Friday, July 16, 2010

Stanley Hauerwas - Hannah's Child: A Review

Stanley Hauerwas' Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir is an insightful, carefully crafted, self-analysis by a leading theologian. I have read Hauerwas' work over the past 15 years and I have watched his career with deepening concern. His relationship to Yoder has always raised many questions for me and this book only serves to intensify my concerns about Hauerwas' influence.

First, the major theme of the book is a surprising one. I never expected Hauerwas to reveal his own inner preoccupation with class in such a blatant way. It is no exaggeration to say that this book is a Horatio Alger story of "poor boy works hard and rises to conquer the world." Throughout the book Hauerwas stresses his hard work and how it enabled him to overcome a difficult personal life and the handicaps of being brought up in working class Texas. His living of the American Dream fittingly climaxed on Sept. 10, 2001 when Time named him "America's Best Theologian." He tells us over an over again how hard he works; there is no catching himself like Paul did when he said "I worked harder than them all - no, Christ worked in me. Grace seems strangely distant from this set of reflections - other than the admirable acknowledgment of the importance of friends and friendship for getting through hard times.

For all his radical talk, Hauerwas is, in the end, the quintessential American. What he has in common with Jerry Falwell causes his differences with Falwell to pale into insignificance. Both are self-made, successful men who rose from obscurity and near-poverty to fame and influence. Both are confrontational and loud. Both have sought to institutionalize their influence, one as an outsider to the Protestant establishment and the other within its bosom yet both have made a living out of criticizing liberal Protestantism.

Secondly, it is hard not to come sadly to the conclusion that Hauerwas' pacifism, which he talks about non-stop, actually is an expression of his deep-seated conformism. No, he does not conform to the flag-waving, military-admiring, freedom-loving Americanism of the working and middle classes. Of course not, but the reason is not because it is too American, but because it is gauche. His Americanism is upper class, liberal, main-line and informed by vaguely socialist (or at least anti-capitalist) sensibilities. But make no mistake, Hauerwas is not really alienated from mainline, liberal Protestantism in the US. When he attacks "liberalism" read "capitalism" and think of how little "daring" that move requires in the Ivy League circles in which he moves.

Near the end of the book, he claims that he believes that his whole life has prepared him for speaking to America in the post-9/11 context. He refuses to be silent and takes on "America" (read conservative America) for its sins and presumption about telling the everyone how to run the world. And yet, Hauerwas tells us that he accepted an invitation to join a group devoted to abolishing war from the world, despite the fact (and this is crucial) that doing so could be construed as being inconsistent with the kind of nonviolence he had learned from Yoder.
Yoder desired a world free of war. But he also saw quite clearly that Christians are committed to nonviolence not because nonviolence is a strategy to free the world of war. Rather, in a world of war, followers of Christ cannot be anything other than nonviolent. An appeal to abolish war might suggest that nonviolence can be translated into public policy based on grounds that do not require the cross and resurrection of Jesus. (pp. 272-3)
Well, yes, exactly. But why the hedging "might"? If Hauerwas actually does agree with Yoder on pacifism, why is this not presented in the book as the reason for refusing the invitation to help free the world of war? How is Hauerwas' position here all that different, really, from that of the US Catholic bishops' or the United Methodists' statements on war, which represent the liberal tradition of pacifism in the US? How is his position different from the pacifism of the social gospel movement in the inter-war period that was so effectively skewered by Reinhold Niebuhr as accomplishing nothing but making war more certain insofar as it delayed rearmament by the Western allies at a time when rearming might have deterred the German leaders on whose support Hitler depended?

I had thought that liberal Protestant Pelagian, utopianism that sought to instruct nation states in a fallen world on how to conduct their affairs was dead and buried so far as Hauerwas is concerned. Why is its pale, limp ghost haunting his theological memoirs?

Third, one wonders how on earth someone who is supposedly so opposed to liberalism (both theological and economic) could possibly survive in a string of theologically liberal churches and in a liberal Catholic and a liberal Protestant university. Clues are found throughout the book as to how he managed to win the praise of the liberal media, the liberal denominations, liberal theologians, liberal university administrators and liberal, northeastern Catholics like the Kennedy clan, all the while slamming liberalism.

