Scholars Talk Writing: Stanley Hauerwas

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Religious talk usually makes me twitchy. But when I first met Stanley Hauerwas, in the early ’90s — about 10 years before Timemagazine named him "America’s Best Theologian" — I found it impossible not to be charmed by his pile of contrasting traits.

A pugilistic pacifist who talks loud and twangy, a devoted husband and cat lover, a hater of liberalism, a tenacious friend, and a scary-smart, unapologetically faithful man, he showed me what it looks like to take the ideas of Christianity seriously.

I was an editor then at Duke University Press. Eventually I got a book out of him, Dispatches From the Front: Theological Engagements With the Secular, a collection of essays published in 1994. The subtitle nods to the Post-Contemporary Interventions series at Duke, edited at the time by Fred Jameson and Hauerwas’s friend and neighbor, Stanley Fish.

Hauerwas has since published many more books, snagged piles of honors, and even appeared on Oprah. Recently the 79-year-old sent me a message commending the Scholars Talk Writing series and asking why I hadn’t interviewed him (or, for that matter, Stanley Fish). In typical Hauerwas fashion, he wrote, "My more academic work is written in an interesting way — give a theologian a chance." So I did.

You once said that civility and the language of the church works to disempower the lower classes. You said, "People think you need to protect God, but the truth is, God can take it. Read the fucking Psalms." Do you still think that? Do you still swear like a sailor?

Hauerwas: Well, I do not swear as much as I once did. I just got tired of being in a context in which people were waiting for me to say "fuck."

I hope my language in general reflects my attempt to avoid jargon. I try to write in a way that is accessible to a nonacademic reader. I have a reputation for cutting through the bullshit and getting to the nub of the matter. I hope that is deserved. I hope my writing reflects that ambition.

How did graduate training affect your writing?

Hauerwas: I left graduate school wanting to be an academic success, which only suggests how foolish I was. I should have understood that was not possible by the very fact I was a theologian. In an effort to be a good academic, my writing was stilted. But at the time I did not even think about writing. I thought all that mattered was having arguments that might be persuasive.

I soon discovered that my ambition to "make it" was boring and I could not sustain it. After all, I was a Christian theologian and ethicist, and I was in danger of making Christianity dull. That is about as deep a failure as making Shakespeare dull. So I tried to learn to write interestingly — assuming that the first person for whom I had to write was me.

What does it mean to write "interestingly"?

Hauerwas: Well, trying to help us recover what extraordinary and odd things we believe as Christians — things such as God is to be found in a Palestinian Jew. That is a conviction that calls into question the sentimentalities that are confused with Christianity in the world as we know it. When you take seriously what we believe as Christians, it puts a pressure on how you say what needs to be said. I think that is why some of the greatest theologians — people like John Henry Newman — were also some of the greatest writers of their time.

I still have occasion from time to time to have to read something I wrote in the past that is clear evidence that I did not know how to write. I’ve learned that I think by writing. There is just no substitute for writing over and over again.

I am still not happy with everything I write, but every once in a while I write a sentence I take pleasure in. I tell my graduate students that they must learn to write well, and the way that you learn is by doing. I want them to copy me. I often say I do not want students to make up their own minds. I want them to think like me as well as write like me — only differently. By that I mean they should care about what I care about, but what I care about should force them to find their own voice.

How did you develop as a writer?

Hauerwas: I am a reader. Perhaps undisciplined, but reading makes writing possible. Reading will not necessarily make you a good writer, but it cannot hurt. I’ve learn to write through imitation.

Genre also matters. In particular, I have the opportunity to preach occasionally, and sermons allow me to engage in a rhetoric that I like to think is eloquent. I publish sermons along with more-academic essays because I want to show how they are interrelated. Namely, I try to show how, if you believe that out of all the peoples of the world God chose Israel to be the promised people, you cannot help but write with a difference. That difference, I hope, reflects the glory that is God.

You are known for doing "narrative ethics." Can you talk about that?

