Stanley Hauerwas: Love, Suffering, and Theology (Full Interview)
Stanley Hauerwas discusses his theological and personal perspectives on love, suffering, forgiveness, grief, the theological method, and following Christ.
Stanley, thanks so much for joining me today.
It’s good to be here.
I’m excited to talk about your work with you and your perspectives now, so many decades into your work of theology. Maybe we could start. You’re technically retired.
I don’t, I can’t, I’ve been retired three years and I can’t the hang of it.
Evan: You can’t get the hang of it.
No, I still get up. What you notice, first of all, is you don’t get a paycheck. [Evan laughs] But then you still have the everyday demands. I go in to my office every day. I was appointed as senior research scholar. That means I get to keep my office. So, I go in every day. My wife and I come from the lower middle classes and we learned early on that what you do is work, and I’ve always worked so I continue to work.
Evan: It’s hard to break old habits.
Very hard to break old habits.
In your current perspective, retired, but hard to break old habits, what’s important to you? What gets you out of bed to do the work of theology that you’re called to do?
A few years ago, I was in a seminar with some folks about my work. I said, “One of the things that I’ve discovered, “as a Christian, is you have something to do.” I mean, how wonderful to have something to do.
So many people don’t have anything to do. They work but it doesn’t seem to have much point. I mean, what a wonderful thing that you’ve been pulled into God’s world to be a witness to Christ and to flourish in the friendships that that makes over time and you have something to do. Another way to say that is I have something to say. I’m not, I’ve never been an academic, per se, so I write for people who are obligated to read me. They’re called Christians. [both laughing] And I hope it is of some–
You have a right to be read.
Yeah. I hope it is of some use. Every day, I get up and I know I have something to do.
What is that something that you want to say? What is the message that you feel, at this stage in your life, is the most pressing message?
How odd of God to choose the Jews. What I try to do is to help Christians recover how odd it is that we’re Christians and to challenge the accommodated character of so much of contemporary Christianity in the world in which we find ourselves.
I think it is what I’ve been given to do. And so, I’m in the constant business of trying to help us rediscover what an extraordinary adventure we’ve been put on by being pulled into God’s kingdom in a way that will be very surprising to many people who think that Christianity makes them good middle-class citizens of the United States of America.
Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth shall make you odd.”
Odd, right. No, I love that quote.
Let’s talk about some of your own life experience. You came from lower middle class.
It was working class.
Yeah. I was raised a bricklayer. My father took me out on the job when I was seven and I labored until I was, I guess, 15 or 16 until I started learning to lay brick. My father was a craftsman and when you’re in the crafts, you must learn all the subsidiary skills to moving up to being a bricklayer, so I labored for many years.
That labor, that early life, do you characterize it as just neutral labor or was there an element of suffering in it?
No, it was hard work. I mean, one, at that time, of course, we were a segregated society. African Americans labored, white men laid brick. So, for many years, I labored with African Americans. When you are engaged in unbelievably hard work, it creates a bond that is really quite remarkable. And so, there was no suffering in it.
I mean, your body was filled with pain, [laughing] I can assure you, but it was a, there was a joy to hard work. It finally gets to you. My father, laying brick all of his life, I mean, it just destroys your body. By the time I was in my 20s and I was still working, I mean, I would have to help him out to the truck every day at the end of the day ’cause it just kills your back.
Did any of that early labor help to shape your theological perspectives?
It helped shape my habits that made the theological work possible. I always thought that the formation of habits to develop the skills necessary to know how to lay brick are not unlike the formation of the kinds of habits necessary to write a good sentence.
What kind of habits ought a theologian to have?
First and foremost, humility. To recognize that you’ve been given a task to say what you can say of God with the kind of care that reflects the fact that we know God primarily by what God is not. So, it takes humility not to say too much. And then the sheer joy of being given that task for the people of God in a way that testifies to the glory of God.
Back to some of your autobiography. Later in your life, when you were married, you had a 20-year marriage to Anne.
And you characterize this in your book “Hannah’s Child” as an experience of grief and suffering. I wonder if you would describe, looking back now, what has that taught you?
