The Surprise of Being a Christian
By Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics, Duke Divinity School
Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir has been out for not quite a month, but in that time I have received more letters about the book than any book I have ever written. I am not sure why that is the case, but it seems that I have struck a nerve. That I come from the working classes evokes for many a sympathetic reading. Others respond to my having lived for over twenty years with a wife that suffered from bipolar illness. The significance of friendship for sustaining my life also seems significant to many readers. The response I find most surprising is the surprise many express about my surprise that I am a Christian.
That a theologian should be surprised about being a Christian may seem strange, particularly among folk who have little sympathy with Christianity. They often assume that theologians by definition must believe in what they think about. That, of course, is a deep mistake made, particularly in recent times. Many who become theologians in our time think their task is to try to determine how much of what has passed for Christianity they still need to believe and yet still be able to think of themselves as Christians. I discovered, however, that I did not know enough about Christianity to know what I was disbelieving.
There are good reasons for me not to be a Christian. Hannah’s Child begins with the story of how I came to be. My mother, who came from dirt poor Mississippi folk, and my bricklaying father married late. They had trouble having a child. My mother had heard the story of Hannah and Samuel, so she prayed that if God would give her a son she would give that son to God. That was a perfectly appropriate thing for her to do, but as I observe she did not have to tell me she had made such a promise. In particular, she did not have to tell me when I was six. That she told me was surely grounds sufficient for me to have nothing to do with Christianity.
Moreover being in the “trades” makes one very suspicious of the “nice” people who are Christians. I was taken out to the job by the time I was seven. I labored for bricklayers for many summers, finally learning to lay brick in my teens. “The job” is not exactly a place for those that think what it means to be a Christian is to model middle-class morality. I was not attracted to a church that seemed filled with people whose manners legitimated their presumption that they were my superiors.
I became a theologian because I could not “get saved.” I was raised in an evangelical Methodist church. Evangelical meant that though you had been baptized and made a member of the church on Sunday morning, you still had to be “saved” on Sunday night. I wanted to be saved but I did not think you should fake it. So finally sometime in my middle teens, while we were singing during the altar call “I Surrender All” for the twenty-fifth time, I surrendered. That is, I dedicated my life to the Lord assuming that if God was not going to save me, I could put God in my debt by going into the ministry. That has never happened, but it did put me on the road to college.
By the time I had got to college, I had begun to read and had decided that most of what Christians believed could not be credible. So I became a philosophy major at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. It was by reading philosophy that I discovered that I did not know enough about Christianity to know if it was true or not. So I went to Yale Divinity School not to study for the ministry but to find out if the stuff was true. God help me, I fell in love with theology, and in particular the theology of Karl Barth. I have now spent a lifetime thinking about God.
That I have spent my life thinking about God, moreover, has gotten me into a lot of trouble. I did not expect to discover that being a Christian might put one crossways with the assumptions that shape “normality” — assumptions that make war unproblematic — but like it or not, I became convinced that Christians cannot kill. I even think that Christians must tell the truth — even to those they love. As a result, I have never found being a Christian easy.
I observe in Hannah’s Child that most people do not have to become theologians to be a Christian, but I probably did. I still find it surprising that I am a Christian. God is just not there for me the way God is there for some people. I am not complaining. I assume that that is the way God works to make some of us have to think hard about what it means to worship God. I use the language of worship rather than belief because I am never sure if I believe in God. I do not trust myself enough to take what I believe seriously. But I do worship God, and I do so with joy.
Theologians seldom write memoirs. There are many good reasons we do not. No doubt the main reason is that we, academics that we are, have not lived lives interesting enough to write about. Yet people tell me that Hannah’s Child is a page-turner. I am glad they think so, but I am not surprised. I am not surprised because it seems to me that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is full of surprises.