William C Cavanaugh
Stanley Hauerwas changed my life.  As an undergraduate aiming for law school, he told me “Lawyers are a dime a dozen” and got me thinking about graduate studies in theology.  As a grad student, he was my Doktorvater.  From him I learned to read Wittgenstein, appreciate the church I was raised in, ignore disciplinary boundaries, and write theology in a somewhat less boring way.  The most important thing Stanley showed me is how to love God.  I have had the great good fortune to know Stanley in person, but reading him is the next best thing.  Reading Stanley with a mind and heart open to changing is an often-rewarded experience.
Text below from: “Stan the Man: A Thoroughly Biased Account of a Completely Unobjective Person” in John Berkman, Michael G. Cartwright, eds., The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001), 17-36.


The Hauerwas Reader
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Anthologies of an academic’s work do not usually include a characterization of the author as a person.  Such is normally reserved for a given professor’s Festschrift, when his or her former students produce a resume-padding collection of their own essays, prefaced by some brief unctuous flattery of the beloved old gas bag.  The assumption seems to be that academics’ character and personality have little to do with the work they produce, and need only appear in more “personal” tributes. If Stanley Hauerwas is correct, however, in saying that the only interesting arguments are ad hominem, then to understand who Stanley is is crucial to understanding what Stanley thinks.  If ethics is not about rules and choices but rather about the narrative-based formation of persons over time, then the story of Stanley Hauerwas is an aid to cultivating the kind of moral vision that his work has developed. Put another way, to grasp what Stanley says, it is important to hear it in the accent in which it is said.

The accent, of course, is legendary.  Many attempt it — his listeners commonly feel compelled to pass on his bons mots in a facsimile of his distinctive Texas twang — but such impersonations always fall short.  For all his critiques of liberal individualism, Stanley Hauerwas is a unique and unrepeatable individual. For all his emphasis on community, Hauerwas blends into a crowd like a bull blends into a china shop.  He is, in the fullest sense of the word, a character, and his personality illustrates one of the central paradoxes of tradition-based community; the more deeply one has been formed by a good community, the freer one is to be oneself. 

Conversely, one of the ironies of modern individualism is its tendency to produce uniformity, a trap from which we struggle to free ourselves through consumption of arbitrarily differentiated products, our pathetic attempts to “have it your way” at Burger King.  The genius of Stanley Hauerwas, in contrast, is manifested not in innovation but in putting himself under the authority of well-worn traditions and communities of ordinary folk. Hauerwas is famed for his brilliant insights, but his oft-repeated claim that “To have an original idea only means you forgot where you read it” is not merely a disingenuous attempt at modesty.  Stanley does not waste much time on modesty.  He is too absorbed in the telos of his theological work to worry much about either modesty or its opposite.  Hauerwas is a very gregarious scholar who knows that his work achieves the depth it does only through sustained attention to the stories, friendships, insights, and criticisms of others.  At his best, Stanley embodies Kierkegaard’s dictum “The really ‘exceptional’ man is the truly ordinary man.”

I.  The story of Stanley

He did not know it at the time, but Pleasant Grove, Texas, where Stanley was born and raised, was poor.  According to Stanley, he first realized his family was poor when he went to college. At home he slept in the living room of a three-room house, and grew black-eyed peas and okra from the age of five to help support the family.  From his ninth year on, he worked summers with his father, Coffee Hauerwas, a bricklayer, a good and gentle man.  Fear of the appearance of nepotism made Stanley work harder than anyone on the work site.  In his adult years Stanley has remarked, “I don’t know where I’d be without the Protestant work ethic.  I’m not any smarter than other people. I just outwork ’em.” It was on the job with his father that he developed the work habits that still drive the tremendous input and output of his reading and writing.  

The lives of the Hauerwas family revolved around Pleasant Mound United Methodist Church.  When Stanley Hauerwas writes about community, is it this one that he has in mind? Certainly not in the sense that Pleasant Mound was exceptional in its theology and practice.  And yet it was here that Hauerwas first learned that a true community is one which has a claim on you, such that one’s life is not entirely, or even primarily, one’s own.  Being formed in the Christian virtues is not a matter of choosing the “right” community, but rather acknowledging the fact that Christ is revealed not in those we choose but in those with whom we have the great good fortune to be stuck.

