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Interview by Rodney Clapp

What Would Pope Stanley Say?

A conversation with Stanley Hauerwas.

Starting with its first issue, Wired magazine has featured an unusual item on its masthead. Along with the customary job titles, there is a listing that reads: "Patron Saint: Marshall McLuhan." If Books & Culture were to follow suit, we'd have to list a number of names, not just one, but among them for certain would be Stanley Hauerwas.

Hauerwas is professor of theological ethics at Duke University's Divinity School. He is the author of many books, including A Community of Character, In Good Company: The Church as Polis, and, with Charles Pinches, Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics (all three of which are published by the University of Notre Dame Press).

A Methodist who draws on diverse sources—especially Roman Catholic and Anabaptist—Hauerwas is a profane, pugnacious pacifist. His understanding of the church was well summarized by Rodney Clapp more than a decade ago in Christianity Today (Sept. 5, 1986): "Worshiping together and supporting one another in community, Christians are a sign to the world. Sustained by the miracle of the Holy Spirit, the church is a palpable presence proving, by its existence and unique character, that the way of the world is not the only way—and certainly not the true way—to live."

Clapp talked with Hauerwas in Durham, North Carolina, this summer. Expletives mostly deleted.

What's the biggest challenge facing the North American church today?

It's very simple: survival. And surviving is a big thing. By survival I mean sustaining the everyday practices that make Christians Christian. Robert Wilken, in The Christians As the Romans Saw Them, explains that the Romans didn't notice the Christians for a long time because they just weren't that significant. Pliny, when he finally noticed the Christians, said, "I can't figure out who these people are. I think they're a burial society because they go out to the cemeteries."

That's a pretty good description of Christians. We're a burial society. We know how to bury people in a way that shows they are part of our community and our community's ongoing memory. That's a lot, to be a burial society in the kind of world in which we live. My own view is that within a hundred years, Christians may be known as those odd people who don't kill their children or their elderly. That's a lot, too. And that's what I mean by survival: maintaining everyday small lines of resistance to a world gone mad seeking perfection.

Right now we're imperiled both within and without. We have lost confidence in our common actions—our basic convictions and practices—and because of that we have become shrill. People get concerned about making our common actions meaningful, and you get bizarre things like the church-growth movement, which is surely a sign of unbelievable desperation. Or, to take another example, Methodism looks like it may well come apart on the gay issue, which is a very strange thing to have happen. And so we're threatened from within, having lost a sense of internal discipline that makes any sense of our lives as Christians.

That in turn means that we're threatened from without, because the people outside can't tell that there's any difference between being Christian and anything else. So they wonder, what's the point? The North American church is in a very awkward time.

But Christians are obligated to be hopeful, and I'm hopeful because this is about God, after all. It's not about the survival of the North American church. On the whole, Christianity is over in the West. And there's not any great tragedy in that—it won't be long before the churches of Africa and Asia are sending missionaries here. That's okay. Christianity is never dependent on numbers. And I think what has primarily killed us, by the way, in spite of all my criticisms of liberalism, is wealth. It's very hard to be Christian and wealthy.

Is that a recent conclusion of yours—that wealth is more fundamentally destructive of the church and its mission than is liberalism?>

No. They go hand in hand. The production of wealth has always been what liberalism has been about, and liberalism understood economically is capitalism. We have arrived at a condition in which it's just inconceivable for us to think of ourselves as Christian and poor. Therefore our great social vision is knowing how to make the poor not so poor, as part of what it means to be Christian. And I think that what God is doing is teaching us that Christianity is very much about knowing how to go on in the face of being poor. I don't want at all to romanticize poverty, but the poor are forced into forms of cooperation that provide resources that we affluent Christians do not have. It takes a lot of money to avoid cooperating with other people. Affluent Western Christians have that kind of money.

We're clearly under the power of greed and we don't even know it. I take it that part of the agony of child-rearing today comes from the fact that any no that you give a child appears arbitrary. "No, you cannot have another Beanie Baby because you've got too many Beanie Babies." And the child says, "How would I know that I have too many Beanie Babies? My best friend has more than I do."

