On October 20, 2001, Chicago area Lutherans gathered at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Downers Grove for a Metropolitan Chicago Synod Faith Development event. The featured speaker was Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. He spoke of Death and Marriage, and that is the sort of juxtaposition/pairing for which Hauerwas is famous. Those attending heard a leading theologian speak, one who is reviving a languishing theological tradition. They also experienced a contemporary phenomenon.
Hauerwas the Celebrity
Why call him a “celebrity?” If one hangs around churchly circles, it is unlikely that one has not heard of Hauerwas. He has a popularity similar to that enjoyed in the 1950s and early 1960s by Reinhold Niebuhr (with whom he shares some concerns), Paul Tillich (with whom he shares few similarities), and William Sloan Coffin (with whom he shares even fewer similarities). Time Magazine (September 17, 2001) proclaimed Hauerwas America’s Best Theologian and claimed that he “is contemporary theology’s foremost intellectual provocateur.” Hauerwas provokes in venues as different as the conservative First Things and the progressive Sojourner. Hauerwas has been influenced by the culturally radical philosopher/theologian Cornell West and is welcomed as an ally in the struggle for the conservation of Christian values in a rapidly changing world by Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George. Earlier this year Hauerwas held the prestigious Gifford Lectureship at the University of St. Andrews. In addition to his solid academic reputation, he has a large and growing popular following. From October 1, 2001 to the end of April 2002, Hauerwas has twenty-two public appearances scheduled, spread out from Vancouver, B.C., to Durham, England. Many who show up will probably be there to be titillated, or offended, or both. Hauerwas has a well-known penchant for bluntly colorful language when among the faithful.
This comes close to an operational definition of the phenomenon we call “celebrity.”
I mention celebrity because it is currently the primary identity of Stanley Hauerwas in our Popular Culture. We need to simply acknowledge that, deal with it briefly, and move on to a discussion of those things that are of enduring value in his thought.
We must first admit that the celebrated persona is real, and is not manufactured by a press agent. Lingua Franca dubbed Hauerwas “America’s Most Foul-Mouthed Theologian” in the September 2001 edition. The claim may be true, and the words pop out in the most unexpected places when he speaks before seminary and other churchly audiences. This is no affectation. It is simply the heritage of a childhood and youth in Pleasant Grove, Texas. From Pleasant Grove Hauerwas went to Georgetown, Texas, to learn philosophy and theology at Southwestern University (B.A. 1962). His next move was to New Haven, Connecticut, where he earned a B.D. (1965) at Yale Divinity School and a Ph.D. (1968) at Yale University Graduate School. But Yale never quite blanched small-town Texas out of his persona. As a fellow Southerner, I can believe that his mode of expression, unusual in the academy, is genuine and not a gimmick used for shock value. I am acutely aware of how often I stifle a rich, evocative and precise barnyard expression when lecturing.
In addition to the mode of expression, Hauerwas is also well known for his refusal to make his message more acceptable to the larger society, or his arguments less barbed. A brief sample of essay titles from only two of his books will suffice to clarify this point: From After Christendom: How the Church Is To Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas: “The Politics of Salvation: Why There Is No Salvation Outside the Church,” “The Politics of Justice: Why Justice is a Bad Idea for Christians,” “Why Freedom of Religion is a Subtle Temptation,” and “The Politics of Sex: How Marriage is a Subversive Act;” From Dispatches From the Front: Theological Engagements With the Secular: “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians as a Group.” Lest anyone rush to guess where he goes with any of these titles, consider this line from the last essay listed: “If gays can be excluded as a group from the military, I have hope that it could even happen to Christians. God, after all, has done stranger things.” Again, this is not an act. He is speaking to Christians about the implications of living our faith. And he is speaking as one would expect a fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein to speak. There is a fine line, perhaps none, between that sort of honest clarity and rude bluntness.
When one attends a Hauerwas event, one might be stimulated, infuriated, provoked, delighted, or flabbergasted, but one will not be bored; nor will one be conned.
