Dubbed ‘The best theologian in America’ by Time magazine in 2001, Stanley Hauerwas is widely considered to be one of the most influential living thinkers in Western theology.
Raised in Texas, Hauerwas learned the value of manual labour from a young age. His father reluctantly taught the 15-year-old bricklaying, despite being worried that receiving a wage would deter his son from pursuing a college education.
The theologian notes, “we didn’t know it, but we were poor whites”. Along with the rest of their community, the Hauerwas family attended the local Pleasant Mount United Methodist Church for morning and evening meetings every Sunday.
It was there that the congregation learned it was imperative for each person to be saved from sin.
One Sunday evening, after singing ‘I surrender all’ for the 25th time, the young Hauerwas thought to himself, “This is going to go on all night if someone doesn’t do something!” so he went forward and dedicated his life to the Lord. Looking back, he quips: “I had no idea what I was doing!”
The accidental Christian would go on to become a long-time professor at Duke University, North Carolina.
Today he is chair in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen – no mean feat for a boy raised in a town where the only residents with a college education were pastors and schoolteachers. Today the 77-year-old continues to be a prominent voice in speaking out against the idolatry of the state (a sin which he believes is particularly practised by both the American Church, and President Trump.) Books such as Resident Aliens (Abingdon Press), calling for a compromised Western Christianity to withdraw from its allegiance to state power and influence, have earned him the mantle of ‘modern-day prophet’, though he shuns such descriptions.
Pinning down Hauerwas’ theology is a challenge for students studying his work, primarily because his thoughts cover a swathe of theological issues – from pacifism to abortion, politics to disability. This wide scope was not planned in advance but stems from Hauerwas’ personality. “I ask questions and I follow them up. There’s a very strong philosophical side to my work that is about questioning.”
As a long-time admirer and student of his writings, I was keen to meet the man behind the books. During his recent trip to London I managed to find some time to hear the following insights from this prestigious academic. His perspectives on the state of religion in the USA and what he learned as the spouse of someone with bipolar disorder resulted in a fascinating interview.
Christians often strive to influence the world to be more just, but you argue that the “first task of the church is to make the world the world”. What do you mean by that?
I mean that ‘the world’ means all that people use to employ God’s patience to live in a manner that God does not exist.
Years ago, at the outbreak of the first Iraq war, I was to give some lectures at the Washington cathedral for the continuing education of Episcopal clergy. I said, “I hope if President Bush came over here from the White House and wanted you to share the Eucharist with him, you wouldn’t commune with him.” They said, “What? We’re people of grace!” And I said, “But, how will he know he’s the world? How will he know that bombing human beings made him the world? He won’t know he needs forgiveness.” That is what I mean by our task to “make the world the world”.
And the need for Christ then becomes more obvious in that contrast?
Absolutely. I mean, read the Gospel of John. The light has come into the world to darken the world and help the world see the darkness, because it’s very hard in darkness to see darkness. And so it’s an ongoing discovery for us to define in what ways we are the world. So it’s not like the world is ‘out there’, and we Christians are OK. I mean, the world is in us, and how to discover it means you’re going to need the help of brothers and sisters in Christ.
It could be said that your vocation now is to show America that it’s got a serious problem with war…
Before I die, I have a modest ambition: I want to convince every American Christian that they have a problem with war. They don’t have to be pacifists, they don’t have to be justice warriors; I just want them to think they’ve got a problem with war. People don’t appreciate the fact that we’ve now had 14 years of war in Afghanistan. The militarisation of the American society is quite remarkable.
I’m not in any way criticising the military – they are what they are. But Americans have lost a sense of the limited character of what the military should be about, which I think is a very dangerous business.
You describe yourself as not quite fitting into college life. Not just on a class level but also theologically, you’re very difficult to place in a camp. Do you see a prophetic element to that not belonging?
I know people have described me as prophetic; I say anyone that has taught at a major research university and received a salary that you get at a major research university is not prophetic! But what I do try to do is help people recover the significance of the everyday grammar of Christian belief, and what an extraordinary thing it is to be a Christian today.
That’s part of our coming out as Christians in a world in which Christianity was taken for granted. And just to the extent that I can help us recover the oddness of what we believe as Christians, then if you want to call that prophetic that’s OK, but I’m just trying to do the everyday work which I think Christianity demands.
In your memoir you describe how you lost friends when you spoke out against the US military action in the wake of 9/11. Do you find not clearly belonging in one theological camp lonely?
