Monday 12 June 2006

For the love of God (13): Why I love Stanley Hauerwas

A guest-post by Kim Fabricius

I have never met Stanley Hauerwas, but a colleague who has describes him as a thoroughly unpleasant man. Another colleague tells of Hauerwas at Cambridge dismissing Jürgen Moltmann as “full of shit.” And Hauerwas himself admits to a violent streak.

As a New Yorker I am inclined to snipe: “What else do you expect from a Texan?” But then Hauerwas also happens to be an Episcopalian layman and one of the church’s most outspoken apostles of non-violence. Gandhi would not be surprised: the violent, he said, often make the best pacifists.

Rowan Williams
I love because he’s so humble and irenic; Stanley Hauerwas I love because he’s such a rootin’ tootin’ gunslinger. He stands in the venerable tradition of the rabies theologorum that can be traced back to the vitriolic Paul, via the hot-headed Luther and the ruthless Augustine.

Theologically, I like the way Hauerwas keeps his work seamless: dogmatics and ethics (Barth), doctrine and narrative (MacIntyre), character and action (Bonhoeffer), church and world (Yoder). The accusation of sectarianism is preposterous, as Hauerwas roars his counter-cultural critiques in the fora. The professor’s The Peaceable Kingdom (1983) will issue in the public intellectual’s Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11 (2003). Here Hauerwas declares: “I do not have a foreign policy. I have something better—a church constituted by people who would rather die than kill.” He also says: “If we do not think it possible to love our enemies then we should plainly say Jesus is not the messiah.”

The Sermon on the Mount obviously resources Hauerwas’ theology, but the ultimate source is the God who is our friend. Indeed “friendship” lies at the heart of Hauerwas’ understanding of the Christian life, and informs his thinking not only on peacemaking, but also on sexuality, abortion and—a special concern—the mentally handicapped. Indeed, the recent Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (2004) is more poignant than polemical.

Hauerwas may be a son-of-a-bitch—but he is our son-of-a-bitch.


michael jensen said...

I met Hauerwas (kinda) at a conference in Jan, and I had expected him to be a 'potty-mouth' as someone had said. He did lecture with vigour saying things like 'the problem with all German theology is they mistake erudition for actual learning' (there were Germans present).

BUT: he was charming in every regard. He actually seems to like people.

Chris Tilling said...

Now this was the first post in this series to make me really laugh! Thanks!

Bro. Bartleby said...

Yes, the Germans are a strange lot, we find more of them, than others, traveling in the middle of summer in the Mojave Desert, and usually, seeking something to drink at the monastery. And funny, they also have a low regard for 'just plain water.'

Bill Williams said...

Hauerwas spoke at a seminar I attended in May. The first night, prior to him actually making his first presentation, he sat in on the panel.

The first question was asked. He jumped on it. Others on the panel were going to respond, but he raised his microphone and blurted out, "That's a stupid question!"

Well, he went on to answer it. I sat there wondering if the fact that he did so made his response a stupid response.

I don't remember his exact reply. It was laden with just enough profanity that I was distracted from the point. As the week progressed, I was struck by the man's consistency. Not that he's perfect...I'm not suggesting that. But, he is thorough in his analysis and presentation. Even in those areas in which my thinking is not thoroughly Hauerwasian, I respect what he says/writes.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Blessings to you and yours.

Looney said...

My introduction to Hauerwas was a polemic he wrote about ethics and world war 2. It was replete with factual errors. Of course, ethics is all about making moral decisions about real world events. Someone who can't care less about events will never begin to comprehend ethics. I wrote him off as a dingbat.

Charlie J. Ray said...

I have little respect for modernist and postmodernist theologians who go about re-inventing Christianity as if its historical roots mean nothing at all. I'm sure that Evangelicals need to develop more of a social consciousness but I for one am not willing to sacrifice the faith once delivered to the saints for the sake of the here and now. This life will pass away but eternity is forever. I think a bit of classical theological study is befitting for those who only know 20th and 21st century theology. The theological roots of Christianity do matter, particularly the theological roots of the English and Continental Protestant Reformation.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

I'm not at all surprised that Hauerwas "actually seems to like people". If he seems to have a misanthropic streak - well, there are two kinds of misanthropes: the kind that wax lyrical about humanity but actually despise people, and those that are cynical about humanity but really like people.

