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The Testament of Friends

by Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is professor of theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School. This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 28, 1990, pps. 213-216. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A team of evangelical Christians invaded Shipshewana, Indiana, to bring the lost of Shipshewana to Christ. In front of Yoder’s drygoods store one of these earnest souls confronted a Mennonite farmer with the challenge, "Brother, are you saved?" The farmer was stunned by the question. All his years of attending the Peach Bloom Mennonite congregation had not prepared him for such a question particularly in front of Yoder’s.

Wanting not to offend, as well as believing that the person posing the question was of good will, he seriously considered how he might answer. After a long pause, the farmer asked his questioner for a pencil and paper and proceeded to list the names of ten people he believed knew him well. Most, he explained, were his friends but some were less than that and might even be enemies. He suggested that the evangelist ask these people whether they thought him saved since he certainly would not presume to answer such a question on his own behalf.

This story is one of my favorites, for it represents the way I have increasingly come to think of "my" work. Those who want to know "how my mind has changed" should ask my friends and enemies. This is not a gesture of humility about my thought or writing, but rather denotes my increasing theological, epistemological and moral conviction that theology in service to the church cannot come only from an individual mind. Anything worthwhile I have done is what my friends have done through me. Through my writing I discover previously unknown friends. They come forward, however, claiming me and in the process teach me how to understand what I have said, written or thought in a way that I had neither the courage nor imagination to think on my own.

So I am genuinely unsure how my mind has changed over the 22 years I have been teaching and writing. I am sure I am thinking about things now that had not even occurred to me 20 years ago. Old friends like David Burrell, Jim Burtchaell, Robert Wilken, Jim McClendon and Alasdair MacIntyre made me think about Aristotle, Aquinas and Wittgenstein in ways I had not anticipated. Even more important, they, along with many others, forced me to learn to pray—though in that I remain very much the novice. New friends, often graduate students, make me attend to the thought of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. I believe that their ideas ought to make a difference not only about what I think but about how I think, though I must confess I am not sure I understand them well enough to know what difference they should make.

While learning new approaches, I am still exploring how Christian convictions require moral display for understanding what we might mean to claim them as true. I also continue to believe that the virtues can help display those convictions, though I now try to avoid talking so abstractly about "the virtues" and focus more on concrete virtues such as patience and hope. I continue to be surprised by how this agenda has led me to appreciate the integrity of Christian discourse—that is, that Christian beliefs do not need translation but should be demonstrated through Christian practices, not the least of which is friendship of and in a concrete community. The radical social and political implications of such practices continue to challenge me, as I am sure Christians must rethink their concordat with institutions and regimes formed by liberal presuppositions.

To call my concerns "an agenda" may be too grand. I certainly do not have "a systematic position." I remember after I published my first collection of essays, Vision and Virtue (1974), Richard Bondi, one of my first graduate students, asked me whether I was going to spend the rest of my life defending the position I had developed in that book. I said I sure would if I could just remember what the position was. Unfortunately, I am unable to remember "my position" or the arguments I use to support it. Without friends to remember my claims I am at a complete loss. But I discover that in their remembering, which is often expressed in disagreements, there is often more than I knew. I continue to be graced with graduate students who understand me better than I understand myself and can show me where I have got it wrong.

Even though I have trouble remembering my position, I do know what I care about. Over the past 20 or so years I have discovered that others expect me to be a theologian in and for the church of Jesus Christ. It is at once a wonderful gift and a frightening realization, since only God knows how one can be faithful to that most ambiguous of vocations. But at least I do not have the burden of being "a thinker"—that is, someone who, philosopher-like, develops strong opinions that bear the stamp of individual genius. My task, is rather to take what friends—living and dead, some Christian and some not—have given me to help the church be faithful to the wonderful adventure we call Kingdom. Theology, of course, is one of the lesser services the church provides, but I do care about, and thus find great joy in, studying and developing it. That is why I do not have to remember "my position"; it is the activity of theology I care about.

My claim to be a theologian is not unlike my claim to be a pacifist. I often refer to myself as the latter though I very much dislike the term "Pacifist"—to name "pacifism" as its own field of interest seems to imply that it is intelligible apart from the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Yet I think it important to claim the position even at the risk of being misunderstood. To make the claim not only begins the argument but, more important, creates expectations in others that should help me live nonviolently. I have no faith in my ability to live that way because I know I am filled with violence. However, I hope by creating expectations in others that they will come to love me well enough to help me live according to the way of life I believe to be true. In like manner I find that others often use what I think to force me to be not just a thinker but a theologian.

Yet even the claim that I am a theologian, that I have been called to serve the church through the activity of theology, may be self-deceptive. The assertion challenges me to point out the church that has actually commissioned me, the church that I actually serve. It questions whether the church I write about actually exists. It taunts me that I am not a church theologian but just another academic theologian who continues to draw off the residual resources of Constantinian Christianity to fantasize about a church that does not and probably cannot or should not exist, given the political and economic realities of our time.

