Braves, and have been since coming to North Carolina. As a kid, growing up in Dallas all we had on the radio was the St. Louis Cardinals, so I followed them and Stan Musial pretty closely. But when I went to New Haven I became a Red Sox fan and particularly remember the 1976 team that went to the World Series.
But when I moved on to teach in the Midwest at Notre Dame, I followed the Cubs before moving onto the Braves. I became a fan of the Braves by following the Durham Bulls, and I think Bobby Cox, I mean, that guy just is Baseball in so many ways.
- Matthew: What is your favorite baseball moment?
Hauerwas: It would have to be Sid Bream scoring the winning run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in game 7 of the NLCS. Here you have a guy, a journeyman baseball player, who can’t run gutting it out and he scores the winning run in game 7 to send the Braves to the series. Definitely my favorite moment.
Matthew: In light of all that has gone on in Baseball in recent years including, steroids and the over corporatization of the game, what are your thoughts about the current state of baseball?
Hauerwas: I think it is wonderful how, in spite of the big money and controversy surrounding baseball, the players still love and respect the game. They understand that they must respect it in order to play it well.
In terms of controversy, I like to use Alasdair McIntyre’s distinction between institution and practice. I think it applies to baseball very well. In terms of the practice, the players recognize that baseball is a process of learning the game that never ends, and that baseball is such a beautiful and skillful game that requires so much training. The players respect the work, and they never respect pure talent; each person has to learn the game. The institution has many troubling issues, but the practice still reflects what baseball has always been about.
- Matthew: In Hannah’s Child, you indicate that you have been influenced by a wide range of intellectual, theological, ecclesiastical, and political influences—and that you deeply appreciate this rich diversity. Yet, in your book you describe yourself (in a way no doubt surprising to many) as being “deeply conservative” yet also “drawn to extreme positions” (Pp. 8, 36), and that being a Christian means you could never protect yourself from the truth” (11).
To get beyond all of the baggage our cultural attaches to these terms. Will you provide a fuller context for us to understand how you use and understand these terms?
Hauerwas:: I worried about using the term “conservative” because of the political connotations of terms like “conservative” and “liberal”. I use it to indicate someone who understands what it is to be rooted in a tradition, in this case the Christian tradition.
You don’t get to make Christianity up, you have to learn the grammar of faith, and then you learn how to use it and by doing so you become part of the tradition. This includes learning about and understanding what others have said like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Calvin, Luther, and Barth. You must receive the tradition and understand it, then you can begin to interact with it.
- Matthew: And how do you define “extreme position”?
Hauerwas: By “I am drawn” I mean that truth has to do with extremity and that Christianity says the way things are is not the way they have to be. There is a training in which we must change and in Christianity you are drawn to extremes you did not anticipate. It is an either/or position, Barth was an either/or guy, and Yoder was an either/or guy, and I find myself following that same kind of understanding of Christianity.
The other part is that I just can’t stand boredom, and that certainly draws me towards extreme positions.
- Matthew: Reading is an activity that should play a role in every Christian’s life, and must play a role in the intellectual life. How has the discipline of reading influenced your development as a scholar, and your formation as a committed Christian?
Hauerwas: Well, reading has taught me how to read, and to read books in relationship to one another. I think this is key. It is an ongoing development of a skill, but one must be constantly open to what is being said as one learns the grammar of faith. By reading you are pulled into writing, and by writing to speaking, and by speaking to knowing that you still need to learn more. Thus, reading is absolutely necessary for the Christian life.
I say this though knowing that most Christians throughout history did not know how to read. But reading also involves hearing, but they could hear and they could understand by hearing.
- Matthew: A major factor in your development as an ethicist and as a Christian was your encounter with the writings of John Howard Yoder. Yet, interestingly, you leave out a detailed account of your intellectual transition to pacifism. Will you tell us this story?
Hauerwas: Fundamentally, it really was John’s book The Politics of Jesus which I read early on in my time at Notre Dame. I believe that book is one of the most powerful books in contemporary theology.
But it also came out of the Christological convictions I developed from reading Karl Barth. Namely, that non-violence is constitutive of who Jesus Christ is, and what he did on the cross. God does not save us coercively, non-violence is part of his character. This view was developed by reading Barth’s Christology. It was then cemented as I read Yoder. Yoder believed there was no choice in which way one should go on the issue in light of Barth’s articulation of who Christ is.
People find this uncomfortable. But my project is more modest than they allow. My concern is that most Christians in America simply have not thought about the relationship of Christ to war and do not realize that as a Christian you can’t worship Jesus without having a problem with violence and war, even if you are not a pacifist.
- Matthew: Yoder, as a thinker, Christian, and person was deeply important to you. If there is one thing you wanted everyone to know about this man, whom you esteem so highly, what would it be?
Hauerwas: I think it would be John’s modesty and his commanding intellect. He gave his life to others out of that modesty and it came directly from his sense that what mattered was not him or his work but Jesus.