Hauerwas the Theologian
Stanley Hauerwas went to Yale. He did not go to Harvard where, according one wry commentator, “one’s doubts get systematized.” He did not go to Chicago where the “Social Gospel” transmuted into the cult of the theologian as “public intellectual” tends toward relativism. Yale maintains a grounding in reverence for the received tradition of the Church. After two unhappy years on the faculty of Augustana College (IL), Hauerwas moved on to Notre Dame (1970-1984) and thrived in that environment for fourteen years. In 1984 he accepted an offer from Duke, and has been there ever since.
What Hauerwas first learned at Yale increased in three ways during his time at Notre Dame. From the institution he gained a warm appreciation for the tradition of the Church as expressed in Roman Catholicism. His appreciation for the formative power of liturgy and the discipline of doctrine increased.
He further gained a great respect for the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and through him a fascination with Aristotle. This influence remained with him years after, and was intensified by fellow ethicist Alasdair C. MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, Second Edition, 1984). Hauerwas is clearly interested in the formation of moral character far more than in rules of behavior, or exercises in casuistry, where the emphasis is on what one would do under a specific set of circumstances. Instead, Hauerwas has come to prefer questions where existentialism and essentialism meet. “What sort of person am I?” for example, is a more important question to him than “What would I do if. . .?”
These two influences from the Notre Dame years were profound, but not nearly as profound (at least personally) as his discovery of the writings of Mennonite Theologian John Yoder. In a memorial remembrance of his mentor and friend in First Things (April 1998), Hauerwas wrote, “Reading Yoder made me a pacifist. It did so because John taught me that nonviolence was not just another ‘moral issue’ but constitutes the heart of our worship of a crucified messiah.” In closing that essay, Hauerwas quoted the following passage from Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972):
“The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience. The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and the other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.”
Hauerwas called this passage “the heart of what it means to live as a disciple of Christ.” He put a particular emphasis on Yoder’s focus on “God’s people,” and the Christian Community became a continuing theme in Hauerwas’ work.
Thus, what Hauerwas took away from his Notre Dame experience was a Catholic understanding of Ecclesial tradition, a Mennonite understanding of the community in the world but not of it, and a Neo-Thomist understanding of moral character. In his work these three factors work together as the tradition that forms our characters, and the characters thus formed can find expression through Christian community. For the past few years he has consistently stated that his major concern is with establishing and maintaining moral discourse within that community. If he sees any possibility for meaningful moral discourse outside of that community, he has not yet told us about it.
This general outline could be a housing for the separatist Christian Right, and some of Hauerwas’ critics have suggested that there are similarities. Certainly he is no friend of liberalism (see his A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, And Postmodernity for ample evidence). However, the charge is made less believable once one adds his unwavering pacifism, his dismissal of nationalism as idolatrous, and his continuing criticism of capitalism. The specific claim made by others that he is a separatist Christian (without specifying any political direction) is an interesting one. If there is any truth to it, then what Hauerwas is calling for is a very large separatist movement uniting all Christians in the world to be in it, but not of it. In Good Company: The Church as Polis contains five essays in which Hauerwas (sometimes with the help of co-authors) brings prophetic judgment on the Church writ large, and sometimes not so large. In an essay of which he is the sole author, he takes his own Methodist tradition to task for having failed to defend the faithful from the corruption and ennui of the world around us. Methodism, he argues, “had the potential to be that form of evangelical Catholicism that maintained . . . continuity with the great confessions of the church.” It has now become a dwindling secular institution of isolated individuals who “do not want to believe anything or engage in any practices that might offend and thus exclude anyone.” He points out that the he and his fellow Methodists are hardly alone in this situation. Many Christians now turn from decaying ecclesial institutions, he argues, to the state for relief. Hauerwas urges all Christians to shun the political entity called the state and come together as a unique body politic to recover the tools of faith that make us distinctive as a people of God. These are persistent themes in Hauerwas’ body of writing. In After Christendom for example, he suggests, “In particular, I suspect Christians would find our society less than willing to acknowledge the Church’s freedom once the Church makes clear that her freedom comes from faithfulness to God and as a result can never be given or taken away by a state.”