At Pleasant Mound baptisms and confirmations were done and eucharist (infrequently) performed, but everyone knew that these had nothing to do with being a Christian.  The real moment of grace was getting saved on Sunday nights. The congregation would gather, sing hymns for hours, and wait for the Spirit to break. Stanley longed to join those declaring their salvation before the whole congregation, but was disappointed week after week.  Finally, as Stanley describes it, he made a move to force God’s hand.  One sweaty Sunday night at age fifteen, Stanley joined those dedicating their lives to the ministry, figuring that if he were a minister, God would have to save him (one would imagine that he has since developed a more realistic view of the ministry).  This negotiation with the Spirit would ironically set him on the path to academics, but nearly kill his fledgling faith in the process.

Because of his dedication to the ministry, Hauerwas began to read.  It was not a habit he had picked up at home, where the only books were a Bible and a set of Mark Twain.  But he put himself under the tutelage of the pastor of Pleasant Mound and started to read on religion, mostly prim Protestant primers on the Christian life.  In his senior year in high school, however, Stanley came across a book by one B. David Napier called From Faith to Faith, wherein he learned that the Bible was not true.  In quick succession Stanley read The Sun and The Umbrella by Nels Ferre, a Swedish Barthian who argued that religion does more to hide God than reveal God.  So he gave it up.

Losing one’s religion was technically not allowed at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, but it was not mandatory chapel that saved Stanley’s faith.  Rather, it was his encounter with a wonderfully cynical evangelical Methodist named John Score, who taught religion and philosophy. Score took Hauerwas through a four-semester course on the history of philosophy, and took Stanley to see films and art exhibits in Dallas, opening up to Stanley a kind of culture that he had never seen before.  It was Score as mentor who developed in Hauerwas a thirst for learning that has yet to be slaked.  After graduation, Hauerwas went to Yale Divinity School, not entirely convinced that he was a Christian, but convinced he needed to know more before he deserved an opinion on the subject.

Although he came from a different world than most Yalies, Hauerwas excelled by outworking ’em.  He threw himself into his coursework and began to cobble together his distinctive vision out of various theological influences that were often at cross-purposes with one another.  Stanley read Barth and, in his own words, was stunned to discover that it was the liberals who had given up the Jews.  Yet at the same time, the liberals at Yale had a great influence on Hauerwas’ ideas on narrative, since they at least were still telling the story of Jesus, not just talking about Incarnation in the abstract.  Hauerwas, along with almost everyone at Yale, assumed Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism was right, but he could not square Niebuhr with Barth’s Christological emphasis.  At the same time, Hauerwas was putting Wesley and Wittgenstein together, convinced that theology must be a practical discourse.  Both Wesley and Wittgenstein were in the back of his mind when he read Aquinas’ Summa from start to finish and realized that sanctification comes through activity, not experience.

I could attempt to trace the influence of various books on Hauerwas’ thought, but for the present let me pursue a different question: What has Yale to do with Pleasant Grove?  Lest Stanley’s life story be read as a Horatio Alger tale of poor-boy-makes-good, it is crucial to see that Pleasant Grove continued to haunt every conceptual move made by Hauerwas as his thought developed.  Hauerwas went to Yale with the intention of studying systematic theology, sparked by a youthful quest for an overriding rational verification of Christian claims.  As he learned from Julian Hartt, Wittgenstein and others, however, theological claims are only made true or false in being lived out. It is for this reason that Hauerwas began to attend to the concrete practices of ordinary Christian lives, the way such lives are constituted by the narratives in which they are embedded, the virtues necessary to sustain character over time, and the communities capable of instilling these virtues.  Though he may have gone to Yale to determine if Christianity were true, he discovered at Yale that Christianity is in fact verified or falsified in places like Pleasant Grove.  And so Hauerwas began to attend to his own narrative as a theological resource, not in service to a debased kind of “identity politics,” but as a practice which both resists the storylessness of Enlightenment rationality and simultaneously provides the basis for repentance from sin.

