In 2001, TIME magazine named Stanley Hauerwas “the best theologian in America.” Hauerwas found the designation absurd, he said, responding that “‘best’ is not a theological category.” But there it was, he was thus named, and he was famous.
Hauerwas’ memoir, Hannah’s Child, which I recently enjoyed, seems an attempt to come to terms with that particular “Stanley Hauerwas.” He puts “the great man”in his place, as it were, by thoroughly reminding us of his unlikely qualifications as low class Southerner and hardworking bricklayer’s son (where he learned the earthy language he only reluctantly dropped many years into his theological career — “I hated the hyprocrisy that niceness cloaks”), and of his impatience yet slowness at knowing “how to be a Christian.”
“I live most of my life as if God does not exist,” he confesses. (Something most of us probably will have to confess as well.)
“[B]y writing I learn to believe,” Hauerwas also says, early on in the book. One feels that he is doing that with the topic of his life as well, picking his way as truthfully as he can, reaching some understanding as he goes about who he is and who he has been.
About his writing (which is prolific) — Hauerwas says, similarly,
My writing is exploratory because I have no idea what I believe until I force myself to say it. For me, writing turns out to be my way of believing. (136)
And another time,
Writing is hard and difficult work because to write is to think. I do not have an idea and then find a way to express it. The expression is the idea. (235)
This awareness of what he’s up to in writing seems a figure of one of Hauerwas’ key contributions as theologian: the expression is the belief. His work, he says, “was to demonstrate the link between the truth of what we say we believe and the shape of the lives we live.” He doesn’t consider “belief” of much value detached from what we do.
For a while, as I read, I jotted down every time I came across a phrase something like “I had no idea” or “I am not sure” or “it never occurred to me” or “I did not understand.” They are frequent, and one might get the impression from them that Hauerwas bumbled through life, knowing very little of anything. Not true, but they do express his sense of being an outsider, of life’s surprises, and of his debt to others for that which he’s been able to learn and teach. He expresses his gratitude easily — for his friends, his son Adam, his second wife Paula. His first marriage, to a woman who was mentally ill, was difficult, and there have been other conflicts along the way. Some of these wounds still seem raw, at least judging by how he nurses them in these pages.
One looks to life writing, however, not for perfection, but for honesty and grace. And there’s plenty of both evident here. I found myself challenged by Hauerwas’ life, and was fascinated by how he works at describing what it means to be him.
What it meant first off, as his mother with her “white-trash energy” informed him, was to be the answer to her prayers. She had married late and like the biblical Hannah, she was desperate for a child. Mrs. Hauerwas prayed a prayer like Hannah’s and was also given a son. He wasn’t thrilled to be told, as a youngster, that he was “destined to be one of God’s dedicated.” It was fine for her to pray the prayer but did she have to tell him about it?
Along the way, of course, being him meant a lot more than that, but in the end, Hauerwas comes back to his mother’s prayer, and himself as its answer.
However, I am quite sure, strange servant of God though I may be, that whatever it means to be Stanley Hauerwas is the result of that prayer. Moreover, given the way I have learned to think, that is the way it should be.