Faith Fires Back

A pre-eminent theological ethicist grapples with the church, the state, the state of the church, and the responsibility of the religious community.

Stanley Hauerwas

For Stanley Hauerwas, 2001 was quite a year. Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School, became the first American theologian in four decades to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The Hauerwas Reader, devoted to "one of the most widely read and oft-cited theologians writing today," was issued by Duke Press. Time magazine named him "America's best theologian." The university and the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church bestowed on him Duke's Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award. And, in a public validation of sorts, Oprah honored him with a television appearance.

A graduate of Yale Divinity School and Yale's graduate school, where he earned his Ph.D., Hauerwas did his undergraduate work at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. He taught for two years at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, before joining the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, where he taught from 1970 until 1984. He joined the Duke faculty in 1984.

This fall, in the inaugural Duke Magazine Campus Forum, Hauerwas had a public conversation with William T. Cavanaugh Ph.D. '96. Cavanaugh, one of Hauerwas' former graduate students, teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This year, he is a visiting fellow at Notre Dame's Kellogg Institute for International Studies. The moderator for the event was Dean of the Divinity School Gregory Jones M.Div.'85, Ph.D.'88, who was also taught by Hauerwas. Jones began by noting that "all this public recognition is but the fruit of many long years of hard intellectual work, creative scholarship, and sustained engagement." Hauerwas, he said, is a deeply committed teacher whose abundant intellectual energy and abiding concern with lives lived virtuously have been impressed on generations of students.

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

On achieving prominence as a public intellectual

You're an academic, but you're more than just an academic. You have a keen pastoral sense, and you do a lot of things beyond the academic world--now in the media, but before that just talking to little churches here and there. And your writing style is really less academic as well. Can you say a little about that?

If I were any of my colleagues at Duke, I would be very tired of "Hauerwas." In fact, I am very tired of "me." I have no idea how I have suddenly become famous, but I am not happy about it. Indeed, when a theologian, particularly in the kind of world we live in, becomes famous, you have an indication that a mistake has been made. Our subject after all is God.

Of course, to be a writer is an invitation to narcissism. How to escape narcissism is very difficult. The very effort to escape only increases our self-fascination. My only hope is having friends who remind me what I am supposed to be about. Indeed, friendship is very important not only for my life but in how I think about ethics. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that for the upbringing of children as well as for living well, we need a society of good laws that teach us to desire the right goods rightly. But when such practices are absent, we must depend on friends. That seems to me to describe our situation very well.

Which is why one of the tasks I have undertaken is to change how we think about the moral life. I have tried to redirect attention to the importance of the virtues as well as the narratives that make the virtues intelligible for understanding "ethics." Of course, such an emphasis I thought necessary to recover how Christians should think about their lives.

It is so difficult in America for Christians to imagine what it might mean for them to be Christian. We have lost the first-order speech necessary to shape our lives. I have tried to help Christians recover our speech habits by writing little books for laity. I wrote a little book with [Dean of the Chapel] Will Willimon--who said he was going to make me famous--called Resident Aliens, which created a readership I would not normally have as an academic. It turns out Christians were surprised to be told they are odd.

Will and I have tried to follow that book with short books on the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments. These books try to de-familiarize those extraordinary texts in the hopes Christians can appreciate the radical character of our faith. I have even written a little book called Prayers Plain Spoken to try to show that, when we pray, about the worst thing we can do is try to be pious. I hate prayers that begin, "Oh, God, we just ask you..." About the worst thing Christians can do is try to protect God when we pray. Read the Psalms. You do not have to protect God. That is why God is God and we are not.

You're also famous pedagogically. One of the famous pedagogical tricks that I like is not explaining things, letting the audience figure it out.

I do not know if not explaining is a "trick," but I do try to say some things in a way that invites resistance and further reflection. I think I learned the importance of that way of working from Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein teaches you that the unsaid must remain unsaid. You only discover what must be left unsaid by thinking hard about what you have learned to say. I also try to develop epigrams that have been forced on me by positions I have taken whose implications I slowly come to understand.