Hauerwas tells a painful story of visiting home during his Yale years.  His father had been building a deer rifle during the off-season, meticulously carving the stock and boring the barrel. It was beautifully made; as a craftsman Coffee Hauerwas could do no other.  When he presented it to Stanley, the son admired the craftsmanship, but proceeded to pronounce that in the future a wise social policy would take guns out of the hands of “you people.” From the standpoint of a universal and objective morality, Stanley believed his statement was both truthful and correct, but it was his realization that he had not done the right thing that led him to suspect the distortions involved in any supposedly universal morality.  For it was not that he had failed to grasp some moral principle. His failure to respond appropriately to his father’s loving gift was rather a sign that he had not yet developed the character necessary to acknowledge his debt to his parents and to refuse to narrate his move from Pleasant Grove to Yale as a move from the particular to the universal.

Ph.Ds are often designed to educate people out of their particular commitments, to give them the illusion of universality, which is then used coercively to position those who occupy “merely limited” and particular stories.  The Yale school has been notorious for doing theology by typology (e.g., H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture), imagining that the academic’s task is complete once he or she has placed every position in its proper category.  Hauerwas has nevertheless claimed that being a Texan means to have an identity sufficiently particular to resist such universalization. Being from Pleasant Grove is therefore a crucial precondition for Hauerwas to be a Christian, since it has given him the skills and virtues necessary to belong to a people set apart.

Hauerwas would have to use every one of those skills once he ran into John Howard Yoder.  When Hauerwas began teaching at Notre Dame in 1970, he was still convinced that Reinhold Niebuhr’s approach to Christian engagement with the political was right, with just a little more Christology to buttress where it sagged.  Then one day, a few months after arriving at Notre Dame, Hauerwas picked up some pamphlets on Barth and Niebuhr at the back of a church in Goshen, Indiana. The author was a Mennonite theologian named John Howard Yoder; the price was a quarter apiece.  Hauerwas had read Yoder’s pamphlet on Barth at Yale and thought “This is the best critique of Barth I’ve read, but you’d have to be crazy to buy into this ecclesiology.” Now, however, Hauerwas could no longer dismiss what he was reading, for he realized that something like Yoder’s ecclesiology was necessary to make intelligible the Christological moves Hauerwas had been trying to come to.  Furthermore, this ecclesiology was unintelligible without a strong account of the nonviolence of Jesus.

And so Stanley Hauerwas began to stammer that he was a pacifist.  As he says in the introduction to his book The Peaceable Kingdom, pacifism was a bitter pill to swallow, both because he wanted to do theology in a way that was broadly influential, and because he is not, by disposition, inclined to nonviolence. Indeed, of all the great Christian pacifists over the centuries –Hippolytus, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King — Stanley Hauerwas is the one I would want on my side in a bar fight. Hauerwas is inclined by disposition to seek the margins, but in part this stems from his unwillingness to step back from conflict.  As a result, this ornery man’s claim to be a pacifist serves two purposes. In the first place, it demonstrates that Jesus’ nonviolence does not preclude, but rather requires, conflict with the principalities and powers which maintain the appearance of order through the threat of violence. In the second place, Stanley’s public claim of pacifism illustrates the communal nature of virtue in the Christian community, for Stanley cannot claim peaceableness as his own. We make public commitments not to claim our own accomplishments and virtues, but to alert others to our commitments so that they can hold us to them.  On our own there are few of us who can claim to have exorcised the violence within. It is therefore necessary to have a community of people committed to creating peace in order to keep each other faithful.  Stanley Hauerwas declares aloud that he is a pacifist so that others will keep him from killing somebody.

Who exactly those others are has not always been easy to say, however.  Not only do Protestant and Catholic influences cross-pollinate in Hauerwas’ thought, but also his church affiliations have been many and transitory.  In New Haven a United Methodist church was his home for two years, followed by a period of no church at all, followed by a period of worship at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  During his first teaching job, a brief stint at Augustana College in Illinois, he worshipped at a high Lutheran liturgy, but started going to Catholic Mass in a dorm when he moved to Notre Dame.  After several years at Sacred Heart parish on the Notre Dame campus, Hauerwas began to take instruction in the Catholic faith, but his wife’s objections put an end to thoughts of becoming Catholic.  Following a year at St. Augustine’s, an African-American Catholic congregation, Stanley and his son Adam finally ended up at Broadway United Methodist Church in South Bend.