First of all, we were young. In a young marriage, you don’t notice much. It was only, I guess we’d been married over 10 years when she first started manifesting bipolar symptoms. To learn to live with someone that’s seriously mentally ill turns you into an existentialist because you never know what the next five minutes is going to bring. We had a son. It was very hard for him.
I mean, how do you, a six-year-old has to tell his mother, “No, you’re not the Holy Spirit and I’m not the Son of God “even though you may have heard that message on the radio.” It’s a very hard negotiation for a young person to have to deal with a seriously ill parent because mental illness is a black hole. You have no idea what’s going on.
So, what that time, I think, for me, indicated and gave me was a sense of how important it was that I be Adam’s parent, mother and father. It created a deep bond between myself and my son, which I’m always deeply grateful for. What you have to remember when someone is mentally ill is they’re in pain. They’re perpetrating such pain on you, you have trouble remembering they’re in pain. But I tried to do that and to be as, to be as helpful as you can be. But the more you try to make things better, things only get worse. At least, that was true for me. Every person that’s mentally ill is different but her anger was volcanic. That’s what finally killed me. Just absorbing the anger.
You describe it as a black hole, like a darkness. To extend the metaphor a bit, what understanding can there be for people who are faced with the suffering of disability and mental illness? What understanding can be had?
Well, your temptation is to say, “Just get a hold. “Just will your way out of this.” They can’t will their way out. They can’t get a hold. They’re possessed. So, the best you can do is try to be present. I mean, I don’t wanna go into the details but since she was constantly in love with other people, she finally just left. I was exhausted and I just let her go. I just couldn’t sustain anymore. I had to let her go because I realized as long as she blamed me for her condition, there was no way she was gonna get better.
I mean, she had to discover that she had to take responsibility, for taking her meds, for example. But, you know, I mean, the lithium will do something for a while but they miss their highs and then they’re off it, and it’s just a terror. And it’s a terror for them, not just for those around them.
Of course, yeah. Were there words? There’s this Thomas Merton reference in a letter to someone where he just points out, sometimes, there just are no words for suffering or grief. But then, if that’s the case, what is lament? What is it to lament? How did you deal with that?
I wrote a book some years ago called “Naming the Silences.” Eerdmans thought that the title, after its first publication, was too obscure so they renamed it “God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering.” But it’s “Naming the Silences.” Silences drip off the edges of words. I think that, oftentimes, what we… We’re too noisy around people who are suffering by trying to make things okay. What they absolutely need is presence. They need us to be there. Job’s friends have such a bad rap, generally.
Evan: [chuckling] Yeah, they get a pretty bad rap.
But originally, they saw Job from afar and they went and sat silently with him for days. I think that is a sign of goodness.
Evan: It’s when they started talking, that’s when they get in trouble.
It’s when they start talking when things go bad. So, there is a sense that to be with the suffering is, first and foremost, to be with them, just to be present. I mean, you think about how, oftentimes, we mislead people.
For example, when you’ve gone into a home where a young person has died and you try to provide comfort and you come up with locutions like, “I guess they’ve gone to a better place.” That’s just terrible. First of all, heaven is not a place. God is not a place. But it’s to try to say something when what you ought to say is, “You and the person you love will be in my prayers.” You don’t need to say more than that.
Have you been comforted by particular words? That is to say, is there wisdom for the sufferer? Can the sufferer follow a path or a way that can offer them hope, clarity, a way forward to move on?
I’m sure there is but it’s not just the words, it’s who says them. It’s very important that the designated person of a community called the priest or the minister know what to say. It’s very important that friends know how to be there as well as not to say too much.
There’s this sense of wanting to avoid suffering, deal with it, by casting it out of our lives and we exert some kind of control to become more comfortable and to avoid it entirely that often means marginalizing or shifting scenes of suffering off to the sidelines, turning a blind eye. I wonder if you could comment on our social practices of ignoring injustice, ignoring suffering for the sake of our own complacency and comfort.
Well, I think suffering has become an anomaly in America that, we assume, always legitimates trying to get rid of it. That turns out to be a formula for death and killing. People, if you take, for example, the use of amniocentesis to discover if a child is Down Syndrome or not, people assume if the child is Down Syndrome, you ought to abort the child in order to spare the child suffering.