That challenge hurts because I know there is truth in it. The emphasis I have put on the faithful church as integral for demonstrating the truthfulness of Christian convictions makes the challenge all the more powerful. I cannot escape by distinguishing between visible or invisible church, by appealing to ideals always yet to be realized, or by suggesting that the theologian’s task is to describe what the church ought to be, not what it is. My church must exist as surely as the Jews have to be God’s promised people. That, of course, is why I cannot do without friends who live their convictions more faithfully than I write. At best I try to be a witness to their lives.

"Friends" do not constitute "church." Yet many of my friends are churched. Among them are liberal and conservative Roman Catholics, some Southern Baptists, some evangelicals, some Presbyterians, some Mennonites, some Calvinists, some Episcopalians, some Lutherans (not many), some from the Church of the Servant King (Gardenia, California), some liberal Protestants, some feminists and some liberationists. Even some Methodists tell me that though they disagree with certain details, generally they find my ideas helpful. But how can that be? Paul may have thought he should be all things to all people, but that is probably not good advice for theologians. Perhaps I am useful to such diverse communities because the disputes of the past are simply not all that relevant to the challenge to remain church today.

Another explanation for the breadth of my range of friends is that I am a Texas Methodist who went to Yale, came under the influence of Barth and Wittgenstein, taught two years for the Lutherans at Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois), and 14 for the Catholics at Notre Dame, and have ended up with the Methodists at Duke. It is a wonderful gift to have been part of so many different communities, but it often makes me wonder who I am. I remember how this became clear to me at a Notre Dame departmental retreat where we were discussing, one more time, what it meant to be a theology department in a Catholic school. The Missouri-Synod Lutheran said what it meant to be part of such a department as a person of his tradition, as did the Dutch Calvinist, the Jesuit and the Mennonite. I sat in uncharacteristic silence trying to figure out what it meant for me to be there as a Methodist. Suddenly I thought, "Hell, I’m not a Methodist. I went to Yale!"

This story expresses the melancholy truth that for most of us theologians, where we went to graduate school informs our self-understanding more than our denominational identification does. As a result, we think of ourselves as Bultmannians, Barthians, process theologians, feminists or liberationists rather than as Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans or, perhaps, even Christians. That I went to Yale in the mid-‘60s is, I suspect, the reason I am subject to so many influences from so many different ecclesial communities, and so useful to such a wide range of groups. For at Yale I was taught to engage in theology as a traditioned-determined practice that is not determined by any one tradition—other than Yale’s. It is no wonder I care so deeply for the church: it is the only protection I have against Yale.

I suppose my Yale breeding is one reason why I find the charges that I am a "fideistic, sectarian tribalist" so puzzling. Admittedly, I have been and continue to be strongly influenced by John Howard Yoder. I like to think of myself as a Mennonite camp follower—an odd image, but I think the Mennonites need camp followers as otherwise they might forget they are an army in one hell of a fight. But to admit that I have been influenced by Yoder does not make me sectarian, for as Yoder eloquently argues in The Priestly Kingdom, he is not a Mennonite theologian but a theologian of the church catholic. Yoder taught me that the mainstream’s celebration of pluralism is the way the mainstream maintains its assumption of its superiority. Thus "we" understand, and perhaps appreciate, the "sects" better than they can appreciate themselves. The one with the most inclusive typology wins the game.

That I was trained at Yale does not sufficiently account for the fact I seem to belong nowhere, for as I noted, I went to Yale as a Texas Methodist. I was and remain more Texan than Methodist, though both have strongly shaped my identity. Because I was raised Texan—which is like being southern, only better—I knew I was never free to be "modern" and "selfcreating." I would always be, for better or worse, Texan. It was my first lesson in particularity; as some would put it, being Texan made me realize early that the foundationalist epistemologies of the Enlightenment had to be wrong. I am unsure, however, that I want to be an antifoundationalist since that would make me too dependent on the way foundationalists tell the story. I prefer simply to have a Texan epistemology.

I also went to Yale as a Methodist. Admittedly, I was not a very good one, but it was unclear then and is unclear now what it means to be a good one. Methodism, after all, is a movement that by accident became a church. Yet at least on some tellings of our story we are a theologically interesting accident; that is, we are a catholic church with a free-church polity.

So by describing myself as a high-church Mennonite I am saying I am a Methodist. Methodist identity makes sense only as it entails a commitment to discovering the unity of God’s church through our different histories.

If my work has some use in different ecclesial traditions, I suspect it is partly because as a Methodist I am not theologically subtle. I am impressed that churches baptize, preach, serve the eucharist, call some to serve the church and send some to serve in the world. If my work has any center it has been to help Christians across God’s church discover the moral significance of these extraordinary yet everyday practices.