I grew up in a low-middle-class home. I never knew I should, for example, expect my parents to provide me a college education. It never crossed my mind. I didn't know I was poor, as a matter of fact, until I went to college. There I discovered that a lot of people had a lot more stuff. But when I was growing up my parents didn't have to say no because certain things were just out of reach. And now, for many, there seems to be nothing out of reach. So if a parent says no, children can only suspect they're being mistreated. Greed isn't even located.

Now, I say all this as someone who has for many years lived with the benefits that come with academic success. I get paid well. I'm still not sure what to do with my money, but I like being rich. I mean, it's a good thing to be able not to have to worry about whether or not I can really afford to buy books or pieces of art, and so on. It's just very hard to discover appropriate limits in this society.

I hope I'm not being judgmental when I'm saying this, because I assume that we're all captured by it in various ways. But we're captive to a power. That's the way I want us to think about sin: not as something so much that I do as something that I'm captured by and that I don't even recognize as captivity.

And isn't this inability to locate limits related to a widespread feeling of lostness and nihilism? If there's nothing we really can't have or do or must protect, then is anything really rare or precious?

That's why I say the yuppies are the great monastics of modernity. The yuppies are often criticized for not having children because allegedly that's their hedonism—they'll buy a boat rather than rear a child. But I think yuppies don't have children because they see no reason why they should pass on to future generations the meaninglessness of their own lives. That refusal is a kind of ascetic discipline. Why have children in this culture? You're going to have children for them to grow up to consume at a higher level than you? Rather than go to Wheaton, they can go to Harvard? Why are you doing this? I think children catch on. "Why am I here? What am I to do? No sacrifices are asked of me."

It's very hard to live in a world without a sense that your life is part of an adventure that you yourself didn't make up. There are some deep problems with growing up in middle-class America. But that's exactly what's so frustrating about liberalism. It's so flaccid, it never seems to be offering much threat.

It rarely dresses in jackboots and wears a swastika.

Right. I sometimes wonder if I don't overdramatize the threats of liberalism as a way to render intelligible theological speech. I hope I haven't done that. But the flaccidity of liberalism makes it very hard to locate why it is such a threat. After all, liberals are so nice, and we're all really liberals. So it's very hard to discern where the cracks appear, when and where we must as Christians say no. It takes great theological insight.

Is this absence of limits, this sense of infinite choice, also related to the breakdown of church discipline?

The moment a church tries to discipline any member, that person can just take off and go down the street to another church. Put very simply, what's killing Christianity is democracy. It is a degraded form of democracy, whose habits we bring into the church and then assume that we don't need to be under orders. "Who's the minister to tell us what to think? We get to make this stuff up." Democracy is killing us because the American church has no appropriate sense of authority. We think every authority is authoritarian.

I don't think we'll recover proper church authority by focusing on authority itself. You've got to be the kind of community that has good things to do and be. If you have good things to do, then no one will question the authority necessary to doing it. My father was a bricklayer. When you learn to lay brick you can go out and your dad can show you, "Hold the trowel this way." And you think, no, I'm going to hold it another way. Dad will let you do that for a day or so until your wrist wears out. Then you've learned to listen when he says, "Spread your mud this way along the course." If you're bricking a building, you learn pretty quickly that there are some people that know better than other people about how to do it. That's how authority works.

Unfortunately, under the sway of liberalism, where it is assumed that a society consists of antithetical individual wills that somehow must be forced to cooperate, authority cannot help but appear as arbitrary and authoritarian.

So much professional theology has been and continues to look to the academy for its standards and its self-esteem. Do you think there's a future for theology primarily in service to the church rather than the academy?

I can't imagine any other future. When theologians write primarily for other theologians, then you know you're in trouble. You can't sustain the theological past that way. University culture itself is not healthy. One of the things that you see among a very talented group of people is the agony of influence. So you write another brilliant article or book on Milton. Whose life are you making better?

