A reflection on Hannah’s Child Mark Clavier March 10, 2015 Books, Church in Wales, Commentary One of my more notable achievements is that I somehow managed to study at Duke Divinity School for two years without ever attending a lecture of, or even conversing with, Stanley Hauerwas. I often saw him from afar — my memory is of him always rushing somewhere — and, of course, I regularly heard about something noteworthy he had said, usually laced with the kind of profanity that would shock good Southern Methodists. One of my own moral weaknesses is that I’m overly suspicious of objects of popular admiration, and so it was years after I’d left Duke before I even read one of his books. When I did, I discovered a mind that resonated with my own, even though it was expressed with ideas and within an ethic (as he might put it) that felt slightly foreign, a bit like drinking from a different well only to find that the water tastes much the same. That analogy might almost be a definition of orthodoxy. Because of my education at Duke Divinity School and because of the themes of my own theologising, I’m often assumed to be a Hauerwasian (here in the UK people invariably turn the ‘w’ into a ‘v’); but I don’t think of myself as one. I’ve not read enough of his writings or any of them deeply enough to be one. I do, however, consider him one of the saints of the contemporary church (an idea which he would, no doubt, reject) and am grateful that he has become more ornery as he’s grown older: American Christianity needs an ornery pacifist to keep popping it in the nose. Since I’m not a Hauerwasian, I didn’t feel any great pull to read his memoir Hannah’s Child until I stumbled upon it last week in our college library. But from the moment I opened the cover I found myself completely engaged; I’ve not been so affected by a book in a very long time. It’s a surprisingly honest book about his personal life — especially his difficult first marriage — and about his friends and foes over the many years of his professional life. All those friends and foes spring so much to life that one suspects the book became a great source of gossip among faculty at Yale, Notre Dame, and Duke. It’s the character of the memoir, however, that really struck me. What one discovers in the book is a theologian’s attempt to reflect upon and engage with his life as a whole. The very act of turning one’s life into a coherent narrative is to step away from the reality of that life and towards a construct. Hauerwas repeatedly reminds the reader that he didn’t choose to be “Stanley Hauerwas” and especially the Christian Hauerwas — the quotes, in effect, transform his identity into a character. His style also reinforces this: he tells enough about his experiences to weave an engaging tale, but leaves enough unsaid to make the perceptive reader aware that his real life lies somewhere in that silence. The real Stanley Hauerwas lurks unseen in the gaps — this is especially true for his description of his relationship with his mentally disturbed first wife, which I suspect masks an ocean of pain and anxiety. Advertisement His memoirs, however, are a theologian’s memoirs and so should be read as a theologian’s narrative. If the Hauerwas that emerges in Hannah Child is a construct, then it is a theological construct, and that makes it an important read. Hauerwas shies away from the idea that his experiences have unduly shaped his theological positions. In fact, I think the reverse is true. I think Hannah’s Child is a theologian’s attempt to direct all the resources in his theological repertoire towards reflecting on how he interpreted his experiences through the filter of a theological ethic. It’s a reversal of the postmodern emphasis on the experiential nature of our knowledge and understanding. Hannah’s Child shows that it’s at least a two-way street: Hauerwas drew upon the riches of the Church’s own narrative to interpret his experiences even as those experiences affected his theology. Tradition mediates the experiences that shape his engagement with that tradition. And just as actual traffic up and down a street depends on the hidden gasoline that propels the cars, one detects in Hauerwas’s life the hidden work of grace coloring his experience of life and helping him to form the theological words to reply. For much of that life that grace seems to have come in the form of his son, Adam. In an interview, Hauerwas denied that his memoirs are a confession because a confession is an extended prayer, and, as he put it, he’s not a good enough Christian to sustain such a prayer. But prayers come in different shapes and sizes; one such guise is the baring of one’s soul before God. Hauerwas’s memoirs are, in fact, a profound confession. Like Augustine’s own confession, the central character really only exists within the narrative, and he discovers God. More profoundly, Hannah’s Child is a confession because it’s a baring of a soul. While God doesn’t take center stage in the same way he does in Augustine’s Confessions, he lurks in the same unspoken gaps as the real Hauerwas. If that’s true, then Hauerwas uses his introspective narration to bare his soul to the God who answered his mother Hannah’s prayer and turned the child of a Texan bricklayer into a formidable theologian. In that respect, Hannah’s Child might be seen as an engaging model of theological reflection. Postmodernity likes to remind us that our identity is a construct rather than something based on objective reality. I think this is basically right, though I don’t believe our deepest identities are ever intentional constructs. We can almost always tell that someone trying intentionally to assume an identity is actually a fake or mad. But Hauerwas has shown us how a theologian might go about allowing his or her own identity to be constructed within the light of the Gospel. Perhaps baring one’s soul to God through reflecting theologically on the experiences of life is a way of allowing the Gospel to construct our identities for us; perhaps, indeed, this is what formation and sanctification involve. Perhaps, too, that is why theology is so important for the formation of Christian character. For as Hauerwas’s other writings argue, we only truly become ourselves (whatever that means) when we are formed by and into the ethos of the Church. In Hannah’s Child, we glimpse what that might look like in the flesh. One Response Craig Uffman March 10, 2015 Thanks, Mark, for sharing your own reflections on your responses to Stanley’s memoir. In contrast with you, my life has been profoundly touched by Hauerwas. Some of my fondest memories of Stanley are of his racing ahead of the rest of us as we worked through the psalter at Morning Prayer in the student chapel, and of him racing about campus in his ever-present running shoes, and of his life-changing counsel in the locker room at the student gym. I became an Episcopalian because of Stanley Hauerwas’ timely and gentle intervention during my first semester at the Duke Divinity School. I always chuckle at the depiction of Stanley as a gruff, profane, caustic presence because that description is so distant from the man I know. I know him to be a kind, humble, and passionate man who assumes that the fact that we are forgiven means that we can risk speaking the unvarnished truth to one another in our shared enterprise of learning how to be Christian. After my viva, he said, “I would never wish for anyone to become a Hauerwasian….” Nonetheless, I am very much a theologian arising from the Hauerwasian school. Given that confession, let me suggest that readers seeking to learn more about what emphases characterize this school turn to Sam Wells’ dissertation, published in two parts as Transforming Fate Into Destiny: The Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, and Improvisation : The Drama of Christian Ethics. Alternatively, the fifth chapter of my dissertation, Practices and Mimetic Virtue, provides an intro into Stanley’s later period, and answers some of the most common criticisms, including the one repeated on this blog a view times: that Stanley is “sectarian.” To describe Hauerwas as sectarian is to misunderstand him. My most often quoted lines from Stanley are his warning that theologians not be complicit in our society’s prayers to “the god of ultimate vagueness,” and his constant reminder that “the task of the Church is to be the Church.” Stanley teaches that fiction and memoir are the two best ways that we do theology. Hannah’s Child is the act of Stanley following his own prescription. I’ll share just a few of 120+ gems that I saved from his memoir: “Theology is a discipline whose subject should always put in doubt the very idea that those who practice it know what they are doing” (Kindle location 13). “I hold no conviction more determinatively than the belief that prayer names how God becomes present to us and how we can participate in that presence by praying for others.” (Kindle location 3981) “Episcopalians are people who refuse to let any pretension go unused.” (Kindle location 3958) Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYour email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. Δ This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.