Stanley Hauerwas, once at Kings once at Westminster

Londoners who are interested in these sort of things recently had the opportunity to hear Stanley Hauerwas in discussion with John Milbank at Kings College (listen to the event here). Then again a couple of days later Stanley could be found in what some might assume he thinks is the den of lions, at the Palace of Westminster where his audience was rather different, perhaps less academic and more practical (listen again here). This event was organized by Theos Think Tank. I went to both events and found them both stimulating.

Hauerwas was in the UK promoting his new book, Hannah’s Child: A Theologians Memoir, which he says was originally entitled ‘A Theological Memoir’. The key difference between the two titles being that the memoir was not about a time line of his life or even about the Stanley Hauerwas experience. Rather he says it is a memoir of how his theology has developed and why it has developed in the way it has.

The son of a bricklayer, he spoke movingly about how he has spent more time in rooms that his father would have built but never walked into. Though there are class differences between them, there are similarities between his father and Stanley’s profession. Bricklaying like theology is an art which has to be learned from a master. He also eloquently distinguished between the work of a laymen of his profession, which he says he is, and that of a practitioner, a pastor or vicar, the profession of his wife. The second being infinitely harder than the first.

At times it was obvious that he felt somewhat embarrassed about having written a memoir, as if anybody would be interested. Of memoirs he says “they are an exercise in narcissism and it turned out I was just narcissistic enough to do it.” He had a repertoire of gags like this which are at the same time self-defacing but also ‘self’ defusing. This tension also ran through both evenings as it became clear that he truly was on a book tour and more than happy to sign editions of his book. This gave me the distinct impression that while he seemed embarrassed at his celebrity, he also enjoyed it. At Kings it was not awkward. In Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster, it did seem slightly presumptuous, partly because I suppose most people in the room are rather like his wife, practitioners of theology (though in a political arena) rather than the theoreticians crowded into the rather larger assembly room at the University. Perhaps I am being mean, but the audiences where different and not all where his fans.

Hauerwas has been accused, and I think rather unfairly, that his particular view of theology in the public square is tribal and counter cultural (or rather against political engagement) in a way that some might see as retreating from the political arena. Rather his life’s mission as a “post-liberal,” is to encourage the liberal church to be the Church. He calls on the non-fundamentalists to speak with conviction about who Jesus is and why that matters and not being embarrassed into a pseudo-Buddhism.

What then does it mean for the church to be the Church in the context of a liberal democracy? The communities prophetic role is to show a counter-culture to the world which stands in opposition to the use of power to control and coercion. Just as the Church under a Constantinian fusion between the church and state saw the pope abuse power to coerce faith, so also the state now coerces citizens to participation in evils, such as greed and perhaps more obviously warfare.

AZZARIYA, WEST BANK - MARCH 5:  A nurse hugs one child at Arba'at Batei Hahemla (Four Houses of Mercy) for mentally disabled, autistic and physically handicapped Palestinians and others who have no family or have been abandoned March 5, 2003 in Azzariya, West Bank. Arba'at Batei Hahemla was founded in 1940 by the late Palestinian philanthropist Catherine Siksek. It is one place in the occupied territories where dozens of Palestinians and some of society's weakest members find care. Outside, there is war, destruction, poverty and humiliation, but inside it is a place of joy where none of the devastaton has been allowed to penetrate.  The doctors and nurses work grueling days for little pay and often spend four hours a day just to travel a few miles to get through Israeli checkpoints, but it never deters them.  (Photo by Ami Vitale/Getty Images)

The Churches role is to show an alternative. It is to show what the Kingdom of God looks like by being the Kingdom of God on earth. So when asked to give an example of the perfect church, Hauerwas points to L’Arch, which is a community in which people with learning difficulties live side by side people without learning difficulties, “sharing life in communities”  where “mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our journey together.” They “celebrate the unique value of every person and recognize our need of one another.” (see L’Arch UK website here.)

It is interesting that for somebody who is urging the church to be Church, and gives such a counter cultural selfless mode of existence as L’Arch, Haurwas said of himself that he is “not a natural Christian.” Clarifying that he has “learned to stand in awe of people [his wife was an example] for whom God is just there.” Indeed for him the practice of academic writing is interlinked with his faith. In his book he says: “Most people do not have to become a theologian to become a Christian but I probably did.”

One of the most interesting comments made on the first was emphasising the importance of Historiography, the discipline of Historians, which is the study of how History as an academic discipline has been done. In a sense he is talking about a historiography of theology in how God engages with his creation as a narrative, an account which is found within a “timeliness” of Gods actions in relationship with the Church. An extract from the book, part of which he repeated at both events, explain this:

My claim, so offensive to some, that the first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just, is a correlative of this theological metaphysics. The world simply cannot be narrated – the world cannot have a story – unless a people exist who make the world the world. That is an eschatological claim that presupposes we know there was a beginning only because we have seen the end … [C]reation names God’s continuing action, God’s unrelenting desire for us to want to be loved by that love manifest in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 29: German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the audience during the CSU (Christian Social Union) party convention at Messe Muenchen on October 29, 2010 in Munich, Germany. The CSU members meet for a two day convention to discuss about the reform of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr). (Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images)

At Westminster Hauerwas was asked during the Q&A about what he would say to the audience, many of whom where Christian Lobbyists, researchers and some MPs, what their role is as Christians working in the political arena. The question was particularly important to me because I do not see a massive problem between his emphasis and call for the church to be Church as a counter-culture and for Christians to be involved in a political system which is temporal (as long as that temporality is recognized). He did not say there was an inherent problem, but somehow it seemed like it was not something he had thought about deeply. “Don’t lie and don’t work for somebody who lie’s” was his advice.

He has strong and negative views on patriotism, nationalism and what is commonly called civil religion, exemplified perhaps best in America in the flag, the pledge of allegiance, the worship of the industrial-Military complex, and perhaps the fanfare around the election of politicians. But it did seem like he did not think working at Westminster meant that one participated in the idolatry of worshipping the nation.

He swore a lot more at the first event than he did at the second. He is well known for his course language, though why he only “damned” something in Westminster, while calling other things “bullshit” and also “damning” other things at Kings intrigued me. Did he feel less comfortable with the second audience?

There is much  to learn from Time Magazines Americas best theologian. Along with some remarkable men and women, Hauerwas was asked to give the Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh. He has also been a Professor at two renown universities in America and written many important book. I am looking forward to reading his theological memoir.

I am thankfull to the two people who made these events happen. They have been formative in my own theo-political development over the last couple of years. The first was organized by Dr. Luke Bretherton, Senior Lecturer in Theology and Politics at Kings, under the guise of the Faith and Public Policy Forum. The second event was organized by Theos, whose Director Paul Woolley asked the most pertinent question of the second evening described above, and one which I hope to explore in more detail in the future.

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