And so academic publishing becomes one-upmanship.

That could happen to theology—it probably already has, in a lot of ways. But what's wonderful about being a theologian is that there's no way in the modern university that the theologian can be seen as a legitimate academic. So we can have a hell of a lot of fun, make hay while the sun shines. Because theologians do have an audience. We still have Christians in the world that think what we do should be taken seriously as part and parcel of their lives.

Of course, there is a difficulty. There's a deep alienation between theologians and people who have no theological training. That's why, from the very beginning of my work, I've written not just technical but also more accessible material. I've taken some academic hits for that, but the mixed genre of my work has always been intentional. I'm eternally grateful to Will Willimon for helping me write Resident Aliens. I could never have done that on my own. And I really like that little book that he and I did on the Lord's Prayer, Lord Teach Us. I want to write Sunday- school literature.

Yet you also continue serious intellectual engagement.

Theologians need to do that on behalf of the church. And I also understand that I have a responsibility to acquire secular power. I train Ph.D. students. They'll need jobs. So I have to work in a way that commands the respect of people not only in academic theology but also elsewhere in the university.

But part of what is quite wonderful about being a theologian in the world in which we live is that now Christians are in a position of disempowerment. We have to know what our critics think, but they don't have to know about us. I have to read Richard Rorty. I have to read John Rawls. They don't have to read me or other theologians. So there's a certain sense in which being in the position we're in creates necessities that are good for us.

It ends up being a very good time for theology—a horrible time for the church, but a wonderful time for theology. Professional or academic theologians are free. When you're no longer in power, you're no longer beholden to reinforcing the reigning intellectual formations. The intellectual formations are always, it seems to me, about the reification of the world in a way that will convince people that the way things are is the way things have to be. So universities are gigantic theodical projects to educate students into thinking, "Yes, I guess it's right that politics is distinguishable from economics." But now theology no longer has a stake in those theodical projects. We can think freely about politics or economics in a way that God matters, because we don't have anything to lose. And I think God did that to us. God wanted to make us free, and he's done it. It's a wonderful time, and I hope people feel the genuine joy that comes through my work.

I work very hard, but it's a joy that I get to think the way I get to think.

You often speak with a great deal of appreciation for Roman Catholicism—enough so that I've got to ask: Why isn't Stanley Hauerwas a Roman Catholic?

The first answer I always give is that my wife's a priest, ordained in the Methodist Church. And of course she cannot be a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. I take it the rightness of women in leadership is one of the hard-won discoveries that came largely through the Enlightenment—a development out of the Enlightenment that is correct. And we have to wait in patience and pain for the Roman Catholics to discover that. They may discover it through us. These things take centuries. Also, I couldn't become a Roman Catholic and continue to teach at Duke. It wouldn't be a matter of integrity. I would have to become a Catholic moral theologian. But I am a committed Methodist, as silly as that is. I mean, Methodism is a movement that by accident became a church. In any event, as a Methodist theologian, I teach Methodists what I take to be a Methodist position.

Of course, Catholicism and Methodism aren't your only influences. Your work is also marked by Anabaptism. How can a theologian consistently have his thought shaped by both Saint Augustine and Mennonites?

[Baptist theologian] Jim McClendon has told me, "You've got to remember that if Augustine were alive today he'd kill you and me." And that's probably right. He might have thought of us as proto-Donatists. But my attention to different theological sources has to do with my belief that part of the theologian's task is to constantly hold himself accountable to past voices in the Christian tradition, and—even in disagreement—to honor those voices in a manner that we can make the most constructive use possible of them.

My attention to Augustine has partly aimed to suggest that we Anabaptists are not fleeing from what good rule means. Remember that for Augustine what's crucial in good government is the true worship of God. Without the true worship of God, justice is not possible. And without justice you don't have true government. On Augustinian grounds, Christians serve the wider social order by providing exemplification of truthful and thus just worship of God. I read Aquinas similarly. And Aquinas, next to Barth, is the theologian that I go back to time and time again for instruction and help.