Hauerwas: I was in graduate school at Yale, training to be a Christian ethicist. Both philosophical and theological ethics was focused on decisions allegedly determined and justified by deontological or teleological systems. I was reading Aristotle, for whom the virtues were central. I was also influenced by Iris Murdoch’s claim that decisions are what you do when everything else has been lost. So I focused on character, which, as most novelists will tell you, is captured through a narrative. It is only through stories that we can make sense of the seemingly unrelated events that we call our lives.

I also began to think that practical reason is fundamentally about how we can narrate our lives. Such a narration draws on the contingent facts that make us who we are — I am a Texan. I am a Yalie. I am a Christian.

I was playing around with these ideas when Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue was published — and the rest is history. He made the intuitions with which I was working respectable. Alasdair is a great philosopher who claims me as a friend. I have learned much from him.

There is, of course, a theological side to all this. I believe Christianity is one hell of a story about the way things are, not least being that our very existence is a gift. That is the contingency rightly called "creation." I was fortunate to have Hans Frei as a teacher. It was from Frei I learned to read Karl Barth, whose work can be read as one long story — long because the story has many subplots.

Your publishing output is astronomical. How do you get so much done?

Hauerwas: I was raised a bricklayer. All I have ever known is work. In my memoir, Hannah’s Child, I tried to describe what it means to come from working-class people and end up in the academy. We lack the manners and gestures of the classes — and it is a class matter — that dominate life in the university. I have been a teacher for over 45 years, which means, given my family background, I have never had to work for a living.

I have tried to do what I have been asked to do. I have written books, but most of my books are collections of essays written because someone asked me to write or lecture about this or that. I bring the essays together to give the impression that they constitute a book. I do not want to be too self-deprecating, because I think I do make some interesting and coherent arguments.

Self-deprecation has never been your problem, Stanley. What I’ve always been most impressed with is your courage, and your range. I think we don’t see that enough in academic work.

Hauerwas: I take strong positions that invite strong reaction. I write with passion, a passion that may put me in some places I would rather not be, but I do not know any other way to live and write. I try to respond to the reactions of others by developing what I think needs to be said given what I have said in the past.

The other reason I have published so much is there is nothing I am not interested in. That’s my strength. My weakness is there is nothing I am not interested in. The range of topics I have taken up makes me tired — sex, politics, war, medicine, God, virtue — but I only have myself to blame, damn it.

But the bottom line is I have published many books because I am possessed by the presumption that I have something to say as well as someone to say it to. Academics write primarily for other academics. I have a people who think they should read what I write: Christians. That is a gift. Of course, they often do not like what I have to say, but then my role is not to make people happy.

Can you talk more about writing for a Christian audience?

Hauerwas: Theologians are clearly the bottom feeders in the contemporary university. We are burdened by the presumption that we believe 26 impossible things before breakfast. This means we do not conform to the epistemological conceits of the modern academy. I do write, first and foremost, for Christians, but I assume that does not exclude non-Christians from taking a look at what I have done. I have, moreover, written in venues that are not specifically Christian. I assume what I have written in such contexts is intelligible to those who are not Christian.

For example I wrote an article in Time against the war in Iraq. In 2017, I wrote a piece for The Washington Post arguing that Trump’s religious convictions reflect the accommodated character of American Christianity. I just wish I had been more persuasive politically. I know there’s no such thing as a "general readership" — the abstraction academics use to justify why what they say cannot be understood outside their field — but I do try to write to specific readers who are not necessarily Christians.

It is not an easy matter, moreover, to write for Christians. You need to remember I represent a form of Christianity that makes most Christians quite nervous. That the cross of Christ might have something to do with nonviolence is not an association most American Christians make.

Years ago I was quoted to the effect that God is killing Christianity in America, and we God-damn sure deserve it. I was criticized for using profanity, but I pointed out that I was only person in the article that used the word "God" — twice. After all, I do think God matters.

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