I have waited to mention Hauerwas’ denominational affiliation until the previous paragraph because in many ways it is irrelevant to his theology. Certainly, these nineteenth-century artifacts we call “denominations” are completely irrelevant to his theological agenda. “Evangelical Catholic” defines him better than any institutional label. And it is a term he frequently uses to describe where he is in his thinking and where he would like to be in Christian community. Worship is at the center of his understanding of an Evangelical Catholic Church. The narrative of the Word and the experience of the Sacrament of the Altar continually form us, week after week, as the people of God. As we are formed we give up rules, and their countless exceptions and bendings, in favor of character. What kind of people are we, and how do we relate to others as that kind of people? This leads us to live within the Christian community, ministering to the world, witnessing to the world, but not being absorbed by the world. It is a Catholic vision of the forming tradition. It is a Mennonite notion of the evangelical and prophetic community. It is a people with characters formed by Christ and the Spirit through the waters of Baptism, the narrative of the Word, and the sharing of the Bread and Wine.
To call his thought Methodist, or point out his similarity to some aspects of Lutheran thought, or Roman Catholic thought, or Mennonite thought is to miss a more important point. Hauerwas comes close to meeting C. S. Lewis’ goal in Mere Christianity, of sticking to the essence of the faith with as little denominational nuance as possible. Two important differences are that 1) Hauerwas is never shy about alienating those who are practitioners of state or culture idolatry in Christian garb and 2) he draws from those he considers Evangelical Catholics across denominations. He regularly cites Martin Luther, Søren Kierkegaard, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Peter Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, William Stringfellow, and a host of others—none Methodist, and many Lutheran (in the case of Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic who was formed in the Lutheran tradition). He infrequently cites either John or Charles Wesley (though one assumes he often sings hymns by the latter).
If Hauerwas exists in a separatist Christian ghetto, it is a very large one.
Hauerwas the Reviver
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Hauerwas’ work is the revival of a style in Christian discourse. For want of a better term, we can label this style as telling the truth that needs to be heard, but seems to be resolutely avoided. Jesus was not above using this style. Paul the Apostle was given to it from time to time, as were Ignatius of Antioch, Francis of Assisi, and an obscure monk named Martinus Augustus Luther. It is similar to the Jewish prophetic tradition, and draws upon it. It differs in that this style is always directed at the faithful remnant rather than the larger society. Some may link this style with some of the more aggressive forms of popular evangelism, but that would be a mistake. This style has nothing to do with marketing. It has to do with admonition.
While this style has not been completely absent from Christianity in our culture, it has been considered impolite, and therefore has mostly been politely ignored. This style flies in the face of the dominant modes of Christian thought in the United States that developed in the nineteenth century and achieved something approaching consensus by the early twentieth century. This consensus contained more than a trace of Gnosticism, as suggested in Harold Bloom’s The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). It appropriates the rhetoric, narrative and symbols of Christianity to express a cultural religion that is optimistic and based on three firm beliefs:
- that progress is both inevitable and beneficial
- that American nationality and Christianity are and should be co-mingled
- individualism and capitalism are Christian values
The depression of the 1930s dealt a blow to this set of beliefs, but even as late as June, 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, then a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, observed:
“I now often wonder whether it is true that America is the country without a Reformation. If Reformation means the God-given knowledge of the failure of all ways of building a Kingdom of God on earth, then it is probably true . . .there hardly ever seems to be “encounters” in this great country, in which one can always avoid the other. But where there is no encounter, where liberty is the only unifying factor, one naturally knows nothing of the community which is created through encounter. . .Community in our sense, whether cultural or ecclesiastical, cannot develop there”. [from Bonhoeffer’s diary as reprinted in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990)]
If the depression did not effectively challenge a theology of progress, nationalism, individualism and capitalism, the Second World War did. The indicators of this rapid and dramatic shift are glaring. They include: 1) the growing popularity of the Niebuhr brothers (Reinhold and H. Richard), 2) the growing popularity of Paul Tillich, 3) the rapid spread of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reputation in the United Sates, and 4) the elevation of Søren Kierkegaard to the status of cultural icon. Each of these caused a serious re-thinking of the tripartite “happy” theology. Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr used the blunt style of admonition from time to time, but both also sought to be good citizens. Neither issued a clarion call for Christians to define themselves against the prevailing culture. Paul Tillich was an observer and analyst, but not an admonisher, though he generated a great deal of quotable material for admonishers.
