This morning I made the mistake of opening Hannah’s Child, the memoir of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, and I lost much of my day reading it. Hauerwas engagingly writes about studying at Yale Divinity School in its heyday (he arrived one year after H. Richard Niebuhr died) and teaching in the theology department at Notre Dame when it began to tack in a decidedly liberal direction. He describes his relationship with the introverted John Howard Yoder (and his odd case of inappropriately touching women), the mental illness of his first wife, and his satisfaction and struggles at Duke.
Hauerwas claims he has throttled his legendary profanity, which he picked up tending masons as a boy. He said swearing profusely helped him stay in touch with his roots and bring the “language of the job” into church and school. Mainly, he enjoyed how “speaking this way upset the pious” (p. 28). This seems like a weak excuse, and Hauerwas seems to know it. I tended masons every summer during college, so I understand the “language of the job,” but I’ve never swore in my life (I have other sins, but profanity isn’t one of them).
Hauerwas doesn’t hold back much, and I did wince a few times, such as when the married man implied that if his situation had been different a female friend could have been more than that. I also wonder how a committed pacifist could publicly disparage his dean (words hurt too) and how someone so opposed to theological liberalism could condone homosexual relationships (though he won’t use the term “marriage”).
I thought these two paragraphs, in which Hauerwas describes his encounter with theological liberalism at Yale, are instructive to many of our conversations today:
“The presumption of many scholars at the time was that the task of theology was to make the language of the faith amenable to standards set by the world. This could be done by subtraction: ‘Of course you do not have to believe X or Y’; or, by translation, ‘When we say X or Y we really mean…’ I was simply not interested in that project. From my perspective, if the language was not true, then you ought to give it up. I thought the crucial question was not whether Christianity could be made amenable to the world, but could the world be made amenable to what Christians believe? I had not come to the study of theology to play around.
I am not sure why I thought like this, but I suspect it had something to do with being a bricklayer. I simply did not believe in ‘cutting corners.’ I was attracted to Barth because he never cut any of the corners. He never tried to ‘explain.’ Rather, he tried to show how the language works by showing how the language works. There is a ‘no bullshit’ quality to Barth’s thought that appealed to a bricklayer from Texas and that seemed to me the kind of straightforwardness Christian claims require” (p. 59).