That may seem odd for one who is often described as a radical—a description I certainly prefer to liberal or conservative. Yet I continue to believe that nothing is more radical than the existence of a people who worship the God we know by the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All that I have said about virtue, narrative or the political significance of the church has been an attempt to help us reclaim what is already there. I do not believe that God has abandoned the church or that the church is so compromised that it is incapable of witness. I am confident that God can be trusted to make the church— that is where Jesus is worshiped—serve the Kingdom.

I have gone through some changes, however; not the least concerning my emphasis on the centrality of the church. I began seeking to recover the importance of virtue and the virtues and ended up with the church. In a new introduction to Character and the Christian Life I note that I had in this book mistakenly tried to generate an account of agency from an analysis of action qua action, thus failing to see, as MacIntyre has taught us, that action can be analyzed only in a context. In spite of my attempt to provide an alternative to Kantian-inspired accounts of morality, I continued to support too uncritically the isolated "I." In that book I tried to isolate Aristotle’s account of virtue from his account of happiness and friendship. As a result, moreover, that book could not but appear apolitical.

That is why I cannot write an account of how "I" am making up my mind: I have increasingly come to distrust the moral psychology that maintains the existence of such an "I." The "self" of self-agency, assumed in my early work, still owed too much to the self abstracted from any narrative—something Derrida and Foucault have rightly questioned. I have been very lucky to live at a time of such rich intellectual developments. As a result I now think I understand much better how a narrative is necessary for character—or to put it theologically, why sin and forgiveness are necessary for us to be "selves"—and as an alternative to Descarte and Kant as well as their geneological critics.

I am quite sure that the way Christians should live can be displayed without Aristotle, and perhaps even without, as Yoder never ceases to remind me, the virtues. Moreover, the Christian conviction that our "happiness" is the gift of a God who determines all existence through the cross of Christ requires a radically transformed understanding of happiness, the virtues and friendship. I cannot let these questions go, for I remain convinced that any truthful account of Christian convictions requires a display of the sanctified life.

At the same time that I have been writing about happiness I have also been writing a book on the suffering and death of children, Naming the Silences: God, Medicine and the Problem of Suffering. I am increasingly convinced that Christians are capable of joy because their hopes make them vulnerable to suffering. Though this book is meant to be pastoral, it also explores the epistemological and social presumptions that produced the idea of the problem of evil. I aim to provide a different perspective on medicine as well as suggest a different approach to medical ethics. In the name of freeing us from suffering, modern medicine and its correlative ethical expressions have become our fate—which we now impose on our children by not understanding their suffering and death through a more determinative narrative.

I am happier about this book than anything I have done for some time. It is short and I hope accessible to people who have not had the disadvantage of a theological education. In that respect I am trying to resist the professionalization of theology, which I consider a Babylonian captivity of theology by the Enlightenment university. If I had the talent I would even like to write a "popular" book. But I know I do not have the talent for such an undertaking. I also continue to put together books that combine some fairly difficult philosophical discussions with essays that I hope are entertaining. I do so not because I am trying to use more popular essays to entice some to read the more "serious" essays—indeed, I think that the more popular essays are the more serious—but because, I am convinced, as a friend has put it, that "arguments, including moral arguments, cannot be separated from the descriptions that not merely accompany them, but make them possible."

That I understand theology to be a descriptive task may be one of the reasons so many misunderstand or resist my work. I am not suggesting that if people understood me better they would agree with me; I suspect the opposite is the case. But I think some try to force me into a predetermined category—i.e., liberal or conservative, in theology or politics—when in fact I am trying to challenge the very presuppositions that have created those categories. For example, I prefer to ignore the oft-made charge that I am a "sectarian" though I could not resist responding to that notion in Christian Existence Today, since I am challenging the epistemologies and social theories that generate the unhappy normative use of that typology.

Perhaps the most difficult descriptive issue I have addressed is the theological and moral status of war. I am disappointed that no one has significantly challenged the case I made for the moral significance of war in Against the Nations—except for Paul Ramsey in his wonderful book Speak Up for Just War or Pacifism. Ramsey and I originally planned to write essays of equal length criticizing the Methodist bishops’ pastoral letter, "In Defense of Creation." But by the time Ramsey finished his extraordinary critique it was clear that all I needed to do was write an epilogue. Though Ramsey and I disagreed, I hope our exchange illumines the descriptive power of Christian convictions. Nothing has honored me more than Paul Ramsey’s claiming me as friend.

I have said little about how changes in our society, the church and my own life have forced me to think about things differently or to think about matters I had not imagined when I began. None of us can be or should be immune from such influence, but with this essay I wanted at least to gesture toward what I learned through friends. Friends have taught me how wonderful and frightening it is to be called to serve in God’s kingdom.

I began seeking to recover the importance of virtue and the virtues and ended up with the church.


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