What are we to make of this promiscuous pew-hopping, given Stanley’s emphasis on constancy and constitutive community?  On one level, we might recognize some incongruities between thought and practice; Stanley is fond of Oscar Wilde’s contention that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.  On a deeper level, however, I think that Stanley, like the proverbial Italian soldier, spent many years looking for someone to surrender to. He developed strong ties to Broadway Methodist precisely because the pastor, John Smith, took his ministry seriously enough to boss Stanley around.  When Hauerwas expressed his desire to join Broadway Methodist, Smith asked about his membership status in the Methodist Church. Stanley told Smith that he had been ordained a deacon years ago, but wasn’t sure what had happened to his membership in the meantime. Without blinking, Smith told the famous theologian that he wasn’t much of a churchman, and he would have to attend classes at the church for a year.  So he did. When Hauerwas left Notre Dame for Duke in 1984, his main reservation was leaving Broadway Methodist.  He put his decision to stay or leave in the hands of the congregation, who prayed about it, discussed it, and finally told him “You can go, but you have to teach them what you learned here.”  What Hauerwas continues to teach is that the Church must take seriously the authority given it by the Holy Spirit if it is to save people from the tyranny of their own individual wills. It is a lesson Stanley continues to learn at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill.

Hauerwas talks about Catholics like Jane Goodall talks about chimpanzees: he spent many years among them as an outsider, came to appreciate their strange practices and rituals, and grew to love them so much that he almost, but not quite, felt like one of them. It was during his fourteen years at Notre Dame that the set of practices called “church” became an important part of Hauerwas’ vocabulary.  Hauerwas became fascinated by a group of people who appeared to be so constituted by their communal practices that their definition of God was ritually bound up with their relationships to one another.  Stanley relished the challenge to his Pietist upbringing posed by a sacramental sensibility that focused on the objective presence of God instead of the subjective holiness of the individual worshiper.  This sensibility is manifested by what we used to call the “Catholic slob ethic”: Catholics don’t dress up for church because they figure God has to show up in the Eucharist no matter what they wear. During his Notre Dame years, Stanley imbibed the Catholic centrality of the Eucharist and became a weekly communicant.  Ironically, however, he remained Protestant enough that, when refused the Eucharist by a priest because he was not Catholic, he would simply get in another line.

Ultimately, Hauerwas left Notre Dame when a new chair of the Theology department was brought in with a mandate from the university administration to make the department more denominationally Catholic.  The purge took Hauerwas and several other non-Catholic scholars, one of whom has since converted to Catholicism. Beside the acrimonious way in which non-Catholics were made unwelcome, Hauerwas might have had a certain sympathy with the concern that the department at Notre Dame be in service to the Catholic Church.  What made the move incoherent, however, from Hauerwas’ point of view, is that “Catholic” was being defined in a liberal-Protestant way as a denomination which would take its place comfortably beside the other mainstream denominations whose purpose was to serve and edify the wider American culture which embraced them all.  The irony is that Stanley was cast out of Notre Dame for being a “sectarian,” when he thought that he had been contributing to a broader and more Catholic vision of truth.  His claim that he did not know he was a Protestant until he was told so by the new department chair does, nevertheless, beg some questions about his ecclesial identity that are not easily answered.

Hauerwas’ move to a Methodist environment at Duke has not resolved the basic ecclesial ambiguity which runs like a geological fault line through his thought.  Stanley Hauerwas remains deeply and creatively conflicted about his ecclesial identity. “I don’t believe in Methodism, obviously. And yet I believe in my wife Paula’s priesthood, and she’s a Methodist, so I can’t say I don’t believe in Methodism.”  Hauerwas’ emphases on community, virtue, authority, and sacrament have marked him as a Catholic thinker, and have brought many Catholic graduate students to him, in addition to several students who have converted to Catholicism under his influence. And yet Hauerwas claims that he cannot become Catholic as long as the Catholic Church will not recognize Paula’s priesthood, which he says he has seen with his own eyes.  Mennonite theologian Gerald Schlabach has recently said that Hauerwas’ project is to call Catholics and Protestants to be more Anabaptist, and call Anabaptists and Protestants to be more Catholic. The fact that he is not calling anyone to be more Protestant does not mean that he is not still the bearer of a Protestant soul.  Protestant hymnody in particular has a special hold on Stanley.  Hauerwas causes the greatest consternation among his own Methodist brethren precisely as a rebellious son causes the most grief within his own family.  The very fact of his ecclesial eclecticism shows that the Pietist habits of his youth are still with him. Nor is he without theological reasons for remaining in the Methodist fold.  Hauerwas may not believe in Protestantism as such, but he remains Protestant as long as Protestant churches are necessary to remind the Catholic Church that it is not yet what it is called to be.