Ironically, the two theological “super stars” of the post World War II era in the United States who were admonishers were both dead, and neither was an American. Bonhoeffer, a German, was executed just a few days before the collapse of the Third Reich. The story of his death came quickly to the United States, and his works were in great demand. His emphasis on “costly discipleship” held up a mirror that made all-too-comfortable Christians uncomfortable. Kierkegaard, a Dane, died in 1855, and was all but unknown in the United States before World War II. One American scholar published a biography of Kierkegaard just before the war: Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938). It did not sell well until after the war, with multiple reprintings in both hardbound and paperback editions over the next quarter of a century. During that time, translations of Kierkegaard’s work were in great demand, and his name became a household word. In those works, Kierkegaard relentlessly challenges the validity of cultural Christianity measured against the Christianity of the New Testament.
It was in this intellectual climate that Peter Berger published The Noise of Solemn Assemblies: Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America (Garden City: Doubleday, 1961). Berger quotes another gifted admonisher (Amos 5:21) in the main title. He weighs “established” Christianity in the United States and finds it wanting. Indeed he finds it to be more a cultural religion than the Christianity of the New Testament. In the final pages he likens the reader to the hearer of a sermon entitled “Can one be member of the Church in today’s world?” For a brief moment the hearer may hope that the preacher will say “No,” take off the vestments, and walk out the door never to return again. But the hearer rests secure that no such thing will happen. There is the collection to be taken, a final hymn to be sung, and the handshake at the door. Berger then tells the reader that he would be guilty of the same bad faith if we were to encourage people to get involved in the denomination of their choice. He then suggests that one can, as a matter of Christian commitment, opt out of the Sunday morning traffic jam and refuse to participate in the American Religion parading as Christianity.
Now that is theology in the admonishing style.
The problem is that this style usually comes in brief jabs, almost like sniper attacks. And like sniper attacks, they are often more annoying (or delightful, depending upon one’s perspective) than effective. Some admonishers, like Berger, have kept it up over time, but are not widely read, in spite of a small loyal readership.
Thus, the rise of the admonishing style following World War II gradually faded in the 1960s. The Niebuhrs and Tillich grew older and finally left us. Bonhoeffer became a popular culture romantic hero. Discussions of Kierkegaard shifted from his trenchant and lashing insights to questions about whether he was the originator of existentialism, a pre-existentialist, a proto-existentialist, or simply a quirky fellow in need of a Freudian interpretation. By the 1970s this style, which certainly brought in some fresh air, was overshadowed by various forms of advocacy theology, characterized by a hyphen (actual or implied) before the theology. Ironically, some of the most vocal critics of Hauerwas’ alleged separatism (some have even charged him with tribalism) style themselves African-American theologians, feminist theologians, and GLBT theologians.
Vulgar he is, abrasive he may be, and he admittedly has not one definitive, exhaustive “Great Book” among the more than twenty he has published. But he is hardly as tribal as his critics. Furthermore, he is (and has been for over three decades) the one continuing, consistent, and well read/well heard voice asking the question “Is it Christian?” and admonishing those who have died with Christ and risen as part of the new creation to act like those who have died with Christ and risen as part of the new creation.