What about subcultural Protestant evangelicalism? What does that movement have to offer the rest of the church?

Energy. The evangelicals have great energy and I have a great respect for energy. I think, for example, of the work that InterVarsity Fellowship does on campuses. These are people who ask other people not just to come to church but to be Christians. That's absolutely wonderful, because most Christians don't know how to ask other people to be Christians anymore. The problem with IVCF and other evangelical movements is that they've got the New Testament now. There's not enough appreciation of the Christian tradition in between the New Testament and today to give evangelicals the resources either to diagnose the enemies within or to know how to resist. The evangelical movement generally tends to be too pietistic for me.

How would you define "pietistic"?

Pietism confuses personal experience with ecclesial formation.

On some level or another, it appears that many evangelicals may be yearning for richer ecclesial formation. As you may know, students at a number of evangelical Protestant schools have over the past couple of decades gotten increasingly interested in Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, and more recently in Eastern Orthodoxy. But these developments have dismayed a number of evangelical theologians and other leaders. How much do you think evangelicals should care if their children embrace Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy?

I think they ought to rejoice. Then their children have the best possible of all worlds and the parents did good. Look, there's no way that evangelical life is sustainable within a liberal economy. And so their children are just figuring out now where you have to go to survive. Evangelical parents ought to be happy about that.

Why is evangelical life not sustainable in a liberal economy?

There's no way it will be able to resist, for example, the church-growth movement. Churches in the church-growth movement may last ten years, but I don't think they'll last a century. Evangelicalism cannot help but be susceptible to a market economy to try to attract people on the grounds that "we have what you've been looking for." Traditional Christianity says, "Outside Christ and the church, you don't have the slightest idea what you're looking for. That's why you need us to reshape you and your desires." It's not by accident that the most effective church-growth movements have come out of evangelicalism. It's not by accident either that Amway is a movement of Calvinist evangelicialism. Amway is Calvinistic revivalism put to use to sell soap, and it works very well in the short run. But it will be very hard for evangelicals to last beyond two or three generations of their original formations.

We've been talking about what I've called "subcultural evangelicalism"—North American conservative Protestants very concerned to use the term evangelical to identify themselves. But Robert Jenson, Carl Braaten, and others—including yourself—talk about catholic evangelicals and are concerned that the Reformation churches, at least originally, wanted to reform Catholic Christianity rather than to permanently break away from it or create an ongoing alternative to it. Do you think there's hope for recovering a vital, institutionally embodied catholic evangelicalism or evangelical catholicism?

I'd stake my life on it.

What would be your short dictionary definition of evangelical catholicism?

It's sacramental Christianity committed to witness to the world for the conversion of others who do not share that worship.

Okay, here's a scenario. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Christians decide Hauerwas has it right. Puffs of white smoke escape from the top of Duke Chapel and Stanley Hauerwas is named pope. Then the people say, "Tell us how to be and do church in this time and place." What would Pope Stanley's first encyclical say?

I don't know how to answer, but let me say that it is an extraordinarily important question. Because I realized some years ago, and it was a realization I did not want, that it is not enough simply to try to do theology. You must also try to help the church imagine what it would be like if your theology is true.

One of the first things we would need is a damn good prayer book.

We have to start giving examples of the kinds of ways we have to learn to pray as Christians today, where it doesn't appear that our praying is something we stop life to do, and then we go ahead and do what we were going to do anyway. How our lives become prayer is absolutely crucial for institutionalizing this kind of Christianity. What our church government would look like would be another important matter.

What I don't want to do is encourage any notion that we have to think it up on our own. I think we've got most of what we need. We just have to know how to manage that which already lies like gold before us, but that we can't see it at the moment.

You can see that I have difficulty answering your question, but the question is just right. One commentator has articulated my objectives better than I could:

I want the Catholics to be more Anabaptist, the Anabaptists to be more Catholic, and the Protestants to be both.

Rodney Clapp is the author of A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (InterVarsity).

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