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High Profile

Mortar the Point

Interview by Luke Bretherton


The son of a bricklayer, in 2001 Professor Stanley Hauerwas was identified by Time as 'America's best theologian'. Third Way did some bonding with him at the Greenbelt Festival.

What does it mean to you to be a Texan?
To have an identity - and to have my life shaped by a story - I haven't chosen. Baylor University [in Waco] has on its shield the motto Pro Ecclesia, pro Texana. Isn't that wonderful? The only ontological entities that matter! I think that the church and Texas are the two realities that fundamentally determine my life.

People in Britain often associate Texas with the redneck right, but recently I've been reading a lot about the Southern Populists. There is a radical side to Texas, too.
Yeah. Texas was settled very much by Tennessee folks, just trying to survive on soil that doesn't grow much, and Southern Populism was our alternative to soc­­ial­ism. It could be quite radical in its economic implications and quite conservative in its social implications.

Could you be read as a Christian Populist, in that strict sense of the term?
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. There's a magazine called the Texas Observer that was in the Populist tradition and they were the radicals in Texas when I was in college. We all read it and it had a big influence on me.
My father would not have known any of the writings of Populism, but he certainly reflected that view.

You write very movingly about how as a boy you worked for your father as an apprentice alongside your brothers. Can you say a little about how their craft shaped your theological vision?
Well, when you're initiated into a craft you have to be­gin at the beginning and you have to learn all the subsidiary skills that go with being a labourer. For example, when you learn to chop mud - y'all call it 'mortar', we call it 'mud' - you have to have a sense of the brick that the bricklayer's going to lay, because if he's laying 'common brick', which is very porous, the mud needs to be 'loose' (or wet), because the brick is going to soak it up very quickly. If he's laying 'clinkers' (which are bricks taken from the bottom of the kiln, which are very hard), then the mud has to be stiff. So, the labourer needs to know what the bricklayer is going to confront. And there are numerous skills like that.
I think that theology is like that. It requires training and you have to submit to the authority of a master who has done it over and over again. The master must know how to constantly readjust his skills to new challenges, and that requires years of training.

My father was not only a master bricklayer, he was a master stonemason, and I can't tell you how hard it is to lay a stone wall and have it look right. I mean, if you set all the big stones together, or all the ones this colour, it looks like shit! It is really an art. So, just the submission to someone who knows how to do it, I think, is a nice analogy for what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be a Christian theologian.

And was that your experience of theological training?
I think it was - you know, you learn that you can only lay one brick at a time, and that is the way I do theology: one brick at a time. I'm not clear even what it would mean to ever be finished.

Bricklayers build houses, though…
They do, they do, and they're finished. We theologians are never finished.

You prefer to write essays rather than books and have consciously tried to avoid constructing a systematic theology -
Absolutely. I do, I do. Now, see -

- and yet you ended up (as it were) building a house despite your best intentions.

I did, I did. But I think that the house that I've ended up with needs a lot of work! And I have a lot of students that have picked up some things from me who are continuing to work on the house in quite creative ways that are going to change what it looks like. This year they gave me a Festschrift.[1] It was very moving, but 18 of my students wrote essays that are all very critical and, you know, I'm sympathetic to a lot of the criticisms.

One question is, well, how come someone so influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre [2] takes John Howard Yoder [3] so seriously? I think I've offered some answers to that but I don't assume they're the last word and I recognise that there is a tension that I hope will be fruitful…

You grew up a Methodist. How has Methodism left its stamp on you? Is it a demon you've had to wrestle with, or an angel on your shoulder?
It depends on what you mean by 'Methodism'. There was a movement within Methodism around the time I was coming through that was represented by my mentor at Southwestern [University], John Score, who ar­gued that Wesley was much more a Catholic theologian and that therefore to be a Methodist meant you were more Catholic than the Anglicans. And I was persuaded by much of that.

Of course, that understanding of Methodism has almost nothing to do with the reality of the Methodist Church! And so I've always thought of myself as more Wesleyan.