For example, I say, "The first task of the church is not to make the world just. The first task of the church is to make the world the world." I know that sounds offensive to most people, Christian and non-Christian. Of course, I want it to be offensive. I am trying to challenge the assumption that Christianity is acceptable in modernity as long as it supports moral and political causes most people assume anyone should support--e.g., democracy. Such a view assumes that God can be entertained as a possibility as long as we keep it to ourselves. So I try to remind Christians by such an epigram that--as Augustine maintained--the church's first political task is to worship the true God truly.

On the aesthetics of religion

It occurs to me, the way you're talking, that your attention to aesthetics is underappreciated. You really have a very keen aesthetic sense. You're constantly thinking about the attraction of it, and that it's got to be an attractive message that lures people into it by its beauty, in a sense. And oftentimes its beauty comes in its brokenness.

Beauty is the heart of goodness and the moral life. I learned that originally from Plato and later from Iris Murdoch. I do not write about "aesthetics," but rather I try to remind us of the beauty we no longer notice because we have lost the wonder to the everyday. I have recently written a piece for the Catholic Liturgical Society, "Suffering Beauty," in which I suggest that just to the extent beauty calls us beyond ourselves we "suffer."

The Catholics had asked me to speak about liturgy as moral formation, but I thought that very way of putting the matter was a mistake. Liturgy is not something done to provide moral motivation. The liturgy is how the church worships God and how from such worship we become a people capable of being an alternative to the world. That is why the language of the liturgy is so important. Nothing betrays the love of God more than the inelegance of the language Christians use in their worship. Some Christians seem to think we can attract people back to Christianity if we try to compete with TV, but when you do that you have already lost. The only result is that Christian worship becomes as banal and ugly as the rest of our lives.

I think it would be terrific if on entering a church people would think, "This is very frightening." God, after all, is frightening. Recently, I had a debate about the interpretation of the Bible at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest. One of my graduate students, a Roman Catholic, went with me. When we entered the church where the debate was to be held, she said, "Wow, is this someone's living room?" So "fundamentalists" want to make people feel at home--a home, moreover, that looks more like the living rooms of the 1950s. It is no wonder you are tempted to put an American flag in such "sanctuaries," because at least the flag adds some color. Unfortunately, the colors, at least when they are part of the same piece of cloth, are not liturgically appropriate.

On the modern church

One of the things that makes it hard for a lot of Christians to swallow your message is that you say the church doesn't have a social ethic, it is a social ethic. How do you deal with the division between what is and what ought to be?

God's given us all the time we need to patiently help our congregations be what they can be. That's the way you want people formed, because that's the way the Spirit operates. If you help people discover the violence in their lives, though, don't expect to be honored. One of my favorite epigrams is that Christians are not nonviolent because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, even though, of course, we want to make the world less violent. But rather, Christians are nonviolent in a world of war because we cannot image anything else as faithful followers of Christ.

On September 11

If you were a pastor of a church right now, what would you be saying after September 11?

People say that September 11 forever changed the world. That is false. The year 33 A.D. forever changed the world. September 11 is just one other terrible event in the world's continuing rejection of the peace God made present through the Resurrection. And therefore, how Christians narrate this event will be different than how other people narrate this event.

Christian willingness to kill other Christians in the name of national loyalty is surely one of the assumptions many Christians assume is not to be questioned. Yet no assumption has contributed more to the accommodation of Christianity to secular ways of life than the presumption that Christians have no problem with war. For Christians to be nonviolent is not just another political position, but rather at the very heart of what it means to be Christian, of what it means to be human. I believe God created all that is with the desire to be nonviolent. We are not meant to be killers. That is why we have to be trained to kill. God wants us to be in love with God and with one another in a manner that our differences challenge our self-imposed desires. Christians in America have difficulty responding to September 11 as Christians because we are more American than we are Christian.