Look, if that is the reason that you think a Down Syndrome child should be aborted, you would abort any child because life is going to be filled with suffering. We are finite creatures that suffer illness, death, and one another. So, I think the general justification that is done in the name of compassion to stop people from undergoing suffering is a very dangerous development in America. It puts the medical establishment in a real crisis, because most of the time, most of what we endure, that you suffer, you’re not gonna get much better. What physicians do is teach you how to go on in the face of suffering. It’s very interesting.
I mean, as an old guy, think about how, increasingly, people are beginning to think of aging as an illness that you want to do something about, to overcome. Well, that’s extraordinarily dangerous. I say in a hundred years, if Christians are people identified as those who do not kill their children or their elderly, we will have been doing something right.
chuckling: I mean, that’s a big deal.
Because I think, in the name of compassion, we’re living in a social order that will increasingly not know what to do with those born dying.
Right. Here’s a quote. “A social order bent on producing wealth “as an end in and of itself “cannot avoid the creation of a people “whose souls are superficial “and whose daily life is captured by sentimentalities. “They will ask questions like, ‘Why does a good God “‘let bad things happen to good people?'”
Right. I always wonder, “How could that question have been asked by a Jew?” I mean, have you read the Psalms? [laughing]
Evan: Filled with lament.
I mean, the Psalms are absolutely: I kept the law, it’s my delight, my friends have betrayed me, my enemies mock me, my life is absolute shambles, but you are God. [laughing] [Evan chuckles] But you are God. And that means everything, that you are God. So, the idea that, somehow or the other, our lives are meant to be free of suffering just doesn’t make much sense.
And, of course, one of the things that people are very hesitant to do is talk about the relationship between sin and suffering, and that we are embedded in sinful practices and hardly notice it. It’s certainly an occasion of a great deal of our suffering and, as you suggested earlier, that the kinds of injustice we perpetrate on one another that create suffering is, of course, just horrendous and that needs to be unnamed. I think one of the…
One of the great challenges before America is how do you acknowledge what was done was so wrong, there’s nothing you can do to make it right? I’m speaking of slavery. The African American community in America represents the history of a suffering that cannot be made right, but it must be acknowledged as what we as a people must come to terms in a manner that says, I mean, what we’re trying to do is say, “Oh, African Americans can move to the suburbs, “have two cars, three TVs, and worry about Jews moving in, “so what was a little slavery between friends?” It wasn’t that serious. It was that serious.
And so, how to come to terms with that as a social order, I think, remains a deep challenge. And then you combine that with the genocide against the Native American and the kind of suffering that they’ve had to undergo. I mean, those are acknowledgements that have to be made part of your common story.
Mm-hmm, these things can’t be repaired.
Can’t be repaired.
So, in the process of acknowledging, what vices stand in the way and what can we do to get closer to a starting point for understanding that reparation or repair
I think vices
that stand in the way is lack of candid speech. I think that Americans are people who do not know, do not want to know truth in its deep, straightforward form. And how the lies grip us is an ongoing challenge that, I think, leads us in… leaves us with a politics which is often quite horrendous.
How has your understanding of suffering contributed to your perspectives on love? I’d like to talk about your theology and ethics related to love.
Well, love, when I first began, now 50 years ago, the central text that was having great influence was Joseph Fletcher, situation ethics, in which the fundamental message was Christianity is fundamentally a religion of love, which means that you ought to do the greatest good for the greatest number. So, Jesus kind of becomes the symbol of love, but–
But in service of a utilitarian ethic.
Yeah, right. And I wrote a piece called “Love’s Not All You Need” years ago, and what–
A shot at the Beatles.
Did I go after the Beatles? [Evan chuckling] Right, I guess. I don’t think I did, I liked the Beatles.
They say love is all you need.
Love is all you need, right. I pointed out that if you think love is all you need, what you fail to have is the kind of discriminating judgments you need in order to know what it is you should not do.
Love, separate from the Christological home in which we know what love means, love means cross, is a very dangerous, generalized recommendation for how you live your life because you don’t know what love is. I’ve always liked Iris Murdoch’s suggestion, love is the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other. Now, when people say “I love you” in marriages, they usually mean you fit my personality fairly well. [both laugh]
In you, I see myself.