Considering some of your theological commitments, it's sometimes said that you should have become a Roman Catholic - to which you've always responded, 'I'd be a Catholic if there was a Catholic church to join.' Could you unpack that a little?
Well, first of all I would never call into question a person's individual calling to think that they need to be­come a Roman Catholic. I respect that. When Richard Neuhaus [4] was going to become a Roman Cath­olic, there was this lovely moment when [his fellow Lutheran] Robert Wilken was trying to talk him out of it and said, 'There are many rooms in our Father's house, Richard.' And Richard said, 'Yes, but some of them are better-furnished than others'!
Now, I think Roman Catholicism is a better-furnished room, and there are more resources there. In particular, I think its resistance to capitalism has been quite remarkable - and also it has probably been more resistant to nationalism than any of we Protestants have been able to. I think that has a lot to do with its ability to maintain patterns of authority that are not violent (though sometimes they are), which has depended on a sense that there is a tradition through which you think.

So, I'm a great admirer of much of Catholicism and I have deep sympathies with it, and I can see how people could easily be called into it; but I think it's a church matter.

Rather than a matter of 'You have to be in this church or you're not in the truth'?
That's right. And what it means for Christian unity is not for me to become a Roman Catholic but for us all, within the worlds in which we find ourselves, to try to be as faithful to the gospel as we can, and in the process hopefully we will be able to look up one of these days and say: 'We share a lot more than we differ. Can we as churches recognise one another?'

And part of our task, by remaining Protestant, is to help the Catholic church to be more catholic than we can be; and hopefully, as we do that, the Catholic church will recognise us as worthy brothers and sisters.

You have become an Anglican late in life. Some people may see that as a short step from Methodism (given that it was originally a movement to reform Anglicanism), but some have found it surprising, given your critique of Christendom and the established church. Can you say something about your journey?
Oh, I do think it's in great continuity with Methodism, and it has to do also, I think, with my formation through the hymns of Charles Wesley. Wesley wrote, I think, the greatest Eucharistic hymns in Christendom and sing­ing them certainly shaped me through my ear­ly years. I find those hymns best expressed through the liturgy of the Book of Com­mon Prayer, and therefore to be a Book-of-Com­mon-Prayer Anglican is my way of con­tin­uing to be a Meth­­odist.
But, let's face it, we're all Congreg­a­tionalists now! We may not like it, but we are. So, I could easily still be going to a Methodist church if there existed a Method­ist church in the area in which I live that was Euchar­ist­ically determined; but there's not, and so I'm an Epi­s­co­p­alian because of the Church of the Holy Family.

You know, I don't pretend… I mean, how can any of us make sense of our ecclesial status today?

Some of us just get stuck in the church we grew up in…
Right, right! I tell my students: You oughta stay with the people that harmed you!


'Conversations' with theological and philosophical friends have been important to your development - one thinks of Yoder and MacIntyre and others. What do you think makes for a really good theological conversation?
Not being afraid of being in disagreement with one an­other, so you learn from suddenly discovering that your friend thinks things that never occurred to you and you are not sure what to do with them! I think also working within recognisable reading regimes, so that you both are trying to negotiate how to read this book in relation­ship to that book. Reading together, I think, and being ready to learn from one another, is really important.

I think also that you need work to do together - for example, to write something together. Sometimes it can be quite difficult and painful, but it can also be extreme-­ly illuminating. If you consider together the challenges before the church today and you have a similar sense of what they are but maybe not of how to respond to them, that can be very fruitful.

How does such a conversation work in practice? No one would describe MacIntyre as an extrovert, and from your 'memoir', Hannah's Child, Yoder sounds interesting…
I'd say I've known two really big-brained people in my life, Alasdair and John, and they are both very similar. They're both shy and a bit introverted and can be quite brutal in their responses. I think that's part of the price of having such a big brain. But both Alasdair and John have - John had, Alasdair has - a wonderful sense of humour, and you can never forget they're human be­ings and therefore they value our friendship, although they may not always know how to express it. And so I'm determined not to let them intimidate me - though they do - because I think that they need friends, and I certainly need their friendship.

When I told John I was leaving Notre Dame [Uni­versity], we'd known one another 10, 15 years but I had no idea how he really regarded me. And he misted up. I was really taken aback. I realised that I meant a great deal to him, and I value that.

Some of your conversations have come to an abrupt end. What makes further dialogue impossible?
When the neoconservatives at First Things said that pac­ifists have nothing to say about ['the war on terror' and the war in Iraq], I just realised that these folks (who I have a great ad­miration for in many ways) had never bothered to really understand Yoder! And they weren't going to. I mean, they just need to read [his book The] Christian Witness to the State. And I just wasn't interested in continuing that conversation any more: their habits of mind were set and I had other fish to fry, so to speak.