For one thing, he routinely in an off-the-cuff manner makes slighting remarks about Evangelicals, as for example when he confesses that he does not like Southern Baptists. This says something about how easily he can label those who uphold orthodox theology without taking them seriously. On the other hand, he has a great falling out - not with liberal bishops in the post-Christian Episcopal Church (his latest denominational home), as one might expect - but with the neoconservatives at First Things over the Iraq War. He also tells us that he left one Methodist Church because the new pastor was interested in promoting outreach and evangelism through methods Hauerwas disliked. (He never mentions dissatisfaction with any of the churches he attended for their declining attendance, lack of missionary zeal or ineffective evangelism.) Also, I noted no criticisms of Katherine Jefforts Schori, Gene Robinson or John Spong, though Hauerwas found time to slam various Evangelicals, including Bill Hybels and Willow Creek.

Fourthly, this brings us to another major problem for anyone who wants to regard Hauerwas as an orthodox theologian in addition to his self-made Americanism and his conformism to the liberal Protestant establishment and that is his ambiguous attitude toward homosexuality. He tells us that one of the "best things" about the church he attended for a while in Durham was that it spent a whole year discussing whether to accept homosexuality in its leadership.

Later, he lets us know that he is free of "homophobia" by informing us that he is so oblivious to a person's sexual orientation that his wife had to tell him that a mutual friend was a homosexual. This particular passage in the book is painful to read; how disingenuous can one be? Hauerwas goes out of his way to establish his liberal tolerance "street cred" in an almost slapstick manner in the process turning himself into a parody of the anti-establishment, dissenting from modernity, "the church is not the world," anti-compromising Niebuhrian ethicist that he is reputed to be. Here is is prostrating himself before the idols of liberal modernity mumbling the mantras of inclusion all the while living off the royalties earned from people who take his radical stance "against the nations" seriously.

The maddening thing is that he never really comes out and says whether he agrees that homosexuality is morally good or not. He writes:
"I remain unsure if we can call the relationship between gay people 'marriage,' but I know that David's friendship enriches Paula's and my marriage. I hope and pray for the day when Christians can be so confident in their understanding of marriage that we can welcome gay relationships for their promise of building up the body of Christ. That I have such a hope and that I pray such a prayer have everything to do with my and Paula's friendship with David. I think, moreover, that this is the way it should work." (p. 223)
Oh, please. This waffling, sentimental, "thinking with your emotions" approach is pretty hard to take coming from someone who thinks that anyone who takes a strict just war position is simply being unfaithful - end of story. Hauerwas has shown himself capable of careful thought and of taking hard stands; this kind of liberal sentimentalism is beneath his dignity.

In conclusion, I found this book honest and open and, for that reason a worthwhile piece of writing. It is a well-written representative of the genre. I only wish that I had not had to learn what I learned about a theologian I respect through that honesty and openness.

I cannot say that I find Hauerwas to be a true Yoderian in his view of pacifism and I do believe that there is a reason he has chosen to self-identify with dying liberal Protestantism in such a way that his criticisms of it become an in-house debate. If his life's work was to open up a path of radical discipleship for the next generation, then that work has been a failure. It is too bad, because the potential was there for far more than liberal tolerance, anti-Evangelical class snobbery and liberal pacifism.


Anonymous said...
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Andrew said...

Not sure if he mentioned it in that book, but in some biographical/autobiographical material he discusses the significant effect critical views of scripture had on his intellectual development (i.e., early on he was looking for some sort of correlationist solution).

Andrew said...

At some point he was attracted to Barth as a solution to that problem, if I remember correctly; but Barth's response to that problem can leave open a move towards more liberal theological conclusions (at least, it seems so to me...)

Craig Carter said...

Yes, he was attracted to Barth but his relationship to Barth is as problematic as his relationship to Yoder. If you take Barth's Augustinian position on Rom. 13 and reject absolute pacifism as he did, then you have a solid basis for speaking to the state (though not for calling for a naive pacifism). But Hauerwas followed Yoder on pacifism and yet tried to speak to the state as if he was in the Reformed camp. That is the contradiction. In the end, I think he abandons Yoder.

David said...

Many thanks for this review Craig.

Unknown said...

I was going to read this book. Thanks for saving me the time. I'll find spiritual nourishment elsewhere...