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?
Hauerwas: They are.
What’s it like to walk into that academic tower every day and see the contrast between those tools and your own tools, all those books? And did your mother have tools? Do you have her tools, too, there in your office?
Hauerwas: Nope. My mom wrote a poem about when my father died, and I have that framed with his tools. But I don’t have my mother’s tools, which would be her gardening tools—insofar as they were tools. My mother really didn’t have tools. She had her voice and she talked constantly, and I suppose that’s still there. As for my father’s tools, I have quite a number of them at home, but I just thought it would be good to put the level and the trowel and the brick hammers in my office to remind me of the extraordinary hard work that constituted his life, and of how fortunate I was to have that kind of exemplar, always reminding me that I’m a very fortunate guy to be able to spend my life in books and in interaction with students. At the end of the day when I go home, I’ve still got something left. When you lay brick, you oftentimes don’t have anything left.
You write a lot about Anne, your first wife, in this book. When I teach memoir writing, the question comes up immediately, how do you write about other people? Writing students always say, kind of jokingly, “Well, I’ll just wait until my family is dead to publish it.” But I find the burden of writing about the dead to be much heavier; at least the living can say, “You didn’t get it right.” Anne can’t talk back.
Hauerwas: People say it must have been very emotional to write about Anne, and I say “No.” I was determined to try to write in a manner that did not turn her into a foil. I wanted to write honestly in a way that helped the reader understand the pain she was in, as well as the pain that we were all in. I didn’t find the writing of it emotionally difficult. Oftentimes, if I’m presenting and I read some of it, I get emotional and that’s perfectly, I suppose, intelligible that it would work that way. Just this Sunday, some of the people at Holy Family had read Hannah’s Child, and they wanted me to do a session on it. I was reading the part about when Anne had left me and gone back to Indiana and tried to commit suicide. I refused to go there, and then the next day when I went in with John Westerhoff and said, “She’s absolutely alone,” John said, “No, God’s with her”—and I teared up at that. I don’t know whether I felt emotional or not, but I certainly teared up. Part of the craft of writing kept a certain kind of emotion at bay, but that can come back in the reading of it.
Were there any memoirs or autobiographies that were models for you as you were writing? I know you’re a fan of Carlos Eire’s memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana.
Hauerwas: Eire’s book is unique in that it’s magical realism, and it’s just beautifully done. That was the appropriate genre for a Cuban, but that wasn’t the appropriate genre for...
Hauerwas: A Texan. Exactly. [Laughter]. So how to write straightforwardly and simply about the complexity of our lives was part of the challenge. Looking back, I’d read quite a number of memoirs and autobiography. How to make the distinction between autobiography and memoir is not easily done.
I wanted to ask you about that. I draw a distinction that your book has confounded. When I teach memoir writing, I say autobiographies are the first-person narrative nonfiction account by a famous person where the narrator and the subject and the plot are all the same; whereas in a memoir, to borrow Vivian Gornick’s formulation, the writer is the narrator but not the plot. A memoir uses first-person nonfiction narration to say something about something else. Hannah’s Child has confounded my tidy little distinction. I think many people are reading it as they read autobiography. That is, many people are reading it because they want to know about “Stanley Hauerwas,” but I think it’s more than that.
Hauerwas: I hope it is. The subtitle was originally “A Theological Memoir” because I think there is really serious theology being done in the book, and that’s not necessarily when I’m talking about how I think.
There is certainly theology in the book. You write that you yourself are frightened by the Christianity you have articulated over the course of your career. What is it that you find frightening about the Christianity you have sketched?
Hauerwas: What I find compelling and yet at the same time frightening is that our life is at stake. I find frightening the recognition that this is what Christianity is about: it is a matter of life and death, because it’s about truth. I also find that the commitment to non-violence involves, as I often say, the possibility that you will have to watch the innocent suffer for your convictions. It’s very frightening to think that you may have to do that.
To be honest, Stanley, I don’t think the book is about theology. Arguably, it’s about friendship—how, among other things, friendship sustains people. What is friendship? How do you know who your friends are?
Hauerwas: You can always go back to Aristotle’s distinction between friendships of use, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of character. Most friendships are friendships of use and friendships of pleasure, and when use and pleasure are over, you’re no longer friends. So one of the questions is how to maintain contact with one another across time, even when you’re not in the presence of one another. I think that has so much to do with simply sharing common acts of significance, such as knowing that your life is constituted by the worship of God and, therefore, you are able, even when you’ve been apart for some time, to pick up the conversation in a way that it just comes completely naturally. One of the problems about friendship in our world is it’s so fragile. We think the only way to sustain it is to make sure it’s always the same and we are always the same, and that won’t work, because even if you try to stay the same, everything around you is changing, so the same will be different. So if friendship is to be a story you’re able to tell across time about your relationship between yourself and others, you need a larger narrative in which those stories take place.
Speaking of friends, in First Things, your friend the ethicist Gil Meilaender published an interesting response to Hannah’s Child. Meilaender’s point was that you need to take things more seriously—acknowledge how seriously you take love, and also, he wrote, take the bond between citizens more seriously.
Hauerwas: I got a call from Time magazine yesterday about the building of the mosque [at Ground Zero], and I said, “What I don’t get is this claim about the World Trade Center geography being sacred. I don’t want to be unfeeling, because I understand a murder occurred there, and there’s an appropriate pathos about it, but God is holy—not people dying under murderous conditions.” I just don’t get it, and I don’t get that religious people don’t have a sense of distancing from that language of sacredness. You know?
Well, if you think the victims were martyrs ...
Hauerwas: And, of course, that’s just sheer projection. They were victims.
I wondered if you had any response to Meilaender’s argument that your own life narrative, your love of Paula, contradicts and indeed overshadows much of what you’ve written elsewhere about love, what you’ve taught about love.
Hauerwas: I thought he was wrong about that—about my narrative suggesting that love is more central for me than I’ve made explicit. I don’t think that’s right. I think indeed that I say some very good things about love, and about how the love that moves the sun and the stars makes it possible for us to be in love with God and one another.