Jean [Bethke Elshtain] [5] I admired and my relationship with her was much more personal in a way, and when Paul Griffiths and I wrote that really fairly sharp review [of her Just War against Terror] - I mean, I didn't mean to hurt her but we did, and I would hope that - I mean, we are very civil with one another. I just don't know that we have that much to say to one another.

You are well known as a pacifist, following Yoder. How do you feel about the continuing co-option by so many in the United States of Christian language - for example, of sacrifice - in the cause of the 'war on terror'?
I've got a book coming out called War and the American Difference: A Chris­tian alternative, and in it I say - you know, just war, pacifism, we've thought through them to death and either one would place a severe limit on war, but yet we continue to have war, particularly in America, and why is that? I think war is such a morally powerful practice, and in particular it is the practice of sacrifice; and Am­erica's a country that cannot live with­out sacrificing its youth periodically to show that we are worthy of the sacrifices of the youth in the past.

So, war is ritualistically required from time to time in order to renew America's moral capital. And one of the greatest sacrifices [required] is not simply the sacrifice of possibly losing your life or your friend but the sacrifice of your normal unwillingness to kill. And do­ing that and - even if you don't kill - envisioning kill­ing I think creates a silence around us that is very hard to know how to live with. And we expect those who have fought in war never to tell us about the reality of it. War must be turned into a heroic tale, rather than the truth that it is dumb boys killing dumb boys.

That Christians in America don't call into question the co-option of their language by civil religion I think is absolutely puzzling, just amazing. I was called up by Time about the arguments about the [so-called Ground Zero] mosque in New York City and I said, 'Why would anyone think that the World Trade Center site is sacred?' Where the hell did that language come from? I mean, God is holy and makes places holy. That was murder, and the people that were killed there were victims, they weren't martyrs!


You once said of Karl Barth that he would have been a better theologian if he had read more Trollope. Can you name some novels that you think are essential reading for a theological vision? And say why?
Well… Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky looked into the heart of the world that was [in the process of being born] and, I think, saw clearly how it made Christi­an­ity unintelligible to itself. And of course to look into the heart of that world was also just to look into the heart. He saw the terror.

(The novel is, of course, a recent development and it is the fundamental bourgeois art form - I suppose you could say the movies are more now. Once the church was no longer able to sustain a casuistical tradition, the novel becomes a kind of casuistical tradition in which we explore the possibilities of life as we now find it.)

Besides Dostoevsky, I think George Eliot's Middle­march is - I like Adam Bede better, but Middlemarch is clearly more ambitious and more probing. Of course, I think Trollope's just brilliant - the Palliser novels rath­er than Bar­chester Towers, I think.

Obviously, Joyce's Ulysses. Of course I learnt a hell of a lot from Iris Murdoch's novels, and in particular I like The Sea, the Sea. In America, I think John Updike is extraordinary for the exposure of our lives and… And of recent novelists I think you just have to read John Banville, because he, as far as I can tell, doesn't believe in anything and yet he writes damn good stories. How do you write a good story if you are a committed nihil­ist? So, I think Banville is certainly important.

One reading of a lot of contemporary US literature is that it is precisely when you stop believing in the gospel that you become obsessed with sex and death - Philip Roth being the obvious example.
Right. Right. I like Roth a lot.

But most of the novelists you have mentioned were thoroughly steeped in the gospel…
That's true. Eliot, even though she wasn't a Christian - my goodness! she knew well, and had an opinion on, the fundamental narrative of the gospel.

Do you think there are the same resources in cinema?
No. No. Cinema really is the great democratic art form, because it lets you see without requiring work.

When did you realise that you were an icon? And how do you handle being 'Stanley Hauerwas' when you write?
I only realised it, I suppose, in the last 10 years, maybe even less than that. I've just become a figure that people need that may have something to do with who I am but very accidentally. One of the reasons I wrote Han­nah's Child was exactly to demythologise that icon, because I want to remind people: I'm a human being and I'm just trying to muddle through! And I'm trying to help us each muddle through.

