Saturday, February 21, 2015

Word Magazine # 34: Book Review: Stanley Hauerwas' Memoir

Note:  I posted Word Magazine # 34 today.  This episode is a review of Stanley Hauerwas' memoir, Hannah's Child:  A Theologian's Memoir (Eerdman, 2010).  Below are my notes for this episode which can also be read here.

Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child:  A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010):  288 pp.

SH was the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University in Durham, NC.  He wrote this memoir (he is keen to point out that it is not an autobiography, because it is not strictly chronological account of his life) in 2010 when he was age 70.  He has since retired from Duke but continues to teach and speak.  SH is one of the best known modern American academic theologians.  In 2001 Time Magazine named him the “best theologian in America” (and that was back when people were still reading the print version of Time!).

SH’s memoir is compelling on a personal level, particularly as he describes a very difficult first marriage that he had to a woman named Anne who suffered from mental illness.  It also provides some interesting insights into what it’s like to be a mainline Protestant theologian in this generation.

First:  A sketch of Hauerwas’ life as presented in his memoir:

SH was born and raised in Pleasant Mound, Texas and was deeply involved from childhood in the Pleasant Mound Methodist Church where his parents were both active members.  He was an only child.  The memoir’s title refers to the fact that SH’s mother told him later in his life that before he was born she had made a pact with God that if she was given a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord’s service.  SH seems to have had a rather difficult relationship with his mother who was an incessant talker and was needy for attention.  He has much admiration, on the other hand, for this father who was a quiet man who worked as a brick-layer craftsman and who taught his son, to some degree, this skill.  It was from this experience that SH said he learned, in particular, a strong work ethic.  This is how he produced so much academic writing. He worked hard.

SH somewhat provocatively states that he was never saved while at Pleasant Mound UMC (that is, he never responded to an evangelistic altar call).  But he did as a teen commit himself to full-time Christian service.  He went to a small Christian school, Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas where he was influenced by a Duke grad named John Score.  It was while in college that SH became more aware of his blue-collar background.  He was the first in his family to go to college.  He obviously had some strong academic and intellectual abilities and was encouraged to go to Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT.

In 1962 at age 22 he went to Yale still not really sure he was a Christian and without having been part of a church during his college days.  H. Richard Niebuhr and Roland Bainton had just retired but the school had a number of distinguished liberal and mainline Protestant scholars under whose influence SH came. These included:  George Lindbeck (though he never had a course with him), Hans Frei (with whom he took Christology), Brevard Childs and Walter Zimmerli (OT), Paul Meyer (NT), James Gustafson (ethics),  etc.  Intellectually, SH came under the influence, through their writings, of the great Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth and the existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard.   There is no mention of his contact with classical or Reformed theology.  He was surprised to learn that Divinity students had to do some practical ministry and he worked in a local church teaching Sunday School—though still not sure he could call himself a Christian!

At the end of his first semester he married Anne Harley, whom he had met in college.  Soon after having their first and only son, Adam, in 1968 according to SH, he sadly began to notice increasingly erratic behavior from Anne—particularly expressed in rage and frustration with him—which was a harbinger of severe mental and emotional problems that were to come.

After completing his master’s degree, he went on to work on his doctoral degree also at Yale working under Gustafson in theological ethics, completing his dissertation which was published in 1975 as Character and the Christian Life.

After graduate school in 1969 SH began his teaching career at a small Lutheran College named Augustana in Rock Island, Illinois.  Though he enjoyed teaching, he ran into some problems in faculty meetings, by exhibiting what he admits was a cocky and brass style,  exhibited in particular by criticizing the school for not hiring minority faculty members. He was told that his teaching contract would not be renewed.

He was, however, offered a position at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Though it was a Roman Catholic school its religious department was progressive hiring Protestants and even a Jewish professor.  SH would be at Notre Dame for 14 years, and it was here that his academic career would really begin to blossom.   He began to write and to publish, including in the field of medical ethics, especially on issues related to the mentally handicapped.  It was while at Notre Dame that SH came into contact with the eccentric Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder  who taught at nearby Goshen College and then eventually alongside SH at Notre Dame itself.  SH will list JHY as the theologian who most influences his thinking.  In particular, he embraces a pacifist position with regard to war and violence.