II. Stan the man

After years of academic work, the bricklayer’s son from Pleasant Grove, Texas is still evident to the naked eye.  Stanley will answer a knock at his office door with the look of a man who has had to come down off some scaffolding to let you in.  Lean and taut, Stanley is drawn to his work with an astonishing level of energy. He reads hungrily and omnivorously; all his graduate students know the frustration of recommending a new discovery to Stanley, inevitably to be told that he has already read it.  For an alleged “sectarian,” Stanley reads across an astounding variety of disciplines, and is far better versed in the latest offerings of secular political science, literary criticism, social theory, etc. than most of his supposedly more “world-affirming” critics.  Hauerwas reads with depth as well. Can anyone else claim to have read all of Trollope’s eighty-odd novels — that’s Anthony Trollope, the Victorian English novelist who used to discharge a quota of 10,000 words every morning before going to work as a clerk in a post office — and then to have read most of them again?  The fact that I and most sane people consider this particular feat a numbing exercise of senseless moil does not detract from the point that Stanley will read almost anything with a fascinated delight. Intellectual work is a labor of deep love for Hauerwas.

A friend and former student of Hauerwas tells of dropping a 110-page chapter of his dissertation at Stanley’s office at 11:30 on a Saturday night, only to find it in his box, with extensive comments, at 12:30 Sunday afternoon.  In the meantime, Stanley had also read and written a review of a book by Richard Neuhaus, gone to church, and, presumably, slept. Another of Stanley’s students, upset at the process of preliminary exams, found Hauerwas simply puzzled: “All I remember about my prelims is that I couldn’t wait to get in there and tell them what I’d learned.”  Much is revealed about Stanley’s character by a remark I recall from a graduate seminar. Unconvinced by St. Augustine that we will “rest in Thee,” Stanley imagined the beatific vision to be characterized not by repose but by a never-satisfied desire pulling us deeper into the mystery of God .

All this passion does not come without a price; Stanley works with a physical intensity that sometimes leaves him exhausted.  Those close to him have seen him engage a crowd with a brilliant fire, only to shut down afterward, completely spent. Contrary to what many believe, Stanley does not seek the limelight, but is pulled into it by the constant demands made on him.  It is work he feels compelled to do for the sake of the Kingdom, and it is hard work.

What saves Hauerwas from overwork is his conviction that the mystery of God is found in the trivia of everyday life.  He is a lover of novels, baseball, Mexican food, jogging, and, above all, conversation, punctuated by great sulphury explosions of laughter, detonated primarily in astonished appreciation of his own jokes.  As in everything, Stanley hurtles into the trivial with a mad passion. He is a fixture at the Durham Bulls minor league baseball games, eating burritos and shouting at the opposing teams. When he is not eating Flying Burritos at the park, he is at  the restaurant of the same name, two or three times a week when in town. Jogging is another of Stanley’s obsessions; in any place and any weather he faithfully performs his noontime run like a monk prays the Office.

This same passion drives his relationships with other people.  A great many people are attracted by his energy and insight; a ten- minute chat with Stanley in his office will be interrupted at least twice by phone calls or visitors.  He has no email or voice mail in an attempt to limit the sheer volume of demands on his time. And yet Hauerwas is unfailingly generous with his time. He maintains a staggering correspondence with many hundreds (thousands?) of people, speaks to dozens of groups grand and lowly every year, and works very closely with his students and others who seek him out.  Recently, for example, a twenty-one year old graduate f Notre Dame who had read some of Hauerwas’ work wrote to him and asked if he could come to Duke and spend some time with him. Stanley found the means for him to spend the summer at Duke, doing odd jobs and talking with Stanley. It is this openness to encounter with others that keeps Stanley’s work so pastoral, and keeps him from writing about books as if they were people.