The current identification of God and country is very troubling. Let me be as clear as I can be--the God of "God and country" is not the God of Jesus Christ. Yet this is not a development that began with September 11. One of the issues before American Christianity is whether the God we worship is the God of Jesus Christ.

Stanley Hauerwas
Stanley Hauerwas

American Christians simply lack the disciplines necessary to discover how being Christian might make them different. For example, after the Gulf War, people rightly wanted to welcome the troops home, so they put yellow ribbons everywhere including the churches. Yet if the Gulf War was a "just war," that kind of celebration was inappropriate. In the past when Christians killed in a just war, it was understood they should be in mourning. They had sacrificed their unwillingness to kill. Black, not yellow, was the appropriate color. Indeed, in the past when Christian soldiers returned from a just war, they were expected to do penance for three years before being restored to the Eucharist. That we now find that to be unimaginable is but an indication how hard it is for us to imagine what it might mean for us to be Christian.

The current outpouring of patriotism, I think, is an indication of how lonely we are today. We are desperate to be part of some common endeavor. I am often called a communitarian, but I think that is a mistaken description. I am not for a rediscovery of community as an end in itself. Such a rediscovery can be as dangerous as it can be good. Rather, I try to help myself and others rediscover what it might mean if the church constituted our primary loyalty.

A lot of us have heard you say these sorts of things before. We were sort of surprised when you appeared in The New York Times and you said that we ought to think of this as a police action. Two questions: First of all, when you say "we," are you now making policy recommendations? The second question is how do you, as a pacifist, think about "police action" as opposed to "military action"?

If I said "we" in The New York Times, it just means I wasn't thinking, and I was on a linguistic holiday.

Now, I'm not going to let you off the hook that quickly, though, because clearly the church does not undertake police actions in that sense.

Right. When I used the "we," I identified with those who would assume the perspective of the nation-state. I am a pacifist, but I gladly try to help those who say they want to fight a "just war." But the "just war" tradition is as demanding as pacifism. For example, it is by no means clear on just-war grounds that you can fight a just war against terrorism. Let me be clear. The people that attacked the World Trade Center clearly wanted to terrorize Americans. They wanted quite clearly to frighten us, quite literally, to death. But it is not clear to me, if you are a just warrior, that it is helpful to call how you respond a "war on terrorism." What they did was murder. If it is murder, on just-war grounds, you do not want to kill the perpetrator. You want to arrest the murderers.

The question then becomes, what kinds of forms of international cooperation do you need to develop to be able to arrest whoever you think has been responsible for this? You may not be the arresting agent yourself. I raise this consideration to help those committed to just war be imaginative in terms of their own commitments.

"War" is not just "there" if you are serious about just war. Just war is an attempt to create the institutional form prior to a war occurring so that, if it occurs, it will be more likely that war will be just. Now, if a war is not just, what is it? In several interviews about September 11, I said, "Well, you know, if the World Trade Center was terrorism, so was Hiroshima and Nagasaki." There were no great military targets there, and even worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the firebomb raid on Tokyo. It was awful; we killed more people in the firebombing of Tokyo than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. And when I made that point, reporters said, "Well, that was war." To which I responded, "Well, you know, you can murder in war."

I want to know on what grounds you use the honorific description "war" if a war is not just. We think you can distinguish war from murder--what are the presuppositions that allow you to think that you can do that? And there's a very important issue of whether just war is basically a series of exceptions from a general stance of nonviolence, or whether it assumes that it's always about justice in a world of war.