It is while at Notre Dame that the troubles at home become intense.  Anne experiences her first psychotic break, is committed for a short time to a psych ward, and is placed on lithium.

The crisis at home sends SH looking for a church.  He regularly attends and participates in mass at a Roman Catholic chapel at Notre Dame and is surprised to learn—despite the fact that he has a divinity degree and is a theology professor—that non-Catholics are not welcomed to take the Eucharist in a Catholic service.  He eventually becomes involved, with Adam (Anne does not attend with them and is intensely antagonistic toward religion), at the small, Broadway Methodist Church in South Bend, where the divorced pastor does at least instilled in SH some sense of churchmanship.

Changes eventually come to Notre Dame with a new Department Chairman, Richard McBrien, who, though he is a progressive Catholic, wants the department to be more conscientiously Catholic.  This rubs SH the wrong way and he begins looking for an exit.  He finds one in a prestigious appointment to the divinity school at Duke University in Durham, NC in 1983.

Duke by historic connections is a Methodist church, so SH was poised to become one of the leading Methodist theologians.  He came to Duke about the same time as Will Willimon came to be the University chaplain.  The two of them collaborated on several books including one called Resident Aliens (1989) which made a particular splash among mainline Protestants by redefining the role of the mainline church in society in light of their more marginalized position and loss of influence.  Some of his fellow liberal theologians, like his former mentor Gustafson, as well as Jeffrey Stout of Princeton and others, accused him of becoming a sectarian and “tribalist.”

Soon after the move to Durham, Anne had yet another very severe breakdown and had to be hospitalized.  As his academic and professional career rose his personal life crumbled.  Soon after his son left for college, Anne left him and drove back to South Bend where she pursued one of SH’s former colleagues with whom she fantasized she had a relationship (which was non-existent in reality).  SH got a legal separation agreement from Anne.  When he later gets a call from Anne’s brother reporting that Anne has tried to commit suicide by stabbing herself in the chest with a knife, he answers, “I am not coming” (p.  203).   He eventually divorced her, though he says he insisted that he pay her a generous alimony.

Before the divorce and even before the separation agreement, SH begins dating Paula Gilbert the Director of Admissions at the Divinity School, more than ten years his junior,  and an ordained Methodist minister.  Here is a line penned by SH after describing his first date with Paula which you would only read in the memoir of a liberal theologian:  “Of course, I was still officially married.  I realized that dating Paula might offend some people in the divinity school” (p. 202).

Sometime after their divorce, Anne would die of congestive heart failure, isolated and alone in her late 50s in her apartment in South Bend.  In the meantime, SH had married Paula Gilbert in 1989 and begun a new life.  SH was increasingly in demand as an author and speaker, particularly in mainline, liberal Protestant circles, though he was known for his critiques and criticisms of liberal mainline church life (along the lines of Resident Aliens).  He was invited to give various prestigious lectureships many of which became books, including the 2001 Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on natural theology which became his book With the Grain of the Universe.

There were also times for academic politics with the change of deans at Duke and for SH’s interesting role in aiding in the disciplinary process for his intellectual mentor JHY after Yoder was accused of inappropriate actions toward a number of women.  He and Paula became part of the struggling Aldersgate Methodist church in Durham and stuck with it till a young woman minister and Duke Divinity grad tied to introduce Willow Creek innovations to help the church grow.  As of 2010 SH and his wife were part of a liturgical Episcopalian church.

Second, some theological and ethical reflections:

1.  What is the significance of SH?

As he comes to the sunset of his life and career, SH is still highly respected in academic and liberal Protestant and Roman Catholic church circles for his views on narrative and pastoral theology, pacifism, etc.

If you listen to any of the SH material on or read the memoir you get the sense that he rather enjoys the position of being a sort of unconventional theologian.  He likes being radical. He likes, for example, throwing out some foul language to “shock” his audience, or saying something that might offend mainline liberals.

SH has not been what we might call a systematic theologian.  He did not write a magnum opus like Calvin’s Institutes or a systematic theology that will be read for centuries to come.

