Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir
There are many ways for someone to tell her or his life’s story, and at least as many ways of hearing the story that is told. Stanley Hauerwas’s recounting of his life, like the man himself, is intriguing, in no small part because he recognizes the disagreements in meaning and method, together with the potential for self-deception, that attend such a project. He states at the outset that he wants to avoid smothering the significance of his life with a heavy blanket of narrated events. He therefore does not set out to write an autobiography but a memoir, which he understands to be an attempt to discover the nonsequential connections that render that life intelligible. The events that are narrated are thus construed as stages en route to a decisive self-recognition.
It comes as no surprise that Hauerwas locates the intelligibility of his life in his friends, and especially in God. “Indeed,” he exclaims, “trying to figure out how I ended up being Stanley Hauerwas requires that I say how God figures into the story, and this is a frightening prospect” (xi). Those who hear echoes of Erich Auerbach—who described the figural interpretation of Scripture as establishing connections between events that were linked neither temporally nor causally, but were tied to divine providence—are justified in doing so. Hauerwas allows that he is too well trained to accept at face value heartfelt testimonies about what God had done in this or that aspect of someone’s life, but nonetheless believes that God has made his life possible. The trick is: how do you testify to that belief without making more of your life than is warranted?
Though he states that it is not his intention to write an account that simply recounts one event after another, Hauerwas does for the most part lay material out in temporal order, beginning with his birth and childhood in Texas, or more precisely, with the prayer of his mother for a son like that offered by Hannah in the Old Testament. Born and raised in Pleasant Grove, Texas, his working-class parents taught him how to work, to work hard, and to like the work that he did. Destined by his mother’s prayer to be dedicated to God’s service, he assumed from his Methodist upbringing that meant he would be a preacher, which he interpreted to mean that he ought to read books, and thus he headed to college at Southwestern University and then to divinity and graduate school at Yale.
It would be impossible to mention all the threads that make up the rich tapestry that is Stanley Hauerwas, but there are several that stand out: the bricklayer’s son who becomes a theologian who becomes a Christian (more on this in a moment); the incredible number of friendships (and a few adversaries); the determinative roles that friends and family play in the formation of his self-identity (as Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, we never more than the co-authors of our personal stories); the Methodist who is raised in a Baptist ethos, educated at Yale, theologically formed at Notre Dame by a number of Catholic scholars and Mennonite John Howard Yoder, who rises to national prominence at Duke University (where, in one of the greatest ironies in the history of Christian thought, he is named America’s best theologian); invited to give the prestigious Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh; and finally, a man who cares deeply for the church, but must describe himself as ecclesially homeless.
As Hauerwas constantly reminds us, our lives are shaped by the friends we have. One of the beautiful features of this work is the way he shows us something of the many and varied ways our friends make us who we are. A review such as this could not even begin to catalog, much less describe in any detail, these relationships. I shall note, however, both the generosity with which he ascribes to his friends their gifts to him, and the bluntness with which he narrates those relationships that, shall we say, have been less than amicable. Above all there are the complex and arduous relationships with his first wife Anne (who suffered from bipolar disorder) and their son Adam, and then his subsequent and much more joyful marriage to Paula Gilbert. For those who have suffered through the mental illness of a family member or close friend, this aspect of the memoir is both compelling and extremely difficult to read.
Hauerwas weaves these threads, together with many others, around a set of theological descriptions that constitute the connections between what might otherwise be described as random events and encounters, resulting in an intelligible narrative. This is not accidental, for as he has repeatedly stated throughout his career, the work of describing the world and human action theologically is the primary task of the church. In one particularly instructive point in the book, he says that he has been given the work of trying to imagine what it means to be Christian (not a Christian) in a world that Christians do not control, a work which has as its sole instrument the crafting of words. That theology is a craft, and that it that takes years of training to learn this craft, are lessons he says he learned from working with his father laying bricks.
It would be a mistake, however, to read this book primarily as an introduction to his theology, though he does not shy away from working at “the job” (a phrase from his brick-laying youth that continues to shape his habits as a theologian) in its pages. And if anyone is hoping that by writing a memoir, Hauerwas would discover in his “personal experience” an independent source for reflection, he or she will be disappointed, for he remains consistent with his “Barthian” approach to the work of theology.
Perhaps the most surprising disclosure in the book is found in two observations about the way his self-perception has changed. The first comes at the beginning of chapter five, where he states that though Yale had trained him to be a theologian, it was only after he went to Notre Dame that he began the process that made him a Christian. The other comes near the end of the book, where he confesses that, “I have not always written about God,” but that he is less hesitant to do so now; indeed, sermons and prayers occupy much of his time and energy now. These reflections are reminiscent of comments that Dietrich Bonhoeffer made in a letter to a friend in 1936. Bonhoeffer wrote that something happened that changed and transformed his life, that prior to that time he had often preached and seen a great deal of the church, but he had “not yet become a Christian.”1 I mention this not to draw comparisons between Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer as theologians, but instead to note what can happen, or perhaps I should say, what should happen if one takes the church’s teaching and friendships seriously.
Things became very serious as Hauerwas was thrust into the public eye in ways he had not anticipated by the events of September 11, 2001. It took 60 years of training by good books and good friends, he writes, to know how to resist the apocalyptic description of that day that prevail to this day, namely, that the world has forever been changed by these attacks. He insists that the apocalyptic event that determined how Christians view all others, including those of September 11, occurred in the year 33 A.D. He rejects the presumption that the “we” in the phrase “we are at war” could be the Christian “we,” but also laments what that conviction cost him, particularly the strain it placed on longtime friendships with Robert Wilken and Jean Bethke Elshtain.
Near the conclusion to the book, Hauerwas recounts a meeting in the Provost’s office at Duke, the purpose of which was to address the concerns of some of his faculty colleagues, primarily from the sciences and social sciences, about the hire of a well-known “postmodern” scholar in the humanities. They began the meeting by describing their different areas of study. One of the last to speak, Hauerwas confessed that the others might not consider him a proper academic because his was not an autonomous mind, but served the church that told him what to think about (for example, the Trinity). Though many would take that as a sad admission, he saw the matter very differently. His mother may well have robbed him of his autonomy so valued in our time by praying Hannah’s prayer, but if that was the case, then for that, he confesses, “I can only thank God.”