680 Hauerwas, Our ‘Best’ Theologian, Shares His Life

At the dawn of this new millennium, Time magazine declared Stanley Hauerwas America’s “Best Theologian,” a label that the tough-talking Texan routinely uses to poke fun at himself. How can anyone rank theologians—like handicapping golfers or giving stars to restaurants! Nevertheless, Time magazine took this task seriously, publishing a profile that described how the “rough speech and pointed views” of this brick-layer’s son sometimes are “scandalous” among academics and religious leaders.

At ReadTheSpirit, we agree that Stanley Hauerwas has a powerful prophetic voice. He is solidly American, solidly Christian and solidly accomplished as one of our greatest scholars—yet he uses that firm foundation to address the world like a latter-day Isaiah, Jeremiah or Micah, crying out for justice and a complete rethinking of our global priorities. To use “Hauerwasian” terms, he’s often telling us to get up off our butts, scrape away the bullshit of convenient, self-centered spirituality—and get our hands dirty in engaging with the real needs of the world.

By the way, here at ReadTheSpirit, that’s the first time we’ve published the 8-letter “b”-word. Hauerwas uses it rarely but very effectively now. After all, he is a master teacher and writer. Time magazine didn’t tag him with this great honor just because he occasionally uses a bit of startling language. Time gave him the prize because he is a uniquely straight-talking, prophetic pioneer.

Time wrote: Before talk of “the virtues” became widespread, Hauerwas wrote about the need for an account of our habits as members of communities. Do these communities sustain virtues? One virtue Hauerwas extols is faithfulness. He urges people to be faithful Roman Catholics or Orthodox Jews or Evangelicals or Muslims. It is faithfulness to a complex tradition that forestalls being overtaken by majoritarianism or convention.

THIS WEEK, to celebrate the publication of Hauerwas’ memoir, “Hannah’s Child,” ReadTheSpirit welcomes the great theologian to our magazine for an in-depth interview—spanning several days—about the provocative themes that have gotten him into so much trouble … and have made him such a shining source of hope.

Among the Best Quotes from Stanley Hauerwas’ Memoir …

ON TIME’S DECLARATION OF “BEST:” If theologians become famous in times like ours, surely they must have betrayed their calling. After all, theology is a discipline whose subject should always put in doubt the very idea that those who practice it know what they are doing.

ON WHY MERE “BELIEF” DOESN’T MATTER MUCH: I believe what I write, or rather, by writing I learn to believe. But then I do not put much stock in “believing in God.” The grammar of “belief” invites a far too rationalistic account of what it means to be a Christian. “Belief” implies propositions about which you get to make up your mind before you know the work they are meant to do. Does that mean I do not believe in God? Of course not, but I am far more interested in what a declaration of belief entails for how I live my life.

ON THE TRAGIC SOCIAL DIVIDES BETWEEN PEOPLE: I have spent my life in buildings built by people like my father, buildings in which the builders have felt they do not belong. … My father was a better bricklayer than I am a theologian.

ON WHY THEOLOGY IS SO POWERFUL (and why many “theologians” settle for impotence): The presumption of many scholars at the time was that the task of theology was to make the language of the faith amenable to the standards set by the world. This could be done by subtraction: “Of course you do not have to believe X or Y”; or, by translation: “When we say X or Y, we really mean …” I was simply  not interested in that project. From my perspective, if the language was not true, then you ought to give it up. I thought the crucial question was not whether Christianity could be made amenable to the world, but could the world be made amenable to what Christians believe? I had not come to the study of theology to play around. I am not sure why I thought like this, but I suspect it had something to do with being (trained as) a bricklayer. I simply did not believe in “cutting corners.”

ON WHY, IN THE END, PRAYER IS THE KEY: I have spent a lifetime learning how to pray. Yet I did not become a theologian to learn how to pray. I became a theologian because I found the work of theology so compelling. Along the way, I discovered that the work of theology is the work of prayer. …. I confess, however, that prayer still never comes easy for me. But I hold no conviction more determinatively than that the belief in prayer names how God becomes present to us and how we can participate in that presence by praying for others.

WELCOME to Stanley Hauerwas! And WELCOME to you—as you read these words! Add a Comment, below. Email this story to friends, below, and invite them to read along with you. Come back each day this week for more!

          You can order “Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir” from Amazon now.

          (Originally published at readthespirit.com)

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