Right. So, how to apprehend the other as the other and the pain that the other will cause you to recognize their otherness is a large challenge. So, if you want to talk about love, I think that you need to be very careful not to let the sentimentalities that are so present around love overwhelm it. One of my graduate students married a few years ago and she chose 1 Corinthians 13.
Right. I’d preached many marriages but I’d never had one choose 1 Corinthians 13. The first line of my sermon was, “Christians are obligated to love one another “even if they’re married.” [both laugh] Which is a way of reminding us that love does not create marriage, but marriage creates love. So, after 25 years of marriage, a couple is able to look back over the faithfulness that their marriage engendered and call it love.
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, there’s a lot there. I wanna go back to the connection, or really the replacement of the cross by a love-centered ethic. “The command to love that the Christian has an interest in “cannot be separated from he who commands it.” Is it right that you’re suggesting that an ethics of love, a Christian ethic that is founded on love, is replacing the cross?
Yes, I think that’s right. I think it did, particularly with the Fletcher’s kind of admonitions, but I think it’s still very much the case where people say, “When it’s all said and done, “what’s really important is we love one another.” No, you got to love one another rightly. [chuckles] In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares to his disciples, “I call you my friends. “Now, you can love one another. “You should rightly love one another.”
Well, remember, to be a friend of Jesus didn’t turn out very well for most of the disciples. How exactly that love, which moves the sun and the stars, Dante’s quote, the love that moves the sun and the stars is the love that sustains the disciples through the challenge of dying rather than betraying their Lord is the kind of love that is rightly seen at the center of the Christian life. Love is rightly understood to be the very substance of the relation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Right, so you’re talking about love in its triune context.
Right, right. That God is love because what love means is that we didn’t have to be. I mean, God didn’t have to create, but we are as a manifestation of God’s unrelenting desire to have us be his friends.
How do you hold these things together? God is love, as you just said, but you’ve also pointed out, from our perspective, God is the enemy we most fear. How do you experience God’s love? What is its connection to our fear of him?
Well… We have to remember that we are to love our enemy. The first enemy for most of us is God, because we want God on our terms, only God created us on God’s terms. It’s like, if someone gives you a gift, it was a gift you hadn’t anticipated getting but it’s such a good gift, you don’t wanna give it back, what’s the first thing you want do in return? You want to give them something back. Why do you wanna give them something back?
Because you understand gift-giving and gift-receiving is a power relationship and if you don’t give them something back, they may later ask you for a favor you don’t want to do and you’ll have to do it because they gave you this great gift. [Evan chuckles] Now, we are gift. I mean, it’s not like we exist and we receive a gift from God. Our very existence is gift. Is it any wonder we hate God? I mean, we fear God. Part of what it means to undergo the discipline of being a Christian is to learn to love God with appropriate fear. The transformation of God from enemy to God as the one we love is part of the great challenge of living a Christian life.
Absolutely. Here’s another quote. And this one, again, pitting love and hate against each other. “I prefer to cherish wrongs done to me.” A provocative phrase. “My sense of who I am is more determined “by what I’m against rather than what I’m for. “I’ll pray that God can have my loves but not take my hates. “If you take my hates, how will I know who I am?”
Right. Yeah, I like that.
laughing: You wrote it.
laughs: I’m glad I wrote it. I think that it is true that we’re more determined by what we’re against than what we’re for. How to have that transformed into having lives of what we’re for rather than what we’re against remains an ongoing challenge. Where would I be if I didn’t have the Church to criticize? [both laughing] But I love the Church. I mean, it’s made me what I am.
As you look out at a society that is finding itself in its hate, what is your message to that society?
Try some courage. What we’re currently experiencing is the continuing outworking of September the 11th. America is the strongest country in the world that runs on fear. The politics that we currently are experiencing is the politics of fear. You gravitate toward those that seem strong and promise you safety, and that’s very dangerous. The name for it is called fascism. Wow, that’s probably a too-extreme description. It is nonetheless not absent from the American psyche.
