Stanley Hauerwas: An Interview

Article excerpt

One often hears the complaint that Stanley M. Hauerwas -- Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at the Duke University Divinity School, Gifford Lecturer for the year 2001, author of over twenty books and the recently published Hauerwas Reader, and Time magazine's current choice as the "best of" today's theologians -- is "difficult to take seriously." In the face of these and other assorted accomplishments and accolades, that charge itself seems hard to take seriously. But Hauerwas often makes it easy for his critics to be dismissive. The theological stands he takes are meticulously argued and thoroughly researched. However the conclusions he reaches seem, to many theologians (whether conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between), to be so over the top that they assume the man must have wandered off the highway of sweet reason somewhere into the thickets of crankdom. Can anyone who enlists folks as different as John Howard Yoder, Pope John Paul II, Stanley Fish, and Michel Foucault in the cause of overcoming modernity and establishing the Church in its place really know what he is doing? Can anyone that cantankerous really be at the same time a serious pacifist? Can anyone as resolutely "traditional" as Hauerwas on the subject of marriage and sexual fidelity not see the contradiction when he quips that "Gays, as a group, are morally superior to Christians, as a group" simply because they have managed to be ostracized by the U.S. military on account of their sexuality? And could anyone seriously think that liberal democracy is all that bad?

This "aw, come off it" dismissiveness seems to me to say more about Hauerwas's critics than Hauerwas himself. For Hauerwas does sweat the details. While his favored form of writing is the short essay rather than the standard-issue scholarly book, his work is scholarly, in the best sense of the word: well-acquainted with the relevant theological literature, and enriched by his proficiency in understanding other genres of writing, such as philosophy social criticism, and the novel. The craftsmanlike character of his piecework prose (which he attributes, in part, to his earlier apprenticeship as a bricklayer) dares his readership to take him seriously, because he is serious. But to accept that challenge would be to lead one to place in question certain intellectual -- and moral -- habits that one might find too comforting to give up. Thus Hauerwas suggests that, contrary to the received wisdom, honest fellowship with gays and lesbians may require rather than prohibit loyalty to the virtue of monogamous fidelity, and that pacifism may require that one air one's disagreements publicly and unflinchingly, rather than to try to smooth them over with a false "tolerance" that is more manipulative than it seems on first blush. And, yes, perhaps liberal democracy is all that bad, if it hampers the quest to form good people in decent societies, as Hauerwas insists it does. (It is important to note that for Hauerwas "liberalism" names not just -- and not primarily -- the politics of those labeled "liberal" in contemporary America, but an entire grand tradition of Western political thought and practice that runs from Hobbes and Locke down to Rawls and Nozick. Contemporary "conservatives" are just as much under fire from his critique as contemporary "liberals." Neither camp can take comfort in his judgments.) In sum, Hauerwas is intentionally disconcerting. That can bean unpleasant experience. Hence, the reluctance, on the part of many theologians and religious scholars, to give him his due.

To give Hauerwas his due is not to say that one must agree with him all the way down the line. This is certainly true in my own case. I have known Stan for the past fourteen years and have carried on a lively and lengthy correspondence with him, through letters and e-mail. Our differences are significant: he is a Pacifist Christian, while I am a "reform Aristotelian" philosopher who adheres to the possibility, if not the likelihood nowadays, of the just war. …