Yes. I sometimes do feel a bit isolated, but then I have extraordinary friends, and they often help me say better what I’m trying to say. Sometimes the way I’ve done theology has been very puzzling to many people, and part of loneliness is being misunderstood, because to understand me takes work.
People want to keep fitting you into boxes that they’ve already established, and I’m trying to change those boxes.
Your first wife, Anne, had severe bipolar disorder. It sounds as though you had to navigate that time without a huge amount of support beyond a very small group of friends.
When you are close to someone who is suffering from serious mental illness, they will oftentimes say, “You can’t tell anyone, because they will treat me like I’m mentally ill and that will only make me mentally ill.” So there is an isolation that comes from trying to be a caretaker. You need support because when you live with someone who is seriously mentally ill, every five minutes is different and you are never sure when they’re in an episode and when they’re not. You need a lot of help.
You've talked about living “out of control”. Is that a discipline which Christians have to learn the hard way?
Yes. None of us like learning to live out of control. It’s a central matter for me that I originally used in The Peaceable Kingdom (University of Notre Dame Press), namely: if you worship a saviour who ended up on a cross, how can you think you’re in control of your life? So you’ve got to be ready to be surprised. I mean certainly existentially, living with Anne, who was severely out of control, puts you out of control.
Did you vote in the last presidential election?
I did. I don’t always vote. But I thought that Trump was such a challenge to who we [the American people] needed to be.
I feel very strongly about abortion so I don’t like Hillary’s abortion stance, but I voted for her and I was – like most people – stunned with the result. I just couldn’t believe that it had happened.
Earlier this year you wrote in the Washington Post, warning that Donald Trump is more religious than many of us assume. What led you to that conclusion?
Well, that he declared his inauguration a day of “patriotic devotion to America”. In the speech he said that he wanted unconditional loyalty to the American project. I just thought it was useful to call idolatry, idolatry – because that’s what it was!
You’ve said that your aim is to live a life that is unintelligible if the Christian God doesn’t exist. Would you say that the Western Church has lost her way by compromising on this basic benchmark?
Yes. I do think that that’s the case. I have been influenced by a Mennonite theologian named John Howard Yoder. John directed our attention to what happens when Christians turn the gospel into a formula for ruling people who are not Christians – that’s called Constantinianism. It comes in many shapes and sizes.
In America they think they never had Constantinianism, because of separation of Church and state. But, of course, everyone assumes that America is a Christian nation. And that presumption has severely weakened the Church in America of being the kind of community that produces people that can stand against the pretensions of a nation state that is out of control.
Speaking of John Howard Yoder, you described your relationship as that of friends. In your memoir, you’ve said that you had no knowledge of what you’ve generously described as his “inappropriate relationship” with some of his female Mennonite students. Others have used the term “sexual assault”. How do we read Yoder’s work – it being a core text for many theology students – in the light of his own abuse of power?
It’s a very serious question. I think our lives should make a difference for how our work is received, [so] John’s behaviour presents a very serious question about the use of his work.
I have former students who are Mennonites, who have decided they won’t have students read John’s work anymore. I can’t do that. If I were teaching, I would still use The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans) and other writings of his. But I would do so with an asterisk, because we really need to think about this.
John (being brilliant as he was) stupidly had a theory that said – the mainstream tells us that men and women can only touch one another if they’re married, but for brothers and sisters in Christ, it surely must be the case that there can be nonsexual forms of touching that are not adultery. Well, that was just crazy. But he thought that that was part of the eschatological possibilities suggested in the New Testament. I think he was just wrong, and that he is rightly criticised by many weighty Mennonite women for what he did. It shouldn’t just be women, but many of the women that were involved with him have come out and been critical, and rightly so.
Most people view theology as a kind of distant, theoretical discipline. What practical question would you challenge Christians to consider as they attempt to live the Christian life?
Do you know how to recognise a lie when you have been confronted with one? It’s very important. Wittgenstein’s remark in Culture and Value (University of Chicago Press) is, “you can only know the lie when you’ve been at home in the truth”. And what does it mean to be at home in the truth? That’s what I think is a great challenge for us today; to know how to be at home in the truth.
Hear this interview in full on Premier Christian Radio, Saturday 2nd September at 4pm. Listen again at premierchristianradio.com/theprofile or download 'The Profile' podcast.