That latter presumption assumes war is never an attempt to establish a world free of war, because if you want justice in the world as we know it, you've got to be ready to kill somebody. I respect that position, but then I want to know, what do you mean by the word "justice"? How can you have justice? What kind of justice are you talking about in international conflicts? Those things need to be explored, and they're not being explored. What I think oftentimes happens is that we get a military and a State Department whose policies are shaped by geopolitical consideration of realist foreign policy, and then they want to fight a just war. It's too late. It's too late, because you've already let yourself be led into the world in a way in which you say the first responsibility of the president of the United States is to protect the United States' self-interest. And what I want to know is how the United States' self-interest is determined by justice.

Stanley Hauerwas

[A member of the audience asks:] I've been reading your book, Resident Aliens, and it's really cool. I only got through like maybe the first couple chapters, but--You hear that? It was called "cool"!

[Another member of the audience asks:] What's the point of defending a society that's built on spending? We've been terrorized by Madison Avenue for how long, through the television and such?

Be careful with that kind of language. You've been manipulated by Madison Avenue--I'm not sure you've been terrorized. And it's very important to get the description right. As a response to September 11, for academics to roll out all the things that they've thought have been wrong with America and American foreign policy is--the word I'm close to is "duplicitous." It is morally inappropriate. Nothing that America has done in the world justifies, excuses, or explains September 11.

It is therefore all the more important for us--and this is the use of the word "us"--to try to understand why it is that many people in the world find it satisfying that this has happened to America. On September 11, America was dragged kicking and screaming into the world. We think of ourselves as global, but our globalization has remained safe within the boundaries of our ocean, and now the reality of the world has been brought home. We're mad as hell because we didn't really want to deal with this kind of world on an everyday basis. It's a very important moment for national self-examination, and I would like to be as helpful to that as I can as a Christian. If you are a pacifist, you don't want to withdraw--you want to be as helpful to your neighbor as you can.

On the church, marriage, and sexuality

[Another member of the audience asks:] Talking about the unity of the church, how might that apply to the current debates concerning homosexuality in the United Methodist Church, in the Presbyterian USA church, and the Reconciling Congregations movement within the United Methodist Church?

The problem with debates about homosexuality is they have been devoid of any linguistic discipline that might give you some indication what is at stake. Methodism, for example, is more concerned with being inclusive than being the church. We do not have the slightest idea what we mean by being inclusive other than some vague idea that inclusivity has something to do with being accepting and loving. Inclusivity is, of course, a necessary strategy for survival in what is religiously a buyers' market. Even worse, the inclusive church is captured by romantic notions of marriage. Combine inclusivity and romanticism and you have no reason to deny marriage between gay people.

When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, ministers think it's interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn't about whether you're in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.

The difficulty, therefore, is that Christians, when they approach this issue, no longer know what marriage is. For centuries, Christians married people who didn't know one another until the marriage ceremony, and we knew they were going to have sex that night. They didn't know one another. Where does all this love stuff come from? They could have sex because they were married.

Now, when marriage becomes a mutually enhancing arrangement until something goes wrong, then it makes no sense at all to oppose homosexual marriages. If marriage is a calling that makes promises of lifelong monogamous fidelity in which children are welcomed, then we've got a problem. But we can't even get to a discussion there, because Christians no longer practice Christian marriage.

What has made it particularly hard is that the divorce culture has made it impossible for us to talk about these matters--and many of you know, I'm divorced and remarried. It has made it impossible for us to talk about these matters with an honesty and candor that is required if you are not to indulge in self-deceptive, sentimental lies.

For gay Christians who I know and love, I wish we as Christians could come up with some way to help them, like we need to help one another, to avoid the sexual wilderness in which we live. That's a worthy task. I probably sound like a conservative on these matters, not because I've got some deep animosity toward gay people, but because I don't know how to go forward given the current marriage practices of our culture.

A question from Stanley Hauerwas

[Dean Jones asks:] Bill has asked you a lot of questions, others have asked you several questions. What question would you like those of us gathered here to be thinking about as we depart from here?


What do I need, or what do we need, to be a community of friends that can not only tell one another the truth, but want to be told the truth?

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