- Matthew: The chapter entitled “Studies”, in an ironic sort of way, shows you grappling with theology and its implications. You make it clear that you believed “one of the decisive challenges concerning the truthfulness of Christianity was the failure of Christians to stand against the Shoah through centuries of persecution” and that Christians had not only “prepared the ground for the Shoah” but “conspired in the murder of Jews” a reality which you understood as a “decisive indicator that Christianity did not meet the demands for truthfulness” (51).
That is, until you encountered Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who did resist the Nazi régime, and had well articulated theological reasons for doing so. You note how Barth and Bonhoeffer’s critique “impressed” you.Despite the undesirable implication of a separation between intellect and faith, I must ask, was this merely an intellectual impression, or was it something that contributed to drawing you closer to faith?
Hauerwas: Well, I am an unbelievable head job; that is true. And it would be foolish to suggest that being at Notre Dame and being around great practitioners and learning from them wasn’t influential on my becoming a Christian. This is especially true in regards to prayer. That was hugely important for me, although I still consider myself a novice.
Yet another discipline that also was influential for me becoming more a Christian was preaching. In this discipline, you have to be very serious. It is a great responsibility that requires careful handling. You have to become it.
Barth and Bonhoeffer showed that Christians were complicit in what was going on in Germany. People at the time thought of Jews as being particular and Christians as being more universal. Barth and Bonhoeffer, by contrast, were recovering an understanding that we Christians are more like Jews in being particular—not universal– and that what we say is true in particular lives, and in the particular way we as Christians are called to live.
- Matthew: Is it correct to say that you believe Christianity’s claim to truth rests squarely on the way it responds to ethical and social issues such as racism, poverty, and violence?
Hauerwas: Well no, I do not believe that. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, Christianity is false. That Jesus was raised has everything to do with our witness against the degradation of any human being. Christianity stands against degradation of other human beings, and that is at the heart of the matter when it comes to the death and resurrection of Christ.
Hauerwas’ Work & Beliefs
- Matthew: Karl Barth looms large over the current theological landscape, and it is only now that he is really beginning to be appreciated for the contributions he has made. In talking about Barth, you tell a humorous story in which you were told not to go to Yale Divinity because you would “only become another Barthian”. Yet, you went to Yale and “never regretted” it.
You go on to state, “Karl Barth’s work represented for me an uncompromising demand to submit to a master bricklayer”.Yet, later on in the book you state, “Barthian though I was, however, I also worried that Barth may have given an account of Christian doctrine in which the material conditions necessary to make doctrine intelligible were not accounted for sufficiently”. Can you flesh this out in light of your position that the church is indispensable for Christian ethics?
Hauerwas: Well, first, I don’t agree that Barth is starting to be fully received in any determinative way. Even though good books are being written about him, I don’t see his influence growing as you suggest.
To your question, I do worry a bit about whether Barth gives us a full account of the concept “no church, no Jesus”. It is clear that Barth was very helpful in showing the connection between Judaism and Christianity, or “No Jews, No Jesus”. He came from the established church and he never really thought through what it meant for the church to be free, but his theological commitments do require this position, “no church, no Jesus”.
It is also hard to say that Barth should have given us more, especially in light of all that he did give us, and it is important to keep that in mind when weighing my comment here.
- Matthew: In his insightful book What About Hitler, Robert Brimlow offers a remarkable critique of current just war theory and outlines a history of Christian thought on the topic of warfare, ultimately arriving at and answering the question most critics of pacifism eventually pose.
Namely, if all of us were to become pacifists, what then should society do about brutal tyrants such as Adolf Hitler? What would be your answer to the question, “What about Hitler?”
Hauerwas: I like Brimlow. He has written a terrific book. If Christians in Germany had followed what I say about Christianity, there wouldn’t have been a Hitler to deal with. They would have been able to recognize the incipient paganism that came with Hitler and the situation would have been avoided. Another good book on issues like this is Dan Bell’s recent work Just War as Christian Discipleship.
- Matthew: In your book Performing the Faith, you provide intriguing commentary on Bonhoeffer’s dramatic claim that if our common life rests on lies and injustice, we cannot be a community of peace. You then draw out, in light of your analysis on Bonhoeffer an exploration of faith as “performance”.
Recently, theologian Jonathan Malesic, in his book Secret Faith in the Public Square critiques your reading of Bonhoeffer quite sharply, arguing that Bonhoeffer argues for a concealment of faith, rather than an obvious public declaration of it? What are your thoughts on Malesic’s critique?
Hauerwas: I think he is just wrong about how he understands Bonhoeffer’s “secrecy”. What Bonhoeffer is getting at is that a disciple of Christ is so engaged in what they have been called to be, even their discipleship is a secret to them. They are not self-conscious about what is happening.
Its Kierkegaard’s sense of how you can locate yourself as a Christian in the midst of Christendom, where everyone knows what a being a Christian is, but that no one knows what the secret to being a disciple, or Christian in Christendom is. The visibility of the church in this regard is what Sanctorum Communio is all about.
