Do the Right Thing, Damn It

Works Project Administrative Bricklayer, courtesy of the WPA Archive

Works Project Administrative Bricklayer, courtesy of the WPA Archive

Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of divinity and law at Duke University, is perhaps the most influential Christian theologian in academia today. He is also really good at cussing. These facts could have something to do with one other.

Growing up in a working-class community in central Texas, Hauerwas did a stint as a bricklayer: the craft practiced by his father, and his grandfather before him. The knack for slinging a few choice words was an occupational requirement. “If an apprentice said, ‘Please hand me that trowel….'” he says, laughing. “It would have been a violation of what Aristotle called the ethos of the bricklayer.”

In a way, Hauerwas is still a bricklayer. Most of his books are collections of essays; no single master-work presents the elements of Hauerwasian thought in a rigorous and comprehensive structure. “I don’t do system,” he says. “I’m not interested in the sort of 19th century German notion that you should lay out your starting principles, so that everything else you have to say starts there. With my work, the parts do have a systematic interrelation. But the essays are a sort of conversation. That’s how the whole holds together.” And though he has published nearly two dozen volumes about ethics, narrative, and the postmodern condition, he still talks like a bricklayer too: “Being a Christian gives you something to do,” he says. “It means your life is not just one goddamned thing after another.”

Unlike, that is, the empty and formless individualism of secular modernity — whose adherents are damned to a Hell resembling a vast mall where big-screen monitors show bored shoppers military conflicts in far-off places. When Hauerwas criticizes consumer society or abortion, he sounds a bit like a televangelist. (His strong Texas accent certainly reinforces that impression.) But the theologian is also an outspoken pacifist who condemned the Gulf War and speaks out against capital punishment. Attempts to label Hauerwas’s “theological politics” according to the secular categories of “left” and “right” soon run into trouble. His thinking has influenced socialist philosopher and theologian Cornel West, who calls him a friend. But Hauerwas’s work has also been welcomed by the conservative religious journal First Things. The editor-in-chief John Neuhaus has praised Hauerwas’s “bracing mix of piquancy, outrageousness, erudition, and intellectual intensity in proposing that we get serious about being Christians.” Interest in his ideas also cuts across denominational divides — and has spawned a Hauerwas “industry” among academic theologians, who have devoted several books and numerous dissertations to his work.

No surprise, then, that a precise classification of this work is often hard to make. He is careful to separate himself from the field called “religious studies” — whose practitioners, he remarks, “are willing to study a religion as long as it’s dead, or they can kill it.” Nor does his work have anything in common with the perspective of philosophers or social scientists (or even some theologians) who treat Christianity as a set of personal beliefs. “That’s something I’m trying to get rid of,” he told me in the course of a long phone conversation. “My work is shaped by Aristotle and Wittgenstein. You have to understand religion as embodied in a set of practices, such that you live in a different world from those who don’t share that ethos.”


“So how is it you’re interested in all this?” Hauerwas had asked when I called to schedule an interview. One possible (though incomplete) answer might have come from stressing the immediate circumstance. After all, he had just published a couple of new books with scholarly presses. The Hauerwas Reader and With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology. Both books, the first as anthology, the second as a collection of lectures (the prestigious Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland), provide an overview of Hauermas’s development over three decades of theological conversation. And I had been reading them — because it is my job to write articles about new books from scholarly presses.

But why focus on his books, rather than any of several hundred others arriving each month? You don’t have to read Aristotle to know that there are several ways to plot stories of cause and effect.

“Well, I grew up as a fundamentalist,” I told him. “I lost my faith, but for some reason I’m interested in theology as a field.”

“Fundamentalism,” he said, “that’s really hard to get over. You’ve gotta be half-smart to be a fundamentalist. My people were just too poor to be half-smart. We knew the Bible was important, we just didn’t know why.”

