Hauerwas on the Mentally Disabled

I’ve been reading through Hauerwas’ memoirs, Hannah’s Child, and came upon this shattering passage:

What an experience it was for me to become part of the world of the mentally disabled. That world, as I suspect it should have, frightened me. I shall never forget the first time I was given a tour of the center [the Logan Center for schooling the mentally disabled]. A seven-year-old boy who had Down syndrome jumped in my arms and hugged me. He was too close, right in my face, and would not let go. I carried him as we continued the tour. I had to act like everything was just “fine,” but really I was terrified. I soon began to think that learning to live with the mentally disabled might be paradigmatic for learning what it might mean to face God. (112)

Hauerwas on Suffering (Again)

I’ve posted this quote before, but have since started reading the book it’s drawn from. Republished as “Naming the Silences,” here’s the quote again:

There is no hope for us if our only hope in the face of suffering is that ‘we can learn from it,’ or that we can use what we learn from the treatment of that suffering to overcome eventually what has caused it (e.g., many children in the future will be helped by what we have learned by using experimental drugs on children like Carol), or that we can use suffering to organize our energies to mount effective protests against oppression. Rather, our only hope lies in whether we can place alongside the story of the pointless suffering of a child like Carol a story of suffering that helps us know we are not thereby abandoned. This, I think, is to get the question of ‘theodicy’ right. (34)

Hauerwas, I think too, gets this question exactly right.

Hauerwas on Obama’s Nobel Speech

Hauerwas writes a brief response to Obama’s speech here, where he enunciates once again the importance of maintaining our language about war. What, he asks, lets us know a war is a war? Particularly to proponents of “just war” theory, who list a number of criteria that make a war apparently “just,” Hauerwas asks what a war that fails to meet these criteria would be? Would one still call it war? For instance, one of the just war criteria is that it must be declared by legitimate authority. What if a guerrilla group or terrorist organization declared “war” on a certain country? Would one call this war? Another criterion is that the declared intention of a war must not be different than the actual intention. A country, that is, cannot declare a war looking for weapons of mass destruction, but actually be looking for oil. But then, if this is no longer a war, what is it? A point Hauerwas makes elsewhere, but only alludes to here in his reference to Cain and Abel, is that Christians ought to maintain our language of war as murder. If we fail to name war properly, that is, as murder, then we may lose the resources to see when the wool is being pulled over our eyes with the language of a “necessary war.” Because for those who live by the flesh and blood of one who would not take up arms, the one thing necessary is the peace that is given through the cross.

Žižek on “Forced Choice”

Slavoj Žižek is an interesting philosopher, combining very eclectic interests in Hegel, Marx, the psychoanalyst Lacan, and (surprisingly enough) Christian theology. In the following excerpt, he is explaining the “real” status of freedom—“real” in the sense Lacan uses it, where the thing itself is not real, it does not exist, but it nevertheless has various effects on the world. To use a controversial example, the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were precisely “real”: though they did not exist, they presented symbolic justification of a war in the Middle East. For Žižek, modern freedom has this same “real-impossible” status:

A few months ago, a Yugoslav student was called to regular military service. In Yugoslavia, at the beginning of military service, there is a certain ritual: every new soldier must solemnly swear that he is willing to serve his country and to defend it even if it means losing his life, and so on—the usual patriotic stuff. After the public ceremony, everybody must sign the solemn document. The young soldier simply refused to sign, saying that an oath depends upon free choice, that it is a matter of free decision, and he, from his free choice, did not want to give his signature tot he oath. But, he was quick to add, if any of the officers present was prepared to give him a formal order to sign the oath, he would of course be prepared to do so. The perplexed officers explained to him that because the oath depended upon his free decision (an oath obtained by force is valueless), they could not give him such an order, but that, on the other hand, if he still refused to give his signature, he would be prosecuted for refusing to do his duty and condemned to prison. . .

In the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs, there is always such a paradoxical point of choix forcé—at this point, the community is saying to the subject: you have freedom to choose, but on condition that you choose the right thing; you have, for example, the freedom to choose to sign or not to sign the oath, on condition that you choose rightly—that is, to sign it. If you make the wrong choice, you lose freedom of choice itself. And it is by no means accidental that this paradox arises at the level of the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs: the situation of the forced choice consists in the fact that the subject must freely choose the community to which he belongs, independent of his choice—he must choose what is already given to him. (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 185-6)

What strikes me is exactly the way this analysis confirms the Christian (especially Pauline/Augustinian) understanding of the nature of free will: when one chooses the good (and only the good), then one is truly free! But when one chooses evil, out of a free choice between good and evil, then one becomes bound to the evil and loses “freedom of choice itself.” It is a matter, then, of freely choosing the good set before us, already given us by God and in this way becoming part of the free community (the Church). But God does, paradoxically, command us to choose this freedom: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life” (Deut. 30:19). “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). To continue to freely choose evil is actually to elect out of the community. For this reason, the logic of excommunication enunciated by Hauerwas is exactly right: “Excommunication is not to throw someone out of the church, but rather an attempt to help them see that they have become a stumbling block and are, therefore, already out of the church. Excommunication is a call to come home. . .” (Matthew, 165).

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).

Hauerwas on the Lord’s Prayer

But the disciples also pray that what the Father has willed in his Son will be done over the whole earth. To pray that God’s will be done is to pray that our wills be schooled to desire that God’s will be done. Our wills, the will of the world, will nail Jesus to the cross. But God defeated our willfulness, making it possible for us to pray that God’s will be done on earth.

That is why we should not ask for more than our daily bread. Only on the basis of the work of Christ is it possible for us to ask for no more than our daily bread. Just as God supplied Israel daily with bread in the wilderness, so followers of Jesus have been given all they need in order to learn to depend on one another on a daily basis. Without the community that Jesus has called into existence, we are tempted to hoard, to store up resources, in a vain effort to insure safety and security. Of course our effort to live without risk not only results in injustice, but it also makes our own lives anxious, fearing that we never have enough (Matt. 6:19-21). In truth, we can never have enough if what we want is the bread that the devil offered Jesus. But Jesus is good news to the poor (11:4), for he has brought into existence a people who ask for no more than their daily bread. (Matthew, 78).

The Guilty Pleasure of Reading Hauerwas

Because he has footnotes that say things like this:

I have discovered that there exist stories about what I have said in this or that circumstance that are not true. For example, I have been introduced at least three times with a story that is not true. It seems I was in Cambridge walking across the Yard at Harvard trying to find my way to the library. I am alleged to have stopped an undergraduate and asked, “Can you tell me where the library is at.” The student responded, “We do not end sentences with prepositions at Harvard.” To which I responded, “Can you tell me where the library is at, asshole.” I realize this is the kind of story that seems so true it should be true, but in fact it did not happen. Of course “did not happen” may be an inadequate way to understand “true.” (The State of the University, 133)

HT: Halden.