Duke theologian explores his rocky road to faith

The theological star's new memoir explores a rocky road to faith

Staff WriterJune 24, 2010 

  • Born: July 24, 1940

    Education: Southwestern University, B.A. in philosophy; Yale Divinity School, M.A., Ph.D.

    Where he has taught: Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.; University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.; Duke Divinity School, Durham.

    Family: wife, Paula Gilbert; son Adam, two grandchildren.

    Church affiliation: Church of the Holy Family (Episcopal), Chapel Hill.

    Book: 'Hannah's Child: A Theological Memoir,' Eerdmans Publishing Co., $24.99.

    Quote from book: "I am not interested in what I believe. I am not even sure what I believe. I am interested in what the church believes."

— He is a celebrated Christian ethicist, named "best theologian in America" by Time Magazine in 2001. Yet in some ways, Stanley Hauerwas is a reluctant Christian.

The Duke Divinity School's star professor, well-known for his pugnacious statements, has written a memoir, "Hannah's Child," in which he writes candidly, and often tenderly, of his own rocky road to faith.

"I'm not naturally religious," he said during an interview in his third-floor office overlooking Duke Chapel. "Being a Christian comes to me through extensive training."

Hauerwas, who turns 70 in July, is quite comfortable with the gradual evolution of his Christian faith. Known for his broadsides against churches that plant American flags near the altar (he thinks their allegiance should be to God, not to country) and for provocative essays, such as one lamenting that the military doesn't target Christians but rather gays for military exclusion, Hauerwas' reputation is as bold as his scholarship.

His latest book, subtitled "A Theologian's Memoir," relates his life story as the son of a Texas bricklayer who goes to college and then divinity school in search of theological truth. He writes of his misbegotten marriage to his first wife, Anne, who battled mental illness and has since died; his rise through the ranks of academia; his profound appreciation for friendships he has made.

A critic of theological and political liberalism, Hauerwas has challenged Christianity's attempt to modernize. But he's far from a conservative in the traditional sense. He believes Christians are called to follow a radical social ethic that for him includes being a pacifist.

In control of God?

Born into a working-class family in a small town outside Dallas, Hauerwas writes that he was expected to get "saved" at the Methodist church his parents attended. Many of his older classmates had already "dedicated themselves to the Lord," as he writes.

Sensing that the church might provide an alternative to the back-breaking labor of his father and uncles, Hauerwas walked to the altar one Sunday night and declared his intention to follow Jesus.

"I didn't feel like I was being saved, but I thought if I committed myself to God, it would put God under some constraint, so that I would be in control of God," he said, breaking into one of his trademark deep-throated chuckles.

In so doing, he was fulfilling a wish of his mother, who like the long-barren Hannah of the Bible prayed for a boy, promising that if she conceived she would turn the child over to God's service.

The truth outloud

For Hauerwas, college and graduate school were ideal places to wrestle with "whether this stuff was true or not."

Like a teenager attuned to the slightest hint of hypocrisy, Hauerwas has an acute inner truth barometer. It's what makes him speak out in sharp, occasionally insulting ways. It cost him his first job at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., where, in addition to his many clashes with the administration, he once told the college paper that allowing women to shut the door when men were visiting was a "good way to avoid getting grass stains." (This was 1969 and the height of the sexual revolution.) Later he joined a group of African-American students protesting a lack of black faculty members.

Hauerwas being Hauerwas, his book rips apart two academic deans he worked with decades ago at Notre Dame and Duke. The reasons were different and complex. Suffice it to say, he left the one institution and ultimately got his way at the other.

"I'm not very good at figuring out how to pursue my interests in ways that mean I'm ready to compromise with folks I don't respect," he said. "It wasn't just them; it was me, in terms of my inability to be good at academic politics. I'm just not very good at it."

Hauerwas considers truth a greater virtue than good manners. In this sense, he is not a characteristic Southerner.

"Academia asks you to be someone other than blue-collar redneck," said Jason Byassee, director of the writing center at Duke Divinity School. "He managed to make refusing to do that an academic asset."

That same bracing bluntness also makes some of his other observations so sincere.

A new pray-er

In the memoir, Hauerwas says he doesn't find the question of whether God exists interesting. The important question is which God exists, he writes. For Hauerwas, that's the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the people of Israel who is made flesh through Jesus.

Rather than coming to believe in a God who started it all and whose existence people continually debate, Hauerwas said he came to believe in the Christian God first.

That same Christian God is one Hauerwas concedes is hard for him to access.

"God is just there for some people but not for me in that way," he said.

He writes that he has only recently learned to pray. His father, Coffee Hauerwas, was the family "pray-er," saying grace before meals and at family reunions, and Hauerwas said he never felt comfortable in that role.

"I'm much happier praying the prayers I've been taught to pray by the church rather than thinking I'm to pray 'on my own,'" he said.

He credits his second wife, Paula Gilbert, with suggesting that he start each class with a prayer, advice he took to heart in the only way he knew how - by sitting down and writing out what he would share with his students.

"The writing itself is a form of prayer," he said. "It means I have to think very hard about how appropriately to address God."

Time to retire

A prodigious worker, Hauerwas is at his divinity school desk at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday. He puts in 12-hour days even during the summers - a work ethic he attributes to growing up amid an extended family of bricklayers who broached no shortcuts.

But with his 70th birthday fast approaching, he has already informed the divinity school he plans to retire in three years.

"It's important institutions renew themselves," he said. "I don't want to stand in the way of that."

Meanwhile, he hopes for a spot on the committee that will select a new dean for the divinity school to replace Greg Jones, who has become a Duke administrator. Hauerwas has also just completed a collection of essays: "War and the American Difference: A Christian Alternative," in which he writes about how the biggest sacrifice soldiers make is their moral unwillingness to kill.

United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, the former dean of Duke Chapel who has co-written several books with Hauerwas, said his onetime colleague's curmudgeonly ways are a testament to the grace of God.

"God always calls the wrong people," Willimon said, adding that God is also capable of shaping them into "something wonderful."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service