A complex dynamic seems to run through Stanley’s relationships with those who want a piece of him: Hauerwas has a tendency to create disciples, and yet there are few things that annoy him more.  His opening-day lecture to his Divinity School classes usually involves some form of the claim, “I don’t want you to think for yourselves. I want to make you think like me.” This is Stanley’s attempt to disabuse his students of the Enlightenment illusion of individual sovereignty.  In MacIntryean fashion, Stanley believes that theology is a craft learned by putting oneself under the authority of a master of the tradition. And yet Stanley hated the first seminar paper I ever did at Duke because it repeatedly saluted the Hauerwas party line without any real understanding of what was at stake.  He returned it with the exasperated comment “This sounds too much like me!” emblazoned on the final page. Tradition, after all, is not identical repetition, but is defined by MacIntyre as an “ongoing argument” over the goods and practices intrinsic to that tradition. Stanley Hauerwas loves a good argument. Indeed, to be able to have an argument at all is a significant moral achievement since it presupposes some common understanding of the goods at issue.

Thus something like the reverse of Rodney King’s famous appeal is Stanley Hauerwas’ plea: Can’t we all just have an argument?  I have known Stanley for nearly two decades now, half of which I spent being scared to death of him. What I came to realize is that it is precisely the lack of guile that I found most disturbing about Stanley.  His frank unwillingness to dissemble in the interests of “just getting along” came as a terrible shock to a nice Midwesterner who hates the appearance of conflict more than the conflict itself. Despite his confrontational image, however, Stanley does not seek to create discord, but only refuses to just get along if it means covering over conflicts which are already there.  Christian pacifism must be an active peacemaking, the first step of which is to locate and truthfully name conflict. A Christian must recognize the tragic reality, however, that not all conflicts are peacefully resolvable, which is why Christians must forswear the use of coercion to enforce the truth.

At a recent Society of Christian Ethics meeting, Hauerwas found himself on an elevator with one of his more persistent critics, a young academic with whom he had had an exchange of views in print.  Spying her nametag, Stanley introduced himself, shook her hand, and then said, “I guess you and I don’t really have much to say to one another.” She agreed, and they spent the rest of the elevator ride in silence.  Although the appearance of peacemaking might have been created by some polite small-talk, in this instance Stanley — and his critic too — recognized that the truth was better served by the forthright naming of a conflict not soon to be resolved.

Because of Stanley’s openness and candor, he is perhaps not the best person to whom to entrust a secret.  (This is one of the many ways one can tell that Hauerwas does not work for the CIA.) As he confesses in his essay “In Praise of Gossip,” he loves to share information about other people and considers it part of an ethicist’s task of illustrating how we might live our lives better, provided it be free of malice.  Stanley is just as forthcoming with observations of his own strengths and faults as he is with those of others. For Stanley, doing away with the lines between public and private is not just a feature of his political theory, but is something that he quite spontaneously lives in his everyday life. His capacity to transgress such boundaries has a way of drawing people together and creating community.  Hauerwas will often send copies of the letters he receives — sometimes personal letters — to other of his correspondents in an effort to introduce them to one another. A great many new friendships have resulted.

Stanley’s honesty and gregariousness make for friendships that are many and varied.  He has many friends who are not Christians or even religious, but tend to fall into the category of those he considers “intellectually serious.”  It is hard to say exactly what Stanley means by this, other than to say that he is drawn to those restless souls who, like Jacob, are wrestling with the same angels.  At the same time, Stanley genuinely mourns for those friends with whom he cannot pray. Stanley is an extraordinarily devoted friend with a tender affection and a capacity for spiritual companionship that models the moral life itself.  His profound readings of Aristotle and Aquinas on friendship are nurtured by a deep prayerfulness and a long difficult experience of loving and being loved.

Stanley has a particularly close relationship with his son Adam, with whom Stanley rode out the storm of a tragic twenty-five year marriage to his first wife Anne.  Those who know Stanley know that his writings on suffering and perseverance are not unconnected to his experience during this period. Through it Adam and Stanley rode bikes together, went to church together, played endless hours of frisbee, and developed a deep spiritual friendship which helped each other name the silences of their life as a family.

