Stanley Hauerwas, often described as America’s leading theologian, was promised to God from an early age: before birth, in fact.
His mother, who was having trouble conceiving, made a bargain with God: if he would give her a son, she’d give that son to him. ‘Which was perfectly appropriate,’ says Hauerwas now. ‘But did she have to tell me that when I was six?’
Raised in Texas, to a ‘hard-scrabble, dirt poor’ mother and a bricklayer father, Hauerwas was the first member of his family to go to college.
‘I became a theologian because I couldn’t get saved,’ he says the man described as ‘contemporary theology’s foremost intellectual provocateur'. Hauerwas was raised in an evangelist Methodist church, where ‘you were baptised Sunday morning and you had to be saved Sunday night’. As a 14-year-old, he wanted to get saved, but thought you shouldn’t fake it.
One day, he presented himself in church and said he wanted to dedicate his life to God, probably to become a minister. He went to college preparing to join the ministry. But while he was there, he fell in love with philosophy – and read books that challenged his view of the world, and of his faith.
He read a book that suggested the Bible wasn’t true, then another that suggested religion probably hid God as much as it revealed it.
‘I decided I wasn’t quite smart enough to be an atheist,’ he recalls. ‘Atheism is a very demanding position. So I decided to go to the seminary to investigate further whether this stuff was true.’
And so he went on to Yale Divinity school – and never did become a minister. Currently Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University, he has written several books, including A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, which was selected as one of the 100 most important books on religion of the twentieth century.
In 2001, Hauerwas was named by Time magazine as ‘America’s Best Theologian’. And yet he is highly critical of America’s relationship with faith.
‘We can’t think of ourselves as first and foremost Americans, but first and foremost as Christians,’ he says. ‘For Americans, faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to their country.’
‘American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny.’
He thinks the US is a much more secular country than is popularly assumed; more secular than the UK. Church attendance may be higher in the US, but many Americans who attend church have doubts about the Christian orthodoxy. ‘They assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.’
He is especially critical of former president George W. Bush, an avowed Christian.
He says that Bush’s ‘personal relationship with Jesus doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Jesus’s teaching.’
Hauerwas is a pacifist, strongly opposed to the post-September 11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He believes that being a Christian and being a pacifist are the same thing. ‘I find it hard to understand how one can be a Christian without being a pacifist.’
‘I say I’m a pacifist because I’m a violent son of a bitch. I’m a Texan. I can feel it in every bone I’ve got … But by avowing it, I create expectations in others that hopefully will help me live faithfully to what I know is true but that I have no confidence in my ability to live at all.’
He suggests that the reason Bush declared war after September 11 (immediately after telling Americans to go shopping) was because the country was frightened. ‘Ironically, war makes us feel safe. The way to go in the face of 9/11 is to find someone to kill.’
He is especially disturbed by the moral implications of the technology that has enabled even combatants to disconnect themselves from the reality of these wars.
‘Young men and women can kill people around the world while sitting in comfortable chairs in underground bunkers in Colorado. At the end of the work day, they can go home and watch little league baseball. I find it hard to imagine what it means to live this way.’
In order to be authentic, Hauerwas believes that Christianity must take a stand.
‘If you ask one of the crucial theological questions – why was Jesus killed? – the answer isn’t because God wants us to love one another … That’s stupid. It’s not even interesting. Why did he get killed? Because he challenged the powers that be. The church is a political institution calling people to be an alternative to the world. That’s what the cross is about.’
Stanley Hauerwas will be giving a free lecture, ‘The Voice of Faith in the Conversations of Citizens’ in the Wheeler Centre’s Faith and Culture series, at 6pm on on Friday 15 June. Bookings are now open.
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