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Cover story
Paths to Peace

Even critics acknowledge his pervasive influence

Stanley Hauerwas has a knack for making friends and influencing people. Even his detractors recognize the Duke Divinity School professor’s enormous influence in theological circles.

“Stanley is easily the most provocative and prolific American Christian theologian writing today,” said Princeton religion scholar Jeffrey Stout, who is one of Hauerwas’ strongest critics.

By getting Christians to reflect on the virtues, Hauerwas made headway early in his career, Stout says. “It was a great idea, and it had a major impact on Christian theology,” he said.

However, said Stout, Hauerwas “began to spoil this good point by adding that our society is essentially lacking in virtue because of its commitment to liberalism. Hauerwas specializes in naughty sayings. One of his favorites is that freedom and justice are bad ideas for the church. He put this slogan into the subtitle of a book of his that sold like hotcakes to pastors and study groups. Maybe he just meant to get people thinking by saying something outrageous, but the actual effect of such rhetoric has been horrible. He is tempting his followers to ignore their obligations to the poor and other victims of injustice.”

Before Sept. 11, many U.S. Christians “ignored Hauerwas’ pacifism while appropriating the rest of his rhetoric,” Stout said, but that’s not so easy to do anymore.

“Since 9/11, it’s beginning to dawn on his audience that he’s saying something they don’t want to hear, which is one mark of prophecy, I suppose,” Stout said. “Saying amen to Hauerwas now requires more courage. But this doesn’t make his pacifism right. It is based on a very selective reading of the New Testament, it seems to me. Luckily, most of us can see, when we’re under direct threat of terrorist murder, that justice sometimes obliges us to resort to arms to protect the innocent.”

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, a monthly journal of religion, culture and politics, recently lost Hauerwas from his editorial board after the journal ran an editorial calling the war on terrorism a just war.

Neuhaus, who became a priest in the New York archdiocese 11 years ago, following his conversion from the Lutheran church, calls Hauerwas “a dear friend,” and says he tried to talk Hauerwas out of resigning from the board.

“His leaving the editorial board was entirely amicable, and I urged him not to, but understand why he did,” Neuhaus said. “Our essential disagreement is that for my friend Stan, pacifism is ... the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, and I think that’s not only not true, I think it is dangerously schismatic, and about that we have been arguing in a friendly manner I suppose going on 30 years.”

Still, Neuhaus says Hauerwas is “provocative, energetic and a very, very useful person to have on the theological scene.”

Duke Divinity School dean Gregory L. Jones, a former Hauerwas student, says Hauerwas is “an extraordinary hard worker who cares deeply for his students, for the craft of teaching and for the life of a community. His work and vision over the years has had a transformative impact on the field of Christian theology and ethics, especially in reclaiming the significance of character and the virtues, of Christian community and a Christian perspective on medicine.”

Known for speaking his mind, Hauerwas can ruffle some feathers. Jones says Hauerwas’ style “is to be provocative and clever, and that does sometimes go over the line, but he’s also someone who is remarkably welcoming of criticism and chastening. He recognizes when he makes mistakes and he’s willing to engage people who object to him in either substance or style.”

Another former Hauerwas student, Fr. Michael Baxter, a Notre Dame assistant professor of theology, said Hauerwas’ influence is best measured by the large numbers of his former students who have gone on to do important work of their own.

“A lot of us influenced by Hauerwas have then gone back and plumbed Catholic tradition and found things that were being ignored,” Baxter said. “What Hauerwas has done for a lot of Catholics is help us see those elements in our own tradition which brings out the theological features of the moral life.

“His influence is harder and harder to track, but that’s usually because his influence has become so pervasive.”

-- Patrick O’Neill

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002