The point of encountering Hauerwas is not to determine if he is “right” or “wrong.” The point is to wrestle with what he puts before us, and to continue to wrestle. And the point of encountering Hauerwas is not to learn something. The point of much of his writing and speaking is that we already know what we are, who we are, and Whose we are. We need to be shown how we are behaving more like consumers and citizens owned by our creditors than we are like the redeemed who have been made free by our bondage to God through Christ. Certainly the point of encountering Hauerwas is not to become “Hauerwasian.” It is to rediscover that we are a people, each of whom has been marked by the sign of the cross and sealed as God’s own forever, called together to be apart from the world but in it, witnessing and ministering to it.
And in these points that Hauerwas makes, we hear echoes of Paul the Apostle, Ignatius of Antioch, Francis of Assisi, an obscure monk named Martinus Augustus Luther, the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the enigmatic Søren Kierkegaard, and the too often ignored Peter Berger.
His admonishing voice may grate, and we may wish he would clean up his language, but in this age we need to listen to whatever voice is available to us telling the truth that needs to be heard, particularly if we want to resolutely avoid hearing it.
A Basic Bibliography: Stanley Hauerwas
Those looking for a good one-volume sampling of Hauerwas’ work, will find The Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2001) useful.
The following are his major publications, in chronological order:
- Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection (Notre Dame: Fides Press, 1974)
- Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1975)
- Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977)
- A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981)
- The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983)
- Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society (Minneapolis: Winston Seabury Press, 1985)
- Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985)
- Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living In Between (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1988)
- Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony with William Willimon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989)
- Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans, Publishing Co., 1990). Later retitled God, Medicine, and Suffering
- After Christendom (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991)
- Preaching to Strangers with William Willimon (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992)
- Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993)
- Dispatches From the Front: Theological Engagements With the Secular (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994)
- In Good Company: The Church as Polis (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995)
- Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life with William Willimon, also with Scott C. Saye (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
- Where Resident Aliens Live with William Willimon, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).
- Christians among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics, with Charles Pinches (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).
- Wilderness Wanderings: Probing 20th-Century Theology and Philosophy (Boulder: Westview, 1997)
- Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified (Nashville: Abingdon Press; Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, Ltd., 1998).
 I will refer to works by Hauerwas only by title only in the text. I have placed a bibliography of his major publications, containing the full citation in each case, at the end of the text. I give the full facts of publication in the text for all other works cited.
 The Lutheran influences are not happenstance. Hauerwas is not Post-Modern in the ideological sense of the term, but he certainly rejects Enlightenment assumptions about progress, individualism and capitalism. Like others who searched for a foundational theology in a messy and flawed world in the years after World War II, Hauerwas found the paradoxes, dualities, and “both/and” complexities of Lutheran thought more fruitful than Modernism. On the congruence of Luther’s writings and Post-Modern thought, see Kathryn Ann Kleinhans, “Necessity, Sin, and Salvation: Luther’s Critique of Reason in The Bondage of the Will” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Emory University. Graduate Division of Religion, 1995).
Hauerwas is not alone as an Evangelical Catholic in the United Methodist Church. The UMC Order of Saint Luke, open to clergy and laity, seeks to restore the Daily Office, weekly Communion, and self-examination within the community. Don Saliers, Professor of Theology and Worship at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, is another Methodist who thinks and writes as an Evangelical Catholic. Hauerwas and Saliers were one year apart at Yale Divinity School and in the Yale University Graduate School theology program.
There are some interesting similarities between Kierkegaard and Hauerwas. Both are primarily admonishers, and their chosen audience is the Church. Both employ humor, and are very good at it. Neither is a systematician and both are given to a large output of briefer forms of writing; aphorisms for Kierkegaard and essays for Hauerwas. The following from Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon “Christendom”: 1854-1855, translated, with an introduction by Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944) simply underscores the similarities: “… we (“Christendom”) cannot in any wise appropriate Christ’s promises to ourselves, for we are not in the place where Christ and the New Testament require one to be in order to be a Christian.”
 Who could also be abrasive and foul-mouthed.