Stanley Hauerwas has mellowed over the years I have known him.  Gone is a certain rough edge that I saw during his years at Notre Dame.  If we now have a kinder, gentler Hauerwas, much of the change is attributable to Stanley’s wife Paula Gilbert, whom he married in 1986.  To hear Stanley address Paula with fond terms of endearment is to witness a happy man. Not only is Stanley very publicly in love, but his tremendous respect for Paula’s ministry has a profound effect on the way he thinks about priesthood and gives him a strong link to the pastoral concerns that are an ongoing font for his theological reflection.

It is essential that the reader understand Hauerwas as devoted and tender friend before we move on to that for which he is perhaps more famous.  What the world needs to know about Stanley (though he will probably want to kill me for saying so) is that Stanley Hauerwas is sweet. That he has a tendency to incite disagreements, to put it blandly, is attributable to the same passion and love of God that make him a faithful friend.

Everyone who has seen Hauerwas in action has a favorite story.  Stanley confronts a medical researcher who is defending experiments on fetal tissue with the following question: “What if it were discovered that fetal tissue were a delicacy; could you eat it?”  Stanley is asked to speak at a rally against the death penalty and declares, “I’m for the death penalty. I think they should build a guillotine on Wall Street and execute people for stock fraud.”  In the first case, Hauerwas’ point was that no amount of benefit to medicine could justify experimenting on fetal tissue — it either is human and deserves respect or the door is open to all kinds of uses.  (The medical researcher was forced to admit that, given his position, there is no logical reason to forbid Hauerwas’ ghastly suggestion.) In the second case, Hauerwas’ point was that the death penalty is not justified by claiming it prevents crime.  If such were the case, the death penalty would be much more profitably used against premeditated white collar crime than against murder, which is usually done in the heat of the moment. The real reason that the death penalty is used is a desire for revenge, a temptation to which Christians must not succumb.

My tedious explanations of his points tend to dull the impact of Hauerwas’ statements.  Stanley will commonly eschew such explanations and let his audience figure it out. This omission often leads to more confusion and misunderstanding than is necessary; most of the crowd at the rally, for example, was left unaware that Hauerwas is opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances.  Nevertheless, a deliberate part of Stanley’s pedagogy is to force people to think by jolting them out of their customary positions. Troubling the waters is certainly part of Hauerwas’ modus operandi, but he is not just the Ernest T. Bass of the theological world. His lessons are not easily forgotten because he makes his listener go through the process of making the logical connections for herself.  This at least partially explains Stanley’s advice to one of his divinity students: “Your job as a theologian is to cause ulcers in others and not suffer them yourself in the process.”

For many people, Stanley’s generous use of profanity is the jalapeno on the ulcer.  Academic conferences, church groups, and classes alike are treated with some regularity to words that have never been found on the Queen’s lips (at least not in public).  Sometimes such profanity has a specific purpose: in a seminar Stanley once read from a Catholic moral theologian about the duty of Christianity to “penetrate and fecundate the symbol system of American society” and invited us to replace the words “penetrate and fecundate” with a certain four-lettered synonym.  At other times, the profanity has a more random feel, such as in this quote captured by Newsweek magazine: “God is killing the church and we goddamn well deserve it.” The latter incident caused a brief tempest in the church teapot (Stanley’s defense: “At least I mentioned God’s name twice”). For some in fact, especially among more evangelical Protestants, Stanley’s French is a considerable barrier to greater acceptance.  To take the Lord’s name in vain is, after all, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Many evangelicals with a natural sympathy for Stanley’s critiques of secularism and the centrality of Jesus in his thought have been turned away by what appears to be an easily correctable fault. I confess that I tend to regard complaints about Stanley’s swearing as I would complaints about, say, Santa Claus’ weight problem. We all know what the AMA says about heart disease, but who wants a buff Santa?  My initial response, however, does not take seriously enough both the objections and Stanley’s unwillingness to change his language. In some cases, the sharpness of Stanley’s words is necessary for his message to penetrate ears that have become unaccustomed to hearing what is not nice. In the Newsweek quote, for example, Hauerwas’ oath is not simply random but expresses the judgment that Christians have betrayed the Gospel and God may be damning us for it, a message that many wish to ignore by focusing on the swearing itself.  In other cases, Stanley simply swears because that’s the way he has always talked. Church historian Martin Marty recalls being with Stanley when Coffee Hauerwas walked in and greeted his son with an affectionate stream of profanities. It was then that Marty realized that Stanley’s swearing is not an affectation meant to shock people but simply a manifestation of who he, as one particular Texan, is. That academic and ecclesiastical protocols should have to learn to accommodate such alien talk is perhaps not such a bad thing.