Hi Charlie,

I'm not exactly sure what you're getting at about Hauerwas, but I agree with what you say about Christianity's "historic roots". Of course the church was pacifist for its first two centuries (though some claim that this had more to do with the taking of oaths than with the taking of life). Even Augustine, the Christian father of "just war" theory (its roots lie in Stoic philosophy), was unhappy about it, not least because he knew and acknowledged that he was breaking with Christian tradition. Christianity's "historic roots" sould therefore make you a disciple of Hauerwas' gospel of non-violence. Yes?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Kim, I think Hauerwas is great too. Im about to start an Mphil all about doctrine and disability and good ol' Stan has been a profound influence. I think he and I both feel (though I would hate to speak on his behalf)that pontificating about this area without being in fellowship with people with learning difficulties can produce some truly hollow theology. A quick reading recommendation for anyone interested would be: Critical reflections on Stanley Hauerwas' essays on disability: Disabling Society, Enabling Theology. Edited by John Swinton. Interesting read.

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jason said...

Kim, I loved this post, and not just because I am fond of and respect Hauerwas. You have managed in such a (necessarily) brief post not to worry about summarizing all of his positions, but have captured some of the man's personality, and why he has appealled to you. Thanks!

I know Stanley a bit, I know his writing even better, and I've studied with former students of his; although I wouldn't call myself a Hauerwasian per se, I know he has left an indelible mark on me, and I'm endlessly grateful for that.

His rhetoric can be enchanting just in itself: here is someone in academia willing to call a spade a spade and respond to arguments and position as if they matter -- indeed, as if the church and the Christian faith matter. This is relatively rare in academia. But sometimes one can be drawn by (and imitate) the rhetoric and miss the depth of substance in Stanley, personally, spiritually, and academically. I understand that there is a group of former Hauerwas students (none that I've studied with) who mastered his attack-dog rhetorical style without embodying his deeper side of charity. I imagine that he regrets that. I wonder if there have been times when he has responded to people more out of style than substance?

I don't know what work of his you read specifically, so I can't comment on that, but I would say your statement "Of course, ethics is all about making moral decisions about real world events." is dismissive and a caricature; it's not a criticism of Hauerwas at any rate. What is more 'real world' than asking the question -- as he and other virtue ethicists would ask -- 'how do we live our lives'? This is much broader than concerns about events, decisions and issues, which are only bits of our overall lives.

At any rate, I hope you reconsider your judgement that he is a dingbat.

::aaron g:: said...

I heard SH speak at University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The place was packed to hear this salty-mouthed professor talk about war.

A good SH quote:

"The church’s first task is to help us gain a critical perspective on those narratives that have captivated our vision and lives.”

Looney said...

Jason, the items I referred to are posted in several places. In one instance, Stanley suggests that WW2 was prolonged because the allies insisted on unconditional surrender. This is just as unrealistic as claiming that WW2 was prolonged because the allies didn't invite superman in to end it. Another was the claim that Doolittle was involved in the fire bombing of Tokyo. Doolittle seems to have been in Europe in 1945 when Tokyo was firebombed. Given the horrors and sensitivities of WW2, these kinds of little errors are unacceptable for a serious academic.

Our court systems make a very big deal about the presentation of evidence in trials to determine right and wrong. This is where I strongly believe that ethics needs to begin.

"You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor."

Does it matter if the testimony is true, or false, or accurate, or inaccurate?

Phil Snider said...

Thanks for your post, Kim. I just stumbled on Faith and Theology and you post was the first thing I saw.

My wife and I are both fans of Hauerwas. My wife has taken a course specifically on him and he came up for the final class. By all accounts, the visit was both memorable and typically Hauerwasian. His language is pungent, but he does have a point. From what I understand, he is trying to curb his profanity these days, so he does recognize that perhaps his language can be extreme.

I think I like him better because he does realize the violence within him. I think it is David Wells who commented in an introduction to Hauwerwas' writings (sorry, I can't recall the reference)that Hauerwas as the pacifist he most wanted beside him in a bar brawl. So do I.

Looney said...