When you compare American politics to Christian politics, where do we start?
We start by Christians telling one another the truth and to sustain our lives in communities in which we know that death is always a possibility. How baptism should shape the Christian community to be a people who know that death is real is absolutely one of the resources that makes Christians a polity that is quite distinctive from the general American polity.
There’s an anxiety that America will cease to be a Christian nation.
I hope so. [laughs] I hope so. The idea that we are a Christian nation is an extraordinarily destructive one.
Well, one, it assumes we know what we mean when we say democracy, and Christianity and democracy are seen as wedded at the hip. That means that Christians in America can go kill other people in other parts of the world because they’re not democrats. I think how we can convince Christians in America that, just something very basic, we have, as Christians, we have a problem with war. Let’s start there. Christians have a problem with war. I mean, I’m a pacifist but I’m ready to take just warriors on and say, “You think you’ve got a problem with war. “Where did Christians get the idea “that it was just okay to be in the armies?”
You point out, and this brings us a little bit back to love as well, Christianity is a political religion. The ministry of Jesus can be considered as a politics of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus wasn’t accepted. If Christianity was all about love, you say, then why was Jesus rejected?
Right, it’s like… Before he got nailed to the cross, he should have said, “I think there’s been a failure in communication.” [laughs] How can you kill someone that’s just saying we ought to love one another? Rome knew what it was doing.
That it was subversive.
And it was subversive. Because… render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God, Caesar wants it all, God has it all. It is, therefore… Jesus is a politic and it is a politic of the formation of a people who live by non‑resistant love across time by establishing ways of surviving in a violent world by being non‑violent, which is a very dangerous way to be
but that’s a politics.
It is, yeah.
And it is one that I’ve tried to help us recover over the last 50 years.
What can be said about our obsession with safety?
Well, what can be said is we’re human beings and we fear death and we don’t wanna die.
Are we just managing our anxiety around death then?
A lot. I think a lot, we do. We are a society that rarely acknowledges death before it happens. I was raised in the culture of open-casket funerals in which you went by a casket and said, “Don’t they look good?” [both laughing] “It’s like they’re not dead.” So, there, even within the funeral practice itself, is a kind of denial. Christianity is ongoing training in dying early. Every politic, one way or the other, is a politic that deals with death.
Confrontation is a big theme in your work, this idea of candid speech and speaking against. When it comes to confrontation, how can we be loving in our confrontation?
Well, I don’t want to kill the people I’m against [laughs] That’s one. I mean, I don’t know that I love them but I’m not trying to kill them. Though I sometimes am tempted. Tomorrow night, I’m gonna talk about Matthew 18 where Jesus says, “If you think your brother or sister “has sinned against you, you are to confront them.”
He doesn’t say you might consider confronting them. He says you confront them. Now, you think, “Gee, on the whole, “I’d prefer to get along by going along,” but conflict is at the very heart of being a truthful community through which we are confronted by and we confront our brother and sister, which we think has done wrong, in a way that hopefully will bring reconciliation. If it doesn’t, they are to be treated as a tax collector outside the community. Now, I think, therefore, conflict and peaceableness are necessary allies.
Yeah, because you only become peaceable to the extent your community is willing to speak truthfully to one another in a way that false presuppositions do not determine our lives which oftentimes break out in terrible violence later on.
The current election cycle is, perhaps, a good example of just this kind of need for confrontation and peaceableness to be coming together.
One would hope so, but the politics we’re currently experiencing is the politic of the lie that is extremely frightening.
What do you mean by the politic of the lie?
Well, I think, primarily of the kind of simplifications that are part of the speech habits of the current Republican primary candidate.
Simplifications, sloganizing, bumper-sticker ethics.
Right. It’s amazing, it’s amazing.
It produces a background noise or a hiss of anxiety and fear. Are these fears substantiated?
No. I mean, they seem to be substantiated by the rise of militant Islam and so on. But I think much… much of the fears that people have in our society are exaggerated. But I want to be careful about that because I think there is…
The class structure of American society means that there are people that experience violence every day in a way that those of us in the middle and upper middle classes do not see, don’t even know happens. It becomes very incumbent upon us to rightly understand that there are people in our society that negotiate a violent world every day that we don’t know is there.
