Saturday, May 15, 2010

Confessions of a Hauerwasian

Like so many others at Duke Divinity, I chose this place for my ministerial formation largely because of Stanley Hauerwas. I still remember reading the Peaceable Kingdom for the first time in my undergraduate Christian ethics class and being amazed that, given my overexposure to reactionary campus evangelicalism at an unapologetically secular university, theologians were capable of making me believe that going into ministry mattered for the world. I still remember naively visiting Dr. Hauerwas' office during my first visit to Duke and being told that I needed to read John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus because it was, and I quote, a "God-damn mindf**k." I am still thankful that, when the admissions office lost one of my letters of recommendation for my MTS application, Dr. Hauerwas went to bat for me with the dean, setting me on the path to pursuing an M.Div, leading me to where I am today, preparing to enter the parish, leaving the academy behind. And I am thankful for his last piece of timely advice to me when, faltering on that path and struggling to leave the academy behind, in response to my sharing that my bishop was encouraging me to be ordained, he said, "well then, you had better take that seriously."

While I came to Duke with hopes of somehow being apprenticed to Dr. Hauerwas, I think it fitting that my personal interactions with him here have been scant, mostly related to paper topics or a question raised in seminar. In many ways, I think I learned all that God intended me to learn from Dr. Hauerwas by taking his words seriously and putting them into practice. At the end of his Gifford Lectures, Dr. Hauerwas recommends that to discover what a true argument for God's existence looks like, we need to attend to lives like those of Yoder, Pope John Paul II, and Dorothy Day. Given that the Hauerwasian project seemed to get Christians to live what they claim to believe, I thought this hermeneutical principle ought to apply to the Hauerwasian project as well, and so my future wife Leah and I moved to Denver where we got involved with the Catholic Worker there. That was two years before I finally matriculated at Duke. There is a part of me that remains deeply sad that I never became friends with a theologian for whom friendship is so important a concept. Yet Leah and I live where we live, do what we do, believe what we believe, and cuss like we cuss largely because, despite not being his apprentice, he remains my teacher and theological master.

Even so, there are times when I think Dr. Hauerwas is, frankly, a huge asshole - and he wouldn't mind me saying so (many before me have thought and said it). I still get pissed off when I recall an exchange from our philosophical theology seminar. Reading Hilary Putnam on Deweyan democracy, I commented that I thought such an account challenged me to remember that, despite the academic pretensions with which we were being inculcated at Duke ("you are here to save the church"), I should be open to the truths and perspectives that non-theologically-educated Christians had to offer - that often, lay people were the ones who educate the educated, and that their voices needed to be valued and made audible. To which Stanley replied, "do you really want Nascar-rednecks telling you how to read the Bible?" Chortle chortle. Everyone laughs. So he didn't hear me say, "actually, by Dorothy Day's account, yes." What an asshole.

(I have often wondered how someone so proud of his brick-laying Texan roots could make such a statement. Its probably because he was a brick-laying Texan. While its easy to criticize the redneck who moved to yuppie bohemia, its a pretty empty criticism coming from the yuppie bohemian trying to become a redneck. In the end, we are all assholes - see 1 John 1:8-9.)

I suspect that the reason so many of us have at Duke have at one time or the other jumped on the anti-Stanley bandwagon is the same as the reason many fixate on such memorable Hauerwas moments as his declaration "f**k meaning," and the same reason while we all, at times, indulge in a nasally-voiced bout of good cussing and America bashing. I think it is because we want so much out of our heroes, want so badly to be inspired and told that what we are doing is important, radical, cutting edge, weighty, heroic, sacrificial. In both seminars I took with Dr. Hauerwas, I responded violently to his pithy exhortations that "you already have ruined your lives - you're in divinity school!" on Hauerwasian grounds because if we are honest with ourselves, we are here precisely to keep our lives from feeling ruined or ordinary. Dr. Hauerwas serves as both messiah to our aspirations, and scapegoat for our disillusions. I am thankful for the friends I have, like my wife Leah, who are busier showing me what it means to live by the Gospel to which the teacher is pointing. We do wrong by the master to make of him a rock star - in many ways, the aforementioned slogan on meaning reeks of the irony of a theological "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

I am thankful that on the morning of my graduation from Duke, I am awake before dawn reading Dr. Hauerwas' Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir, and that his words can thus serve as bookends to my theological education. Despite the disillusions I have undergone while at seminary as the legends written in the throes of hero-worship have been deconstructed by the disappointments and sanctifying dissatisfactions of life together (or, in this case, its absence), I can only express gratitude for the legends that remain etched in the realities of the mundaneness, the tragedy, and the comedic everyday-ness of ordinary lives. Admittedly, I cannot help but feel mildly voyeuristic looking through the window of the text at such intimacies. I am reminded, however, by Stanley's own words, of why good theology must always begin with confession (a Lutheran way of putting it he would surely disdain!):

"Recognition of truthful speech begins when readers identify the words they encounter as an honest expression of life's complexities. The theological trick is to show that speaking honestly of the complexities of life requires words that speak of God. Theologians betray their calling when they fear using such words and begin to think that they are not neccessary."

Dr. Hauerwas, for all we make of him, for all I know I have wanted him to be for me, is as f**ked up as any of us can hope to be. And that is why, in giving life and form to the words of God that give life and form the chaos that is his life, Dr. Hauerwas witnesses to us the truth of Christian faith - that we are all in need of such re-creation if the language of our living is to be doxological instead of demonically narcissistic. In my temptations to idealize, I am thankful for Wittgenstein's cry, "back to the rough ground!" I pray that, freed from foolish idealism, I may one day yet be friends with Dr. Hauerwas. In the meantime, I am thankful that his words have helped me become better friends with Jesus, and with His church.

As he showed me with the Peaceable Kingdom many years ago, "I write because I have something to say. That I have something to say is not a personal achievement. I have something to say because I am a Christian." As divinity school draws to a close, I pray this is something none of us assholes will forget.


  1. another great post matt. also, another intersection for us right now - I'm in frans reading Hannah's Child, and will prob write my next post on it.

    you're a really good writer. I hope more people start following this.

  2. Hello Matthew,
    This is Travis Knoll from two years ago from DYA. I finished reading Hannah's child just this Monday and found it quite moving as a confessional. It does definitely leave more questions than answers, which I suppose is Harewaus' style. I moved ecclesial traditions to Catholicism the past year in Argentina, and thus was even more perplexed than I would have been otherwise when he says in page 105 "That I felt like I should receive the communion." From my point of view this minimizes to an unacceptable extent, the concept that the Eucharist displays full visible unity. Not taking communion while painful for all Christians, makes us recognize the broken state that Christianity is in, and increases the urgency of ecumenism. As an expert in Ecclesiology, and as a professor at Notre Dame at the time, I am perplexed that he would take communion and call himself "A Catholic in the way that only a Protestant can be."

    His beef with Dennis Campbell is interesting...though I do not believe he should take professional disagreements into the personal sphere and attack a dean, who by all other accounts was a good dean and who helped attract the scholars we have today, including Harewaus.
    How are you?
    Travis Knoll