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.
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.