I will refer you to a Doolittle link (1942):

and a Tokyo firebombing link (1945):

Associating Doolittle with the Tokyo firebombing raid is defamatory against Doolittle and his men.

I have a very high regard for some pacifist viewpoints, but not those of Hauerwas.

Katerina Ivanovna said...

I just had the privilege of hearing an address by Hauerwas this past weekend at the Catholic Theological Society of American convention in San Antonio.

Perhaps it was being on his own turf that emboldened him to call a ballroom full of Catholic scholars to prayer and to a return to eschatological consciousness! I have to admit, I never thought the best address of the convention would be given by a non-Catholic. I appreciated his presence, his thoughtulness and his candor--I can only hope that my Catholic peers will also take his words seriously.

Jason said...


To hold up our court systems as a sufficient analogy for how we, as Christians, live a good life risks oversimplification in the extreme.

And I think that if Stanley was incorrect about Doolittle -- and you've shown he was -- we should not let that obscure from us the genuine moral horror of the firebombing of Tokyo -- about which, he was correct.

Bearing false witness is, of course, a serious issue (although it does not imply a decision-oriented as opposed to virtue-oriented ethics), but so also is killing: I seem to recall that both the Ten Commandments and Jesus had fairly serious things to say about both.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil.

I'm glad you like the post. (And thank you, everyone, for your encouraging and helpful responses!)

You mention David Wells (great quote!). I am aware of an American theologian of that name (David F. Wells), but I wonder if you might not mean Samuel Wells, an Anglican priest, who is one of Hauerwas' most able interpreters and disciples in the UK (though I've heard that he has now gone west). With Mark Thiessen he edited a collection of essays on Hauerwas called Faithfulness and Fortitude: In Conversation with the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas (2000). In his own contribution to the book, Hauerwas begins: "'Jesus, I must be dead.' That was my first thought when I first got wind of this book.'" Vintage Stanley!

Anyway, Samuel Wells is turning into quite an acomplished theologian in his own right. I would heartily recommend his Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (2004).

Phil Snider said...

Sorry, Kim, I was hoping to catch my mistake. I mentioned to my wife your post and my response. She noted that the person I was thinking (she's pretty sure) wasn't Sam (yes, she caught that mistake too) Wells, but she thinks it was William Cavenaugh, who wrote an introductory essay on Hauerwas with that immortal line. I'm unfortunatley preparing for work, so I haven't been able find the paper. I'll try to post a reference later in the day.

She also reminded me of a couple of Hauerwas' comments on the occasion of the her Hauerwas class he attended.His summary of cheap grace was 'You're all a pile of s--t, but you smell pretty sweet to me' and 'If you need a theory to worship the Lord Jesus Chirst, then worship your f------g theory"


Patrick McManus said...


Phil, I think the reference you're looking for is William Cavanaugh's intro, Stan the Man in the Hauerwas Reader, p.22. Samuel Wells' Transforming Fate into Destiny, now published by Wipf & Stock is the best secondary piece I've read on Hauerwas...highly recommended.


Phil Snider said...


Yes, exaxtly!! That is the very essay. My wife took the course when that book was in manuscript form and, by the kind of permission of Hauerwas and, presumably, Cavenaugh, had access to the reader in that form.

Thanks for clearing up the fog my muddled brained caused.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Hauerwas shout-out! I am definitely a fan of his. I have met him 3 times (once when he came to Wycliffe College to speak to a class I was in that focused on his theology: I am wife of Phil, above). One of the memorable things he said on that occasion: "If you need a theory to tell you how to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, then worship your f*ing theory -- don't pretend you're worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ!" I thought it apropos given the quote from John Ballie in "Accepting a formula", below.

I don't always agree with the man, but he has a way of putting things, and of cutting through the bafflegab of too much academic theology. He also manages to skewer our North American culture right where it needs it.

As an Anglican with Mennonite roots I appreciate his commitment to pacifism and to putting it forward as a serious Christian position that you don't have to be Mennonite to hold.

In conversation with him I have also found him incredibly sensitive to real people and their real problems.

Patrick McManus said...

Elin, Phil...

I'm Patrick from CRUX books @ Wycliffe...nice to see you guys in blogger land!

I hope all is well,


Phil Snider said...

Hi, Patrick!

Good to see you as well! Small world.


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