I laughed, recognizing all the things between the lines of his remarks. The “half-smartness” required by fundamentalism involves holding clear and rigorous ideas about what scripture is, how you are supposed to understand it, and what all this means for your relationship to God. It’s an epistemology. And it makes for a false humility, disguised as prompt obedience to an authority that you are very certain you understand. Hauerwas’s claim that his folks were too simple to be quite that theoretical is a familiar version of the Southern discourse-genre known as “poor-mouthing.” Which I understand, because I’m also from a small town in Texas where the main street was paved with red bricks by the W.P.A. In a poor-mouthing mood, I could mention the big news that everybody talked about during my last visit home: There’s now a second stop-light. Shared ethos established, we set up an interview.


Hauerwas’s work in the field of Christian ethical theory has taken place at what he regards as a turning point in intellectual history. A few decades ago, most theological scholarship unfolded within a very specific academic context: namely, the seminary, where ethical questions were discussed as a matter of pastoral training. A shift had taken place by the early 1970s, when Hauerwas began publishing his earliest work. The field known as “religious ethics” attracted professors from outside the seminaries. As Hauerwas has noted, half jokingly, the scholarship done by religious ethicists tended to be influenced less by their faith than by where they went to graduate school.

But the greatest impact came from the unquestioned secularism of academic philosophy. Since the Enlightenment, ethical theory has sought to ground its account of human action in universal principles — implicitly treating the religious beliefs of the individual as an indifferent matter (a question of psychology or personal taste). The penchant of religious ethicists to argue in a manner resembling that of their secular colleagues in turn reflected a tendency already prominent in contemporary theology, especially liberal Protestantism: the effort to bridge the gap between religious believers and the modern world.

The Hauerwasian alternative has been to challenge the idea that ethical principles exist apart from the institutions and stories that shape our lives. The work of a Christian ethicist, as Hauerwas understands it, does not involve finding general principles for judging individual or social problems. Nor does it mean arguing in terms that a Buddhist or an agnostic would have to accept. If that happens, so much the better. But for Hauerwas, the ethical discourse of a Christian thinker is ultimately grounded in the basic duty of the believer: to serve as a witness to the world of the redemption of humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is a particular story with universal significance, insofar as Jesus charges his followers with the task of spreading this good news to the whole world. And yet (as Hauerwas repeatedly emphasizes) the message is radically distinct from the world: In calling the faithful to God, it calls them away from the secular order. The Christian is a “resident alien” within the empire. While obliged to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, the believer is actually a citizen of another dominion — and therefore subject to authority going beyond anything codified in the world’s law books.

This is where the church comes in. A distinctly Hauerwasian piece of jargon is the term “ecclesiology” — that part of theology concerned with the role, structure, and history of the church as an institution. To the jaded eye, a Christian congregation might look quite a bit like any other voluntary social organization. It answers some combination of social, economic, and psychological needs. And the individual worship-consumer is, of course, at liberty to shop around. Not so for Hauerwas, however. His work stresses the role of the church as a community that imposes a discipline on its members — without which it is impossible to transcend one’s worldly disposition.

No ecclesia, then, means no ethos. To claim the faith involves putting yourself in a community, so that the faith can make claims on you. “I want people to get past the idea that they understand Christianity because they went to Sunday school,” Hauerwas says, in what sounds like a habitual tone of good-natured belligerence. “You have to learn how to do it. You have to undergo an apprenticeship. Nobody really wants to love their neighbor as themselves. That’s just not natural. So you have to see other people living it to find out what it means.”

In other words, church is where you learn to walk the talk. Church is where big God narratives intersect little human narratives. This has complex and by no means rapid consequences for the shaping of character. Otherwise (privately “worshipping God in my own way,” as the lame idiom has it) you end up like Homer Simpson on a Sunday morning, snoozing on the couch, with one hand in a bag of chips and the other on the channel-changer.


The day of the interview, Hauerwas is at his office by six in the morning. Another bit of ethos shared between us: the product, ultimately, of a rural sensibility for which sleeping after the sun has risen would be shameful, perhaps even a kind of sin. While the structure of Hauerwasian argument would imply that his intellectual work is borne of a need to testify to the world about the Christ’s power to command the story of a believer’s life, there is undoubtedly another factor determining just how prolific he is. The guy works his ass off.