We’ve encountered terrorism in just over the last six months where the media has presented to us instances of terrible violence and we’ve rightly responded with empathy or sympathy and the feeling of solidarity. But for all the things that are shown to us in the media, there’s untold numbers of unseen violence.
Right. You take Ferguson. I thought Ferguson was a very signal moment and that the violence of the everyday police function there was clearly out of control. You have to be very sympathetic with the people that discovered that black lives matter.
What do you say to those whose everyday experience is an experience of violence? How do you present the Christian message of confrontation, peace?
It’s not for me to do it because I don’t have the position to do it. But you have to be–
And this is where the who and not just the what you say matters.
Right. You have to be extraordinarily impressed by African American pastors who say, “We’re not gonna let you “turn us into violent people,” and have the community absorb the violence in a way that refuses to pass it on.
So, there is a prophetic voice in vulnerability
and weakness. I wonder if you could tease out some of what you mean by that. What is it for the weak and the vulnerable and the oppressed to be a prophetic voice?
Of course, I think the paradigmatic form of that is you see in Jean Vanier’s L’Arche homes where those that are mentally disabled are claimed as friends in a manner that you have the building of an alternative community that has a gentleness that attracts in a way few other instances do.
This is a paradox. It’s to say that there’s power in weakness.
Well, I think you don’t become weak to be weak. Rather, the language I would prefer is you discover how to be gentle. And there’s a hardness to gentleness
It’s a hard edge.
that makes it possible to not be overwhelmed by the violence but your refusal to let the violence defeat our ability to be friends. Gentleness is, I think, crucial for friendship.
Can you say a little bit more about the kind of gentleness that you’re thinking? Is it embodied relationship? Jean Vanier speaks provocatively about the beauty that can be shown in that kind of friendship you described.
Well, Jean, Jean’s a tough guy. He’s not going to let anyone run over his friends. The gentleness that he is, I mean exudes, is a gentleness that is formed by those friendships in a way that will call into question those that would not have his friends exist. I’m often described as someone that’s prophetic. A full professor at a major research university by definition cannot be prophetic. [laughs] So, I tend to resist that a good bit.
The prophets were marginalized. These were people in the edges of society.
I’m too accepted. I never pretended to try to be a prophet or assumed that I have that mantle at all.
That said, what is the future of Christianity in America? Do we need a wake‑up call? What is your hope for American Christianity?
Well, I believe God is making us leaner and meaner. As we continue to lose members and the Church gets smaller, what I hope is we will discover unity between Christians that we haven’t experienced for many, many centuries. One of the things that I think may well be happening is we’re coming to the end of the Reformation, and how we recover the catholicity of the Church across denominations will be one of the challenges for us for the future.
Evan: So, you’re looking toward unity?
Do you think that candid speech, courage, confrontation, do you think that’s gonna lead to unity?
I think they’re absolute constituencies of any unity that we could possibly want.
Looking at your work, looking at your theology, looking at your ethics, not to separate those things, you think of them as part and parcel, but you do this work, it seems, from the bottom up. You observe narrative and story. You talk about the importance of the particulars in developing a broader theological perspective.
I’ve always tried to resist theology becoming written primarily for other theologians. I’ve tried to work in a manner that my primary audience are lay people like myself, ministers, and to show what I think are some of the serious intellectual challenges before the Church today. And that has meant I’ve tried at once to write some of what I do at a very high academic level. I don’t like the language of popularization.
I think the distinction between the academically serious and what’s popular is a false distinction because theological language is the language of the Church. Therefore, I try to write at a very fundamental level that makes contact with what I think every Christian struggles with.
In your memoir, you say you write to find out what you believe. And then by the end of that memoir, you say, “What a surprise, I’m a Christian.”
laughing: I’m a Christian, right. It is a big surprise to me. I’m not–
Why? Why is it a surprise?
Because I’m not, it doesn’t come natural to me. I’m very pleased that God has made friends make me a Christian. That’s given me a wonderful life.
Thank you so much for your time, Stanley.
Thank you, it’s been great.
It’s wonderful to be with you.
Good, thank you.