Hauerwas on Grad School

Hauerwas, my theologian of choice, has a peculiar talent for being able to reflect theologically on almost anything. There’s an essay, for instance, in the book of his I am now reading (“A Better Hope”) on whether pacifists should read murder mysteries. But considering my current place in life, I’m glad he took the time—and he does seem to have impossible amounts of it—to write an essay on (religious ethics in) graduate school:

. . .I want to share with you an insight I had during a retreat of the theology department at Notre Dame. We were having our usual discussion on the same old topic—namely, what does it mean to be “an ecumenical department in a Catholic context”? Some of my colleagues described how they understood what it meant to do systematic theology in the Catholic tradition, or what difference being a Calvinist made for how pastoral theology was done, or how being a Lutheran shaped one’s work in historical theology. The discussion made me very uncomfortable since I could not think how being a Methodist made a difference for how I did Christian ethics. I suddenly thought, I am not a Methodist, I went to Yale! Accordingly I do not represent any identifiable religious tradition, but rather I do ethics, or better, I am concerned about the kinds of problems we were taught to think of as ethics at Yale.

I think this insight not unimportant to help understand that any attempt to account for the past and future direction of religious ethics turns on where we went to graduate school. You need only to add the qualification that our graduate school agendas may be modified by where we end up teaching. Yet it is the graduate school, rather than identifiable religious traditions, that determines the way most of us understand or do ethics. If we are what we eat, then insofar as any of us are ethicists, we are where we went. (“A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy and Postmodernity,” 58-59.)

Now, while Hauerwas speaks specifically of ethics, while I want to do something between systematic and philosophical theology, the same rule applies: graduate schools are likely to suffer from the same detachment from ecclesial traditions that guarantee that one is more determined by a university than by the Church. In the development of religious ethics as a field, Hauerwas marks a definitive shift from training in seminaries to training in graduate schools. Only, however, by immersion in a community of saints (anticipated in a seminary in certain important ways) with practices sufficient to shape the posing of questions and the sources for answers can one resist the fundamentally secular, liberal formation of graduate schools. Like Hauerwas writes in his “The State of the University”: “The question is not whether a university might be open to a knowledge shaped by the practice of the church, but rather whether a church exists to produce a knowledge that is formed by the Gospel” (8).

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