- Matthew: How do you, as both an obvious admirer of Bonhoeffer and as a pacifist feel/think about Bonhoeffer’s participation in the assassination attempt on Hitler’s life?
Hauerwas: Well, on account of my friend Mark Nation, I am increasingly suspicious about the extent of Bonhoeffer’s involvement. Our information on this comes almost entirely from Bethge. What is clear is that Bonhoeffer and others didn’t want to kill Hitler for fear of making him a martyr.
The extent to which off-hand comments by Bonhoeffer indicate this is questionable, and so I am not that convinced of a determinative role by Bonhoeffer in the assassination. I also think it is important to note that Bonhoeffer never tried to justify it.
- Matthew: Part of being an ethicist is, of course, critiquing the way we live. Often, for Americans this includes what we entertain ourselves with. I appreciated your comment regarding Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ noting that the film was more of “an extended exercise in showing how much punishment a human body could take.”
Do you believe that films such as this tend to cheapen or shortchange our understanding of the Christian faith on the whole (not to mention desensitize us to violent brutality)?
Hauerwas: Yes, I do think that there was desensitization to violence in that movie. As I say elsewhere, the Romans were probably even worse than how Gibson depicted them. But I also think that the movie underwrites a substitutionary view of the atonement in the worst way possible, and that is kind of strange coming from a Roman Catholic.
- Matthew: You recently penned the initial volume in the Brazos Theological Commentary series on Matthew. What was this experience like for you?
Hauerwas: In many ways it’s a memoir, and for me it was an obsession. I was overwhelmed by the inexhaustability of the text. I couldn’t have done it without first having written Cross Shattered Christ—that was training for the Matthew Commentary by allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the text.
- Matthew: My next question relates to a topic that I, and I am sure many who enter the academy, often think about. You talk extensively about life growing up in Texas as the son of a brick layer.
But as your life progresses you note the slow detachment of your world from the world of your parents, paradigmatically represented by a public dispute with your mother over abortion.Will you describe your feelings about this detachment as over the course of your adult life, how (or if) you have come to terms with it, and what your reflections on it are now for the making of “Stanley Hauerwas”?
Hauerwas: I hope that I never lose a sense of what it means to come from the working class. To this day I can’t let anyone carry my luggage—I just can’t do it.
But I also am intuitively conscious of the people who, for example, clean our offices. I hope that my work benefits them, and benefits the church that ministers to them and to their needs. That said, it would be self-deceptive to think, or fail to recognize, that I am now a part of a class that does not work with their hands. Nevertheless, there is a big cultural difference, and it can’t be denied.
There are things I know that my parents don’t, and they won’t even know the significance of knowing those things. But there are also things that are simply not communicable, and we just have to live with that.
- Matthew: In reading about your college and post-graduate days, it seems that your journey to faith was, in many ways, guided by the intellectual life, by your mentors, peers, and by the people you studied and read. At the beginning of Hannah’s Child you even make the enigmatic comment that you “became a theologian because you could not be saved” (1).
In our day, one might expect that a life pursuing such things as philosophy, theology, and the academic life in general, would lead away from faith, not to it. What do you make of the interesting way your faith came into being?
Hauerwas: Part of what I hope Hannah’s Child does does is indicate that if you believe in God, you should not fear the truth—wherever it may come from. Many people say I don’t take certain things serious enough–issues like evolution and historical criticism–though I do and have very strong opinions on them. But I am more interested in what Christianity has to say about the lives we live, i.e., what it means to live meaningful lives in light of the gospel.
- Matthew: What was it like to wrestle with the decision to make public the struggles of your 1st marriage, and to share Anne’s illness in this book?
Hauerwas: Given the character of the book, it was unavoidable. It was not only necessary to be truthful, it was necessary in order to understand my life. There are so many people who are struggling to overcome the loneliness of mental illness, and I think it was necessary as part of my story.
- Matthew: In addition to your relationship with Anne, you talk a lot about the closeness you share with your son Adam. What did your relationship with Adam, and your South Bend church teach you about the necessity of faith and community for the Christian life?
Hauerwas: I think I learned how it is that through worshiping together friendships are enacted that make life possible. I was sustained by people in South Bend to whom I was drawn together with, and they to me, through our common worship.
- Matthew: At a few different points in the book you state that your life experience has not necessarily influenced your thinking as an ethicist. This may sound odd, but based on your book and its literary character, I disagree with you.In the book, in a sermon on the passing of your father, you note that God’s kingdom is made up of those “who have learned to live without protection” (39) and later in the book you note that living with Anne taught you that “you are not in control of your life” (156).
Yet, throughout the book you indicate that Christianity is a reality lived in the process of learning to live without control.Is there another way to describe the trajectory of your personal life than as a life learning to live without control? Moreover, don’t your ethics flow from this belief? Given your strong belief in the relevancy of narrative for ethics, does not your life experience confirm the authenticity of what you teach and write?
Hauerwas: Well, that is really for you to say is it not, based on your reading of my book? It is a literary work as you say and if I were to say that it would be a self-deception, so I leave that to you.