Dubbed ‘America’s best theologian’ by Time magazine in 2001, Hauerwas may be known to UK readers as a champion of pacifism and a leading ethicist as Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, North Carolina. Others may be aware of his book, ‘Resident Aliens’, which he co-authored with his good friend, William Willimon in 1989 which says the church needs to be the church so the world can be the world.
The book’s title comes from his mother’s long-time prayer to have a child as with Hannah in the book of Samuel and in case you were wondering, he has opted to pronounce his surname Hour-wass (pronouncing the ‘h’ and with wass rhyming with lass). It charts his unlikely rise to prominence from early years as son of a bricklayer, learning the trade in Texas from the age of seven (in 1947), a trade he believes developed a doggedness and persistence that served him well as a Theologian. He discovered a love for books and theology, even as he battled with whether he himself was converted, and what that even meant. He wryly remarks that he became a theologian in order to become a Christian! It is an unusual and unplanned pathway, training for the ministry initially, but opting for a degree in philosophy and then theology at Yale University. He moved to teach at Notre Dame (a Catholic College, though he is a Methodist) for 13 years until 1983 and then to be Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, North Carolina where he uses his position to argue for, amongst other things, pacifism, especially in the light of US aggression post 9/11. Outspoken, he was a supporter of black rights before it became popular and was prepared to make a stand, even when his own Faculty were unsupportive.
Hauerwas is something of a theological eclectic, comfortable within the Methodist Church, but also happy to embrace much Catholic doctrine, and once considered joining the Catholic Church. He describes himself as embracing the historic truths of the Council of Nicea and is a big fan of the work of German Theologian Karl Barth. A turning point was reading John Howard Yoder’s book ‘The Politics of Jesus’ when at Notre Dame. Yoder became a friend and helped convert Hauerwas to pacifism. He declares in this book, ‘nonviolence and Christianity are inseparable’.
Those who know and admire Hauerwas’ lively mind and commitment to say what he believes without worrying about the consequences, will be interested in his own insights into his career and the people he met along the way. But if you know little of him, you would be forgiven for passing swiftly on from this review. What might interest those who don’t know the author is the back story of the illness suffered by his wife Anne, with whom he was married for 24 years. She was diagnosed as bi-polar and would suffer three to four psychotic break downs a year – including believing she was being eaten by bugs, seeking to initiate sex with Hauerwas’ friends, and believing her son Adam was the Son of God. Yet all this time she did not want anyone to know of her illness, leaving Hauerwas to seek what solace he could find in his work and friends, in diversionary novels, in running, and his only child , Adam, with whom he shares a passion for baseball. So alongside what many would find a tedious catalogue of his work, there is a sad and powerful description of a man’s pain at loving a woman who would not and could not love him back, and the developing bond with his son, Adam, who he describes as ‘crucial to his own survival’. Eventually she would leave him and die young of heart failure. In time he marries again, Paula, now an ordained Methodist Minister. Hauerwas manages to describe his life with her, amidst his intellectual and academic life, while being respectful to Anne, and not making himself out to be a martyr.
The author is candid about his own struggles and perceptions of life but what is missing is much insight into his own personal walk with God. It’s not Hauerwas’ style – but at the same time, you get a sense of a man thoroughly committed to God and the Gospel and passionate about exploring all the dimensions in the public arena. I think his mother would have been proud.