About a week after the interview, I sit down to write my article — which must, somehow, interest people who share exactly nothing of his beliefs. Readers who will never again encounter the word “ecclesiology” (much less have any personal history involving eschatology). This is not so easy. But, with a craftsman’s sense of the honor involved in constructing the required artifact, I do the best I can. It certainly helps that Hauerwas is a master of the punchy formulation. He even suggests grounds for why his work might be of interest to unchurched academics, sick of the constant evocation of “excellence” as the (undefined yet inescapable) core value of the corporate university.

“Theology,” he says, “can help us recognize the traditions that shape us, so that we learn to think of them as arguments that make serious claims on us, rather than just another set of options we might want to choose, or not choose. What would it mean to do political science as a Christian? I mean, to teach it from a perspective for which war is not understood as a normal mode of life. What would a Christian university actually look like? It wouldn’t just be a place where the students don’t screw.”

Nicely put. But it doesn’t exactly address my own situation. It is uncomfortable to find oneself neither believing nor not-believing, nor quite able to leave such matters alone. I had thought all this was behind me. Once you get to a certain age, all the Big Questions that intrigue adolescents don’t really intrigue any more. “Why am I here?” Well, you just are, so forget the why. “What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of the good?” You study a shelf or two of philosophy, and grow, not wise, but merely well-read. And this tends to induce one of the several kinds of arrogance that pass for sophistication.

Then perhaps (let’s assume this all hypothetical, okay?) there comes a day you look at the person you love most in the world and know — really know it, all of a sudden, with a rush of certainty — that each of you is going to die, and there’s just no getting around that. The world you have made together is durable but not eternal. Unless, of course, you believe in immortality, which really does seem like a long shot. Then again who knows? And what are you supposed to be doing in the meantime? What’s all this for? Why is there something, rather than nothing? Matters of ultimate concern. Looking up the answer in the Great Books of the Western World is not a live option.

Hauerwas is appealing because he doesn’t pretend that (as Alfred North Whitehead put it) “religion is what a man does with his solitude.” When you are a teenager, of course, solitude is the issue. Accepting the Lord or losing your faith, either way, it’s a matter of self-definition, experienced as a matter of profound decision. Give it a couple of decades, however, and you are part of a community, trying to do the right thing, often with consequences for other people. In which case, the Hauerwasian notion of the church as communion of the faithful resonates pretty strongly. It would be good to see others shaping their lives according to an ethos more exalted than that of the workplace, the marketplace, and the videosphere. At the same time, that crafting process is open-ended and collective — as opposed to the strictly fundamentalist design, where it’s all been written down someplace, in final form, such that an individual must follow it to the letter.

On the other hand, you don’t get to ecclesiology without reaching Christology first. And I would prefer a faith that does not require so much leaping. I’m also pretty dubious about the warmth and moral influence of traditional, face-to-face communities. (Life in a small town can teach you that Hell is other people.) Learning to craft an ethical community remains a compelling prospect, but the more I think about it, the more skeptical I become about finding such a guild in the city, a place of countless random encounters and improvisations. Which is where I now live and where I plan to stay.

So anyway, I write my article. It’s published. I go home and amaze my wife by assembling a large number of kitchen cabinets in a short period of time. They have arrived in boxes shipped from a warehouse someplace. Putting them together is by no means a matter of the sort of woodworking skills possessed by my father or grandfather before me. And yet there is a bit more to it than following directions laid out in advance. For there aren’t any instructions, properly speaking. Each box contains a sheet bearing a number of diagrams that are profoundly unhelpful, if not actually meaningless. I do the best I can. In the course of a few hours, I swing the hammer, and find many occasions to call upon the Lord. Who, if He exists, is providing exactly as much guidance, moment to moment, as the Swedish designer who prepared these cryptic drawings. He is being helpful, but only up to a point.

Scott McLemee is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Feed, Lingua Franca, The New York Times, and Studia Swedenborgiana. He writes about the humanities for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where the present article first appeared in somewhat different form.