People want you to be wise and, you know, I'm a working-class kid, I don't want to disappoint people! But it is unrealistic to think that you're always going to be wise, because if you play that game you never learn and you have to be ready to learn… You know, that's a hard negotiation.

But I don't think I will ever be an icon the way that Reinhold Niebuhr [6] was - for two reasons. One, 'Hau­er­­was' is so hard to say compared with 'Nie­buhr'! And, two, his iconic status has everything to do with a still intact Protestantism, whereas our loss of a Prot­estant space and a sense that we can go to the State Dep­art­ment [as of right] I think means that whatever 'Hauerwas' may stand for cannot be sustained in the way the Nie­buhr­ian iconic status can.

I suppose another way to express the iconic thing is fame, and I have to say I find it unbelievably tiresome! You can say, 'Well, that's because you've got it,' but, you know, I'm happiest when I'm talking with someone like you or in a seminar with my graduate students or at home watching the [Atlanta] Braves with my wife, and I don't think I need it. I hope I don't, because I've decided to retire in three years and that feels damn good to me. I think what saves me from fame is friendship, and as long as I still have friends, that means a hell of a lot. So, that's the way I think about these matters.

What about when you're writing? Do you ever think, 'How will this affect how people perceive Stanley Hauerwas?', rather than just being true to yourself as a thinker and writer?
I think that when I'm writing (which is most of my life) I'm never sure I know what I am doing until I do it. But I've tried to maintain a high standard in everything I do. The temptation is to think, 'Oh, I can just dash this off because I'm Stanley Hauerwas,' but I've never giv­en in to that temptation - I hope I've never given in to it - because I think that every forward I write, every book review I write, every essay I write, every book I write, has to be the very best I can do.

It comes back to bricklaying.
It does. But also when you've got an unfinished position, you need to use each request to write this or that to force you to say what you think needs to be said that you haven't said by what you have said! And so I try to discover what I should think, given what I have thought, that I didn't know I thought. And that comes through writing, and it comes through exchanges - and that's why writing is always work.

But I worry now that there's so much Hauerwas out there. You know, you don't want to burden people. I'm not compelled to just get more out there, but I am compelled to continue to think, and the way that I think is by writing and so I just keep writing. What I really like to do now more than anything is to write sermons. I find it the most intellectually challenging activity that I do, because you need to keep it short and you need to submit to scripture - and I really like that.

The hard thing about writing sermons is, they require you to be both intelligible and succinct.

What are some of the writing vices of theologians?
The use of the subjunctive! And the use of the passive voice. You've got to use active verbs.

I think many theologians write in a way not to be understood.

Deliberately. I mean, obscurity is thought to be a sign of profundity. That's just bullshit. I think it's important to write directly and not to be afraid of assertion. This is proclamation.

What I find astounding in Niebuhr is the clarity and crispness of his thought, which is why people still read him. I think that is a lost art in theology today.
Who do you think I learnt it from? I mean, no one's read more Reinhold Niebuhr than I have. I've read the lot! It was from Reinhold Niebuhr that I learnt the necessity and importance of the aphorism. 'The church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic,' that kind of thing.

It's taken me a long time to realise that it takes an awful lot of thought -
It takes a hell of a lot of thought.

- and creativity to come up with them.
'The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.' That took a hell of a lot of work! Of course people say, 'Well, that's an oversimplification.' Yes, but…

But I think, as with Jesus' aphorisms, there's a difference between being simple and being simplistic.

What was it Niebuhr said? 'Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injus­tice makes democracy nec­essary.' [7] I think that is in­gen­ious. And wrong. But you've really got to apprec­iate its in­genuity!



1  A collection of original essays written by close colleagues, students or other admirers to honour an academic or other eminent person
2  Scottish philosopher and Catholic theologian best known for his 1981 book After Virtue
3  US Mennonite theologian, ethicist and biblical scholar best known for his 1972 book The Politics of Jesus. He died in 1997.
4  US theologian who began as a Lutheran who marched with Martin Luther King and ended as a Catholic who mentored George W Bush and helped to forge the evangelical-Catholic alliance that brought him to power. In 1990, he founded the ecumenical journal First Things, whose stated aim is 'to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society'. He died last year.
5  US political philosopher and Lutheran theologian
6  US theologian who was a key intellectual of the Cold War era
7  From The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944)

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