Doris Donnelly

The biblical Hannah made a deal with God. Her story, recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, is simple enough. She promised that if in her post-menopausal stage she conceived a son, her child would be dedicated to God’s service. Hannah’s faith was rewarded by the birth of Samuel, a future king of Israel. In return for making the unthinkable possible, she offered God a manifesto of praise. According to the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah did what all good theologians must do. She used clear, crisp and utterly precise words to tell the barren, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed about this God who knew no boundaries, and of God’s plan to overturn every artificial division by class, race, gender, social and economic status until a peaceable kingdom reigned.

A prolific author and professor of theological ethics at Duke University’s Divinity School, Hauerwas was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine in 2001, undoubtedly in recognition of his heavyweight contribution in word and deed to the academy and the pew. He tells us in this theological memoir that his mother, like Hannah, made a pact with God. What he further discloses is that sons brokered in this deal are destined to pick up the work God left undone. Shaking up the status quo, as Hauerwas soon learned, was not always a comfortable task, but it turned out to be his lifelong labor of love. No GPS is provided, so one learns as one goes along “how” (not “what”) it is to be a Christian, how much one needs the friendship and “the presence of significant lives made significant by being Christian,” how the Cross of Christ indwells and endures suffering at the same time that it makes unrefusable demands on one’s allegiances and commitments. How Hauerwas deals intricately and personally with these themes is alone worth the price of this book.

For the author, an involuted route to becoming a Christian is complicated by a personality evidenced in these pages as arrogant, self-righteous, controversial and abrasive. There is a good amount of venting, too, most of all about his first wife’s mental condition and her fantasies and other aberrant behaviors. One hopes the venting was cathartic. To this reviewer it seemed unnecessarily detailed. Human limitations notwithstanding, grace builds on nature, and abundant graces are offered to Hauerwas: a gentle father to complement a difficult mother; a prized son to offset a troubled marriage; and a series of impressive academic positions popping up just when some impolitic move (at Augustana College) or a disagreement with a chairperson’s vision (at Notre Dame) or a squabble over an academic policy (at Duke) could have derailed his career. The situation at Duke was resolved amicably, so there Hauerwas remains, delighted with his students, his work and his dearly beloved second wife, Paula Gilbert. It bears noting anecdotally that during the interview process at Duke, Paula, as the director of admissions, was a dinner guest invited to vet whether Hauerwas’s salty language “could pass muster in a mixed crowd.”

About his students, Hauerwas writes that many are smarter than he. He says the same about many of his colleagues. He is a teacher, but a learner, too, and he generously acknowledges his foundational debt to Karl Barth as well as to inspiration from the bricklayers with whom he worked as a youth in his father’s business in Texas, along with the many pastors and academics and friends who can all take some credit for this man’s growth as a human being.

From James Gustafson Hauerwas latched onto an idea that became a trademark: character and virtues are crucial for the moral life. Hauerwas then independently developed a Christology that supported that conclusion. From Julius Kovesi via Iris Murdoch he learned that description is everything, that narrative and story are essential for Christian ethics and that this new approach gives vitality to a discipline that the conventional focus on decision and choice lacked. From the Mennonite pacifist John Yoder he learned that “non-violence is not a recommendation” but rather is constitutive of “God’s refusal to redeem coercively.” It’s just like God to leave freedom intact. And it’s just like Hauerwas to remind us with specificity that the God he means “is not just any God,” but the God who “has shown up in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Faith in a crucified Christ allows Hauerwas to continue his work with what seems like indefatigable energy. It also inspired him to argue that the “we” in a “we are at war” response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, could not possibly be a Christian “we.” One might suggest that such a challenge was not a far cry from Stanley Hauerwas, age 7, who innocently challenged the etiquette of the water kegs available for bricklayers with one cup designated for white and another for black workers. Young Hauerwas drank indiscriminately from either one. The difference now, 60 or so years later, is that Hauerwas intentionally chooses to drink from the cup that unites us all as sons and daughters of God, no matter the consequences.

Listen to an interview with Stanley Hauerwas.

Doris Donnelly is a theologian at John Carroll University, University Heights, Ohio, and director of the Cardinal Suenens Center there.

Comments

JAMES OLEARY MR | 7/29/2010 - 8:31pm
It's about time "America" gave some space to Hauerwas, this most brilliant pacifist, who can see the greatness and necessity of Catholicism as well as the stark truth lived out by Mennonites. Like Hubert Humphrey, Hauerwas can see the good in all Christian traditions and that good is so very obvious to him that he has a hard effing time with those who can't see it. I have had the good luck of knowing some of his students, Roman Catholic students. He learns from them! He has taught at Notre Dame, University of St. Thomas and many other places. He is one restless soul and I only wish my heart was as restless as his so that some day I can rest in God along with him. Meanwhile, let's wake up. Hauerwas is a good one to kick you awake. Read anything he wrote. Anything at all, and you will see what I mean. I would start with "Resident Aliens."