From a conservative, fundamentalist (traditional) Christian perspective, the main problem is that SH seems little interested in building his theology on the exegetical study of Scripture.  He jokes that he did not really read much of the Bible until he started teaching some basic Bible courses at Augustana, though he does speak as well of a growing appreciation for the Bible and preaching later in his life.  There is little discussion of Biblical interpretation to establish pacifism (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 13, etc.) or in trying to weigh his responsibilities to his wife (Genesis 2; Matthew 19; 1 Corinthians 7).

This is also seen in SH’s ecclesiology.  He is literally all over the map:  Methodist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Mennonite, and Episcopalian.  He thinks of this wide “ecumenism” positively, but it might also be interpreted as a lack of firm understanding and commitment to the beliefs and practices represented by each of those traditions, many of which are mutually exclusive.  Surely a theologian, for example, should be able to articulate the wide differences between Protestants and Catholics.

SH’s theology seems to be nearly completely disengaged from confessional Christianity (though I suspect he would affirm the ecumenical creeds).  This leads to contradictions.  He is a Barthian and a Methodist!  He is a paedobaptist and an Anabaptist!

This lack of traditional definitions, also leads him to be unwilling to essentially identify what it means to be a Christian.  After noting that he did not consider himself a Christian even while a divinity student, by the time he becomes a theology professor he begins to think of himself as a Christian theologian and, in particular, as a theologian of the church.  But, again, he never defines what it means to be a Christian.  Is it baptism?  Is it church membership?  Is it regeneration, repentance and faith?  SH is dismissive of those who stress the creedal and confessional aspects of Christianity but he never offers a clear alternative.  He lacks boundaries and clarity.

With regard to his preferences for worship, SH likes to describe himself as a “high church Mennonite” meaning, I think, that he likes liturgical worship and the simplicity of the Anabaptists.  He speaks of the value of a word and sacrament ministry.  As the memoir indicates toward the end of his life and career he did come to appreciate “going to church” and, in particular, watching his wife “celebrate” the Eucharist.  Again, he can offer no authoritative reasons for this that go beyond personal preferences.  There is no Regulative Principle to guide his thought and, thus, no sense that Scripture, might forbid, for example, women serving as elders and leading in public worship.

2.  What about SH’s ethics?

This is SH’s memoir and he stresses several times it is his telling of his story.  The central issue in the memoir is SH’s experience of being married to Anne.  This is the touchstone of the memoir.  We never, of course, get to hear from Anne.  SH has very little positive to say about her.

I do not mean to stand in judgment on him.  The Lord alone is the Judge of all the earth.  I would not address this if he had not addressed it publicly. I certainly would not want all my thoughts and actions brought under public scrutiny.

Hauerwas’ description of his marriage to Anne and his divorce from her, nonetheless, is obviously the part of his memoir which is most troubling.
When he discusses his divorce from her he does not mention Biblical justification for this move (and he might have marshaled some:  desertion, adultery).  His decision seems to be based in his personal feelings and experience.  This is justified because she did these irrational and mean things to me and my son.  I have heard SH in lectures be dismissive of “situation ethics” but his discussion of his divorce from his wife can only be described as utilitarian.  He did what was best for him.  He went to counseling.  If SH is influenced by the Anabaptists, I wonder what his take is on their views of marriage, divorce, and remarriage (in thinkers like John Coblenz). Even JHY’s wife stuck by him when he committed adultery.

As a pastor I sometimes have to give counsel to husbands who have to live with difficult wives (and wives who have to live with difficult husbands).  I am doing marriage counseling right now with a young couple.  One of the questions I usually ask the man:  “Let’s suppose that a year from now, your wife is in a terrible accident and she will be paralyzed for the rest of her life.  She will be completely dependent upon you for everything.  She will not be able to do all the things she had been able to do with and for you previously as a wife.  What will you do?  Will you remain faithful to her?”  The answer I am looking for from him is, “I will remain committed to her as my wife till death parts us.”  I think I might alter that question now to ask, “What if five years into your marriage your wife has a psychotic break.  She is abusive toward you, curses you out, and cannot function in a healthy way as your companion and help-meet.  What do you do?”

In the end I think there are some things we can learn from SH and his personal story.  We can admire his work ethic and his ability to make friends.  But we can also see some warnings in his story—warning about where the road leads when there is a lack of confessional and ecclesiological boundaries.


No comments: