Lauren Winner, assistant professor of Christian spirituality and the author of the memoir Girl Meets God , interviewed Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics Stanley Hauerwas Aug. 18, 2010, about his most recent book, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir , for Divinity magazine. Hauerwas, 70, was named “America’s best theologian” by Time magazine in 2001, the same year he delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His book A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic was selected as one of the 100 most important books on religion of the 20th century.
Hannah’s Child represents your foray, as a writer, into memoir. Why did you decide to write a memoir now?
Hauerwas: Well, people had asked me to do something like this. Usually, younger students kind of wanted to know where I’d come from, and I had resisted that because, of course, it’s such an invitation of narcissism. But it turned out I’m just narcissistic enough to do it.
What did you learn from writing it?
Hauerwas: I think what I learned most from writing it is that I’m a writer. My writing has always been my way of becoming Christian, and I think this book is a further exercise in that.
You’re a writer and you’re also a reader. In Hannah’s Child, you write about reading fiction, and one of the writers you mention, one who compels you particularly, is John Updike.
Hauerwas: I think Updike helps us see the agony of the American middle class and the quiet desperation that lives so constituted often live out. He does that with such beautiful writing that it seems counter to the lies. I love the Rabbit books, and how he exposes emptiness that cannot be sustained. I take it that one of the problems of his reception is the high-culture folk in America just will not forgive him for making the middle class interesting. But he certainly did that, and I just admire it. People love the beauty of his prose, but they don’t like, necessarily, the subject.
I was very compelled by your description, in the preface to Hannah’s Child , of God as there for your wife, Paula, and there for your priest, Timothy Kimbrough, and there for your friend Sam Wells in a way that God is not there for you. That is a sentiment that resonates very deeply with me, but I imagine for some people it is discomforting or startling or confusing. I was thinking about when that book by Mother Teresa was published a few years ago; people were very unsettled by her revealing that she hadn’t felt any closeness to God for decades and decades.
Hauerwas: I think some people are naturally open to the reception of God’s presence in the way that others are not, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. I think that it can be [good], but to be naturally anything can [cause one to forgo] the training necessary to make that which is immediate a habit. I think Paula, Timothy, and Sam have all undergone the kind of training that makes it habit, but I think that one of God’s gifts to some of us is...that we have to undergo the kind of discipline necessary to have what others seem to have effortlessly.
If you think of someone who’s very good, just naturally good, at a sport—that can be a great disadvantage just to the extent that they don’t ever have to submit themselves to the disciplines necessary to making the sport sustainable for a lifetime.
How do Paula’s and Timothy’s immediate relationships with God function in your life? Are their relationships with God icons for you?
Hauerwas: Once I was talking with Timothy, and he was describing how he “fell in love with God by being a seminarian.” I thought how lovely it is that he can use the language of falling in love with God without embarrassment. I need that. I need people to say that they fell in love with God. I think Paula is in love with God. It’s never something that’s come easy for me to be in love with God. That very way of putting it makes it sound like, “Oh, then you ought to try to be in love with God.” How do you try to be in love with anything? It comes, oftentimes, slow and unnoticed, and that’s all right.
Your father’s bricklaying tools, are they there in your office?