Hauerwas’ other foibles are well-known.  His pronunciation of proper names does not always match the dictionary’s.  (Ever heard of Norm Chomsky?) Some of his jokes get a little threadbare from overuse; when he launches into the “Tonto” gag in his classes, one can practically hear the eyes roll.  He does not always remember every “position” he has taken; his co-authored essay on the theological imperative of vegetarianism has not extinguished his enthusiasm for burritos laced with the flesh of dead cattle.  Unfortunately, the idiosyncracies of Hauerwas’ personality allow some to excuse themselves from having to deal seriously with his work. Although his character is so much a part of his work, in some ways Hauerwas’ character is so complex and so public that it sometimes threatens to overwhelm and obscure the importance of his work.  As Stanley himself has said to me, “There’s something about me that keeps some people from taking me seriously intellectually. They think my claims are so exaggerated they couldn’t be true, and they don’t want to do the homework necessary to understand me.”

It is remarkable that a man invited to give the Gifford Lectures should have to worry about being taken seriously.  If some still dismiss Hauerwas too easily, I believe it is in part attributable to the fact that Stanley has chosen to do theology in a genre unfamiliar to many, a genre we might call “not-boring theology.”  Stanley is convinced that a theologian’s job is to tell stories, and stories should be entertaining. Though some might take this as a sign of unsophistication, Stanley would argue that Wittgenstein and others have cured him of theology’s self-defeating post-Enlightenment attempt to ground itself on anything but the biblical narrative.  The only epistemologically secure “position” is the ever-moving position of the pilgrim people of God through time. With deep sophistication and skill, Hauerwas is able to guide his readers and listeners through the most difficult thickets of Western thought and theory, while simultaneously entertaining their attention toward the great adventure story that is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Stanley’s entertaining character is not accidental to his ability to do theology well. Some people have grown impatient with Hauerwas’ reliance on short essays, and await a magnum opus from his pen which will lay down his position in definitive form. Such a book or books is unlikely to be forthcoming, however, since Stanley does not believe that he has a position. Theologians are just expositors of what the Church thinks; to have a position is to claim to know something the Church does not.  This is why Hauerwas relies on short essays done primarily over pastoral problems, such as marriage, education, war, and health. To write this way risks not being read for very long, since particular pastoral problems quickly shift. But Hauerwas claims that a theologian should not write for the ages, for to do so is to try to secure a position against the movement of the Spirit through time.

It is exactly this kind of insight that ironically has kept Hauerwas’ older books in print for a quarter century already, with no sign of decreasing interest.  Hauerwas’ writings will continue to be read as the Church tries to puzzle through what it means to be faithful in a world of violence. Hauerwas’ most lasting impact, however, may be not the writings themselves but the friendships he has fostered and the communities he has helped discern through difficult times.  God has done strange and wonderful things with Stanley Hauerwas, and those who love him for this fact love him dearly. A couple years ago I picked up Stanley in Minneapolis and drove him across the Mississippi River to my home in St. Paul. As we crossed the bridge Stanley suddenly interrupted our conversation with a lusty rendition of “Old Man River” in a baritone as clear as the Mississippi itself.  He sang the entire chorus and — though there was not much room for it, believe me — managed a dramatic crescendo at the end. It is an image of Stanley I treasure: head back, grinning, belting it out with joyful abandon. I once heard a priest tell his congregation, “If God gave you a good voice, sing out and thank Him. If God gave you a lousy voice, sing out and pay Him back.” As a close personal friend of God, Stanley is used to such give and take.  May he just keep rolling along.

Further reading

“A Tale of Two Stories: On Being a Christian and a Texan: A Theological Entertainment,” Perkins School of Theology Journal XXXIV (Summer 1981), no. 4: 1-15.”Introduction” in The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), xv-xxvi.

“A Homage to Mary and to the University called Notre Dame” in Thomas J. Ferraro, ed., Catholic Lives, Contemporary America (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 227-37.

“Character, Narrative, and Growth in the Christian Life” in A Community of Character (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 129-52.

William T. Cavanaugh
Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago

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